Wednesday, January 13, 2016


"I'm slowly coming around to realize that social pressure and social contract are really what make the role-playing game unique, and what brings the special moments that cannot be had in other forms of games."

"Extended discussions on any subject requires that involved people feel somehow authoritative on the discussed subject."

During my game on Saturday, several of my players expressed the opinion that from among the people commenting on my blog, Scarbrow seems to be particularly insightful. And I feel these two recent examples show his talent for getting to the nub of the matter - perhaps it has something to do with his being Spanish, that English is not his first language or that he's just a bloody genius.

In any case, putting these two thoughts together:  if I want an extended discussion about how the social contract of the role-playing game produces an effect that cannot be duplicated with any other medium, then the first thing I cannot do is express my opinion about it.  I tend to come off all authoritarian and shit, making people feel there's no room for an alternate opinion (given I'm moderating this space).  If I play, then people are bound to feel either a) I won't listen for the opinion they have and are certain is correct; or b) I'll suck all the air out of the conversation by saying the words first.

So . . . 

I'll initiate with a few questions:

1)  Is the social contract strengthened or weakened by the DM existing as a "judge"?  Should the DM back off to a greater extent from regulating role-playing games, in order to produce a more equal social contract, or should the present view of DM as absolute final arbiter in all things be upheld?

2)   Should parties have "leaders," as stipulated in the DM's Guide, so that there should be one person who speaks when the whole party is going to take an action?  Should individual players be allowed to stipulate action only when the DM expressly calls upon them?

3)   What destroys the social contract?

4)  Could the social contract ever be replaced by an electronic medium (of imaginable, even fantasy power)?

Please.  Talk among yourselves.  

Orc Council by Peter Siedl

I'll make every effort not to delete comments.  As I'm not promoting any particular viewpoint, rules 1 & 2 do not apply to this post.  As it is all opinion, rule 3 does not apply.  Therefore, let's just not insult anyone.


The Rubberduck said...

1) I would generally consider the social contract strengthened by the GM being an absolute authority position. There are storytelling games that go without a GM, but those only function as long as everyone can agree on the same social contract. If everyone aren't on the same page, they fall apart. In contrast, a game with a strong GM can have the GM enforce the social contract. Either you abide by the social contract established by the GM, or you aren't part of the game. Though this brings up the need for the GM to be fair, as opposed to being a tin pot dictator. Though a strong, fair GM enforces a social contract, the fair GM is also working with the players to ensure that it is the best contract for the group.

All of which seems so obvious, that I feel like I'm missing something.

2) I've never used leaders, and would hesitate to do so. No matter the intention, it seems like it promotes one of the players to be boss, and the other players will have to petition him to get the course of action that they desire. I instinctively feel that is bad, though I can't give a reason that feels definitive. Also, though it is bad, I can also see that there can be clear benefits, in speeding up play and organizing larger groups. But that would have to be weighed with the downsides.

3) Basically any participant refusing to follow it/be bound by it. Accidental breach of the social contract can probably be solved, if the breach is pointed out to the offending member, so that it doesn't happen again. But if a participant blatantly and consistently ignores the social contract, the only solution is to remove that member, or else the social contract doesn't really exist.

4) The social contract itself, no. If we get into the slightly fantastical, then one could imagine a matchmaking program that pairs up people that want the same social contract. No need to adjust your idea of the perfect social contract to the group you happen to be with. No need to figure out what the unspoken rules of this group's social contract are. Playing over the internet would also help in this regard, increasing your pool of potential like-minded players to the whole world, instead of just your local area. But that does require a computer program that can deduce what your preferred social contract is.

Ozymandias said...

Roleplaying games are unique in that the rules are malleable. There is no other game where you are free to change the rules completely and totally, and at any moment, simply because there's a single arbiter. Technically, yes, people playing chess or Scrabble or poker (or whatever) could change the rules, but this is where the social contract comes in: it's understood by all players that these games are not malleable in the moment when the game is played. In other words, you can't change the rules mid-game. In a roleplaying game, you can. It's acceptable; it's expected.

Thus we must take great care to understand the impact of such a change, lest we destroy our games by abusing its power.

The social contract is neither strengthened nor weakened by the DM acting as judge. Specific instances of DM judgment can strengthen or weaken the social contract. This is a fine distinction, but I feel it's an important one. The DM, being the arbiter of the game's content, has the ability to make or break the game.

Alexis Smolensk said...

There seems to be a disconnect. Ozymandias and the Rubberduck seem to be using "social contract" in the sense of an agreed arrangement between individuals. There does exist such an arrangement, but as it IS changeable from group to group, there's not much point in discussing its relevance.

We all, whether we roleplay or not, exist in a much larger Social Contract that is not mutable. This is the one that addresses the legitimacy of one individual to EVER be in authority over others, how much freedom is acceptably surrendered and what is demanded in exchange for a person foregoing any rights they are entitled to have, WHETHER OR NOT the group of people at the table feel that being at the table permits.

This is a universal principle/philosophy for all of us. It defines what we owe others, what construct of humility we're responsible for adopting and what degree of respect/manners/civility we're bound to provide to keep us from being assholes. So to clarify questions 1 & 3:

1) Are DMs entitled to be assholes; how much of an asshole are they allowed to be? Is it okay if a DM is as much of an asshole as necessary?

2) At what point does kicking an asshole in the module become okay?

Ozymandias said...

Storytime... (bear with me)

My college roommate was a DM and one of his games was based on World of Warcraft. He completely bitched it - he used the same plot and railroaded to the extent that anything against his plan was immediately (and illogically) put down. I bring this up to illustrate my understanding of Alexis' clarification: that the social contract we're speaking of is not the specifics of how each gaming group operates internally but it is about how we, as a society, deal with people in everyday life. My roommate was being an asshole. He presented a shitty game, the specifics of which were intimately known to all the players because we all played WoW, and when we challenged him, effectively asking him to run a better game, he replied witha big 'fuck you.'

That sort of thing is not cool and it's perfectly okay to kick that asshole in the context of the game.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yep. That's what I mean.

Scarbrow said...

Thanks for the public appreciation, Alexis. "Bloody genius", heh. Give somebody all the time in the world to think, the luxury of composing his words carefully in writing, and the option of simply not writing when he's not feeling like it, and I bet most people can shine from time to time. For anybody reading not familiar with this blog's history, it should be noted I was also one of the main forces behind the #2 commenting rule "Don't piggy-back on my blog and offer an alternative method for 'how you do it.'" :)

Now, addressing the post's point.

1) It's to be supposed that you mean "judge" in the sense of judge of (wo)men, not of rules. I don't really think this affects the strength of social contract at all. It may mean that it is more or less enforced, as in "not letting strong-willed players steal all the spotlight", much less order other players around. But other reasonable authority figures (other players, maybe older or simply more assertive) could also act as a counterweight. The principle of the social contract is a reasonable parity in power (in this case, social power, the power to frown upon a certain behavior in order to inhibit it). As such, the social contract will hold only in the presence of a) More or less equal social clout among players, so nobody clearly dominates. b) A benevolent (or at least egalitarian) power figure that acts as judge. The DM can act as such. Should the DM be an asshole by itself, that is, not in response to another one, his role as a judge can easily destroy a party, as in Ozymandias' story. The stronger his role, the greater his effect, for good or for ill. I, for one, am all for a strong, benevolent arbiter.

2) Parties do already have too much risk of being socially dominated by either the alpha male (for some reason, it's usually not so crude with the alpha female) or the most vocal player, power player, rules lawyer or any other much-sure-of-self role. Adding a social construct of a "party leader" in top of that? No way. That may be useful for a real-life military setting. We don't need such parts of reality at the table, thank you very much. I think this is one of those situations where those who want the power are the ones that least should get it.

Scarbrow said...


3) I'm tempted to answer with just "neglect", but I'll better elaborate.

First, there can be a failure to match expectations. I disagree with your take, Alexis, about an "universal principle". As we saw in our discussion of other social and cultural constructs ("bang bang crazy") there can be huge differences in default expectations among not only different countries, but differents parts of the same. Thus, to a certain extent and notwithstanding Enlightenment principles of freedom and egality, I expect that bringing forth an explicit agreement to be negotiated among the group will, more often than not, uncover that different people had different expectations after all. On practical, concrete terms, not just "don't be a dick" (though that would be an improvement over much of what we still see). Things like the "DM must be the ultimate authority figure" assertion, the desirability of player-versus-player conflict, and the expectation that everybody will ultimately win or lose (and die, if need be) as a team, plus even finely-grained stuff as if some people should be allowed to steal the spotlight (even from time to time) when they get away from the party, or if in that case they will vanish from the tale until they rejoin. For that matter, is it acceptable for the group to "split the party"? Some of these discussions require informed/experienced players, but the more they can be had before playing, I think the better.

Second, there can be a failure of forcing compliance. Failure to frown upon an undesired behavior will encourage it. Failure to appoint who should frown upon it invokes diffusion of responsibility. Believing that "things sort out by themselves", being shy, not wanting to look like an asshole... all can spell doom for the party. Not an easy line to toe, right. But in absence of people at the table with the ability, the desire, and the decision to be the enforcers of compliance (and of course, assuming first that we have previously defined with what we will comply to the liking of most of the present, if not everybody) the only way a group will work well together is by chance. Somebody has to be able to boot graves disturbances, if needed. If nobody will, the result will be the same as a troll in an online discussion without a strong, able moderator. Good people will leave, the party will turn sour.

4) By a superintelligence, or at least an Artificial Intelligence of power comparable to humans. I don't really think the question can be solved, as such. Matching people of similar backgrounds, possibly though a thorough previous questionnaire may be an option. But I'm afraid our social sciences are not yet at that level. The Rubberduck said it before, and better than me.

I really should be starting that blog, you know.

Ozymandias said...

1) yes, the DM shoulf back off as the sole arbiter. The game should be allowed to develop eith the input of players. However, the DM should be expected to make quick decisions for new situations when time is of the essence.

2) parties should not have leaders. That would undermine the group's social dynamic by placing a peer in a position of authority.

I want to answer 3 and 4 but need some time to think of something appropriate.

Zrog (ESR) said...

I think the "asshole" definition is a little narrow. Really, what all players are asking for is to be entertained, and most are willing, given that DM'ing is the "harder job" than playing, to give the DM some power over the player experience. Thus, even if the player may be uncomfortable at a certain moment, that the DM will someone "make it up to them" with some revelation or occurrence that will make sense of the temporary discomfort and produce "something cool".

While this sounds like "DM can be an asshole as long as he makes it up to me", I believe there's an important difference between "asshole" and "situational discomfort", which is pretty much defined by trust level. A lot of THAT has to do with the DM's willingness to conduct an open discussion about any player discomfort - to "check in", if you will, and modify as needed by the player(s). The asshole view is usually one of "it's MY game, and if YOU don't like it, then YOU can leave", rather than a "it's OUR game, and I may be nominally in charge, but bear with me and I'll create a good story for you".

Players will also allow a DM to arbitrate player disagreements as part of the social contract. I've seen this in many different groups, and it tends to be a task that's handed to the DM.

As for the "player leader", I think this concept was started as a means to move expeditiously through the boring decisions (we move up, we investigate, we go left), NOT for bigger decisions or combat.

Barrow said...

"Extended discussions on any subject requires that involved people feel somehow authoritative on the discussed subject."
- Scarbrow, Jan 12

Applying Scarbrow's above perspective to the role playing social structure, I can theorize that players who 'feel somehow authoritative' during play will generate extended discussion or participation. In this context, the social contract between everyone at the table, regardless of their individual roles, will need to promote an authoritative feel among participants.

Carrying this framework back to Alexis four questions...

1) The DM should do everything they can to make the players feel authoritative to confidently participate in discussion and make choices about their player. To normalize this I suggest the DM focus on their contracted or accepted role, and pull back from 'judging' player interaction and choices. The DM's accepted role would be to ensure players can confidently interpret and move their PC's about the world via game plot or scene details/mechanics/design (which the inverse of pretty nicely defines the player's accepted role) In many groups, the DM can tamp down player authority with impunity, because of the accepted authoritative role prescribed to the DM by original game designers.

2) Likewise, players should do everything they can to ensure other players have an authoritative feel about the game as well. A player who other players believe or perceive to have additional authority due to their 'years of play' or general charisma/confidence could also tamp down other players' agency. However, it's easier to spot a player who consumes to much authority because, in general, the player role is understood to be equal among all players.

Players should be able to participate freely, as freely as all other participants (including the DM). Preventing this, will have some or all players feel less of an authority, and lead to less participation.

3) As to what destroys the social contract, there could be many examples. A vast majority can be reduced to the opposite of Scarbrow's above quote. When one participant exerts their authority over others, the social contract is imbalance.

4) Could the social contract ever be replaced by an electronic medium? Of course it could, but would the results be as meaningful? I turn to Scarbrow's other quote:

" pressure and social contract are really what make the role-playing game unique, and what brings the special moments that cannot be had in other forms of games."

You could define all the elements that make up the framework of the social structures that players and DM 'play' within and create a digital environment. I suspect Alexis would have some authority, due to his online campaigns, as to whether the results are as meaningful and unique.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You're coming the closest to realize that all four questions are part of the same principle. We need only replace the word "authoritative" with "legitimacy." To Quote:

"The social contract's arguments for Justice and Legitimacy presuppose that the parties to the contract will be relatively equally and symmetrically situation with respect to one another. It is this constraint that ensures that the substantive principles that inform the contract will be reasonable, equitable, symmetrical and so forth. Likewise, it is this constraint that ensures that any authority empowered by virtue of the contract will exercise its authority without favor or prejudice."

I think I once wrote some sort of book that discussed this to some degree.

All that is lacking is the 4th point - which you, Barrow, nearly had, though he discussed the relevance of it with his first point response.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Though YOU discussed it. Gawd. Grammar, Alexis.

Barrow said...

There is no doubt my response is a blend of what I could remember from my Sociology 101 textbook and How to Run. I enjoyed the exercise. What a great lens for examining ways build a better gaming experience for my players.

Yes, legitimate captures it. If the social contract is not equitable, its as if the marginalized player can't legitimately claim to be a player at all.

As to the 4th question, although I have limited experiences playing D&D via an electronic medium, I can make some educated guesses. If we stick with the principle that a meaningful experience will be gained when all parties adhere to the stated social contract, then medium should not matter. Whether we are playing via Skype, some web app, email, or forum based, we should be able to create the same results as pen and paper. It may take longer to achieve due to the inefficiency of typing, managing digital pieces, or slow communication, but in the end we still have "the special moments that cannot be had in other forms of games" Scarbrow, Jan 6.

You have my Math/Science mind going. Now I am envisioning my next running as a standard line chart, where the players are the plot points-turned-lines, the Y axis is the game rules/mechanics/setting, and the x axis is my ego. As long as I have the rules/mechanics/scene details firm and steady and as long as I keep my ego flat, the players can go wherever they want.

Ozymandias said...

Are we assuming that the existence of an electronic medium which effectively replaces the social contract also replaces the DM? Because if we are, then it would truly be a fantastical device. I don't see it happening, at least, not anytime soon.

I may be off with this, I realize, but I see the social contract as the understanding that we, the participants, will all behave in a manner that is conducive to a good outcome. Yet all of us are flawed; try though we might, even those with the best intentions will, at times, fail to uphold their end. Among the ideal group, other individuals will band together to correct their own and the group will continue as they have before. This is not always the case and - if our present societies are any indication - it will likely never be the case. Thus the need for a DM.

Let me clarify: the DM is akin to the game console, in that s/he knows the rules, and presents all data for the players to consume and act upon. But s/he is also akin to a manager or leader, in that s/he must be able to recognize poisonous/inappropriate behavior, and correct it in a timely and proper manner. It is this latter role that, I believe, we cannot reproduce without, effectively, creating an intelligence that is comparable to the human soul.

Daniel Osterman said...

I don't think human beings can interact without some sort of social contract, at least an implicit one. My walking down the street is predicated on a social contract that stipulates I will not attack others, nor be attacked by others. So, to somehow 'replace' a social contract with a digital agent seems far-fetched. However, I think that one can encode a social contract into the game experience itself.

Now, given a sufficiently-realized world with a pre-established social contract (i.e. law and order), the environment provides incentives and penalties for following and breaking the social contract, respectively, but it does so only for in-game actions. An out-of-game enforcer of the social contract is required for out-of-game behavior, so we would need such a digitization to be both itself and its own meta-construct. Based on my undergraduate courses in mathematical logic, such self-referential constructs exist, but have troubling properties (usually a lack of internal consistency or possessing insufficient expressive power).

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'm certainly not suggesting the social contract should be "replaced," not by any stretch of the imagination.

But please note - while politically the social contract does rely upon some sort of final authority, this does not necessarily directly apply between fellow participants.

Let us consider a foursome for golf. Virtually every time I have gone to play golf, the club itself (it's management, employees, maintenance) existed as a background that did not directly infringe upon me or my mates. Of course, it would have if we misbehaved - but most on a course will not do so. Most participants on a golf course will obey certain rules of consideration and patience. When exceptions occur, it is usually easy enough to find someone to correct the problem.

Granted, people will get into fistfights on golf courses or go after each other with clubs. I've seen it happen (not in my groups). For the most part, however, one never sees anything unusual.

We may presume that IF there was a digital agent involved in the running of a game, that agent would manage misbehaviour, through some sort of human agency. Most well-meaning, game-interested parties may never see this agency.

What would be this imaginary, digital arrangement? I don't know. I do know that in all the time I went to university in the late 80s and early 90s NO ONE mentioned this thing called the "internet" or discussed "social media."

No one knows what's coming. I might be able to build this digital agent in between my desk and my bed.

Daniel Osterman said...

I apologize for misunderstanding your point, Alexis. In that case, I feel that the Matrix, or something like it, is the only technology to manage misbehavior - the other entities within the world would react negatively to antisocial (undesirable) behavior, creating natural in-game penalties, just as the people in the real world enforce whatever social contract is present. Now, just as in 90s Rwanda or with Gandhi, that social contract is highly mutable, but it is the world (represented by its inhabitants) that enforces it. In my Matrix model, the agents represent the next higher level of enforcement, for those who attempt to hack or derail the actual environment itself, without using the built-in mechanisms.

I think we can see primitive examples existing now-a-days with EVE Online or Star Wars Galaxies, which are (I believe) games that effectively simulated a fictional world populated by real people, who enforce whatever social contract is appropriate for those games, and for subcultures within these games. Having not played either, I would welcome someone with more experience to correct me if I'm wrong.

We might see a more wide-spread use of this with the next wave of virtual reality tech - HoloLens's ideal of augmented reality, for example, but the other headsets could probably accomplish the same task.