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Going for the Throat and the Social Contract

I was recently listening to episode 16 of the Durham 3 and they briefly mentioned that when they play they know that they can really go for throat and there are no hard feelings. From experience I know that this is not always the case.

The Social Contract (in Forge Parlance) is defined as - "All interactions and relationships among the role-playing group, including emotional connections, logistic arrangements, and expectations. All role-playing is a subset of the Social Contract."

In regular life most people know what is acceptable behavior and what is not in a particular setting. You know what is expected at work and what is expected at home. In many cases, common sense and social morays can be used to guide you if you are not sure.

When playing an RPG, it is not that simple, especially if you are playing with people who are not close friends. This all comes up because we are just starting a Burning Empires game and we have burned the world. The process has like 11 steps and breaks out each aspect of the world into High Level topics and then generally between 2 and 4 choices. We are about to start the game and while I have stated that everything is fair game, is it really?

My thought is that it might be useful to come up with a Social Contract Burner (tips hat to Luke) that allows a group to lay down on the table what is generally expected and acceptable. I would like to hear if people like this idea, and if so, what sorts of High Level Topics should be included. Some quick examples would include:

Character Death (Choices are: Yes. Yes - Dramatically Appropriate. No - except with player's permission. No.)
PC Cooperation
Offensive Language ("Swear" Words, In Character - Bigotry, In Character Direct Threats spoken in the first person - "I will kill you."

I don't want to go overboard, but I think it could be useful.



I go for another approach, which doesn't rely on front-loading everything before you start. It goes like this:

"Let's respect each other, and play as aggressively and hard as we can. If someone crosses a line, or you wonder how someone might feel about something, talk about it. Be honest and open and remember that no one is trying to hurt you."

This thread on Fair Game is awesome:

I Will Not Abandon You vs. No One Gets Hurt

The idea is good, but in practice I always have a problem with it. For instance, in Breaking the Ice, you have to set the 'rating' of your game in advance. And I'm always like - how can I know in advance what rating will be appropriate? As the game unfolds, I'll know what I'll be comfortable with, and what I'll want, but I simply do not know so now.

Victor: Breaking the Ice is a good example. However, my feeling is that just because you set a rating in advance, doesn't mean that, that rating can't be changed.

John: I agree that if you have the experience to know and recognize both that there can be issues and what those issues then you can back load it. But what about people who don't even know the questions to ask?

How about this one as a first step:

"If something is bugging us, how do we talk to each other in an honest & productive fashion?"

About a month ago, Mike Holmes basically
pointed this out as the key question of dealing with social contract.

I don't know if this is what you're thinking about, but I know that Roger (who is nominally part of this blog), has a regular "plot" session with his group where they decide social contract and theme issues for the game. His most recent is summarized here: http://bogsland.blogspot.com/2006/09/plot-game-results.html.

Roger, are you following this threat? If so, any thoughts?

Indeed Tony,

I follow this blog quite a bit, but rarely post to it. I have found that "the Plot game" that we play every session is helpful in setting out how a game is going to run, although with a new group I would probably talk a bit more about tone, maybe even giving some situations that we could discuss to determine what is on or off limits. I think that talking about this stuff up front helps to highlight differences in playing style, and in the differences in the game itself. On occasion, I have even played the plot game before determining which game we are playing. I have found that with a new group this can really help figure out what the players expect a 'role-playing game' to look like and this in turn influences the social contract.

Roger: Do you have a list of the questions that you like to ask? Are there decision trees that you have? Have you written anything down or is this is just something that you do by feel?

I have a list of categories, and examples from each t give a jumping off point. I have a formal game that involves bidding and the spending of coins to refute or support different elements. I find decision trees a bit cumbersome myslef, but think that they could also work effectively. I am at work right now, so I don't have my write up hereof the plot game here, but I will post it here if you wish.

What Chris said:

"If something is bugging us, how do we talk to each other in an honest & productive fashion?"

Yep. That's it.

Full disclosure: I hate (HATE!) filling out goddamn questionnaires. The social contract equivalent would annoy me.

Also (and man, this is touchy, but I'm gonna say it anyway): Isn't the front-loaded questionnaire just an elaborate way of saying, "I don't think I trust you yet,"? I mean that as a real question. Is it? I think it may be.

In resonse to your post, I agree with what you are saying about full disclosure, but not about the idea that a questionnaire is saying "I don't trust you yet."
It is not all about trust. I think it can also be about personal preference. I play most of my games with my wife. Obviously, I trust her, but I still want to find out about what the social contract for this particular game and this particular group is going to be. I agree that filling out a questionaire is probably pretty boring, which is why I turn it into a game. I think that trust might be the issue if the social contract was an actual contract, but I think of it more as a set of guidelines for determining what is preferred behaviour (rather than acceptable behavior in a game). I don't know if that makes any sense John, or if I am getting to far removed from the original post, so I'll stop there.

Roger: I second what you have just said.

John: From my POV, "Burning" a Social Contract (or parts of it) actually gives me more freedom, rather than less. While there may be 10, 15 or 20 different possible categories to choose from, most of those would be set once and then only occasionally re-visited. Some of these topics could be considered Tone or Genre, (like character death or verbal intensity) but by front loading certain values I am signaling that I am conformtable (or not comfortable) with a certain kind of game. Some topics though (like which GNS should be dominant) are rarely discussed and are often left up to the game you are playing rather than the specific style of the group.

It is my hope that by laying out what is and what is not acceptable we can play our characters to the appropriate hilt and not hold back because we don't want to cross that line. Otherwise, we need to continually cross the line and keep stepping back, which seems ineffecient and potentially damaging to the group dynamic.

Yeah, I get it. The question thing works for you guys. I'm not doubting that. I'm just saying that it doesn't work for me, is all.

Roger: I understand. Laying out *preferences* for the game you're about to play sounds like a great idea to me. We do that in our group now, a bit.

Brandon: I hear ya. I just don't agree.

When you run into something that wasn't on the questionnaire -- you talk honestly and openly and try to come to an understanding without hurting each other, right?

To me, that's the skill to foster. Better-crafted questionnaires pale in comparison, IMO.

I'm not trying to convince you guys of anything, though. Do whatever works for you. I'm just expressing my POV, since it was counter to the original post.

This is exactly what saluting in/out in Beast Hunters is for.

Yes! Exactly. It signals the beginning of "bring it!" in a ritualized way. I love that.

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