Proactive Vs. Reactive Styles – Player Initiative

Just about everybody knows at least some of the major varieties of playstyle. You’ve got rules-heavy vs. rules-light, deep roleplaying vs. beer and pretzels, gritty vs. over the top, balance between combat and intellectual puzzles and social situations, and types of metagame enjoyment. (If you haven’t read this last one, you should; it’s awesome.) But there’s an axis of playstyle that most people forget, one that is in itself a often a silent killer of GM-player mutual satisfaction: proactive vs. reactive, or the level of initiative a player or GM takes.

Though this quality can be the same on both sides of the GM screen, it doesn’t have to be; a person might be highly proactive as a player, but very reactive as a GM, or vice versa. The following, then, are the four general categories; there are a lot of gradients between each extreme, but very few people are completely on the line between them.

The Proactive Player: “Okay, guys, I have a plan…”

This one’s off and running the moment her dice hit the table (if not slightly before). End on a cliffhanger, and she’ll have half a dozen contingencies within the next day, never mind by the beginning of the following session. Leave a plot hook anywhere near her, and she’ll drag it and grab as many of the party as she can along. When the group’s idle or stuck, she’s usually the first to find something to do for the sake of doing something; in the absence of a plot hook, she’ll usually choose a group ambition and find a way to follow through with it. Many proactive players are Currents. These players flourish in sandbox-style games, but are often the likeliest to be irritated by railroading; they’re also very good at interrupting well-laid plans.

The Reactive Player: “What are we doing now?”

This one might plan, but it’s likelier to be in response to what happens around him. Running games for him is rather like playing badminton: Action, response, action, response. While he may throw a wrench in your plans as they’re being executed, he’s not near as likely as the proactive player to ruin them before they’ve even gotten started, and there’s very little risk of him walking up to an NPC and asking for a life story without the NPC practically dripping with clues that they are Someone to be Spoken To. These players excel in games with set storylines, but tend to founder in a sandbox format: make sure they’re given a clear direction.

The Proactive GM: “How many folders did she BRING?!”

Like the proactive player, the proactive GM always seems to be “on.” She spends a lot of free time (and a lot of time that isn’t technically free) planning—world, NPCs, plot, rewards, you name it. This often leads to antagonists with highly complex plans. Or plans in general, which can cause frustration as the players do what players always do and mess them up. Proactive GMs can run just about anything—their sandboxes are almost real-world complex, and their stories twist at every opportunity.

The Reactive GM: “So what do you do now?”

For the reactive GM, the plot is in the hands of the players. Literally. He’s a dab hand at responding to even the craziest PC tactics, plans and strategies, and he’s likely to have a firm finger on the pulse of the group, responding to concerns quickly and effectively. But while he can work around almost anything, he needs something to work from; if the players aren’t moving, he might bog down as well. These GMs favor loose plots and sandboxing.

For groups of players, the types can be mixed and matched easily, though I recommend keeping groups half and half if they’re mixed; a single reactive in a group of proactives can feel left behind, and a single proactive in a group of reactives often steals the game. Proactive GMs work best with reactive players, and vice versa; their styles complement each other rather than conflicting, and someone’s always got the inspiration. A proactive GM with mostly proactive players might find herself frustrated by their tendency to mess up her plans. The worst, though, is a reactive GM with reactive players: even without additional factors it’s a recipe for stagnation, and heaven forbid someone run afoul of writer’s block.

So what’s your style? Ever run afoul of one of these conflicts?


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