Utilizing Table Norms

Yesterday, I talked about the discussion of social norms and market norms in Predictably Irrational, then expanded them to apply to the peculiar meta-dynamics of the game table. As I pointed out, you need to know what categories these norms fit into to take advantage of them, but, then, how do you utilize the norms themselves to try to shape your game?

The best way to start is to figure out which of these norms are most important to you. Most groups do, of course, need to prioritize OOC social norms—though it really, REALLY helps if everyone knows what they are. (Trust me, there’s always someone whose other groups made more effort to ensure everyone was present for the planning session, or who doesn’t understand why everyone gets ticked when they show up late, or hasn’t gotten the hang of the tagging conventions, or isn’t even trying to contribute on a level with the rest of the group, or… you get the idea.) The order in which the others are taken, though, both is shaped by and says a lot about the tone of the game. A game where OOC market norms are treated as more important than either of the IC norm categories is going to have a significantly different feel from one where IC social norms are the highest priority.

Then look at what other factors might influence the priority people put on each set of norms, and what effect those norms might have. Take OOC market norms, since most game systems have some sort of mechanic that plays to those. I found, for instance, that many of my D&D groups favored OOC market norms to the exclusion of IC much of anything really—except for the one group where experience wasn’t tracked and one of the PCs was a mad inventor, in which IC social norms trumped any sort of market norm. IC social norms, on the other hand, tend to flourish best in games where neither variety of market norm is very pressing—and IC market norms provide an excellent when-in-doubt motivation for many PCs. Sometimes the personality of the player makes a difference as well—if they favor social norms in the real world, they’re probably going to favor them in the game as well. If in doubt, assume that OOC norms are likelier to trump IC norms, and market norms generally win conflicts with social norms. It makes it easier to compensate.

Once you’ve got a good idea how norms would be prioritized without any effort to change them, and how that relates to what you want, it’s time to see what you can do to weight the norms so that the ones you want favored are favored. Sometimes, this involves decreasing the impact of the set of norms you don’t want prioritized—I was in one D&D play by post which for the few months it ran involved nothing but social interaction and provided no XP, and we ignored OOC market norms entirely. At other times, the best idea might be to tie one set of rewards or punishments to another (tweaking OOC market norms to reward adherence to IC social norms is the most common implementation, but making IC>OOC an OOC social norm is hardly unusual among immersion-oriented groups). One can also improve the situation by increasing the impact of the desired norms, or the part of the game that those norms are most tied to: more realistic characters tend to encourage the suspension of disbelief that in turn encourages prioritizing IC social norms, while making wealth and its impacts a vital part of in-game society boosts the priority of IC market norms (or gives people reason to want to break the IC system).

Knowing how to utilize and tweak the various norms of the table keeps you and your players on approximately the same page. Give it a shot!

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