The Social Contract

Posted: May 31, 2015 in DM Tips, RPGs

This post is about a social convention of which we do not speak. I will adopt a name that I’ve heard it used for it, “The Social Contract”.

The purpose of The Social Contract is to establish the parameters in which we will play a game. In many games, the unspoken first rule is that: Unless otherwise agreed, we will follow the rules as written. For example, the game Monopoly includes rules for bank loans. Some players hate bank loans and so they specify a “home-brew” rule that there shall be no bank loans. So The Social Contract is thus evolved to “We’ll play Monopoly in accordance with the rules as written except no bank loans.”

Your cousin Vitaly from Minsk comes to visit, and you decide to play Monopoly because your family is lame, er, because it’s a tradition. You all sit down and shuffle the things and place the things and pick your doo-dads and play. Eventually, Vitaly tells you, in broken english made harder to understand from a slight cleft lip, that “He would likingk the $200 loan from bankk so can be buyingk Marvin Gardinsk.” Agast at this betrayal of the social trust, your family begin crying and tearing at their hair, wailing a how such a terrible thing injustice could have fallen upon your house. This drama could have been avoided by simply explaining to poor, innocent Vitaly, the The Social Contract.

In a more complex and interesting game, and here I’m inevitably talking about role-playing games (RPGs), The Social Contract also serves as a codification of home-brew rules, but it also provides what is expected of the players and the gamemaster.


Some examples of home-brew rules are that: healing potions in D&D always provide a fixed, average heal, i.e., instead of the player rolling 1d8+1, drinking a Cure Light Wounds potion instead always restores exactly 5. This is contrary to the rules as written (RAW), but in some games people have decided that it provides a convenience to not have to roll, and perhaps to know in advance what the effect will be before dedicating an in-combat action to use it.

Home-brew rules also first occur first during character creation. A game-master may say something as simple as “level 1 characters from any character build from any published books” or “official books only” or “everybody will play Neutral Good gnome bards”. There is no RAW preventing a player from choosing any character type published on the internet, or equipping said character with the best gear that internetters have invented. There should be an understanding, though, usually written in RPG books that “gamemasters have the final say in anything” including which rules will be used and which won’t. The reason for this overarching meta-rule is brutally clear: the gamemaster doesn’t have to run the game, and if the game turns into something that the GM isn’t interested in participating in, then xe won’t.

The important part here are the expectations: if the gamemaster naively or brashly says anything goes, then xe must be prepared for weird stuff, and if after being presented with 4 entirely incompatible character builds the GM grows uncomfortable, then a problem has arisen and the game may be doomed. While expectations were vocalized, there were other unspoken or implied expectations, as well. One of these might be that the party should have worked together to create characters that are compatible with the GM’s vision for the game. “I know that I said anything goes, but there are no Jedi in Call of Cthulhu.”

So it’s important for the GM, and the players (see below) to hammer this stuff out in the beginning. A common shortcut is to say “anything from the official game material is fine, but if you see an optional rule or something in some other source material somewhere, then discuss it with me and I may allow it. Also, if I decide to alter a RAW, then I will tell you in advance, or we can discuss altering your character mid-game, as necessary.”


Another big part of The Social Contract are the expectations about gameplay itself. Here are some sample expectations:

  • The GM and players should arrive at the gameplay location between 7:45 and 8:00 pm on Saturday night. Barring emergencies, everybody is expected to confirm by email that they will be there by no later than the Wednesday before.
  • Between 8:00 pm and 8:30 pm, conversation and friendly chatter is expected, but we’ll also be setting up the game area.
  • At 8:30 pm, we’ll start gaming. At this point, no out-of-game anecdotes are allowed. Late players will be left out of gameplay until the GM deems that it is feasible to introduce them into a scene.
  • We will game until 12:00 pm only, because Vitaly has to work Sunday morning in salt mine.
  • Snacks are not expected to be shared, so only bring what you want to eat or drink, and don’t mooch.

These sample rules are designed to set social parameters for the group. In some groups, these rules are less necessary, but there are always people that play fast-and-loose with schedules, and while waiting for them, the others just sit around waiting until it is agreed to do something else. If the late/absent player is in a key party role or has a pivotal scene to move the story forward, and no one knows when they will arrive or if at all, then some or a lot of the players’ and the GM’s time will be wasted. This is a real world problem that can, and has, destroyed games.

Another, largely undocumented part of The Social Contract is the expectations for the type of game. There are games that I have run that I have pitched with something as vague as “I have a great idea for a D&D campaign; everyone will start at first level”. Those games may or may not work out. A better idea is to say “I have a great idea for a Star Wars campaign; everyone will start at first level, and will know each other to start as crew members on a smuggling freighter. The theme of the campaign will be mostly pro-rebellion, but as you will also spend a lot of time in Imperial Space, you will need to be able to blend in somewhat. I want the PCs to work towards something heroic that assists the rebellion in the background of what made it to the official movies. Also, consult each other with your concepts and goals – I want the characters to be motivated to work together and the onus is on you lot to make that happen.” A pitch like this tells the players what you’re expecting of them, namely that they should all make characters that know and accept each other, and can operate a spacecraft. They may take it upon themselves to pick and choose various roles so that there are no obvious problems (like no pilot). Also, they should suspect that a Jedi is probably off-limits. Ideally, the players should be free to suggest modifications to your pitch, such as adjusting the starting point, or the theme. Perhaps the players all decide that they really want to play Imperial spies, or be traders on fringe space well away from any “Imperial entanglements”.

At this point, The Social Contract begins to take its true purpose, which is steering the game. Once the theme and pitch for the game have been agreed upon, then the GM can gently steer the ongoing action to the expected objectives, and may be less compelled to direct play along an entirely different narrative. Equally importantly, the players know what the game is meant to be, and will be less likely to all decide to go off mission and sack Bespin.


You don’t need to write out The Social Contract in excruciating detail. The big items should be discussed, and maybe an email follow-up of what was agreed can be sent out. The main purpose is to get buy-in from all of the people involved in the game prior to game start. If the schedule is too rigid for a shift-worker to commit too, then maybe they’ll agree to playing a less prominent, supporting role as they might not make it to every session. If the players make characters with goals incompatible to the agreed upon pitch, then you and they will know in advance, instead of finding out 3 sessions into the game. If a player really wants to try an unofficial character design, or use an optional rule, then you can work with them to ensure that it is appropriate.

Finding out mid-commitment that there are serious, unwritten expectations, rarely turns out well, in game or in life.


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