Proactive Player Characters and Related Issues

by John Kim
(Version 1.0, July 17, 2004)

         Role-playing games tend to have player characters in a reactive mode of play. The GM presents one or perhaps several potential adventures (i.e. hooks), the players accept the challenge, and then they try to solve the problem. The players are often quite creative in how they solve the problems they are presented with, but the situation and goal are both set up by the GM.

         Proactive play means that the players invent a plan of action which was not set up by the GM. This mode of play is often ignored, or perhaps even vilified. Some see it as being spiteful to the GM, ruining her campaign. I think that bad experiences are generally caused by both GM and players being unsure of how to handle proactivity. Proactivity changes the group dynamic, putting responsibility for the adventure more in the hands of the players. There are many limitations to this approach, but also many strengths.

         In this essay, I would like to encourage proactive play as a viable option, and find ways to minimize common problems. I do not feel that proactive play is inherently superior, but it is a neglected option which should be better appreciated and understood.

How Is Proactivity Different?

         Proactivity is not an alternate means for arriving at the same end. Proactive play produces a different kind of story from reactive play, both in plot structure and in theme. In reactive play, the protagonists generally seek out or are caught up in the unusual. The players look for unusual events as signs of a plot hook. When they find it, they act to restore the status quo. For example, they might stumble upon a bizarre murder and try to find who was responsible, or they might hear rumors of a strange cave outside town and cleanse it of evil and loot. Since they act to restore the status quo, this is also the typical structure of an episodic series. Each episode starts with a breaking of the status quo, and it is mostly restored by the end.

         In proactive stories, the protagonists start with the status quo and initiate action to change it. In RPGs, this means that the players take established elements (NPCs, places, etc.) and invent a plan to do something to them. These stories tend to be epic rather than episodic, such as the rise (and possibly the fall) of important figures or soap-opera-like intrigue. The protagonists are trying to alter the status quo, so assuming they have any success, there will be continuous change. The important feature is that they must be motivated to alter the status quo, and it must be interesting to play out at least parts of their effort. Within peaceful and civilized society, proactive PCs are likely to be revolutionaries or criminals, since playing out normal life is unlikely to be exciting. In a more lawless setting, there are many options. Some examples of traditional RPG concepts which fit this would be:

  1. A long-term war where the PCs are guerilla fighters, trapped behind enemy lines, or otherwise acting on their own initiative rather than following detailed orders.
  2. Criminal profiteers who can freely move about, such as pirates in the Caribbean, wild west outlaws, or modern-day cinematic thieves who can choose their targets.
  3. Free-willed advocates of some power block in a relatively lawless region, who are out to push their side's interests by whatever means necessary.
  4. Secret revolutionaries against some entrenched evil organization.
Of course, there are infinite possibilities -- many of them specific to particular settings.

         Furthermore, proactive adventures tend to have less clear-cut endings. Since the status quo is not restored, the story does not have the feeling of closure at the end. It may require some artifice to make definite breaks in the story to distinguish one adventure from another.

How Proactivity Works

         To start proactive play, the PCs need to come up with some plan of action for how they want to change the current state of affairs. The plan should only depend on established or implied elements of the game. For example, searching randomly for anything that might help against a foe is not a proactive plan. It depends on finding an as-yet unknown resource that the GM must supply.

         One example of a proactive plan is setting up a trap for the enemy. Using current resources, they arrange for a lure to draw their enemy in and then spring some sort of ambush. Thus the enemy is reacting to a plan initiated by the PCs. If they have a known opponent, another proactive plan might be to go acquire an established resource that will let them defeat the opponent.

         Another example would simply be making a play for power in a normal location. i.e. A bank is not an adventure hook by itself. In a reactive campaign, the GM would create a hook for a bank robbery by having someone try to hire the PCs -- or perhaps have there be a special delivery to the bank which makes it cry out to be robbed. However, in a proactive campaign, criminally-minded PCs might decide to rob a bank without any such hook. Or they might decide to set up a protection racket. Or any of a host of other choices.

         I can illustrate with an extended example... In one campaign that I GMed, the PCs were five of perhaps two hundred people in the world with extraordinary psychic powers as well as considerable mundane competence. They eventually discovered that their powers were somehow related to another Earth in a parallel dimension. That world was dominated by a hated god-like figure who lived in an impregnable mountain fortress. I had viewed this mainly as background on the world, not as an adventure in itself. The evil god was not someone who would come out and fight, and at best was a long-term enemy. The players, however, decided to aim for the top. They concocted a plan to go to Russia (this being at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union) and steal warheads to conduct their own nuclear attack on the mountain. The unique powers and skills of the PCs made this just possible, but it had absolutely nothing to do with anything I had thought of. Since the game was set in more-or-less the real world, the PCs had a solid idea about what was possible.

         Since they have no prepared hook to draw the PCs, proactive plans by their nature are not obvious. When viewing the situation, the proactive plan is generally only one of many choices. For example, no one would hear the initial description of the parallel world and think "Of course, let's go to Russia." Because there are many choices, it can be difficult for all of the PCs to agree on a plan. This is especially true if PCs have differing motivations. Without a GM-planned hook to draw them together, the PCs can easily split and be unable to agree on decisive action. There are a few ways to address this:

  1. The PC group can be set up so that all PCs have very similar motivations and ethics.
  2. The campaign could be set up with a decisive leader who can dictate the overall plan. Other PCs might disagree and alter how the plan is implemented or otherwise influence things, but the primary decision is by the leader as an individual.
  3. The players can agree out-of-character to search for ways for their PCs to agree. Then the players might think of a plan, and then arrange for reasons how each of their PCs could be motivated to back that plan.

Dealing with Proactive Play

         The basic problem with proactive play is that it makes it very difficult for the GM to prepare. If she doesn't know what the PCs will do, she cannot prepare NPCs, locations, and other information to help run the game. Because of this, proactivity is often seen negatively -- as players who cause problems for the GM or at least refuse to cooperate.

         GMing proactive play means turning over responsibility to the players for the general direction of the plot. This has many implications. First of all, it means that the GM will frequently have to think on his feet. Second, it means that the players need to communicate well both among themselves and with the GM.

         One useful technique is to set aside a bit of time at the end of each game session for planning. Here, the GM openly asks the players what they plan to do during the next session or at least their best guess. The players answer, and on the basis of this the GM knows what characters and locations to prepare.

Encouraging Proactivity

         Especially because many GMs have difficulty understanding and dealing with proactivity, players are reluctant to do so. The most important thing is not discouraging it. For example, if players do something unexpected, do not follow instincts to shut it down in favor of something you know. Avoid preparing for specific PC actions. This will at first lead to loss of confidence, because it takes practice to build up your skills at improvising results. But it is manageable.

         Beyond that, you can attempt to encourage proactivity by according to the elements that are required:

         I should offer a word of caution, however. Ultimately proactive play puts the driving force of the campaign in the hands of the players. This isn't inherently a good thing. If the players aren't up to the task, then the game may simply fail -- in the same way that a reactive campaign will fail if the GM doesn't come up with adventures. Creating adventures requires dependable creative energy and commitment. In many gaming groups, the GM is more committed and experienced than the players. Proactive play is better if you have players who are as much or even more committed than the GM.

Mixing Proactivity and Reactivity

         One way to balance the pitfalls of proactivity is to try a mixed approach which is partly reactive and partly proactive. This is not necessarily the best of both worlds, however. Proactive plots and reactive plots are based around different characters and situations. Proactive plots depend on characters whose ambition is to overturn the status quo, while reactive plots are characters whose attention is turned against the status quo. If mixed badly, both approaches can be undermined. Proactive plots can be weakened by the GM inserting events that distract the PCs from the ambitions they would otherwise pursue. Reactive plots can be weakened by inserting lags where the inciting events disappear. To discuss this, I'll define two types of mixing.

         I call Partial Proactivity having plots where the PCs are pushed into action by GM-designed events, but the events do not have a clear response. The events could be termed "prods" instead of "hooks", because they do not draw the PCs to a particular end goal. Alternatively, these could be thought of as "bangs" (a term coined in the RPG Sorcerer, by Ron Edwards). This is reactive in a sense that the players are pushed along by the GM, but gives leeway for more choice in PC action. A typical prod would be to pose some dilemma for the PC which could go either way. There is a smooth and subtle transition between hooks and prods.

         Now, in principle, the GM may intend to spur the players to make a decision more quickly, but without controlling the content of those decisions. i.e. The prod is intended as a device to make the PCs proactive, rather than providing them a plot to follow. For example, a saintly PC who has been struggling with doubts is suddenly faced with an old enemy (a known killer) trapped in a burning building. This is intended to spur the player's decision about morality, and make it more dramatic. As another example, the PCs have been planning an attack on an enemy, but they can't agree on a plan. As GM, you provide them with detailed information on what the enemy is doing. They can still make whatever plan they like, and the added information gives them confidence in their choice.

         However, in practice, the exact situation and how it is presented will strongly influence the PC's choice. A prod is never a neutral push into proactivity. It is a form of reactivity where the GM tries to still leave open some important choices to the players. Further, prods can cover for lack of proactive motivation of the PCs. For example, in a fully proactive campaign, it might immediately be clear that a given PC is not working. The player then redesigns or introduces a new PC to get into play. On the other hand, if the campaign is "partially proactive", the GM provides a series of prods that force the PC into action. The PC is thus kept around when she might otherwise be dropped for a more proactive one.

         I call Alternating Proactivity having the GM to expect and prepare for PC proactivity, but also have a backup plan in case their plans falter or bog down. In practice, real-life distractions, lack of coordination, and/or many other issues can combine to make players falter even if they are normally proactive. A backup is a fully reactive hook which is used as a last resort, as opposed to prods which are used more regularly. The danger here is that the players see the backup plan as where the adventure is supposed to go. This can happen even without the backup being intentionally invoked. GMs are human, and they inherently give cues about where they are comfortable going and where they aren't. So when the players are moving toward the prepared plan, the GM feels more comfortable and positive. Conversely, the GM will increasingly hesitate as the players move away from the prepared plan. Thus, the backup can easily weaken the proactive drive and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

         My advice is that if you want a backup plan, then, it should be obvious as such to the players and preferably invoked by them. This can be explicitly communicated on a metagame level -- i.e. "OK, let's go with a backup this session". However, it can also be implicit as long as the players clearly understand it as such (i.e. a clear dramatic hook like "You get a letter asking for your help"). The important thing is not to confuse the signals given to the players. You should spend your time preparing mainly for PC proactivity, with just a few jotted notes about the backup. It is not an aid for proactivity, but rather a temporary substitute.

         All of this simply goes to show that there isn't one right way. Reactive play and mixed approaches work. However, pure proactivity is also workable, and is a very different experience from either reactive or mixed. Hopefully this essay has shown some of how it works, and given some ideas on implementing it in play.


John H. Kim <jhkim-at-darkshire-dot-net>
Last modified: Sat Jul 17 11:28:47 2004