First Time GM is a series of articles dedicated to the newly-minted game master, making his or her first tentative die rolls behind the screen. Today’s article deals with establishing the ground rules of the game, and of the group itself. This is commonly referred to as the Social Contract, but I prefer the term Game Charter.

What? More Rules?

Over the years, a gaming group will develop their own internal rules, conventions, and standards of behavior, many of which will be unspoken. Some of these cover how the game is played, from House Rules that change the mechanics of the game, to “all dice rolls must be visible to other players.” Some cover above-game behavior such as when and where the group meets, how disagreements are handled, etc.

A new group does not have the luxury of developing these over time, but can avoid much wailing and gnashing of teeth simply by establishing a few things before dice hit table. The point of this exercise is not to come up with an actual document or to lecture the players, but to ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes time to game. This discussion can take as little as a half an hour, or as much as half the first session, but at the end of it, everyone should know what to expect.

A Game Charter or Social Contract is not written in stone. It will change over time, as the group grows and learns. But starting on the same page, even if that page is quickly turned, provides a solid foundation on which the rest of the game is built.

First Things First

The GM is the leader of the group. This may sound controversial, but I’ve seen far more disasters from a GM who didn’t step up than from a GM who tried too hard to lead. Remember: Leadership is about responsibility, not control.

This concept is worth its own article and seminar (please read the former), but I mention it here because the GM will be moderating this discussion, if not outright directing it. One of the ground rules being established is that the GM is in charge.

The following sections lists some of the questions that should be asked in this discussion. Since the title of this series is “First Time GM”, I’ve included my own hard-earned answers, but feel free to ignore them and find your own.

Playing the Game

But before playing in a campaign, I would like to know how the following about it: 

System and Setting – Obviously, the system and setting will be established up front, but what about supplements? Third-party rulebooks? I would minimize the options at first, especially if you’re not entirely comfortable with the rules. Your player may have a raging woody to play the latest and greatest, but your comfort level is a critical factor.

Genre – Pulp? Heroic Fantasy? Space Opera? Steampunk? Define your terms when it comes to discussing the genre you’re about to play; “Heroic Fantasy” means many different things to different people. Use books and movies as examples.

Lethality – How lethal is the game? We’re not just talking about a half-dozen backup characters, but also about healing (magic, technology, etc), and how important it is to have all the right information and tools before going on a mission. A word of advice: Players generally don’t enjoy high-lethality games as much as GMs do.

Realism – How ‘realistic’ is the game? The system and genre will determine much of this, but the group’s interpretation will, too. Does the group want a game as realistic as Platoon, or as fantastic as anime or wire-fu? Somewhere in the middle? Define this early, because immersion is easily broken by going too far in either direction.

Style – How the game is played and run, including (but not limited to) the following:

  • How many house rules should there be? At first, resist the urge to modify, and play the game as written.
  • How strictly should the rules be interpreted? At first, not terribly. The goal is to have fun, not to maintain absolute rule integrity.
  • At what pace should the game be run? This will figure itself out over time, but try not to leave anyone behind for now.
  • How are rules disagreements handled? Quickly. Don’t be afraid to have a quick discussion and make a decision, and then research a final answer after the session.
  • What happens when a player is absent? I suggest that absent PCs are assumed to be ‘doing their own thing’ in the background. TPKs affect everyone equally.

Above the Game

This part of the discussion usually goes quickly, since the person hosting is just laying down the law for using their house: Where and when the sessions will happen. Rules for having food and drink at the table. Smoking and, um, other things. Tolerance for kids and/or pets. Hygiene, or the lack thereof. Colorful and/or loud language. Standards of expected behavior. Etc…

Some other topics for the ‘above game’ discussion that should actually be discussed include:

  • Who can invite others to join, and how is that handled? This has blown up into group-shattering explosions a few times. I prefer to handle my own invites with an interview and a ‘test session’ or two.
  • How many sessions can a player miss before losing his seat? It really depends on the group, but I drop players after three unexpected absences. 
  • How are above-game disagreements handled? Let these linger, and your group will not be happy. I prefer the extremes: openly with strong GM moderation, or behind the scenes by the GM.
  • How much off-topic chatter is acceptable? A few minutes, tops; the preferred attention-redirecting phrases are “Stay on target!” and “Game on!”

This article covers a lot of ground, and does so quickly, but this discussion should take place with every gaming group, especially beginning ones. If I’ve missed anything important, or if you have anything to add, sound off in the comments and let us know!

Up next: Game Prep

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."

6 Responses to First Time GM: Establishing the Ground Rules

  1. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    A couple of additions…

    1. This is not a one-time thing. The discussion continues as long as the group remains together, and the social contract or game charter will evolve to reflect that.

    2. Once you’ve covered the ground rules, it’s much easier to resolve any issues by referring to them, instead of trying to convince others of your point of view, or just ‘pulling rank’ as GM.

  2. I’m enjoying seeing how this series (which is excellent!) meshes with my Intro to GMing series — and the cool thing is how little overlap there is so far! It’s a meaty topic.

  3. In playing the game, there are a few other things that frequently come up.

    1. Do you need to take your turn quickly, or can you optimize? A lot of groups have a strong preference (people get frustrated with sub-optimal choices, or they get frustrated with long waits); setting a time limit clearly establishes a desire for quick turns.

    2. Party or individual play? Does everyone groan when a character heads off on their own, or are short frequent turns without much overlap the norm? Get this one wrong and half the group will complain about the characters who do solo stuff, while the others complain that the party only characters are cardboard.

    Above the game level issues are critical– particularly because that’s how you work out new issues too. Pay particular attention to getting those straightened out and many of the others can follow later. Be particularly careful at revising above game level issues– don’t do it when someone’s absent without getting their buy in at the next session they attend.

  4. Something I wish I’d covered before my new (and first long-term turn as a GM) game: electronic distractions either at the table or during the game. Next time I’m in a new group — as a player or GM — I’m hoping we talk about what’s acceptable and what’s too much. Smart phones are just too convenient sometimes. They make handy references (and dice rollers if you forgot your analogs), but offer too many opportunities for distractions (texts, instant messaging, games, etc). Laptops present much of the same problem.

    Heck, I’ll even work on being a better player in this regard. But what’s OK when it comes to this? Can I still keep a magazine nearby to flip through as the dual-wielding 4-attack fighter with all the extras takes his 20-minute turn? I want the fighter to enjoy playing all aspects of his character, so I don’t mind the length of the turn (mostly), but it does get boring sometimes.

  5. Kurt "Telas" Schneider

    Another addendum: Intra-party conflict. Some groups thrive on it, while others can’t separate the in-game friction from the out-of-game friction. Define your preferences before you find yourself in uncomfortable territory.

  1. PC Behaviour and the Social Contract « oberonviking

    […] together with is important. I’ll post more about the Social Contract soon, but for now enjoy Kurt “Telas” Schneider’s post on the Game Charter. In short, we need to define our expectations and our limits – what we want and what we will […]

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