Reactive v Proactive PCs

~850 words, ~4 min read time

My latest foray into solo gaming made me realize how much my player character (PC) was reacting to situations that we thrown at her rather than driving the action forward herself – until about the halfway point when I decided on a specific goal for her to pursue. This led me to reflect on the difference between reactive and proactive PCs and how they change the gaming experience in general – and the solo RPG experience in particular.

A “reactive” PC is one whose decisions are reacting to the world around them. For this type of game to work, the world must be dynamic and imposing itself on the PC. In contrast a “proactive” PC is the dynamic force imposing themselves on the world.

I realized that, much of the time, a story-driven game ends up with reactive PCs. At first I thought this might be some kind of personal pathology – something I was doing “wrong” – perhaps reflecting my own contentment with life as it is. But, then I realized, a lot of great main characters are largely reactive. In Star Wars: A New Hope, for example, Luke’s behavior in nearly every scene is a reaction to the world around him. The heroes in Lord of the Rings are reacting to Sauron’s return and aggression. And so on. It’s actually pretty rare, it seems, for main characters to go LOOKING for trouble – instead, trouble comes looking for them.

“Sandbox” style games, however, require proactive PCs – PCs with well-defined motivations, even if these motivations are a bit broad. Now, the world might put obstacles in their way, but, fundamentally, the game is about the PCs having goals and pursuing them. Because I just looked across the room at my son playing on his computer – Minecraft is a great case of a sandbox. No clear goal apart from what the player brings with them.

Putting this together and thinking about some of my solo gaming:

I think I need to decide ahead of time what kind of game I’m going to be playing – is it story-driven (where PCs are more reactive) or sandbox (where PCs must be proactive)? (Now, stories emerge out of sandboxes sometimes!)

In the case that I want to go story-driven, then it make sense to spend more time in GM-style prep. Not in as much detail as if I’m GMing for a group, but creating a situation that will impose itself on the character forcing a reaction is important. In this framework, my solo tools should also be aimed at moving the story forward. Ironsworn is designed for this, as is Mythic and the scene setup and play for One Page Solo Engine. I may even be ahead to design fronts and grim portents. Basically, if this is the route I want to go, I should spend more time on prepping the threats that are forcing the PC to act. Truly “random” encounters should be rare. Rather, if I have multiple fronts out there, randomness can be introduced in *which* of the fronts is progressing when.

But, if I want to go sandbox, then I should use a different set of tools. Travelling Alone, the random tables in Scarlet Heroes are good tools here (or any other random mapmaker). Game play should be composed largely of random encounters and reacting to them. Story, in a broad sense, emerges simply because random encounters create barriers between the character and their goals. But, it doesn’t exist by design.

Thinking in this more analytical way has made me realize something: as I’ve been playing Cepheus, I’ve been trying to merge the two styles of play – specifically, I’m trying to play story-based, but driven by random encounters. I think my most recent Cepheus game was a case in point here. The first part was largely story-driven, but kind of lame because there wasn’t much for the character I had to do, nor did I have a good sense of her motivation (making a stricter sandbox approach impossible). The second part was actually much better as a player experience, because I spent more time thinking about what the character wanted. Her motivation wasn’t particularly interesting. (Make a bunch of money and buy a ship so I can make even more money.) But, I used an appropriate tool (Travelling Alone from Cepheus Journal #8 paired with appropriate random encounter tables), and didn’t care much about story. Yet, narratively, the character died precisely because of previous decisions she had made. Mechanically, it was a random encounter where I rolled that there was a crew that was hostile to the PC because of history. So, totally random elements can be woven together into a light story.

So, part of my struggle at the moment is trying to decide if I want to play another sandboxy game (using appropriate tools), or if I want to prep a more story-based game to give that approach a shot. The first is something I can do right away, while the second would take some time developing a setting, villains, etc. So, that may wait until I’m not quite as sleep-deprived…

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