Several years ago I was running a fantasy role-playing game and the group of four to five players were working well together. Things were getting tense during a nasty combat that was going poorly for the players. Finally, one of them saw an opening and described a combat maneuver which was perfect for his character. In addition, it was a perfect chance to move that character’s narrative along because of the way he chose to reveal the character’s training through colorful and detailed combat moves. It was really great and after a wonderful narrative of exactly what he was doing to the bad guy of the encounter, the other characters cheered and applauded.
The player happily rolled his attack with bonuses. The dice clattered, bounced and came to rest.
He missed his attack roll by one point.
I, as the game master, am embarrassed to say I chose to stick to the die roll and to the game system and declared the action had failed. The deflation of excitement around the table was felt by everyone in the room, including myself. The flow of a fun, dramatic game was lost in the snap of a faulty decision.
And what was the faulty decision?
I ignored the invisible contracts on the table.
When we sit down at a gaming table to play a role-playing game there are a lot of expectations. We expect to roll dice. We expect to be entertained. We expect a possible combat and having to make decisions with the abilities we have on our character sheet. We expect to see the story progress in some way. Many of us come to the table with these expectations of what we want but don’t stop to think about the other expectations in the room held by the other players. Those expectations are part of this contract.
The key element to these contracts is Trust.
What is a contract of trust? In a healthy role playing game it’s the unspoken contract that I will be able to trust the game master (GM) with my character’s story, that I will be able to emote and play through my character’s narrative. In addition, there is another contract on the table which says I will abide by the other player’s, and by default, their character’s contracts as well. Every player is trusting me to take care of their character as well as I want them to take care of mine.
On the game master (GM) level, I am being trusted not only with the player’s character content but that my work on the current adventure will not undermine any of the character’s narrative. Instead, it will support it in time. This could mean the character goes through a rough time but it also means that, in trust, I as the GM will offer clues, hints, etc. to the player so the character will be able to come out the other side and grow from the experience. The hero may get captured, beaten up and tortured but an opportunity will arise for she or he to escape and save the day.
In return, I’m trusting the players to move an adventure along, to not run roughshod over my game world and to engage and play with the story hooks and landscapes introduced. I’m trusting them to help me have a good time as well.
There is a sub-clause in those contracts to not waste anyone’s time. As you get older, time is more precious. When I was younger, I remember hours, whole evenings, whole days being lost to running or playing in a game. I imagine it’s the same for most anyone reading this. As we get older as players, we are lucky to get 4 to 6 hours in for a game that occurs once a week, once a month, every three months? I find it’s much more fun spending that time being aware of these contracts and building an entertaining story together.
When a game begins, especially with new players to the hobby, these contracts are unseen but often flying around willy-nilly and never getting signed or perhaps signed by a few players but not the entire group. Occasionally, no one even knows they are there. Though this is typically in place with young and or new players, I’ve seen veteran players completely disregarding the contracts of other players as well as the GM and focusing only on what they wish to accomplish. We’ve all seen players like this and, I hope, have learned not to emulate them.
The best games I have been honored to play in are very cognizant of these invisible contracts. There is a flow not only in-between the players but also with the players and the GM. Players look out for other players, sometimes at the expense of their own characters. Players remember that they have a contract with the GM and work to support the plotlines, NPCs and encounters she or he have worked hard to design and bring to life.
If the contracts of trust are being observed then a magical, improvisational alchemy comes into play. One player, Player A, might take the spotlight for a period of time or for an entire adventure knowing at any time another character will be coming forward to replace them. A good flow and recognition of this contract would be for Player A to make sure the spotlight moves over to Player B or Player C or even the entire group as quickly and as naturally as possible. This could be through the actions of Player A’s character or a simple conversation with the other players and the GM, “I see this next part being about Player B. I’ve hogged enough of the spotlight, let’s move it.”
In my experience these contracts are so important and powerful there are occasional moments when they should be recognized over the game rules. For example, the story which began this article. The easy way out from that example would be to blame the game system. The system wasn’t flexible enough. The rules didn’t give me an out, a failure on the dice is a failure. However, that’s really just shifting blame from the real issue and the contract. As game master, I can manipulate the rules at any point in time. I could have easily ignored the roll and declared the action a success and in the case above, wish I had done so. There were a host of other options but, instead, I opted to not pay attention to the contract of trust regarding the character and it’s narrative. How much better would the scene had been had I respected that contract, had I reinforced that trust instead of kicking it out from underneath the player? Thankfully, I’m still good friends with the player after that decision.
Though all this talk of invisible contracts may sound rather vague and a little too ethereal, you can get to this mindset easily. Look around the table at the start of the game and realize, “Everyone here is trusting me with parts of themselves, with their personal creations.” Think about that for a minute and then just internally sign those contracts. Try to be present through the whole game of the levels of trust happening around the table as you go through the story of the session.
As a player, look for ways to boost another player and their character’s story. Want the equivalent of a stage-dive trust fall? Do something ridiculous to your character and look for other players to catch you. Afterwards, turn around and catch other player’s characters when they jump off the stage next. Look past your GM’s dungeon and try to get a feeling of what story they are trying to tell. Look for the love and care put into the adventure and the setting and use your character to let the GM know you appreciate the story.
As a GM, put your creations, plot lines and monsters to the side and try to figure out how you can support your player’s and their ideas. If it goes with the character’s story, let them kill that undead lich king you spent hours honing and for which you have 10 pages of back story written. Just make it a good scene and then go back and harvest another villain from those 10 pages later. Don’t worry about fleshing out every detail of that three story tavern and inn you’ve fallen in love with and instead build an adventure around part of a player character’s backstory. Then, throw your tavern into that backstory. If the characters begin moving in a different direction then what you had planned, keep that trust up and happily let them go in the new direction. Don’t railroad them back to what you think is right. Let them know they can trust you with aspects of their character.
Look around and find those contracts. Sign them with a flourish and support each other around the table.
I think you will notice a difference in the feel of the game if you do.