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.


Sometimes when running a game, the game-master (GM) wants to advance the story’s timeline.  But, game-wise, what should be considered when you do this?


The main reason for doing anything in a RPG is because it seems like a good idea at the time.  Other good reasons for inserting an interlude into a campaign include the following:

  • Closure – by definitively inserting a lengthy passage of time into a story, you provide closure to the events of the first period, and provide a beginning to a new story.  This story signal lets participants now that the dangling plot threads are ‘as undangly as they gonna get’ and that the opportunity for pursuing them further was missed.  This allows the player characters (PCs) to refocus on what matters in the moment, rather than doggedly chase after every villain or rumour in their big book of adventures.
  • Realism – realism is something that Immersionist type players cherish, and it sometimes feels more natural in a story for adventure opportunities to arise sporadically, rather than two new ones popping up when one is cut off like some sort of cosmic narrative hydra.  The time between chapters then becomes part of the flavour of the immersion.
  • Expedience – the next cool bit that the GM has planned may take in-world-time to bring to fruition.  Perhaps Sarumon needs time to breed an orc army, or the villains need time to construct their new super fortress, or maybe you’re playing in London 1892 and you want to ‘skip ahead’ to 1897 when the big guy comes to town (oops, spoilers!).
  • Gestalt/montage – sometimes, when trapped in a series of repeating circumstances, it is better storytelling to simply allude to the repetition, showing typical outcomes and highlighting only that which is important.  In the movie Soldier with Kurt Russell, after the initial training, the soldier’s unit is montaged through a large number of battles, in various places on Earth and later in space.  The montage shows that there are continuing conflicts, but from the stories perspective, you’re also showing the acquisition of experience without being pedantic about each and every lesson learned or skill improved.

Game Considerations

In some games, like D&D, there may not be a mechanic for advancing characters outside of combat. But unless the PCs are cardboard cutout parodies of characters, then they probably have life goals.  They have families, careers, hobbies, that is, interests outside of spelunking and slaughtering.  Wizards may want time to research, bards time to travel and perform, and in general, maybe a PC gets married and has children, or opens a business.

However, if we’re being Immersionist, then we want some sort of sign that the 4 years a PC spent tailoring in their shop has somehow made them a better tailor.  Or, if they’re even less cardboard cutout parody action figures, then maybe they’re advancing more than a single life skill.  Does the PC as a spellcaster learn new spells, as the newlywed become more compassionate, as the sneak become more sneaky, learn more ‘local knowledge’, become more diplomatic, et cetera.

Do the characters level up?  In simple RPGs, this is often the one lever that is provided in game for advancing PCs.  You award them experience points and they spend that experience on random combat skills possibly entirely unrelated to their lives within the interlude.  In other RPGs, you can award skill points specifically related to those skills most appropriate without triggering a cavalcade of secondary consequences.

Anything Else?

An interlude can also be a story summarized.  Allusions or Coles Notes versions of events can be given, but important things can be delivered as well.  Here are my draft notes for the last interlude from my Victorian Age Vampire game.  My actual notes are longer, and contain additional details to help the PCs advance their own personal timelines, which I will omit here.  Where last we left the characters, two of them had engineered a train crash, while the other found a cabal of evil werewolves in the tunnels under London.

On a particular Sunday night, a train derailed.  Toxic chemicals spread everywhere, and a great fire ensued, destroying several chemical plants.  The wreckage lay where it fell and nobody would enter it.  The area was rendered inhospitable for some time, and no cleanup was attempted.  The area became a haven for decrepitude, until one shocking night of violence when the rats nest was cleaned out.  The damage was severe, the infestation greater than imagined, and many neonite kindred fell, as well as several powerful kindred were destroyed, including the newly appointed Scourge and the Sheriff of London.  A special crew was brought in from Vienna, and while they dealt with the matter, who knows what concessions to the Camarilla the Prince had to make for such rare expertise.

After repelling several Sabbat invasions and destroying a number of packs, the kindred of London believed the war to be over.  Many on the street wondered what was the purpose, with only a few elders dead, and no headlines in the papers, other than a few mentions of increased violence in the streets.  But the damage was more severe than could be easily realized.

The dead elders were almost entirely Ventrue, except for one Toreador.  The Tremere primogen disappeared when his haven burned down, but no body was found.  With the loss of several of the prime movers in London, a power vacuum opened, drawing in the ambitious to the unprotected core.  A nightmarish display of brutality by the Prince on a particularly egregious grab for power only forced them to become more subtle, and clever.

The independent kindred who had made London their home these past decades eventually returned.  Some had disappeared in those nights, and rumors abound of secret hit-squads that took some of them for loyalty testing, never to be seen again.  The bowels of Bedlam were searched once again, to no avail.  Of those independents that returned, could they ever trust the court of Mithras again, and vice versa, could they ever be trusted by the court again.

Underneath the city, something grew.  Perhaps it fed on the violence and destruction above, or perhaps it was the cause of it all.  The kindred who had previously enjoyed refuge in the Aethenium beneath London slowly began to disappear or otherwise abandon the tunnels.  Stories of hungry darkness and fell spirits abound, and soon the tunnels were emptied of all those who had kept watch.  They say that the Goblin Market still periodically occurs in the Aethenium, but who could possibly know.

I’ve spoken previously about mashing up RPGs, and playing different systems simultaneously at the table.  I continue to think that this would be doable.

However, a more typical mashup involves smooshing two or more fandoms into one (hopefully) glorious tub of squishy fun. For example, you might play Shadowrun but the game will be “Let’s combine Doctor Who with Django Unchained”.  After some appropriate head scratching, your troupe shouts ‘Hooray, our dreams finally come true!”  \o/

How does this work?

Why do people ask me these questions, do I look like I have answers? I guess that through immersion the imagination simulates proximity to celebrities which excites the hypocampus, resulting in a brief, repeatable flood of… Sorry?  Oh, the RPG side of it.

So how it works is that you need to decide how the game will progress.  There are some options.

1) Put characters from fandom A into story and plot of fandom B. That is, your players are the four iconic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but they are confronted with the story and NPCs (non-player characters) from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.

2) Put characters from fandom A into the story and plot in the style of fandom B.  That is, your players are the girls from Little Women, but they are playing in a WW2 epic inspired by, but different from, Saving Private Ryan.

3) Put characters inspired from fandom A into the story and plot in the style of fandom B.  That is, you might have the players play part of a wild west space gang inspired by Firefly, but they are playing in a story similar to, but not the same as, Moulin Rouge.  Wait, maybe that was an actual episode of Firefly.

4) For completeness, let’s add “Put characters inspired from fandom A into the story and plot of fandom B.”  That is, maybe you have a trio inspired by the core of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and your going to set them in the story Alien Resurrection, maybe as a different band of mercenaries that land on the xenomorph research vessel.

No really, How Does It Work

The trick is that the players get a free pass to imitate beloved fictional characters, or even real life people for that matter, while paying tribute to another intellectual property. The game “What If” was even the basis of a comic series, where the artists and storyers were given license to mashup, such as “What If… The Punisher went to Riverdale?” (I have that comic, btw… pure figurative gold).

The hard part might be picking the RPG ruleset to use.  If the player characters have specific abilities, then the system should have an accessible way of arbitrating the use of those abilities, like gun rules if there are going to be guns, or starship combat rules if there is going to be space combat.

This isn’t necessary, however.  Most systems are expandable if you’re okay with thinking it through.  For example, my wife is a fan of the Eddings fantasy series The Belgariad, and decided that she would like to run an RPG in that world.  [While this isn’t strictly speaking a mashup, it serves for the example.]  It might seem straightforward to use one of the many D&D systems that we’ve played, or maybe the Dragon Age RPG rules.  Instead, she chose the (classic) World of Darkness, and this makes sense.  Why?  The game has a straightforward game mechanic – combine an attribute and a skill and you get a dice pool which you roll against a target difficulty – that is easy to use on the fly, without having to look up specific mechanics in a tome of arcane rules.  Second, the game is made for superpowers (vampires, werewolves, ghosts, faeries, mages, etc) but also for playing normal people as well, so you can easily mix in some special abilities, like Barak’s bear rage, or Ce’Nedra’s nymphness.  Third, the Merits & Flaws system gives you the ability to customize the players with some of Eddings races unique abilities – maybe Drasnians get a bonus die to social roles, etc.

Once you have chosen a ruleset, and the players have chosen characters, then you need to flesh out a story that achieves the desired mashup.  Think hard about what it is about the fandom that evokes the story, and lean hard on that.  Really hard.  For example, maybe the TV show Supernatural for you is really about the angst (dramatic poles shifting from familial love and outright distrust) between the main characters, and if so, then you really need to ensure that that emotional diametric is prevalent in the story.

That’s really it.  Don’t be afraid to be unsubtle; players (and GMs) love it when they recognize elements in a mashup, so feed it to them with a shovel.

Imagine playing an RPG. Okay, now imagine that you have four players. RIght, now each of those players has a character sheet FROM A DIFFERENT GAME!! OMG, right?

Total insanity! Why would you do that? What would be the point?

I don’t know, but in some ways it seems to me that it would be pretty cool. Let’s walk through the process.

Caution: rules lawyers best leave now

First, let’s be naysayers.  “Boo, hiss, harumph… we tried that back during the winter of ’77 and our gaming group completely disbanded afterwards. Also, there was a nuclear accident.”

Those are excellent points, and in summary:

  • WTF
  • how would… how can… but the… acckkk

or more simply put: how would you arbitrate anything?

Your four players, each with a different character built from completely incompatible game systems, (like maybe Star Wars:Edge of the Empire, FATE Core, Call of Cthulhu, and Warhammer FRP), are facing a 5th generation Assamite from Vampire: The Dark Ages. Got it? Not. at. all. compatible. They don’t even use the same dice.

Except, isn’t everything compatible? We’re imagining stuff, aren’t we? We have these amazing squishy brains and they can process stuff, and make shit up, and generally fill in blanks.

That is, we can do math. We can render all kinds of advanced differential equations intuitively (try catching a Frisbee when it’s windy – that math is brutal), and generally just ‘get’ when things are fair.

Let’s assume the difficulty scale is that the player needs to “roll marginally“, “roll well” or “roll awesome“. Well, if you’re familiar with a game system, you know what all of those mean in relation to the character.  

I’ve just broken down every mechanic of every system: the player needs to roll dice, or draw cards, or rock/paper/scissors/lizard/spock against a target or opposed application of the mechanic. If the roll exceeds the target, it’s a success, if not, then it’s a failure.


Any questions?

Oh yeah, hit points.  Hit points are stupid, go sit in the corner.  No really, they don’t make biological sense.  So ‘gestalt’ them.  DMs do it in most games anyway, and say things like “I don’t track hit points, the monster goes down when it seems right that it should do so.” So why not track it as 6 marginal hits or 3 awesome hits, or something.  Bam!

Initiative/turn order? I don’t know, draw cards or something, or look up Popcorn Initiative. There are some truly cool alternate ways of tracking turn order other than “fast things usually act before slow things.”

When in doubt, have the other players vote.  “Ask, what happens?”  Players know what’s fair, let them share some of the fun.

Okay, so I have satisfied every possible question about how to arbitrate random rules in a mashup insanity game.  Let’s move on to why the fiddlesticks would you do this?

Rule #1: If you’re not doing something fun in your RPG, then maybe you should be doing something else.

  1. Wouldn’t it be cool once?
  2. It seems like an amazing way to really get to know how systems work
  3. It seems like an amazing way to really get to know what you like about roleplaying
  4. It would all be story driven, with chaotic, unpredictable interactions

I’ve spoken before about RPG Game Theory, and one thing that people like, is mastering rules and applying them to success.  This insanity random mashup?  Not going to satisfy that gamist craving.  But, for a short game or story game arc? Rules are merely there to focus the possibilities of play – we don’t always need that.  Sometimes, it’s fun just to play WHAT IF…

The following is a short story inspired by a flash fiction challenge at Chuck Wendig’s blog. This one is a mashup of Robocop and Pulp Fiction.

“That’s the most racist bullshit that I’ve ever heard!”

Dallas smiled inanely at Chester’s outburst, before continuing. “Look, it’s like 18 feet of material wrapped around your head. You could stash your wallet up there, spare keys, clips for your S&W. It’s perfectly balanced over your spine, the weight distribution is immaculate.”

“I’m not talking about physics or or biology or some bullshit, I’m talking about a significant cultural and religious practice that you want to capitalize on.” Chester glared at Dallas for a few seconds, letting his disapproval weigh in. “Why would you want to desecrate a cherished, er, headgear. So you can make a few bucks? That’s racist, it’s expropriation, and it’s fucking ignorant.”

The two of them walked through an automatic door, its greasy windows barely splishing open in time as they approached. Inside, the fluorescent lights flickered, emitting just enough light to reveal the long hallway through the mall. Several stores were open, but just as many were closed, including a Terry’s Big & Tall menswear. Apparently the destitute living in Old Detroit weren’t big & tall enough to keep Terry in the manner to which he expected.

“You’ll see,” Dallas murmured, his eyes tracking a small platoon of naked mannequins piled in the corner of an abandoned Stop-Wash laundromat. One of the mannequins had its head and one arm inside an open dryer, as if trying to escape the clutches of the plastic horde. “I’ve got some designers lined up. Once I get some,” he said, rubbing his fingers together, “working capital, I’ll go statewide. Maybe even get some distribution contracts in Canada – they’re always trying to please the towelheads.”

Chester stopped and full-faced Dallas. “That right there proves that you are a contemptible man. Towelheads? That’s racist bullshit and you are denigrating the struggles of a noble people. If I started waving cheese-fries around, or whatever your ignorant culture-destroying, religion-bashing, tree-burning people worship, saying that I could make a buck off your belief structure, you’d have a conniption fit. You would start holding committee meetings, and petition the newspapers, acting all affronted by the indignity. Fucking fuck-head fuckers.”

Walking in silence the rest of the way, they came to another automatic door, but this one had given up any pretense at function.  Dallas and Chester each grabbed a side and hauled it open, stepping through together.

“Yeah, but cheese fries are good,” murmured Dallas. Chester stopped and three-quarter turned, glaring at him for a few moments.

“You know, I can’t tell if you’re fucking with me, or if you’re a serious motherfucking retard.” Dallas shook his head, and then turned back, and they entered the alley. Turning to the left, they approached an unmarked steel door.

Chester straightened his leather jacket, unzipping it slightly. The hilt of his Smith & Wesson revolver was just visible. Taking the cue, Dallas patted the holdout in his combat boot, adjusted the Bowie in his belt, and removed the Desert Eagle from the back of his pants. He ejected and checked the clip, replaced the ammo, and then worked the slide and replaced it under the back of his studded leather jacket. Chester slid a pair of DG sunglasses over his eyes, and nodded at his companion. Dallas ran his hand through his shaggy hair and nodded back.

The door crashed open beneath Chester’s hard-soled boot. Dallas slid in and immediately grabbed the sole occupant of the room, a ratty greaseball, by the lapels. “Where’s the package,” he said mildly. Chester also walked in, his hands loose and ready.

The greaseball stumbled backwards in Dallas’ grasp.  His unwashed hair fell over the shoulders of his bowling shirt, half covering the logo of the Stevenson Mill Stevedores, which seemed to be an I-beam pushing a black ball. His hands pushed deep into his tattered and stained blue jeans, and he grasped something.

“Dog!” exclaimed Chester, “what the hell is that…” as alarms began ringing like it was a firehall in the 1950s, drowning out his question. The room had a counter along one end, and a stack of ruddy, cardboard boxes in the corner. At the back of the room was a short flight of stairs with a metal railing leading to another metal door. The word “Exit” was emblazoned in strangely crisp, black lettering. Behind the door, they could hear someone yell, a crash, and then boots running up corrugated metal stairs.

Dallas pulled out his Desert Eagle and clocked the greaseball in the temple. He spun to face the door as the bowling enthusiast slid bonelessly to the floor. Chester took a few steps to the right and behind a stack of boxes, hiding his silhouette from the incoming mob.

The door burst open and a large, fat man filled the doorway. An explosion like a rocket launcher erupted from Dallas’ hand cannon, and the fat man stumbled backwards, arms flailing. A mohawked woman behind him tried to hold up the falling fat man, but they both tumbled to the floor. Behind them, two men in surplus military jackets, one a GI and the other apparently an air force colonel, were aiming their own clunky, eastern European looking semi-automatics. Chester’s revolver fired twice and both men tumbled backwards over the railing and fell out of sight.

With a yell, Dallas ran forward and punted the mohawked woman’s head with his combat boots, a spray of blood and skin arcing up into the service bay beyond. The fluorescent lighting, also flickering, illuminated a tumbling ear in seeming stop motion as it sailed end over end and stuck to the empty rack of an absent fire extinguisher with a meaty slurp.

Below him, about two dozen men cocked shotguns, hunting rifles, handguns, revolvers, and at least two submachine guns and lifted them in his direction.

“Shit-cock-motherfucker!” yelled Dallas, as he dove to the side. The area erupted in fire and sparks as a volcano of lead erupted from below. Chester hid behind the metal door frame and waited it out. When a pause erupted, he heard Dallas say “shoot the tanks” from far off to the left. As Chester stepped into the doorway, he heard Dallas run haltingly along the walkway firing his gun up in the air at the sprinkler heads. The sea of guns was swiveling to Chester’s right towards the distraction and he spotted the propane tanks behind a table filled with chemical paraphernalia. He fired once.

Chester found himself lying on his back amongst crumpled cardboard boxes, looking upward through billowing smoke and hellish firelight. Unsure what happened or where he was, he looked around. A familiar looking greaseball was lying on his side in front of a counter, blood leaking from the side of his head. Behind him, underneath a shelf, was a steel-blue box, the icon of OCP stenciled in yellow lettering on the side. “Hey, the package!”

He stood up, and looked at the doorway where Dallas was stepping in. He had one finger in his ear, and his Desert Eagle was hanging from his left hand by the trigger guard. His left leg looked damp, but it was raining in the inferno in the service bay.

“Did you say package?” Dallas murmured.

Chester stood up and retrieved the steel box. “How long was I out?”

“I don’t know man, I just came to.”

The door to the alley crashed open. An armored cop stop there. Literally armored. Titantium alloy covered his arms, legs, and torso like a sort of robotic second skin. His face was partially covered by an integrated helmet, leaving only his human looking lower jaw visible.

His right leg opened and a huge handgun was ejected into his hand, which he aimed at Chester. “Your move, creep,” the cyborg said. Chester looked at Dallas, who returned his glance. Dallas raised his gun, spinning it around the trigger guard and into his fist. The sound of an industrial zipper erupted from the cops gun and Dallas’s hand vanished in a cloud of blood.

“Dead or alive, you motherfuckers are coming with me.”  Chester dropped his revolver, and with a slight pause, the OCP box. Huh, he thought, maybe this thing is cursed.

Sports + RPGs = Huh?

Posted: April 30, 2015 in RPGs

Have you ever considered that there are almost no tabletop, pen-and-paper roleplaying games about sports?  Why is this? Is it because RPGers aren’t ever sports fans? I mean never? There are some pretty crazy RPG niches out there, but sports doesn’t seem to be one of them.

I may be speaking from inexperience, but there aren’t any football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, or cricket based RPGs. You could make characters in a game that have skills in sports, and you could roll dice in-game to simulate outcomes, but the games don’t have rules about handling the aspects of the sports.

What about the Olympics? Jousting and the lists? Archery or sharpshooting? Boxing? Martial artists?

There is an exception, which is “professional” wrestling.  The WWF/WWE has granted license to several RPGs over the years, and there are other games in the wrestling-RPG genre. Perhaps this is because wrestling combines combat, richly detailed characters, and pageantry in a way unique to that form of sports-entertainment.

So what might be in a sports RPG? I suppose we could look at a wrestling game for that, but how about we think it through first.

  1. Would you play as individual athletes or teams?
  2. Are we talking solo games, one-on-one, or traditional multi-person groups? (I’m talking about how many people are at the table.)
  3. Is there a traditional gamemaster, or does everyone contribute equally?

Traditional Game – Several Players Playing Individual PCs with a GM

Let’s start with a character based game. A player character (PC) is a sportsperson of some kind, like a pitcher, or a linebacker, or an amateur biathlon-ist. The PCs either work together, or at least operate in the same environs, so they may literally be a team, or they may be rivals.

Consider football. The players could play the coaching staff – the general manager, the offensive coach, the defensive coach, the special teams coach, and their actions could help their mutual team succeed. Or the players could play key athletes – the quarterback, the kicker, the kick returner, linebackers, safeties, etc. What would such a game look like? Characters would need to make decisions and the GM would arbitrate the opposing team and same team NPCs, perhaps by making other decisions, or rolling on a table of potentialities.

Straight Sport

Consider baseball. At its core, baseball is the battle between a pitcher and a batsman. The pitcher chooses one of the pitches from his/her repertoire, and the batsman tries to anticipate where the ball will be and intersect the path of the ball. Let’s say there are 5 pitches: fastball, curveball, slider, spitball, and knuckleball. The pitcher’s player secretly chooses a pitch, and the batsman also chooses one. If the batsman chooses the correct pitch, the ball is hit. Then they roll their pitching/batting skills which allow them to manipulate the results to their advantage. Will it be a strike, a ball, an in-field fly, a ground double, a homerun? All of this could be gamed by a passing knowledge of the rules of the game. Hell, you could even add an element of umpire error to the game.

The straight sport, just like combat in D&D, is the testing of a PCs skills against an obstacle. You could game-ify any sport. But to make a sport into a RPG, you need to add character development, the ephemeral talkie parts that differentiate a boardgame from an RPG.

A sport isn’t just about the sport. When considering a sports-RPG, you might be tempted to concentrate on the actual sport as being the sum of the game. But just as Dungeons & Dragons isn’t just about dungeons or dragons, or even just about combat. Characters in RPGs meet non-player characters (NPCs), establish relationships with other PCs or NPCs, evolve their characters both by increasing their abilities, and by playing out their characters goals and motivations. Maybe a game session would be about dealing with out-of-sport “real life” details (like training, endorsements, fan-interactions, trades, injuries, family, interviews, stalkers…) coupled with an in-sport event like a league game.

Story Game

A story game is so-named because it focuses almost entirely on an emerging narrative rather than the exercise of game mechanics. Game players may take turns being the GM, or the GM may simply be a director. In a story game, the emerging tale of a sports-team may be spun as players weave complications and minor victories with each other in a quest to not “win”, but instead to resolve their internal conflicts and personal goals.

In a story game like Fiasco, the players may not win at all and instead have their hopes and dreams crash down around them in a glorious yet unforeseen tragedy. The purpose isn’t to say “We Win!” and high-fives all around, but instead the sport would be the mutual dramatic tension for the real story which is the players exploration of their PCs desires and troubles.


Most RPGs are character based, but there are a few story games that are more about factions. We can game anything, me thinks. In the game Microscope, the players take turns defining the history of a world, setting up the events that stand out, and exploring how key people react in the pivotal situations.

A sports-RPG could be like that. Consider the Manchester United football club, or the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey franchise. These teams have lengthy and loyal fan bases, have had their share of glory and their collective failures. You could game the evolving history of one of these storied franchises, exploring bitter victories and satisfying losses, ups and downs, popularity and empty stands.

Ass Talk

Yup, I’m talking out of my ass. Maybe there are tons of sports-RPGs. Maybe Fantasy Flight Games is working on an Al Madden Football RPG, or Wizards of the Coast is just about to publish Moneyball the RPG. I haven’t even Googled this shit to see if I’m right. I can tell you, however, that I have never heard of a sports-RPG, other than wrestling. As a sportsfan and as a RPGer, I doubt that I would want to play such a game. Unless, some really interesting story bits were added in… hmmm.  But then again, I don’t know any other sportsfan/RPGers so who would I play with?

Roleplaying Without a Net

Posted: April 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

The following is based upon a Facebook post:

I started a Changeling: The Lost campaign recently, and none of us had played nWoD before. I had the whole party think about their concepts and rough backstories, and then we roleplayed for a few hours. At the end of the night, we made characters. This is a very story driven game, rather than a dungeon slog. Jae’s approach is great for story-driven sessions and I encourage such. In fact, I would prefer that my players spend less time with the books when making PCs in a new game. Let’s sketch them out and go – we’ll fill in the blanks as we learn the system together.

After posting, I realized that I wanted to explore this in more depth.

Because I’m obsessive, when I start playing a new game, my inclination is to game the f#$% out of the system, to find every loophole imaginable and figure out how to drive a truck through them all. So I read the rules, Google over-the-top builds, and then ignore it all and build the flawed character that I want. See, I don’t want to min/max, but I do want to know how the game really works for context of the character.

In the excellent game Feng Shui, by Atlas Games, there is advice that you should initially consider just quickie building characters and then play. After the first session, go back and change the characters. After all, what better way to learn the game then to play it and see what works and what flounders. However, if players create a character while feeling that their choices will be irreversible, then they naturally will be inclined to try and avoid errors. This risk-aversion lengthens the character creation process.

Step 1 – Change Anything That Wouldn’t Cause a Ret-Conning

  • Retcon = Retroactive Continuity

Following the advice articulated in Feng Shui, I began to apply the advice to other games. In D&D, after playing for a session, a player may come to realize that a particular feat, spell, or ability didn’t work the way they thought, and may request changing the feat. I applied a general rule that if a character aspect hadn’t entered the game, then there was no harm in changing it – if it hadn’t entered the game, there was nothing to retcon.

Step 2 – Change Anything That Doesn’t Change the Core Concept

In Vampire: The Masquerade, my players made their characters knowing that they could be revised, and it went relatively quickly. After playing for a couple sessions, two players realized that their characters didn’t have the skills to use some of their disciplines, so we changed that.

Step 3 – Change Anything

In a recent D&D 3.5 game, a young player became enraptured with the Pathfinder Psionics book that he had purchased, so I gave my permission to Retcon his half-elf sorcerer as a half-elf psionicist wilder – this wasn’t replacing a character, this was re-imagining the existing character. The PC kept the same name, the same Background (which we hacked from 5e), and the same skills. While I tend to be more lenient with younger or less experienced players, I think that I would be open to similar re-imagings for other characters.

It is a choice – does it break immersion if the character begins to act differently? Does it break immersion to replace a character that a player has found unappealing? There is a middle ground of course, working with the player to improve their experience, but I contend that dogmatically requiring that past choices be inviolable is overly rigid.

Immersion does not trump enjoyment. <== That right there, is where I will leave it.