Sep 192012

Big thank you to Berin Kinsman for stepping in today with a guest blog. When you get to the bottom of the post there’ll be a couple of links so you can find the rest of his writing, but I just want to nudge you a bit harder to do so. He’s a great writer, and has been a friendly chap to this new blogger. Anyway, over to the man himself. 

Roleplaying games are dependent upon social contracts. Most of us know this instinctively, and the social contracts we form are largely unspoken. We know who the gamemaster is, and who the players are. We know where we’re meeting, when we’re meeting, and about how long we’ll be playing. We know who is responsible for bringing the snacks, who is giving whom a ride, and so on.

In my experience, most of the problems that occur within gaming groups come from undefined social contracts. Certain players assume certain things, but because those things weren’t specifically agreed upon, other players come with other assumptions. Is the food I brought for me, or did I bring it for everyone? How much table talk is acceptable before it’s considered disruptive to game play? How much can we drink before we can no long really call this playing anymore?

It can be awkward to address certain things. Liz always eats a ton of food, but never brings anything or chips in. Our feelings towards Ian’s chronic flatulence wavers between offense at the rudeness of its presentation and concern that he has a serious medical issue. Bob is a great player until about his fourth beer, at which point all of the wonderfully constructed character bits and nuanced tactics go out the window.

How this is handled depends largely upon the relationships within the group and the personalities involved. Sometimes not knowing someone well makes it easier, sometimes it makes it harder. Sometimes an intervention-style approach, where it’s addressed with or in front of the entire group works best to show the solidarity of the group, sometimes a one-on-one is more effective so the person doesn’t feel attacked. It’s difficult to gauge because of the potential consequences. Things could be resolved, but you could also end up losing a player, or worse, a friend.

Here are my tips for dealing with social contract issues:

1. Have a general feedback session. Set aside a time to not deal specifically with the issue, but to deal with any and all issues. Present it as a feedback session to figure out what can be done to make the game and the group dynamic stronger. You can discuss things like the direction the campaign is taking, in-game concerns, and introduce new ideas for playing times and such, but work the main issue in there. Make is an overall social session. This makes it feel as if it’s come up organically, and hopefully no one feels attacked.

2. Weigh your priorities. If the point is to game, andthe players are acquaintances at best, you might want to prioritize the game over the relationship. The priority is what’s best for preserving the game, and if that means a player quits because they’re offended, well, you only see them on game night anyway and you’re not really close. If the player is a close friend or relative, and the game is an excuse to get together and have fun, you will probably want to prioritize the relationship over the game. That might mean dealing with their behavior.

3. Be honest. That doesn’t mean you have to be cruel or mean, but let the person know how their behavior makes you feel, and what your expectation is. If other members of the group have discussed this, they should sound off with their feelings and expectations are as well. You can’t find solutions until you admit there’s a problem and define it.

4. Be open to negotiation. You may have an end in mind, but after discussing it with the individual or the group, new information and new ideas might come to light. Don’t be fixated on getting your way. Be prepared to concede some things for the sake of the group. If you dig in your heels, you may well become the new social contract problem.

What social contract issues have you encountered, and how have you deal with them? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Berin Kinsman is the marketing director for the RPG publisher Asparagus Jumpsuit, and in a past life was the RPG blogger known as UncleBear. He blogs about the creative lifestyle at his eponymous website

  One Response to “Social contracts around a gaming table.”

  1. When source books, character generation software and/or blank character sheets are left with players weeks in advance of a first session, it is understood that the players should be somewhat brushed up on basic rules and actually have a character created for the first session.

    Additionally, there should be an agreement on no whining. One player who whines can ruin the experience for both an ST and the other players. Any hardships presented to a specific character by the ST should not be construed as personal attacks, but rather understood as an attempt to help the player further develop his/her character by presenting a unique challenge and opportunity, oftentimes adding a new motivating factor for the character to achieve their goals or the goals they’re being nudged toward by fate (the story).

    When I ST, I try to be as magnanimous as possible, granting second chances, avoiding killing blows, bending rules to keep the party alive and move the story forward. Therefore, I tend to get frustrated when players whine about losing items or having non-essential items stolen from them in plot events. (“I’m sorry your companions had to leave your full plate behind in the orcs’ dungeon so they could drag you out. Remember this the next time you go off on your own. You can get more armor later.” or “Please be mad at the NPC thief who ran off with your silver, not at me.”)

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