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Laying the Ground Rules – “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

One of the most important and least-discussed elements in a successful game is a shared set of assumptions about how and why the game is played. But many gaming groups want to jump straight to “the fun stuff” without making sure that everyone shares the same definition of “fun” (or even the same definition of “stuff”). A few minutes or even hours spent ensuring that everyone at the table agrees with (or at least is comfortable with) everyone else’s assumptions will prevent some potential disasters [1] down the road.

Lay the Groundwork

We roleplayers will spend more time discussing (arguing) the rules of the game than any rabid sports fan. To an outsider, this may seem odd: For a game based largely in the imagination, those gamers sure do focus on the rules a lot. But we know this makes sense, in that the rules are the framework on which our dreams are hung, and are capital-i Important.

Rule differences can be settled by GM fiat, voted on, researched, brought to the author of the game, etc. But when my unwritten (and often unexamined) assumptions of the game clash with those of others at the table, there’s no court of higher appeals; we’re left wondering why that other doofus can’t see what’s blindingly obvious to us. And you can bet dollars to donuts that he’s doing exactly the same to us…

There’s been a lot of ink and pixels spilled on discussions of the “Social Contract” in gaming. Personally, I dislike that phrase; it’s already in use in at least two other disciplines, and carries a number of connotations that I don’t think belong in gaming. I don’t claim to have a better alternative; “Ground Rules” is too vague and “Gaming Compact” sounds like a pocket-sized rulebook. But whatever we call it, whether it’s written down or just talked about, the social contract is something that should be discussed and agreed upon before the dice roll.

Gamers aren’t famous for their communication skills, but this discussion is one where we all need to be on our best behavior. A lot of what’s being discussed is very subjective, and some of it can be personal.

A group needn’t spend hours on this. In any social situation, small groups of people will establish their own ground rules over time as various situations arise and are dealt with. It’s only in odd places like a gaming table that this becomes a bigger issue, because at the beginning of the game players will spend hours planning out character development and progression, background stories, motivations, etc, and GMs will spend hours spinning plot arcs, NPCs, expected actions by the players, etc. When it becomes obvious that these “shared assumptions” aren’t shared (and sometimes aren’t even assumptions), a lot of time and effort has been wasted, and it can be frustrating trying to find common ground.

OK, so we need to talk about our game before we play it. Now what? Some obvious non-game topics include: how meals should be handled, whether or not (and how much) alcohol is acceptable, tobacco use (and other, um, stuff), respect for the host’s house and family, respect for other players and their opinions, how absences are handled, etc. Some of these are mundane and almost silly, but you can bet that Murphy [2] will find the one thing that wasn’t discussed.

Some of the easier game-related topics may include expectations of integrity, character generation, how combat is managed, who settles rules disagreements (and how quickly), and what tasks the GM expects from the players (record keeping, etc). Most groups settle this stuff pretty quickly, or handle them as they come up in-game.

The larger problems that I’ve seen are the more complex and subtle issues of in-game assumptions, and this is where I feel the bulk of the discussion should take place. These include defining the genre, appropriate character behavior, and what the players and GM seek to gain from the game.

Defining the genre is important, because “Heroic Fantasy” may mean completely different things from player to player. Talk about what the terms mean, and use specific examples. Conan the Barbarian [3] and Final Fantasy [4] are both medieval fantasy, but there will be some grinding of the gears if you try to mash them together. Any group will usually have some compromises to hammer out, and this is definitely the time to do so.

This is also where the mood or tone of the game is handled; again, use specific examples. Does ‘grim and gritty’ merely mean that magic is hard to find, or does it mean that you should roll up a half-dozen replacement characters for the first session? Something in between? Talk it out.

Finally, GMs should remember to clear their ideas with their players; I wish I had a dime for every GM who wants to run a ‘grim and gritty’ game, but whose players want to run famous and powerful heroes. Find the middle ground, or at least let everyone know what your tastes are.

Directly related to genre is appropriate character behavior; it wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game without some internal clashing. Some roleplayers think that intra-party conflict is the best part of gaming; others find it destructive to the well-disciplined team that they want to be a part of. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, but few of us see it exactly the same way. GMs should talk with the group about what kind of character behavior they think is appropriate, and should listen to the rest of the group as well. Players should be honest about what kind of character behavior they find appropriate.

Which leads us to “What do you want from the game?” Roleplaying gaming covers a lot of territory, from improv theater to tactical miniatures to investigations into metaphysics and philosophy to internal examinations of morality to outlets for frustrated authors. Some of these are wholly compatible, but some may make people uncomfortable. We all want different things, so before those dice start rolling, take a few minutes to talk about it, and see what can be worked out before the group turns on itself and the game grinds to a halt.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Laying the Ground Rules – “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On May 12, 2008 @ 6:34 am

I also dislike the term “social contract” and refer to any agreement of this sort as my gaming group’s charter. Not only does it clarify what the purpose of the group is, but it also describes what the group’s goal is and how we will reach that goal through some basic ground rules.

#2 Pingback By » Ding, The Stew is Ready, Hope You Like Gnomes. On May 12, 2008 @ 7:53 am

[…] Kurt ‘Telas’ Schneider […]

#3 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On May 12, 2008 @ 9:23 am

On the aside of choice: I’m O.K. with “Social Contract” because it’s not borrowing an old term from an existing discipline. It’s discussion of a specific example of an area where this discipline is being applied. I think if you look at the other uses of the term you’ll find that to be the case as well. All instances of “Social Contract” are discussions of a specific subset of “Social Contracts” as a branch of philosophy. ie: a discussion of applying the philosophical concept of the social contract to the gaming group.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On May 12, 2008 @ 9:34 am

Looking back, it’s amazing how many group problems we had before we started trying to discuss these fundamental things. It’s hard to discuss a lot of these. When “Of course everyone chips in equally for pizza, it’s only polite” meets “I ate before I came because I can’t afford pizza”, it can lead to trouble, especially if everyone relies on assumptions instead of talking.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 12, 2008 @ 11:23 am

I love seeing social contracts for gaming tackled in a pratical, non-fluffy, accessible way, and your post does just that, Telas — nice work! For someone who is unfamiliar with the topic, or has heard about social contracts before and thinks they sound weird, this makes an awesome introduction.

My group doesn’t have a spelled-out social contract, and while we’ve had the requisite discussions — and benefitted from them — we’ve never used the term at the table. The important thing, like you said, is that it gets talked about — it doesn’t have to be formalized as long as everyone’s on the same page.

#6 Comment By MoonHunter On May 13, 2008 @ 10:00 am

Use the hate term or not, all successful game groups have a social contract. Some of them have evolved over time, but most have resulted from a talk in the earliest parts of the game (or the troupe’s getting together).

Everyone has to be on the same page. Every possible crisis/ sticking point/ point of annoyance you can clear up before play is one less that will screw up your game in later. You can have bad plot, poor encounters, npcs that are flat, and still have a good/ entertaining game. You can have an epic plot, great encoutners, npcs that are full of life, and everything just short of a prize winning novel, and it will come crashing down around you and everyone will hate it if a big enough social issue comes up. It is important to get the group together and thinking about it.

Discussing what is expected and what people want in the campaign, beyond the table rules, is gold as well. In “Starting a Campaing The MoonHunte Way,” ( [5] ), I detailed how I go through and start the campaign. The key to my campaign success is feedback.

Give your players what sort of thing you are willing to play, look for their feed back. Ask them what they want to play, incorporate that. Get them involved in the game by getting them to build up ideas they want to see happen. It is all about making sure that your troupe is engaged in the game.

So work with your group and have your group work with you on all things. It will make the game better for everyone.

#7 Comment By Immolate On May 13, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

I can’t tell you what it takes to make a great group as the group I’m a member of has been together for my entire gaming career, but I can tell you a thing or two about how to keep it great.

First, if you’ve been together for a while, and you think you have a great group that is worth preserving, be prepared to take extraordinary steps to maintain it. It is a given that your group will loose a player eventually. Life is like that–full of the unexpected. Someone will be offered a job out-of-state, have their priorities rearranged by marriage or children, die, or simply loose their love of the game. Some things just can’t be bargained with. When it does happen, if you collectively decide that it is necessary or beneficial to recruit new talent, you should be careful. If you don’t approach it with the mindset that all of your existing players are paramount, you run the risk of alienating one or more of them and doing more damage to a group that is already suffering from the loss of a part of itself. You’re never more vulnerable as a group than when the easy balance has to be readjusted.

So what, exactly, does that mean? Any new person you bring in should be thought of as probationary. If their participation begins to cause stress to one or more legacy players, the wisest course is to compassionately let them know that it isn’t working out. That isn’t easy when the new players is a close friend or relative of one of the existing players. My suggestion for handling that is to have the sponsoring player break the bad news. Not only will the excluded player be able to best cope with rejection coming from their sponsor, it gives the sponsor a reason to frame the reasons for it in their own mind and to take ownership of it. As the recommending player, you have to be strong enough to bring someone new into the game, knowing that they might not work out.

What we have embraced as an informal contract amongst ourselves and through trial and error over many years, is that anyone in the group can veto the inclusion of a new player, once given a fair shake, and the others will honor their decision. That doesn’t mean it can’t be discussed, or that the nay-sayer can’t be convinced to change their mind, but it does mean that everyone in the group can feel comfortable knowing that the value they have to the group outweighs the value of any outsider. The moment someone feels otherwise, the bonds that hold the group together begin to weaken and the fracture lines begin to appear.

Obviously, that kind of arrangement won’t work if the members of the group aren’t well-intentioned and receptive to some level of change. You’ll never find a carbon copy of your lost mate to fill his or her niche. But you’d be surprised how many people will fit nicely into your closely-knit group. You can increase the odds by selecting people who are intelligent, civil and honest. The more extreme their personality, the more likely that one or more of your group will react negatively to them.

Another tip and I’ll shut up: it’s best if the wheel changes hands now and then. GM’ing non-stop for years on end is a path to burn-out. It also promotes a group dynamic of “Jim’s group”, with a clear pecking order where Jim is the leader, giving Jim a swelled head and reducing the likelihood of compromise. Even if some of the players never GM, and it is likely that some won’t, having several members hold the reins in turn keeps the democratic nature of the group alive and well. The benefits are obvious and I won’t belabor them further.

I think it’s axiomatic that it is far easier to keep a great gaming group than it is to build one. I hope that my thoughts and experiences are of some value to someone out there.

#8 Pingback By Mission 22 – Backlash – Part 2 « Sixth World RPG On November 29, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

[…] lot of this I fault myself for never laying out a social contract of some type prior to¬†our fist session¬†discussing our expectations for, among many other things, […]