The social contract of a role-playing game group is the agreement or understanding between all the group's participants (players and GM alike) about how they will behave towards each other. Every group will have a social contract (although see the section below on group dysfunction) and each group will have a social contract that is specific to that group. An individual group may even change their social contract over time (e.g. when they start to play a new game).
In most groups, the social contract is not formally agreed, although it is good practice to discuss expectations as part of session zero. Even in a group that does discuss and formally agree a social contract, it will almost certainly not cover every potential situation and behaviour that could arise, leading to areas of unstated understanding (which are nevertheless part of the social contract even if not formally agreed) and areas without shared understanding (to be filled in and added to the social contract if they become relevant).
Groups with large numbers of transient players such as game societies or clubs, groups with a history of disruptive or problem players, or groups with a broad range of gaming interests and styles represented in their membership are among those who tend towards forming explicitly stated social contracts.
- What game is the group playing (i.e. the rules)?
- How will players agree on what happens in the game world (i.e. the system)?
- What is the genre and tone of the game?
- How "realistic" will the game be?
- How long will the game be?
- How will sessions be scheduled?
- Where will sessions be hosted (or, if this may vary, how will the group decide this)?
- How will the players arrange for food?
- What will happen if a player is late or can't attend a session?
- What is the process for a player leaving the group?
- What is the process for bringing a new player into the group?
- What safety tools will be used?
- Do any players have specific needs or preferences that other players will accommodate?
- How much table chatter will there be?
- Do players play to win?
- How cohesive should the player characters be in the party? (For example: Can party members work against each other? Can they split the party?)
- What is the role of the GM? (This can include detailed questions like: Will the GM fudge dice rolls? Will they keep secrets from the players? etc.)
- What is the role of the players?
- How much should the players know and understand the rules and the setting of the game?
- What kind of conflicts will appear in the game?
- How lethal will the game be for player characters?
- How will the group respond if the social contract is violated?
Group dysfunction can arise when not every member of the group both understands and agrees with the same social contract. For example:
- Members of a group believe that they have a shared understanding of the social contract, but in fact different members of the group have different understandings. While each member believes they are themselves adhering to the social contract, they also believe that other members of the group are not.
- One or more members of the group refuses to agree to the social contract.
Furthermore, when a situation arises that had not been previously covered by the social contract, group members may disagree about the appropriate response and be unable to adapt their social contract, which can also lead to group dysfunction.
- Runeslinger (2013-02-27). Response to "What is a social contract?". Role-playing Games at StackExchange. Retrieved 2020-02-01.
- Chris Chinn (bankuei) (2006-06-14). "Social Contracts for RPG Groups". Gnome Stew. Retrieved 2020-02-01.
- Kurt "Telas" Schneider (2010-06-09). "First Time GM: Establishing the Ground Rules". Gnome Stew. Retrieved 2020-02-01.
- Chris Chinn (bankuei) (2010-03-27). "The Same Page Tool". Deeper in the Game. Retrieved 2020-02-01.