Social Contract: Conversations with Corvus Elrod, Part 1

I’ve recently been part of a pretty amazing conversation — from my position — with Corvus Elrod [Check out Bhaloidam!]. I took a chance a couple weeks ago and asked him the first question listed here. Much to my surprise, not only did he answer the first one, he agreed to answer more questions! Since then, I have been sending him questions fairly frequently and he has been gracious enough to both continue answering them and, within the last day or so, agreeing to let me post them as a series of posts based on our conversations.

I have tried to edit these questions and responses into a coherent structure. I ended up cutting a large portion of what I said in response to Corvus in most places (other than at the end of this first part) because it was either me explaining how I agreed or placing the question in context before I asked it. Many of these questions come from material I have covered before in great length and thought it better to let Corvus’ statements stand by themselves whenever possible.

Me: In reading over your recent blog posts, I have been wondering if you have worked on coming up with a way to define the “possibility space” of a game session — yes, it is a ‘magic circle’ but what is its diameter? Such measurements are obviously rooted in the mechanics… but also comes from the player too. There are occasions where actions are allowed but not explicitly listed that a player may perform. I have been flirting with the idea of an “ideal player” who marks the mean and from which a standard deviation could help highlight if not totally define the possibility space. Or, as an alternative, dealing with a ‘probability space’ and assigning the probability of possible actions. The later needs a great deal of player testing (i.e. actual data) though.

Corvus: Game mechanics can only suggest the size and tenor of the magic circle. It’s the players themselves who always determine its exact nature. I wrote about this very thing recently here.

Stephen King talks about the Ideal Reader in On Writing. Since I believe that good games (and good stories) should be focused on providing a particular experience, this is an idea that I find very appealing.

Me: If you are willing to indulge me in answering more questions, I would like very much to talk to you about the role the Social Contract — especially in Bhaloidam — plays in mitigating a problem you highlighted as Rule Enforcement — “But how do you keep Spinners from [doing this thing I don’t like]?” — and I, within my own work, have classified as Conflict of Expectations arising out of knowledge asymmetry between the player and the world they temporarily inhabit.

[Corvus agrees to answer questions.]

Me: Does the Social Contract ever have a physicality (i.e. is written down) within the game setting or is it just the ‘social rules’ — more of frequently discussed and temporary rules? — that adapts as the performance (which I also now understand to be mutable via the expression of token usage) of the players within the platform as they continue to interact within it?

Corvus: First of all–I’m not sure a game has any business telling you what your social contract should be. Not only would that be terribly limiting, but people already buy your game based on whether or not they feel it will work well within their preferred social contract. That being said, like interpreting an author’s intended metaphor, a designer’s preferred social contract is pretty easily interpreted by a close read of their game.

In the Bhaloidam handbook, I never specifically reference the Social Contract. Portions of my target audience would find that too uncomfortable and it would weigh down the (intended) delight of uncovering how well the platform integrates with your Skein’s needs. Instead, as you suggest, the rules themselves provide a platform for discussion that has the Spinner’s exploring their social contracts in the context of building upon Bhaloidam’s core rules.

Me: On the topic of an “ideal player”: Do you, as a designer, plan for such a person — mythical or not — or, instead, construct ‘platforms’ in such a manner as the beginner could understand with little effort (i.e. how do you balance the need for complexity with accessibility)?

Corvus: Absolutely. My primary focus when designing is what sort of experience I hope to provide. The initial work is all aimed toward that goal. Then I determine who would best enjoy that experience and tweak the rules (and the explanation thereof) until the ideal player is able to recreate that experience by interpreting the rules as given. Personally, I find it’s harder to write the rules with this goal than it is to design them in the first place.

Me: I am intrigued by what you might mean by saying “within their preferred social contract” in the context of the discourse between player and system in the creation of the Social Contract.

Corvus: Groups of people generally have default social contracts that–at minimum–influence how they interpret a rule set. For example, I had someone with a standard d20-system GM vs. Player mentality run a Bhaloidam session and explain to me all the ways in which it was broken and didn’t work. Of course, I considered all the weaknesses he described as strengths and realized I hadn’t done enough to inform his expectations of the platform (I’ve since come to accept that there’s very little I can do with hardcore d20 players other than warn them off with care-bear language).

The agents’ (Explanation of why I use ‘agent’) social contract always trumps whatever magic circle the rules might suggest. Sometime the conflict causes them to never play again, sometimes it causes them to intentionally alter the rules and other times it so thoroughly influences their understanding of the rules that the game would be unrecognizable to the designer. My first experience with Arkham Horror bore little-to-no resemblance to the game I’d heard about (and the game the design was clearly asking us to play, frankly) because the people I was playing with didn’t like how impossible it was to win. Their forgiving interpretation of the rules was transparent even without having read the manual myself.

Me: In my own work on a similar approach, I highlighted four initial categories (Expectations, Impressions, Foreknowledge and Environment) that every player brings to any game session. (I made an image of my thoughts for a blog post a few weeks ago.)

Corvus: Yeah, I saw (and liked) that. It’s important to note that expectations and foreknowledge in particular are informed by previous experience with works in the same perceived genre. And, with all media, perceived genre can fluctuate wildly.

Me: Do players bring with them a social contract and, if so, could you articulate what you feel that might entail?

Corvus: A group of frat boys and a group of professional women will bring a very different social contract to the table. Long time friends and ad-hoc con-groups also have very different social contracts. Experienced gamers and noobs as well, etc, etc, etc.

I generally consider two major themes within the social contract–1) What sort of game experience is the player looking for? and 2) How does the player want to interact with the other players at the table? There’s sometimes bleed-over between the two based on gameplay (in the case of co-op games for example), but they’re generally quite distinct considerations.

Me: On a similar track, I find this phrase “until the ideal player is able to recreate that experience by interpreting the rules as given” quite interesting. I imagine you derive such interpretations of success or not from playtesting. In such a situation, I can imagine some edge cases that would be worrisome in most other systems.

Corvus: Worrisome only if you really hate the idea that the agent might go rogue. If you delight in agents leveraging their agency in order to meet their own agendas (as I tend to do) then it’s only worrisome if they aren’t enjoying themselves.

Me: Does the “ideal player” have a fluency of the rule-set, a mastery of the system or are they composed of other qualities and actions?

Corvus: That would depend, I imagine, on what you considered important in your agents. For myself, I like to focus on desired play experience–a focus which haunts the boundaries between the two major social contract themes I outlined earlier.

The reader’s interpretation, made from the discourse with the work and the reader’s own mind, is what is most important. Yes, the Agency Director — designer/writer — establishes some bounds for the initial experience, but the reader is free to completely to “go ‘off reservation'” if they want. This ability is fundamental to Play. If they, as players, are following a “self-guided exploration”, then, by all means, explore everything!

I also absolutely agree with this statement: “expectations and foreknowledge in particular are informed by previous experience with works in the same perceived genre.” This very sentiment is at the core of any allegations of people — particularly comment trolls — that something is “not a game”, “not part of a franchise” or any other such nonsense. In accounting for “player bias” (or whatever else it comes to be labeled later), such traits must be among those in such a list. Expectations are a major factor. So too is foreknowledge, but I mean it in the role of information management since I am looking at the entire experience from — currently — the control, understanding and ultimately player actions that arise from the state of information asymmetry between reader/player (agent) and text/game (director).

[Part 2: Questions on designing systems and the equality of play!]