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Social Contracts for RPG Groups

This is a guest post by Chris Chinn, who writes the excellent RPG blog Deep in the Game [1]. 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 [2] of our GMing wiki [3].

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?

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Social Contracts for RPG Groups"

#1 Comment By hellibrarian On June 14, 2006 @ 7:52 am

Social Contract has been almost subliminal to me in the 20+ years I’ve been rp’ing. I’ve mainly played with friends, which has made many of these issues very easy to resolve. The times I’ve played with strangers, I’ve found myself behaving as I would with people I didn’t know in everyday life. You know, the social contract that is civilization.

However, in the last couple of years the friends I play with have had times when we couldn’t show up and we had to really address the absentee playing policy. Luckily, we had enough players to keep playing when 1 person couldn’t show up and we were mature enough to play the missing player’s character for that session.

I’ve never really though about the level of cooperation that went into our games. But in just the situation I described above there are many facets. We all agreed on playing with a missing player. The we agreed that we would take turns playing the extra character. We also agreed to play the character the way the player would. Accepted the possibility of damage or death to that character while absent. I think you do a lot of this without even thinking about it. It’s just simple getting along with people. Furthermore, the more comfortable you are with any group the more likely you are to speak out about something that bothers you. That same comfort will make you more flexible to meet the needs of your group, cause they’ll do it for you.

Are ther any of us out there who’ve almost always played with strangers?

#2 Comment By John Arcadian On June 14, 2006 @ 8:29 am

I tend to think that social contracting has been going on subliminally for most all gaming groups. I mean heck, we have underlying social contracts that govern our society. It is not polite to go out nude in public. Most people just don’t do it. I think that adressing the contract and making it a little more concrete is a good way to get any game started off.

#3 Comment By ScottM On June 14, 2006 @ 8:32 am

Over time, I’ve played with a number of groups. A few times [high school d&d group, Dusty issues] we’ve gone so far as to do the group splitting and gossiping that Chris mentions.

Most of the time our social contract has been unspoken. There are burdens to unspoken social contracts; for example, Ben hates canceling sessions and points out that he’s never the reason we cancel (or play one person short). That’s fine as far as it goes… but just knowing that doesn’t open up an avenue to solve it and settle expectations for us all. A discussion would work better…

It was a good article; despite being familiar with the topic, there are some issues that I hadn’t really considered– that might benefit from clear discussion. Thanks for bringing them up.

#4 Comment By Frank On June 14, 2006 @ 10:52 am

Nice article. One thing to consider is that there’s really very little about RPG social contract that is unique (about the only thing is character ownership). Which is why most of the time social contract is unspoken and works fine.

Of course because of this, is why most of the problems come up. Because social contract is so implicit most of the time, we sometimes don’t know how to handle it when implicit social contract doesn’t work. So the movie group starts going to a different theater to ditch someone. The bridge group breaks up because some people are serious and others just want an excuse to be with other people and wind down after work. The book club stumbles because some people didn’t come prepared.

Frank

#5 Comment By Martin On June 14, 2006 @ 6:44 pm

One of the main reasons that I view social contracts as a big topic is because when they’re implicit, as they so often are, that causes problems. And you don’t usually have to look far to find them — provided you’re thinking about them. That’s why discussing the concept of social contracts is so important, and making active social contracts is even moreso.

Case in point, the game I’m playing in right now. It’s a good game, and I look forward to it every week; it’s fun to play. But there’s too much investigation for my tastes — and the problem is that when we started playing, we never had the discussion that would have led to me making that comment, and my GM having a chance to react to it.

Social contracts aren’t a new idea, as has been pointed out above. But making them explicit, and discussing them as their own topic — and specifically in relation to RPGs — is big. The more I think about games that didn’t go well in the past, the more I see how coming up with a social contract for each game — as a social contract, and not as a vague discussion about what everyone’s into — would have made a difference.

In a year I might say something different, but for me, right now, this is one of the most important RPG- and GMing-related topics out there.

#6 Comment By DMN On June 15, 2006 @ 4:38 am

Quote by Martin: “Case in point, the game I’m playing in right now. It’s a good game, and I look forward to it every week; it’s fun to play. But there’s too much investigation for my tastes — and the problem is that when we started playing, we never had the discussion that would have led to me making that comment, and my GM having a chance to react to it.”

Martin,

Does the entire social contract need to be stated up front? Can it be discussed, and/or modified mid-stream? I view the social contract as negotiable. There will come a time when something defined in the social contract at the start of the campaign just doesn’t make sense, or something comes up mid-stream that doesn’t work. This is inevitable. The only hard and fast rule that I would put in the social contract at the start of the campaign would be to agree to communicate, and that all rules are negotiable.

I think that Chris Chin was indicating that if something isn’t working out, then you should try to remedy the situation by “creating” or “updating” the social contract. Now, I’ve never met you, but I’ve read a lot of your posts, and I have the sneaking suspicion that you have already discussed this with your GM, midstream, and that your GM has taken actions to address your concerns.

I might have a different perspective on this than most, as I have never played in a CON game, and I only play with friends. My views might (probably would) change if my situation changed.

#7 Comment By Martin On June 15, 2006 @ 6:59 am

DMN: No, the entire social contract doesn’t need to be stated up front — but the high notes really should get hit.

Making adjustments and additions midstream is just fine — no group will think of everything up front.

And you’re right: We’re in the middle of a discussion about investigative play at the moment. 😉

#8 Comment By Frank On June 15, 2006 @ 9:41 am

I definitely agree that social contract is important, and it’s definitely good to talk about it, and how a lot (most?) of dysfunctional play can be traced back to lack of social contract because people relied on implicit social contract, and expectations were different, and now they don’t know how to step back and re-negotiate the social contract.

I don’t think this is a problem unique to RPG groups.

Frank

#9 Comment By Chris On June 15, 2006 @ 9:51 am

DMN:

Yes, I’m completely for negotiating in mid-play if necessary. I think for some groups, OOC discussion is not used enough, and people endure a lot of problems instead of resolving them.

#10 Comment By Frank On June 15, 2006 @ 10:26 am

Chris,

Your comment sparked a thoght:

I guess one thing that’s unique to RPG play and social contracts is that the goal of “in character play” serves to further suppress a willingness to discuss things (I think there are other factors that hinder open communication that are common to RPGs and plenty of other social contract situations).

Frank

#11 Comment By Crazy Jerome On June 15, 2006 @ 11:34 am

In that same vein, another separation may be the relative tendency to house rule or intepret rules or modify for “balance” or otherwise negotiate the rules. Bridge groups don’t do that.

In fact, I’d say almost everything that some might chalk up to social contract issues in our group boils down to at least partly game mechanics. The pure social contract stuff got ironed out ages ago. But a new system provides new opportunities for the mechanically-challenged players to develop interesting characters that can’t do squat, and then wonder why they are overshadowed. (I exaggerate somewhat for effect.)

The only social contract part is that instead of getting the issue out in the open, they look to me to fix it in game: “I don’t like the way the wizard guy and the tank guy kill everything so much more effectively, even though I built my character to do a bit of both, and still have some skills.” You could solve it with social contract, via: “No one plays wizard guy or tank guy,” but I don’t think the objecting players really want that.

#12 Comment By Chris On June 15, 2006 @ 11:59 am

Hi CJ,

I didn’t make a big deal out of it in the article, but that bit about “…and HOW do we play it?” is a big, big, big tripping point for a lot of groups.

I will usually state right up front where people ought to concentrate their effectiveness for a game. If the game is about combat, people should build characters around that, if the game is about courtly intrigue, characters should be built around that.

I’m also totally down to mentor or give advice to new players: “Hey, this choice isn’t as effective as it could be, maybe you could do this, or this, and then your guy gets this benefit…”

Again, this is perfect examples of why you can’t just assume folks will know what to do, make it clear, talk it out, and then there’s less problems in play.

#13 Comment By Frank On June 15, 2006 @ 12:30 pm

Yea, changing rules is a differentiator from bridge. But RPGs aren’t the only games with house rules (hmm, was just thinking, think about the number of official “house” rules for sports…). People definitely have house rules for Monopoly and Scrabble. I’ve seen people playing various chess variants (4 player chess where there are two pairs, each pair playing on a board, and 4 player chess with a 4 player board). And bridge does have bidding conventions that cause arguments. So there’s actually lots of “how do we play” stuff for bridge and chess players to negotiate.

So yea, game play will be more enjoyable for all if these “how do we play” issues are actually discussed (even if in shortcut form: “we use the bidding conventions from XYZ”). The more purely social ones can usually be left implicit, though that can still cause problems (the chatty guy just doesn’t respond to the non-verbal communication to shut up in a bridge club that prefers to keep chit chat to between games, and eventually a big argument explodes – better to just state when introducing a new player: “we’re pretty serious about our bridge play and prefer to keep chit chat to between games” and so long as that’s reasonably honest (perhaps some chit chat does happen, but it’s easy to see the actual level by observation and comply), the group will be a lot more successfull).

Frank

#14 Comment By Crazy Jerome On June 15, 2006 @ 1:05 pm

Gotcha. I’m talking about something slightly different though. Let’s say that I have a campaign (and I do) where I state that the campaign will involve a good many fights and other heroic activity (climbing dangerous cliffs, and so forth); a lot of sailing around, exploring, and trading; a fair amount of intrigue; and strange mystical experiences. Most challenges the characters meet can be handled by two or more of those.

The way I see it, the current discontent is two fold:

1. Social Contract – people picking “fight” a bit too quick, forestalling other options. I’ll stress that this is very minor aspect.

2. Mechanics – failure to understand that the game involves choices, and you have to play to your character’s strengths. This is not a social contract problem, I think. However, some of the players do think it’s a social contract problem (a lot more of #1 than is actually the case).

So I guess is something a social contract problem just because someone thinks it is? Is perception reality here?

#15 Comment By Chris On June 15, 2006 @ 5:13 pm

Hi CJ,

I don’t have enough details to be able to say anything definitive for your group.

It’s definitely not “I think it’s so, therefore it magically exists” sort of thing. But the fact that people in the group are complaining means as a group, you guys need to figure out what’s going on.

Is it a valid concern? Do the players know what their choices are? (“You mean, you can talk to Lizardmen? I didn’t know that!”) Are the choices reasonable? (“You went left. Oops, whole party is dead. Choose better next time. Suckers.”) Are the complaints only when things go wrong and then people want the rules to work different?

It’s also really important to pay attention to subtext. Or rather, how people are acting as opposed to the words coming out of their mouth. This is where you usually find out what’s really going on.

#16 Comment By Crazy Jerome On June 15, 2006 @ 7:24 pm

Well, I think I have the issue pinned down. I merely don’t know how far I’m willing to go to fix it. Keep in mind this is a *very* low-level, but simmering kind of thing. So it definitely comes up and mildly annoys people, but we would not do a radical cure. I was mainly bringing it up as an example of how I think surface social contract woes can be symptoms of something else. I’m not sure if I’m staying on topic or not. So let me know if I should take it to the forums.

About half the group are “mechanically challenged” as players. They simply do not grok mechanics, tactics, or strategy well. They are anti-powergamers by default, not choice. I cannot emphasize this enough. If we played competitive Toon for some reason, it would still be evident. 🙂

When we play a game where they play all the simple choices (e.g. D&D Fighter) and the other half of the group plays the complicated choices, it works great. Only problem is that the other half of the group get tired of that after awhile. We’ve all talked about this, and we all know it. I vet their characters *very* carefully. One player even turned the whole job over to me with just a rough background for what she wanted to play. I wrote a simple tactics guide for them. It doesn’t matter. When we get in a tactical or strategic situation, they are invariably overshadowed. I am simply *not* going to tell them what they can do every round.

Now, I don’t mind this necessarily. The same players are very good at other parts of the game. The one that bumps her character development to me gets into social scenes better than anyone in the group. I give them complicated options as far as hooks, mysteries, and the like. Some of these same guys tear through them. And no one wants to give up the varied, heroic nature of the game. So your character is substandard in combat because you don’t think to use trick #3. If two ot the tactically sound players come up with a trick and blast through a combat quickly, then “Hooray”, onto the next scene. It’s not the only focus of the game. So shine elsewhere.

No, it’s the misdirected complaints themselves that bug me. The situation they don’t like is a direct result of choices they’ve made, which we have clearly stated numerous times. They don’t disagree. So I guess maybe the social contract stuff is that there shouldn’t be so much complaining during play. 😀

#17 Comment By Frank On June 16, 2006 @ 10:45 am

Crazy Jerome –

Would it help if you started a thread in GM Q&A and shared some specific complaints?

Are the tactical players complaining that the others aren’t pulling their weight? Or are they just frustrated that they can’t play the fighter because that simpler option has to be left for the non-tactical players?

I definitely have a non-tactical player in my group (the young wife). We do actually point out options for her, and try and narrow things down to 2 or maybe three choices. We will actually point out tricks to her occaisionally. It also helps that she enjoys playing a healer and is happy to sit in the background (but in AU and AE she also quite enjoyed tossing damage spells around). This seems to be functional in that I don’t see complaints from the players.

The fact that you have players complaining suggests there is a real problem. Be aware that the solution could be to split the group. It’s possible that you can continue to juggle between tactical and social play, and keep both groups satisfied, but this may be the thing to look at carefully.

Frank