This Guest Post is written by our very own Dman!

This forum has talked much about role-playing games and about the do’s and do not’s of GMs and players. No railroading, watch out for dumpster fires, players stealing for other players, bored players showing how bored they are, players not wanting to take part in the adventure, and so on. Still, an RPG group could avoid these traps and still have campaigns falter and die, while others with some of the bad things mentioned above thrive and continue. What else is missing?

The social contract.

There are two social contracts that should be made in the group. The first is the GM and player contract. This is where the GM lays out the basic idea behind adventure, so that the players understand what to expect from the campaign before they decide on their character. This is mostly done by letting the players know whether the campaign will be more about Hack and Slash or about Non-combat Role-playing.

An example: a group is starting a Harry Dresden campaign. This system is known for Non-combat Role-playing more than Hack and Slash, so it would most likely be expected that the players think up large back stories, with intricate plot devises that the GM could use. Lots of time on story, little time spent on stats and abilities. They start the campaign and the GM has them clean out a large warehouse section infested with monster X as the main story. Most players would feel let down, lose interest in this campaign quickly and start to exhibit the bad behaviors listed above. The GM needed to let the players know, up front, the type of campaign so that they could set their characters and expectations. This works the other way as well if you have a group expecting a dungeon dive and they are thrown into a political intrigue campaign or players are expecting to work together, but instead are in a campaign where they face off against the others.

There is one other contract that needs to be made and that is between the players. This deals with what type of expectations do they each have for their character. This is more that who is the fighter and wizard and more about where the player are on the spectrum of Fluff Gamer or Power Gamer.

First, to define what I mean by both terms. A Fluff Gamer (term used mostly in Warhammer 40k) is a person that is more interested in the story than the combat. He builds characters more to tell his story than to be powerful in combat, skills are everywhere and not maxed out, like most real people, and he picks some feats for storytelling reasons not just combat.

The Power Gamer is more interested in creating a powerful character and not making a believable one. They max out the important skills and hunt through dozens of books to find the right combat feats that stack and have synergies. His character can do multiple things VERY well and he will “Role-play” all the non-combat skills when needed.

Neither extreme is bad, but a campaign will fail if these two extremes do not talk about this before a campaign starts and come to an agreement about what the players want from the campaign. Most reasonable people will find a compromise, if they have not set their stake in the ground by building their character. They are both here to have fun. Also, the GM and player contract might help swing which way on the scales these two players meet at.

There is another problem besides just personality friction for these two extremes. This problem is the different power levels of characters. GMs will not have a problem with this at lower levels, but as the characters rise in levels, often the Power Gamer’s character will out power the Fluff Gamer’s character. This leads to tough situations where the GM has a very hard time making an action sequence (fight or otherwise) challenging to the Power Gamer while not killing the Fluff Gamer’s character. One of the best examples I have seen was in a Pathfinder campaign where one character had an Armor Class (AC) of 38-40 while another still had a 22. How does the GM create a combat situation where they can threaten the high AC character without beating down the low AC character? If the GM goes out of his way to make this happen, they run dangerously close to a form of railroading where you build special things that ONLY fight the Power Gamer’s character and other things that ONLY fight the Fluff Gamer, or the GM throws magic items at the Fluff Gamer while being a scrooge to the Power Gamer. Either lead to resentment and the end of a campaign. By having these two player types talk to each other and step away from the extremes much of this can be avoided, but they need to agree to that social contract before characters are on paper.

So, what have been some of the best and worst campaigns you have been a part of? Can you put a finger on what made it so good or bad?


Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to


  1. I think that the big thing to figure out is what story the players want to tell. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a scene.

    Recently (and I know that Dman knows this), we were playing a D&D game where our group’s enemies were using dragon scale shields. This sounded to my character like an opportunity to make money. It’s a dragon scale! It’s a shield! It’s a gold mine!

    My character wouldn’t shut up about the damn shields.

    The DM rolled his eyes and put together a 10 minute segment where my character and the fighter gave a spiel to townsfolk and hawked some Authentic This Was Seriously Attached To A Dragon Once Shields. The fighter hit me, I got back up and pointed to the shield, and made about 20 gold.

    A silly, stupid segment that seriously made my session and I still look back on it fondly.

  2. See, this goes back to the Dumpster Fire and the GM modifying what was going on the accomodate it. That was quite good.

  3. >>>How does the GM create a combat situation where they can threaten the high AC character without beating down the low AC character?

    You cheat both of them. You drive them mad with scenarios specificly crafted so that the only outcome is failure and death.

    Then, as their eyes glisten with tears born of shame and rage, you drink those tasty, tasty tears.

  4. I’ve not played Pathfinder. But, from a GM’s perspective, these questions fit a broader question.

    > One of the best examples I have seen was in a
    > Pathfinder campaign where one character had
    > an Armor Class (AC) of 38-40 while another
    > still had a 22. How does the GM create a
    > combat situation where they can threaten the
    > high AC character without beating down the
    > low AC character?

    Okay, you’re talking about a power imbalance that exists for a reason, right? I mean, presumably the dude with the 22 AC has some mad skilz that the guy with the 38 AC does not.

    Well, sometimes those mad skilz are just mad. If Joe has decided that an integral part of his character backstory is that the guy is a tabletop wargaming nerd and he’s an international wargaming nerd champion, then the X points he spent on Wargaming-25 (have no idea what the Pathfinder notation would be here)… those are largely burned points, in some sense.

    I’m assuming Pathfinder is a “build via points” system.

    My approach as a GM (at least in GURPS, my favorite “build via points” system)… the default rule is that “if it doesn’t give you an advantage/disadvantage, it doesn’t cost any points/give you any points”

    And the corollary “if it gives you an advantage/disadvantage, it costs points/gives you points”.

    If you’re going to spend 16 points on Wargaming-25 when someone else spends 15 points on Combat Reflexes, I’m going to make that Wargaming-25 worth *something* during the course of the campaign. Maybe one of your contacts who would normally be an utter pain in the butt ($$) to get information out of is a Wargaming fan, and your skill level 25 is worth a +5 reaction. Or, if I can’t work that out in a reasonably non-hacky way that mucks with my narrative, I’m going to tell everyone up front, “hey, you get to build your character off of 100 base points, but I’ll give everyone 20 points to spend in obviously-non-campaign related skills”.

    Part of this is knowing your players, and if you have a solid group of players it’s easy and if you don’t it’s trial-and-error.

    I mean, in a SF campaign, Occultism-25 is very likely worthless, but in a Victorian Horror campaign, Occultism-25 is probably going to be useful ever 20 minutes of gameplay, or so.

    Now, if the 22 AC vs 38 AC represents an imbalance in combat, well, to some extent that’s tough pondookers. Sometimes combat will involve Minions and Boss Character, and the 22 AC guy can focus on the Minions while the 38AC guy will focus on the Boss Character.

    Sometimes the Boss Character will focus on the 38 AC person, because she’s the bigger threat. Sometimes the Boss Character will headshot the 22 AC guy, because the Boss Character took Sadism. It’s up to the 22 AC to have a brain and realize that sometimes it’s better off for everybody if he runs, and leaves She-Hulk to duke it out.

    For a non-point based system example, I’ve run D&D campaigns where the starting levels are varied. I usually find, rather than saying, “Everyone starts at 5th level”, it makes much more sense to say, “Everyone starts with N XP”, and let them figure out how to spend it. After all, a 3/3/3 triple-classed C/MU/T is going to have a lot of tools to choose from and will likely be more useful than a 6th level Fighter… but the 6th level Fighter is going to occasionally hold off the attacking Orcs all by their lonesome.

    • Pathfinder could be called D&D 3.75 if that helps and is based off of D&D3. So, this is not based off a point system for building a character. I like how you deal with the fluff skills in points games where you make them cost less. I have also seen where in D&D the GM will grant you two fluff feats for every normal one, but that becomes dangerous if the players start to argue what is a fluff feat.

      As for mad skillz of the AC22 player… she was a thief (sorry, rogue under newer additions). So she had the standard tool set for breaking into places, though she spread her skill out enough that she really was not good at anything, but could attempt (and normally fail) at almost anything. She could hit fairly hard in combat (as flanking thieves should), but the AC38 character could still hit harder.

      I agree with what you said about the Boss Character and Minons, and how they react. The issue was that she died enough that she started having little fun and the campaign devolved from there. I will leave the brain comment out, but she never ran…

      While I realize much of the blame can be placed on the player, it still often leads to a campaign dying before its time.

      • You can only do so much with any given player base.

  5. Back in my pen and paper days we referred to the ‘power gamer’ characters as ‘twinks’ (I’m not entirely sure if anyone even knew what that term meant or just read it in some gamer mag a while back.
    Part of our gaming ‘social contract’ was that players with twink characters were guilty of a certain hubris, and therefore ripe for bad things to happen to them.
    NPCs tended to dislike twinks – I think it’s quite logical that any person who spent all their time honing their combat skills might be a little lacking in social skills, so they had to learn to keep their mouths shut or put the rest of the players in a lot more situations where they were going to see if all those skills were enough.

    • I am a little different. I see nothing wrong with the play style of either person and doing things that obviously target one player will start to annoy that person and soon they will not want to play or start sabotaging the campaign. It is better to try and work with them at the beginning and try to avoid the situation from the start.

      • I also mainly spent my time in games with a lot of non-combat elements to the system (White Wolf, Shadowrun, Deadlands, Warhammer) so the dynamic between the gamer types probably seems a different problem than if you’re in a hack & slash D&D campaign.

        • Yes, the game syatem helps players understand the game they are going to have. D&D often feels more like a tactical simulation while others lend themselves to more role-playing depth. Just make sure your players know if you are stepping out of the norm with one of those systems.

  6. How does the GM create a combat situation where they can threaten the high AC character without beating down the low AC character?

    Separate them. Two halves of a mission must be fulfilled simultaneously. Keep them on the rails enough to get them equalized.

    Alternatively but not exclusively so: drop a perma-curse on the overpowered hack-and-slasher. Not enough to kill, but enough to add dimension and slow things down.

    • Those solutions you work, but lead to railroading and pissing off the powergamer. This in turn can lead to the death of the current campaign.

      • They’re also a huge amount of work, for the gamemaster.

        GMing is already only for the masochist, so this is just an aside.

        • The curse is a quick fix; the two-track adventure is certainly a lot of work to make enjoyable but it can be done. It’s called “cleaning up your mess” because the disparity between the PCs is ultimately the GM’s fault for not paying sufficient attention to his player’s styles and tweaking the adventures to match them along the way.

          • > the disparity between the PCs is ultimately
            > the GM’s fault for not paying sufficient
            > attention to his player’s styles

            Well, this can sometimes be a problem of selection.

            If you have four players, and three of them are Blah and one is Foo, you’ve got a pickle. You can build a Blah campaign and you can tell the oddball they’re going to find it less enjoyable and get out of your comfort zone, or you can bite the bullet and try to juggle.

            Since GMs are masochists, they almost always try to juggle. But it’s not always that you’re not paying attention. Sometimes you know exactly what you’re getting into, you just think you can make it work.

            Or, you’re disinclined to deal with the non-gaming consequences of not trying to make it work.

          • Interesting, so how long should a GM run a two track adventure? I have found that if you do too much of this, the half that is not playing at the moment becomes bored and the game loses momentum. The GM can try to switch back and forth between the two adventures quick enough to not let this happen, but that is a big challenge as time progresses.

            As for the GM not knowing the styles. What if you do, they are your friends, and they all want to play? Do you tell some to hit the bricks?

      • Yes, but I’m not talking about a long-term style. The powergamer may chafe for a bit but when the dealing’s done, the game will be a better challenge and more enjoyable for all.

        I’m also not at all averse to the GM taking the wheel and getting a game back on track when necessary to keep the plot arc moving forward.

        • I have not had that much luck. Normally I see the player feel “picked on” and starts doing the bad gamer eddicate. This is also for ongoing games that could last for many months, not one shots.

          • If you’re trying to run an ongoing game, you really *do* need either a cohesive player group, or one that is flexible enough in outlook to know when you’re catering to whom and grown up enough to admit that this is okay.

          • Agreed Patrick. Which is why I have found it good to have the players and GM talk at the beginning of this to make sure they understand the style of campaign and the players figure out their style.

            If the game is going to go a more power gamey style then the true power gamers help the fluff gamers build their characters to keep pace. If you are doing a more fluff gamey style, then the power gamers agree to set rules to bring them in line for this. This is all part of the social contract that should be made at the start of the game.

          • Communication is vital in all project management.

            Role-playing games map to project management in lots of interesting ways. Particularly innovative software project management.

            As you guys might guess, from seeing the average length of my comment screed around these parts, I have a tendency to deliver a very detailed prospectus on whatever game I’m thinking about running to my potential player base.

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