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?