View Full Version : General RPGing - Proactive vs. Reactive

2011-08-19, 09:30 PM
(Preface: I am on painkillers due to wisdom teeth removal as I type this. I'll try and clean up the spelling and grammar, but it may be a bit incoherent. Just ask and I'll do my best to clarify.

So. What prompts this post is that I'm starting a one-on-one campaign with a friend; he's DMing, and I'm playing, but given the format, we're both naturally having some input into the setting's formation. We've already decided that it'll be a fairly urban setting, and I wanted there to be an extensive banking system that I could use for simple economic warfare. I had plans :smallcool:
He vetoed this, and said that he didn't want to go that direction, not to mention that he has a plot in the workings anyways. Now, this is fine for this campaign, especially since he's a good DM :smallsmile:, but it got me thinking.

The sterotypical RPG, especially D&D, presents the players as essentially reactive forces. You follow the plot the DM/written module gives out. Sometimes you have more freedom to deal with a plot, but it's still reactive at a higher level. There's nothng inherently wrong with this, IMO; but I'm a little bit ready for something different. So how to go about it?

Option 1 - Just work with the DM and other players and go for a more open-ended campaign. Sandbox-y to some level, I guess. I don't know how well D&D 3.5 supports this, though.

Option 2 - Be the DM. Be as proactive as I want, and my plans are what challenge the players! This could be fun, and I want to try out DMing. On the other hand, I'd be dealing with a lot of other things, like making sure I'm providing an enjoyable experience for all the players.

Option 3 - Try out a different system. This kind of appeals to me, though I have very little experience outside of 3.5. I'm a lttle bit familiar with nWOD, and I've read most of the CtL core book, which appealed to me a lot. nWOD games in general seem like they have good potential, since just surviving is nontrivial. EDIT: For example, from reading CtL, it seems like a good start to a game would be setting up a new freehold, or expanding a small one. Finding and coordinating the Lost, setting up safehouses in the Hedge and in the real world, inventing a cult-like religion in order to organize with mortals, make pacts with them, and draw power from their dreams...but I digress.

OTOH, moving to a new system would be something, well, new, and I don't have much confidence in the mechanics. Furthermore, I don't really know where to turn. nWOD? Exalted? Any of the other myriad 3rd party systems out there? *shrug*

So hit me with your best shots, people! Comments on proactive vs. reactiveness in general, how best to accomodate a player who wants to plan and scheme on his own, whatever seems mildly appropriate!

2011-08-19, 09:37 PM
Well, I'm rather fond of systems that allow for proactive PCs. In "Exalted," for instance, a character has a "Motivation," which is a major, if not the major driving force for their actions. Not only can your character not be dissuaded from it without first breaking his will, but you also receive cool benefits when you complete it. :smallbiggrin:

2011-08-19, 09:41 PM
some DMs do run sandbox campaigns. I had a rather good wizard in one.
The plot becomes reactive based on character actions, which may lead to NPC actions that force the player to react. It's a back and forth thing.

2011-08-19, 09:48 PM
Personally, I'm much happier with a reactive game. Or if the game is proactive, at least make sure it is advertised as such. For example at a con once I sat down to an epic level 3.5 game, the guy had a bunch of pregen sheets, we all show up, and then he's like "Okay what do you want to do?". We went looking around the immediate area, looking for anything that might resemble a plot hook to no avail. Nothing on the character sheets indicated any sort of scenario hook. So after an hour of "Okay what do we do now?" we just got bored and left.

Another case of this was a game with a new DM who we knew had some overarching plot worked out, but wanted to leave us enough room to do what we wanted. The problem was that we couldn't figure out what we were supposed to do to keep up with this overarching plot, so we'd stumble from one point to another never quite sure if we were going the right way. At some point I only semi-jokingly started trying to roll spot checks to find the DM-railroad tracks. (As an aside, it turned out we weren't going the right way, and the world ended as a result of us taking a wrong turn, and walking away from a city we needed to investigate further, whoops)

2011-08-20, 09:18 AM
When I run campaigns, I usually don't plan ahead for more than one or two adventures.
I create an antagonist, give him a goal and resources, and then come up with a plan how he wants to achieve his goal. I consider how he has progressed so far, and then decide on a point where his plans come into contact with the PCs.
From then on, it's really just the PCs reacting to the antagonists actions, the antagonist reacting to the PCs action, and so on until the antagonist is permanently defeated or achieved his goal.
Having the antagonist set everything in motion makes it a lot easier to focus, since you have a somewhat clear win/lose condition right from the start.

What system you use is really unimportant. It doesn't matter if there's a motivation or just alignment written down something on the character sheet. The important thing is just that the players come up with motivations. Once they did that, there's really no need that it has any actual effect on dice rolls.

2011-08-20, 09:30 AM
I prefer not to write plots, but rather major events. There are a handful of significant NPCs, (good or bad,) that are going to move the world along in a certain way and certain things will happen without the PCs involvement. If the PCs interupt this, som events may change or be prevented. New ones will occur. But if the PCs ignore it, these events are going to occur for certain. The plot usually finds them if they don't find it. This and a few other things can usually drive them to the story but how they choose to interact with the plot is totally on them. What would you call that?

2011-08-20, 10:24 AM
It's all in the DM's style. Every game will have some aspects of the player being reactive - something jumps out and surprises you and you have to deal with that, or some plot is starting to rear its head and the world needs you to save it. The trick is in how you, the player, are allowed to go about these things, and further, how you learn about their existence in the first place.

The game I'm running right now, I gave the players a setting ("We're going to have this game circulate around this island where ruins have just been discovered, so have reasons your characters would go there"), populated the place with NPCs who each have their own goals and motivations, and set the players loose. They've managed to get potential wealthy benefactors to basically write them off as uninteresting, somewhat alienated a group of historians for not following through on a promise they made, and the elves on the island more or less considered them pleasant acquaintances, but that's being strained when they got involved in an argument between some elves and dwarves.

I'd dropped plot hooks to start things off; The players decided instead to go their own way, and I rolled with that. They wanted to try and discover other ruins that the locals hadn't reached yet; Divinations and flying over a jungle allowed them to do so. They found clues there as to what happened in the setting to create these ruins, got information on where else they could go, and are currently examining that. All on their own motivation. Have I pointed them toward things? Sure. But it's been things that they wanted to find. They went out searching, I gave them information, and have hinted at the plot that's unfurling around them. Essentially, they're proactively chasing the plot, rather than strictly reacting to things as they happen. And as long as the DM is willing to roll with things off the cuff, it's actually a lot of fun. There's been a few times when I had to go "Woah, really? Um.. okay, lemme think for a second here" in relation to something they've done.

2011-08-20, 12:47 PM
It is also more than possible to have a game with a set plot where many or most of the details are created based on player, not character, input in shaping what kind of story they want. Most of my pbp games fall into this pattern, where the players are very open to create interesting characters with unique goals and desires and this informs the specifics of the story the GM creates.

One of them is set in a steampunk version of 1880s Europe after the aliens invaded. Due to the choices during character creation national struggles over supremacy of the military effort and dominance after the war have become a prominent theme and despite no major historical figures being intended to matter, Bismarck is currently one of the two major antagonists of the game. Similarly details were tweaked to make for a grand gala where I was allowed to have my character kick ass wearing an elaborate ball gown. Another player influenced the plot in a direction where class struggles are important and the plight of refugees are a major theme due to a third player and so on.

It still differs from typical proactive play in that the plot follows a set course and at any given major choice there is an obvious right one that pushes the plot along. However, drawing on the desires of the players and tailoring the situations to the characters make it the choice that is ICly interesting and appealing as well. So basically a reactive game that's highly informed by metagame discussions between players and GM, giving both a sense of freedom and control and a directed, tightly plotted narative. When it works the best, I mean.

2011-08-20, 01:18 PM
You can run D&D for proactive players. Last session I told my players I wanted to fast forward a few levels and I asked them to describe the obstacles they faced to gain four levels worth of XP. At first they kinda listed monsters, but once I got them to list complex problems without easy solutions, we had a good time. And I've made sure to integrate some of the stuff they came up with back into the main story.

But my players are open minded about such things. Some players want to play D&D the way they've already played for 10 or 20 years. If your DM is like that, maybe it's time for a new system.

The best one I've played for PC narrative control is FATE. The players actually build the city before the game starts. They list the locales where the game will take place and make up the NPCs who appear at these places. It's the GM's job to lead them to these places.

2011-08-20, 04:00 PM
The best one I've played for PC narrative control is FATE. The players actually build the city before the game starts. They list the locales where the game will take place and make up the NPCs who appear at these places. It's the GM's job to lead them to these places.

That isn't FATE. The city building aspect is entirely Dresden Files, with a similar thing in Diaspora. Starblazer Adventures, Spirit of the Century, Legend of Anglerre, and so forth, all of which use the FATE 3 engine don't have that.

2011-08-22, 06:49 PM
Option 1 - Just work with the DM and other players and go for a more open-ended campaign. Sandbox-y to some level, I guess. I don't know how well D&D 3.5 supports this, though.

I think 3.5 is one of the better games for this, just because it's willing to give players ways to change the world without asking the DM's permission. You do have to get everyone on the same page though, because the class imbalances are a lot bigger in a sandbox game. You pretty much want a party of all spellcasters. Rogues can work if you're generous about what skills do, but a barbarian is going to be bored because his only setting is "kill something."

2011-08-23, 05:15 AM
What I really like, as a player, is a Reactive plot where we have Plot Device level powers. That is to say: we don't have to worry about setting goals for ourselves, but if we don't like where the plot is going and we're clever, we can throw it violently off its rails.

A vampire sends his forces out to terrorize a town, so we divert a river into his castle, a sorcerer places a nation into a magical sleep and we invade his dreams to discover the counter-curse, a villain escapes by time traveling into the future, so we make ourselves unaging so we're alive to oppose him again... stuff like that.