Guest Author - Jay Shaffstall
The term "social contract" is used in some discussions on role playing games theory, and it's worth looking at if you haven't heard the term before. For the purposes of this article, let's define the social contract of a game as, the shared understanding of what experience everyone wants to get out of the game.
If you go to a game that is advertised as a horror game, you might go with entirely different expectations than another prospective player. The term "horror" can mean anything from terrifying suspense to gory slaughter to supernatural thriller, and more. Let's say you're expecting something from the terrifying suspense category, and the game turns out to be gory slaughter. The chances are very good that you won't have any fun, or at least not as much fun as if the game had been what you expected.
Expectations also involve the behavior of other players. You might expect the GM to be responsive to player modifications of the plot, because you've had a GM who was like that. If your new GM turns out to be the sort who doesn't permit any deviation from a plot, then you probably won't have as much fun as you expected.
So the social contract is the entire set of expectations that you have about what the game will be like. Successful games are ones where all the players and the GM have a shared social contract. There might be minor differences, but their expectations are the same in the major points. Since everyone has the same basic expectations, the game can fulfill those and everyone has a lot of fun.
When someone has radically different expectations, not only don't they have as much fun, but typically everyone else doesn't either.
How does this help us have more fun in games?
Normally we go into a game with our own expectations, and the other players and GM go in with theirs, and we only know that there are differences after the fact. It's worth the time to explore the social contract up front, to make sure that you're going to have the experience you want. After all, our time is pretty valuable, why spend it playing a game that isn't any fun?
When you're thinking about joining a new gaming group, talk with the GM and the other players to find out what sorts of games they normally play. Make sure that they play the sorts of games that you enjoy, or at least that you want to try.
When you're starting a new game as a GM, talk to your players to find out what they want to get out of the game. You might have an idea about a campaign you want to run, for example a time travel adventure. Talk to your players and find out what sorts of things they'd really love about a time travel adventure. Heck, find out what is the first thing that comes to mind for them when you say the words. For some it'll be Timecop, for others it'll be Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Two very different sets of expectations there.
I ran afoul of violating social expectations early in my career as a GM, when I ran a game of Top Secret, a role playing game of super spies. Everyone was having a great time for half a dozen game sessions as the characters tracked down the organization behind a series of high profile thefts. Right up until the point that they discovered the organization was a front for a group of wizards from another world, and the characters would need to pursue the wizards into their own world.
See, my expectation was that it would be great fun to see how the super spies coped in a magical world. My players' expectations was that they would get to be James Bond and foil the villains from taking over the world.
We never played another session of that campaign after that night.
If I had made sure from the start that my players were okay with the basic idea of taking super spies into a magical world, we could have had great fun with the concept. But because we all shared different expectations, I broke the social contract by changing genres in mid-campaign.
So whether you're a player or a GM, make sure that everyone's expectations are similar enough on the important points that the group can have fun playing together.