What is a Game Contract for Role-Playing Games?
Compare the term's origin: Social contract
I'm not sure whether "contract" is a good choice of word. I'd perhaps use "agreement" or "arrangement". Nevertheless, "contract" is the word that has been previously used, perhaps due to the term's origin. In Finnish, the term is "roolipelisopimus".
Also, I hedge a lot. It's purposeful, since there are no "correct" game contracts.
Note: I use the word "players" to refer to all people involved in the game, whether they are actually players, game masters or moderators (unless I indicate them separately).
Problems can arise when players' understandings and expectations of the game and game situation differ. To prevent conflicts about the game's purpose and execution, the players can create a game contract
The game contract should outline the game system, game setting, game behaviour, the players' expectations of the game etc. to whatever extent needed. Its purpose is to make sure that the players get approximately what they expect from the game and can thus enjoy it. The game contract can be written or spoken.
The game contract can be a collaborative effort. In some games, all players can refine the contract so that eventually everybody has contributed something. Then again, in some games nearly everything in the contract comes from the GM and the players only acknowledge and agree to its content.
At its most basic, a game contract is nothing more than an unwritten understanding that the character is not the player. A more thorough game contract can include for example some of the following and possibly more:
– The game system (D&D, TSoY, freeform, etc.) and medium (tabletop, email, etc.) and how the medium is used (players can for example meet in person to role-play but handle all bookkeeping and such via a wiki).
– House rules to the existing system (I can honestly say I've never played RAW (Rules As Written) D&D 3.5).
– How the rules will be interpreted and is metagaming allowed and to what extent.
– Who decides about characters. (Does the GM give the players premade characters? Can a player decide about a character's background and abilities? It's also a good idea to define what a player can do to another player's character on a general level.)
– Who decides the outcome of conflicts. (In a D&D game, players throw dice. In a freeform game, it's generally a good idea to have some kind of concensus as to who decides what happens.)
– Who decides about plots. (Can a player make up a plot and run away with it without any consultation? Does the game run on railroads like many video games?)
– Who decides about surroundings.
– The game setting (what is the game world like and what the characters can be on a general level (humans, fantastical creatures, vegetables)).
– The game's style and themes (is the game for example "high adventure" or "steampunk" (and what do those terms mean), are the characters expected to be "heroic", "hoboes" or "evil to the bone" and will the game include in-depth handling of social, sexual, gory etc. issues).
– How much distraction is allowed in the game. This depends a lot on medium. (A tabletop game should consider how much out-of-game chatter happens at the gaming table, while a play-by-email game can recommend an upper and lower limit on the number of posts each player sends in a span of some time.)
Of course not all of the issues above have to be spelled out if there is no need. However, if some issue feels uncertain, it's much better to discuss it beforehand than find out too late that someone wasn't on the same page with others.
I couldn't find much online material, but here are a few links.
(Finnish) (massive thread, mostly about power between players and GM)