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Pack Tactics Advice: How can I get my players to be more proactive?

Pack Tactics Advice: How can I get my players to be more proactive?

It’s time again for the Kobold Press advice column, Pack Tactics!

Our roundtable experts this month are Ben Eastman, Basheer Ghouse, Ben McFarland, Brian Suskind, Jeff Quick, and Mike Welham.

You might recognize some of these names from Kobold Press products such as the updated Tome of Beasts 1 and Campaign Builder: Dungeons & Ruins. And as contributors to this very blog!

Whatever questions you have about running a game, handling tricky metagame traps, and ruling edge cases, they’ve got an answer. Sometimes several!

Anonymous GM asks . . .

My players seem fine with whatever I throw at them, but they never seem to take initiative. How do I get my players to be more proactive?

Basheer Ghouse: Player proactivity is a tough one since it’s often not clear what has gone wrong that players aren’t proactive. Building on player ideas can help a bunch but, they need some proactivity to have ideas for you to build on. Getting that initial burst can be a pain.

Brian Suskind: First of all, what is being proactive?

Jeff Quick: Mr. Define-Your-Terms is in the building.

Brian: Wait, I’m going somewhere with this! To me, being proactive means the players are driving the narrative of the game. They are actively telling the GM what they are doing before the GM has to ask, “What are you doing?” If you are lucky enough to have a game like this, there is nothing better.

So first you have to ask yourself some questions. Are you providing a space where players feel like they can be proactive? Are the players willing or able to take the narrative reins? Assuming the answer to those two things are yes, then we get to meat of this question.

Jeff: I suspect that I have discouraged my players from taking initiative before . . . when they wanted to do something that I wasn’t ready to run with them on, I steered them back into what I was prepared to do. In an unspoken, social contract kind of way, everyone learned to stay on the rails. I bet I’m not the only one who’s done that.

Brian: That can happen, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re running a published adventure or a game that isn’t a freeform sandbox, there is an unspoken agreement between GM and players to stay on the rails. Often, it’s better to speak that unspoken agreement as it heads off misunderstandings.

But yeah, players lose proactivity if they feel like they have no control over the narrative. If the GM jumps in and makes decisions for the players, that can be horribly discouraging. I’m not saying decisions during battle or anything (but GMs shouldn’t do that either). But if the players leave the tavern, the GM shouldn’t jump in and “decide” which direction they are going. There is a balance to this. You want to let the players decide things, but they (being players) can also get paralyzed by too many options

Ben Eastman: Saying “no” is a quick way to shut the door in their face. “Yes, but” can be a nicer way of doing this.

Another thing I’ve picked up from Powered by the Apocalypse games, aside from “be a fan of the players,” is asking a question and just rolling with whatever the player says unless it’s too ridiculous. When your players realize that they can influence the narrative through asking questions, you’ll find they are often more engaged.

Brian: To me, what facilitates proactive players is investment in their characters and the story/campaign. If they care about their characters, their lives, their pasts, their goals and dreams, then they will want to guild those characters (and thus the narrative) toward those goals. To build investment, touch base with your players, either in a Session Zero or even during the campaign, and basically ask them. “Why is your character adventuring?” “What is your character’s goal?” “How do you see them ending up at the end of all of this?” Knowing what the players think their characters are working toward will help the GM craft the game so that those goals are possible.

Jeff: I’m going to do a little devil’s advocacy here. I’ve observed an assumption in internet discourse that players wantto be proactive. My players are mostly adults with kids and day jobs and commutes, and they’re not coming to the game table looking to stretch a lot. They’re more like, “Tell me what’s on Channel D&D tonight. Let’s go.”

Proactivity is fun, and it takes some pressure off GMing when trust is high. But I do want to mention that not every player wants to or is ready to be proactive. And you don’t need to automatically assume that more passive players are doing it wrong.

Mike Welham: Getting players invested in their characters helps them be more proactive. I encourage my players to develop at least a basic background, so I can introduce elements of the background into game sessions. I also try to ask less proactive players for their input on a regular basis. This sends the message that their perspective is wanted, and over time, they start to provide their own perspectives more naturally.

I think Jeff has a point, that sometimes it is difficult to pull a particularly introverted person out of their shell. I am mindful of that, so the player doesn’t feel put on the spot. As long as they’re having fun in their own way, I don’t always worry about a lack of proactiveness.

Brian: One thing I do to build investment is to regularly have the players describe the world, or invent NPCs or locations. The shared storytelling promotes proactive play.

Basheer: Having players pitch in on worldbuilding really helps. Once they get comfortable just making A Dude or A Place they’re a lot more comfortable inventing goals to pursue.

Ben McFarland: I’ve fought this battle a number of times, and this has worked for me, definitely. Mike suggests this, but I want to drive home that the investment game is a long one. You’ve got to really hope for a long-running game to bust this barrier.

Jeff: I do this pitching-in thing sometimes, and approximately 75% of my players freeze when you put them on the spot to make up something. You can’t just say, “Basheer, tell me about the gardener.” Deer in headlights. (The other 25% love it and will run to the moon with an open-ended question!)

For people who are new to proactive narrative, I like to come with two or three choices. “Is the gardener a human or a gnome? Are they pleased with their work or frustrated with it right now?” There’s less paralysis when you narrow the field of choices for people who don’t have a lot of practice contributing in that way. And you model the kind of thinking they can do in the future.

Ben Mc: Proactivity requires blank spaces where players feel comfortable with creating, building investment. And that means they feel comfortable with the knowledge that their descriptions, their understanding of the setting and gameplay is accurate and in line with the GM, or that the GM can handle anything they might throw into the game.

Brian: Ben bringing up Powered by the Apocalypse games reminds me of one more thing about narrative control. Fifth edition-type games, such as the Tales of the Valiant RPG, are primary GM-based narratives. The world and plot stem from the GM. The players bring various levels of roleplaying to the game depending on their preferences.

Other games emphasize player-generated narrative more. Collaborative story games really emphasize giving players the freedom to control the narrative, including world, plot and NPCs.

It’s tricky to bring this sort of game style into a 5e/ToV campaign, and consultation with your players is 100% necessary. Some players prefer the traditional GM-based narrative.

Either way, it’s important to establish the limits of player narrative control. This is group storytelling. It won’t work is someone just up and says, “we find the artifact we were searching for under that nearby rock”. If players are taking on this responsibility, they also should understand that they are likewise responsible for throwing obstacles and conflicts into their own way. The GM always has the authority to override these changes, though an approach which is less “No,” and more “Yes, but…” is recommended.

What Do You Think?

How do you encourage your players to be more proactive? Be proactive and let us know in the comments or over on our Discord server!

Do you have a question for the pack? Let our pros weigh in on your tough questions. Then check back first Friday of each month for more Pack Tactics!

about Jeff Quick

Jeff is Senior Editor at Kobold Press and he runs the blog. He was most recently lead editor for the Tales of the Valiant Player’s Guide.
He has his own entry in Wookieepedia.

1 thought on “Pack Tactics Advice: How can I get my players to be more proactive?”

  1. Cassiopeia Nebula

    i rather like this post. not just tips on how to encourage proactiveness, but also looking deeper at the why’s behind lack of proactivity, and best practices regarding passive players c:

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