Social Contract

Today I want to talk about something I touched upon in my review of the rules of “In a Wicked Age”, the “social contract” of roleplaying games. This is an idea that has come up a lot in my recent reading at anyway and the articles at The Forge. This is a topic that is so obvious that it is usually ignored or taken for granted, like the sky or the ground. Basically, what I mean by “social contract” is the understanding, usually implicit, that everyone participating in an RPG has regarding what it is they’re getting together to do. The trouble with it staying implicit and taken for granted is that different people may interpret it in very different ways, and that can lead to real-life conflict and hurt feelings and the dissolution of a game group. So, I thought I’d talk about the social contract in very vague terms, and then address some specific issues. As a side note, a lot of what I’m producing here may be going over ground others have covered, or amateurish, or what have you. I’m in the process of reading up on the field of RPG design, but I’m still stuck in the late 90’s/early 00’s in terms of what I’ve been covering recently (having decided to start with the start at the afore mentioned sites, so that I’m not lost when I get to the current stuff). So, basically, be aware that I may change my mind on stuff I post up here or look back at it and be embarrassed or such, and hopefully I’ll keep the same awareness and continue to improve.

So, this social contract business, what is it? It is something that exists regardless of the rules system you use, but can involve the rules system directly or indirectly. For example, if everyone you know who roleplays just loves (D&D/Call of Cthulhu/Fuzion/Whatevs), then it might be explicit that y’all are getting together to play that particular game. Or it could be more subtle, like you’re playing D&D, but everybody involves just kind of knows that D&D as is doesn’t address what they want out of a game, so they are okay with the game master changing rules or they suggest changes and so forth. But it’s relationship to the rules system is probably not it’s most significant feature. Like I said, a lot of time the social contract is entirely implicit, and everybody ends up with slightly different ideas of what it entails in their heads, and when this happens, problems can arise.

Let’s cut to an analogy for a moment, because I’m fond of analogies. In searching my imagination for an adequate analogy to the social contract of roleplaying, I realized that there’s no direct correspondence, which makes sense, I suppose, for such a specialized form of entertainment. But, being social in nature, and being associated with the use of rules, it does share similarities with some other, better known social situations. I think that roleplaying, socially speaking, is somewhere between a dance (as in, the event, like a prom, or a ball, or a hoe down, or whatever) and a sporting event. I actually think that the social contract of most RPGs differs quite markedly from board games or strategy games, despite the overlapping interest and sometimes overlapping methods. For one, most board games and strategy games of all sorts have much better defined rules that restrict what choices players can make, and everybody knows what they are going into the game. Usually, there’s very little notion that those rules can or should be bent to serve other ends, and also usually, the rules presented adequately address whatever can come up in such a game. So, let’s get back to my analogy. Like a sporting event (and like those board games and wargames mentioned), there is in fact a set of rules used to decide what can and can’t happen, and how to play and so forth. Unlike sporting events, however, it is usually less well defined what actions (by people, not characters. Remember, this whole essay is about the actual physical players participating in a game) explicitly violate what you all came there to do. In a soccer game, picking up the ball and running around knocking people over is very clearly not what everyone came there to do. That one guy may enjoy the attention, or being wild, or whatever, but everyone else will be pretty pissed off that he is preventing them from doing the activity they came together to do. In roleplaying games, there are definitely things people can do that have similar effects, but unfortunately, they’re usually less obvious, and a lot of times people put up with it thinking it’s the only way they can continue to roleplay. So if everyone is really digging on rescuing a princess from a dragon, but one dude says he hauls off and stabs the king  and runs around the court with his head knocking people over, that player, by deciding his character will do that, has made it impossible for the other players to do what they came there to do, forcing them to react to his actions or bicker about whether that ‘could’ happen or not, or stop playing. The trouble is, kingslayer there may not have realized that he was pissing in their porridge when he did that. He might have thought that going in an unexpected direction, or staying true to his wild, unpredictable character was what he was there to do, and assumed that everybody else felt like that was what he was there for too.

I think that hockey provides an interesting example of this gray area in sporting events. FIghting technically isn’t allowed in the rules, but it’s an accepted part of the game. Everyone participating in a professional hockey game expects some fighting and has some idea what amount will be allowed by the refs, what penalties it’s okay to take for doing it, and how to use it within the context of the game. The reason I stress this is to show that in other forms of social leisure activity, there is also a distinction between the ‘official rules’ and the socially understood guidelines for what the event will be. Now, I said that I didn’t think that sports were a perfect metaphor for roleplaying, and that’s because in sports, the relationship between what is socially agreed upon when you get together to play, and what is printed in the official rules, is usually very close. The baseline assumption for most sports is ‘we will show up and follow these exact rules. Not following them is cheating and will get you penalized.’ So, I want to bring the other half of my analogy, a dance. Like roleplaying, dances are social events with varying levels of formality, and even at the most formal of balls, there is usually a distinct difference between the ‘official’ purpose and guidelines for behavior and the socially understood aims and allowable behavior. Also like roleplaying games, there can be a wide range of variations in the stated aims of a dance, and different people will show up with different expectations of what’s socially acceptable (though, being more mainstream, the social contract of these events, though implicit, tends to be better understood by everyone involved). So, a prom is going to have different ‘rules’ than a military ball, just as a hoe down will have different rules from a cotillion event.

Imagine, if you will, someone who thought that all dances were proms. He would show up to a hoe down in a tux, expect to hear a mix of nostalgic music and modern dance music, and would want to focus on dancing alone with his date. When he encountered jeans and cowboy hats, country music and fiddle playing, and complicated group dances, he would think they were doing it wrong, not have a good time, and most likely spoil it for other people there. The shame of it is that he would have a great time at a prom, he would do it right, and everyone there would enjoy, or at least tolerate, his presence.

So, what in the hell does all this talk of hockey and hoe downs have to do with roleplaying? I think that since the idea of the social expectations of a roleplaying game are so rarely discussed or thought of explicitly, you end up with the equivalent of people showing up expecting one kind of dance and getting another. But it’s usually so subtle, and even worse, a lot of times, despite a game claiming to be one kind of dance, it might actually be another, that nobody realizes that’s the source of the dissatisfaction and bad feeling. Further, if you go to the prom and your best friend took the girl you wanted to bring, you and everybody else knows that’s why there’s tension between you two at the prom. But at a roleplaying game, the focus is so much on the rules and the imaginary world of the game, that people like to convince themselves that real-life interpersonal tensions don’t enter into it. So, when the two best friends go to play their weekly RPG a few days after that same prom, people might not realize, or at least not acknowledge, that the game is going poorly because there is still tension between them over a real-life social issue.

What do I make of all this? I think that it is a healthy and useful step for a roleplaying group to all explicitly lay out, before play, what they’re doing and what they want to accomplish. And I think this needs to go a little deeper than “we’re here to play D&D, and our goal is to have fun”. I think even the densest of socially challenged folks is going to get that you’re there to play the advertised game and the overall goal is to have fun. But what makes a game fun varies from group to group and person to person, and I think an enhanced awareness of what that is will help out a lot. I’m riffing pretty hard here off of things I’ve been reading in those Forge articles. In those articles, they go into different approaches to rpgs and what sort of abstract things different people pursue and enjoy in a game, but I’m not going to go into that here. But in general terms, I think the group should make a few things clear (as in, actually talk these things out and hear everyone out on them, then come to a decision. Maybe even write it down for reference later) before they start gaming, and here are some suggestions of mine:

How active does each player want to be in making deciding what dramatic things happen to their characters?
How much detail do you want to explore of the game’s setting?
How comfortable is each player with in-character conflict?
Are there any topics or issues that you are uncomfortable addressing in play?
How concerned are you with your character’s success as measured in some objective way (missions completed, xp earned, et cetera)?

If you’re playing with people new to roleplaying, they might not know the answers to some of these things, and I think a good solution is for the GM, or whoever is organizing the game (presumably with more gaming experience) to put forward as honestly and in as much detail as possible what his goals are and how he intends to address the game. So, if you are the GM, and you want your players to have a good deal of active narrative control, tell them! If you have a finely crafted world with lots of detail, and you are expecting them to want to explore it and work within it’s fictional parameters, be clear about that. If you think it’d be fun to have the players compete for who can kill the most kobolds, or gain the most levels the fastest, or survive the longest without going insane, let them know. But be prepared to listen to their reactions to these things. If everyone in your group says “whoah, I don’t care about levels and stuff, man, I want to do whatever would bring my character into the most dramatic situations for an exciting story”, then pay attention. If everyone has a different idea of what would be fun, or nobody much is interested in what you’re pushing, you might need to find a new game or a new group. Finally, an important point stressed in the essays I’ve been reading about different play styles and what different people want out of their games, is that no one way is “better” or “more fun” objectively. It’s largely a matter of personal taste. Some people will have the most fun ever cleverly avoiding traps and slaughtering monsters to steal their treasure with no real concern for dramatic tension or addressing ethical or moral issues. Other people will really get into accurately working within a detailed feudal system and maneuvering in a complex social network of lords and families and churches. But still others might have the most fun playing characters who do nothing but come up against agonizing conflict and make decisions to set up the next agonizing conflict. All of these approaches, and more, are great and can be fun. But they’re not necessarily all compatible in the same game. So, do your best to figure out what everyone is showing up for, and try to stick with it, and your games will be a lot more fun and more likely to work well.

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4 Responses to “Social Contract”

  1. Back from vacation and trying to catch up on my reading, here.

    I agree with everything above until you get to the prescriptive portion, which I think is a little too much gaming koombayah for me, especially if you don’t have a group of tried-and-true, died-in-the-wool gamers. It’d be hard to briefly explain why in a five-minute period. Still, here goes.

    I disagree that certain actions/play-styles must be entertained; some people need not only to be booted from your group, but discouraged from gaming in general. These folks are usually of the kingslayer variety, though it can be a lot more subtle. I believe that they set out, whether fully consciously or not, to spoil things for the other players.

    As a DM, especially for new players, you have the real opportunity to shape their expectations and actions in-game. I’ve solicited input after a game, but I really feel like, most of the time, this shakes a group’s faith in a DM (ie “What? Don’t you know what you’re doing? Why are you asking us?”). My method tends to be to incentivize roleplaying, out-of-the-box thinking, &c with in-game rewards.

    In a very recent game, while a group was running through Thunderspire, one of the players decided that he would attempt to bronco-bust a dire wolf (it was saddled, and they’d already killed its rider). Great idea! We had a rodeo, he used the wolf to take out an archer (a moment in which the awesomology quotient was rather high) and then got thrown. Would he have likely achieved a similar amount of damage with a thrown dagger? Yep. Would anyone have enjoyed that as much? Nope.

    The success of this maneuver (on which the dice rolls may have been somewhat fudged) encouraged the player to later attempt a further feat and got the other players considering that there might be more options in and out of combat than their standard attacks. I try to similarly emphasize non-combat skills, and to often hinge the success of a mission on skill challenges (in which roleplaying is requisite).

    Just my brief and poorly stated two cents.

    • Tyler,

      Glad you got some gaming in! I’m jealous. If I were playing games like I should be, there wouldn’t be as much here to catch up on. I’ve had nothing to do but pontificate.

      First off, yeah, I got a little too touchy-feely relativist there by virtue of being sloppy. I brought up an example of *clearly* dysfunctional, broken, bad play, and then later discussed how innocent differences in play style and what you want out of a game can cause problems. That ended up conflating the two.

      So, to put it more clearly: on the one hand, you’ve got plain old disruptive/dysfunctional play. Guys being jerk offs, people taking out real-world grudges on characters, whatever. On the other hand, you have fun, rewarding play. What I meant is that in the “fun zone” you have further subdivisions. Some people will happily skip from one to the other and enjoy all of them. But some other people will have a strong preference for one of those subdivisions, or be unfamiliar with what’s going on with the other subdivisions.

      It’s this latter group that I was more referring to towards the end of my entry. It’s very sad, but true, that among the “fun, functional” gamer set, you can have incompatibilities. I think this is where my prescription comes more in handy. Like you said, with new gamers who don’t have those preferences yet, maybe the ‘full disclosure’ I mention isn’t such a good idea, but I think *some* level of explicitness is okay, like when you ended up with the wolf rodeo, after the session you could go “what happened tonight? Yeah, that was awesome, feel free to come up with stuff like that”.

      Finally, you can contribute as many cents as you like, right now you’re practically a guest blogger. If you can rope other people into discussing here. . .

      • Worth Noting: I’m bed-ridden with some nasty cold/virus/alien infestation; this may have effected the lucidity of the prior post.

      • Hahah, fair enough. My condolences, hope you feel better soon. Also, after giving it some thought (and reading some gaming blogs with more experience and know how than me) I’m not sure the explicit “this is what we’re here to do, let’s talk about it” is the right way to go. As you said, it can be stultifying and erode confidence.

        Instead, I think I’ll just say that those of us who *are* died in the wool gamers would do well to be more aware of the social nature of our hobby and knowing that rules can affect that and that it can affect rules, and that in the end, the social framework that the game happens in trumps any other levels of what’s going on (dice rolling, printed rules, whatever).

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