I have a point I’d like to make about social contracts, so before I make said point, I thought I should delve into a brief intro to the topic in case someone reading isn’t familiar with the concept:

  • What is a social contract?
    A social contract is an often implicit, occasionally explicit contract about how your gaming group works. It codifies numerous topics about your game, playstyle and how your group interacts.
  • When do you make one?/When can you append one?
    Congratulations! If you have a gaming group, you already have one! Due to their default implicit nature, you get one as soon as you form a group of people. However, the basic assumptions with which individuals edge up to a table are often different from one another, so it can be useful to make some of the points explicit so that everyone is hopefully on the same page. In the case of an explicit social contract, there are two best times to make or append one:

    • During session zero:
      The ideal time to hammer out a few of the points of your social contract is session zero. It ensures that everyone comes to the game with the same type of assumptions on what type of game is being played, what kinds of safety tools are in use, and other topics.
    • Right now:
      If you missed session zero, right now is the best time to discuss social contract issues. Take some liberties with what “right now” means depending on how critical the situation is. You can probably wait till after the session for general social contract issues, but literally right now can be the right time to stop the game and discuss safety tools if you need a safety tool and don’t have them established.
  • What kinds of things can you cover in social contracts?
    Oh boy, what kinds of things can’t you cover? Themes of your game, safety tools, logistics and player issues… The list goes on. We have a rather extensive article on the kinds of things that you might cover with your social contract already, although I wouldn’t try to cover all of the ones listed. Rather, pick and choose what seems most important at the time and append later as needed.

So now onto what inspired this article: I was talking to a friend, and they were describing some behavior from someone at their gaming table that is best summed up as “being a jerk” (trying to derail the game by purposely antagonizing an overwhelming force of NPCs for no reason) and my friend said to me “I didn’t like what they were doing but I didn’t want to tell them they were having badwrongfun.”

They didn’t want to say it, but I’m happy to say it for anyone who needs to hear it: Being a jerk is not covered by the proscription to not yuck anyone’s yum and to not tell people they’re having badwrongfun.

Why? Because being a jerk is in violation of almost any social contract. Implicit in the nature of the social contract is that players are getting together to play a game and that their actions in this game should be conducive to the enjoyment of the players. To do otherwise causes players to leave and is actively destructive to the activity and is thus a degenerate case of play that leads to a dissatisfying end to the game. This doesn’t limit a game to pure cooperativism, many players can and do enjoy gaming of a competitive nature. But it does imply that players don’t actively antagonize each other to the detriment of the game or try to sabotage the game itself. Thus “Don’t be a jerk” is the default state of all social contracts and someone who is being a jerk is in violation of the agreed (explicitly or tacitly) social contract.

So what do you do with a player who’s being a jerk? Well, can you call it a social contract issue when someone is ignoring the social contract? The closest you can get there is to amend the social contract to make “Don’t be a jerk.” explicit instead of implicit. But after that the solution is more difficult. The group has to actually stop the game, point to the social contract and say “Don’t be a jerk.” There should be some wiggle room for discussion (but don’t fall for the “I’m playing in character” argument). Maybe the problem player is being a jerk because they’re bored and ninjas need to attack soonish rather than laterish. But ultimately they need to understand the cooperative nature of gaming and get with the program or you as a GM and as a group need to give them a few strikes (depending on the egregiousness of behavior) then eject them and move on.

“It’s OK to say ‘stop being a jerk’ to a player.” may be simple advice, but it’s critical nonetheless, and someone always needs to hear it.

So what about you? Regale us with your “player being a jerk” stories and tell us what you and your group did about it.