Reacting vs Responding

There’s a good bit of parenting advice that lodged itself in my head once a long while ago, that when possible we should respond to our kids rather than react to them. It’s mostly aspirational; parents are human and we totally react to stuff all the time. But it’s a good reminder, at the very least, to take a breath when your visceral instincts kick in.

So of course, parenting being a human activity and pretty much all human activities can map over to roleplaying, I’ve been thinking about how reacting versus responding is one of my major philosophical issues with the (aspirational IMO) “roleplaying is a conversation” thing that indieland has embraced so uncritically.

I know that when I’m facilitating, a lot of my energies are aimed at evoking reactions. I want the players to feel the feels, to act on them, to not sit there with the situation a good long while and math out optimal solutions. I want reactions. But reactions don’t really have a place in a conversation, either with your players or with a kid.

I also know that as a facilitator I frequently myself reacting. When something excites or angers or otherwise evokes a reaction in a player, I react to that. This is brain-deep stuff and I am in no way a brain scientist, but again this all comes back to parenting as I understand it: when your amygdala and her amygdala are firing off, ain’t nobody conversing in any meaningful way. We’re pushing each other’s buttons and our lizard brains are running the show.

Of course, if you feel like it’s important or necessary, you can simply make the bucket bigger and call literally any human interaction a “conversation.” Personally I feel like that’s a cop-out. If we ignore the fundamental differences between reactions and responses, we’re ignoring a big part of mastering this thing of ours.

Certainly there are stretches of time where play really is a series of responses. I offer up a thing, the player responds to that thing after some thought. I respond to their response. It’s cool and rational and emotionally healthy. It’s also all arms-length. Sometimes, you know, you kind of want to evoke an unhealthy response.

Bear with me a second! I absolutely do not mean we want to foster emotionally unhealthy play spaces. Good grief. Be more charitable than that. What I’m talking about is that unhealthy reactions are super-fruitful when it comes to human drama (if human drama is a facet of the kind of play you like).

Like, just look at the accompanying graphic. All that ugly shit under React is fucking awesome when it comes to drama, yeah? And then also look under Respond. I don’t know about you, but a game full of responding and no reacting feels chilly and, well, not human. Or at least not really concerned with human concerns.

Probably every play instance everywhere is going to be a mix of reactions and responses. This is just me thinking about how to be mindful of what’s actually happening. Are you reacting? Or are you responding? Should you maybe be doing more or less of one of those?

20 thoughts on “Reacting vs Responding”

  1. I’m finding myself nodding a lot.

    For me one of the key, and difficult balances, in the way I GM in high-trust games is the ratio of provocation of players to react vs. respond. Too much of either isn’t quite right and won’t be best.

    I think there is sometimes a hesitance (in myself and/or others) to push reaction as much, as it is the one that leads more often (IME) to disaster. Like, when I have a very responsive game it’s nice. Maybe flat, but nice and everyone contributes. (All other variables having gone well, of course.) But a game that has more than the balance of reaction can just crash and burn — either that night, or over time as folks aren’t able to find a good state, and feel like they’re just jumping from one thing to another.

    Also, for me, someplace in this matrix is the “act” portion of the grid. Which is to say, your graphic shows the places where we’re already in a reflexive mode — a thing has been done and now we are doing a thing in return. But there’s also another critical element in how much players vs. GMs, and GMs vs. rules are empowered to start new conversational lines.

    It’s something I’m infamous for as a player. Perhaps because of my heavy GM background. I’ll just be like, “naw fuck reacting or responding to that, instead Imma go over here and do this totally new thing.”

    The ways that interacts with respond/react I’m not quite clear on yet, but I have a gut hunch that in my most successful long term games that the balance hasn’t been as much between responding and reacting, as between enabling players to act, me provoking reactions, and response being the middle where we negotiate a lot of the work through the mechanisms of the game.

  2. Oh lordy, a game could not in a million years survive nothing but reactions. Can you imagine? Everyone would be tearing each other’s eyes out.

    Totally agree that there’s a balance to look for. I think a big part of reaching that balance is just knowing that it even exists. I feel like players mostly aren’t sensitive to the difference, and most GMs are little more than intuitively sensitive to it. Like, it shows up in play tempo: when everyone’s got the balance right, things are moving forward at a good clip and everyone’s emotionally engaged.

  3. Brad Murray oh yeah, that’s kind of my play mode by default (like at conventions or whatever). It’s a little emotionally distant, like, “what’s an honest reaction for this character? Would she be angry or would she start scheming?” Rather than yarrrgh I’ll fuckin’ kill youuuu and then me, the player, letting my character off her leash.

    I’m a little jealous, actually, of players who have that ability. To let their creation live and breathe on its own. It feels like a trick, and either you know it or you don’t. My rationalist mind never really accepted writer advice like “don’t outline your book too tightly because your characters may surprise you.”

  4. There have been more than a couple sessions where I walked away from the table feeling like my reactions had totally fucked up my character. The heat of the moment acting choice betrayed them, because it was my heat of the moment, not theirs. I wish I were better at embodying and channeling them.

  5. OK, all this react/respond stuff, fine, good, but I’ve gotta step in as a linguist and as a linguist whose area of study was Conversation Analysis and defend this claim that RPGs are a conversation, and reject this notion that only “response” is conversation.

    First off, conversations, especially that prototypical face-to-face kind, tend to have a lot of reacting. Even if it’s agreement-reacting, the typical amount of time between one person signalling a turn-break and the other person starting to speak is negative some ten or hundred milliseconds. If you wait even until the other person has stopped before you start talking, you sound like you’re being slow and deliberate. Which sometimes is what you want to do, or at least communicate that you’re doing. But point is, people engage in a lot of knee-jerk responding, and usually say things that are predictable enough for their interlocutor that they don’t actually have to finish them.[1]

    Second off, the medium of an RPG is a conversation. A conversation with reference to some physical props, sure, but a conversation. The things you say, whether they come from reactions or responses, are the thing that the RPG happens in. There’s middle ground between “only responses, not reactions, are conversation” and “all human interaction is conversation” (though, again, linguist, all those other things in the interaction can **inform** the conversation, I mean a large part of CA is looking at timings in turn-taking). But, like, you can play chess without using any words. The medium of chess is the pieces and the board, not the conversation. And it’s a kind of human interaction, sure, but not a prototypical conversation, only a metaphorical conversation. An RPG, contrariwise, does not exist without us using our words.

    THERE I defended the honor of Goffman, Sacks, Schegloff, Jefferson.

    [1] Yet, if they don’t, maaaaan that screws with conversations and the repair strategies come out. It’s weird.

  6. Kit La Touche I think you’re mischaracterizing something. Probably my fault.

    We’ve already had the conversation (!) whether any and all use of words is meaningfully “conversation.” I don’t think it is, because that makes the bucket too big. It ceases to be an important statement beyond “water is wet.” I’m not sure Vincent intended to make a “water is wet” statement. Maybe I’m reading too much into it!

    But more to the point: I’m not saying conversation is responses only. Rather, it’s that reactions only make for a poor conversation.

  7. Ah, I was responding (or reacting?) to, among other things:

    > But reactions don’t really have a place in a conversation, either with your players or with a kid.

    Which implied to me that you were positioning “reaction” as outside what you would consider conversation.

    BUT! All of this about what is a conversation and how do we analyze it is pretty explicitly outside your topic, so I’m happy to drop it and take it elsewhere!

  8. The problem is that conversational linguists will argue for days about whether water is wet is a meaningful statement.

    …. says the rhetorician. So believe it or don’t, it’s a compliment.

  9. I see it as the Reactive category is the more dramatic scene based portion of an RPG and the Responsive suite of behaviours is more the ‘downtime between adventures’.

    I’m sure there is an algorithm somewhere that determines the perfect blend of drama and repose for any rise and fall narrative. But the thing I found so enlightening about ttrpgs was when I discovered that you could still consciously foster immersion and be separate from your character. (Burning wheel was to blame I think).

    There is some innate human curiosity to experience all the reactive stuff, even if so damn unproductive, and its sure as hell exciting to watch as audience. But as players, the responsive suite is vital to maintaining good table relationships with your crew.

  10. E.T. Smith how do you feel about the flip side? When a game makes reactions difficult, or at least game-destroying, thus forcing you into measured responses?

    (I’m thinking of some of the more tactical/complex and also-lethal games where suboptimal choices very quickly lead to player or even party death, so if you want to keep playing, you need to make a concerted effort to stay close to the “response” end of the spectrum, focusing on what is appropriate rather than what is emotionally satisfying.)

  11. I find that my NPCs often react rather than respond, by this definition, especially at first. I think that in order to establish character I want NPCs to really telegraph several defining features until characters begin to recognize them. Since reactions tend to involve gut reactions based on internal attitudes, these are really useful to help broadcast NPCs’ internal selves to my PCs. That said, I need to remind myself that my NPCs can think and not react rashly to everything the PCs do.

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