Thursday, February 23, 2012

Social contract at the table

Gaming is an inherently social activity, and as such, there is an implied—if not explicit—social contract between gamers.  Often this boils down to the simple maxim: "Don't be a jerk" but more often there are nuances, and these nuances can often get in the way of smooth operation of the game at the table.

I don't actually recommend explicitly drafting a social contract.  It's a little too... I dunno, it's a red flag for me if there's a need to do so.  But at the same time, it's worth giving some thought to what the elements of that contract are, and what you believe them to be.  Here's a list I found in an old forum post from long ago that lists a number of elements that a social contract—even an implied one—could have.  Hopefully the maxim "Don't be a jerk" already covers many of these, but others of them it does not, and some clear expectations certainly can't hurt.
  • The game system or edition to be played;
  • Supplemental materials that will be employed or specifically ruled out;
  • Explanation of DM-created house rules that will be used;
  • The number of players, and a process for adding new players or "writing out" players who leave the group;
  • Logistics of meeting places, provision of snack foods or meals, or sharing expenses;
  • The expected duration of the campaign;
  • Meeting days/times, session frequency and duration;
  • Attendance expectations, and what happens if a player is chronically absent;
  • Procedures for canceling a session;
  • The overall tone of the game, and expectations that characters will contribute to that atmosphere instead of undermining it;
  • Table conventions, such as how often a person can speak out-of-character or, my personal favorite, the you-said-it-you-did-it clause, for players who try to make everything into a joke;
  • A stance on whether or not player characters may attack each other;
  • Policies about note-passing, whether or not die rolls must be made in plain view, and ethical concerns such as allowing evil player characters;
  • Procedures for handling player-DM disputes; and
  • Rules regarding physical contact between players.
Many times even guys who aren't attempting to be jerks can make a faux pas of some sort or other.  Inviting a friend or relative to game with the group without checking with the GM and the rest of the group, for instance, is one I've seen once or twice.  My current group had an issue where tone expectations clashed.  We have some players who's real life responsibilities make their attendance spotty.  Some of these things can be worked out by reasonable, responsible and mature people as they become issues—certainly that's worked well for me before, but sadly not all gamers are reasonable, responsible or mature.  You shouldn't be gaming with them if they aren't, but sometimes you have to make do with what you have.

Some of the other items, like expected duration of the campaign—well, that doesn't really need to be spelled out, but it can't hurt to have an idea before you start.  It's not necessary, but it's still a good idea.

I'd say my own preferred social contract goes something like the following, with details not included, as yet:

Welcome to the DARK•HERITAGE game!  The game will be run using the m20 system, which can be found online, or I can provide you printouts at our first session.  It's a fairly rules-lite system, which means that GM rulings will be an important part of the game.  We'll play every other week on yadda-yadda day at blah-bitty-blah-blah time.  The m20 session allows for up to ten complete levels of play; once every player has hit tenth level (if not before), the game will start winding down for its eventual conclusion.

As GM, my purpose in bringing this game to you is to entertain you for a few hours every time we meet.  As in any good story, entertainment happens when crappy things happen to the characters, and they have to deal with them.  Keep in mind the tone of this game, which is meant to be swashbuckling and action-packed, but also laced with an element of horror and noir.  Characters aren't expected to be heroes, and the game could be a solid PG-13 at times in terms of content.  Characters may not always get along—just make sure that any conflicts remain between characters and not between players and we should do OK.  Don't identify too much with your characters.  While I may "punish" your characters from time to time, I'm not attempting to punish you in any way, and the intent is to create situations that are interesting and fun to explore.

Please feel free to give me feedback; I want to make sure that I'm providing the best experience possible for you and  your fellow players.  Just keep in mind that the game is, of course, about all of us and we may have different things that we like about gaming.  I'll try and make sure everybody gets their "moment in the spotlight".


Joshua said...

Come to think of it, my "GM Merit badges" (see attached independent page) already kinda describe the social contract I envision. Nice little idea, that.

Drance said...

I have always tried to have discussions with players before a new campaign starts, but never did anything as formal as you seem to suggest. I like what you have to say here, thanks for this!

Joshua said...

Well,to be fair, neither have I. And I'm a little hesitant to do so, because it implies a level of fussiness that is in and of itself a problem in its own right.

But at least knowing what YOU think the social contract is, and giving some thought to some things that might need to be spelled out to make sure everyone in the group is on the same page is certainly a good idea. Like I said, in my group, we're pretty reasonable, responsible, mature, and thoughtful adults who don't run around feeling entitled or thinking that everything is about us. This has been very helpful when problems have come up, but it did not necessarily prevent the problems from coming up in the first place, it just helped us to better deal with them when they did.

Avoiding clashes in tone expectation, for example, would have been better than havin to deal with it when it became obvious that we WEREN'T all on the same page after all.