Know Your Boundaries: Social Contracts in Table-Top Games

If you hold the status of veteran gamer, you know the value of having good players and game masters. We create friendships based on the bonds of good social gaming. In fact, it usually makes our weekends. On the opposite end, veteran gamers know the pain and agony of dealing with Table-Top games ran by horrible game masters. Or sitting in a group of players who don’t hold the same values as you do. It makes you not want to game again.
This situation can be avoided by asking for and using a social contract.

What is a social contract?

This question has been answered throughout history. It originates in Greek and Roman eras and refined politically mid-17th to early 19th centuries. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote about this in his book The Social Contract. In game terms, Ron Edwards talks about The Social Contract in his Big Model.
A social contract is an agreement on how to behave or socialize within the given environment. Actions which violate expectations on how to behave will see the group react by ostracizing or outright banning that individual.
Do I need a social contract?
With a group of strangers YES! Gaming is tough without all of the constant barrage of unneeded behavior and interruptions. Table-top role-play can be considered a performance art. The players should agree on what is good and not so good. If you have a troll or someone who thrives off of bad behavior, it should be obvious they do not belong in your group and should not be allowed to play. Get rid of the problem before it arises in game.
If you are playing with old time friends, you should know each other and a social contract already exists informally.
How do I make this contract?
Two ways:
Verbally: Just talk about it and get everyone’s agreement on what is acceptable behavior and not. Bring up questions about character death, taboo topics and types of behaviors everyone agrees don’t work. Try and field at least 5 questions as a Game Master. Some Game Masters will do interviews before the game, therefore making more personal connections beforehand and establishing a social contract between two individuals. A verbal agreement works for demonstrations as well in conventions.
Written: Role-playing tournaments or something with a bit of stress involved requires a written agreement. It feels stuffy, but if a reputation or money is at stake, best to have something down in writing. Board games played on a professional level could use this. Sometimes rpg tournaments use these agreements. It is best to get all parties on board with what is acceptable behavior.
Social contracts help table-top games stay on track. If you value your time and entertainment then it is highly recommended you get all parties on the same page socially. Unacceptable behavior can ruin game night. And that makes for a crappy weekend and loss of a good time.
Time is too precious to waste participating in a social event gone bad because of one player. Do yourself a favor and establish a social contract.


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