We as role-playing gamers tend to overlook the importance of group dynamics when creating or joining a group. These dynamics then lead to the group’s breakdown. What are the elements of a group’s social contract? How can we make groups that last as long as we want to play?
My first game didn’t have a charter, but it had plenty of implicit social norms and expectations.
The Social Contract
I’ve identified seven key areas of any group’s social contract: the Story you create together, the Game you play, who is the Game Master, the group’s play Schedule, the Venue, the Style of Play, and the group’s consensus on in-character and out-of-character Banter.
For example, here is my first campaign:
- Story: Defending the city-state of Altara
- Game: Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition
- Game Master: Me; eventually two other players ran one-offs
- Schedule: Initially weekly, then every other week, then monthly
- Venue: The apartment of the player with the largest table.
- Style of Play: One or two combat set-pieces per session, surrounded by free-form roleplay involving frequent skill checks and occasional skill challenges
- Banter: We joked around out of character quite a bit; in character, much less. We took some scenes seriously, and others not. That was where our fun was.
We had only one player with experience; he had played D&D back in college. The rest of us were new to it. We were all board game aficionados, and two of us newbies were extremely enthusiastic about the idea of role-playing. 4th Edition had just come out, and it looked interesting enough that I bought the trio. We were off to the races.
I gave a little survey before we started the game to see what kind of game people wanted. High-magic or low-magic? PG, PG-13, R? These sorts of questions were the ones I thought important: the ones that informed the fictional world. While such questions do have their place, they are not what is most important when establishing a new role-playing group.
The true negotiations lie in the above seven areas. Every time someone proposed doing something different, much negotiation ensued. It seemed to me like overly polite, never-say-no geek social awkwardness at the time, but I think we all recognized subconsciously that any real change required buy-in from everyone. Unanimity was mandatory, except in scheduling, where the least available person determined the schedule of the group as a whole.
Note particularly the style of play. Most game systems allow multiple styles of play but support one the most. From my reading and experience, I believe this is the 4E style. Combat is the centerpiece; the rest, as far as the rules are concerned, is a sideshow.
This is not a condemnation of 4th Edition. It is the reason I no longer run it. It’s a matter of taste, not objective value.
“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” - Dune, by Frank Herbert
Once a group establishes its contract, it gains momentum. Several people have agreed to come together in a certain place for a specific game and to fill particular roles acting in an agreed-upon manner in the pursuit of fun. Any change threatens that equilibrium, however ill-defined. People may tiptoe around potential conflicts. Open discussion and agreement on the “rules” makes it clear what the objective is. A group that wants an excuse to hang out together is going to have very different rules than a group seeking an immersive game.
Gamer Group “Charters”
The best way to inoculate a group against misunderstandings is to establish the social contract in advance.
I recently joined a group that underwent its own turmoil centered around problems with a single player. Because that player’s behavior was inconsistent with the style of game we wanted to play, we disbanded and reformed, sans the odd man out. There was one very important difference between the first group’s founding and the new group’s reestablishment: before we played a single game, we discussed among ourselves what sort of group we wanted to be. We have an actual document: an email sent out to everyone when reforming the group. To avoid misunderstanding, our norms are explicit:
- Story: As proposed by the rotating GMs.
- Games: Apocalypse World; Burning Wheel; Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition; Dungeon World; Fate; Savage Worlds, etc. As proposed by the rotating GM.
- Game Master: Two alternating games with different GMs each run for an arc; the player who has been longest away from the GM role gets first call on a new game.
- Schedule: Weekly; alternating between two games.
- Venue: Rotating between players willing to host.
- Style of Play: As established by the GM running the game.
- Banter: As required by style of play, but most humor is in character now.
These rules don’t have exceptions. If someone doesn’t like the system, we’d hate to lose them, but this will satisfy our group’s desire to play and run many different games, as well as provide a standard for vetting potential new players.
Organizing a group successfully may be the most difficult part of being a GM. Establish expectations in advance; have frank discussions. Lay the foundation with care, and your game may outlast you.
Coming soon: Which disruptions to the above elements are easiest to weather? Which is most likely to kill your group? How can you determine if your group is salvageable? What mistakes has the author made that he is so certain about his answers?
What is your group’s social contract? What experiences have you had creating, disbanding, and reestablishing gaming groups? What lessons have you learned?