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The concept of "social contract" comes up in discussions of group dynamics and RPG theory. We even have a tag for . But there is no good, easily-found definition online anywhere. Our own tag doesn't even have a description. The Forge theory definition of "social contract" is useful if you already grasp Forge theory, but it doesn't clearly explain in layman's terms what people mean when they talk about making, respecting, or violating a social contract.

If I'm going to boldly say, "Oh, it sounds like your group needs to make a / has a broken social contract," I'd like to be able to include a link to a definition that would be immediately useful and enlightening in that context. I'm looking for an entry-level definition unencumbered by RPG theory that explains, "What is a social contract?"

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"The rules about how you and your group play the game that don't come from the book." –  Jadasc Feb 27 '13 at 13:08

4 Answers 4

The most layman's terms of social contract is this:

We show up as a group and we have expectations of how we're supposed to treat each other. That's our social contract.

When people have mismatched expectations ("Well, I thought I could just miss a few games, no big deal, it's just a game, just play without me") you have problems. Or, when someone clearly shows they don't CARE about the social contract ("Just text or email me if you can't make it. I've asked 3 times now..."), you have problems too.

A lot of folks imagine that the social contract means having to sit down and do some serious conference and details of hashing things out - but for most groups it's rare beyond the most basic logistics and only comes up when there is mismatched expectations or clear flagrant dismissal of consideration for each other.

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Social contract is the assumed etiquette at a gaming table, it is a standard that should always be assumed in place unless otherwise stated.

Here are ten examples one should recognize as obvious etiquette guidelines. This example is an out of game social contract (see below).

  1. No swearing in front of children.

  2. Don't directly swear at someone.

  3. Don't touch someone else's dice without asking.

  4. Keep your hands to yourself.

  5. No yelling.

  6. Be respectful to others.

  7. The GM is the final arbiter of the rules.

  8. Help contribute to everyone else's fun.

  9. Don't be gross.

  10. Use common sense in the way you treat others.

Obviously this list is not all encompassing and is subject to debate but it's just an example. The unspoken social contract comes in two varieties in-game and out of game. In game unspoken social contract is determined by overall tone and game rating as in a G-rated game V.S a Vile game. Outside of game should be assumed basic manners and in general use common sense. A spoken or written social contract is where a group sits down and actually talk and possibly write a social contract about expected behavior in-game and out of game.

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Well the thing is it's not a gaming specific term; there's plenty of definitions outside Ron's Big Model specific one.

Social Contract Definition

The term "Social Contract" (or "social compact") got its start from Rousseau and those types who defined it as "An agreement among the members of an organized society or between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each." (Wikipedia)

It has since been usefully expanded into meaning "An implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits," which applies in circumstances where there's not really a government/goverened split (though a strong GM role might qualify...) A RPG group is a small society of its own, and has rules - explicit, implicit, assumed, badly assumed - about how people should act. That is its "social contract."

Example components of the social contract are: Do people drink at the gaming table? Is giving other players tactical advice OK? Are PCs killed without a second thought? Is GM fudging cool or not? All these are things not usually defined in the games themselves, they are part of the 'social contract' of the people playing the game. It can be expectations about behavior in play (no PvP!) and out of play (You miss the game, you get no XP!).

The Gaming Social Contract In Practice

Some groups get explicit about "defining the social contract." This can be helpful to have people on the same page so that expectations aren't violated when their PC dies or someone pops open a beer at the table. It can also be wonky and pointless if taken to extremes and can be the poor man's attempt to impose behavior they want on other players.

The term social contract is grandiose; there is a social contract even if there's totally not one defined; in most places one would assume someone wouldn't show up to a game butt naked - that's part of our culture's social contract, not unique to the game table really. Similarly most people don't feel a need to write down "don't cheat on die rolls," it's assumed.

Social contracts in gaming groups generally only need additional definition when there's an issue that splits/troubles the group and you want to get everyone to have common expectations. "We start on time even if some people are late." Some things can and should vary - one GM may be casual-kill and another may be GM-entitlement; of course people determine this by inspection themselves but you can avoid some conflict by being explicit before it comes up.

It does beg the question of who has the authority to set the social contract. The majority of the group? The GM? Whoever is the most charismatic and talks the loudest? When you attempt to create an explicit social contract to prescribe rather than describe the group's metaphor you can run into some problems.

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Brief Definition

A social contract for a role-playing game group is a formally or informally defined agreement or understanding between all players concerning the way the game will be conducted.

Additional Detail

This may include but is not limited to the choice of location, time, and duration of regular play, personal conduct of individuals during play, the approach or style of play, any logistical requirements and responsibilities that play might spawn, and the response the group will make should one or more of the agreed upon aspects of their contract be violated.

Groups made up of large numbers of transient players such as game societies or clubs, groups with a history of disruptive or problem players, or groups with a broad range of gaming interests and styles represented in their membership are among those who tend toward forming more explicitly stated social contracts.

Basic Examples

A social contract may be barely recognized as a formal agreement and literally be as simple as the group agreeing to meet at the GM's house on Wednesday nights at 7pm to play Call of Cthulhu for 3 hours in a non-smoking environment with members being responsible for their own snacks and beverages.

A social contract might be formally written out and complex, and cover such topics as establishing the goals of play, the expectations for in-character and out-of-character interactions, and the means and methods for adding or removing players from the group.

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