Friday, November 18, 2016

Fundamentals: The Social Contract

The social contract that should
be enough, but sometimes isn't.
The "Social Contract" is an idea that floats around in Tabletop Gaming about what is expected, in a meta sense for players and the GM. It is closely related to campaign planning, but subtly different; where campaign planning deals with designing the specifications of the campaign or adventure and has direct mechanical or narrative consequences on the game, the social contract is everything that happens outside of a game. In a perfect, ideal world, amongst adults, no one should need to nanny, coddle, and reprimand players, but sometimes there are shades of gray, or a misunderstanding of what is and isn't expected, rude, and polite. Today, I look at a list of questions one can ask themselves and the group while preparing or running "session 0," that might help things go smoother down the line.

I forget where I found these questions, but it was on some forum I think. If someone finds an author or wants to take credit, let me know. I think I've started combining questions from other sources, and adding my own as I noticed holes or irrelevant bits. This is an exhaustive list, and maybe you don't need to document your answer to every single question, but being cognizant that someone might not immediately know the answer to these questions while planning can be helpful.


  • What game?
    • GURPS. That is the correct answer.
  • What version of the rules?
    • If you fill out the campaign planning form, you've already answered that.
  • What house rules?
    • This too.
  • Can House Rules be introduced after planning is completed?
  • By what process?
    • GM Fiat, approval of the table, a vote, etc.


  • What is the game schedule?
    • No Brainer
  • What are the exceptions to the schedule?
    • It is helpful to know if there are any obvious events that will change a schedule.
  • What is quorum?
    • Will your game be ok if any number of players miss a session? Half of them? One of them?
  • What is the process for formally cancelling a game?
    • Let players know how you plan to communicate cancellations, IM, phone call, facebook, etc.
  • How should players notify if they cannot play?
    • Correct venues of communication, and a cancel by date.
  • How should players notify if they can play?
    • Similar.
  • How long is a session?
  • Will sessions have overtime?
  • Is it absolutely necessary to stop at a certain time?
  • How long of a commitment is required?
    • Do you want to run a one-shot, a short adventure, or an epic campaign?
  • Is it ok to miss games?
  • How often is it ok to miss games?


  • Where is the game hosted?
  • Are hosting duties shared?
  • What is the address, URL, hangout of the game?
  • Street parking?
    • Some neighborhoods or apartment complexes have funny rules about this.
  • Special Rules for the meeting location?
    • Some people have an assumption of a respect for privacy, young children that need to go to school, or very thin walls.
  • What Paraphernalia should Players bring?
    • Are dice, pencils, character sheets, figures, markers, calculators, books, etc. expected to be brought in? Does the GM or another player have lots of extras to loan or give away?
  • Will we eat during the game?
    • Before the game?
    • Break to eat?
    • Should players bring their own food? Pool money to order takeout? Round robin?


  • Who is invited to play?
    • Is the group locked to the initial players? A certain number? Can people just join out of the blue or on certain appropriate intervals?
  • Who is excluded from play?
    • Unfortunately, sometimes banning a player might be necessary, and there might be an awkward situation when social circles have a big overlap in a small pool if this isn't clarified.
  • What is the process for inviting new members?
    • Can anyone invite their friend over? Does the GM need to vet them? Is it a formal interview? Are good friends, spouses, or boyfriends, girlfriends, or similar allowed to join?
  • Can spectators, young pets, or children tag along?
    • Sometimes prospective players like watching, sometimes you can't find a sitter.
  • What is the process for correcting poor player behavior?
    • This is really the trickiest, and most tender point. I'd like to think there are no such thing as bad players, but it happens sometimes.
  • What is the process for having a player expelled?
    • Ditto, unfortunately.


  • Why is the group playing?
    • What is the point? Is it to enjoy the mechanics? Tell a cool story? Hang out with friends? The answer to this question might flavor some expectations like whether the game is meant to be serious, relaxed, informal, or an important commitment. Sometimes I like to tinker with specific mechanics 
  • What is the general mood of play?
  • What is the theme of play?
  • Is competition allowed? What kind?
    • Some players and GMs (myself included) prefer a very cooperative game. Some players and GMs like players working against each other, and this might even include PVP. Making the wrong assumption about this can be unnerving.
  • Are there any limits about game content?
    • Sometimes players like to keep things PG, especially, for example, if young players are invited to the table. Sometimes some gamers want to explore upsetting, provocative, or edgy worlds, which might be uncomfortable, for better or for worse, for some players. See here a discussion about lines and veils.


  • How do players make characters?
    • Does the GM expect a player to bring a character to the game? Is it a 1:1 collaborative interview? Is it a back and forth process? Is it done collaboratively in a single session? Over whatever span of time is necessary?
  • How do players advance characters?
    • Specifically for GURPS, you might say the range of expected character points a session, bonuses or penalties, restrictions on spending points, whether a prerequisite narrative event must occur to buy abilities, and whether some, all, or no disadvantages may be bought off or down.
  • How much role playing?
    • Do you want to focus on a mechanic heavy dungeon romp crunch fest? Or is it a civil courtroom intrigue game where role playing might substitute for mechanics none, some, or all of the time?
  • How can characters die?
    • Can they die? Is death reserved for dramatically appropriate events? Are players expected to use the agency granted to take otherwise potentially life-ending risks?
  • How does a player replace a character?
    • Can they resurrect? Is it instant? Do they make a new character?
  • How do players integrate into the setting?
    • Do players have narrative control to create their own piece of the world in backstory? Are they expected to read a setting bible? Is it necessary at all?
  • How do characters integrate into the party?
    • Should they have relationships established with other party members? Is it ok to not have any relationship to the party?
  • What kind of behavior is considered annoying?
    • A kinda catchall that doesn't cover the others. I for example don't like players looking up funny pictures when it isn't "their turn" or playing music that would be "really cool for this scene." That changes from person to person and group to group though.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

This is a lot of questions and rules to ask a new player to read over, so of course, don't feel obligated or like I'm telling you it is a good idea to read and answer all of these questions. Think of it as a litmus or some such where if at a glance a lot of questions have important answers, maybe it would be good to set player expectations early? Sometimes online, there is a bit of a culture clash that can occur when playing with an entire group of people you might not know who might have different definitions of the word "fun," and this can lead to someone tripping over someone else's expectations. This list isn't exhaustive or a silver bullet, so when and if it occurs, try solving the problem with communication, or if you need help, with another player or the GM. If you can think of other interesting questions to add to the list, let me know.

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