The Stages of a RPG Team's Development, Part 4: Norming

We continue with the third topic in this discussion on the life stages of a RPG gaming group that borrows heavily on the work place team development concept.

So far we covered the definition of a RPG Team, it’s forming stage and the harsher storming stage.

When the storm becomes unbearable there are two choices opened to a RPG gaming group, have the game crash and die or go into…


  • Your group develops a Social Contract.
  • The DM starts jotting down what works and what doesn’t in his game and adjusts his adventures accordingly.
  • The players discuss the game between sessions and come up with shared objectives.
  • The number of ‘bad’ games decreases noticeably.
  • ‘Maybe the campaign is not doing so bad after all…’

If and when you get to this point, Norming has set in.


At some point, the team may enter the norming stage. Team members adjust their behavior to each other as they develop work habits that make teamwork seem more natural and fluid. Team members often work through this stage by agreeing on rules, values, professional behavior, shared methods, working tools and even taboos. During this phase, team members begin to trust each other. Motivation increases as the team gets more acquainted with the project.

The elaboration of social contract needs not be formal. It can be just a set of unwritten rules that have been discussed and that all members of the group agreed to.

In our case, our social contract is pretty informal and currently goes like this (It was never written down before):

Away from the table:

  • We share our preferred gaming styles and game objectives at a campaign’s beginning.
  • I will do an e-mail roll call on the Monday of our Bi-weekly (that’s twice a month right?) game week.
  • People must report by Wednesday if they’ll show up or not so I can adjust the power level of encounters in my gaming prep.
  • I will propose a synopsis of the upcoming game’s plotline at least 2 weeks in advance and ask for players feedback on the proposed scenario.
  • Character re-engineering is allowed to adjust PCs to players needs.

At the table

  • Limited off topic banter, and mild metagaming is tolerated
  • Jokes and good natured ribbing is encouraged.
  • If a rules issue comes up, we discuss it for less than 5 minutes. If we can’t agree, I make a ruling. If I feel the ruling is ill received, I randomly determines between my ruling and player’s expected outcome and we all agree to discuss it offline between games.

Definition (Continued)
Supervisors of the team during this phase tend to be participative more than in the earlier stages. The team members can be expected to take more responsibility for making decisions and for their professional behavior.

At this stage the DM needs to move away from being a ‘boss’ and ‘referee ‘ and start acting as a team member. His goal should be to lead the players through fun adventures and intense emotions. Adversarial DMing needs to stop and be re-focused toward looking forward to the Player’s well-earned successes.

In fact, I’ll share one of my best management/DM secret just now. While it may appear that human beings crave instant gratification and easy challenges (that’s what a lot of managers think) this does not lead to long-term satisfaction.à

To truly achieve a level of deep satisfaction in his teammates, I believe that a true leader must give them tasks that bring them in positions of slight discomfort but with clear support on the leader’s part. I call this being put at the edge of your comfort level. Only there will the person spend significant effort and seek out the resources to complete the task. Then that person will return to a level of comfort by achieving confidence and success with the task. This is what brings job satisfaction.

In RPGs this needs to be achieved by placing your players in such situations such as:

  • Challenging, dangerous and even borderline-lethal combats
  • Slightly awkward social encounters with difficult moral choices (i.e. positive and negative consequences on either side of the fence)
  • Challenging Puzzles and Investigations with multiple clues and avenues to explore.

Selfish Players
As mentioned in the last post, the absolute worse player or DM is the uncompromising selfish one. Those are the ones that will scoff at the concept of a social contract or agree to it and disregard it. They are those who get bored easily and go around kicking doors with no regards to party safety or fun. They split up from the party at the drop of a hat. They hog the spotlight as much as they can. If they are crafty enough they sit real close to the DM to get attention more easily.

There’s also the Nightmare DMs we’ve had (or have been in the past) that seemed to have stopped reading all GM advice at the “You are the boss and god of your game” chapter.  They run the game like it was their personnal kingdom, with NPCs stealing the show and PCs forced to wallow in mud 99% of game time.

I think that only way to make them ‘functional’ in a group is to meet with that person one on one and share with them your concerns in direct unveiled terms:

  • To DM: I am not having fun in your game because…
  • To player: I’m concerned with the effect your behavior in our game has on our level of fun..

If they get to acknowledge their responsibility, there’s hope. If not, well there’s really only one solution. Inform the player he can no longer play with the group or explain to the DM that you will no longer come to the game. Its extremely hard to do, I agree, but its the workable, long term solution.

Selfishness behavior does not resolve itself.  Being assertive on how you feel about that player or DM does. (There ya go, a nice slightly uncomfortable task if there is ever one. Go on! You can do it!)

Once Norming is achieved and selfish players/DMs have been dealt with, I believe that the group should naturally migrate to the ultimate gaming experience: A performing RPG group.


  1. You titled this one Forming.

    Just thought you should know. 😛

  2. Gah! That should teach me to post at 11h00 pm.

    Good catch!

  3. “As mentioned in the last post, the absolute worse player or DM is the uncompromising selfish one. Those are the ones that will scoff at the concept of a social contract or agree to it and disregard it. They are those who get bored easily and go around kicking doors with no regards to party safety or fun. They split up from the party at the drop of a hat. They hog the spotlight as much as they can. If they are crafty enough they sit real close to the DM to get attention more easily.”
    Holy crap this guy is totally in my group. Well minus the kicking of doors. He doesnt really get into trouble. Hes to wishy washy on top of it. Which again can lead our party into trouble. Being that my Int 8 Barabarian is the one making the decisions then. Cause everyone else kind of hems and haws around. If I had a nickel for everytime my character said “Ya, screw it. Leks go dis vay.”, well I’d have 55 cents. ;-p

  4. So Ronin, is that guy preventing the rest of the group from having fun? Are you preparing to do anything about it? I’m curious…

  5. Well hes not really keeping the rest of the group from having fun. But perhaps himself. I hes gets pissed about what other people do. But he no longer in a posistion of power. As he used to own the comic shop we played at before. Now that hes little people like the rest of us. I think its calmed him. He really wants the spotlight. But he really doesnt do much when he gets it. But I know he doesnt like some of the decisions others make. But hes not going to make any either. I’ve found myself in the past pushing the group/plot along. Because he wants to argue about something. But he, nor the person hes at odds with wanted to make a decision. So I would. Then someone else would follow me. Then every body else would.
    Thank god, things have changed a bit. So I dont have to do that. My roomate plays with us now, as well as another friend. We’re all pretty much on the same wave length. So his indecisivness only really hurts him.
    So hes not remotely the problem he used to be. And I can deal with that.
    As for if it were to get out of control. There would be two options. I’m sure if the DM saw that beast come around again. I think he would say something to him. He wouold flip, then just not show up any more. Or for at least a couple sessions. So the problem would kind of fix itself. I cant see the DM kicking him out though. As they are old friends that have been through a lot.
    But as I said fortunatly I dont it will ever get back to this level. As I said he still occasionally shows these traits. Its not at a problematic level, and he’s only hurting the enjoyment of the game for himself.

  6. I think your definitions of Norming (Social Contract, thinking about what works, discussing shared objective, fewer bad sessions and rediscovering a love of the game) are all spot on. Great post, CDM!

    Just a few comments:

    1. I think it’s possible to over-Norm. I’ve known groups to spend more time working out their “Social Contract” than actually play the darned game; that’s when gaming stops being fun and turns into a committee meeting. These things shouldn’t get in the way of good times. Spend time to reach an agreement, yes, but don’t over analyze and agonize over it.

    2. On the flipside, thinking about the game is fun too. It’s good to be receptive to new rules ideas, and to be willing to playtest them. We try not to use our main campaign as a testing ground though; The Burning Plague (or Sunless Citadel) is our stock “tester” dungeon which we use to try out new character classes, spells, rules changes, etc.

    3. One of our unwritten rules is that “A Bad DM Decision Must Always Have A Reason”. For example, if (as happened a few weeks ago), one player cries “There’s no way he could hit me from there!”, the correct response from the DM is “But he did. Want to work out how?”. In reality, I made a bad call, but rather than reverse the decision, we play it as is, and work out //how// it happened after the event. Bad calls can sometimes make for good plot twists!

    4. I think all players are selfish. Am I wrong to think that? 🙂 They want fun, they want cool toys for their characters, and they want a satisfying four hours of game time with munchies thrown in. It’s my job as DM to feel their needs, throw them a few surprises and have a great time myself while I’m doing it – because I’m selfish too 🙂 What’s not good is when one player puts his selfish needs above the other gamer’s selfish needs. If that happens, I’ve been known to have their character fall into a pit trap, get captured or whatever, so they //need// the other players to help them out. That works. Heh.

  7. Thanks Greywulf!

    I skipped part of the Norming definition because I didn’t see how it applied to RPGs and you just proved me wrong:

    “Teams in this phase may lose their creativity if the norming behaviors become too strong and begin to stifle healthy dissent and the team begins to exhibit groupthink.”

    There ya go! I might edit this back in someday if I make a PDF out of the series.

    I agree with all your points, especially the All players/DMs are selfish. It’s the willingness delay instant gratification and share the spotlight that differentiate workable selfishness with ‘get out of my game’ selfishness.

  8. I agree with selfishness of every one around the table. You want to have fun…

    The thing is the more interaction you have in your group the more multiple person can have their selfish moment at the same time…

    This part cannot be provided by the DM the player need to invest themselves in the game in shaping their in-group interaction to create these kind of moment.

    One of the previous game where one of the other player and I where playing these two chaotic cousins comes to mind. Each times one was in troubles the other would be include in some way. It gave both of us the impression of having more then our share of the spotlight will providing good story material for the DM. Great character concept.

    Incidentally this campaign was one of the longest we’ve played. Their was all kind of strong interaction in this group.

  9. “if I make a PDF out of the series.”

    Do this, please!

    Ronin: that’s some seriously annoying passive/aggressive playing there. It sounds like you’re doing the right thing, at least in character. Out of character…I’m curious to see where it goes.

    On the post:

    This is getting more interesting the further we move into it; I’m seeing all kinds of familiar behaviors here, present and past.

    The ‘ignoring the social contract’ bit is just dead on, and puts into 4 words concepts I’ve been struggling with for years.

    Thankfully, most of my players and GMs don’t do that; it happens now and again, and it’s always glaring when it does, but we manage to work it out.

    I’ve come to realize that I was more right than I thought, a few posts ago on this. My usual GM (Sean) and I talk almost every day; he’s my best friend. We’re well into Performing, I’d think, but when working with everyone else we’re Norming, and we toss around a lot of ideas just between ourselves to try to make the Norming work better. What would this player want, where do you think the campaign should go next?

    greywulf, yan, that ‘balance of selfishness’ is an excellent point – everybody wants something, but as it’s a co-operative endeavor, there has to be give and take on that.

    One of the things that’s helped my group ‘Norm’ is putting trust in the GM. Sean has a good, often great feel for what each player likes out of the game, as expressed in the characters. There’s a tendency on the parts of some players (and that some changes – I’ve been as guilty of this as others) to be vary concerned that the plot/game/scene won’t advance properly if we don’t make absolutely sure it works right. And that ends up being in the form of nagging the DM about stuff. As he says, ‘Guys, we’ve been gaming together for 10 years or more – trust me, you know it’s going to be a good story!’

    Now, sometimes he can’t really accomodate everything, but if it’s within a reasonable penumbra of our social contract, he’ll do his best to work it in.

    On that note…I’ve just realized that the contract is somewhat different for each campaign we’ve played…

  10. One nit to pick… Bimonthly is every two months. You’re either looking at biweekly (every two weeks) or semi monthly (twice each month) sessions.

    With that out of the way…

    I’m enjoying reading a lot of your stuff. Thanks for posting it. I think my group’s social contract is similar to that of your group’s. We need to do a better job of enforcing the 5 minute rule… But being the same group for 10+ years (off and on), we at least know each personality pretty well.

  11. Thanks for pointing out the error.

    Thanks for the Kudos also.


  1. […] on the website will help the DM understand his player’s outlook more. This could be a great Norming […]