Social contracts. It’s hard to pick a topic more fundamental to a good roleplaying experience–or more dry to discuss. This time you can blame Roleplay DNA, particularly their podcast episode 15, Contact Negotiations.
I had some “right on,” head nodding moments during the podcast and agreed with almost everything that was brought up. The truest–and most intimidating line–comes from Vern near the end of the podcast, where she mentions that all of the problems addressed in the previous podcasts were social contract problems. When she said that, I realized that she was (a) correct, and (b) that such a broad definition makes it hard to address things via social contract. Kicking something up to be resolved as a social contact issue is like sending someone out to a messy garage to hunt for a tool. It’s out there somewhere.
Around the Stew, we tend to use the term Gaming Charter–and for most of the article, I’ll be using our terminology. On Gnome Stew’s very first day Kurt had an article, Laying the Ground Rules about game charters–before we even had a term for it. (I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. Or of soldiers. Someone strong, at least.) Other good social contract articles include: Social Contracts for RPG Groups, A Reminder About Social Contracts, Martin’s My Group’s Social Contract, and Establishing the Ground Rules.
Now, I love terminology and classification, but I also hate it when everyone comes up with their own unique/precious terms for everything. To get into the meat of game charters and social contracts, I’m going to create some sub-categories and give them a name. I don’t think the specific names are essential, but I do want to break the overwhelming term “Social Contract” into more manageable pieces for later discussion.
Section 57.3.12(b), paragraph 2, sentence 4, clause 3
Everyday Interactions: This is how people interact every day, not just at the gaming table. The reason I bring these up is that so very many of our “gaming charter” conflicts and disappointments are founded in this level, well outside of the gaming charter. The guy who is always short at pizza paying time on game night? He’s probably also the guy who puts $10 into the pot when he orders a $9.99 at lunch with his coworkers, “forgetting” that he ordered a $5 glass of wine.
Attempts to fix everyday interactions via gaming charters rarely work, in my experience. Some examples of everyday interactions include:
- Shower before you come over
- Kick in your fair share when the food arrives
- Leave the gaming space as clean as you found it
- Don’t talk politics (or mention religion, or…) if you can’t do it civilly
- If you’re going to be late–or can’t make it to the session at all–call.
- If you can’t stand someone, don’t promise to hang out with them for 4 hours a week for a year.
The remaining topics are more often successfully addressed by gaming charters/social contracts.
Away From the Table: A lot of what’s important at the game table depends on what goes on in advance. My groups tend to have low expectations for away from the table activity; while additional participation is encouraged, little social pressure is brought to bear to “force” people to spend their time away from the table on player prep. Away from the table examples include:
- Are players expected to learn the system on their own time? Know it well before the first session?
- Do you bring completed characters to the first session? Build characters together?
- How much setting/background does the player get to define? Will the GM go with the players’ ideas, or force the player to change a character’s background to match the GM’s back story?
- Is homework like leveling a character, keeping a campaign log or character diary, or reading the rumors wiki expected of all players?
- Will a reminder email about the next session be sent? By whom? Who is expected to be a part of email discussions?
- When the group picks a direction for the next session, can the group change its mind? Can they decide on a new direction at the beginning of the session, undoing the GM’s prep?
Behavior Around the Game: So much of what makes gaming fun are the relationships we have with people at the gaming table. Gaming and friendship can be touchy subjects; we often assume that fellow gamers are friends–which may not always be true, either deliberately (as at a con-game or when trying out a new group), or as a result of incompatible everyday interactions.
- Everyone brings a tasty treat to share. Or we rotate cooking and hosting duties. Or the host supplies the snacks and soda; people kick her a few bucks every few weeks to spread the load. Is some of the food healthy?
- Food at the table is greasy, so no one eats where we play. There’s a separate table for snacks. Or we go out to eat afterward.
- How much teasing/joking is permitted? Do you laughingly insult everything like a game of Cards Against Humanity? Does taking the Lord’s name in vain cheese you off, even if it’s a character who does it?
- Does everyone cut loose, burping and farting without a care? Joke about it?
- Is it okay to critique a GM? During a break? During the game? How do you provide the GM with feedback?
- Are kids in the house? At the table? Up until a certain time? Do you hire a sitter to manage everyone’s kids, or does everyone arrange for their own?
Commitment: Gaming is a big chunk of most people’s entertainment budget for the week–in time, if rarely in price. It can also be a long ongoing commitment; campaigns often continue months or years. What’s actually being requested of players? So often this is left indefinite (we’ll play until the campaign ends). Here are some common commitment issues:
- Your work schedule changes.
- You’re on call during the regular game time. Do we reschedule or put up with work interruptions?
- Your special somebody wants to regularly date when your game is scheduled.
- Does your spouse understand your level of commitment? If they keep scheduling family events and chores forcing you to cancel regularly, it’s time for a discussion. Either with your spouse, your game group, or both.
- You’re not enjoying the game anymore. Do you have to soldier on so everyone else can enjoy it, or can you bow out?
- If the proposed game doesn’t appeal to you, can you rejoin the group later? Will they keep you on their mailing list? Will you be shunned as ‘not a friend’ for choosing not to participate?
If you listened to the podcast, Justin labeled a lot of the following stuff “table rules”. These types of things are the most easily addressed, are clear enough to be written down easily, and the answers for the same people or group may vary from game to game. Despite the fact that these rules can be written down, they rarely are.
Attention and Distraction: This is the “at the table” version of commitment. You’re at the table… are you engaged? Too engaged?
- Do you hog the spotlight? As both a GM and player, I’ve faced this; one player sets off on a different path. How much time and attention do they get? How many times can they wander away before it causes resentment at the table?
- Does your group have to repeat the last 15 minutes of actions because you were websurfing again?
- Stacking dice: harmless activity to keep someone engaged or enraging foible? (Vern, from the podcast, has a very clear viewpoint on this.)
- How long can you flip through books for a rules cite before the game moves on? If you find the right rule three minutes later, can you appeal the GM’s decision? Turn back the action, revise the damage, etc?
- Side conversations: Are these good, accepted, always bad? Do you set aside time for chatter before the game starts?
Other Table Rules:
- Do dice on the floor “count”?
- Does everyone roll in the open? Including the GM?
- What happens when you miscalculate attack bonuses? For weeks?
- Is everything you say in character?
- Can I play an evil character this campaign?
- Is cross gender play encouraged? Banned? If a guy plays a slutty female character does that get a thumbs up, a frosty glare, a resigned shrug, or something else?
- Does the GM keep a copy of character sheets? What happens if a character sheet is lost?
- In the podcast, Vern has an amusing anecdote about her character hooking up with the gardener, and the horrified reaction from her fellow players. Lines and veils (what we show, and what we acknowledge happens ‘offscreen’) are important, particularly when boundaries are being pushed. [If pushing boundaries is an issue–even if you don’t realize it is–X and O cards is well worth investigating. More on X and O cards.]
What Game are we Actually Playing?: It’s not enough to say, “Let’s play D&D.” What do you mean when you say that? What does everyone else mean? Chris Chinn’s Same Page Tool does a good job of providing discussion topics–to make sure that everyone is on board with the game that will be played.
- Who is responsible for linking the characters into a group?
- Are the characters one group? Individuals with different goals?
- Do the characters go on the week’s adventure? Will they have several choices of adventure, one prepared adventure, or a world that reacts to the characters’ plots and schemes?
- How much can the GM deviate from the game she pitched before we’re upset? Is going through the mirror to Wonderland a happy surprise or a betrayal?
- Is it D&D if we go for a session without any combat?
- Is it worth negotiating with foes, or should we just skip straight to the slaughter? Can the GM withhold information by putting it in a negotiation that we skipped?
- Is there a way to know who we should talk to and who we can casually kill?
- Are things black and white, with villains and heroes? Or is everyone’s morality in shades of gray?
- How much time do we spend on interaction between characters? Should it be flavor (cool quips) in fights? The coolest 15 minutes of the session? Is an occasional three hour in character discussion awesome?
Gaming Charters: Big, but Manageable
I know that the above is long. I hope that thinking about your gaming proves more productive and less overwhelming with good tools. Classifying the components of gaming charters and related social interactions is tricky, but might help you identify longstanding problems.
I’m curious to see which directions comments head. One big question: Are there any big categories of gaming charter topics or social interactions around gaming that I’ve missed?
Drinking. Not a big problem, but our society meets weekly in a pub, and often if kicking round at a friend’s house, few beers might get opened as we play…
Think that’s “Behavior around the game”, like food is? Or, because it winds up eventually impacting people’s ability to roleplay does it affect several categories?
I’m not a drinker of alcoholic beverages, BUT I have certainly been involved in some gaming sessions that could have only been improved by the consumption of large amounts of adult beverages. 😀
Actually, vsca has discussed how whiskey is an important part of their play-tests and the development of Diaspora.
Charters and contracts..? How about we just get together and play?
“Just get together and play” is a social contract of sorts. And after thirty plus years in this hobby, it is the least desirable approach to regular group play to me. Kind of like taking shots in the dark, hoping one shot hits the right target. Or trying to draw one card from the deck to complete the straight flush that is needed to win a hand of poker. Not as likely to succeed in the long run.
One doesn’t have to write out a charter or a contract. One certainly doesn’t have to sign something in blood. But a discussion about expectations regarding both the group’s social dynamics and the games that will be played can only be beneficial to the success of a group in the long run. A simple talk to a player about what their expectations are goes a long way to helping groups click. This can be done well before that first game ever happens over a coffee or pizza. Or one can game with someone in a public setting like a game store to see if they will “click” in group play.
Sure, some of the social stuff is common sense like “Don’t pee in the pool,” or “Clean up your trash.” It can be a commonplace mutual understanding groups have like “No political or religious discussions,” or “Call if you will be late or absent.” The thing is, that there are people out there without a clue. Even the common courtesies are missing from their train of thought. A discussion ahead of time can help alleviate some of the issues that can pop up in gaming groups.
Nice article Scott. A lot of good food for thought. A contract can be as formal or informal as a group desires it to be. I think an informal approach with “common sense prevails” has worked well for me over the years.
Yes, informal and modified by experience works pretty well for me too–particularly with adults, with similar social expectations, as my groups are today–or at cons, where the social expectations are quite different (since you’re playing with strangers, under a time limit).
When you’re a new player (or new to a table), the unwritten rules can trip you up far more than the written, particularly if your previous experiences taught you differently. If you’re used to eating before a session, you stand out when everyone else has sodas to share in hand and kicks in for a pizza.
The biggest issues are people agreeing to play games that they imagine as wildly different. Showing up with a round ball doesn’t tell people if you want to play volleyball, basketball, or soccer. Saying, “I want to play D&D”–do you mean OSR style, where characters are cautious and death is common? 4e style heroism, with expectation that challenges will be beatable, even if described intimidatingly? How long do conversations go before everyone gets impatient–or are conversations the highlight of the game?
All the answers are valid–but too often people think their way is “the one true way”. This helps break that assumption.
As Justin points out in the podcast, he’s never written anything down–it just evolves over time.
When you play with a group, you’re already doing this–most of it on an unconscious level. Are you on “good behavior” when meeting new people and new groups? Do you assume that the way you play with your friends is the same way the con game is going to play? Whatever you decide, you’re going to act and people are going to react.
Better: this isn’t just a roleplaying thing. When you join a bowling team, are you (a) committing to intensive training to take the league record or (b) having beers with friends, laughing about gutter balls. Approaching a group that is aiming at (a) with behaviors like (b) is going to get you uninvited.
I find that a game charter helps to influence a campaign in the right direction. You can state intentions so that everyone knows what kind of game they are playing in.
This is an example of one that I wrote for my currently running game Brewed Awakening. The game is run as a modern day Buffy/Community style TV show.
Thanks. I like that charter. It fits my style of GMing and I will share it with my group.
Glad to help!
I’m about to restart a campaign that’s been hiatus for a few months. As some of the original players are now scattered around the continents, I’m having to get in some new players.
To help me decide which ones get through I will be running a starter adventure. The survival of an individual pc will be less important than the behaviour of the player. This will, however, lead to the problem of explaining to some of players why they aren’t going forward to the main campaign. Does anybody have any advice on how to politely get rid of annoying players?
When auditioning new players I setup what I call a disposable gameday. These are one-time events where everyone gets together and we enjoy a module or some custom-written thing.
This gives you a handle on them as players without actually inviting them into the start of a campaign.
Amazing Rando has it right. Instead of inviting them over for a campaign, invite them over for a day of gaming. If at the end of the day you decide to invite them for a campaign, great. If they don’t work out… you only invited them over for a day, so there are no shattered expectations.
This article is amazing! Thank you for putting so much information all in one place.
I have been thinking of creating a social contract for my group, but I’m not sure how well it would be received. Given all of this information, though, I should be able to pull together a good initial draft.
Part of the problem I see is that our group has multiple GMs, and we rotate through games fairly regularly. Usually we have two games alternating weeks, and the games usually last about six months or so before ending/dying.
Do y’all have any tips for a social contract with for a group with rotating GMs, multiple different games/systems, and/or alternating sessions?
Part of my hang-up is that even though I am one of the regular GMs, I do not want to seem like I am pushing my agenda onto the other games/GMs in our group. Maybe the answer is to have multiple contracts? Seems complicated.
Well my group spent about two to two and a half years rotating games and systems and GMs every 6-10 weeks, just to get to try all those games we’ve always wanted to play, and to give everyone a chance to play their kind of game, as it were.
Some basic rules I’d put forth:
1) If the game has a lot of intricate back story elements, just use them as broad strokes. If you’re only going to be playing Vampire for a month or two, your players are going to not really bother learning the ins and outs of vampire politics. Don’t expect a short campaign of L5R to delve too deep into the injustice of the caste system. By all means, show these elements working in the background, and expand on them if players show an interest, but don’t expect them to be masters at navigating the more complex stuff right away.
2) Ramp up the XP a little bit. It sounds like your games go an average of about 12 sessions before stopping… I’ve seen games give only a few xp per session and that’s no fun. Most games build their XP system around the long haul – campaigns lasting for many months or even years. If you stick to the low XP gains most systems default to, the players never get to the cool stuff, and can’t shore up weaknesses when they realize they don’t have some important skills because they didn’t know the system that well at the start.
3) GMs need to respect each other’s games. When you’re the GM, you have tons of control over what’s going on and how. When you’re a player, the control you have is different, to say the least. So don’t be trying to sub-GM anyone else’s game. In a similar note, wait until a game is winding down to start making pitches for the next game – if everybody gets so wound up about your upcoming Shadowrun game that they all mentally check out of the current game, you can expect the current GM to be a bit upset when your game spins up.
4) Treat all the games the way you want your own to be treated.
The details of the campaign will change from game to game, but if the inter-GM politics stays positive, it will be a positive example for the rest of the group.
Honestly, a lot of these things are unconscious–we all do them without being explicit. For example, I wouldn’t worry about including a “Dude, shower” part in your gaming charter unless it’s an issue. (And, even then, I’d be cautious–because the whole group knows who you mean. Will it feel like you’re calling them out? Humiliating them publicly?)
For your gaming charter, I would have multiple contracts, but I’d never call it that.
What’s the stuff that’s true in every game? Most of that’s going to be the stuff in the subheads Behavior Around the Game and Commitment, with Attention and Distraction issues also crossing many campaigns. I’d call that stuff your gaming charter.
The elements that remain, particularly Table Rules and What Game are we Playing? are each GM’s expectations or house rules. When you’re pitching a game, or once your game is selected, just make sure that everyone’s on the same page. If a GM wants to change elements of the charter for her game, just have her include those changes among the game specific rules. That way everyone knows that belching while she GMs is subject to characters being struck by lightning.
I am reminded that it is best to praise in public and chastise privately.
As a GM I’ve addressed “odor” issues with the person(s) privately so that they aren’t overly embarrassed.
I generally think that it is a good idea to cover conventions at the table, but not necessarily in writing. When I sit down to run some Pathfinder Society I go over my conventions. “These aren’t house rules, they are conventions that I have in place for a consistent and fun experience…”
Well, this is something I never thought of.
I always relied on common sense… and I have always been disappointed by someone.
Something like this could also be signed on a parchment-like sheet, to make it official with style 🙂
Thanks! I too have been burned by “common sense” in the past; maturity is coming to understand that not everyone has your pattern of experiences and expectations.
I like the idea of a fancy parchment sheet, but who will be your John Hancock, to sign boldly?
The GM can sign first (after some Lessons in Calligraphy and Penmanship) 🙂