[Theory] Player Types: Active vs Reactive

Rich Stokes

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This is a little nugget of Gaming Theory I think we can all benefit from. I doubt there are many here to whom this is a new concept, but I've never seen it written about or quantified before (although I assume it has been) so this is my attempt to do so. Actually it's a re-hash of some posts I made a few months ago, but I've done a little more thinking about this stuff since then and expanded on things a bit. This is based on 20 years of personal experience but as ever, YMMV etc etc.

As ever, this is up for discussion and everyone here probably has something to add to this

Equal and Opposite: Active vs Reactive play styles​

Introduction

Running a game is bloody hard work. A lot of players* don't realise quite how much thought and energy goes into running a game successfully. This is especially true of players who either haven't ever run a game (or at least, never successfully) or who haven't done so since school.

Roleplaying is a group effort. Everybody at the table contributes to the experience. The GM's responsibilities are different and in many ways greater than those of the players, but without co-operation between player and GM (and between players) the whole experience suffers. We've all been in the situation where one or more of the people at the table doesn't want the same thing as everyone else. Sometime you get a guy who wants to kill monsters and take their stuff in your game when everyone else wants political intrigue.

As a GM you can encourage players to come forward and tell you what they're enjoying and what they're not. Or you can flat out ask the player what direction they want their characters and the game to go in. But a lot of players just don't think much about their characters wishes and agendas beyond "Not dying" and "Get neat stuff". These are Reactive players. Other players will have lists of short, medium and long term goals their characters wish to achieve. These are Active Players. Both types of player have their merits and both have their problems. As a GM, you'll probably have a mix in your regular group and you need to be able to deal with them both.

Reactive Players

These are the guys who sit back and "go with the flow". Their characters generally have no real agenda and will usually agree to go along on any quest the GM offers up, along as the Reward* is reasonable.

Many players near the beginning of their careers adopt the Reactive style because they're learning what it is to roleplay. This is especially true of players who enter the hobby through the classic "gamer" entry points. Historically, this was the wargaming/miniatures scene (often Warhammer leading to AD&D), but more recently it seems to be CCGs (for example, Magic leading to, er, D&D). A reactive playstyle allows neophyte gamers to fit into a group of more experienced players without causing disruption. As they play longer they usually become a more active member of their group. Some however, remain reactive throughout their entire RPG ca rear.

Reactive's tend to gravitate towards certain games, settings and campaign types. The archetypal Shadowrun campaign for example, is the perfect vehicle for a Reactive player: The characters sit around waiting for a Mr Johnson or Fixer to call and offer them a mission. They accept the mission (after negotiating the correct fee) and the objective is clear. The classic superhero "Villain of the week" campaign is also a great place for the Reactive.

It's important not to think of Reactive play as something that a given player will automatically "grow out of" as they gain experience of, and confidence in what an RPG is and how to play one. Some people just like to play that way and it's not something they should be stigmatised for. You should not assume that a Reactive player is less experienced, imaginative or mature, just that they don't like pushing their character's agenda.

It's also worth pointing out that, except in extreme cases, Reactives do contribute to a gaming group and don't just sit there all the time waiting to be told what to do. In the Shadowrun example, once the mission objective is accepted all players will work together to decide how it will be accomplished. Reactive players can be just as vocal as Active players in deciding how objectives are achieved, but will not set objectives themselves.

Reactives generally play relatively straightforward characters. Experienced players who like to play reactively will often add several plot hooks to their characters, but these will tend to be reactive plot hooks for the GM to use. They'll quite happily take dependents who can get into trouble and start adventures, have a vow to protect something which can be threatened to start adventures or some other hook that the GM can use to kick start things. I have an example of this in my group: great guy but his character has no agenda at all. He runs a courier agency as a way to generate contacts and info on the street, but isn't really looking for anything in particular. He feels this is useful to me as GM because it means I can throw plot hooks at him. He's right of course, it means I can throw him bits of information about whoever I want him to go off and investigate.

The biggest advantage with Reactive players is that you can pretty much get them to do what you want. For example, if you have a pre-written or pre-planned adventure, they're unlikely to de-rail it by ignoring the objective. If the adventure starts with the PCs sitting in a tavern and an old man comes in looking for a band of hardy adventurers who can rescue his daughter in return for a few hundred gold pieces, you don't have to worry about a Reactive deciding that his character just wants to be an accountant, thank. Their desire only for Reward and survival makes it easy to get them to accept whatever quest or mission you might have planned.

The biggest disadvantage with them is that they demand the GM to provide all the creative input. The game becomes very much the GM's show and this can be a good or bad thing. Ultimately, as long as it's fun for everyone this isn't a problem, but the issues arise because Reactive players don't provide the instant feedback that Active ones do. You have to explicitly gain information on where a campaign should go from a Reactive player out of character. If you find yourself running a group consisting entirely of reactive players, be aware that unless they tell you they're not enjoying things, you might find that you're having a ball and half or more of your players are pissed off because things aren't going their way.

Active Players

At the other end of this spectrum, you have the Active Player. These are the kind of people who's characters have an agenda, often with a fairly well considered back story, although not necessarily a long or complex one. Active players will sometimes push their character's agenda to the group, but will almost always have a clear idea of the long and medium term goals of their character.

Again, Actives will favour certain games and campaign types. Vampire, as written, is an ideal game for Actives: The GM sets up the city and the major NPCs. The players create characters and story happens fairly spontaneously around how the PCs interact with the NPCs.

Placed in most reasonably well realised settings, an Active player will have their character find more than enough things to do without the GM ever having to find any motivation for them. This can be a godsend for GMs, since it takes a lot of the creative pressure off them. In essence, Active players can sometimes create their own adventures which the GM runs along with. I have a great example of this in my group. One of the players is playing a revolutionary who desperately wants to overthrow the dystopian setting's ruling regime. He's always having his character look for contacts and investigate leads whenever he's not doing anything else.

This leads me to another advantage with Actives, which is that their characters tend to be busy most or all of the time. They don't just sit about waiting for the next quest to drop in their lap, they'll try to accomplish something off their own back, which quite often means that you've got the idea for the next session served up right there without any effort. Just polish and serve. Oh, he's decided to try and dig up dirt on Captain Lyons? Excellent, I'll make something up for next week...

The disadvantages of Active players are myriad. Firstly, they tend to go "off script". This can be really demanding in the short term, especially if you're the kind of GM who like to prepare adventures in advance or if you're trying to run a published module. If you're not comfortable with winging it and improvising encounters and situations, you're likely to find Active players very hard work. They'll often throw you a curveball and you'll have no choice but to run after it. In the classic cheesy fantasy game where the old man comes looking for someone to rescue his daughter, you'd better hope that objective matches up with the agenda of the Active player's character. Some subtlety is often required here. For instance, if the character wishes to become famous you could imply that this daughter rescue would come with certain bragging rights if completed successfully.

Another problem with Actives, or at least, a certain subset of Actives is that they sometimes take an adversarial stance. We've all either been there or heard about it: You get some twat who wants to play the Evil Git who will Shaft the other players and he's not being an dickhead or anything he's just playing in character because he's Evil and it says so on his character sheet right there so he has to. While there's no excuse for that kind of thing (There's no "Arsehat" in TEAM) you can get shades of that in a perfectly functional group. For example, you get into a situation where an Active in your group has an agenda which is incompatable with the agendas of one or more other character. This can be problematic, but can usually be dealt with sensibly by mature players.

Sometimes an Active player who GMs a lot will have trouble accepting that the actual GM can't/doesn't want to/won't run the game the way HE runs the game and can get to be a total dick about the whole thing. Again, there's no arsehat in team.

Mixing and Matching

Now, it's rare that you'll have a group consisting of entirely Active or Reactive players. So what happens when you mix them up?

One of the easiest situations to deal with is where you have one active and 3 or 4 Reactive players. Basically the Reactives tend to go along with the Active most of the time. As long as the Active players character doesn't jeopardise the Reactive's characters lives too often and leads to suitable Reward, everything will be Ok. Most Reactives won't really care if their character is rescuing the old mad's daughter for gold, or plundering the stockrooms of Grumbarth's ancestral clan enemy, the McGuinesses. As long as the Reward is appropriate to the risk and effort expended, they'll be having fun. Of course, this assumes that none of the other players in the group have a Reactive Agenda that conflicts with the Active's. For example, if one of the Reactive in the group has a character who's got "Protect the McGuiness Clan".

If you have 2 Actives in the group, you're unlikely to have much trouble unless they've created characters with conflicting agendas. This can easily be avoided though by preventing players from creating characters in a vacuum. I had a new player join my group recently. He wanted to play a fairly bigoted redneck character. One of the other PCs, Tom, is gay. When I pointed this out to the new guy, he decided that a good redemption arc for his character would be the "Misguided Bigot": At the start he like Tom, then he finds out he's gay and becomes frosty toward him. Finally he realises that Tom's sexuality is neither here nor there and they become firm friends. His character has developed and now accepts people for who they are regardless of their sexuality. All because he was told what the existing characters were and was able (and sensible enough) to create a character who fit in with the rest of the party.

A group which is either mostly or entirely Actives will be very interesting to run with, but will occasionally feel like they're all pulling in different directions. Hopefully, with proper communication at the beginning of a game people can all create characters who will remain together and work well as a party.

One danger with mixing player types is that the Actives often demand a lot of "Face Time" from the GM. This can lead to the Reactive Players feeling marginalizes by the group's Active player(s). I refer to this phenomenon as "The Doug Show", since teh first time I experienced it was many years ago with a guy called Doug essentially taking over a Runequest game running at the club where I gamed. Doug was an Active, the rest of the players were Reactives and the GM got so into what Doug wanted to do with his character that he pretty much ignored the other players. Needless to say, that game broke up and I ended up with another 2 players in the Top Secret SI game I was running. While sometimes a single Active in a group of generally Reactive players leads to a steady trickle of ideas for the GM to play with, it can be easy to get absorbed in that character and neglect the rest of the group.

Active vs Reactive Players as GMs

The paradox here is that an Active player will often seem like quite a passive GM, and vice-versa This is because most people expect their players to play with the same stance they adopt.

Reactive players will usually create a detailed "mission brief" that will get the PCs involved from the get-go. It's very important to understand that this is not the same as railroading the players along a linear plot: The Reactive GM just expects the players to want an objective, he doesn't necessarily want to lead them to it's conclusion by the nose, except in the most extreme cases.

Active players will generally go with a setting. They'll create a detailed setting and map out the NPCs realtionship, often creating pages and pages of stats for various notables. Then they expect the PCs to dig about and "find" something to do. Again, it's not that the Active player doesn't necessarily ignore what the players want and stick dogmatically to his setting if the PCs don't fit in. This style of GMing really falls down if the players are alowed to create their characters in a vacuum because they'll have no idea what good agendas will be for the setting.

Problems occur when you have a GM who expects one stance from his group and gets the other. For instance, if a GM is an Active player, and designs his game for a group of Actives to kick about in, he can find that if he has Reactive players they'll just sit about waiting for the phone to ring most of the time and nothing will happen. I've seen games like this from people who have this dogma that "railroading = bad". Sure, forcing your players down a linear path where they pick up "plot tokens" along the way until they have enough to finish is pretty boring, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give the PCs any objectives at all or any hints at what might be a good plan (especially if they're all sitting about in character with nothing to do).

Another problem with this kind of situation is that a plyer can often suggest that their character will do something that's stupid for the setting. This usually comes down to the GM understanding the setting differently than the player. GMs in this position would do well to take note of this: I, Rich the System's Administrator am making this decision. I spend about 4 hours a week in the Weird West. My character, Cole Stevens the Huckster has spent all his time there for the last 5 or 6 years. He knows more about this than I do. If I suggest that he do something you know would be stupid or bad, he probably knows it's stupid too and you ought to tell me! Some Active players get so caught up in the dogma that any suggestion to the players of how their characters should behave is tantamount to railroading, that they refuse to do it in the name of freedom.

A Reactive GM (that is, one who is expecting Reactive play) can usually do OK with mostly Active players provided (a) they can adlib the stuff the Actives throw at them and (b) they don't panic when the Actives go "Off Script". Yes, you might find you have to abandon a given adventure because the players want to do something else instead. Live with it, or find a different group.

Conjecture and Random Thoughts
(AKA the poorly thought out stuff at the end)

  1. As the hobby has developed over the years, it seems to me that the texts we all work from (ie published RPG books) seem to encourage Active play more often the more recently they were published. For example, "The Doug Show" took place a long time ago (Long enough ago that we were playing RuneQuest and Top Secret) and Active players were rare enough that Doug was a novelty to that GM. I think the first game text I read which seemed to be written specifically for Active players was probably White Wolf's Vampire back in 1991. (I'm not saying it's the first, just that it's the first one I'm consciously aware of having read). Before that, all the RPGs I can remember reading were designed with an implicit campaign model where the PCs were either fed "missions" (Shadowrun style) or expected that the characters goals should be Survival and Reward.
  2. A lot of Active players are also people who run games. People who never run games (for whatever reason, be it lack of confidence, talent, time or experience) often don't develop into Active players. The process of GMing, of setting up fictional worlds and mucking about with settings, plots and characters often changes the way players see the role of the player and the player character. Players who are experienced GMs tend to think about what will make the game fun and usually let the game's GM know. This can be something as simple as "I'd like my character to get to do more neat kung-fu" in that he's stating what Reward he wants. Often though, an Active player who's thinking from the GM's perspective will comment on directions he wants the GM to take the game, a kind of meta discussion out of, but about, character. For example, "Would it be a good idea if my character fell in love with Detective Cameron? I think that would be neat." or "Can we get involved with the local mob more in future?". Ideally these subjects will be discussed just after a session, so that you can go away and think on the subject for some time.

    One notable exception in my group is a guy who's never once read an RPG book, had never played before joining my group and will likely never run a game in his life. But he's a writer, so he's used to thinking in terms of Plot, Setting and most importantly, Character.

Notes and Glossary

This essay assumes we are talking about a "traditional" roleplaying group consisting of one GM and one or more players, each controlling one character. Whether this same theory applies to GM-less, collaborative storytelling games (Capes, Baron Muchaussen, Danger Dudes etc) is beyond the scope of this article, mainly because players who tend towards the reactive end of the scale also tend to be less comfortable narrating, and thus tend to shy away from these games.

Player: Someone involved in an RPG who controls one player character. IE, anyone in a game who is not the GM.

Reward: What Player Characters get for doing stuff. This can me a monetary reward, rare equipment, experience points or anything else. In the archetypal Fantasy setting, this will be XP for killing monsters, treasure looted during encounters and often gold or magic items offered as payment for completing a quest.
 
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Simon Marks

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Minor, Minor quibble.

All players are active (unless they are doing nothing at all!)

The split is between Proactive and Reactive players.
 

Old Geezer

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I think this is pretty good (See? I *CAN* say something nice).

I'm very much a Reactive, myself. I once saw a campaign die when you had five Reactive players and a GM who demanded Proactive stance.

There was about four weeks of "Durrrrr... what do we do now?"

Sad.

Ya know, Reactive players can actually be pretty easy to run for. Yeah, you have to do all the construction, but we can be pretty easy to please. The usual gamer habit of running off at the mouth works in your favor.

GM (out of ideas): Um.. Okay, you get a.... a comm message from... from... from...

PLAYER: Well, it would have to be one of the command staff. Probably Madine, he calls us a lot.

GM: Yeah, that's it. General Madine has a mission.

PLAYERS: Okay, we answer
PLAYER: I wonder if it's about that Qel ambassador we rescued from that Star Destroyer

GM: Right. He says the Qel want you to come and escort a new staff for that ambassador. The, um, the Qel ship that's carrying the staff is..... right, it's stuck an asteroid field. They're - they're having trouble with their life support.

PLAYERS: Okay, we'd better make sure we have tools and equipment. Do we have time to plan what we need?

GM: Sure! Take all the time you want! (whew!)

See, you just bought yourself an hour while the players plan, and the "Navigate through the asteriod field" will fill another hour.

The nice thing about GMing for us Reactives is that we don't mind being led around by the nose.:p
 

Rich Stokes

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SHITFUCK!

I knew I left something out. I'll finish up the part about Active vs Reactive players as GMs and post it later.
 

Dorsai

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Old Geezer said:
Ya know, Reactive players can actually be pretty easy to run for. Yeah, you have to do all the construction, but we can be pretty easy to please. The usual gamer habit of running off at the mouth works in your favor.

GM (out of ideas): Um.. Okay, you get a.... a comm message from... from... from...

PLAYER: Well, it would have to be one of the command staff. Probably Madine, he calls us a lot.

GM: Yeah, that's it. General Madine has a mission.

PLAYERS: Okay, we answer
PLAYER: I wonder if it's about that Qel ambassador we rescued from that Star Destroyer

GM: Right. He says the Qel want you to come and escort a new staff for that ambassador. The, um, the Qel ship that's carrying the staff is..... right, it's stuck an asteroid field. They're - they're having trouble with their life support.

PLAYERS: Okay, we'd better make sure we have tools and equipment. Do we have time to plan what we need?

GM: Sure! Take all the time you want! (whew!)

See, you just bought yourself an hour while the players plan, and the "Navigate through the asteriod field" will fill another hour.

The nice thing about GMing for us Reactives is that we don't mind being led around by the nose.:p
I don't know, Geezer, from that example it sounds like you were leading the GM around by his nose.

Back on topic, sadly I am a third type of gamer-an inactive gamer :( (except for pbp). No real-life group, and no time even if I did have one.
 

Levi

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I agree with your theory, with quibbles. My quibbles are:

1. There are some players that are more reactive in certain kinds of play, but more proactive in others.

2. I've seen reactive players learn to also enjoy proactive play. I haven't seen a proactive players learn to enjoy reactive play. I have no idea if that's just me, or an actual pattern that I'm seeing. But it strikes me as interesting.
 

JustJo

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Nice!

I've also seen some players get much more active when dealing with specific genres (ie. the star trek/ buffy fan).

The other trick for when you have a mixed group is have the active player take some kind of goal which involves interacting with the reactive ones. Then you can sit back and let everyone entertain themselves for awhile.
 

Rich Stokes

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OK, I have updated the article in the first post. I've re-added the section on Active vs Reactive GMs. Near the bottom.

Simon Marks said:
Minor, Minor quibble.

All players are active (unless they are doing nothing at all!)

The split is between Proactive and Reactive players.
You're correct, of course, but having had the misfortune of being exposed to marketing filth in my professional life, I refuse to use the P-word.

And I couldn't think of a better term while I've been writing this.

If anyone can thing of a better term, feel free to let me know and I'll update the article (eventually).
 

Rich Stokes

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Levi Kornelsen said:
I agree with your theory, with quibbles. My quibbles are:

1. There are some players that are more reactive in certain kinds of play, but more proactive in others.
Interesting. Do you mean with genres and settings that they are more familiar with, or that some players become more active when they think it is expected? I can't say it's something I've particularly noticed, can you give me some examples?

Levi Kornelsen said:
2. I've seen reactive players learn to also enjoy proactive play. I haven't seen a proactive players learn to enjoy reactive play. I have no idea if that's just me, or an actual pattern that I'm seeing. But it strikes me as interesting.
Yes, that definately what I've noticed. In my experience, pretty much all players start out as Reactives. Some become Actives later, once they have a bit more experience under their belt and usually after they have run a few games for themselves. I also noticed that a lot of players "turned Active" after they read and/or ran Vampire back in the early 90s.

I will say that a lot of Actives* will play a Reactive role when a decent GM presents their character with a good motivation to follow the objective the GM has in mind. Basically, the GM "tricks" them into doing what the GM wants them to do. Kinda.

* especially borderline Actives, since like everything this is a spectrum, not 2 absolutes
 

komradebob

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I've also find that people can switch hit. I've known players to be very reactive at the beginning of a campaign style of play, then become more active when the first adventure/mission is under their belts and they feel more comfortable with the setting and their characters.

To me this is very much the pattern i see with with old-school gamers. Take a mission, often with only vaguely described characters thrown together on the fly, and play through. It is after that group bonding wexperience that the players become more active with their characters. Honestly, this may well explain the continuing appeal of D&D, a game which seems to meld with this method extremely well.
 
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