This is a guest post by Chris Chinn, who writes the excellent RPG blog Deep in the Game. I asked Chris if he’d be willing to write up a post on social contracts — a big, important topic that can sound intimidating and theory-heavy (but actually isn’t) — and he graciously agreed.

I knew Chris would be able to make this topic very accessible without talking down to anyone, and he delivered in spades. If you’ve seen the term “social contract” on various RPG sites (including TT) and not been sure quite what it’s all about, look no further.

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What is a social contract?

A social contract is how we treat each other at the table, as people. It’s the foundation for everything you’re going to get out of play, good or bad.

Most of the time, we don’t have to talk about it, we just assume everyone “knows” what to do. In some cases, it’s pretty obvious, like, “Don’t flip over the table because you rolled bad!” and in some cases, it’s not — like, “How strongly should everyone be committed to playing?”

Since roleplaying is a hobby that only works by communication, it makes sense to get this stuff out of the way to prevent confusion and drama later on. The key to this is discussion. It doesn’t have to be hours of endless debate or deep soul searching — in fact, you can probably clear up most of the relevant questions in 15-20 minutes.

The fundamental key to a working social contract, and fun gaming, is honest communication. If you’re interested in something, say it. If you don’t dig something, say it, don’t just go along for the ride — let people know. Don’t assume people will “pick up,” or “know better” — communicate!

What are we playing and how are we playing it?

Seems obvious, right? But a lot of games fizzle out quickly because it turns out only one or two people were interested in playing that specific game, in that way, and it never really clicked for the whole group. This is the first step where you’re going to get buy in or a warning that things might run into trouble.

“How are we playing it?” is a big question too — the same game can give completely different experiences based on what the point of your game is. Be absolutely clear on this — if the game is supposed to be about heroes fighting monsters, and suddenly you have a set of characters who are all built to backstab each other, somewhere there was a lack of communication.

How long is a session? How long is the campaign going to run?

Let your group know this up front, because people have lives and will need to set aside time for gaming.

If you let people know, they can also let you know what they’re willing to sit in for. Otherwise, you might plan an epic mega-campaign, and find it drops off after 3 months when people reach crunch time in work or school.

What to do when someone needs to be late/absent/cancel the game?

Who should a player call if they’re going to be late or absent? Should they send email? How soon should they let you know? What happens to their character? When should you cancel a game? How should you let everyone know when a game is canceled? Should folks still show up to hang out, play another game, or go watch movies?

Leaving the game

When someone either can’t play anymore, or just isn’t interested, how do they tell everyone? What if someone doesn’t get along with the group, how do you tell them that they might be better off with another group?

This is a touchy area, because everyone takes the whole thing way too personally. “I don’t like this game” doesn’t equal “I don’t like you.” Setting guidelines for this up front can avoid problems later on.

New people

How do we bring new people into the game? Is there a hard limit on the number of players? Do we interview folks, hang out with them, or just give them an NPC and see how they do?

What if the group doesn’t like them? Or what if just some of the group? Do you need more people for your group? Who teaches and mentors new players? Is there a quick sheet or set of important bits that everyone needs to know to play?

My fun + your fun = our fun

So far, everything has been basic logistics, but what about during play itself? Again, when you’re having fun, say it. If something seems to be getting in the way of fun, say it.

This shouldn’t stop play, or become hypercritical arguments — but it does help everyone get on the same page while playing.

A lot of games get so stifled into “only speak in-character” that a lot of the valuable feedback doesn’t happen because players can’t just say “That’s cool!” when someone does a great scene or adds the perfect response in play.

In the same sense, if one person is spending 30 minutes haggling over the price of rope and everyone else doesn’t care, it’s important to let that person know.

Signs of trouble

If you find that you can’t say what you feel honestly, then something is going wrong. If you find the group subdividing into factions because no one can say what they feel in front of everyone, the group is headed for trouble.

You’ll notice that a lot of the logistics don’t get spoken about when people form groups, and a lot of times the standard responses are rather passive aggressive. “Oh, we just lied and told him we stopped playing,” etc.

It’s a game! You shouldn’t have to lie to each other about this! Have fun and be adults!

What to do with all of this?

Sit down as a group, talk about it. This shouldn’t really take too long, and everyone should get some say in it. Do NOT write up a 10 page policy and spring it on the group — the group as a whole is what builds a social contract.

Communicate during play, communicate between sessions. If something turns out to not be working out well (“Hey, can we play at your place instead? It’s easier for everyone to drive to…”), then change it. And again, make sure everyone gets some say in it.

A lot of this seems obvious, but think about games that didn’t go so well, or horror stories you may have experienced or heard from others. A lot of it is people treating each other poorly, not communicating, and assuming everyone is just going to “know” what to do. It’s basic stuff, yet often overlooked.

So, be cool with each other, communicate and have fun!
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Thanks, Chris!

Along with Chris’s post, TT has another excellent resource on this topic: the Social Contract section of our GMing wiki.

Does your group have an explicit social contract, as opposed to an implict one (which is much more common)? If reading Chris’s post inspired you to discuss this with your group, what did you come up with?