Running the Sandbox: Reactive vs Proactive Questing


I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and for a good span of time I felt there was a concept missing from the subject I was trying to tackle. Earlier today (at time of writing) MCDM discussed something fundamental about how rewards drive player motivation and suddenly the final piece of this write-up clicked.

I like running sandboxes, as do many DMs, and when we’re not running out-of-the-book adventures we’re often running something inherently closer to a sandbox.

In our sandbox games the players are motivated to go out and do things by different forces at different times. These different forces, in my opinion, manifest into two very different modes of play. I call these different modes ‘Reactive Questing’ and ‘Proactive Questing’.

Today I want to discuss what those are, what defines them, and how to actively master them to enhance your games.

Reactive vs. Proactive

The definitions of these two things seem so implicit it’s almost silly to spell it out. I’m going to do it anyway and contextualise them within the way we actually play the game.

At its core, Reactive Questing is when the players are confronted with something that is a fundamental ‘Call to Action’. This is the farmer bursting into the tavern going ‘They’ve kidnapped my daughter! Someone needs to stop those brigands!’ and the party responding to the call to action.

Proactive Questing is a little more loose, but at its core it’s the players deciding to go somewhere and do something entirely of their own accord. Now arguably the players learning about a thing they might want to go and do is something of a ‘Call to Action’, but it’s a less, well, ‘active’ call to action than someone bursting into the tavern outright asking for help from able-bodied adventurers.

Character Motivation vs. Player Motivation

I think there are two further lenses we should view the Reactive/Proactive discussion through, and those are then twin lenses of player motivation and character motivation. I’m going to go into further depth about player motivation further on in the piece. For now the most important thing to understand is that these things are often viewed as being the same thing when in fact they are not.

Character Motivation is easy enough to get a pin on. It’s the in-universe reason for the party to do something. This is something we’re already very familiar with, so I won’t sit here and list a bunch of potential motivations just to illustrate the point.

Player Motivation is a little trickier to pin down. At its core it’s their reason for engaging in the game. Notice how I say ‘Game’ and not ‘Gameplay’. The reasons for engaging in the game itself (as in, showing up to play a session of Dungeons & Dragons) are different to the reasons for engaging in the gameplay. The gameplay is the moment-to-moment stuff we do at the table. It’s roleplaying, it’s chucking dice, it’s making combat choices, going on quests, levelling up, and so on. We engage with those things because they’re operating in service of the game. We engage with the game for very different reasons.

People generally don’t show up to play in a campaign because they like rolling dice and making choices. They show up to play because they enjoy the Game that those things are being done in service of. The proof of this is that a bad game of D&D has those same Gameplay elements, but people won’t play in those games.

This is why we need to understand Player Motivation in the context of our idea of Proactive vs. Reactive Questing. Now that we’ve laid that out, let’s not talk about it again for another few paragraphs…

Reactive/Proactive in the Context of Characters

In truth this was originally going to be the entire focus of this piece. It needed to be expanded out to include the meta-layer of player motivation because at its core character motivation isn’t a hard concept to pin down.

In the context of Reactive Questing character motivation needs to be understood purely so that we can get events underway (and as a result get the gameplay itself actually occurring). Luckily the social contract states that players must meet us halfway here. We are expected to motivate our characters through pertinent calls-to-action, but our players are expected to make characters who are easily motivatable. Regardless of their core drive they must engage with the plot hooks we initially lay out otherwise we can’t actually get them playing the game.

There’s a useful term there though: ‘Core Drive’. It is generally expected that characters will have some core drive, be it a desire for money, a search for a long-lost relative, or what have you. Generally speaking, throwing plot hooks at the party happens agnostic of these core drivers, but may choose to include them if we want something that really draws a certain character or characters in to that quest or story thread.

Here’s the thing though – not all core drives are made equal. That guy who is just motivated by money is easy to motivate into Reactive Quests. The one who wants to find their long-lost relative? Every time they get thrown another ‘Help us kill the hag that plagues our town’ hook they quietly think (and sometimes say out loud) “This is never going to help me find my father. Why am I doing this?”.

This other kind of drive is one that suits Proactive Questing. It’s a core drive that implores the character to go ask about rumours of their father regardless of what hooks get tossed out in front of them. This character is now seeking something of their own accord. They’re practically trying to create their own plot hook for themself.

See the difference?

Now how do we utilise this to create a more bespoke experience? Well, I personally am of the opinion that every character should have more than one core drive. They should have the one that lets them easily engage in the plot hooks laid out in front of them, and they should have another deeper one that implores them to engage in the world of their own accord to seek out something that isn’t just going to fall into their lap.

Using This to Drive Campaign Pacing

Reactive Questing is great for giving the characters something to do early in a campaign while they get to know each other. There’s immediate goals with clear rewards, which means the Players don’t have to spend any time thinking about what they want to do in the game next. They can make camp and reveal glimpses of their backstories while on watch. They can roll initiative when they finally find the bandits they’re hunting. They can level their characters up and pick abilities with respect to what they want and what works well with their new-found companions.

There comes a point, though, where there is a natural moment to shift to Proactive Questing. When the party has done a few odd jobs, got to know each other and have decided to stick it out long-term there comes a point where there’s nothing immediately in front of them. There’s no call-to-action that’s been thrown their way. Now the characters (and players) have to consider for the first time what they want to do next…

“Hey Markus, remember that old fortune teller we met who said your father was still alive. I’ve been thinking, maybe we should track her down again. Maybe she knows more and we could actually help you find your father if he really is still out there.”

The party has now collectively decided to be Proactive.

For my campaigns I make it clear that at the start things will be exclusively Reactive, and they will naturally switch to being Proactive as soon as the party is becoming close-knit. As such, I expect two things of my players under that social contract of motivation. I expect that they will make characters that are motivatable for the purposes of Reactive Questing, and I expect that they will willingly engage in other player’s Proactive quests understanding that they too will get their ‘turn’. Having a party full of people who all want to do their own thing first is untenable.

By laying out this expectation and setting up the transition point from Reactive to Proactive well I’m able to create what amounts to a bespoke sandbox with a very natural-feeling pace of adventure and narrative.

Reactive/Proactive in the Context of Players

Players being proactive again seems simple, but there’s a weird meta-layer to what I was just talking about that we actually need to unpack in order for this whole approach to work. Once the Characters switch to Proactive Questing the reward for the Players becomes narrative payoff. There is no inherent reward beyond that.

Back in the day you used to level up by getting gold. When you levelled up you basically just increased different stats. If you wanted more abilities then for the most part you needed to find magical items and such. This is that thing I said in the intro that MCDM was talking about recently. This way of doing things created an interesting gameplay loop wherein players were actively rewarded for being Proactive with character advancement.

In 5e the character advancement (as in, gaining levels, getting new abilities, etc) happens regardless. This means there’s no reason to ever engage in that Proactive Questing I talked about unless you actually care about that narrative payoff.

Not all players care about narrative payoff.

So this raises the question, how do we get those players to engage Proactively (rather than just being along for the ride) if they aren’t overly interested in narrative payoff?

The answer lies in that Game/Gameplay distinction I was talking about earlier. Everything I’ve talked about so far more or less assumes that players are motivated by the Game, and the quality of the Game is determined by the quality of the narrative and the mechanical engagements (combats, chases, negotiations, etc).

So the interesting thing we’ve unearthed here is actually that D&D 5e doesn’t deliver much for those players not motivated by narrative that would encourage them to engage in Proactive Questing. It’s not a design flaw, just a quirk of the system.

Engaging these Players in a Sandbox

The way to make this model work for these players who are otherwise excellently serviced by Reactive Questing is to broaden the idea of what we might do with Proactive Questing. The way we do this is essentially to lay out plot hooks that aren’t calls-to-action.

Such a plot hook might be the party hearing a rumour of an old temple in the nearby swamp that the townsfolk are superstitious about. Now if the party wants to check it out they’re actively choosing to do so. They’re once again engaging Proactively.

So what we do is we find what reward does motivate our player who is not otherwise motivated by narrative payoff and pepper our sandbox world with these soft hooks pointing toward those rewards. If the player likes the idea of getting cool magical items then they’ll like hooks that are rumours of long-lost relics and the like. A player that likes cool bossfights will like hooks pointing towards interesting and challenging enemies.

You get the idea.

The best part about all this is sandbox campaigns are really good at facilitating all these hooks. The sandbox campaign and the Reactive/Proactive concept align extremely well.

The Proactive Endgame

The interesting thing here is once we have this method of laying out lots of little threads that tie into the different things that motivate our characters and our players we can very easily pivot our sandbox into something that has an overarching narrative. We don’t have to, but we have the option if we know that’s the sort of thing our players will enjoy.

We can do this organically by laying out the pieces of it here and there over time. Indeed, in many places part of the reward for reaching the end of another Proactive Quest is a morsel of information about the deeper plot at hand.

It could start as vague hints, or little things that don’t add up when the party considers their enemy’s motivations. As time goes by they start to see more and more disconnected pieces that all point toward the same thing. Finally the time comes that they have just enough information to start seriously pursuing a lead, and now they are Proactively on their way toward what will be the narrative endgame, the thing that ties the whole campaign together.

Why Is This Important?

Remember earlier when I talked about how bad games have the same gameplay mechanics as good games? Well, you want to run good D&D right? I’m not saying this here is a free ticket to excellent, top-quality D&D. What I am saying though is when we actively start thinking about how we’re running our games and creating our content for our players we gain the ability to make something bespoke. Bespoke games, as a rule, tend to fall into the category of ‘good D&D’ since we’re actively catering to the things that motivate our players to play the game.

And this is in no way the only approach to this. Lots of people play in lots of different ways. This model, or rather this way of thinking about the campaigns we run, is a particularly robust one that is great for making satisfying sandboxes that can cater to a variety of players.


I feel like there’s infinitely more to say on the topic of Player motivation, and I’ll probably unpack it a bit more as a concept at some point to build some more broadly-applicable ideas around engaging players who aren’t motivated by narrative rewards.

For now I really hope you’ve enjoyed this piece on running sandboxes and how the ‘Reactive vs. Proactive Questing’ model can help you enhance said sandboxes.

Thanks for reading!

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