GM Tips #02 – The Social Contract, or the “Golden Rule” Of RPGS

As far as the scope of “GM Tips” goes, I want to make sure I cover things in a chronological fashion in the same way I go about starting my own campaigns. Obviously, you need to pick a game system to run (GM Tips #01 is a primer of some great d20 games to try out), but once that’s settled you’ll need to figure out how you want to run your campaign.

This is where the “Social Contract”, or the “Golden Rule” as I like to call it comes into play: I find it extremely important to sit down with my potential players and discuss what they’re looking for when they come to play in one of my games. Likewise, I also like to let them know what I’m looking forward to running or how I’m doing it.

What is the “Golden Rule”? Essentially, an agreement between the GM and the players as to what the expectations and house rules of the new campaign are going to be. It’s that simple.

However, that agreement goes a long way in making sure that not only my players are happy with the game I’m running for them, but also that I am as well.

As far as what goes into making this agreement with your players, here’s my basic guidelines of what I go over with them. While the following is by no means an extensive all-encompassing list, I find these points below to be extremely important to go over with my players:

1. The Style of the Campaign –
The very first thing that I’ll go over with my players is the style of campaign I’m running.

Am I running a exploration-styled sandbox game, where the players are free to roam around and make their mark on the setting in whatever way they see fit? Or am I running a very thematic story-driven game, one that may only last several sessions due to the pace and intensity of the story I’m attempting to tell at the game table? Or am I simply running a “beer and pretzels” game where anything goes and I’m just looking to goof off as much as the players are? Could it even be a mix of all of the above?

These are all wildly different styles of running an RPG game, and players have their definite preferences for how they would like to play – so letting the players know exactly how you intend to run the campaign is critical for their enjoyment.

This is important very for a specific reason – players who are expecting a narrative-heavy game being driven by the GM will not prefer a open-world sandbox campaign driven by exploration, nor will players who just want to explore dungeons and slay monsters playing in a game with very set story-driven goals. While most players don’t mind games drifting in either side of that spectrum, you want them to know ahead of time to plan for how they want to interact with the game setting.

With time, you’ll eventually get reoccurring players that you’ll know the specific tastes of, and with that knowledge you can tailor campaigns specifically for them. However, I always make sure to go over my intents of how I’m going to GM for the players, so they know what they’re getting into even before the first game session.

2. How much detail should be put into Player Characters –
This one is another major point that will directly affect how much effort your players need to do ahead of time to prepare for your game.

Are you just planning to have them roll up new characters at the game table at the first session, or do you want them to have fully fleshed out backstories and stats for their characters before they even get to the table?

While my personal long-standing preference is that I have new PCs rolled up in front of me (often without backstory, as I like to give the players breathing room to figure that those details over the course of the campaign), for others this will not be the case. For a narrative-driven RPG campaign, it may be critical to have an established backstory for PCs before it begins so the GM can properly prepare plothooks and storylines for those characters.

For players, this is one of the most important details to go over – nobody wants to write out a 4-5 page background story for a PC if the GM is going to ignore it, so make sure to let them know if you are needing them to do so.

3. High Magic, Low Magic, or Somewhere In-between?
This is more important for Fantasy RPGs, but may come up in other game systems depending on what you’re running.

However, for Fantasy roleplaying, this is a huge concern for players – and may sour them on your campaigns if you don’t let them know about the expected level of magic in the game.

Are you planning a traditional High Fantasy campaign, where spell-casting classes are common and magic items readily available to be found in dungeons or purchased in stores? Or are you going for Low Fantasy, where a single +1 Longsword could be the cause of a world war and where spellcasters are almost nonexistent? You can even go further – is there no magic at all in the setting you’re running, or is everything magical? Or is it all somewhere in the middle?

This is a real sticking point for players, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for their happiness by going over this – if your players are expecting to obtain magic items/spells/scrolls on a regular basis but are not aware that such things are extremely rare in your setting , they will feel like they are being punished by you withholding those items when really that is the norm for the game world. However, if you do inform them that’s the case ahead of time – such a find will be memorable in the way you want it to be.

Personally I ride the middle road in all of this in my campaigns – while spellcasters and magic items are common, truly powerful examples of such (the artifacts and other treasures of the setting) need to be found by exploring the world around the PCs.

However, making sure your intentions are known here will go a long way in ensuring your players feel like they are being rewarded for their efforts in your campaign.

4. How much Gold is floating around?
Tying in with #3, another crucial detail is the economy of the setting – will players be able to expect getting significant amounts of treasure, or will you be running the game in a fashion that will keep the amount of wealth the PCs have relatively meager?

Outside of narrative rewards, gold is more or less the expected reward for the actions of PCs throughout their adventures in a campaign – if you do not communicate how much they are to expect, they may become unhappy when they have little money over extended periods of time if they are not expecting that to be the case.

5. Is this a Homebrew Setting, or an Officially Published Setting?
Players will definitely have preset notions and expectations if you are running a published setting for your campaign – while unless you have veteran players they will not know what to expect if you are running your own campaign setting.

Outside of a few sessions here and there, I’ve always ran the Iellos setting that I’ve written over the years – in that fashion all campaigns have made their mark on the setting as time has gone on, and of course allows me the freedom to chose what major events have occurred in that world over time.

This is not the case when you’re running a published setting – and there will be an extensive history of canon events in those settings to be aware of when running them. This in itself is a benefit, however – this allows the GM to focus more on the immediate game without needing to worry about filling in the minor and major details of the world, as that’s already been done before.

While published settings are a very good starter for beginning GMs to get a established world to run their campaigns in, it’s important for the GM to be aware of the history of the setting so that players will be readily able to jump in without catching the GM off guard if their view of the established setting is different from that of the players.

On the flip side, I’ve found nothing more rewarding then building a whole new setting based off of the events that my players have caused over the years – but again you’ll have to be the expert of the world you’ve written, as you’re the one establishing the lore for it.

6. What Classes/Races are available, if any?
For game systems that have classes and PC races, which ones are you allowing? Which ones are not?

Let players know these details immediately before they build characters that will not be usable in the game you’re running.

7. How important are Player Character deaths?
This one is critical to cover – in the event a player character dies, are they readily revived or will they have to start anew?

In my campaigns, I make Player Character death a permanent event – even in systems that have spells such as “Raise Dead”, I typically disallow them to be learned by PCs so in the event a PC dies it carries that much more weight and impact to the campaign’s storyline. (Of course, I have always allowed the highest level “Wish” or “Miracle” spells and divine intervention to bring back beloved PCs and NPCs who have died, as this gives something for the PCs to work towards and builds a quest on it’s own for them in the event they wish to bring back characters. In my way of doing things, I always leave the players an option if they wish to go for it.)

Of course this will matter more in some game systems more than others depending on the overall lethality of the game system you’re using. However, regardless of what game you are running, you will want to make sure your players know what will happen in the event their character dies during the course of a campaign – and how readily available that character will be for them to use again, if at all.

8. What House Rules have you made to the Game System?
A house rule is any change that the GM has made in the rules versus the rules as written (RAW) for the game system they are running a campaign in.

This actually has a tie-in to what was just discussed in the last point – an example of house rule in my campaigns is that I disallow the use of the “Raise Dead” spell by Player Characters.

Other typical ones I often use include ability score increases for Player Races in OSR game systems reflecting modern game design, or disallowing “scrying” spells reflecting how I envision magic working in the setting I wrote.

Of course there are many more things that a GM can change about the rules of the game system they are using – however, you want to clearly inform your players of what changes you have made to the game system you are running, as the expectation will be that the game will be ran using the rules as written otherwise.

9. Anything else worth discussing with your players
Again, this is by no means an end-all, be-all list of things to go over with your players before you start a RPG campaign – but these are many of the things I go over with mine before we start playing.

If there is anything else you can think of that would be important to go over with your players – go ahead and do it!

This is the most important part of planning a campaign in my experience – your players want a good idea of what they’re signing up to play in, and what they’ll be experiencing for potentially weeks/months/years on end. If you don’t effectively communicate what will be the norms of your campaign, you run the risk of disappointing your players who might be expecting otherwise – and with that mentioned dedication of their time to play in your campaign, you want to make sure they get the most out of it.

Of course, make sure to have fun! Sometimes you might only need to discuss these points for a few moments when your player group is comprised of your personal friends, or veteran players who have played with you in the past – other times you might need to make this a small session of it’s own. Make sure you do put the time in to do this, however, as it will increase the amount of enjoyment the players get out of your campaigns.

In the next article, we’ll go over some world design in the event you’re creating your own setting to run an RPG campaign in, and how to expand it during the course of a campaign.

Until next time!

– Erik


One comment

  1. Chugosh · May 17, 2017

    Reblogged this on The Games Waffler and commented:
    Allow me to present the article written by a much more prolific game writer and commentator, Eric Evjen, on the importance of the social contract in setting up a role playing game. It may seem like a lot of it would go without saying, but that is a certain road to misunderstanding. A skewed expectation can harsh a whole game, for just one person or for the whole group.

    Liked by 1 person

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