Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Social Contracts

Sitting at the gaming table you may not realize it but there are numerous unspoken Social Contracts being followed. These contracts are the 'unsaid rules' that your group goes by and they help in creating, and maintaining, the atmosphere you have at a gaming table. If you've ever had someone do something - say grab someone else's character sheet without asking - and the rest of the group reacted with some form of surprise, alarm, or dislike well then you've just seen a Social Contract get violated. Today, I want to talk to some of the more common ones, both new and old, that we may take for granted.

Live by the Die, Die by the Die
In other words, don't cheat your die rolls. This is one of the general social contracts for all games and it is common enough that most people don't even think that you have to explain it, but sometimes it happens. There are a lot of ways it can happen from actual die manipulation to bad math to even bringing in loaded dice. Ever see someone have their D20 smashed at a gaming table in your FLGS? I have, the DM was pretty pissed too when not only did the die break (a properly cast die wouldn't have) but a small steal bearing was part of the debris.

Cheating die rolls happens in a lot of ways though, which is why I wanted to bring this up. For example, many groups are fine with the idea that the GM is immune from this particular Social Contract. That the GM can, if it is needed, fudge a die roll one way or the other to keep things going the way they 'need' to happen for the time being. That may bother some people, but I've yet to meet someone who has been gaming for more than 5 years that hasn't been spared at least one character death because the DM looked at what they rolled and went "No, you don't take max damage at a x4 execute modifier to start the fight off.." or something similar.

My Dice, Not Yours
Some people who have just started recently may not know this. Then again, it just may be the atmosphere of the gamers and stores around here, but time was you touched another gamer's dice without specific and explicit permission and you were in for some pain. This falls under the "be prepared for game" rule that a lot of GMs like to enforce, and it is safe to say that having the dice needed to play the game is part of being prepared for the game. My current group gets around this by having a jar of "public dice" for anyone to use, but there are times where I still feel the old hanklings when someone just reaches to take one of my dice without asking. Then again, I also get mad when people - expected or not - open a door without knocking when they don't live in the house I'm in.

Food Rules
These tend to change from group to group and location to location, but I've yet to see anywhere that didn't have some expected form for food to be taken in. Sometimes the GM doesn't want cheeto dust on the char sheets. Sometimes the host of the game doesn't want their house looking like a fast food dumpster after game. Sometimes someone in the group has adverse reactions to certain foods and so they're not appreciated at the table. I'm sure you all have some examples of these in your pasts.

Play The Game
This is the last one I'm going to talk about today, but it is also one of the most important. This isn't about being prepared, this isn't about not cheating, and this isn't about activity around the table. When you agree to be a part of an RPG campaign/group/whatever, you are entering a social contract to play the game. Note, I did not say to play a game, I said play the game. The contract is you play the game that is being run, or that has been agreed to be run. If the DM is running a dungeon crawl, has advertised it as such, and everyone else wants to play in one then you should show up to play a dungeon crawl. If the GM says - and the group agrees - that the game will be run by the book, then you shouldn't try to force house rules in to play.

More importantly though:

On the players side you should play the game as the game is meant to be played. A character who can work with the group, who will play into the events, who will interact with the world, and will otherwise move along in some fashion with the events that are transpiring. Playing a pacifist in a military game generally doesn't work. Playing a loner who refuses to spend time with the group doesn't work either. Play the game that is being presented and that the group agreed to play in.

On the GM side this means that you need to run the game you said you were going to run, which should be the game your players said they wanted to play in. If you said you were going for a cinematic action extravaganza then you shouldn't be punishing players for trying to be cinematic. If you said you were going to run a heavy RP based investigatory game, then you shouldn't try to force in combat to "move things along." When you and the group agreed to play the game, however it was decided, you agreed to run the type of game that was agreed to and as such are just as beholden by social contract to deliver.

Other Contracts
I barely scratched the surface with the social contracts you can find at the gaming table. What are some other ones you've seen? Are there any that you hold above the others? Sound off in the comments.


  1. I was lucky enough to bag a guest blogger a bit back who talked about a few social contracts himself.

    I did likewise on his blog, but about something very specific that won't often matter, unless your group meets in a pub. Like ours.

  2. Be. On. Time. That is probably the contract most important for me, especially since I've gamed with people who broke it routinely. And not just for 10 minutes or so. The current record is at three hours and we're talking about the GM here.

    I will loan out specific dice and most people in my groups have more than enough dice that we can equip an army of dice-less players if we have to. But really don't touch my dice without asking. Also, don't look at my character sheet.

  3. Oh god yes, Jedediah. Be on time is a huge one. I generally tell my players that I'm aiming to start at 6:30. In truth we often don't start until 7pm due to catch up talk and people showing up a little late which is unavoidable at times, but thats ok. After all, if I wanted/needed to be going at 6:30 exactly I'd tell people to be there for 6.

  4. If you can't make a game, give as much notice as possible. Get someone a copy of your character sheet and current status.

  5. Due to recent events, I have another one: communication. If your group agrees one a certain way of communication, keep up with it, whether it's email, phone, Skype or Obsidian Portal.

    My weekly group has a mailing list and it has worked reasonably well for years. We post reminders for the weekly game there and give notice when we can't make it. Suddenly one of the GMs decides without telling anyone that he won't read the mails any more or just read them on the day his system is played. And then he's pissed when he finds out on that day that two players have been telling everyone several times that they cannot make it that day. I mean, how hard is it to check mails at least weekly?