I'm going to take today, and maybe Wednesday, and step back from the game we play itself to the events around the game. Some people get this implicitly, but others don't. See, when you join a group for a regularly scheduled game you are actually entering into a social contract. There is certain behavior that is expected, and that it is assumed you are agreeing to abide by by your presence in the game.
Some of this stuff is easy and obvious. Some of it is a bit less so. The point is though is that Social Contracts are a big part of how social interaction works, and so you should be aware of them. Violating of a social contract will make a situation feel weird and awkward.
For example, when you make a dirty joke in public and someone stares at you or makes an off hand comment it is because you have just violated a social contract. In that case the contract was that you don't say dirty/crass things in public. This is one that people are expected to know/learn as they grow up, and as the lines of what is acceptable gets pushed further and further back the notion of the violated contract is what makes people feel that humanity is losing its civility.
Some other examples of social contracts are being dressed when out in public, treating people with civility, and being on time for appointments. These are all very basic contracts that exist for almost any interaction.
In a game we have some basic social contracts and we have some more specific contracts. Today I'm going to talk about some of the more basic ones. On Wednesday I am going to talk about the more specific ones - some of them anyhow. Finally, on Friday, I'd like to open this up for discussion on what contracts you like enforced at your table.
Contract #1: Game Starts At A Set Time So Be There And Be Ready
This one is basic to any regularly scheduled meeting. Your game likely has a start time. The presence of that start time obligates people to be at the location of the game, and ready to play for that time. I bring this one up first because it is the one most casually violated and people then wonder why such a simple thing irks them so much. The reason is because when someone is late, especially with no notice or no concern, they are wasting everyone else's time.
That's right, I'll say it again.
When you are late or don't show for game and don't have a good reason you are wasting everyone's time. Some games will go with half or more of the players, but even in that situation you are still wasting time. The game isn't full, and therefore not going as smoothly as it could be. The GM has to improv around the missing player. The players have to act around that missing player. The game has to deal with a missing character. Then, when you do show up everything has to go on pause as you get settled and try to figure out what is going on.
Stuff happens. Life happens. Important things happen. At some point everyone will be late, it happens. When it happens to you though be aware of it and what it means. And if you are the person who is chronically late in your group, don't be surprised if you don't have an invite to the next game.
Contract #2: Be Respectful At The Table
This is another of the "basics of human interaction" but everyone is at the table to play a game and have a good time. No one is entitled to have a good time at someone else's expense. Try to be respectful, and when things get heated in game try to not get heated in person.
Look, I get it, and so does everyone else, sometimes game can get tense and emotional. It sucks when you're in danger of losing your half elf ranger that you've been playing for 2 years because a combat went back. Yelling, screaming, sulking, or complaining that there was no "right" solution is not the way to deal with it though, and despite what your fellow gamers will likely tell you, a quick apology and acting normal later isn't going to make it all better.
If things are getting tense and you're feeling distraught you can ask for a pause, or a moment. Ultimately though it is best to remember that what happens in the game is just a game. What happens around the table though is friendships and personal interactions. No one wants to get yelled and screamed at when they're trying to have a good time, so try not to do that.
Contract #3: Ask Before Taking
Rules may be different in your house. Rules may be different in your game. I come from a time when touching someone's character sheet or dice without permission was asking to get hit and then you (not the person who hit you) not being allowed back in the store. Things are different for a lot of people now, but that doesn't mean people are happy when their stuff is just taken.
If you don't have dice, and there aren't dice laid out specifically to be communal dice then ask before borrowing someone else's. If you want to check something in a book and you didn't bring a copy of that book, then ask before grabbing someone else's book and leafing through it. If you want to see someone's character sheet, ask before touching it. Seriously, character sheets are a big no-no for some people.
Now, mostly this may seem silly but it is about respect. Maybe Sarah doesn't want you flipping through her "Deluxe Edition PHB" when your hands are covered in pizza grease. Maybe Greg is particularly superstitious about his dice and doesn't want you rolling the ones he bought specifically for this character. Maybe Alexis doesn't want you knowing what her character has in her pack, or that she is secretly an alien princess from the planet Zamazarr.
Ultimately it is all about respect. Respect your fellow gamers. You should respect their time, respect their feelings, and respect their property. If you don't show respect, why should they give you respect in return? Be respectful, it makes everything easier.