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The Contract

J.S. Mage
June, 2000
Tremble in fear, oh sisters and brothers, for today we discuss the Contract. We could call it the Pact, or the Covenant, but I like Contract. It has that "oaths to heathen gods" feel to it. While the Contract is not what inherently makes a game go right, it is the thing that makes games fail in the most spectacular sorts of ways.

What is the Contract? Whenever there is a meeting of two forces where one is clearly inferior to the other, a contract of some kind is formed. You could talk about the contract between banker and the other players in Monopoly, to be the one who distributes the money in a fair and equitable manner, or the contract between the referee of a sporting match and the players, to enforce the rules of the game with an even hand, or even the contract of the director and the audience, where as the audience agrees to suspend their disbelief in order to experience what the director wants them to see. For us gamers, there is a more crucial contract, the Contract, the deal between the arbiter(1) of the game and his or her players. And, oh, is it a powerful and mighty one.

In few other situations is there such a relinquishing of control as is present in role playing games. The Referee is the source of all the players doings, both in character and out. He not only dispenses and interprets rules, but also provides for the entirety of the character experience. The characters see nothing but through the words of the Referee. No law of physics or metaphysics operate without the desire of the Referee. The characters interact with nothing short of the Referee's whim. The game has no meaning, plot or theme without the creativity and vigor of the Referee introducing these concepts. It would be another thing entirely if the characters were only numbers and tokens, but in the case of role-playing games they are also emotional entities, deeply tied to their respective players. They are another persona carried about by the player, and toted out whenever appropriate. So it is no overstatement to say that the Referee has the player's souls in the palm of her hand.

Yet, when was the last time you played a game like this? When it becomes clear just how powerful the Referee is, the game is not fun anymore. Hence the existence of the Contract. The Contract is where the concept of noblise oblige enters into the gaming psyche. In essence, the Contract reads, "you show us a good time, Referee, and we players will acquiesce to your divine right."

Sure beats the Ten Commandments.

We start with the rules, and by the rules of the game is the Contract most clearly displayed. To the extent that any role playing game has rules, these rules are maintained by the Referee. It is his job to make certain that the rules are followed, or at least followed to the best of his interpretation. Likewise the players are the ones most affected by the rules, for the rules limit and define just what they can and cannot do. In a similar fashion, they expect the Referee to be playing with the same set of rules as he edicts upon his players. This is why everyone hates "rules lawyers," for they are trying to circumvent the Contract and bring a higher power to bear, the holy writ, rather than respecting the understanding that the Referee brings. In short, they are accusing the Referee, and sometimes the other players, of heresy. Nobody likes to be called a heretic, nor do people, and gamers especially, like the idea of the inquisition running around. It is also the reason why diceless (By diceless I mean lacking any means of numerical determination of acts. It's just such a more eloquent, albeit not wholly accurate, term) games are the hardest games to run. There are no rules to see, no core to understand where the Referee is basing his beliefs, and so can breed distrust and argument like the plague, unless you have some especially good and trustful sorts.

If this were the entirety of the Contract then we would all be playing computer games. For then and only then is the dispensation of the rules purely even-handed. Referees, on the other hand, cheat. They cheat a lot. Some cheat more than others, but all cheat at one time or another. Why? Good rules do not a story make. The higher obligation of the Referee is to provide for her players to have a good time. This is the supreme goal, the teleontology of role playing games for you philosophy types. It does not matter what motivates people to play role playing games, be it lust for power or a desire to perfect escapism or even just because it is what their friends are doing, they are looking to have a good time. Sometimes the rules dictate that an major villain should die at an inopportune time, or, more commonly, a player character, and so the Referee's job is to step in and set the plot line to right, regardless of what the scripture says. It is my opinion that the majority of these "adjustments" are in the player's favor. On the other hand, it is an equally common mistake amongst developing Referees to judge for too often as it is to judge against, to give the players too easy of a time as opposed to giving them too hard of a time, which relates back to the good old adversarial stance that was supposed to be adopted between Referee and player.

The players do pay a hefty price for this favor, and that is the good old chain gang. Specifically, there is always a finite limit to the amount of pure stuff a Referee can conceive. The true test of a good Referee has always been the ability to wing it, but when a Referee is winging it he is expending the absolute best of his potential to try and achieve fun for all. It is, in some ways, a waste of good energy, since even in the most well-hewn and methodical plot there is always that guy, the one who comes up with the weird idea that throws everything haywire from a control-freak perspective. There is an ideal balance within this context, between planned happenstance and whims of players, and the best of games holds to this concept. But by the very virtue a plot exists, there are some events that are more momentous than others, and for some of these events the Referee may have less than perfect inceptions. What if the players do not get captured? Sometimes it is not a problem, because the plot just morphs to the changes, in other circumstances the plot cannot be warped without serious determent to the plot. And so the characters get railroaded, and sometimes complain, but more often go along with the obvious thread just so that they can receive the good story in its fullness. The Contract is that the players will accept the utter power and occasion logical slip of the Referee, as long as the Referee tempers his ultimate power by respecting the player's desire for a good time. The Contract is that the players will accept the fiat of the Referee on occasion, when it comes to a point of saving the plot for the betterment of all.

Or, colloquially, a mediocre player may think the Ref always right or wrong, but the best player knows when the Ref is wrong. A bad Ref thinks the players are always wrong, a good Ref thinks they are always right, and the best Ref knows the players are always right, but will put up with his or her inadequacies for the betterment of all.

And now that I have brought the various lynch mobs to my door, I will attempt to defend myself. The first cries of "treason!" come from those Referees who always wing it, who never have a set plan and just go with the flow and where ever they feel that the game should take them. I really have the utmost respect for these people. Unbeholden to thinking, they are able to extemporaneously create the most wonderful and invigorating plots. However, it is both my experience in playing and in Refereeing that these extempo creations are not so wonderful because they are an intricate and detailed plots, but rather, because the plot is necessitated by virtue of expedience to be so haphazard, they are wondrous costume pieces, with the Referee engaged in as much of an experience of playing the multitudes of characters, inventing new concepts to drive the world, and otherwise just getting to do what Referees truly do best what the most perfect players do, interact on some higher plane. With no real core to base it on other than the prime conceptions of what the game world are, they lack that quality of being true games. On the other hand, I must say that most of my best ideas for plots and subplots have come from such situations. So if this is what works for you and your group, go crazy. It is still the Contract, even more so than a normal game because what motivates it is the Referee doing anything to keep the players happy. In fact, it has some qualities of even more Referee control, because, as opposed to the proffering of a plot and allowing the players to deal with it as they will, they are being actively constructive about the entire game experience.

The cluster of "get 'em!" come from the, for lack of a better term, player's rights groups, who see only the players as manning the helm. After all, they are the ones who really decree all that happens in the game, the Referee only exists to facilitate their doings. Well, a contract cannot be a contract without two willing signatures. A Referee, in so many ways, has so little control. She is not the protagonist. She is not the center of the story, does not operate the story, only maintains and subsists it. The Contract is always a two way street. For as much right as the players have to refute the whims of the Referee by turning down the plots and tricks of the Referee, the Referee has the same power over the characters, and can more readily exact vengeance over hurt feelings for "screwing up the plot." This is why the Contract exists. It is not about one side taking control, it is about working towards a greater sense of joy and entertainment for all. Even if the Referee maintains a plot texture to rival Tolstoy, that plot is only a meager shadow to what the real business of the game is, the interaction and growth of the players as they interact with the plot. So remember, we are all operators of the great game, and yes, Referees do have an inordinate amount of power. But it is only through players that Referees are granted those powers, and if either side neglects the service of the other, it all falls apart. Footnotes 1- From now on, I will always use the term "Referee" to describe the person who runs the game. It's just my preferred term. Apologies to whomever thinks this is a terrible term.

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