The Importance of the Social Contract

Before the game begins, players are encouraged to establish a Social Contract, that is to get a consensus about individual play style preferences and expectations on the record in advance. Chapter Two mentions several features that can be included in a Social Contract. The Contract is an explicit acknowledgement that every group has its own dynamic. Everyone has their own preferences and their own expectations. They have their own ways of dealing with situations and with other players.

Preferences are a collection of things a player likes and dislikes. Often times if a game does not fit within a player’s set of preferences there is not much to be done. Everyone is different, and everyone is entitled to like what they like. This means Universalis may not be for everyone. However, most of the time, preferences are flexible. There is usually a lot of gray area between features players insist on having and things they refuse to play with. This is where expectations come in.

Expectations are what a player believes he will be getting when he sits down to play. In any game, if a player’s expectations aren’t being fulfilled they are going to be dissatisfied with the experience. However, much of the disappointment can be avoided if players are clear about what they can expect from the game right at the start. Universalis offers a game that is unlike almost any other RPG out there. We think it is a damn good game: a lot of fun and a powerful story creating took kit. However, if a player comes to the table expecting seafood and instead gets served a thick steak, he will likely be disappointed, regardless of how good a steak it was. The Social Contract is the way to make sure everyone knows what’s on the menu. Items to discuss in a Social Contract include:

Outside Distractions:

Some groups have no problems playing a game amidst many distractions. Other groups have very strict bans on things like cell phones, televisions, Monty Python jokes; or discussing sports, a favorite movie, or a new computer game. Some groups forbid food and beverages at the gaming table, and establish set break periods where the game halts at a predetermined time for such activities. One of the first parameters that should be established by any playgroup is its policy on distractions. A rambunctious, talkative group with lots of out of game camaraderie will present a very different play experience than one where such things are banned and total focus on the game is demanded. Players expecting one will be very disappointed if presented with the other.

Table Talk:

Related to this is the idea of table talk. During a player’s turn is it encouraged, permissible, discouraged, or even forbidden for other players to offer suggestions, reminders, or threaten retribution to the player taking his turn? Some groups will find that the story is more collaborative if collaboration is allowed at all times. Players can actually work together to help another player craft his turn in the best way possible. Other groups feel that such efforts stifle individual creativity and lead to bland predictable stories. Still others simply find that it’s distracting, promotes too much chaos at the table, or allows powerful personalities to dominate play. Some will permit a suggestion or two if a player seems stumped but discourage it in general. Games will function much more smoothly if a group’s attitude towards table talk is identified before hand.

Game Rule Priorities:

How fast and loose vs. meticulous and detailed does the group as a whole desire to be with regards to game rules? Some groups will fall into the fast and loose category. They may get so absorbed with slinging around cool descriptions and clever plot twists that they forget to keep track of exactly how many Coins they’re supposed to have spent. Later, when they realize this, they might be satisfied to simply say “yeah, that would have been something like 6 Coins or thereabouts”. Other groups will want to be far more meticulous in their accounting. They will explicitly cost out every detail and if the player is a Coin short, they’ll expect him to cough up another one to make good. Either method can make for an entertaining game, but all players should be on the same page as to what to expect.


Universalis is a game focused on the creative process in which brainstormed ideas serve to shape the game world’s reality. The ability to Interrupt another player’s turn to add details of your own, is a cornerstone of game play. Some individuals are not as quick as others at this and prefer a more deliberate pace where they have time to carefully think each item out and frame it “just so”. Others are brainstorming dynamos spitting out ideas by the bushel. If your group includes a mix of these types, players should discuss in advance how to keep the “rapid fire” players from dominating play and leaving the “deliberate” players behind, and conversely how to keep the “rapid fire” players from getting bored with a more “deliberate” pace.

Adherence to Conventions:

An important item to establish up front is how rigidly you plan on adhering to Game Structure decisions about genre and theme and the like. If the genre is one of Dark Horror, how much “humor” or silliness will be tolerated before the Challenge mechanic is used to drag the story back on course. If the genre is a gritty realistic police drama, how much tolerance will there be for over the top kung fu escapades and open flaunting of authority. Some groups couldn’t care less and are willing to follow the story wherever it takes them. Other groups will demand players adhere to the setting and genre conventions as they’ve been established. Spelling this out up front, will save a lot of headaches and Challenges later on.

Level of Simulation:

Universalis gives players a great deal of power to author and direct the story as they see fit. In this sense a player is much like a screen play writer bound only by his imagination and his budget. However, he is also bound by his ability to “sell” his ideas to the other players. When engaged in a scene, should players attempt to use their authority to ensure that the actions in the scene are “realistic” and reasonable? Is verisimilitude important to the game? Or are players free to be as outrageous and over the top as they desire? This is yet another issue that is almost sure to cause a great deal of conflict within a group if all of the players are not in accord. Many groups will expect the players to be self limiting. That is to say, each player voluntarily limits his own power to alter the world to what makes sense or is reasonable given that world’s reality.

It is not expected that players will go down this list item by item and sign a written contract. In fact, if you’re part of a well established group that has been playing together for a long time, you were probably able to recognize where your group already fits as you read through each item. Most likely many of the issues above have been tacitly assumed within your group for some time simply as a result of being familiar with each other. You may, however, have noticed an area or two in which there is some friction because players have different priorities. Or if you’re part of a new group, you may not have a clear idea of what your fellow players’ preferences are.

Simply being aware that these differences (and many others) exist and that not everyone in your group will share the same view on them as you do can go a long way towards smoothing tensions. Often a simple discussion about an issue can resolve it before it becomes a major source of friction. These principles can be adopted to any game (or really any social activity at all).

Universalis, however, goes one step further. It allows (and encourages) social contract issues to be introduced as a rule in the game. Items like “no food at the table”, or “no chit chat while a player is taking his turn”, or “make sure we account for our Coin expenditures exactly” can be proposed as a Tenet of the game. If not Challenged by the other players it is now a rule of the game that the other players are expected to abide by and can be used as part of the Challenge or even Fine mechanic if necessary.

—-Ralph Mazza


Comments are closed