Dec 13

RPG Blog Carnival; The Social Contract


OR, How to STOP your game from imploding.


RPGBlogCarnivalLogoSmallAnother month, another RPG Blog Alliance Carnival.  


My entry for last month was Betrayal in the Throne Room.   The November Blog Carnival was hosted by Mike and Liz at Nearly Enough Dice.


This month the Carnival is being hosted by Runeslinger at Casting Shadows.  The chosen topic for December is Taking Charge, described on the blog as;


This could be interpreted in any number of ways, such as (not limited to), outlining ways a group of characters can be more proactive in their affairs, a group of players choosing to improve their existing gaming habits (including the GM), players stepping up to make more effective use of their agency as co-conspirators an contributors to a campaign, and/or getting a good grip on a game that is out of control and going nowhere.

Following on from the unfortunate in-game events that brought my campaign to a screeching halt in the Throne Room, my thoughts have returned to the issue of a Social Contract. This article on the Gnome Stew provides a fine overview of the issue.


In the hope of avoiding another game breaking down due to a conflict of expectations, I have started the next cycle of the campaign with a discussion of our Social Contract. I had offered this option to the Players in the now-discontinued game, but at the time there was no enthusiasm for this discussion. I have to wonder how much of a difference it would have made had I insisted that we deal with this issue.

Our Way to Play

Every group is different, and every Social Contract will need to cover different topics. Here is ours.


I believe that one main purpose of the contract is to outline for the Players the style of game that they can expect from the GM. Thus, our contract emphasises the narrative nature of the game that I try to run. Yours may well stress another play style. What matters is that the discussion makes clear to the Players the type of game that they can expect, the sorts of behaviours you are expecting, and what would not be acceptable.

The Text


  • Type of Game
    • Narrative
      • There is always another way, not just violence, explore the possibilities of HQ
      • Game setting will push back hard at murder hoboes!
      • Heroes cannot always win, so judge situations accordingly
      • Plot can twist and turn, I am looking at emulating TV series, and as such there can be shifts in focus, plot, etc.
      • Story trumps rules, and, well, just about everything
      • A game about characters, not their stuff, or their wealth
      • Much of the game is improvised ahead of the Players, so move slowly through new areas & be aware that sometimes I really am just making it up as I go along
      • There is also scope for Player input, within some limitations, so improvise too
    • Game about Heroes
      • Flawed Heroes, perhaps, but need to be broadly good
      • So rogues are possible, but the darker behaviours of Ragnarr and Javan not really appropriate [Note, two Heroes from previous games who explored some evil behaviours]
      • Dark and Shining Wyrd now more dangerous with the risk of apotheosis at the start of EVERY Session. [Note, my House Widget equivalent of Good and Evil “bennies”]
  • Rules
    • HeroQuest 2, as modified by the extensive House Rules
      • Flexible & ongoing rules development, so are thus subject to change with little notice
    • Interweave other rules systems as interludes
  • Schedule
    • Weekly on Saturdays
    • Skip one week per month, arranged in advance
    • Only play with 2+ Players
  • Player behaviours
    • Game needs to be fun for all, including the GM
    • Tolerance is key
      • To allow the spotlight to shift
      • Accommodate & accept different play styles
      • Limited inter-party dispute is possible and acceptable, but all Players should be warned that this is a slippery slope and should be handled with extreme care
    • Occasional Inter-Party conflict is acceptable
      • Drama comes from conflict, so conflict between the Heroes can lead to dramatic sessions
      • This should not be a frequent event, but there is no reason why the Heroes cannot disagree and have heated discussions
      • However, violence between Heroes is not the focus and will be dealt with swiftly, allowing the story to move on
    • Avoid racism, sexism & other views likely to cause offence in real life
      • Avoid lampooning the racial traits of fantasy creatures, as this way lies Monty Python
      • Acceptable to attack Sessukur cultures, all Acheans are effete & lazy, Jrusteli are baby-eating mages who make pacts with demons, etc.
    • Please try to bring dice and pencils to every game, I manage to haul in everything else
  • Away from the Table
    • Homework
      • Minimum is the Log Entries, or equivalent, on the Wiki & perhaps skimming through the printout at the start of a Session
      • Being familiar with at least some of the additional Wiki entries would be good
    • Changing Plans
      • Heading off in a fresh direction at the start of a Session will create additional GM stress and result in wild improvisation, so please avoid where we can

Player Input

This is a GROUP contract, and not just a dictation from the GM. So, during the discussion with the Players, be sure to ask for their input. The intention is to come to a consensus about the style and boundaries of the game that you will be playing together.


Some areas of the contract, such as the style of game that the GM is prepared to run, will be open to less debate than others. It is important to find the common ground that everyone can agree upon. However, if no agreement can be found, then it would be better to change the composition of the group than to sign up to something that is not going to be fun.


This is not an easy thing to deal with, and many people might be tempted to agree regardless of their reservations. This is especially true for the GM, who has to put in a lot of effort to run a game, and thus needs to be happy with the broad parameters of the game. Yet, this is only storing up problems for the future.


Dissatisfaction with the style of a game may not cause problems for a short game. For a long campaign, however, then this will only cause problems further down the line. The hard truth, is that if a compromise cannot be hammered out at this stage of the process, then it really is better to change the composition of the group, or decide to play something else. The alternative is likely to be heartache, frustration and broken friendships when the inevitable clash of personalities happens.


Roleplaying games can be an emotional experience. In-game disputes can easily spread to out of game relationships. Do not set yourselves up for a fall. Early intervention can prevent things spiralling out of control and friendships dissolving in resentment and animosity.


You have been warned.


So what is your experience of Social Contracts at the table? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Happy Gaming


 Something for the Weekend next week; The Scholars’ Game


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  1. Thanks for contributing to the RPG Blog Carnival for December!

    There is a lot of room for discussion here~

      • Phil on December 16, 2013 at 6:27 am
      • Reply

      Hi Runeslinger,

      Yes, and no!

      I feel that the issue of the style of game that the GM is prepared to run is not so open for discussion. This is not set in stone, but the scope for change is limited.

      The Player action parts of the Social Contract, however, are very much for the group to decide. The game needs to be fun for everyone, and a clear set of expectations can facilitate this.

      Our Social Contract will not suit everyone, but having a list of the topics that we discussed gives other GMs a starting point.

      Best of luck with the Blog Carnival


      1. That’s mostly what I meant; the example can spark discussion for different groups about if and how they want to approach using this social tool to improve their gaming.

        Personally, I prefer that a group not have to go so far as to need an explicit contract to be able to game well together, but I find that the more times people have to go out and find new players to build or rebuild a group the more necessary contracts may seem or actually become. As a result, the contract you have outlined here would not be for me. In the same way, it will be fantastic for others. As you say, the example you have posed presupposes that the group is talking about playing the game the GM is offering.

        While I definitely know what it is like to have a desire to run a particular game in a particular way, and have sometimes asked for the trust of the players to let me try it out, I have come to set games up through negotiation with the other players. What game do we all want to play this time? Which of us is most suited to run it? What roles do we want to explore in it this time? What themes appeal to us most within the genre and with the group that the characters would form? An agreement or statement of purpose between us would follow all of this discussion and so would focus on techniques and approaches to play rather than laying out rules for participation and outlining areas of freedom and restriction within them.

        This sort of discussion is why your post is so well-suited to this Carnival. You have given a great example of a group experiencing or identifying a problem, and being proactive about dealing with that problem so that play can continue and hopefully improve for all involved.

  2. In my times playing RPGs I never had one, nor really needed one. The one time something ‘went wrong’ the player who did bad calmly packed up his stuff and walked out. He got a warning but he kept himself away for a while. (To be fair to him he did warn the other player before something ‘went wrong’ numerous times and the other player was really annoying.)

    In other groups I have been to the social contract worked well.

    So all in all I’m guessing that it could be a good thing but one that seldom needs to be looked at. Other than reviewing the contract on a regular basis to make sure people are still happy with the contract and the game.

  1. […] I wrote about my experiences with a Social Contract here. […]

  2. […] I have written before about my experiences with a social contract. […]

  3. […] Here is my Blog Carnival article on the Social Contract, written shortly after this campaign implode… […]

  4. […] Social Contract […]

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