Tobold's Blog
Sunday, May 26, 2019
Defining the social contract

If you play Dungeons & Dragons with different groups or a group where people leave and join over time, it isn't uncommon to run into situations where different players have different opinions on how the group and its members should act. The often cited example is a group of "good" heroes with one player wanting to play an "evil" character. And while the game rules can give you a pretty good idea what the effect of a fireball spell on a group of peasants and their village would be, the question of whether the group should burn down that village is not covered by those rules, but by a social contract which is much less well defined.

Many groups have two bad habits in that regard: The first is that a player can announce any action without checking with the other players before, and that actions stands and can't be reversed. Thus the wizard who got insulted by the peasant and announces the action to cast the fireball on the village has effectively decided for the whole group, without their consent. Maybe the other players wanted to play the campaign in which they rescue the princess and become renowned heroes, not the campaign in which they are hunted by the king's forces as outlaws. The second bad habit is that players often avoid stating what they want, but hide behind their characters ("My wizard is very proud, so I had to burn down the village when I got insulted").

My current Rage of Demons campaign is nearing the end, and we decided that we would play a 5th edition Zeitgeist campaign after that. Now in Zeitgeist I don't even use alignment, good and evil, as many of the conflicts in it, e.g. technology vs. magic, or industrialists vs. unions, would be very difficult to fit into the straight-jacket of the simplistic D&D alignment system. That gives a lot of room for conflict between players. And as this is the group which had in another campaign an experience with a very disruptive player, I thought it would be helpful if I define the social contract a bit better before we even start.

My proposal will be to allow any player (including the DM) at any time to call for a timeout, to discuss "out of character" a situation, or an action that has been announced. The group must then come to an agreement, by majority. That agreement can stop or reverse the announced action, e.g. "no, you don't cast fireball on the village". That is even true if the character of the player who announced the action is alone, and "in game" the group couldn't possibly intervene. The characters can agree to disagree, but then have to come up with a compromise (e.g. the wizard is allowed to harm the insulting peasant in a more subtle way that can't so easily be traced back to the party).

The underlying reason for this rule is that Dungeons & Dragons is a game of interactive storytelling, and every player (not their characters) must feel comfortable with the story that is being told. I do hope that the rule that I impose in this particular campaign will also be adopted as a "best practice" for other campaigns we are playing.

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You could frame it as representation of what group might want/react modelled in character's head before he does his action.

People often do that to fight immediate impulses.
That sounds like the flat-out weirdest set-up for a roleplaying game campaign I have heard of in almost forty years. It's takng the concept of "interactive storytelling" to an astonishing extreme. You're effectively re-casting a roleplaying game as a series of business meetings between executive producers of a movie or stage production, in which a group of people with responsibility for structure and narative outcomes negotiate between each other to find the least-disliked option, which they then give to the performers (the characters) to carry out, those performers having no input or say in the end result.

I'm not saying it wouldn't work as means of producing a consistent and unified final narrative but it seems to be the antithesis of both "roleplaying" and "game".

Heh! That's one way to put it.

I would point out that the performers never had a say in the first place, as they're just sheets of paper and can't think. It was always the "group of people with responsibility for structure and narrative" that was doing the thinking for them. It's also ON THEM to not mess up the scenario for the others.

I would argue that another choice is to allow the players to do what they want, but have it catastrophically backfire on them story wise if they choose wrong. They fry the village? Whoops. Scenario over as whatever they needed in that village is gone.

Sure, you can allude to this as DM with subtle direction (You were looking for something.) or "Duh. Allies" as in "The villagers are friends with the town." (That the players need.)
Huh, I don't imagine I'd ever tell a player, "No, you don't do that. We took a vote." A player's character is theirs, not ours. I'd be interested in hearing what your players think of that.

However, I definitely agree with announced actions not being set in stone, and making sure that your players know they can object to another player's intended action before it happens.
After all, we are all playing this game together.

If that player still insists on burning down the village, even knowing that everyone else at the table isn't okay with that, then you have an issue that'll take more than a new rule to solve. If they want to be disruptive and contrary, they'll find a way.
You could make a rule at the start that players can only play characters that think before they act in ways that will harm the party.

It's not unreasonable - an actual adventuring would implicitly or explicitly impose such a rule. For most parties, it wouldn't be worth taking along a wizard who might randomly burn villages.
"Huh, I don't imagine I'd ever tell a player, "No, you don't do that. We took a vote." A player's character is theirs, not ours. I'd be interested in hearing what your players think of that."

Even if it means the possibility of the story collapses and everyone goes home when it's no longer possible to end the scenario?

There are 3 possible ways to run this:
1) "Story is meaningless, everyone gets a medal."
Here, everyone does what they want. There are no consequences. You wanna stab the Rogue in the back because your character hates Rogues? Go for it! It wont matter, the Rogue will come right back to life. You wanna burn down that village? Go for it! It won't matter, no one will care. Heck, you would be better off playing WoW.

2) "The DM is an authoritarian Social Justice Activist."
Here, every action is controlled. Hate speech is not tolerated. The players will agree on action that guarantee the completion of the scenario to the DM's satisfaction.

3) "Actions have consequences."
Here, you can lose. That village you just burned down because one of you is a psychotic Murder Hobo could have been head mastered by the brother of the Chief Constable in the town you need to get supplies. Whoops. No supplies for you.

The problem, of course, is that the scenario you're running was designed as a book. And it pretty much has to be, as sandboxes don't work very well. There are going to be very few ways to "win", as in... get to the end of the book. And the only way to do even that, at all, is for everyone at the table to be on board with the premise that the scenario is life and death for their characters and the book can end at any time.

At the end of the day, that book was going to end when it was going to end, be it at the completion of the scenario or at the first village you come across. It's not up to the DM to go all "Deus Ex Machina" and drop from a rope center stage and fix it whenever it starts going south. Subtle hints should be enough.

I think that is a great idea and I completely agree with you. Many players can feel frustrated when they wanted to do something else but they are unable to voice out their opinion.
"The second bad habit is that players often avoid stating what they want, but hide behind their characters"

I would say the player in your example has signalled exactly what he wants. He wants to role-play a proud and impulsive mage". My preference would be to let him do that and suffer the consequences. The rest of the group didn't burn down the village and don't have to suffer those consequences. In fact, lawful good characters might even hand him over to the appropriate authorities.
The problem with letting the impulsive player do what he wants and then playing through the consequences is that the rest of the group is never even being asked whether they are okay with it.

Compare this to a sports team: Everybody would agree that there needs to be some sort of tactical team decision made, and that players then should mostly stick to the plan. If an impulsive player just does what he wants and leaves his position, the negative consequences also fall on the rest of the players, it is not just the impulsive player who suffers the consequences.

On a sports team, the impulse player would be benched. Even in a volunteer game, the clear goal is to win through a clear, previously known process, the only way to do that is to at least try to win. No one is going to 'defend' the impulse player.

Once the impulse player forces the game (story) to end prematurely (In this case by torching the village.) you have a choice. Allow the other players to handle it, or if they will not (Either because they believe they're individual "role players" and any role is legal, or they expect you to do it.) You step in. Dàchéng's solution is great... offer an in role solution. The town won't sell you supplies, but if you turn the mage over to the Constable, the rest might be able to continue.

If you know there is a good chance there could be problem players (As you do, what with the pick up nature of the games...) write in hooks for that in all the places you can think of.
Your solution is anti-roleplaying. If player cannot make decisions, games stops to be a game ("series of interesting deccisions").

If a player is disruptive, simply remove him from the group. You can do this both as DM (any deus ex machina will suffice) and player (via in-game mechanisms such as killing, overpowering and imprisoning, initiating group-kick procedure etc.)

"Even if it means the possibility of the story collapses ...?"

Uh, yeah. It's a game, not a book. Failure (or more likely, a much less pleasant success) is always an option.

The part of Tobold's suggestion that I like is that, if a player is about to unilaterally do something super-disruptive, you stop and have a conversation about it.
If they make their case and convince the rest of the party; well, I'll do my best to roll with it.
If everyone's against it and they still won't back down; well, the social contract's broken down and we're going to have to resolve it irl.
Tobold proposes one way to do that. I think his solution will just lead to greater resistance from the disruptive player, but I'd be happy to be wrong.
As you said, the issue is mostly about social contract between players. I do not know the 'dick'player, but some of my friends would take your approach as a challenge - trying to put back social contract within the games by creating rules : you dare them to be more creative in their 'dickery', you challenge them to flow around the rules.
One way to solve it is to refuse to play with them - not very easy with friends - to try to make them understand why it is an issue for the other players, or to play by their rules - but other should be warned in the last case - and the tone of the game is different.

Now a little bit of crazyness, or dickery can also make the story more interesting, but like spice, a bit is good, too much is detroying the taste.
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