Role-playing games can be a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a few hours exploring a different life and different experiences. But due to the topics they typically encompass – violence, theft, monsters, demons, devils, spiders, bugs, relationships, different tribes/races/species and their interactions, conflict, Mrs Cake, slood, celery and more – they also have the potential to stray into areas that make people uncomfortable or even outright traumatised. To ensure that everyone is able to enjoy themselves and have a good experience, you need to agree limits.
This post started as part of a review of Level Up A5E’s Trials and Treasures (DMG), following the Adventurer’s Guide review I did earlier. As I was going through the section on Safety in their Troubleshooting chapter, I realised it was turning into more of a review of what’s out there (which their section is) and was getting detailed enough to warrant a blog post in its own right. So the review of Trials and Treasures will follow. And that’s my justification for another review of safety tools…
Various Safety Tools have been developed and popularised in recent years, and I can’t do better than quote the Level UP A5E introduction:
During improvisational, collaborative play, situations may arise where one or more players and even the Narrator are stressed, uncomfortable, or just not having fun. Safety tools provide an easy way to check in with each other, learn where one another’s boundaries lie, and can help navigate difficult situations when they arise.
As they say, the most important part of this is communication – talking as players and agreeing boundaries; what is and isn’t acceptable to the players in the group. There are many things which may be triggers for different people and each player has their own limits, so it is important to be aware and respectful of this.
Most of these tools can be found as part of the TTRPG Safety Toolkit. The TTRPG Safety Toolkit is a resource co-curated by Kienna Shaw (@KiennaS) and Lauren Bryant-Monk (@jl_nicegirl). The TTRPG Safety Toolkit is a compilation of safety tools that have been designed by members of the tabletop roleplaying games community for use by players and GMs at the table. You can find it at bit.ly/ttrpgsafetytoolkit. Their quick-reference guide is a useful starting point.
Monte Cook Games also has a great free booklet, Consent in Gaming which covers some of these topics and a lot more of the why, along with a checklist. Key points (these are expanded on in the booklet):
- You decide what’s safe for you
- The default answer is “no” – consent is opt-in, not opt-out
- It doesn’t matter why consent wasn’t given
- Nobody has to explain why they’re not consenting
- There may not be a reason why they’re not consenting
- There’s a spectrum for each topic
- It’s not up for debate
- They can always change their mind about what they are or aren’t consenting to
- Anyone is allowed to leave an uncomfortable situation at any time
They also talk about recovering from consent mistakes and aftercare and checking in.
It’s free. Get it now.
And before you jump to conclusions about a suitable way of approaching consent – make sure you read the section on the Luxton technique.
The Open Door
Let’s start with The Open Door, referenced by Eirik Fatland in a post “Notes on Kutt, Brems and Emotional Safety” (originally talking about LARP, but equally relevant to other forms of role-play) and highlighted in Lizzie Stark’s excellent “Primer on Safety in Roleplaying Games”.
The principle is “The Door is Always Open”. Someone can leave or take a break from the game for their own safety and well-being without being judged.
This should be the fundamental principle underlying all other uses of safety tools below and elsewhere.
Lines and Veils
A good starting point to establish a baseline for content is Lines and Veils, a concept originally discussed by Ron Edwards in his Sex and Sorcery supplement for his Sorcerer game, and with a great discussion here: https://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/30906/what-do-the-terms-lines-and-veils-mean. As Ron Edwards put it:
* A line is, well, a line — a hard limit, something we do not want to cross. Lines represent places we don’t want to go in roleplaying.
“There is no torture in the events in our game. We don’t do it, NPCs don’t do it to us or to each other. Whether it happens elsewhere in the setting is not an issue in terms of enjoying play.”
* A veil is a “pan away” or “fade to black” moment. When we veil something, we’re making it a part of the story, but keeping it out of the spotlight. Think of it as a way to still deal with certain themes while avoiding having to describe them in graphic detail.
“Torture does happen in the game world and may happen in our game in some way or another. But if and when it does, we do not role-play it directly or depict it verbally. Everyone is trusted to play their characters as reacting to it appropriately without us having to experience it vicariously.”
Other options which you may see and like to include are:
- “Ask First” – this allows a player to say “I don’t know at the moment” or “it may be okay or may not depending on context” and in both cases indicate the GM/players should check before including it
- “Yes, please” is for content you definitely want to include – maybe the player wants to explore that in a safe space
In a guest post for the Roll20 website, Bee Zelda mentions the third option: Ask. Bee also provides a useful spreadsheet which can be used in a session zero to elicit the players’ lines and veils.
The X, N and O cards
Lines and Veils is good up-front to establish ground rules. The next safety tool, very widely used, is for use during play. This is the X card. It designed by John Stavropoulos and is shared under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence.
The idea is that you have a card with an X on it (for face-to-face play), and if anyone is feeling uncomfortable with the way play is going or the conversation, they tap or hold up the X card and the play alters the scene by changing what is happening or transitioning to a new one. Online, typing an X has become the standard shorthand, but agree with your players so everyone is very clear.
The person activating the X card doesn’t have to explain why they’re uncomfortable or want the stop, and it should be respected instantly.
John’s document has a great detailed discussion about its use and implications.
The N card can be used if someone feels like the situation might be heading towards an X-card situation. When a player uses the N card by tapping it or typing N in the chat, the group can change the content or “fade to black”. The N card was designed by Mysty Vander and Adam Cleaver, based on the Support Flower by Taylor Stokes.
The O card was designed by Kira Magrann (serpentcyborggames.com) and can be used in two different ways. It can be used to indicate “I’m okay with this content, let’s continue.” It can also be used as a query – “O?” in chat – to ask “is everyone still okay with this?” and give everyone a chance to indicate if it is starting to make them uncomfortable or they want to move on.
The Luxton Technique
The techniques above seemed quite sensible and obvious to me…until I read P.H. Lee’s post about “The Luxton Technique” reproduced (with permission) on Beau Jágr Sheldon’s blog at https://briebeau.com/thoughty/the-luxton-technique-by-p-h-lee/ . Lee named this approach after the GM of a game that finally allowed Lee to participate comfortably. Before you decide on the safety approach to take at your table, read it.
The approaches discussed above are based on the premise that if something causes or triggers trauma, it should be excised or removed in some way. This does not work for Lee. It is burying the problem, assuming that the status quo should be to ignore it, deny it, pretend it isn’t there. Once triggered, Lee needs to work through it, to be able to resolve the issue through play. This way it actually helps with healing the trauma it has triggered. As Lee says:
Fundamentally, a traumatic experience is an experience that is at a disjoint with the narrative of one’s life. Having PTSD means that your trauma exists out of time, out of place, and always in the present tense. A big part of recovering from PTSD, inasmuch as it is possible, is not about excising the trauma or your continued experience of it. Rather, it’s about integrating the trauma into normal memory and a normal narrative of your life.
As described by Lee, the Luxton Technique includes:
- An honest discussion of potential traumatic triggers prior to play, in a supportive environment, with the understanding that there is no possible way to identify or discuss every conceivable trigger or trauma, and with no social pressure to disclose particulars of individual trauma.
- When, in play, a player encounters triggering material, they can, if they choose, talk about that to the other players. When they do this, the other players listen.
- As part of talking about it — and possibly the only thing that they need say — the player is given absolute fiat power over that material, expressed as a want or a need. For instance “I’d like to play [character name] for this scene” or “I need this to have a happy ending” or “I want this character to not be hurt right now” or “I need this character to not get away with this” or “By the end of play, this should not be a secret” or “I need to stop play and get a drink of water” or “I don’t have a specific request, I just wanted you to know.”
- A player does not need to use their traumatic experience to justify any requests or demands. We just do it.
- A player does not need to be the one to speak first. We keep an eye on each other and we are watchful for people who seem withdrawn or unfocused or upset. If we are worried about someone, we ask.
- We play towards accommodating that player’s requests.
This is just a summary. Go read Lee’s article.
Beau Jágr Sheldon has developed the Script Change tool (briebeau.com/scriptchange), partly influenced by Lee’s article. This provides more options than the X card, so is possibly both more and less flexible… The options for script changes are:
- Resume: “Okay to resume now” – this is the permission to go back to normal play after one of the other options
- Pause: “Can we pause a minute – this is all getting a bit intense” – an indication that you still want to continue playing the scene but need a timeout, and possibly some out-of-game discussion. It may end with resuming, or with agreeing on one of the other options.
- Fast Forward: “Can we fast-forward past this bit?” A request to fade the scene to black, skip over something which is making someone uncomfortable, or just a request to skip past a boring bit. The play moves on to the next scene.
- Rewind: “Could we rewind that statement? My character probably wouldn’t say that!”, or This can be used if something has been said or done that you take issue with, rewinding to a specific point and continuing in a different way. Try to be clear what content is the issue and work to see how the story could continue.
- Instant Replay: “Sorry, could we replay that? I missed what Tallis said.” It’s an opportunity to go over a scene out of character to ensure that everyone is on the same page with what happened. Particularly suited to intense social scenes or complicated action, but might also be useful during a longer scene.
- Frame-by-frame: “I’m not sure where this is going. Could we take it frame by frame for a bit?” A player uses this to indicate that the upcoming scene may be new, sensitive, or a topic they’re unsure about and they want to let the group know they want to move carefully through it. This can be used by players deliberately encountering content they are sensitive about (see the Luxton Technique above), or experiencing new topics or content in-game. Continue with the content originally planned, but keep pausing to check in with the player to make sure they’re still okay.
Beau also offers the Two-Thumbs Up as a way to check in with another player you think may be uncomfortable. Hold up two thumbs and address the player loud enough for them to hear but quietly enough it won’t disrupt play. They can respond with:
- Two Thumbs Up: all okay
- One Thumb Up: okay, but could use a pause
- Two Fists: Managing, but could use Frame-by-Frame
- One Thumb Down: this scene/content is hard, could use Fast-Forward
- Two Thumbs Down: this scene/content is not okay, could use a rewind
Beau also suggests some “Post-Credit Script Changes” as part of a “Wrap Meeting” at the end of a session to go over anything that happened, constructive to negative, to allow it to be talked through – in particular things that went over people’s boundaries but they didn’t feel comfortable stopping or addressing at the time. As part of the Wrap Meeting, Beau suggests a couple of specific tools:
- The Highlight Reel to talk about what players liked about a session
- Bloopers and Outtakes for constructive criticism, self-improvement and emotional resetting. Beau recommends four Reels to cover different aspects – see the post for details.
Again, this is a summary. I strongly recommend you read the original.
Stars and Wishes
Another, simpler feedback/review mechanism has been proposed by Lu Quade on www.gauntlet-rpg.com/blog/stars-and-wishes. It is designed as a simple tool that encourages positive feedback and gentle forward-looking criticism.
It is indeed simple:
- At the end of a session, everyone (including the GM) offers a Star to another player, moment in the game or other element that contributed to making it a great experience. If there is time, you can give out more stars).
- After all the stars have been given, everyone makes a Wish – something they would like to see happen in a future session. This could be something you’d like to see happen to your character, some interaction you’d like to see, a mechanic you’d like to see used, where you hope the story might go. It could also be (used carefully) a request for a change in emphasis or approach in a particular type of situation.
Although simple, I can see it can also be powerful. The Stars both frame the session as a positive experience with highlights, and allow the players to understand what the other players like. Both the Stars and Wishes can help to guide the players and GM towards what makes future sessions zing. And because it focuses on what people like and want, it encourages a positive environment within the group.
One the page, Lu Quade also lists some tweaks people have made to the use of Stars and Wishes. Do check it out.
If you haven’t considered it yet, you should really have a conversation with your group about safety and limits, to ensure no-one is made more uncomfortable than they are willing to explore, and if play does stray towards or over someone’s boundaries you have a way of handling it sensitively and appropriately.
Which tool(s) should you use? Whatever works for you and your group. Every person and every group is different, and even if one set of tools works for you in one group, it may be that another group finds a different set of tools more conducive to a good time and a satisfying play experience.
The best time to agree on your approach is during the session zero, when the ground rules for the campaign are being set, or in the intro phase of a one-shot.
I hope this summary proves useful to you. Now I need to have a conversation with my campaign group…