Underlying The Rules: The Social Contract

There was a request a little while back for an article on what I thought of the social dynamics that underlie gaming groups even before you get to considering any particular set of rules.

That’s an interesting question, although I’m not sure that I’m the best one to be directing it to, or – for that matter – exactly where this series is going to go or how long it will take to get there (if it ever does). It seems likely to meander a bit – which at least makes it a bit of a new challenge.

Is everybody ready then? I think the best place to start is what might be called the Primal Datum of RPG’s…

Gaming is a social activity, which people engage in for the purpose of having fun.

If you show up for a game you’ve implicitly agreed to that, even if you’re only there because somebody dragged you along. It’s just like being there to watch a football game or listen to a band; there are some unspoken social rules – unspoken because human beings generally know them instinctively.

(If you’re just there to harass and annoy people there’s no point in talking to you. You’re actually there to participate? Good!)

The three biggest social rules are the same for every group. They’re a part of the basic “being sociable” deal. In fact, they’re pretty much the same (albeit in simpler forms) for chimpanzees, dolphins, and most other social animals.

  • If what you are doing is inexpensively (whether the expense is financial, emotional, physical, or temporal) increasing everyone’s fun, keep doing it. If it costs too much… you’ll have to find another way to contribute.
  • If what you are doing is decreasing everyone’s fun, stop doing it unless it’s a dire necessity. You probably will automatically because you’re ruining your own evening too, but some people are very stubborn.
  • If what you are doing is increasing your own fun while seriously decreasing that of the other participants… then you are being a greedy, selfish, !@#$%^&* – and if you choose not to recognize that fact and do not change your behavior, then the group should throw you out on your ass.

These three rules are self-enforcing in most social groups. The Bridge Club, and the Monday Night Football Party Crowd, and the Rich Kids Clique won’t hesitate to stop inviting a disruptive individual to their gatherings. Gaming groups, however, commonly contain a high proportion of socially awkward introverts, who (having so few) are deeply reluctant to reject any social relationship and often make enormous allowances for obnoxious behavior. After all… they know that often annoy people without meaning to, and they’re not very good at telling if someone does mean to annoy them or if it’s inadvertent.

That means that some players will be allowed to get away with being greedy, selfish, !@#$%^&*’s for a very long time without being called on it. Long enough so that such individuals will often come to regard being allowed to get away with it as an entitlement – and will react to any suggestion that they’re misbehaving as if it was a horrible infringement on their “rights”. It can be very hard to tell though, given that most such individuals will deploy “indignantly blaming the wronged parties” as an automatic defense mechanism in any case. In any given case it might well be an act. (Don’t ask ME to sort that out for you. As a socially awkward introvert myself, how would I know?)

Still, after a bit… even socially awkward introverts will realize that they’re being taken advantage of, and soon after that they will come to resent it bitterly. They’ll resent it even more bitterly if they’re socially awkward enough to be unsure of how to do anything about it. In a gaming group such behavior is usually considered to be “cheating” (which is how gamers tend to describe “being obnoxious and unfair to everyone else”) – although this can confuse other socially awkward people who are looking at the rules of the game being played, rather than at the three social rules given above, and thus don’t see any “cheating”.

You want some more direct rules-of-thumb for avoiding messing up?

Commandment the First: Thou Shalt Create Personas That Can Fit Int The Player Group.

This doesn’t mean that you have to make a character who makes any sense as a part of the party, or has the same style, or anything else except for being able to work with the party. For examples…

A new player joined a fantasy-setting game. Against advice to wait until he knew what the party was like he made a half-ogre berserker barbarian who hated Elves, and detested puny mages, and equipped him with a magical halberd called “Elf-Slayer” that did extra damage to elves. He then announced that he was approaching the party on the road – and the player gave a rousing speech about how they should join him in his bloody crusade to strike down all Elves and their puny, effeminate, magic!

And then the new player looked at the bemused expressions of the six current players and asked “Uh… is anyone playing an elf?” And five hands went up, and the last player asked if half-elves counted. Because the current characters were two elven mages (a wizard and a powershaper), an elven priest, an elven swashbuckler who dabbled in magical swordsmanship, an elven illusionist, and a half-elven elementalist.

And there was a brief pause until the guy playing the wizard said “Charm Person!” and the half-ogres player did not bother to roll a save – but simply said “Except for youse guys! Youse guys are all right!”

And so the half-ogre joined the party (which needed the muscle), cheerily continuing his verbal crusade against elves along the way, and everyone had a good time. The notion that “Charm Person” could wear off or be dispelled (even if it was quite long-lasting in that edition) was never mentioned. Some NPC’s had some comments along the way, but no one had any trouble working with the half-ogre even if some of the characters professed to be relieved “because that charm spell could have worn off at any time!” when he got sucked through a gate into some terrible dimension about twenty sessions later and they couldn’t find a way to get him back. The player made a new character and found another reason to join the party.

And that worked. The other players provided an excuse and the half-ogre player made a quick concession to making the game work, and all was well.

The Shadowrun player who made a giant autobot character who insisted that magic did not exist and that everyone should obey the law and act like an idealized squeaky clean boy scout hero worked too. He proved willing to bend the law and work with dubious characters when it was blatantly obvious that the authorities were corrupt, was willing to accept the observed effects of magic even if he insisted that it was actually something else, and was perfectly willing to act as a diversion and as transportation when he was simply too big and too obvious to participate in the stealthy parts. Just as importantly, the player was willing to let me show him how to build the character he wanted as a starting character under the rules of the game, rather than demanding some sort of conversion. In fact, it worked well enough that another player used the same basic bag of design tricks to create “Thor, God of Thunder!” when the autobot player was no longer available a year or so (and fifty-odd sessions) later.

For high-fantasy Malavon one player made a BLATANTLY evil demonologist-necromancer and cheerily arrived to join the neutral-to-heroic party – offering to aid them in their quests if they would aid in his. He then directed his demon servant to just grab his daily sacrifice from a nearby village and made it utterly apparent that he was a horrible mass murderer, a torturer of children, utterly evil, and could in no way be reformed. The rest of the players quite accurately observed that – in the character’s eyes – there was no difference between player characters and non-player characters and promptly killed the “random monster”. The player then laughed, announced that “twelve minutes was two minutes longer than I thought he’d get!”, and got out the character that he actually expected to play. He didn’t expect his character to be able to join an incompatible party even if he WAS a player character – and that was good. He may have actively fought the party, and more or less created a throwaway character – but the player worked just fine with the other players even if it was in performing an elaborate suicide.

His new character was a fantasy ninja type, and was always voting for more stealth, and scouting, and less of the “charge in!” plans – but rather than fighting with the rest of the party he would generally just groan, announce “Oh not AGAIN!”, and vanish into the shadows to support whatever the rest of the group was up to now. And that was good too. He urged stealth, and took the lead on stealth missions – but he let the other characters do their own things too.

The naive blue whale werehuman, the more sensible paladins, the pragmatic evil robot assassin, and more, all fit in. They might have very strange goals (The blue whale had come up on land to see what was above the water – so all too soon he wanted to climb mountains to see what was above the land. The robot assassin wasn’t even truly sentient, had to be reprogrammed to accept the party, and rolled against it’s control program to see if he could come up with ideas or handle anything overly complicated) and equally weird ways of achieving them – but their players were willing to work with the other players to make the game work smoothly.

That’s pretty much ALWAYS possible. And it’s part of the “we’re all here to have fun” deal. It’s not a part of the game mechanics, it’s a part of the player group mechanics.

On the other hand I’ve seen plenty of bad examples too.

The werewolf kickboxer who – in a superhero game – had a backstory focusing on his massacring thirty-odd innocent people got the same second chance the half-ogre had years earlier (and with a completely different group). The (freeform magic system) superhero mage cast (unspecified) binding spells “as powerful as he could manage” on the character that were supposed to allow him to maintain control.

But the player liked massacres and saw them as being in-character for a werewolf, and promptly killed a lot more people. This was NOT compatible with an idealistic superhero group. In lieu of sensibly killing him or turning him in (probably to reappear all too soon as a villain) the group made allowances for his player-character status and resorted to binding spells that actually had game effects rather than just being an excuse for playing a little differently.

The player promptly abandoned the werewolf (who became an NPC and got put to work as a “rescue dog” – clearing normal people out-of-the-way of the superhero battles to help make up for the people he’d killed) and made another character since he didn’t like the idea of playing a werewolf with restraints (whether self- or externally- imposed) oh his behavior – and insisted on continuing to play murderous anti-heroes. The rest of the players, quite rationally, continued to play superheroes, stuck to their superheroic guns, and continued to capture the crazed antiheroes and send them to jail. Eventually he gave up and made a sane character. Now, if he’d been willing to make his ruthless anti-heroism more of a roleplaying item… he could have done just fine complaining about how weak everyone else was. It’s possible after all. Marvel Comics teamed up the Power Kids with The Punisher, Wolverine, and Cloak and Dagger. In fact, they teamed up Katie Power – a very nice five-year-old girl – with Wolverine repeatedly, and made it work. The player, however, wasn’t willing to try.

Then there was the saga of the bear shapeshifters.

The player wanted a character who could turn into a bear, so he made a shapeshifter character (who could turn into any animal but preferred bears). He joined the fourth level party, and the party decided to run off some bandits who’d been blocking the route they wanted to take. The bandits turned out to camp in a shallow cave beneath an overhanging cliff – so the shapeshifter decided that his only possible tactic was to turn into a bear, leap off the top of the cliff, and attempt to land on the bandit leader.

Pointing out that bears did not steer well when falling, could not fall in curves to get under the overhang, and, tended to just plummet and splatter made no impression. Pointing out that he could fly over the mans head as a hummingbird and THEN turn into a bear if he had to made no impression. Telling him that a natural 20 (that he did not roll when he insisted on making a die roll that he’d been told did not apply) did not automatically hit unless you were making a reasonable attempt to hit the target in the first place made no impression.

Splat.

The player grumbled about poor rolls, inquired about being raised (and was, once again, told that the party was only fourth level), and made another bear shapeshifter.

A few sessions later he tried a solo attack on their (much higher level) warrior-target atop a tall tower – turning into a bear, throwing himself onto the guy’s sword in order to grab him, and then plunging over the side to try and squash the guy beneath him ten stories below.

Higher level high hit point target wound up on top, said “Ow!”, regarded the deceased shapeshifter with disbelief, and continued the fight. Admittedly the target was now down a fair chunk of hit points – which helped the rest of the party win after a bit – but it was hardly an efficient way to do it.

A few more sessions later bear shapeshifter #3 attempted to leap off a flying carpet at 10,000 feet to land on someone (the party had no idea who, but the bear shifter presumed that it had to be an enemy) who was using a flying broomstick five thousand feet lower and a couple of miles away. He then refused to take any other form…

Splat.

Bear shapeshifter #4 was rejected by the rest of the party; they told the player that they weren’t letting any other bear-specialist shapeshifters join because their characters had concluded that bear shapeshifters were cursed or bad luck or something. Like it or not, the player would not work with everyone else and just kept wasting time on his one, fixed, idea – and so the players refused to have their characters associate with his characters until he decided to do something else.

After a few sessions of being left out he proceeded to make a mystic swordsman, and things did just fine after that.

There was a classic problem player who kept creating characters who were either constantly obstructive or who kept vanishing into the shadows to go on private scouting and stealth missions – demanding that half the game time be spent on him, rather than sharing it equally between the characters. He got quite indignant and tried to be even more obstructive when informed that he would get his share of the game masters time and no more. After a bit… he had to be told that he would be welcome to come back to play when he’d decided to behave himself, but until then he was not welcome. He never did come back. That was too bad – but he wasn’t really contributing to the game anyway.

One player saw the game simply as a way to blow off steam after his stressful work days – and thought that any game time not spent in combat was venting time that was being wasted. So whenever the players tried to have their characters gather clues, talk to the NPC’s, sneak around, or investigate something… His characters would attack. Guards tried to ask him some questions? They got attacked. Characters tried to investigate a crime scene? He tossed in an incendiary grenade “in case someone was hiding in there”. Trying to negotiate a hostage situation? He sniped the hostage and then went after the bad guys. Caught in a paralysis spell? He teleported high into the air directly above a church steeple and impaled himself rather than let the rest of the players talk to an NPC – and then made a new character who behaved in exactly the same way. Despite all requests, he wasn’t interested in letting anyone else do anything other than what he wanted to so – which was fight – and soon he wasn’t playing much. He still isn’t; he mostly plays online ship and tank combat games these days. He’s still welcome to drop by once in a while though; the group can always find some target to point an expendable mercenary type at.

I don’t often have to bounce anyone, and very much prefer not to – but enforcing the rules is one of the responsibilities I take on when I agree to game master – and that includes the social rules.

That’s actually segued into the next commandment of social gaming and what will be the start of the next segment in this: Thou Shalt Share Spotlight Time (Relatively) Evenly With The Other Players.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Part One in this series – The Social Contract – can be found HERE. […]

  2. […] Part One in this series – The Social Contract – can be found HERE. […]

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