“Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.” In a lot of ways, pop culture has this one right. What you can change about someone else, even with love and persistence, is limited.

What does that have to do with roleplaying? Not much, even though we often make the mistake of thinking that we can change anything with persistence, friendly pressure, and a well placed XP penalty. We recently talked about gaming charters/social contracts. Gaming charters are so broad that it sometimes seems like you can solve everything with them. Spoiler alert: gaming charters can’t solve everything. (The charter’s limitations prove similar to the other commonly recommended solution for every problem: just talk.)

A Gamer’s Group

I love roleplaying, and I like to attribute a lot of the good in my life to the friendships I’ve made through gaming. Despite that, there are a number of ways I vary from many members of my group–and, much as I like them, I wouldn’t seriously consider changing my ways just to remain a part of the game. Too often, we talk as if a GM can change deeply embedded behaviors.

I’ve tried and I’ve witnessed members of my group try to change each other–and drive themselves and their friends crazy in trying. Many of the examples from last week’s post are from personal experience: I have been in groups where paying for the pizza grows from an annoyance to bitter put downs. I’ve had games explode when people stop suppressing their loathing and let violence break out between their characters–campaign and fellow players be damned.

RPG Design seems to go through cycles of struggling with the same issues. Recently, Quinn wrote a post titled Stop Designing For Fun that included an interesting digression.

I want to play games and run games where we are excited about the actions that everyone is taking.

I think often we push this to table culture when we could look at the structure and/or rules of our games instead.  I’m not saying table culture is not responsible, but when the table culture is flawed, so much other stuff is not working.  I’d rather look at what we can design instead of trying to fix people and relationships.

Fixing people and relationships is hard, and often doomed to frustrate everyone, even if it doesn’t fail outright. Even low hanging fruit, like improving the food at the game table can upset the rituals that we’ve built.

Know Your Limits

When people want change, they often look for the GM to lead the discussion or address the problem. Sometimes it’s the rulebook that instructs the GM to punish problem players, shut down rules lawyers, or reform munchkins. Teaching someone “the right way to behave” or even “the right way to roleplay” is fraught with peril.

Game charters work best when they’re about the game. Small, specific issues: dice sit on the table after a roll, floor dice are rerolled, no psychers in this scenario–in most games, these are all clearly part of the GM’s authority. When you get a little further from the “rules”, into the social situation, group consensus is required, even if the GM leads the discussion. Rules like “when the game starts, cell phones are turned off” and “no kids at the table–we don’t want to censor ourselves” require everyone’s agreement. If you go further… being the GM is no help if you’re trying to help someone quit smoking or cajole them into paying their fair share.

If things do go wrong–if one player is destroying the fun of everyone else–it is usually the GM who has to intervene. Martin got a lot of good advice about how to kick a player out if the problems can’t be resolved. Notice that Step 2 from his article is to make sure that everyone’s on the same page–while it’s your game, you might be misreading the situation.

No Panacea, but Better Than a Sharp Stick

Game charters can’t solve all your problems–they won’t even fold your laundry. Still, getting everyone agree to play the same game is invaluable, as is coordinating expectations, defining boundaries, and clarifying rules.

Has anyone brought up game charters with their group recently? I’d love to hear what you discussed–and how it went. Or if you’re thinking about trying to address a problem in your group, but now you’re worried about how pushy you’ll seem–bring it up in comments and we’ll help you work through the issue.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.



15 Responses to Solving What Can Be Solved

  1. After some similar problems myself in a game I ran a couple of years back, I came to a similar conclusion. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=450

    We hadn’t talked too much before the game had started, but after only a month it became pretty clear that the style of game play was going to be cerebral than action oriented. This was based on six of my seven players. The number 7 chap just wasn’t happy. I tried talking to him, tried to fit him in more, but he never took the bait so to speak, and when he did try and get involved, it ended up resulting in almost party split as what he was doing was of no interest to the other six. I ended up giving him the option to drop out and find another group – I didn’t want to just kick the guy out, that seemed like a step too far – but he insisted on sticking with it.

    By the end of the campaign, I don’t know why I bothered even getting his character sheet out. He wasn’t getting into the type of game everyone else wanted to play, so would instead turn up with work he wanted to do, and would just sit at the table writing. It wasn’t that I disagreed with him about what he wanted from the game, or that I thought he was having fun wrong, but in the end, you just have to admit that sometimes a group doesn’t work out the way you want it to.

    • Whether formally or informally, you have to get to the same page. It sounds like your #7 chap wasn’t willing to compromise, so he wasted your time and his own. It sounds like you did everything you could–everyone would have been well served if he’d realized that his time would be better spent in a group that was looking for his kind of fun.

      I’ve had similar mismatch problems, both as a player and as a GM. Particularly as a player, it can be hard to bow out if you think the GM and other players will take it as an insult/ending of a friendship. Being clear that it’s a strictly game-style related mismatch is all you can do.

  2. I also came to the conclusion long ago that no amount of rules in a game can make a person (player or GM) practice good manners. It’s not a game’s responsibility to do so anyway. The method for dealing with this sort of thing in the game I’m writing is for the individual to own their actions, and take responsibility for their behaviors. It won’t work for everyone, but what will?

    • I disagree. I think the biggest thing that the gaming charter, player contract, whatever you want to call it does is lay out the expectations of behavior. They are an agreed upon set of rules.
      I often find myself saying this, but “We are all mature adults at the table, or if we are not we should be.” (in the case of young gamers, it is a good time to learn). To me, more than anything good gaming (much like good relationships) is about communication. And communication can be very hard. But a social contract gets the basic communication out of being an assumption and into general agreement.
      I think your article seems to be saying “it is not the GM or player’s job to fix problem payers”. But they are still a problem, and for me it is more enjoyable if I am not playing with problem players. I find that the vast majority of problems come from people not getting what they want. Here come the mature adult part. This is the part where we “as mature adults” say “what do you want?” And they, as a mature adult, think through what it is they they feel is lacking. And then, not calling names, not accusing one another, taking our egos out of it, we figure out what they feel is lacking or why they feel the game is no fun (acting out is often a player “making their own fun). Now the really difficult part is where we (player and GM) say “should I/you be playing in this game?” This is hard, as gaming is often one of our major social interactions. We like gaming with our friends. But sometimes we want very different things then our friends. I have a couple of my dearest friends I do not game with any more, as we want very very different things out of a game. A social contract is a very good way to figure out if you all want the same things. None of this “well the four of us want to play gritty noir, and you want to clean out dungeons, we will try and fit you in.” That is begging for trouble.
      See the same page tool http://bankuei.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/the-same-page-tool/

    • Holy_Skwervo> Game rules is a difficult place to address group issues; honestly, that’s one of places where setting strong expectations about play and refusing to reinforce negative stereotypes (like punishing players) is about the best you can do.

      Uncle Deadly> If your response is to my article (rather than Holy_Skwervo’s comment), note that I’m not saying that a GM should do nothing. I am saying that only table rules are easily addressed by GM ruling, but more than that takes social reinforcement–the group has to support the GM, and the GM has to be pushing in a direction the group wants to go.

      You probably noticed that I too linked off to the same page tool in both this article and the previous article; I agree, coordinating expectations is king. Similarly, much of your “What do you want” and “Do you realize how your actions are being viewed by the rest of us” are addressed very well by Martin’s how to kick a player out article, linked above.

  3. As a player, I feel like one of my jobs is to support others players, gm included. That means that when someone else likes something different from me, I find some reason to go with it. I know I’ll get my “turn” too. Similarly, when the gm dangles a hook, I try to find a reason or a way to bite down on it. That’s just polite.

    • That is good manners. If it’s a 6/1 split, or if the play style being requested is contrary to the pitch and play so far, I don’t feel compelled to warp the campaign to address a divergent style–but, far more often than not, I try to make sure that everyone gets a chance to be in the spotlight. As a player it can be harder to set-up, but it makes the game better for everyone if you keep an eye out for chances to set them up for success.

      • It’s true that as a gm you will probably spend the most time on what the majority finds fun, but my point is more that, to use shorty’s 7th guy as an example, there’s no reason that when he pursued something that it should end up being a split party because no one else found it interesting. While the 7th guy shouldn’t wander off on his own insisting on a disproportionate amount of focus, neither should the other 6 refuse to give him some occasional spotlight time.

        Let’s face it, PCs are in high risk situations all the time and as soon as they start saying “Sorry, I’ve only got your back when we’re doing things MY way.” TPK isn’t far behind.

        • Nail on the head, Matthew. While players should have certain expectations for a campaign, there’s no reason there can’t be a bone thrown to other campaign styles from time to time. Even the barest of dungeon crawls usually tries to slip in a little intrigue, and the most highbrow game is going to have a bar fight or two thrown in. The onus is primarily on Seven to form up with the group, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go his way once in a while.

  4. Another GM and I, (Lomythica) have been working on a Game Charter that we will have persist for all of or if not most of our future games with our current group (upwards of 12 people and growing). We don’t have everyone in the same campaign, but it’s basically our gaming network. We’re planning on setting up a 2 document system where we have the base game charter be general things, which states our basic expectations of players AND GM and the second being use for each particular game, that we will use to “Pitch” our game concept to the group, which will be more specific to each game, and then we can build a party out of the 12 members, based on who’s actually interested in playing that kind of game.

    It’s still being drafted, and it does take the group to be more serious, but when GM’s spend countless hours preparing, and Players and GM’s alike spend upwards of 4+ hours a week playing together, there needs to be some foundation if we are investing this much time. That’s what crashed my 1st try on my campaign, I felt as if none of my players cared about what I created, with a charter or other document, they will know what is expected of them if they wish to be apart of the campaign.

    • The two charter system makes sense; I wish you very good luck with it. I know that I’ve backed away from written charters–writing down points for discussion is my typical MO.

      Coordinating 12 people in overlapping groups demands a little more organization and benefits more from clarity than a small stable group where discussion can be handled on a casual basis, so paper might be perfect. Be wary though: as Roxysteve’s comment below hints, people may feel that writing it all down is demeaning or “a prenup”.

      Rolling the specifics into a game specific charter is very common–most of us call them house rules or campaign guidelines without pushback.

  5. Heh. I love that in order to prevent rules lawyering, people are drawing up Magna Carta-sized prenups for players.

  6. Interesting and thought provoking stuff. I can’t help but notice the difficulties in maintaining a gaming group are basically the same types of issues musicians face when keeping a (rock) band together. The history of music is littered with bands that exploded over things that are equally frivolous as not RPing the “right” way.

    There are lots of different band dynamics, but most of the successful ones have leaders. I think GMs need to have the courage lead to keep the group together, and if a gaming charter helps them keep everyone on the same page then good for them. It would never work for my group, who are far to introverted to want such social issues laid out on the table, but I can see where it could work.

    Anyway, I enjoyed this article and have been thinking about it for two days. Thanks for posting it.

    • Depending on their specific introversion, Ayronis, you might be surprised to find that some people crave the stability of something written. For people who are less good at judging social cues, writing out expectations can greatly reduce the burden they feel.

      • Thanks Scott. I totally agree. I think the person who would benefit the most from it would be me. Seeing my expectations actualized is not something that I ever considered before, and it is something I am going to experiment with in the future. I am not sure how much my group would benefit from it, but I’ll see how it looks once I write it out for myself. I think my group often feels overwhelmed with all the rules of the game as it is so I am wary of adding more things to worry about to the pile.

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