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FF Sparks (Casual)

[Gaming] Game Design Thoughts

After a rather interesting conversation today with a few folks about games and gaming styles, I've come to an interesting conclusion. I'm curious if anyone else thinks it has merit either way.

I think, when it comes to roleplaying in particular, you can boil things down to two essential 'schools' of roleplay. (Yes, I know boiling anything down to two essential somethings is an overgeneralization. Bear with me for the sake of this discussion.) :)

Let's call them proactive roleplaying, and reactive roleplaying. Proactive roleplayers want to get out and do things on their own. They don't want to wait for the story to come to them... they like telling stories. Reactive roleplayers want the story to have a coherent overarcing whole which they can, well, react to.

Or, in other words, a proactive RPer wants to do things of their own volition and have the GM tell them when anything particular happens as a result. A reactive RPer wants to have the GM tell them what happens and then react, doing things around that event.

Let's say you have a tabletop group. The characters want to get into a castle to scout something out, and the GM drops a hint that they might be able to enter through the sewers. A reactive roleplayer is likely to take this hint and run with it, continuing the GM's story. A proactive roleplayer might well do something like 'well, screw that, I don't want to trudge through that muck' and decide to dress the female members of the party up as prostitutes and get snuck inside to see the prince. (Yes, kieri, this means you, little miss scout the castle and get tipped well to boot.)

In tabletops, I'd say that reactive players are best with a GM who wants to tell a specific story. Proactive players are best with a GM who wants the players to tell their own story and only provide input or guidance where required. On a MUSH, reactive players are the ones likely to get involved eagerly in the plots staff start, while proactive players are the ones more likely to try and start plots.

Now, really, it's more of a range; not an either-or, but people falling somewhere on a spectrum. And both mindsets are valuable; without a GM constantly being there, the reactive players *need* the proactive players to stir things up for them, and the proactive players need the reactive players so that there's anyone around for them to RP with.

The problem is, while proactive players can keep things alive when GMs don't, such as on a game that is largely hands-off, in a tabletop game or RPG where you want a specific story told, highly proactive players are going to complicate the mix. So I'm thinking about this, because of a MU* project under construction that I know of, and wondering... how do you balance it well for both? It's an interesting question.

But here's where the discussion got interesting.

A reactive player trying to interact where proactive players are expected is going to get bored and frustrated, because they want things handed to them; they want the GM to start things off for them to react to. Conversely, a proactive player trying to interact where reactive RP is required is likely going to frustrate a GM (and fellow players) by going off on tangents or trying to tell their own story.

I wonder how many instances of frustration between players and games is because a highly reactive player got bored on a game without many tinyplots, or a highly proactive player stumbled into a place where they really needed to play reactively, and got tripped up? Going back and looking at my own online gaming career (13 years as of February, dear lord I've been doing this since I was a kid), I realize a lot of my own frustration with various games over the years has been when my RP style and what was appropriate on the game at that moment clashed.

Now, I think it is possible to have something that's a perfect blend, but in 13 years, I've seen only one game that does; it's a small, invite-only game where everyone acts as both player and GM simultaneously. While it's an incredible place to interact with others, with anything other than a small, invite-only group I doubt such a project would work.

Anyway. Random brain dump there. Those who have an interest in gaming (adamdray?) can feel free to comment... this is mostly an idle musing about this, as a prelude to thinking about how one can design a somewhat self-sustaining game with GM involvement, ideally balanced for both halves. :)


I think it's possible to be _situationally_ reactive or proactive in your styles. You've played with me on a number of places so you've seen me in action. I'm not what you'd call the most active of day-to-day RPers, generally speaking. I tend to dive in when I feel the story gearing up and start throwing stuff around. (To decidedly mixed results)

However, I need to have a level of comfort with the game or genre before I'll start throwing plot. Hopping on to a hands-off style game with a few players and a catch-as-what-can environment usually doesn't work for me beyond the first few days. I need to have a sense that 1) my actions are having repercussions and 2) that there is a defined story for me to work with.

If it's just me causing trouble for the sake of trouble, well, that's not very interesting. Crucible's a good example -- I have plenty of ideas, but honestly there's not much point to it. There's no long-term repercussions or plot longevity or world alteration possible.

That said: I started a nation-state on Aether. I, er, did stuff on Firan. I love having plot impact.

(It can, however, be really, really hard to go back to being non-important after you've been a heavy hitter. But you know that as well as I do.)
I don't think it's even importance, so much as impact, as you put it. If you've played Joe the Prince, and the stuff you stirred up was really interesting, it's a little less interesting to play Robert the farmer, where about all you can stir up is a minor domestic dispute. On the other hand, say, Thomas, Captain of Night Patrols for the city guard, might not be all that IMPORTANT, but you can sure as heck stir up a lot of stuff among the RP'd criminal element by making their lives hard.

I do agree you can do it situationally. I think the problem is when players don't switch as the situation calls for, that's probably what leads to a lot of roleplaying unhappiness or confusion.
You should read Robin Law's discussion of what he calls Inactivists.

Beyond that, you should also read the Provisional Forge Glossary for insights into many of the things you've discussed here. Certainly, players in Narrative games write the story every time they play, and this is considered a key element of the game's design, not a type of player. Some of the stuff you talk about "reactive players" and GMs with a "specific story" falls under classic Illusionism, a type of Simulationist play. You'll also want to read about what the Forge calls "The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast": that "the GM is the author of the story and the players direct the actions of the protagonists," which is considered (in Forge theory) to be a logical impossibility (both cannot be true).

I'm happy to discuss with you my understanding of Forge theory, with the caveat that I don't understand it perfectly myself, but I've been following it for a while now. Also with the caveat that a bunch of people think it's totally bunk. I, though, don't think so. It may have flaws but it's the best model of game design out there, in my opinion.
I think the "Impossible Thing Before Breakfast" sums up pretty well what I was trying to say, actually. Makes it easier to put what I was saying more succinctly, at any rate: You can have the players guiding the game with the GM providing reactions, or the GM guiding the game with the players providing reactions; you cannot have both simultaneously.

My addition to the theory was that if you have players trying to guide the game at the same time as the GM, or both expecting the other to guide the game, then people will get frustrated... and I suspect that a great deal of unhappiness in RPGs is probably when someone is trying to do one method, and the other is what the GM expects at that point.

If that makes sense?
Yes. This is the heart of Social Contract Theory as it pertains to Forge Theory. Social Contract is at the heart of Forge Theory, in fact. It is the base on which G/N/S theory (of which you may have read -- Gamist / Narrativist / Simulationist) is built.

Essentially, every player comes to the table with a Creative Agenda (G/N/S, or some combination of those) and if they don't match among the participants, bad things happen and often players don't know why. Worse, if a game cannot adequately provide for / reinforce a player's Creative Agenda during the game, players will get confused, argue, and be unhappy. This lack of Coherence in the rules causes, at best, Drift away from the rules and, at best, dysfunctional play and the disintegration of the gaming group.
Go and buy the indie game called Primetime Adventures, by Dog-eared Designs. It's a genius bit of work and it demonstrates how an RPG can -- by design -- take players out of a passive mode. Also, check out Universalis, a game in which players bid chips to establish facts about the world, the story, the characters, everything -- and tips many "sacred cows" of gaming.
I think your initial theory is pretty good, though I would suspect that "proactive" players tend more often than not to become the GMs while the "reactive" players are content to just play; the best GMs, of course, are those that easily flit from reactive to proactive, and the best players do both as well.

Of course, now I'm going to have to read through the Forge theory stuff and add more thoughts, but you couldn't have posted this at a more opportune time for me: I am trying to get my TT group started back up again, and any sort of little insights into how people tick could be of great help.

He-He I'm definately a pro-active RPer.

Yeah, I've done some pretty wild stuff in RPs, often giving the GM ideas.

I'd agree with that polarity being strongly biased to one side in most players. It also can be troublesome not having enough of either player type.

BTW, if you need someone for Online RPs I'm willing, I don't think I can make it out to Seattle on a regular basis, where I'm in Ohio. *l*

I have a group of friends I currently RP with online every friday night 10PM-2AM. It's an semi-unstructured story RP based on the video game Skies of Arcadia. We have a ball. If you promise you will be well behaved I might be able to pull some strings, the other person I asked was in incompatible time zones. There is one rule that you may have issue with, no political discussions at the RP chat.

If you want to do a story based RP I can help you, I'm decent at such writings. If you're going for a stats based and/or map based, the net isn't the best medium for communicating those.