Social Norms, Market Norms, Table Norms

I have to admit it: I’m addicted to books about how the mind works. I almost always learn something new (I’ve read more than half a dozen this year alone, and not a single one has failed to show me something I hadn’t seen before), they’ve got a lot of cross-discipline uses, and I’ve always been fascinated with how we think. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, a 2009 update of a 2008 book on the irrationality of the human mind, was no exception to the rule—and in particular, the discussion of social norms and market norms stuck out even from all the “I never thought about this before” that the book presents.

Social norms, Ariely explains, are the conventions of human interaction, mostly geared towards community-building. The concept of social norms includes the acts of kindness we do just because, out of sympathy or love or any of a number of emotions, because we expect a similar favor some unspecified time in the future—it’s common courtesy, pay it forward, and make the world a better place, in proportions varying by person. Market norms, on the other hand, are definite action for definite (and hopefully equivalent) reward—scheduled loans, wages, economics, that sort of thing. They don’t seem to interact particularly well; adding social norms to market norms throws off both, and market norms added to social norms tend to supplant them.

I realized immediately that these parallel sets of norms could be applied to the standard role-playing game. They would, however, be complicated by the fact that the average table-top game operates on two levels of reality, creating not just two categories of norm but four—and one could not utilize them without understanding all four.

The first of these, and the most pervasive, is the set of OOC social norms. Making sure everyone—including/especially the GM—is having fun, providing or not hogging the snacks, arriving on time and not canceling at the last minute, ride-trading, dice-sharing, giving every character an area of expertise and a chance in the spotlight: these give and take sorts of activities comprise the social norms between the players. Their near-ubiquity, particularly in live games, stems from the fact that without them, the group would never hold together.

The second set is OOC market norms. This is the most mechanical of the sets of norms, particularly in experience-for-effort systems like the various incarnations of D&D. With character power directly derived from the characters taking specific actions, the players are encouraged to take actions that might not always technically be in character for the PCs; how many of us who’ve played in older versions of D&D have seen people seek out or stay in fights it didn’t make IC sense for them to take “for the XP”? As with normal social and market norms, OOC market norms will often supplant and sabotage OOC social norms—at least, in particularly game-related matters.

Then we have IC market norms: the market norms as applied to the characters themselves. Mostly, this takes the form of in-game economics: the cost of supplies, the rewards offered to motivate the PCs, the lure of magic items, that sort of thing. On the other hand, when the NPCs seem more like fixtures than like characters, interactions with them are often treated as falling under market norms, with the expectation that specific actions will mandate specific rewards (find several specific actions to win the love of the NPC, for instance).

Last, we have IC social norms, the most tenuous of the four categories. In this situations, the players, through their characters, are interacting through social norms similar to those found in the outside world (though often adapted for the prevailing fictional culture). This is where doing things for other characters for the warm fuzzies falls, as well as motivating the players through action for their associated NPCs’ sakes. Often, ensuring that IC social norms are a relevant force in a game requires characters with sufficient depth to seem like real people—though some tender-hearted players will engage in social norms with an NPC at the slightest signs of life. (I should know; I’m one of them.)

Once we can categorize and separate out these influences on the behavior of both players and characters, we can figure out how to use them to keep the game moving smoothly.


  1. Shinali says:

    Admittedly I’m one of those people who feel bad breaking the stuff of random npcs to get bonuses in games, even if they aren’t there, so the fact that even a lifeless npc gets social norm reactions from me makes sense, but I’ve found that in the absence of people to help or react to (like between game sessions), my brain cooks up all sorts of stories to fill the gap. I actually have trouble thinking in market norms terms, with the exception of literal market situations (and even then… I value customer service over money, and we don’t need the business of an irate customer). Even IC, it’s hard for me to rationalize a decision based on cost or tit-for-tat or any of those things – which is mostly why I give my characters enough resources so to speak, or practically none, so they don’t have to worry about that end of things.

  2. Ravyn says:

    I know what you mean; I’m pretty similar unless I’m deliberately designing a character to be otherwise (and even then they usually have some sort of goal that precludes social norms and a rather complex moral code). It’s caused a lot of problems when I tried putting my characters in more mercenary groups.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Utilizing Table Norms | Exchange of Realities

Leave a Reply