Participant safety can be enhanced with a few add on mechanics. Here’s how.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations about using safety tools in role playing games and it seems like a topic worthy of bringing up with the Gnome Stew audience. Whether you run a high fantasy dungeon crawl or a modern day police noir game, safety tools offer the opportunity for deeper vulnerability with a mechanical way to rein in subject matter that becomes too intense.

Note: This article is not a discussion about available safety tools or why to use them. Once you have decided to use one or more safety tools in your game, this is how to move forward with implementing them into your game.

Introducing Safety Tool and Content Discussions

When opening a game session or kicking off a campaign, start with a discussion that includes content warnings and safety tools. It is best to lead with this before there is a problem whenever possible.

One of my favorite ways to introduce safety tools was given to me by a player in one of my convention games. The message is: we may not know each other very well and because of that some people may be inclined to hold back their role playing. Having clear safety tools in place lets us amp the role playing up to 11 while knowing that, when needed, we can rein things back. It’s a get out of jail free card. (Thanks Terra!)

Let participants know that the initial discussion of content and safety tools is just step one. The game facilitator is not solely responsible for the safety (or fun) of each individual, role playing is a group activity and people should be taking care of each other. As a game develops, the content and tone may shift and participants may need to self-advocate to stop a certain line of role play that was not anticipated.

Trust and Respect for the Tools

As a Game Facilitator it is your responsibility to set the right tone and create buy-in for safety tools and self-advocacy. If the participants can’t trust that the safety tools will be respected then they are of questionable value at the table.

It is vital when a safety tool is introduced that the game facilitator takes it seriously. Make it clear that the tool will be respected every time and that there will be a clearly understood result when the tool is used (i.e. the game stops and the subject matter is retconned). Require verbal confirmation that all participants agree to use the safety tools and hold people accountable to that social contract. There are consequences for not respecting the safety tools – such as a warning or removal from the game – and those should be clear up front as well.

It is useful to highlight that participants can use the tool in relation to the game facilitator’s content in addition to their fellow players. Safety tools are add-in game mechanics that apply to all participants equally.

Make the tools easy to use

After introducing the function of the safety tool and explaining how to use it, make sure that it is easy to apply. This can take on different meanings depending on the tool. Here is an example related to using the X-card, one of the most basic and prevalent safety tools in table top gaming. For those who may not know, the X-card is typically a 3×5 index card with an “X” drawn on it. To activate the tool, a participant touches the X-card which indicates a hard stop of the game. When activated, roleplaying should immediately discontinue and the story rewinds to exclude whatever led directly into the X-card being used.

Consider the realities of using the X-card. Some game tables are large and cluttered with books, maps, minis, dice, snacks and drinks. Having one central card may not be useful and accessible to every participant. The safety tool has to work with the physical set up of the game, including if the game is run online through a voice or video conferencing software. The physical ability of the participants may also inform safety tool choice or modification.

Here are some optional ways to enhance the accessibility of the X-card as a safety tool:

  • Give every player their own copy of the X-card.
  • Instruct players that they can say the phrase “X-card.”
  • Let players know that they can hold up their arms to form an “X” to activate the X-card.

Use Tools that are Right for Your Game

There are a multitude of safety tools and more will be introduced. Explore what safety tools are available and use the right ones for your game and your group. Ask your players and your community what tools they have heard of and what works for them. Different safety tools have different functions and are appropriate for different styles of play.

For me, one of the places that safety tools in table top role playing fall short is based on passive versus active consent. In the case of a tool like the X-card, someone has to reach out and stop the role playing from happening, effectively saying “No more.” If for whatever reason a person does not do this, their discomfort likely won’t be recognized by the group.

In LARPing there is the OK check-in, where players introducing challenging content use the “OK” hand signal to ask their fellow players about the content without breaking the moment. Each player must give a response of positive, neutral, or negative to this question. This encourages more active consent, as opposed to a participant asking someone to stop, the player initiating asks permission to continue.

Emotions and Body Language in Role Playing

 If someone seems agitated or disengaged it is useful to step back, break the immersion, and check in. While this is not specifically a safety tool, giving yourself permission to pause the story is important. 
As a convention game master I meet and play with new people all the time and often my games touch on darker themes and graphic violence. I want players to buy in on a deeper level, I want them to feel emotion in my games. But is a player avoiding eye contact or becoming aggressive in character or because the player is on edge? For me, this is where it can get confusing, especially among very expressive players or with people I don’t know well.

If I am running a horror game, I want the player and their character to feel tension. My ultimate goal is to create a memorable experience where the player wants to come back and play at my table. I may heartlessly inflict trauma on characters, but I want my players to have fun. It can be a real challenge to determine if someone is reacting in or out of character. That’s why it is best to ask plainly.

It is helpful to keep an eye on the body language of the participants, but it also means trying to differentiate between in-character and out-of-character responses. If someone seems agitated or disengaged it is useful to step back, break the immersion, and check in. While this is not specifically a safety tool, giving yourself permission to pause the story is important. It probably won’t be your favorite thing to do, but if it means keeping participants safe and included throughout the game, it is worth it.

Pro Tip: Use a Safety Tool if You Experience a Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

There aren’t that many times in my decades of role playing that I’ve needed to use a safety tool. I’m lucky. I play with people I trust and I have lived a relatively easy life. I can explore hard content through role playing and it doesn’t feel that close to my reality, hence in most games I’m starting from a position of safety (not vulnerability).

The few times I can think of where I needed a safety tool were not related to gore or violence. I needed safety tools due to things that were happening in my life that I did not want to relive through play. For example, role playing a support group for people who recently lost loved ones after my mother had died. That’s not something I had anticipated in the game, nor something I would have thought I needed a safety tool to stop. If someone had asked me in advance for a list of things I didn’t want to role play, I never would have thought of that one. It caught me off-guard in the moment and I didn’t recognize that I needed to stop play and I should have.

 If you, as a participant, are experiencing a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response: use the safety tools. Whether that means stepping away from the table for a break or pausing the whole game is up to the person in the moment. 
If you, as a participant, are experiencing a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response: use the safety tools. Whether that means stepping away from the table for a break or pausing the whole game is up to the person in the moment. Step one if you feel a physiological response to a game is to protect yourself and use the safety tool. This isn’t the only reason to use a safety tool, but for me, it was the time I didn’t use my “get out of jail free” card when I should have.

Final Thoughts

Safety tools are a valuable addition to the tabletop role playing hobby and they are becoming more and more prevalent. While at first I was skeptical, I have learned their value, especially as I gravitate towards more intense role playing experiences.
What safety tools have you used? Have you ever experienced someone disrespecting the safety tools? Was there a time you probably should have used a safety tool but didn’t/couldn’t?