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Worlds of Design: Active vs. Passive—Part 1

Some games need active players, others passive. There are many implications for game design.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Active and Passive Play Styles​

You can in general divide game players into two types (with many somewhere in between, of course), Active and Passive. Definitions from a dictionary give a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about:
  • Active: “engaged in action characterized by energetic work participation, etc.”
  • Passive: “accepting or allowing what happens or what others do without active response or resistance.”
I watched a Werewolf game once amongst a group of quite passive players. Ordinarily Werewolf—which amounts to a kind of guessing game though some logic can be applied—is full of talk and contention as players try to figure out who the werewolves are. (One wag said, the problem with Werewolf is that it's not a game, it's an argument.) But this group said little, generated no enthusiasm, so that it was only a guessing game, not a setting for “yomi (reading others' intentions) and contention. Werewolf needs activity, the game I watched was passive.

Game Design Implications​

Keep in mind, games are entertainment. Passive entertainment is increasingly popular, perhaps because passive entertainment is so easily accessed. Now we have lots of movies and television and YouTube and Netflix, that's all passive. Reading is more or less in the middle between active and passive because you have to bring something to the activity when you read. But if it leans one way or the other, reading leans toward passive. Playing music (on instruments, not on a stereo) with your friends or family is active. Singing is active. Obviously, people who climb mountains like challenges in their entertainment, and even danger.

Passive players tend to want to be told a story, active want to make their own story. Passive want to watch what happens, active want to make things happen.

Some games just about require active players, such as two player wargames, and some are designed very much for passive players, such as parallel competitions (sometimes called multiplayer solitaire), where everybody's playing their own game with little reference to others. These are certainly games with low player interaction.

High and Low Player Interaction​

When you look at the definitions you can see that they’re closely related to high player interaction and low or no player interaction in tabletop role-playing games.

Insofar as RPGs are often negotiations between players and GM (and between the individual players), passive players are more likely to prefer the dice rolling of skill challenges, to role-playing in the direction of the GM.

An extremely active player can play a game that's essentially passive, lacking player interaction, but may not enjoy it. An extremely passive player in a game requiring active players, that is, interaction between the players, is unlikely to enjoy it, and may even feel it's unfair. Negotiation for example, requires active players.

In general, opposed games tend to attract active players, parallel competitions and puzzles tend to attract passive players. Solo games, in many respects but not all, tend to draw passive players; co-ops and other team games tend to require more action, but that also varies. Team games like American football where 11 players must work together to get something done are quite different from something like Team Fortress, where people are mostly doing things on their own or joining a small group and then cooperating with them.

Your turn: Which type of role-playing style do your players prefer?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Kravenjest

Explorer
Interesting, and definitely explains some clashes in style. I prefer active play style, and probably 75% or more of people I’ve played with over the years do too. Even the quiet ones at the table tend to be more active than passive once they feel comfortable enough to role play.

The worst experience I ever had at a table (playing Castles & Crusades) was with a GM who expected all the players to be passive. He basically wanted to tell his story his way and just have us roll dice. He got irritated when we attempted to role play and considered it an interruption. Maybe using the ‘passive’ and ‘active’ keywords when looking for a group would be helpful in getting compatible people together.
 

jasin

Explorer
I was expecting dice-rollers to be mapped to active (want to make things happen), and roleplayers directed by the DM as passive (want to watch things happen). But that might just be because my current tastes lean more to the former.

So I wonder if the majority of the players might self-identify as active regardless of their tastes and playstyle, just see it as “active about the important parts (to me)”.

The guy who fully buys into the DM’s story and acts out each interaction as if it were real, but needs to be told what to roll for attack; the girl who leans back and tunes out until initiative is rolled because she’s here to beat monsters with luck, tactics, and minmaxing; the guy who bucks the plot at every turn to go off and do his own thing; I think there’s a good chance each of them might describe themselves as an active player.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I don't enjoy playing with a bunch of passive players very much. I end up doing all the talking and I want to be engaged by the other players. It makes me feel like I was monopolizing the table. I have a group where two players are passive and two are active. I find this more annoying as a GM to be honest. RPGs are interactive by nature in my opinion. But of course, play how you will and however you enjoy it.
 

aco175

Legend
I enjoy being active and having active player in the home game. It makes things easier to plan and have background quests and customize things. In a convention or AL game at the FLGS I would want more semi-active players where there is a planned story that more or less needs to be told and you should try to be a good player and help the other players and the DM. Be plenty active in playing the PC and roleplay, but confine yourself to the story so everyone can have fun. Passive players are fine and they contribute some to the game. They show up and roll dice and maybe have an idea that they talk about. I try to get them to have some time to be in the spotlight each night, but some are happy just for the entertainment of hanging out.
 

lyle.spade

Adventurer
Good categories and descriptions. RPG groups, to function well, ought to lean toward active people - that is, players and GM. I suppose if you have a group of all passive players and a super-active (that is, self-indulgent disgruntled novelist) GM, things would be okay...everyone would be happy. I don't think that makes for a good group, however.

What I've seen a great deal is the too-passive player and the too-active GM. That is, what I'd call "driftwood" in the form of a player who just sits there, doing nothing but taking up space at a table; and the aforementioned "wannabe author" in the form of a GM who won't stop talking and even telling players what their characters ought to (or even are) doing.

Balance is the goal, and RPGs work best when everyone at the table leans toward an active style, with appreciation for the need to share the spotlight with others.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I very much agree that there are active and passive players, but the point at which @lewpuls puts a distinction -- preferring mechanical resolutions -- is terrible. I'm a very active player, and I very much prefer things like skill challenges and mechanical resolutions. This puts the stakes and resolution space clearly in my view, as a player, so I can make good calls on risk/reward. It has almost nothing to do with active/passive.

The passive player is the one not engaged by play, and this isn't at all always a player problem. If the GM is requiring players play-act, then that's not active/passive, it whether or not the player is comfortable play-acting. That same player may be highly engaged in a different game with a different expectation -- desire to play act is not a tell for active/passive players, but rather whether or not they're personally confident in play-acting.

There's another dimension to passive/active, and that's how engaged in the actual game a player may be. Some game systems require much higher involvement and buy-in from players than others. Powered by the Apocalypse games do not function at all if the players are waiting for the GM to tell them things, but this can be a quite normal situation in a D&D game. This is not a bad thing, or a comparison that seeks to throw shade -- some people do not want the emotional and mental effort that PbtA games can require and prefer a different game. In this case, how much one interacts is very much a function of how comfortable you are with the play agenda -- a player may be active in D&D and passive in a PbtA game because they aren't comfortable with the play agenda in the latter. This even goes back to the OP comparison of active/passive -- it's the same kind of thing. It's a bad comparison point.

Active should be left at "engages with the play agendas of the game," with passive meaning not engaging but not resisting. It very much shouldn't be a matter of whether or not you get into play-acting at the table.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Ovinomancer, while I see your point, you're not talking about what I was trying to describe. Engaged vs unengaged is what you're talking about, or perhaps about desire to participate? I'm talking about a desire to control what happens aalong with a desire to energetically participate.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Ovinomancer, while I see your point, you're not talking about what I was trying to describe. Engaged vs unengaged is what you're talking about, or perhaps about desire to participate? I'm talking about a desire to control what happens aalong with a desire to energetically participate.
Then I'm very confused by your OP. I'm an engaged player, and I actively try to control what happens, and I very much prefer to use mechanics to do this rather than convince Bob the GM that I've acted well enough to get him to accede to my ask.

Perhaps you can give an example of an engaged player that has little desire to control what's happening in the game? What does that look like? Can I be engaged and passive, or can I be disengaged and active?
 

Arilyn

Hero
I think too it's possible to be passive at the table but mentally active and engaged. I'm thinking of an example Monte Cook used in an article he wrote for Kobold Quarterly. He had a player sitting quietly at the table, seemingly unengaged. Worried he'd lost her, Monte had a talk to see if there was something he could do to make his game more interesting. What he got was an outpouring of enthusiasm. She remembered every little detail in the game, said she thought about the game a lot and couldn't wait to play. So, certainly passive but mentally, very actively engaged. I'm sure, on the flip side, there are very active players, who don't think much about the game outside the session, and probably can't remember the name of the escaped brigand captain who is possibly plotting revenge.

I know the OP isn't placing judgement on active vs. passive, but passive is rarely considered a desirable trait, so judgement is there. There are many ways to be engaged.
 

lewpuls

Adventurer
Given that RPGs are, in essence, negotiations between players and GM, I don't see someone who relies primarily on the mechanics as active, because that gives him or her less control than if other activities were involved.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Given that RPGs are, in essence, negotiations between players and GM, I don't see someone who relies primarily on the mechanics as active, because that gives him or her less control than if other activities were involved.
The example you gave in your article was contrasting skill challenges with roleplaying towards the GM. This doesn't touch on negotiation. You can negotiate a roll without playacting towards the GM just fine. And skill challenges can be tremendously interactive and require a lot of involvement and activity on the part of the player. I feel like you're casting using mechanics as somehow less active and engaged than playacting, which I strongly disagree with. Playacting is a preference, it doesn't denote more activity.

I mean, your argument about preferring mechanics to playacting resolutions with the GM falls apart the moment we look at some other games, like Blades in the Dark. Here, the GM has no authority to decide what happens, but instead has to turn to the mechanics if the answer isn't "yes." No amount of playacting towards the GM will move the game, and yet Blades requires a far more active player than D&D does (not a criticism of D&D -- people can not like the necessary level and kind of activity that Blades requires, and that's fine, it's not a better game for it, it's a different game for it).
 

I was expecting dice-rollers to be mapped to active (want to make things happen), and roleplayers directed by the DM as passive (want to watch things happen). But that might just be because my current tastes lean more to the former.

So I wonder if the majority of the players might self-identify as active regardless of their tastes and playstyle, just see it as “active about the important parts (to me)”.

The guy who fully buys into the DM’s story and acts out each interaction as if it were real, but needs to be told what to roll for attack; the girl who leans back and tunes out until initiative is rolled because she’s here to beat monsters with luck, tactics, and minmaxing; the guy who bucks the plot at every turn to go off and do his own thing; I think there’s a good chance each of them might describe themselves as an active player.
Most of my experience with the passives - they're there to roll the dice and find out what happens, but don't — can't in some cases, won't in others — often in the minis-gamer mode.

The most passive players needed to be prompted even when to go ahead and start the fight...
(To be fair, one of them had lost 50 IQ in an alley in the Phillippines on shore patrol... jumped by locals. Medicaled out of the USN on full disability. With a functional IQ in the mid 80's, thanks to a TBI.)

Not all passive players are passive because they want a story told. SOme are because they can't function under even some mild stress. Some because psychopathology or mental disability interferes at semi-random times.

I've one player who's fine most of the time, but not when he's not had 30 seconds to prep for his turn... at which point, any pressure at all for speeding up results in melt-down. (HF Autism) When that lock up happens, he's worthless for 10 minutes...
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I usually have a mix at my table, DnD used to have the "Caller" as the active player, and that often fits with social tendencies of people. I am also not sure if it is a good thing to try to force a passive player out of their comfort zone.

Some games need active players, others passive.

This is what I find interesting, is there a list of these games, perhaps?
 

I usually have a mix at my table, DnD used to have the "Caller" as the active player, and that often fits with social tendencies of people. I am also not sure if it is a good thing to try to force a passive player out of their comfort zone.



This is what I find interesting, is there a list of these games, perhaps?
Not a cohesive nor exhaustive one.

Some that pretty much require active players due to the design. I know a few of those:
  • Burning Empires. Due to the scene budget, and that players are required to frame scenes themselves. Each player must frame 3 scenes per session, the GM 5
  • Mouse Guard: the player phase requires all players be active, since they take turns narrating until the GM thinks something they narrate needs a roll.
  • AWE/PBTA games. Again, the players narrate until the GM thinks they've narrated a move.
  • Houses of the Blooded and Blood and Honor due to the nature of the resolution system. It requires "yes, and" or "yes, but" add-ons on the fly by all involved. So not just active, but active and on the ball. The games are probably the very best work by John Wick... excellent, but exhausting to play and run. Oh, and even more than PBTA, weak GM. The GM has only two advantages: freely introducing new characters, and issuing the metacurrency to players.
The commonality is that these games all require the player to take some of the authorial participation.
In Blood and Honor, passive players don't do well at contributions, and are readily ID'd by using their entire pool on the control over success, saving none for narrative additions. I love it, with the right people. Of my last group to play it, we had one who was somewhat passive, and one who was active but toxic... and it was a dreadful (and intense, and disturbing,) story that emerged. And ended the campaign. Odd to think that was almost a decade ago. And 1500 miles away...
 
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jasin

Explorer
Given that RPGs are, in essence, negotiations between players and GM, I don't see someone who relies primarily on the mechanics as active, because that gives him or her less control than if other activities were involved.
I don't think at all that we can take any sort of claim about the essence of RPGs as a given.

I think there's a non-negligible amount of players that like the gamey, rulesy bits, enjoy choosing character options and combining them, like feeling like they're putting in work to earn their bonuses and their victories, that like negotiating with the DM about the rules, how and when they apply, if they're fair, whether they should be changed, sometimes to the point of being overbearing or disruptive, and getting criticised for it. Passive seems a strange label to use there.
 
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I don't think at all that we can take any sort of claim about the essence of RPGs as a given.

I think there's a non-negligible amount of players that like the gamey, rulesy bits, enjoy choosing character options and combining them, like feeling like they're putting in work to earn their bonuses and their victories, that like negotiating with the DM about the rules, how and when they apply, if they're fair, whether they should be changed, sometimes to the point of being overbearing or disruptive, and getting criticised for it. Passive seems a strange label to use there.
There are also a non-negligible amount who think the rules are a social contract, and not to be mutable during play.

Active vs Passive is irrelevant to rules-stance.
That rules spectrum runs from...
  1. Rules as inspiration
  2. Rules as suggestion
  3. Rules as toolkit
  4. Rules as core plus toolset
  5. Rules as fixed core
  6. Rules as unbending core.
I've seen passive players in all of those.
I've seen active players in all of those.
I've seen more of the in-between than active or passive players.

Any examination of a design space reduced to a binary is in fact a fallacy on its face. But it is also a sometimes useful one, provided one is examining the opposite regions....

Most groups I've run for fall into rules as suggestsion, rules as toolkit or rules as core plus toolset. My own preference as player is fixed core, but as GM, core plus toolset.

The most active players want to make the whole story from their play
The most passive players want to just be there for the story to unfold. But those two extremes are just that -- extremes -- and the bulk of players are between them. Some are moderately passive - they are happy to ride story rails, provided that it's a railyard rather than a single track. Some are moderately active - they want the GM to kick them off in a direction or two, and to have plots, but also want to have their own elements and contributions be a large part of the emergent story.

And somewhere between those are those who want a story, but one they can affect, at least at a number of key points. And those who don't care about plot other than as an excuse for battles. And those who want to talk their way through a plot. And a variety of other mixtures of passive and active play.

That balance even varies within a group through time.
 

Lucas Yew

Explorer
Stark passive player here, and that's why I am greatly helped by the existance of the CHA stat and its associated skills (provided they function mechanically as intended).
 

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