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Active vs. Reactive

In his most recent post about playing Burning Wheel [1], Steven Jarvis discusses the tendency of many players to react instead of act.

This play style, “Patron X hires you to retrieve Thing Y,” is very pervasive. It’s also perfectly valid, and a lot of fun to play — with one exception.

The exception is when everyone at the table isn’t on the same page, which is why action vs. reaction is a major social contract issue.

Steven ties this play style to D&D in particular, which I don’t entirely agree with. I’d argue that since most gamers cut their teeth on, play or have played D&D, that’s where it happens most often — but D&D isn’t really the cause.

Let’s quickly define active and reactive as play styles.

Both styles are fun. Neither is better than the other. Problems only crop up when the group isn’t on the same page about which style they’re going to use.

And as the GM, making sure everyone is on the same page is usually going to be your job. This is essentially a social contract — “We all agree that in this game, the PCs will be leading the way” (or vice versa).

If you’ve gamed with the same group for years, no worries. If not, it’s best to discuss play styles when you’re choosing your next game [2].

Shifting from one style to the other midstream isn’t likely to be the best idea, unless feedback from your players [3] prompts the switch.

Conveniently, Scott M. [4] just added a section on social contracts [5] to our GMing wiki. It’s just getting rolling, but it’s an excellent place to start (and we’d love for you to add to it!).

Have you run into problems with expectations about these two play styles in your games? As the GM, have you ever caused those problems (I know I have)? How do you solve them?

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "Active vs. Reactive"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On June 8, 2006 @ 6:05 am

I know that I tend to be a mildly heavy handed GM. Directing the action, or adding things in to turn it when the players don’t. I think I developed that tendency because my players were so stuck in the reaction style of play. About 1/2 my regular group goes for the action style, leads things, says what they want to do and moves the story along in their own way. The other half just let things go and react to them as they can. It’s hard to get everyone on the same page, but I’ve always preferred action. In the next game I run I’ll definately be making use of the social contract and defining this up front. I want it to be a VERY player led game.

#2 Comment By Steven Jarvis On June 8, 2006 @ 6:48 am

Damn. I start posting again, and Martin starts in on me almost immediately. 😉

It’s easy to take potshots at “D&D” as a STYLE of play instead of a game, because so many of us start out playing in that reactive style and because nearly everyone starts out playing D&D. It’s easy sometimes to exchange “D&D” for “old school” or “reactive” (which is a much better term, I think).

Having run a 3e D&D campaign in the last year AND having played in a couple of BW games, though, I CAN say that BW certainly facilitates and encourages an ACTIVE style of play while the rules and the books (the “this is roleplaying” and “here’s what the DM does” sections) of D&D do not. But, yeah, it’s almost all about the social contract and the attitudes that the players (including the GM) bring to the game.

I’ll try to quit slagging on D&D for you, Martin. 🙂

#3 Comment By Rick the Wonder Algae On June 8, 2006 @ 7:01 am

In the new Shadowrun game I’m running (session two is this weekend!) I want to encourage an active play style. It’s going to be tough since Shadowrun is set up entirely to be a reative game (the entire premise is that you’re a team of mercenaries who do jobs of questional legality for clients). I’ve thought a lot about how to do that in such an adverse environment, and the best I’ve come up with so far is to engage the players between sessions with personal play-by-e-mail sessions. That way they have time to privately advance their own goals and if something big comes up I can design the next week’s scenario around it.

#4 Comment By Martin On June 8, 2006 @ 7:45 am

John: How do you think your players who prefer reactive games will react (no pun intended) to the social contract that you’re talking about?

Steven: I agree that BW aims itself squarely at active play, not reactive play. And while I haven’t looked through my D&D books for a while, I suspect you’re right that the text points D&D more at reactive play. Good point!

If slagging on D&D gets you back to the keyboard and posting about gaming, I’m all for it. 😉

(Also, my post would have been about 10 times better if it had occurred to me to use active vs. reactive rather than action vs. reaction. D’oh! 😉 I’m off to change that right now.)

Rick: Another option that might work is transitioning the game from the traditional “we’re runners who go on missions” model to a more reactive one based on those PBeM sessions.

So after a few traditional runs, plus a few PBeMs, the PBeM stuff starts to come to the foreground — and (for example) enemies start coming out the woodwork. Now, in between normal runs, you’ve got the opportunity to have sessions where the PCs take initiative, try to take out rival SR teams, build a secret base, etc.

It would make the game less Shadowrun-y, though. I’m not sure how to get around that.

I’m not sure I’m being totally clear — does that make any sense at all?

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On June 8, 2006 @ 8:04 am

Well I would like to think that it will get them to join in and get what they want out of it. I know that personally they will nod their heads and go, eh.

However, one of them has been getting more into character and trying to think of character motivations. The other picks a path, sticks with it and if the action doesn’t go that that place he just floats along. C’sera. It’s what he enjoys and I’m not going to try to change it. I will try to get him to interact more by baiting his character and give him in game challenges that tie into the main plot.

I do think the contract will do exactly what I want it to. Let people know how I want the game, and help me to integrate what they want out of the game.

#6 Comment By Robert Conley On June 8, 2006 @ 8:08 am

My solution has been to flesh out the culture and society of my game world. This give a character a context in which to exist in.

This has several benifits first I can have reactive plot at first where player do X because of Y. But after a few sessions when the player have gotten comfortable with the context in which the character exist I found their play turns more active as they seek ways of advancing in their society/culture.

I also subtlely slant the cultural aspect so it drives the players together than fissioning them apart. Even in a single culture there are many different angles in which a GM can choose to present.

But this does not always work as witnessed by the end-game of my all mage compaign for GURPS. There two of the four players decisively broke with the mage’s guild as they viewed it as corrupt. While the other two conspired to put themselves and their faction into power over the mage’s guild.

Luckily the only out of game problem that the two that took over the mage’s guild wanted to continue to play.

By including the culture and society in which the character exists most players will see more opportunnties to be pro-active instead of waiting for the plot to come to them.

#7 Comment By Crazy Jerome On June 8, 2006 @ 9:34 am

Scott: I’d add to your d) “, or does the story emerge from the interaction of the characters in the world?”

If it does, then I expect the players to make liberal use of active and reactive play. For example, GM throws out hook or situation or whatever that one or more players react to. Then they trump that reaction with active play of their own: “Not only will we stop minor guy X, but we will travel to town ABLE, find out who hired him.” Big lord hired him. “We start a rebellion in his domain.”

Now, I suppose some people would say that’s all reactive play. I don’t see it that way. If they catch the minor guy’s dying words, and immediately go sneak into big buy’s castle and fight him–maybe. But at some point, I’d have to say that the players are taking the initiative–which is creating situations that the GM did not anticipate, and must react to himself. (Note that active play in the above situation could also be moving elsewhere or talking to the big guy, if that is what the players would prefer to do.)

#8 Comment By Jeff Rients On June 8, 2006 @ 11:19 am

As a DM, I like reactive play. “Here’s tonight’s adventure, folks.” is the way I tend to put it to my players. I don’t care what the players decide to do, as long as the action takes place within the boundary conditions established at the beginning of the session.

As a player I can go both ways. My Wednesday campaign is run by a DM who expects active players. This has proven frustrating to the reactive guy who also plays in my campaign, because he “can’t find the adventure”. Our ad hoc solution is for me to chase whatever crazy idea catches my fancy and for him to treat it as the adventure we’re “supposed” to be doing.

#9 Comment By Bento On June 8, 2006 @ 1:39 pm

I’m GMing for mostly newby players, so they often shrink when I expect them to be more active. I think much of this comes from playing electronic games, where you know what the goals are going into most games.

#10 Comment By Daemon On June 8, 2006 @ 11:04 pm

I tend to like a hybrid of the two, actually. The GM provides “hooks” for things that he’d like to run, and if they seem interesting, we follow them up. If not, we go off and do something else.

Though I’m not a tremendously experienced GM, this tends to be how I run things aswell. I have a list of things that are going on in the world, what will happen if they ignore them, etc. but otherwise let them do what they want.

The only time I’ve found, from either side, that structure is required, was the first session in a campaign, where the players generally seem to need a kick of some sort to get things rolling.

#11 Comment By Chris On June 9, 2006 @ 6:43 am

In my experience, D&D only works for reactive play, because there are no tools for player input. There has to be something hard-coded into the system that promotes player input, otherwise it will be reactionary, or entirely dependent on who has the strongest personality, (players vs. each other, and players vs. GM).
There’s also the inherent difficulty of the Great Impossible Thing…that is, the GM creates the story, but the players can influence it. It is impossible. Impossible.

#12 Comment By Dan Howard On June 14, 2006 @ 7:40 pm

I think that being passive is the default; being active is a choice. Being active isn’t easy, either, because you’ve got to blend your “activeness” with the flow of the game. Players choose to be active because they want to work a little harder to give themselves a better game.

Good PCs can easily get trapped into reactive roles: they see something bad and then feel obligated to return everything to the (good) status quo. They can easily slip into the role of a policeman, walking the fantasy beat, with nothing to do until something bad happens.

As a player, I think that making an ambitious PC helps. A PC with ambition, whether it is personal ambition is to become king or a selfless ambition to build and dedicate the biggest church, has a reason to get up in the morning. He has an agenda, but unlike some other agendas such as revenge, it isn’t overpowering. He has the choice to react to some immediate event or, if there is no immediate event, he can actively pursue his ambition that day.

Most PCs are reactive so, when I GM, I try to cater to that. I have them react a lot, even if it is about little things such as creepy feelings or distant noises.

#13 Comment By Martin On June 15, 2006 @ 7:06 am

Dan: It sounds like we’ve had different experiences with ambitious PCs. IME, PCs in reactive games with well-defined, long-term ambitions often don’t get to do much about those ambitions. They get sidelined, and become little more than a bit of background flavor (which kind of defeats the purpose).

How to handle a reactive-style game in which every PC has their own big ambition is a tough question, and one I’m not sure how to answer. Even in an active game, how do you handle those separate ambitions without leaving everyone else bored?

#14 Comment By Dan Howard On June 15, 2006 @ 5:40 pm

I know what you’re talking about and it’s a problem. It’s like some players and GMs are out-of-sync with each other such that they can’t meld their ideas together enough to create a satisfying game.

Players (I think) have to choose ambitions and be active with their PCs, if they so desire. If the GM sees this, he’s got to delicately make space in his game to accomodate that player’s activeness. As a GM, he’s got to be very good at weaving two stories together, the campaign plot and the individual PC’s storyline. He’s really got to keep the PC’s ambition in mind and engineer plots that are both personal but also epic.

The player needs to also work at it and realize that he’s got to do his part to weave his story into the plot. It’s tempting to let his PC break off to pursue the ambition solo but, like you point out, that’s the worst thing that can happen. The player has to see the party and the campaign world as the vehicle to his PC’s ambitions, not as obstacles. For example, he uses the dungeon to get cash to build the church, not sees it as a distraction from raising cash from the local nobles. Players also have to participate in each other’s ambitions and not sit by idly when one PC comes to the forefront.

It may sound subtle but it’s the difference (I think) between fun and frustration. Fun is being a part of the game. Frustration is being at odds with the game.

#15 Comment By Martin On June 17, 2006 @ 1:17 pm

Dan: Very well put, and your approach sounds solid to me. 🙂