There’s a thread on the GMing Q&A Forum right now about social contracts in gaming groups, and it got me to thinking about roots.

Where you’re born and how you’re raised have a lot to do with how you view the world — and the same thing is true in gaming. Your early RPG experiences influence your thinking on RPGs in general, and they have an impact on your GMing.

That’s not revolutionary thinking — it’s pretty obvious, really. But it ties in with other elements of your formative gaming experiences in fascinating ways — including, of course, the assumptions you bring into your social contracts.

Let’s define an important term before we go any further: “social contract” (in the context of RPGs).

Social contract: Whenever you sit down with your gaming group, there’s a social contract at work. It’s not literally a piece of paper with “social contract” written across the top, of course — it’s the spoken and unspoken agreement about the game that everyone at the table has entered into.

For example: Agreeing that the players won’t split the party, and the GM won’t create adventures where they need to split the party, is a common element of many social contracts between gamers.

With that in mind, there are three important elements that make up any formative gaming experience:

  • The RPG being played
  • Your GM
  • The other players

All three of those things play a role in shaping your impressions and understanding of, and assumptions about, roleplaying — and about your role as the GM. Those assumptions carry over to your social contracts, and thereby have a direct connection to the quality of your gaming — how much fun you have at every session.

Two of those elements are pretty hard to quantify, though: your first GM, and the other players. There’s just too much going on there to put it in a neat little box, despite how important they are (just look at the answers to this early TT post, How Did You Learn to GM?).

But the third element is easy to quantify: What were the first RPGs you ever played?

My first 3 RPGs were:

  1. Dungeons & Dragons (red box)
  2. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (2nd Edition)
  3. Shadowrun (1st Edition)

Here are 3 assumptions that I carried with me for years, all based on my early experiences with GMing (and playing) those games:

  • The GM is responsible for nearly everything.
  • The rules are less important than having fun.
  • RPG rules often need fixing.

These aren’t bad assumptions, but they tell you a lot about how I looked at RPGs when I first started GMing. And they still influence me now: I like tinkering with game rules, and that’s partly due to the fact that AD&D 2e’s rules were so clunky (as a kid, I thought it was Advanced because you had to figure out how to make it a better game).

I’ve got nearly 20 years of GMing between me and those early days, and all sorts of other games (and people) have influenced my thinking on RPGs, my GMing style and what should go into a social contract. The useful thing about looking back to the earliest games you played, though, is this: Everyone comes to the gaming table (and to GMing) with different assumptions, partly based on where they got their start as gamers.

Different assumptions = different expectations about the game, and different expectations lead to unsatisfying play — which is why social contracts are so important! In order put your cards on the table and come up with a good social contract, you need to know what your cards are first. This post is about identifying one set of those cards — the set that relates to your earliest gaming experiences — and it’s not hard to do.

So take a look back at the first few games you played, and see what you took away from them — the bad lessons as well as the good. You might learn some surprising things about why you GM the way that you do, or how certain elements of your GMing style came to be.