Players congregate around a game master with the hopes of having a great roleplaying experience, but not all are satisfied with experience. Some will leave the group for many public or privately stated reasons. Some will not express their concerns or feelings at all. Game masters need to be attentive to what their players want out of the game, but establishing a social contract with your game group is more challenging than one might think.
I am not going to delve into the philosophical origins of the Social Contact Theory as it does not apply to gamers in the context of our social contracts. Our contracts must originate from the player’s expectations and the GMs ability to meet these expectations. Game masters need to able to communicate with their players to get a sense of what it is they want. Do they want just a fun story or do they want a deep roleplaying experience or do they want something different. Once a GM fully understands what it is the players want, they can then seek to find common ground that will hopefully satisfy everyone.
Gaming groups, large and small, are like diverse little societies made up of many different backgrounds (economic, racial, gender, age, etc). Each person within the group brings many different experiences to the table; it is those experiences that shape their expectations. Will a GM satisfy everyone? I highly doubt it; I know I can’t meet everyone’s expectations. Those that feel I can’t tend to leave the group and the rest of the group continues on in harmony. With all of that being said, players are equally responsible for communicating their expectations to the GM and to the rest of the group. The social contract is between the group (collectively) and the GM; it’s also between the players themselves too.
Think of the social contract as an old wagon wheel with the center hub being the GM and the players are the spokes. The spokes are connected to the GM and the players to the left and right, which forms the wheel. The circle of the wheel represents the connecting of everyone together to form the complete wheel. In the end, every group will have growing pains and the number of players and the composition of those players will ebb and flow over time, but will eventually settle down into a comfortable rhythm. That rhythm is the social contract we seek.
Game conventions and one-off sessions (RPG or otherwise) change the dynamic of creating the contract. GM and players have to quickly and deftly connect in a very short period of time. This connection may take many different forms. I usually begin every convention game with a quick overview of what we are playing and my level of knowledge of the rules. I also tell my players that at anytime they have a question about rules, to ask so I can clarify any points they may have. This is all part of building that social contract. One form of acknowledgement I have run into in the transmission of expectations has been through eye contact. If a player looks me in the eye as we are getting settled in and doing quick introductions, I know they want to be there and they are ready to embark on the journey for the next few hours. Players that avert my gaze or that are off in a day-dream are less likely to enjoy the game. This is but one example of convention contract building.
The expectation of in-game content should not be overlooked when establishing the social contract. Not all people are cut from the same cloth and their experiences and values most likely are different than your and the people on either side of them. Be clear about the content that game is meant to confront and address and set boundaries up front. This will make for an overall better gaming session. When a game I am running does deal with topics that may offend or deal with issue some may not comfortable with, I am upfront about the topics and work with the players to set boundaries before we being. I also encourage players that begin to feel uncomfortable to let me know and we will skip whatever it is that is causing the problem. Simple things like this are all part of social contract.