Proactive vs Reactive Characterization

For whatever reason, the other day I asked myself “okay but what even is roleplaying?” And after tossing out a lot of leads and ideas — you have no idea how long it’s taken me to write this post, omg — I think I settled on the process of characterization as my core roleplaying habit. You know, playing a role.

I would propose that, for me, the process of characterization happens somewhere on a continuum between proactive vs reactive.

Proactive characterization: You come up with a personality, using whatever tools you want (fictional or real-world inspiration, emotional drives, Maslow, tarot, whatever) and play it out in the game. Oh, it probably changes over time, but the point is to go into it and say “I want to play a paladin struggling with his faith” or “I want to play a scheming courtesan” or whatever.

Reactive characterization: The procedures of play (teh rulez) guide and shape an emergent personality, or maybe it’s just you, reacting as you would as questions and problems are presented.

Are some games built so it’s harder to proactively (or reactively) characterize? I think so. And I’ll bet nobody’s really thought much about what their preferred approach or strategy to characterization is, and how well it works with proactive/reactive play.

Characterization Strategies

Here are some strategies I’ve used to come up with characters:

Play-acting: putting on a funny voice, playing out tropes. Until I get a bead on an NPC, this is almost always what I do when I’m GMing and a new NPC has shown up. Games that give me pick-lists or a similar procedure will often produce a play-acted character. For example, my hick divorcee in Soth at BBC was totally a set of amusing tropes about being a hick, an unskilled father, and a psycho cultist. Shallow but proactive.

Outward expression of inner emotions. Super effective from a GMing standpoint, since I can comfortably hold an NPC at arm’s length and have them be true to their emotions. Really produces some neat emergent play, especially paired with plan-making, which is next. This is a go-to for freeforms as well: just pick an emotion (or two) and ride it out. Deeper but still proactive, I think.

Making plans and pursuing them to the best of your abilities. A very common, I think, strategy for new players, trad players, and folks who maybe aren’t comfortable being “creative.” This is also my fall-back when I’m GMing: my castle guard, whom I just met 15 seconds ago, has a plan to be good at his job. Then I’ll layer some play-acting on that. Feels like it’s kind of in the middle.

Playing a constrained version of yourself. To be honest, this is me when I sit down for most indiegames at conventions. Usually it’s just too much work to come up with a whole new personality and then filter my decisions through it. Not in four hours. Reactive by definition.

Right Tool For The Job

So the trick to this conversation is to not fall into the trap of thinking that proactive or reactive characterization is “better.” I do think some are better suited to some games than others. I know for me, it totally depends on what I’m gonna play. I’ve sat at both ends of this spectrum and had a very good (and a very bad!) time.

A game without any kind of editorial focus and an unconstrained setting? Mostly, I just cook up someone I can tolerate for a while. So like…Dungeons & Dragons is, compared to many indiegames, a pretty editorially neutral ruleset. There are stats intended to measure a hero’s most important metrics, feats, maybe skills now? You know, trad RPGs. I’d have to say they provide quite a lot of space for players to proactively assert a personality.

On the other end you’ve got many indie games that have such a tight editorial focus that it’s maybe harder to proactively create a personality. OTOH is it also easier to allow a personality to reactively emerge? Probably depends on the type of editorial focus we’re talking about.

I’m contemplating a 3-shot of The Clay That Woke here shortly, so I’m trying to imagine what play feels like. There are barely any rules at all. Rather, the minotaurs accrete tokens in their pool that they can throw into draws as the game proceeds. But Silence, their social code, is what the game is about. And I’m thinking you could bring pretty much any characterization to the table, throw it against Silence, and see what happens. Probably your characterization adapts to the pool of tokens you’ve collected. I could easily just play myself, at least in the beginning.

But, say, Apocalypse World? Very, very tightly focused. You get some outward choices when you create your character — your face and eyes and body — but I have found it’s a pretty hard game to proactively characterize in. I can go in wanting to play a charming Brainer but gosh that violation glove is gonna go to waste if I really am insisting on being a “good guy.” Everything about the game encourages a fairly narrow range of effective characterization: by way of another example, Gunluggers just straight up suck at talking sense into people, so any effort into being a warrior-poet Gunlugger might maybe be frustrating. Not to say that frustration isn’t a worthy experience, or diegetic effectivness is the most important thing.

I know I tend to be very reactive in my characterization in most PbtA games. I didn’t know I was going to play a moody emo Cure-listening dragon in Epyllion until my playbook pushed me there, for example. I think every Godi in Sagas of the Icelanders is going to have a cunning, scheming streak in him.

I’ll say that, yeah, sometimes I personally find it easier to let the game shape my character. I don’t have a lot of ownership, especially at a convention game, and I’d rather just settle on it as fast as possible. I’m happy to play to find out what happens, not only in the plot but in the character itself.

But at home in our campaign games, I’m sure there have been struggles with some of my players to really feel like they own their characters, especially when we play games where it’s harder to impress their own character creations against the game’s procedures. There maybe be something, you know, to these decade-long D&D games we hear about: if an editorially (more) neutral system gives players more room to characterize, and characterization is valuable to these players, well, then they’ve found the right match.

Future Questions

This has been an absurdly difficult post to write because it touches on so many different things. There are old conversations like stance and agenda that are useful but not directly relevant. Further questions for future posts:

* What are the qualities of games that promote either proactive or reactive characterization?

* Is playing “yourself” and seeing how a system shapes your decisions, or embodying a new personality, better for engagement? Like, what might be a very interesting and difficult decision for me might not be that hard at all for a different personality. And vice-versa.

* Immersion, good old immersion. I’m sure it plays into characterization an awful lot, but I feel like it’s a perpendicular discussion.

* Should we really be criticizing “but that’s what my character would do!” if that player is trying to be true to their creation? I know this comes up relative to very disruptive players who use it as an excuse to be terrible people, but I think there’s a more principled part of that conversation as well.

0 thoughts on “Proactive vs Reactive Characterization”

  1. RGFA termed these “develop in play” and “develop at start”, if I’m reading you right.

    An entertaining mode of characterisation I’ve seen in a couple of games of mine (which have lots of stake-choosing tradeoffs) is “my character allows/prevents X bad thing every time, and seizes on every opportunity to get /totally ignores Y good thing every time.”. So, a reckless character who never bothers about preventing collateral damage when it’s at stake, kind of thing. Requires a deliberate choice to hold to pattern, but the rules shape what the pattern comes off as. It’s interesting.

    But anyway, yeah.

  2. ‘But, say, Apocalypse World? Very, very tightly focused. You get some outward choices when you create your character — your face and eyes and body — but I have found it’s a pretty hard game to proactively characterize in. I can go in wanting to play a charming Brainer but gosh that violation glove is gonna go to waste if I really am insisting on being a “good guy.”‘

    I am now thinking of Monsoon, my poor Battlebabe, who tried to talk and bluff her way out of every problem, and always ended up with a pile of bodies and a heap of new debt to the Angel…

    There’s also the “steal an archetype” method, which works very well for NPCs and for convention games, and can be the seed around which a real character accretes in games that favour “reactive” models. My friend Joe and I once decided we were going to play Tulio and Miguel from The Road to El Dorado in a D&D game that we were playing with a GM we didn’t know well. I played in a game of Atomic Robo a little while ago where my friend Thomas made a character who was basically Captain America with the numbers filed off, and he was hemming and hawing about it, until he just decided to go with it. In both cases, the experience of play, the internal preferences of the player. and the other voices at the table eventually molded those “stolen” characters into something more unique, but it meant that the players always knew the answer to “what would my character do in situation X?”

  3. Was it your or someone else who was talking about “pre-play” and “play” in recent memory? This sounds very similar.

    I personally use proactive/reactive to describe player behavior in play, so it makes sense to use the same terms for characterization, in a way.

    Using your split here, I imagine BW is on the far end of proactive along with D&D, right?

  4. All my favorite characters start with a smidge of proactive and end with a heap of reactive. “Oh, that’s a cool playbook! That reminds me of how people got labels in high school. Maybe I’ll draw on my experience from that age about how I was meek and trying to embody other people’s expectations.” 10,000 tiny decisions later “Oh my god, I just beat that guys head in on a urinal!”

  5. Creativity is aided by prompts and constraints; in fact it could be argued that the core of any game lies in its particular arrangement of prompts and constraints.  Even the most accomplished authors rarely pull a character out of their heads, fully-formed, all at once.  This is why, when writing the CORE system (for DayTrippers) I built “Progressive Character Generation” into the rules.  Sure, you are free to predefine everything about your character if you wish, but it often makes more sense to let them develop “organically” via interactions with other fictional elements.

    Here’s how I put it in the DayTrippers Core Rules: “At the start of their career – just like the protagonists of most books and movies – you don’t really know very much about your DayTrippers character. Sure, you have Stats, some Skills, a little Gear, a few ideas about appearance, and maybe even a little personality.  But the real character of the character – the stuff that really makes the character tick – is usually a mystery at the start.

    You know what?  That’s fine!  We don’t need to know their whole life story yet; we’re interested in what they’re doing right now.  We’ll get to know your character more deeply over time just as you do: by watching them in action, by observing the choices they make, by getting accustomed to their style… and once in a while –perhaps once per session – we’ll learn a little more about them in a special scene.”

    And from the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide: “There’s no requirement for Players to spend all their Character Points prior to the beginning of play; in fact it’s smart to withhold a few and allow for Character Development to progress over the first few adventures.

    This solves a perennial problem in roleplaying games: It’s all well and good to have Players create the important aspects of their own characters’ pasts – perhaps even neighboring details, like mentors, family and associated characters – but it’s entirely another thing to put them on the spot before play, forcing them to marry themselves to a character concept they haven’t even spent any quality time with yet.
    We’ll get to know this character in their present-day context, from the outside in, the same way we get to know real people.  We’ll learn more about their past as it is revealed to us.”

    Again, this is up to the Player – they can predefine if they want to; but it’s much more interesting for those who don’t.  If you’re okay with major revelations coming to light about television protagonists mid-season (say perhaps in a flashback scene), this is essentially the same thing.

  6. Seeing a gif in my stream was nice, I knew it meant an IGRC post.

    I’ve been thinking that structure and characterisation are deeply embedded inside each other. So a players ability to define themselves, proactively or reactively, is quite dependent on what the system and GM throws at them.

    Burning wheel supports proactive play so well because the GM is told to facilitate it. Perhaps D&D promotes proactive play only by bent of it having so little to say about the narrative in its mechanics.

  7. The related conversation from the Forge era was about sketchy/rich starting characters, and sketchy/rich setting. The general assertion was that you can have a successful game with sketchy starting characters in a rich setting, and one with rich starting characters in a sketchy setting, but that rich/rich and sketchy/sketchy were problematic in various ways.

  8. So the sketchy side is where the most play happens? When you’re playing sketchy characters you’re allowing a rich setting to shape you, something like apocalypse world. With rich characters you go out into the world looking to shape it.

  9. As you say, a lot of this depends on the way particular games work. I found that I got a lot of mileage out of play acting in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying because people already understood the broad outlines of the character, which meant the particulars I was bringing to it could be understood in the context, my jokes would land better, etc. But in a game like DITV it pays to have a sketchy character and get invested as you go depending on which aspects of the situation in the towns resonate with you and seem like something your character ought to care about.

  10. I think one of the reasons I love PbtA game so much is the reactive characterization. I love the sense of discovery of character. I’m playing to find out who this person is in a very organic way. I might start with a smidge of proactivity, a notion of a character, but I find that it usually doesn’t hold up very long. When I was painting, I worked much the same way. I started out with a notion of a piece but it was a starting point only and my work came down to the process of discovering what the piece was going to be. I often wanted it to be different. I knew people who made art seemingly fully formed from their heads, and I wanted to do the same, but it was not something that worked for me.

  11. I do remember the threads Paul Czege is talking about, but I wasn’t thinking at all about the character/setting stuff.

    I may need to swing back around and focus more specifically on the games themselves and how they may lend themselves more to proactive and reactive play.

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