RPG Settings Are Social Contracts

Recently I came across a forum post where a GM was complaining about a player who got a bit tetchy about anything where the game fluff was diverging from the official fluff of the setting.

The tone of the original post seemed to be a case of the GM thinking, “Hey, it’s my game, I can change stuff! And why is he so keen that I follow the official version anyway? Is he looking for an advantage over those who don’t know the setting so well?”

Is the GM in the right? Or is the player in the right?

I think the answer boils down to what the game was supposed to be.

Obviously the GM is going to have to make up things and fill in gaps in any setting. Slightly less obviously, the players will also be shaping things with their characters and actions.

Nobody is likely to have any problems with that, so long as they are just filling in gaps and not changing the tone of the setting, not adding anything that doesn’t fit, and not doing anything that conflicts with the setting. Now, where the boundaries are, and what counts as a conflict or change of tone, is going to be subjective. I reckon that most of the time people will be on the same page though.

The problem comes when the things being made up change the setting, rather than just expand it.

As always, there’s two sides to the argument: those who say changes are okay, and those who say they’re not. As is often the case, they’re both right.

If the game was sold to the group as being one thing, then it not being that thing is in breach of the social contract that the group made when they decided to play. If the game is what it was supposed to be, then the social contract is intact.

So, if the GM said it was going to be his take on the setting, or it was going to be that setting but with some stuff changed, then the player doesn’t really have anything to complain about (since there were always going to be changes from the official version).

On the other hand, if the GM just said he was running that setting, then the complaining player is in the right (since the GM isn’t running the game he said he would).

Imagine I said I was going to run a Star Wars game, and then you get there to find that in my game all of the Jedi were wiped out by the Sith (there are no Force traditions other than Jedi and Sith either), there are no lightsabers, and Vader found and killed both Luke & Leia so nothing from Eps.4-6 happened. That could make a kick-arse campaign, but it’s not a Star Wars game. It’s an ‘alternate universe Star Wars’ game, but it’s not a ‘Star Wars’ game.

The golden rule applies: Don’t be a dick!

If everyone is having fun then whatever you’re doing is probably fine, even if it’s not what was agreed.

If someone’s not having fun, look why that is: in this case, it might not be that the setting has been changed from the official version, it might be because the setting has changed from the expected version.

 

It doesn’t have to be the setting, this can happen with anything: rules (edition, houserules, etc.), tone (comedy, serious, grimdark, heroic, etc.), genre (mystery, hack’n’slash, political, exploration, etc.), absolutely anything.


So, have you ever had a situation where expectations for a game didn’t match up with how it ended up? Let me know in the comments.

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