The Social Mandate

Started by jburneko, January 03, 2008, 10:13:29 PM

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There's a phrase I want to push into the gaming lexicon: The Social Mandate.  I can't remember if Ron uses this phrase in the text of Spione or not.  The phrase has been rattling in my head for a bit now and I don't remember if I made it up or if I read it somewhere.  In another thread Ron wrote: "A book, or a set of rules, is not enough. The actual people have to be into playing this game, with one another, and with a certain degree of obligation to play well."  To which I thought, "Yes, everyone must adhere to the social mandate."

Here's my working definition of a social mandate: "The minimum social or creative behavior the players must bring to the table before the game procedures will work as intended."

In my opinion the greatest weakness in current RPG texts is the lack of clearly articulated social mandates.  The reason they're lacking is obvious however.  The designer is already excited about and pumped to do the very thing his game is designed to do, so of course he might overlook that he needs to be explicit about this energy in order to get others, absent of his presence, to do the same thing.

Among my circle a big casualty of the lack of a social mandate was Capes.  When we first started playing Capes here's what everyone did: Everyone created characters.  Then in the first scene everyone wrote down Goals they wanted their character's to achieve.... then nothing really happened.  Several scenes and indeed several sessions went by like this.  It got absurd such as people writing down: I order Pizza as a Goal.  Then I had an idea.  I grabbed a character Meghann had created (the older non-super father of her gadgeteer).  I knew why Meghann had created this character and I threw down this Goal: Prove that the gadgeteer's robot son isn't a REAL grandchild.

Holy fuck!  The system suddenly worked like a charm and the results of that conflict are one of the most memorable moments in all of my gaming.  It also demonstrates the unarticulated social mandate of Capes: When you propose a Conflict (Event or Goal) make sure it threatens something someone else at the table cares about.  To which I'm sure Capes fans and Tony are all going, "Well Duh."  Except for the fact that almost everyone I've talked to who has played Capes and didn't like it failed to do that one simple thing.  Almost all of them do what we tried to do which is throw down a Goal they want their character to achieve and hope someone opposes it.

It should be noted that The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach has a very similar unarticulated social mandate.  My con games also demonstrate that it's pretty easy to communicate the social mandate via example.  When playing The Roach with new players I always grab the first scene and viciously attack another player (socially or emotionally usually) in front of a Pembertonian.  This is usually enough to set the tone of the game and the next thing I know everyone is at each other's throats (often mine!).

Now there ARE games that very clearly express their social mandate.  I think Dogs in the Vineyard is to be commended in this regard.  Everyone shows up to a Dogs game knowing they're there to solve the town's problems by any means necessary and every Dogs GM knows their job is to reveal the town and escalate conflicts.  Plain and simple, almost board game like.

Spione's discussion of The Cold (driving a wedge between the spy's personal connections and his job as a spy) is crystal clear.  Without this I could easily imagine a group of people getting together and trying to do a bunch of "spy stuff" and wondering why nothing was happening.

Dirty Secrets' Handbook is half a book dedicated to nothing but the social mandate.  This is another game that for my group wasn't really working until I said, "The book recommends that everyone have a working theory and try to push that into play."  Bam.  Problem solved.  Up until that point everyone had sort of resigned themselves to the idea that the solution was "random" and therefore wasn't trying to achieve anything and sort-of expecting the game mechanics to reveal the story to them.

I think the Social Mandate is different from Creative Agenda.  I think it's different than the larger Social Context.  I even think it's slightly different than just, "What is it your game is about?"  I think it's related to, "What do the players do?" but I think it's more specific than that.

How does this sit with you?


Callan S.

Hi Jesse,

I think it's kind of redundant and perhaps a little defensive. Take non roleplayers playing a boardgame - if their a bunch of flightly, no concentration people, they just aren't going to really follow and play those rules. That's just the way it is, there's no point putting something in the rules to tell these people to sit down and concentrate.

But in roleplay games, well, weve had basically very shit rules for a number of years and it's engendered a culture of 'ignore the rules' in people who actually are the concentrating, non flighty type. Indeed this culture promotes ignoring the rules, then judging the game - and passing around that judgement through word of mouth. You just have to deal with that from the flighty air heads, but from people who could have used it properly it's a real concern.

I don't think a text can instruct a person how to not fail at effectively using the text - if the persons gunna fail at it, they'll fail at using the part that tells them how not to fail to begin with. They'll ignore that advice as much as they ignore any other bit.

But discussion about the gaming culture, like on this forum and on others, that could change the culture. Make it a bit closer to that mandate. You know, one could start suggesting that gamer chicks dig gamer guys who do stuff like in that mandate...err, perhaps a sexier word than mandate could be used. Anyway, it's some extent, I bet!

Moreno R.

Hi Jesse!

There one thing that I am not sure I understand abot this: you see this "social mandate" as a specific kind of omission in the rules text, or it's something more? Because in your examples I only see game text that miss talking about very important aspects of the GAME, not of the social understanding of the players, and I am not sure I am not missing something here.

For example, I see the description of "the cold" in Spione, associate with the indication about using the maneuvers to put the principals more and more in the cold, as a very clear and explicit game rule, like "say yes or roll the dice" in DitV.  I never played Capes, But I have encountered rpgs that didn't explain "how to play" to the players, and I consider that a fault of the game rules, not some sort of addendum that the designer should have put in the book as an help...

(Excuse my errors, English is not my native language. I'm Italian.)

Filip Luszczyk


I like the term. More specifically, I like the idea of having a concrete term to describe this thing. Normally, I've been talking about "driving instructions" when it came to communicating this thing in the book, and indeed, I feel multiple games fail to express it correctly and/or fully. You can't assume everyone will automatically know how to use your mechanical procedures, if only because people tend to come to the table with their own assumptions, sometimes grounded in the years of playing different games. The procedures are half of the system - what exactly you do with them and even how you think about them is the other part. You can have that little rule on p. 29 that's crucial to the game producing the experience it should, and the game will break unless you stress its importance enough.

For example, I've been preparing to run Panty Explosion recently. I know the authors have a clear picture of how to play the game in their heads, but I can read the text on and on and I still can't figure out what exactly I should do with the game - not on the basis of the text itself, anyway. Page after page, I need to work out what the people who wrote it had in mind - either using outside information, or filling in the blanks with my own assumptions, if there's nothing to base my guesses on. Oddly, it didn't read that way back in 2006 - but then, I think I wasn't as careful about projecting my own assumptions on the text back then as I am now.

Or, the Pool. A friend of mine discussed it pretty intensively on a Polish forum this week. The text tells him how to roll the dice and stuff. However, he had to learn how to play the thing by reading Ron's posts here on the Forge.

Also, I don't agree with the notion that DitV perfectly communicates all the essentials. It's well written for sure, but it still leaves space for injecting one's previously acquired assumptions. I didn't learn how to play DitV so that it doesn't break from the book. I learned how to play it effectively by reading pages of threads on the forums (and yeah, I decided to ignore some of these later on, but that's another thing). Whenever I hear about DitV being a Golden Standard of Clarity, something in me screams. Somehow, I didn't have to read fourty pages of threads to learn D&D. Seriously, was it my failure to understand the text, or were the people who didn't have problems with it playing with the author, or with someone who played with the author?

However, maybe the problem is in the complexity. A role-playing session can be strikingly complex when you get into the details. "The minimum" might be hard to accurately describe, especially if you take into account the possible differences in the range of natural behavior of potential readers. That is, you might do a good job defining it, but still fail to communicate it due to the reader's assumptions.

Now. I'd really like to know how to communicate the social mandate effecively in the text. I know it might be quite difficult in the game I'm currently developing, and at the same time I'll have to express it very effectively in order for it to work without me at the table. But it's something different than just providing the procedures.

It's about passing a certain paradigm of having fun with the game in the text. And this is... tricky.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

The reason I've always avoided terminology for this stuff is that its lack is, as I see it, a specific flaw or pathology in the culture of role-playing. Because all that stuff you're describing is expected and normal in the pursuit of any other social, leisure activity. You don't find it in the text describing rules for card games, for instance. But without it, any card game is impossible.

As it happens, I've outlined the principles, as I see them, for what you're talking about. It's in the first post of the scary awful brain-damage thread from nearly two years ago. No surprise that nobody paid attention, eh? However bezillions of views that thread got, and I doubt if more than a dozen people actually read the portion I'm talking about, in the first section of the first post, all in fucking bold text too.

Best, Ron


Well, since Dirty Secrets was invoked, I must now appear.

Jesse's read on the Handbook in Dirty Secrets is dead on.  A large chunk of it is trying to express that Social Mandate (or whatever we're calling it), because I didn't want to assume that I had a roleplaying audience when I wrote it.  So I spent a lot of time thinking about precisely this point.  I've also been reading Rules of Play, a textbook on game design.  (Recommended, by the way, if you're interested in this sort of thing.)

Which leads me to Ron's statement:

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 04, 2008, 02:24:46 AM
The reason I've always avoided terminology for this stuff is that its lack is, as I see it, a specific flaw or pathology in the culture of role-playing. Because all that stuff you're describing is expected and normal in the pursuit of any other social, leisure activity. You don't find it in the text describing rules for card games, for instance. But without it, any card game is impossible.

Yes, but...

One of the points the authors of Rules of Play make is that no rule set is completely explicit.  They use Tic-Tac-Toe as an example.  Technically, there's no time limit on taking your turn.  However, if I were to refuse to take my turn (thus preventing you from winning) and claim the support of the rules, I would be demonstrating bad sportsmanship.  I'm "breaking the rules" somehow, even though they aren't formally stated.  Where did these "other rules" come from?


Culturally, there's a shared understanding of what a board game or card game is about.  As such, these understandings are coded into the implicit rules that we understand as a result of our shared culture.  For example, the idea of trying to "win".  Pushing for victory is the assumed reason for a game.  Of course, we all understand this, but that's because, at some point in our lives, we were taught this.

I don't think that there's the same level of cultural support for roleplaying (independent of our own issues).  For storytelling?  Sure.  But we're not about "storytelling" broadly.  Rather, we're about the collaborative creation of emergent narratives through both controlled and random means.  I mean, from a certain perspective, we're like the John Cages of storytelling.  People show up, expecting a straight-forward narrative, and they get cards and dice and I-Ching readings and the like.

Now, I understand why those things are there and why they actually reinforce quality play.  But, from an outsider's perspective, these things are foreign enough to create confusion about the Social Mandate.

Add to that the fact that roleplayers can't actually agree on the basic "thing" that we're doing, and you have a recipe for disaster.

In other words, roleplaying and other "fringe" activities need to enunciate the Social Mandate of what they are doing since they lack strong, widespread cultural support.  As these activities gain this cultural support, we can increase the assumptions that we make within our rules, relying on the unspoken rules of conduct that we carry with us.

Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown

Ron Edwards

Hi Seth,

I agree with your basic point about role-playing. I believe it was at GenCon 2005 that I had a discussion with about 18 people, at the Embassy Suites, about precisely this issue, and how "the hobby" wouldn't actually be one until that cultural understanding took hold in some venue that wasn't defined as "gamer." I also thought, and still think, that when that happens, gamer culture will in fact be left behind.

But that last bit is getting away from the point, which is about the text of a game book. You and Jesse have read Spione and you've played a bunch of it, so you know about how I did it: write a book, and put a little game in the form of procedural instructions into it. The interesting thing for the social mandate text is that I focused on CA rather than on enforcing the SIS. That's where I deviated strongly from the very definition of what "an RPG" is, in the physical sense. You did the same with Dirty Secrets, and I notice that some related works (carry, Grey Ranks, Steal Away Jordan, Lacuna, The Drifter's Escape) have found their own ways to deviate from that long-standing definition too.

It's a hard place to be designing and writing in. Yes, the social mandate stuff has to be in there, because we are trying to design and write in a context which just isn't our home game-culture any more. We know that many gamers won't like what we're doing or want to read it. We also know that we are working more in a context that many non-gamers might like if they ever encountered it. How do you design and write for that? There are lots of possibilities for attempting it (for instance, the approach to Spione that I didn't take that would have looked a lot like a German board game), but no known, empirically strong answers, yet.

But ultimately ... one day, probably in a context that will care not one bit for who any of us may be or what our work was like, the really functional game of this kind will not need social mandate text.

So for the present, it's tricky as hell. The audience is composed of (1) gamers who have no social mandate text because historically gaming has missed and even gone into nigh-pathological denial about that particular boat (and in my view suffered badly for it), and (2) non-gamers who are not used to social mandate text because they have never needed it for the activities they're familiar with.

This is a big deal. As far as the conflicts, issues, and how-to concerns that faced the Forge in 2000, we have effectively triumphed. Back then, publishing your own game was considered a vanity act for people who couldn't "get their game published for real." Back then, doing so was fraught with horrible production pitfalls, and typically was conducted in isolation, and aimed at "being like a real game" i.e., the non-independent ones. Back then, what creative dialogue existed was wrapped up in rhetorical failures (balance, roll/role, realism, and lots more). Due specifically to the Forge, the subculture has been transformed, including any number of people and companies who curse its name.

So what now? It's this new task. For one thing, games which treat history and the present as real rather than as fictional settings; for another, drawing directly upon participants' personal histories and values as part of prep and play; and for another, driving toward transformations of attitudes and values as well as enjoying the creation of fiction. And of course, how actually to design, write, and market these funny new things.

Maybe it's time to get all Spione here at the Forge. The German translation is now in layout, and the website is finally approaching the level that I wanted. But it's not just about this one thing! This is something a lot of people are grappling with (examples in development: Black Cadillacs, or more developed, The Face of Angels). I talked with Julia, Nathan, and Jason about our four parallel attempts at GenCon 2007, and our shared enthusiasm for this new sort of thing is really strong. How will social mandate text be constructed? Is this a transitional skill, or effect? Into what?

These are exciting times. I love the Forge and what it does relative to the existing gaming culture and (finally) industry. I want that to keep going, and as I've said before, yield a million stars once its Big Bang has faded. But maybe, now, I see another kind of Big Bang slowly gathering force. This discussion of social mandate text is one such item.

Best, Ron

David Berg

Quote from: Ron Edwards on January 04, 2008, 10:38:53 PMHow will social mandate text be constructed?
I'd like to see it done with pictures and diagrams.  That just seems inherently more user-friendly, fun, and game-like to me.  Gonna try this myself once I get through Scott McCloud's work.
here's my blog, discussing Delve, my game in development

Callan S.

In terms of cultural discussion, games which end with a win/lose condition would assist tremendously I think. Yeah, sure pretty much all roleplayers have gone 'oh, in roleplay no one has to win or lose' at some point. Not to mention nar and sim prefering people probably moving away from win lose in an attempt to break away from wargaming/boardgame/gamist roots.

But the thing is, when the game has a win/lose condition, anyone who wasn't at the session can ask 'Did you win in the end?'. And for the participant, there's no hiding in the mysterious 'oh, there aren't winners or losers', where they can ignore rules but act like they didn't and the amazing amount of murk that goes with it. Someone else, someone from outside the group KNOWS one of the rules, and that rule is that it ends with a win or a loss. That can't be ignored conveniently while acting like they aren't ignoring it "Well, did you win or not?". That outsider will not support the participants illusion of following the rules. And even if he tries to keep the illusion up, he'll just run into more and more people who's question will crack it. "Did you win?". Even if the group tries to keep the illusion of rules following going during the session, the fact that general outside culture insists on one rule being followered (by asking 'Did you win?'), stops any group from developing a complete illusion of rules usage. That one rule, they can't control - and that spoils the rest of the illusion.

I think sim and nar have, thanks to the forge, enough of an identity of their own to be in a game with a win/lose condition, yet still be the main feature (you can kill or fail to kill the master in 'My life with master', can't you?).

Oh, and I think it makes them easier to read - all the options have more context to remember them by, in relation to an overall win/lose condition.

Ron Edwards

Hi Callan,

I think you're correct in that some kind of culturally-understood statement will have to be involved. However, plain old win-lose isn't going to cut it. I agree that "no one wins or loses" has often been a little dicey or dishonest in RPG texts. Still, win-lose simply cannot apply to Narrativist and Simulationist play. The key for them, or at least the beginnings of thinking about that key, lies in terms of successful vs. unsuccessful play, much in the sense that a musical performance might be.

For instance, regarding My Life with Master, the answer to your query is functionally "no." The rules about that are subtle and superficially appear to support the possibility of the Master's survival, but successful play does mean his or her death. It was even a key point/principle during the game's design: "The Master must die" (I know, because I briefly debated about that point and lost).

Due in part to my own post, which began as an aside, the topic is now drifting. Jesse, where are we? I think the bigger picture of gaming (or more accurately, recent developments in gaming) and the larger culture is diminishing your point about the social mandate in existing games, in gaming as we know it and not what it might be. Can you provide us some direction for the thread from this point?

Best, Ron


I think what's been said so far is very fascinating.  I'm not exactly sure if the thing I was originally talking about is exactly the same as that unspoken social functionality Ron's talking about.  I agree with everyone else that when someone breaks out a deck cards and says let's play a game the unarticulated goal of "winning" kicks in and it really sucks to play with someone who might be following the procedures of the game but clearly isn't actually putting any challenge or resistance.  I even think of social situations where mixed social agendas happen.  Someone says, "Let's go bowling" but upon arrival 50% of the people are just hanging at the bar and 50% of the remaining 50% are just kind of tossing the ball on their turn.  We haven't "gone bowling" we've thrown a party a in a bowling alley and those of us who wanted to "bowl" are kind of getting shafted.

However, I'm unconvinced that even if "gamer culture" died and role-playing took diffused out into a much more socially functional context that what I'm describing as The Social Mandate wouldn't be necessary from game to game.  Do you think a bunch of non-gamer die-hard Le Carre fans wouldn't need that text about The Cold while playing Spione?  Is the Handbook section of Dirty Secrets completely unnecessary for hard boiled detective fans?  I don't think so.

I think even if "address Premise" got out into the cultural subconscious as deeply as "try to win" when someone breaks out cards I'm not sure the specifics of what needs to be brought to the table creatively for *this* or *that* game would no long be necessary.


Ben Lehman


So -- agreeing with everyone else here -- most leisure activities have implied, unstated social mandates. When I pick up a deck of cards, the social mandate is either "win" or "chat" or both, and we can figure that out pretty quickly.

Role-playing games clearly suffer a lot from a lack of this sort of implied mandate. For people who are not culturally indoctrinated as kids, it's totally unclear what to do, and at present most-if-not-all texts don't really help with that at all. There simply are no commonly held social mandates for shared, non-audience directed creative activity. I think, at this point, there's four options we can have as designers:

1) Rely on mandates out there in gamer culture.
2) Clearly and slowly state the social mandates for our game.
3) Rely on commonly held social mandates, such as those from sports, games, movie-going, fiction reading, what have you.
4) Design for children, who don't have these things as ingrained.

To do 3) we have to create, in our text, an identification of our design with the thing in question (this is a card game, this is a sport, this is a movie), and then we have to make sure that the following the proper procedures for that thing will result in the game actually paying off.

Mostly what we've done, so far, is 1) and 3), with some strongly notable exceptions for 2). 3) is what I want to talk about, specifically what do we mean when we say "this is a game."

"This is a game" implies "This is a social activity with a formal set of rules which has winners and losers, and the social mandate is to try to win, unless you are playing with someone much worse off than you at the game (a newcomer or a child), in which case the social mandate is to try to keep the game as even as possible."

My thought is that this identification with "a game" is useful for describing more than just gamist-oriented role-playing texts. For narrativist and simulationist rules-sets, you just have to make sure that the process of playing to win will yield the results you want, and then you have to tell people how to go about playing to win.

But my only example right now is a negative case: This is something that I've struggled with a lot in the Drifter's Escape. How to win the game is very simple: The Devil and the Man must convince the Drifter's player that the Drifter deserves their specific outcome to his life. To win as the Drifter, you must enlist the help of good people in doing good things.

So far, in playtesting, this has worked admirably except for once. That once was playing with someone who was a hard-core gamer: His idea is that games must be won mechanically, and must be played mechanically cut-throat, and must only be played mechanically. Presented with the rules, he realized (it's pretty obvious to someone who knows these things) that the Devil and the Man cannot win by simple mechanical brute force: the Drifter's player must choose to let them win. Thus, as the Devil, he abandoned trying to win and just tried to kill the Drifter, under the rationale that "since winning was impossible, the best he could do was make sure no one else won."

Clearly, something in "winning" and "losing" tripped off something for him that it didn't for other playtesters, and this has made me realize that there was simply a different implied social mandate: since his assumption was that all players would be playing aggressively to win and that any regard for the fiction was an "error," it was clearly impossible for him to win.

I'm still stewing over what this means for the text: maybe nothing. The consequence of not clearly explaining your social mandate is that it will, sometimes, be misinterpreted. The consequence of clearly explaining your social mandate is that it will be confusing and frustrating to those that find it alien.



1st point.  I dislike the term 'social mandate' partly because I do not find it particularly communicative, but mostly because its use in conjunction with the social contract risks presenting some problems.  Very rapidly the "social" part will become redundant and we will be referring to "the contract" and "the mandate", which I think would be to the detriment of SC.  SC benefits from its full form being used all the time, I think.

2nd point.  Generally, game does mean, as Ben summarises, "a social activity with a formal set of rules which has winners and losers, and the social mandate is to try to win".  But game can also be employed in other contexts as "a regular set of interactions".  I wonder if Eric Berne's Transactional Analysis, which frames human activity of such games or regular interactions, could be mined for terminology.  TA uses "transaction" to mean "the fundamental unit of social intercourse" and "stroke" as the atomic unit of transactions, essentially a recognition of the person.  Perhaps if game texts were framed in terms of the transactions that are expected/required to occur between the participants that would be comprehensible.  You could maybe say something like, "the primary transactions that occur between players of Dirty Secrets are contests of their working theories".  You could discuss transactions between players and GM's separately, or perhaps even game events sequentially.  That is, you could indicate the the first transaction of play is negotiation of SC, during which you will do X and Y, the second transaction is character design, during which you will do X and Y etc.  Maybe something like "transaction sequence" could be used to refer to "all the stuff you must do for the game to work".  Perhaps Ben could write a paragraph on "Transactions between Man and Drifter" etc. in which he articulates the correct employment of the mechanical structure.

3rd point.  A rather more quixotic metaphor might be "barn raising".,  A barn raising is a collective enterprise, lots of stuff happens, there are many side activities, but one of them is central, particular, important.  It's quite clear what the end product is supposed to be.  Maybe an essay on "raising this barn" in a game text would provide a suitable metaphor by which the necessary behaviours could be explicitly discussed.  Barn raisings have quite a few similarities with our sorts of games, being arranged, requiring resources, calling on specific skills and techniques, lasting for a fairly limited if flexible duration.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


Jesse wrote:

QuoteHowever, I'm unconvinced that even if "gamer culture" died and role-playing took diffused out into a much more socially functional context that what I'm describing as The Social Mandate wouldn't be necessary from game to game.  Do you think a bunch of non-gamer die-hard Le Carre fans wouldn't need that text about The Cold while playing Spione?  Is the Handbook section of Dirty Secrets completely unnecessary for hard boiled detective fans?  I don't think so.

Ah.  Things become a bit clearer.  I think.

Let me pitch out an analogy and see if I'm understanding you.  I'll use Bridge as an example, because this thread is all about the card games.

"In Bridge, the goal is to work with your partner to earn more points than the other team, thus achieving victory.  You should be trying to do this." = What Ron and I were talking about.

"In Bridge, the way to play successfully is to control the lead, thus allowing you to dictate which suits are played.  At the same time, you want to draw out your opponent's trump cards without losing control of the lead." = What you were talking about.

Never mind if the second statement is an accurate statement about Bridge.  Is it on the same level of thought that you're describing?  Because Ron and I were talking about some high-level overarching stuff, and I think that you're looking at something at the level of "good strategy" in a card game.

So, am I understanding you properly?
Seth Ben-Ezra
Dark Omen Games
producing Legends of Alyria, Dirty Secrets, A Flower for Mara
coming soon: Showdown