During a recent conversation with Stupid Ranger (who, despite the moniker, is a highly intelligent person), the topic of social contracts for gaming groups emerged. Such contracts set clear expectations about how players should behave at the gaming table, and by signing them, players agree to abide by those expectations. While these contracts are not a new concept – a definitive post on the topic appeared on Treasure Tables three years ago, and the earliest online reference to the term I found was dated 2001 – I noted that no version of the Dungeon Master’s Guide had ever identified such an agreement as a dungeon master’s tool, and inexperienced DMs may consider drafting one for the purposes of improving the play experience for everyone.
Group composition is a key element in determining if a formal social contract is necessary. Many groups are composed of family members and close friends; relationships of that sort are well-established, and tend to have higher levels of personal acceptance, easier communication, and higher tolerance between players. For such groups, these close relationships can naturally address most play aspects a social contract would cover on an as-needed basis, so specifically writing out how people should behave during the game may not be necessary.
For groups that develop more spontaneously, like those that emerge through gaming clubs, online “meetup” groups, social networking sites or other instances when those at the table may not know each other well, sitting down as a group and creating a social contract may be a much more useful exercise.
A little research into this topic yielded this list of typical contract topics (basic courtesy and respect are, of course, expected at all times):
- The game system or edition to be played;
- Supplemental materials that will be employed or specifically ruled out;
- Explanation of DM-created “house rules” that will be used;
- The number of players, and a process for adding new players or “writing out” players who leave the group;
- Logistics of meeting places, provision of snack foods or meals, or sharing expenses;
- The expected duration of the campaign;
- Meeting days/times, session frequency and duration;
- Attendance expectations, and what happens if a player is chronically absent;
- Procedures for canceling a session;
- The overall tone of the game, and expectations that characters will contribute to that atmosphere instead of undermining it;
- Table conventions, such as how often a person can speak out-of-character or, my personal favorite, the you-said-it-you-did-it clause, for players who try to make everything into a joke;
- A stance on whether or not player characters may attack each other;
- Policies about note-passing, whether or not die rolls must be made in plain view, and ethical concerns such as allowing evil player characters;
- Procedures for handling player-DM disputes; and
- Rules regarding physical contact between players.
It seems that we, as players, tend to expect others to instinctively know what we want in our games, and we can become frustrated when other players act in opposition to our expectations. If most of the players want a grim, mercenary campaign and one player creates a gnomish jester who enjoys practical jokes, it unlikely that anyone at the table will have fun: the DM sees the dramatic tension he’s trying to develop canceled by rubber chickens, the gnome player is annoyed that no one appreciates his jokes, and the other players see their heroes effectively knocked offstage by what amounts to the gnome’s bad Vaudeville.
It is for this reason that even seasoned groups can benefit from having a frank discussion about some or all of these topics, if for no other reason to review expectations or to revise the manner in which the game is played to reflect the collective preferences of the group. If one player has very different expectations for a role-playing game, it may be better for everyone if that player sought another group of like-minded players.
A very important note to remember in dealing with these “mismatched” players is that we must clearly distinguish that the mismatch is not a judgement of that player’s ability, social skills, intelligence or value as a person. It’s easy to take being told, “you don’t really fit our group” very personally.
One analogy to help a mismatched player to understand the group’s feelings involves vehicles. Whether a four-wheel-drive vehicle or sports car is “better” is largely determined by the road ahead. A player whose style doesn’t match the rest of the group has the same effect as a person who shows up in a Ferrari to go off-roading with friends; while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the Ferrari, it’s not going to work in that environment.
For newer groups, establishing such a contract can avoid misunderstandings before the first die roll, and help ensure that everyone has fun playing Dungeons & Dragons.