Social Contracts in Gaming
This came about following some writer’s block (hence the lateness) but then I read Marc’s excellent blog post about killing or not killing other PCs and inspiration struck.
If you’ve been on the internet in gaming forums or on blogs for a while then you’ve probably seen the term “Social Contracts” come up in discussion. It’s something I first became aware of in an RPG around 2010, in the Smallville RPG which I was going to use to run a True Blood game (it works amazingly well by the way). Right there on Page 10 is a list of responsibilities – for the player, for Watchtower (the ST) and for everyone at the table.
That was kind of neat. Things we often do anyway, but just as often we overlook. We all want our characters to be the heroes of the story, to be the main character. Sometimes though we push others aside to do that. So I thought it was interesting but didn’t give it a lot of thought.
Then I saw the same thing in the Leverage RPG from the same company and many of the same designers. Then it started to crop up more and more. It’s certainly a thing now, but what exactly is it?
What is a Social Contract?
A social contract is
An agreement among the members of an organized society or between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each.
It’s the often unspoken agreement we have with each other to behave a certain way. However as groups get bigger then the unspoken needs to be codified. It needs to be easy for new members to the society to grasp and understand. Some tabletop groups have taken to explaining their “rules of the table” to new players or even having them written down.
These are the ones presented in Smallville and how we can adapt them to our own use.
Players are responsible for
- Deciding what their Leads do – For our terminology that would be our PCs. We are ultimately the ones who decide what they do except in extreme circumstances or when various powers are used.
- Deciding whether their Leads stand up and fight or Give In – That’s a mechanical thing in Smallville but it applies. We’re the ones who decide what our characters fight for, what they stand for and what they’ll draw a line in the sand for.
- Confronting the problems Watchtower presents – If there’s plot and we’re not engaging with it then that’s on us. The ST’s job is to present plot, drama, conflict etc. It’s our job as a player to engage it.
- Pointing their Leads in directions that make for good stories – See above. When we’re talking with others and telling “no shit there I was” stories they’re never about the time we sat alone in Elysium while others went to investigate things. Well sometimes they are because you can make all sorts of deals when not many people are around. Ideally though we need to be proactive and not reactive.
- Challenging other Leads and testing their assumptions, sometimes with Contests – Some venues are more PvP than others. Some people like that, some don’t. Regardless drama requires conflict of some nature and dynamic games have more people involved in more conflicts with more sides. They don’t have to be physical conflicts, moral conflicts are just as fun. Maybe you take offense at the off-handed way the Tremere burned a church full of innocent people down (in my defense – they were witnesses to a Masquerade breach and I can’t Dominate them all with 100% certainty). Call him on it or drag people into plotting behind his back to take him down. Don’t just sit there complacent.
- Deciding how their Leads change and grow over time – Characters are more than just sheets and dots and XP. They should be living, breathing creations and interaction with plot and with others should change them. We guide that change through our portrayl and future interactions with others. Even if there were no XP, your character should be markedly different two years into game than they were at the start.
- In general, telling the story of their characters – Doesn’t really need translating into LARP.
Watchtower (the ST) is responsible for
- Presenting problems (or apparent problems) for the Leads to confront – games don’t exist in a vacuum. Some venues are very player driven (see PvP) but most require a fair amount of ST intervention to generate entertainment. We should never hesitate to do so.
- Deciding how Features can best provoke responses from Leads – make NPCs that are vibrant. Lead by example if you want the PCs to learn to bend, not break and have your NPCs do so. Not every NPC needs to Dominated/Presenced/Mind Sphered/Intimidated/Tortured etc. They aren’t there to be the stare of the show, they are a means to drive the plot bus.
- Framing scenes and ending them – a good ST knows when to let a scene run and when to call it over.
- Calling for tests – not every social encounter requires a test. We do have mechanics for backing up when the character is able to do something the player is not (whether throwing a punch or wooing a prince) but if the player is selling it, then let them.
- In general, stirring up trouble – Our goal is to make things entertaining. The question from others should never be “who died” but “did everyone have fun”.
Everyone (and I mean Everyone) is responsible for
The colored ones below are things I consider to be the most important.
- Making everybody else at the table look awesome – this is something people have a hard time with, especially in PVP games. We’re telling a collective story so let other people have the limelight and beyond that help them look awesome while doing it.
- Selling other’ successes instead of soft-pedaling them – if another PC foiled your plan then sell it. Vow revenge (quietly), accept your punishment, don’t downplay it. They worked just as hard to foil your plans as you did making them so let them enjoy it and play along.
- Offer suggestions to other players, but respect the decisions they make in the end – We’re all in this together and we’re all telling stories together. We should feel free to offer suggestions but always remember that the other player ultimately controls their PC.
Our club is fairly large, we have people with all varieties of playstyles and sometimes these common sense things get lost. The next time you’re playing try to keep these things in mind and see if it makes a better time for everyone at the game.