Social Contracts in Game Design

Today, I wanted to write a bit about building a social contract through your game's design.

I am going to be speaking about this specifically in reference to Live Action Games, as this concept first began solidifying in my head through my experiences at campaign boffer-LARPs in New England (of which I have played many), but a lot of it can be applied to tabletop game design as well. 

A bit of context background. I have my roots just as firmly in LARPing as I do in tabletop gaming. I attended my first boffer LARP shortly after my 13th birthday and have been a regular participant in the hobby for the past sixteen years. Basically, my LARPing career just got it's driver's permit. I have spent a wealth of time involved in campaign boffer LARPs from every angle, having played one to two dozen of them, and have served on almost all of their staffs in some capacity - either as a lowly grunt, all the way up to being a staff lead and game director. I am currently on the Board of Directors for Be Epic, a LARP community based out of the Boston area, and over the past several years I have also gotten deeply involved, or perhaps just deeply interested, in the chamber/theater LARP community.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the topic-of-the-day: Contractual Plot.

Most LARP staffs build plot for their gaming event sessions in two ways, two flavors of plot if you will: Personal Plot and World Plot.

World Plots are the plots, events, modules, dungeons, or story points that affect all players, or large groups of people. These might be giant town fights, overarching events, or whatever else might touch nearly everyone's game experience. It's not directed at anyone, it's simply happening in the world and anyone who wants to get involved can typically get involved.

Personal Plots are the plots, events, etc. that affect one person, or small groups of people. Most LARPs I've attended always try to have one or two personal plots per player - events that let each player have their own little moment in the spotlight. These might be conversations with an NPC, callbacks to a character's backstory, custom NPCs that need a specific player for something, or whatever else might really give one player some staff attention such that when they leave the event at the end they're confident that they've progressed their character's goals and are furthering their personal story within the greater narrative. 

Those two plots have, in many ways, sat in my mind as the gold standard for what LARPs need for some time, however I would like to pose that there is actually a third type of plot: Contractual Plot. Contractual Plots, simply, are the plots, events, etc., that fulfill a game system's established social contract with it's players.

This type of plot is not often discussed because at most games it simply happens. It is taken for granted because it's rarely absent in the first place. In fact, it's only when Contractual Plot fails to happen that people take notice, though even then they may not be able to put their finger on exactly what went wrong. So, rather than give you an example of it working, let me give you some clear examples of it not working.

Goblinhunter 2k

You sign up to play Goblinhunter 2k the LARP. The pitch on the website is that the town of Goblinsbane needs warriors to help them drive off the two thousand goblins attacking their lands. You create a character, choosing the header/class Goblinsmasher which gives you bonuses when fighting against goblins. Well, all of the headers are designed to kill goblins and give bonuses like that, but Goblinsmasher lets you do it with a blunt weapon, and you love to swing maces around. You show up to the event site with warpaint on your face and The Goblin Killer, a huge custom-made boffer mace, in your hands. You are ready.

By game-off on Sunday you have not seen a single goblin. And it's not like you were just unlucky, staff just didn't send out any goblins. Period. Plots for the weekend included diplomatic talks with another similarly aligned goblin-hating nation, some puzzles and dungeon delving, and killing a bunch of fluffy monsters that were definitely not goblins.

But the event was... good. Like, actually really good. There were international peace talks, some late night dungeon crawling, a harvest festival, and some live in-period music. There were buckets full of world plot kept you engaged. There were also battles, (not goblin battles, but battles nonetheless) where you got to get your fighting in. Hell, the long-lost brother from your backstory showed up and had a drink with you. World plot happened. Personal plot happened. And yet..

And yet... you leave the LARP sort of, kind of... bummed. And maybe you even feel guilty about being bummed. It clearly was a good event. There was clearly stuff going on, and a lot of it. Staff did a lot of great things. But at the end of the day you feel like you didn't have a ton of fun and can't put your finger on why. "I guess I just wish I'd had the chance to fight some goblins" you say, wistfully staring at The Goblin Killer in your backseat as you let out a sigh on your long drive home.

This is a bit of an extreme example, but the core components here are what's important. The reason you didn't have a fun time is because the game wasn't what you signed up for. As a new player to any game you have no context for how a GM or Director will run it. You only know the rules. You know the design of the game from a mechanical perspective, the character options you have... that's all you have available to you in order to base your understanding of the game on.  

The website, the pitch, the rulebook, it builds a contract with you as a player. If the rulebook for your game only presents character classes or headers that are focused around the glorious murder of goblins, and requires backstories for your character's arrival at the game to be predicated upon a history of or interest in goblin-slaying, then the inherent design of the game has said to the player this is what the game is about, and this is what you're going to get to do when you play.

Okay, next example. We'll get a little less obvious with this one.

Goblin World

Goblin 2k ain't the only Goblin-related-LARP-game in town, so you head over to Goblin World. Here, the pitch is different. The game advertises all manner of interaction with goblins. You can play a Monster Diplomat who can speak the goblin tongue and can try to broker peace between humans and some of the less-bloodthirsty goblin tribes. You can play a hunter, specializing in one-on-one battle with goblins, or a host of other monstrous creatures. Or you can even play a Warlord, excelling at huge field battles, and getting stronger the more goblins you face with special attacks against goblin shield walls and goblin siege weaponry.

This game pitches all manner of goblin-related interactions and is offering a lot more variety in it's pitch. You decide to play a Warlord. Your goblin-related bloodthirst has not been sated, and the Warlord's abilities look really cool. You have some basic goblin-fighting abilities, and a cool hit or two against individual goblins, but your whole header opens up when goblins attack in groups of four or more. You purchase all the skills needed for taking out squadrons and battle lines of goblins.

You guessed it. Another great event. Plenty of battles, peace accords... everything you could have wanted. Although... you never saw a single group of over three goblins. You got to do stuff, sure, but you never really got to be a Warlord. You bought these skills, but never got a chance to use them. 

As I mentioned, oftentimes people don't think about Contractual Plot because it's already done. It's easy to weave huge battle lines of goblins into World Plot huge battles, or even Personal Plot for this Warlord player - some smaller more contained plot so that staff can ensure that the player gets to use the skills. If a Warlord only got to go up against crowds of goblins once or twice, that would fulfill the social contract. The rulebook offered skills for when it happens, it happens, zero problem! It's only when an entire event goes by without that social contract being fulfilled that it begins to get noticeable.

Alright, final example.

Gobpocolypse

Yadda, yadda. Another goblin game. You've talked with people who play, so you know what to expect. It doesn't matter how many goblins are going to come out, because you know there are goblin fights, and that's all you need. You've heard that there aren't a lot of healers in game, despite it being a combat-heavy game. I mean, even if you didn't know people, how could it not be a combat-heavy game. All the rules in the rulebook are about combat! But you're not playing a fighter this time, you're playing a healer. You pick up the Raise Dead spell - the cornerstone to the Healer build, and head out to game. 

The game is fantastic. There are countless wild goblin battles, intense plots, modules, staff attention, all manner of crazy stuff. You get personal plot based on your background, you're named the leader of the healer's guild, you successfully negotiate for a new shipment of healing potions to be sent to the town, and you kill your fair share of goblins.

But staff numbers are a little light - no one's fault - and with fewer experienced staff members the battles are easy-breezy. The players get lucky, or are otherwise on their game. The weekend comes and goes. You are exhausted and had a great time, but something's stuck in the back of your mind. You didn't actually get to use that Raise Dead spell all game. You built your character's skillsheet around the Raise Dead spell, but by circumstance no one actually, well, died. Now, you didn't have to pick the Raise Dead spell - there were plenty of other options. And it's not like staff wasn't trying to kill players, it just never happened. The stars just happened to align such that no one died. 

Even here, the social contract has been breached. Remember, it's not the staff making this contract with the players (and oftentimes event staff and players will have their own social contract) it's the rulebook. The rulebook - the design of the game - offered this character build option, however it was not supported at-game. If you're not thinking about Contractual Plot, you'd probably never even think about this. It's not like you were sending out battles in such a way that no one would die. Dying at most boffer LARPs is just a thing that happens, and ensuring that a certain amount of death happens so that the surgeons/medics/healers have something to use their skills on is not a thought that likely enters the heads of most LARP directors. However, once you start thinking in terms of Contractual Plot you begin to notice things like this, and you'll find yourself more adept at recognizing problems as they happen so that you can address them during your game event. 

So, let's summarize the problem!

In each of the examples I provided there was a disconnect between the rulebook and the actual game session. The rulebook, the games' core mechanical system, offered choices that wound up not having a place at game. When a rulebook, or a game's design, offers choices regarding character creation, providing skills/talents/spells/backstory traits, and all this other mechanical support for certain types of gameplay, it is making a social contract with it's players. It's saying "This is what you're going to find at the game when you play. This skill exist because you will be able to use it. Making the decision to take this skill instead of that skill is an interesting choice for you because they will both affect how you interact with the game in different ways, but neither of them are wrong choices because you'll get to play with whatever you choose."

Contractual Plot, simply, is ensuring that you are building a game, session, event, or campaign is with that social contract in mind, and ensuring that everyone will have an opportunity (if not multiple opportunities) to experience the kind of game that the rulebook told them existed.

If you have a goblin-slaying game and players who have goblin-slaying skills, there need to be goblins to slay. If you have a game where you know players have invested in skills to bring back the dead, you need to kill people. It's easy to take this stuff for granted because of course you'll be killing people, or sending out goblins, but that doesn't mean you should forget about the contractual plots you need to fulfill, because sometimes things are forgotten.

Games, especially LARPs, are chaotic and unpredictable places. It's easy to lose track of things in the shuffle. So, do what you need to do in order to make this happen. Go through your rulebook. Go through a list of the skills your players have on their characters. Make a list of the opportunities you need to make sure you're providing to fulfill CContractual Plot, and either fold those into other plots, or make sure they happen on their own. Can players pick locks? Make sure there are locks. Can players harvest resources? Make sure there are resources. Can players send and receive letters? Make it happen. It seems like a silly thing to harp on, but it's so important to giving your players a good time and yet it can often be easily missed behind the awesome world plot and the emotionally-driven personal plot staffs like to cook up. At the end of the day, you can tell an amazing story, but make sure your game also does what it says on the tin, or people might be upset even if they don't know why.

On Changing the Contract

Let's talk about solutions. 

Games change. They grow, and evolve. LARPs can run for years, changing directorial structure and vision. However, just because directors want to change the social contract they have with their players, doesn't always mean that the rulebook will do the same. 

There is one LARP that I've attended now for some time. It has always been a bit of a B-movie fantasy LARP that never took itself too seriously. It was combat-heavy and the rulebook reflected that. The rulebook was almost entirely skills and abilities to smash stuff, and most of the time there was plenty of stuff to smash. 

However, over time, the vision behind the game began to change. The staff and directors became more and more familiar with games that didn't rely entirely on combat, and they wanted their world to be rich and full with players being engaged all the time. They didn't want players to just sit around and wait for the next fight, but instead to really live in the world and with each other - to take advantage of the opportunities offered in the downtime between battles. They encouraged players to really use that downtime to embrace the setting and interact with each other. 

But their rulebook didn't change. 

Players tried. I can vouch for them because I was one of them. We really tried, but with no support from the rules to allow us a way to interact with the world beyond smashing things, we had conversations until we hit the brick walls of How Much We Actually Knew About The Game World. From there, while some folks tried to improv-on into oblivion, others lost interest. It's not like we're bad roleplayers, but there was nothing for us to do except talk, and when we ran out of things to talk about everything sort of... fell apart.

Meanwhile, at another LARP I was playing, it was an entirely different world. We didn't know the meaning of downtime. The world felt constantly alive, and I never once felt like I had to pull topics out of thin air. I think we had like... two or three fights per event, comparatively small to most other games, and an almost non-existent staff, but it didn't matter because we were all so involved in the world that we never wanted to break away from it - even for a fight! 

So what was the difference?

At the second LARP, half of the rulebook was dedicated to non-combat-systems. Leading the charge here was a detailed and robust Profession system. Not crafting between-games mind you, but just actual jobs your character could have. Dozens. And all of them, like jobs actually do, had a huge number of things you needed to do at game. Usually, with no staff intervention and encouraged or required fellow-player interaction.

You want to be a Tracker? Well, you'll probably be out in the woods finding trails that staff seeded before game started. A Miner? Same thing, but for ore veins. Blacksmiths? Better talk to the local miners to get some ores so you can be putting time in at the forge! Or maybe you're just the town crier and need to actually call out the hour every hour. It felt so incredibly real. People would never say "Oh, we're the fighters" or "I'm a mage". Hell no! Instead you're being introduced to a local Knight, or a Jeweler, or a Performer, or a Gravedigger. All of them having their own cool little things they can do during games, and all of them with their own laundry list of things they need to get done because it's their job.

Let me tell you a little story about that game.

My first event I came in as a Mercenary who dabbled a bit in Mining on the side. A local brewer wanted to head out into the woods to gather some plants to brew up. They wandered off to do so, but it wasn't long before they came running back because some creature was out in the woods. Now, my particular mercenary branch were particularly suited to being in the woods, so the Brewer approached me and hired me as protection. He offered only a coin or two, but he threw in a bottle of ale (he was a brewer after all), so I signed up. We made our way out into the woods and fought the creature at the edge of it. I was able to gather some fur from the creature which I knew I'd be able to sell to the Blacksmith later, which was good because my armor had taken some damage from the battle. I continue to escort the Brewer into the woods and we stumble upon an animal trail. We don't know anything about trails, but we make a note of it's location so we can sell that knowledge to the local tracker when we get back to town. We can split the finders fee if they're willing to pay two coins! We find some plants that the brewer picks, and lucky me we also find a small ore vein, so we go to work harvesting. Getting back to town the brewer pays me with ale and coins and I headed off to the blacksmith. My armor was pretty bad off, but with an exchange of my furs and ore I wound up being paid for my trouble! Settling down in the tavern to drink my ale afterwards a friendly face came to the table and struck up a conversation. The creature I'd seen reminded him of a story he'd heard which he related to me. At it's conclusion I asked if he was a performer by trade, for he had skill telling tales, and he said that indeed he was. As that was the case, I slid him a couple coins which he gleefully took, running off with them to the local scribe because he'd been meaning to send a letter home but didn't actually know how to read and write himself so a coin or two would help him hire a professional scribe to do the writing for him. The local Tracker approached me after my drink. Apparently the Brewer had spoken to him, but there were no coins for us as the Tracker had already heard of the trail. In fact he was heading out now to investigate it, but would need to hire a little protection. The Brewer had told him of my skill, and so I strapped on my newly repaired armor and headed off once more.

That is an actual story that actually happened at an actual LARP. Short of the lone monster in the woods, every single other character was a player. There were dangers, even only very occasionally, that were put out in the woods that gave mercenaries something to fight. There were components on that monster to give blacksmiths something to work with. There were ore veins and flowers seeded on the trails to give Miners and Brewers something to harvest. There were trail markers placed to give Trackers something to find. All of this was done before the game ever started, with more primed and ready to go out throughout the weekend. I was given options for what kind of character I wanted to play, and I knew that every option would have been fully supported. What made this work so well were two things:

  1. The game designers wanted the LARP to build a social contract with the players for a game that was not focused around combat alone.
  2. The game staff recognized the skills that were in the game and made the steps necessary to ensure that the contractual plot was fulfilled.

So, what about the game without these Professions? They want a rich and engaging world, but the contracts their rulebook makes promise combat and give people a huge number of skills to use while engaging in it. 

At the end of the day, if you want to change the contract you need to change the rules. I think that one of the biggest pitfalls that LARPs (and many other games) fall into is the idea that the rules in the rulebook are only there to govern a small part of what their game is. They introduce safety, codes of conduct, and rules for whatever conflicts may need to be resolved during game. In my opinion, a rulebook is a lot more than that. What you set up as a framework in your rulebook is a promise as to what your game is going to be. If you rely on players coming to your game and not only "getting it" and understanding what your vision is for the game right out of the gate, but be ready to dive into it, I think that you'll find this is lightning in a bottle and hard to reproduce. However, if you really put some thought into what you want your game to be and ensuring that there is a game system in place to support every part of that, you'll find that players are much more ready and raring to embrace what you've built since they have a mechanism to do so.

You want players to be engaged during downtime? Engaged how? In the economy? Lore? With fellow players? With the mysteries of the world? What are the systems in place to allow this?

What active systems can players participate in to get involved in economics and marketing? Do you have established market prices for goods? Do you have ways that players can influence that? 

What active systems can players participate into to get involved in world lore? Can they write it? Can they read it? Can they decode or uncover it? How can they get new information, and how can they do that with no staff involvement beyond some pre-game setup?

If you want your game to succeed, put time of course into the world and personal plots you're putting out there, but also put some time into figuring out what kind of game your rulebook is selling. Look at it and say "if I knew nothing else, what would I expect here?" And if you want your game to be something beyond that contract, don't fear changing your rulebook to make that contract exactly what you're looking for.