I wrote the following more than three years ago, but it is something that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Having just spent my time reading the new Harlem Unbound and what it’s going to bring to the table has me wondering how I will need to adjust my social contract with my gaming group(s). Racism, prejudice, and sexism all have the potential to be part of many Call of Cthulhu scenarios. Harlem Unbound takes this to another level due in part to the specific setting and in part because the designer wants players to learn beautiful and distasteful of what it meant to be a resident of Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance. As such, it is now time to rethink this social contract, boundaries and acceptable language and behavior.
Below is the article written long ago, edited slightly for better readability. The message is still the same.
Players congregate around a game master with the hopes of having a great roleplaying experience, but not all are satisfied with the experience. Some will leave a group for a variety of public or private reasons; others will not express their concerns or feelings at all and would rather “suffer” in silence. Gamemasters must 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. Gamemasters must communicate with their players to get a sense of what it is they want out of the game. Do they want just a fun lighthearted story, maybe a deep roleplaying experience, or something completely 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 different experiences to the table; it is those experiences that shape their expectations and how they interact with others in and out of character. Will a GM satisfy everyone? I highly doubt it; I know I can’t meet everyone’s expectations. Those that feel I can’t meet their expectations, 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 not only between the group (collectively) and the GM; it’s also between the players as well.
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.
We must not overlook the part of the contract that goes deeper and beyond the overt gaming experience. The group must also set boundaries and address topics upfront so that those boundaries can be set. For example, if a game will deal with sensitive themes (in positive or negative ways) these need to be discussed within the group so that everyone is aware of the subjects and players can identify any areas that they wish to avoid. There should always be a way for players to communicate with the GM during the game if they find the game veering into uncomfortable territory. The inverse is also true, the GM has to have the ability and the wherewithal to rein in players that venture outside of established boundaries. Taking these things into consideration up front will help to create a better and more memorable gaming experience for everyone at the table.
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 any time they have a question about rules, to ask so I can clarify anything that is unclear or confusing. This is all part of building that social contract. One form of communication acknowledgment I run into regularly is 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.
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