Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Safety And Tabletop RPGs


Photo by Serge van Neck on Unsplash

I have been gaming for a long time. I first started playing D&D back in 1979, when I was still in elementary school. I would have been a couple of years older than the characters in Stranger Things (I grew up in a small town in Indiana, too). When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s things were different. The general idea of dealing with things that were uncomfortable or dangerous was that you "sucked it up" and dealt with it.

Honestly? That's not a very good way to deal with things that can be potentially traumatic. So I think that one of the better advances that has come along in tabletop RPGs has been the development and increasing popularity of using safety tools in gaming. 

I haven't always been a fan of using safety tools while gaming, but I have seen the light. At this point I think that safety tools should be a part of your RPG's text, if you're a game designer. My Action-Heroes game (currently out in an ashcan edition PDF from Outland Entertainment) uses safety tools. My upcoming paranormal romance RPG, called Paranormal Friction, will have safety tools. Both games start at the same basic point with them, and Paranormal Friction puts on another couple of layers of tools.

So, what are safety tools?

Before I get too far into the weeds talking about this topic, I want to say that I know that this is an unpopular concept in certain circles of gaming. I don't care. The point of this blog post is to give the reasons why I think having safety tools are a good idea. If you don't like this idea, you can move on.

Second, I don't think that you can make an absolutely safe space, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to make the places where your group plays their games as safe, and comfortable, as possible for the people in the group. There is always a chance of slip ups, but as long as the group is making an honest effort towards making the gaming space a safe one your group is half way there.

There are a lot of places on the internet to find safety resources for your tabletop games. A comprehensive one that I recommend to people can be found here. One of the basics of safety tools, and why you find so many variations on them, is that they are not a one size fits all kind of approach. If you want a safer gaming space, your best bet is to find the tools that work best with your group.

Content Warnings/Discussions: These work in a way similar to what have become known as trigger warnings. Basically the group has a discussion at the beginning of a campaign (called a Session Zero) where everyone talks about the things that they would rather not have come up during play. A popular safety tool around this (and one that I use in my games) was first written about by Ron Edwards in his Sex and Sorcery supplement for his Sorcerer RPG and called Lines and Veils. This is my interpretation of these concepts, and don't reflect Edwards' writings about them.

Lines are the hard limits on the content in a game. Anything that someone in the group lists as a line during the Session Zero. If someone lists something as a line, it is something that should not be brought up during a game session or used as a part of the plot of a game's story. Period. Lines that have come up in games I've run have been things like violence against animals or sexual assault.

Veils are softer limits on things. These are the things that you can talk about, and that can happen during the game, but they typically happen off screen. You can think of a veil in terms of the "fade to black" from old movies, where the scene just trails off during play.

These kinds of tools are preemptive tools because they preset the things that people don't want to see during a game. Obviously, there are still ways that this system can fail, because the GM can forget about a line or veil while working up the stories for a campaign. However, when they work, they do work well. They can be good to use in conjunction with other safety tools for when things do slip through the net.

Stop And Go: You will see different ways of doing this in the safety tools resources linked above, but at their basic these are kind of like the games of "Red Light/Green Light" that we played as kids. When something traumatic or uncomfortable comes up, the person bothered by the story element has a way to stop play. This can be like playing the X-Card, using a stop light symbol or any other way of signifying that play should stop. Depending on how someone is bothered by the incident that caused someone in the group to ask play to stop, the GM can react in different ways. You can stop play all together, shelve things until the next session, and allow the GM to speak with the person who was bothered by content. The other option is to pause the game and give everyone some time to cool down while the GM makes some changes to the session.

How the GM handles stopping the game really depends on how badly things went during the game session. The GM should also not put the player who stopped things on the spot, because they are already uncomfortable with the situation and you don't want to make them feel like there's a dogpile.

General Communication: Role-playing games are, at their heart, a social activity, one where talking and communication is important. Everyone in the gaming group should assume a baseline of being open with how they are feeling. If someone is uncomfortable with something happening during a game, whether in game or because of the actions or words of one of the other players, they should feel safe enough to know that they can air their concerns and have them be taken seriously. This is where stop and go tools can excel. 

You should also keep in mind that there are power structures to a role-playing game, with the default assumption in some groups being that a GM can be the absolute authority during a game. I don't think that this is a good default, gaming groups should be built around the idea that everyone in the group has some level of responsibility towards keeping things running. When you talk to a player as the GM you should keep the idea that the other person may have the idea that their role in the group is a subordinate one. 

All of these are reasons why good, clear communication is a key to a successful role-playing game session. Everything else that is talked about in this post builds on the assumption that your group will have clear and honest communications among themselves. Not having that makes using any of these tools more difficult.

At the heart of trying to make your game sessions as safe as possible you have to start with empathy for the others in the gaming group. One of the jobs of everyone at the "table" (more and more games are still being running online due to the pandemic) is to work together with the rest of the group to make things fun for the group, and to make things safe and comfortable for everyone in the group. Yes, the GM should take the lead in keeping things running smoothly, but each person in the group has some level of responsibility towards the rest of the group too.