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?