Phil Vecchione wrote an article on safety tools at the table, and we were approached around the same time about an article on larping lessons that could be applied to tabletop RPGs regarding safety. Since the topic of safety at the table is one of incredible importance, we decided to move up the running of this guest article by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit games. – John Arcadian
I think about safety all the time – my wife’s not-entirely-respectful nickname for me is “Safety Champ”. Live action games – freeform, larp, whatever – can be physically and emotionally intense, and while their capacity for actual harm is low, it is not zero. So as I make and play this sort of game, safety is on my mind. I don’t really want players to be thinking about it, but I want them to be embodying it – and there’s a lot of clever ways to approach this goal.
Metatechniques are tools that we can use to control a live action game from the outside. The idea of a GM whispering suggestions in a player’s ear is a metatechnique. For example, the “bird-in-ear” technique allows a GM (and sometimes other players) to whisper in-character thoughts or impulses into a player’s ear to help guide and motivate their character’s actions. While these are fun and useful, the most obvious use of metatechniques, as far as I’m concerned, is to make play safer. My thoughts here build on the work of many, many smart people with countless experiences using these tools – and others – both successfully and disastrously. I am not really saying anything new and urge you to follow the links at the end for insight, nuance, and revelation.
Take Care of Yourself
You need the freedom to leave a game for any reason, at any time.
All other safety metatechniques cascade down from this. The most common formulation of this principle (I hesitate to call it a metatechnique) is “The Door Is Always Open”, first articulated, as far as I know, by Eirik Fatland. Once this is understood, it is widely used in practice, to good effect. If you need to pee, go pee, even if we are all pretending to be locked inside a nuclear reactor. If you aren’t enjoying the experience, go do something fun and we’ll all be happier for it. If leaving somehow derails the game, that’s fine – sometimes that happens. Making it clear that people are more important than the game is remarkably freeing, and every other technique feels like a refinement of this sentiment.
Many larp communities use a single word to stop play in the event of immediate danger. The word “stop” is very likely to come up in play, between characters, in situations where nobody wants or needs the entire game to pause. A very common alternative, used in Nordic larp since the 1990s, is “Kutt”, or “Cut”, which is less likely to crop up as a word in play. Many campaign boffer larps, where combat with prop weapons may be a primary aspect of play, use “Hold” for this purpose during field battles, with an accompanying “Lay On” to resume the action. In my experience these are treated with deadly seriousness, and rightly so. This raises an important point – the more people involved, and the more potentially physically harmful the interaction, the more critical this tool is.
In practice Cut is rarely employed (although Hold is used readily, in my experience). When it is needed, though, it’s really needed. What’s more, the action of discussing and practicing Cut allows people to trust in the game and play more comfortably, even when it is never used. The down-side to Cut, as my friend Alex Roberts notes, being the person who grinds play to a halt and attracts the attention of everyone in the room is a social anxiety nightmare, particularly for people who might feel marginalized or uncomfortable already.
Ease Up, Buddy!
Another best practice is one word that calibrates intensity. The Nordic companion to Kutt is “Brems,” or “Brake.” The idea behind Brake is that, when invoked, it signals scene partners that you are approaching a level of intensity with which you aren’t comfortable. Essentially you are saying, “this far, but no father, please. Tap the brakes.” Unlike Cut, there’s no clear and standardized understanding of what to do when you hear Brake beyond “take care of your scene partner.” Used as intended, it requires a player to be aware of their level of discomfort and think ahead a little, which can be challenging if not impossible. Brake also has the distinct disadvantage, in English, of being a common word with a homonym (break) that is likely to come up often in normal conversation. Brake, because of this homonym, sometimes gets confused with break, and gets used like the semantically identical Cut. That’s a lot of potential for confusion.
“Largo” is a North American alternative to Brake, developed by LearnLarp LLC and used very effectively in their New World Magischola weekend larps. Largo, when spoken as a metatechnique, means “take a physical step back and lower your intensity.” This has a couple of distinct advantages over Brake, in my opinion. First, nobody says Largo in everyday conversation, so it jumps out verbally and demands attention. Second, the meaning is very clear: get out of your scene partner’s physical space and lower the intensity of the scene. Usually the reason for calling Largo is obvious, but if it isn’t, you have the distance and opportunity to check in. If Largo has any disadvantage, it is that it sounds a little weird to say and may be hard to remember.
Checking In and Checking Out
There’s a whole universe of tools that may or may not be appropriate for your particular game.
You might want a way to discreetly ask another player if they are feeling all right – like the title of this article says, the difference between genuine emotional distress and being super into your character’s emotional journey is pretty opaque from the outside. The best tool for this that I’m aware of is called the OK Check-In, and it is a simple hand gesture that is offered and reflected, signaling either “I’m good” or “I could use some help, please drop character and see what you can do for me.” The OK Check-In is so simple, and so easy to instantiate, that it is being widely adopted across North American larp scenes.
You might want a way to enter a scene unobtrusively, or exit without disrupting the action. There’s a clever metatechnique called the Look-Down that’s excellent for slipping into a class at magic school late without your character actually being late.
That’s Not How We Do It Around Here
I should note that culture and style of play have a huge impact on how these metatechniques get used, and how effective they are. Cut and Brake emerge from a style of play that assumes they will be the only two out of character words ever spoken during play, for example, while Largo fits in well with a play style where, if a player isn’t sure why Largo was called, they can comfortably drop character and ask.
Other obvious choice would be “Slow Down” or “Slower”, but these present many of the same problems as using Stop instead of Cut: it’s easy to say the words as a character without intending to invoke a metatechnique. On the other hand, it’s obvious, direct, and easy to remember. The consequences of not remembering it when you need it are serious enough that I’d still consider “Slower” a good option. When accompanied by a distinctive hand gesture the intent is unmistakable.
Tools In A Game-Shaped Box
Safety metatechniques need to fit the very specific needs of individual games and experiences – in a game with a small player count where everyone is going to be engaged with everyone else throughout, for example, Slow Down/Brake/Largo and a relaxed group of players may entirely obviate Cut. There’s no one true way, just the right tools for the job.
Consider the implications of strictly verbal safety metatechniques, for example. What happens when I say “Largo” to a player who is hard of hearing, or not as receptive to auditory cues due to extreme engagement or the way their brain is wired? Combining it with a codified hand gesture – like a gentle pushing away at chest level – solves this problem. If everyone makes a big “X” over their heads when “Cut” is called, you know there’s a problem a mile away.
It’s also worth considering the number and complexity of the tools you choose – there are many appealing options, but you rapidly reach a point of diminishing return if players can’t remember or implement them effectively.
For the most part, I’m designing short live action games for 4-8 players. I began with Cut and Brake, switched to Cut and Largo as soon as I tried Largo and saw how well it worked, added The Door Is Always Open, and am now switching my calibration metatechnique to Slow Down, and moving away from Cut toward a sort of “cascading trust” model that subsumes it in a broader landscape of informal communication. You can see an example of where this is heading in my own work below. I believe this stuff is important and worth constantly tuning based on my experiences with actual play.
Here’s my current safety framework for a 4-8 person, two hour larp that assumes zero larp experience from the participants:
Always start with friendship. Make sure everyone is comfortable and has the tools to stay that way. Playing pretend – and that’s what you’re doing – requires a high level of trust! Trust that your friends are going to do their best to give you an experience you’ll love, and work hard to do the same for them. Approach the game with respect and love.
Three Ironclad Rules
There are three ironclad rules to playing this game.
- People are more important than the game. If you ever need to decide between the actual needs of a real person and literally any competing impulse, go with the person.
- The door is always open. No matter what’s happening in the game, take a break or stop playing entirely if you ever feel the need. Let people do what they need to do without questioning them. It’s their business; you can just keep playing.
- Slow it down if you need to. If you are ever uncomfortable – if things get too intense, or too weird, or too anything – say “slow down.” If someone says “slow down” to you, take a step back and take it down a notch. If you aren’t sure why you are slowing down, ask. You can say “slow down” for others, too!
You may have other safety rules. Feel free to add them, but always use these three as well.
Here are three tips to help you jump right in:
- Be obvious. Just do what comes naturally and say the most obvious thing. It isn’t a contest, and deliberately trying to be surprising or funny usually guarantees that you won’t be.
- Listen. Use the information the setting and other players provide. Part of helping others have a great time is making their characters interesting, and the best way to do that is to listen and use what you hear.
- Be kind. Respect your friends, share the spotlight, and do your best to make everyone else feel awesome. If this isn’t happening for you, remember the three ironclad rules and say something!
- Ask questions. If you aren’t sure what is going on, ask. If you aren’t sure someone is having a good time, ask. If you aren’t sure your idea will be fun for your friend, ask.
If this sort of game is new to you, you should know that new players are, without exception, the best players. It’s just a fact.
I feel like these guidelines strike a good balance between openness and constraint. Every conceivable safety ruling descends from following three clear rules: we care about each other here, anyone can leave at any time for any reason, and we control the intensity of play for ourselves and, if necessary, each other. There’s no jargon, low complexity, not much to remember in a potentially stressful moment. Obviously this is an inadequate set of safety rules for a weekend-long game, or a game predicated on physical combat, or a game for eighty people. But for six players and two hours? I feel like these are the right tools. You may note that nowhere do I use the word “safety,” preferring to position the discussion around trust, love, friendship and cooperation. “Safety” terminology introduces anxiety (“Why do I need to be safe? Is this a dangerous activity?”) and a false expectation (“If I follow these rules I will be safe”).
More Thoughts on Safety
The brilliant Lizzie Stark has loads to say on this topic
Johanna Koljonen has a whole blog about larp safety…
…with tons of resources
Eirik Fatland on Kutt, Brems and The Door Is Always Open
The Nordic Larp Wiki has a whole category
Maury Brown is Very Smart
The techniques discussed here come from experience in collaborative tabletop RPGs, small-scale and 100+ player larps, and other game experiences in between. These principles seem broadly applicable, but how broadly? How are you thinking about safety in your current games? How will these tools evolve as new situations emerge?