Wednesday, June 26, 2013

RPG Stuff: The Social Contract

Warning: Once again, a long discussion about Tabletop RPGs lies below. Continue at your own peril.

After reading some absolutely excellent articles about proper conduct for players in tabletop RPGs, I got the urge to look back at my own experiences playing RPGs and look at how I developed over the years. The perceived conflict of GM versus player is always something I try to be mindful of, whether running a game or playing in one, and I like to think that I come across as such at the table.

Only one paragraph and I'm already getting overly formal! Enough of the sideways-speak and fancy etiquette: time to get nerdy. I figured here would be as good a place as any to share my thoughts and see what comes of it. So let's talk games:

Every Story Has a Beginning

My first experience with an RPG was with a group that was a bit more experienced than me; I had to make my character as Level 8, or some such, because the rest of the party was already in the middle of a campaign. The game was D&D 3rd Edition and I unwittingly created a Bard as my first character. As a musician myself, I thought it fitting, but didn't realize that the class was one of the more difficult to master. The session really wasn't that memorable for me; I was still trying to learn the game and was nervous about screwing up the rules. The rest of the players, however, were more focused on the story at-hand. It took me a while to realize exactly why that was.

I want to read this.
Since that time, I've played a myriad of D&D classes (across multiple editions) and an even larger selection of RPGs, broadening my horizons as far as the eye can see -- even across a great range of subject matter. I've played a selection of World of Darkness games (  Vampires most prominent among them, though Werewolves was also a time-sink and Hunters offered a hilarious one-shot), sci-fi games (Dark Heresy boasts quite a number of memorable moments, though Star Wars was entertaining as well), horror-based games (Call of Cthulhu and the "indie" game tremulus most prominently, all headed by the best GM I've ever played with -- thanks, Darren!), and all manner of random one-shots, ranging from Serenity to Savage Worlds to CthulhuTech to Dragon Age and beyond.

As the years passed, of course, I found myself more and more drawn to the role of GM. When I started gaming, I was an aspiring actor and an avid improv enthusiast; add that to my love of fantasy stories, literary or media-driven, and playing table-top RPGs was not a hard leap to make. But what I always was and always have been, before even an actor, is a writer. I love creating stories, weaving intricate plots, and imagining epic confrontations between the forces of good and evil (and all the grey in between); thus it was a natural progression for me to one day take the reins as GM and start running adventures for my friends.

I wish I had ever been part of an adventuring party that looked so cool...
Since then, I have become the main GM for most of the games my group plays, and I'm okay with that. I've created epic struggles against the forces of evil in Mutants & Masterminds, intricate plots of espionage and deceit in Song of Ice and Fire, and an ever-evolving (and still incomplete) plot to end the world in D&D. Each game had its ups and downs -- and the first game I ever ran, the D&D adventure Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, infamously ended in near cataclysmic defeat -- but I always enjoyed the process. It's fun being on the other side of the die, so to speak, not to play against the players but to allow them to flesh out the story you have envisioned.

Of course, sometimes the players seem to actively work against the GM. The statement holds true that "no game survives first contact with players". As a GM, you could put together the most cohesive, intricate plot you can imagine, populate it with devious characters and inspiring locales, but the first time a player says "No thanks, what's over here?", all that planning is worth next to nothing.

The Social Contract
Which brings me to my point: It occurs to me that what most people fail to realize is that, in sitting down to play an RPG, everyone at the table is agreeing to an unwritten social contract. That contract, in broad strokes, states the following:
I, [Insert Name Here], hereby vow to create a story worthy of retelling. I understand that this story will be created by working with, not against, the other people at this table; this includes both Game Master and players. I understand that the creation of this story will be a collaborative effort, that each person at this table has an equal say in what happens, and that everyone should be allowed to be showcased in their own way. I understand that Lady Luck (as in the intangible cosmic force, not Jane's superhero) may have a different opinion of what happens and that I will abide by her ruling, even if it disempowers, inhibits or otherwise harms my character. I understand that sometimes failure can create more interesting stories and will thus not shy away from it when it occurs. I understand that the story must move ever forward, regardless of conflict, and that trying to negate another person's actions should be avoided at the cost of creating a void of interest. I understand that I am not the central point of the story and that there are others whose participation is equal to (neither greater nor lesser than) mine. I understand that I should give this experience my full attention while present. Finally, I understand that this game is not one that can be 'won' or 'lost'; this experience is simply about telling a story through the lens of a game.
Because of this understanding: I will endeavour to create conflict that allows all involved a chance to showcase themselves. I will endeavour to work together with others and involve them whenever possible, so as to share the spotlight. I will make sure that I never negate the actions of others, so as not to bring the story to a standstill. I will abide by the rulings of Lady Luck (again, not the latex-wearing brunette with the mask), embracing success and failure equally in order to create a more entertaining story. I will always work with the other people at the table, and will trust them not to work against me, as only through active collaboration can we create a truly memorable story. I will be understanding that the other people at the table may approach the game in different ways, and I will not discriminate or berate them because of their choices. I will tell the best story I can, always remembering that other people are participating, and will focus on the story, not the game, in order to create the best experience possible. Finally, I will always remember that the point of the game is to have fun. This supersedes every other point here; even if you are telling an amazing story, if there is anyone at the table who isn't having fun you are doing it wrong.
Maybe a bit wordy, maybe a bit self-indulgent, but every core tenet of gaming is present and should be remembered whenever you sit down at the table. You must always -- always -- work together to create the best story possible. No one should be working against anyone else, except in ways that propel the story and never in ways that negate actions. The players must be open to intrigue and adventure as presented by the GM, yet the GM must not force players into a story they do not wish to inhabit. Players cannot 'win' the game against the GM and the GM should not try to make the players 'lose'; both concepts are foreign to role-playing games and do not fit anywhere in the premise.

It's about telling a story, plain and simple, and you are simply using a game system to simulate the portions of the story that rely on luck -- and even that can, and should, be secondary to the story. How fiercely does this opponent battle in order to escape or defeat you? Will you complete the diagnostic reboot before the hordes crash through the gates? Can you find the mystical amulet in time to save your dying friend? All these things can be emulated with dice-rolling and luck but could just as easily, and more entertainingly, be explained by simply telling that part of the story. Remember that next time you go digging for a rule in an obscure handbook in order to enforce the rule that you just remembered; if it's stopping play, or will negate the development of the story, it's better to leave it buried.

Now this isn't to say that the rules don't have a place in the process. When you sit down at the table for the first time, you're more concerned with how the game works than your part in it. I am as guilty of this as anyone else, as you'll recall from my earlier example; regardless of whether the Bard is a complicated class to start with, I found myself focusing too much on the rules of the game to have any fun with taking part in telling a story. I realized early that focusing on rules instead of storytelling ends up being somewhat counterproductive as RPGs are always, and should always be, about the story first and the rules second. It's a game, absolutely, and all games have rules but RPGs are about a collaborative effort between GM and players to create interesting, creative, sometimes humourous but always entertaining stories.

Flogging a Dead Unicorn

I think I've reiterated the point in as many permutations as possible but only because it bears repeating: you need to work together. I'm not going to go too much more into it -- for a truly excellent explanation, you should really check out 11 Ways To Be a Better Roleplayer: Grant does a far better job than I of putting this all to words. I guess what I'd like everyone to take away from this is just to be mindful of the people around you whenever you play a tabletop RPG. It is such a better experience that way, to the point that it really has to be felt to be explained.

If you ever find yourself in a game where any part of that social contract is being broken, I encourage you to speak up. There really is no sense languishing through an experience that only leaves a bad taste in your mouth afterwards. If there is a particular person causing issues, perhaps take it up with your GM; they are the ultimate arbitrator of the rules and oftentimes serve as the unofficial leader of the whole group. If the GM is your issue, discuss with the other players and see if they share the same concerns. Accusations are bad but a gentle and encouraging talk can do wonders to ease the tension in a group and create a more collaborative experience for everyone.

Just remember that an RPG is a game and games are meant to be fun; if at any point someone isn't having fun, there's something wrong.

Additive Storytelling

Forget that +16 Vorpal Greatsword of Whirlpools and Breakdancing: "Yes, and..." is the most powerful tool in your arsenal when playing an RPG.

At its core, playing an RPG is the equivalent of performing an improv sketch. Even if you have an idea of
your character's personality, their background, or even an idea of where the plot is headed, you have to improvise the actions and reactions of your character every time you act. Even deciding to sit down and have a drink instead of starting a brawl is improvising; you are making it up as you go, after all!

The issue, then, comes from when trying to improvise together with other people. In improv, actors are taught to always respond to suggestions with "Yes, and..." or "Yes, but..."; these two responses never contradict what's already established and, instead, extrapolate on them to create a better story. It's very common for two people to have very different ideas of how to act in a certain situation, which means it is just as common for those two people to conflict with each other. The proper way to deal with this is to accept the suggestion and continue forward, whether through compromise or simply by adding. The incorrect way to deal with this, and the way that many people tend to react, is by replying with a simple "No", whether stated implicitly or not.

Is it more interesting to try and defeat the frost giant, or just pretend he isn't there?
Let's look at the same example Grant used in both the 11 Ways and Theatre Theory in Tabletop Roleplaying articles: say a fighter takes a swing at a patron in a bar, wanting to start a brawl. The monk of the party steps in and stops the fighter from even swinging. If the fighter swinging was a +1, the monk stopping it is a -1; you have now created a zero-sum story where nothing has happened. This is neither interesting nor compelling and leaves the entire scene with a void of interest, something that kills games right then and there.

Instead, a better story would be to build on the fighter's actions. So he takes a swing at a bar patron: +1. The monk, deciding that he won't stand for this injustice, steps in to defend the innocent man, berating the fighter for being so crass: +1. The man who was punched turns around and swings at the monk, mistaking him for another enemy: +1. The monk can either utilize his self-control or can turn on the man himself, all the while dealing with the fighter: +1. Another patron sees the brawl start and runs to fetch the guards before it gets out of hand: +1. There just happens to be a criminal element hanging around in the back of the bar; they hear about the guards coming and decide to deal with the brawlers before the guards come and discover their operation: +1, or perhaps more in the future!

As you can see, every element of the scene is designed to continue the story. There are no negative responses; everything extrapolates on what was already established. This creates a much more interesting scene, and one that has even more potential to grow. If we stuck with the same negation that the monk performed originally, and simply stopped the fighter from hitting the patron, we would have ended up nowhere. Only through additive storytelling can we make things progress!

In Summary...

If people playing RPGs can be mindful of nothing else, I would suggest remembering the Social Contract and Additive Storytelling. Without those two core concepts, no game will ever make it past the introductions. If you aren't working together to create a collaborative story, and there is no mutual respect at the table, it might be better to just play a board game because you're kind of missing the point.

As Grant said, "Imagine the stories, great and small, and help each other tell them." Without that element of cooperation, you're just a bunch of folks sitting around a table yelling at each other.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Have something to say? Do so below!