Monday, March 18, 2019

Setting the Social Contract

Over the weekend I ended up in a prolonged exchange with a fellow random internet citizen about their game. The person was disappointed because after putting a lot of effort into their game, having enthusiastic players, and working hard to build those players not only a spot in the game, but a place in the story...only a couple of them were really invested in the game.

I can tell you from first hand experience this can be a crushing feeling. You have all your hopes and effort into the idea of the game. Part of the idea is the return of your effort from the other people. Only...they don't seem that into it.

This can happen in a lot of ways. The two big ones I have seen are people not taking the game as seriously as you'd like at the table - side conversations keep starting, people interrupt the game for out of game things, or people are heavily distracted at the table - and people not respecting the scheduled game time as a thing worth protecting.

Of the two I find the second one bothers me more. The first can be easily addressed, and if people are having fun great. However, people giving different levels of protection ot game time can be problematic. For one, it is hard to schedule games as folks get older. So if some people are blowing off game everytime there is a chance to do something else like go see a movie, that can be harmful to the people who are planning around game and taking it into consideration when making plans.

Fortunately, there is an easy way to cut both problems off from the beginning. And that is by setting the social contract for the game openly - instead of implicitly - from the very beginning.

Negotiation, Not Decree
The first thing to remember about this is that setting the social contract for the game is a negotiation, not a decree. One person shouldn't be setting ground rules like "this game takes priority over all other social events that aren't an emergency" but rather it should be a conversation. Some questions to ask during that conversation:

  • How serious do we want to be about this game?
  • How dedicated should we be?
  • What type of attendance rate should we be expecting?
  • Are we ok with out of game discussions at the table, or focusing on the game but will have time for breaks?

These questions can come up in the same conversation of what type of rating will the game be, what type of content do we want/not want in the game, and other parts of setting up the game, but these questions are equally important.

Knowing if the game is drop in/drop out with the GM just running for who is there that session or if everyone is trying for a more dedicated, nuance type game will have a huge impact on how the game is prepared and played. You want a game with the type of nuanced story telling and personal plots of Critical Role? That's great, but guess what, that requires everyone to be 100% invested in the game when it happens (no side conversations, no missing sessions on a whim, and everyone bringing their A game to their characters). You want something a bit more like Pathfinder Society or Adventurer's league play where if you're free that Friday you can show up, but if not no big deal? That's fine too. 

Even having a mix where three people want the deep nuanced plot lines and two people want to show up or not as they please is fine. What's not fine is having some people expecting one thing, the other people expecting the other, and no one knowing what those expectations are. It causes resentment, can hurt friendships, and in some cases can actually ruin the hobby for someone - especially if the DM is trying to do a deep story and players are thinking its more like a drop in/drop out time...or vice versa.

Find What Works For The Group
I said this above, but I just want to reiterate, find an answer that works for everyone.

If you're the GM and you have an idea for an amazing story but it involves people be very serious about game. Then have that conversation, and if people are unable to give that level of seriousness maybe you don't run that story just yet. If they can, then great. And if they say they can, and later it seems they can not, you have the groundwork for the conversation about how to address that already there.

If you're the player and you really want to deep dive into your character, this lets you bring that up. You can tell the GM it is what you're looking for. You can work with them to do that. Yes, it requires more investment from you - that is what you want - but identifying that can make everything smoother. 

Finally, if 90% of the table wants the super committed game - or the not super committed game - and one person doesn't, this is a good time to have that discussion. Is this just not the game for that player? Nothing wrong with that. Alternatively, is everyone ok with that person still playing (including them) but being on a different level of expectation? Knowing up front makes it a lot better. In one of the online games a player works until after the start of the game. We all know that, and so we make allowances for said player to show up an hour late for each session. Other people are expected to be available at the start of the game for what we're doing.

Ultimately, if you don't talk to the table about your expectations from the game and how it works, how are they supposed to know?

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