The discussion on table culture in roleplaying games often turns to safety tools. This was not always the case, and it is a welcome and needed development. The discussion about safety tools, however, is often had outside of any discussion that is presented within the text of a game. If you have purchased some of the most popular RPGs on the market right now, and that is your only exposure to roleplaying games, you may not have seen a dedicated section discussing table safety specifically for that game.
The World That Was
You may have seen table or player management sections. You may have seen sections on best practices and even the importance of general empathy at the game table. But most of the biggest players do not have sections in their books discussing safety tools, nor do they have sections that call out content in their games that might cause problems or stress for some players. Many times the advice given to game moderators is not geared towards alleviating potential problems with the content and themes of the game itself.
I’m not specifically calling out those publishers, although it would be great to normalize safety discussions and content warnings in games. I bring this up because many of the biggest game publishers are working with intellectual property that has been in existence for decades. The unfortunate truth is that while some game innovations can be revolutionary, many aspects of the RPG industry are still governed by inertia, and it will take effort to move aspects of gaming in another direction. The inertia at the upper end of the roleplaying hobby is to let individual tables “sort it out.”
I have started to include more discussion on safety and content warnings in my reviews. This didn’t occur to me when I first started doing reviews. It was very easy for me to move in the direction I had always moved in. I was suffering from my own inertia. I knew what affected me in games. I knew how the tables I had gamed with for years reacted to certain topics. I did not attempt to take myself out of my own perspective in order to see where other problems might develop.
I have included in my reviews which games have sections on safety or content warnings, and when they do not. In many cases, I still believe that many games without safety sections or content warnings are worth purchasing and playing, but without discussing safety, a modern game designer is either assuming that no one will have this discussion, or that the discussion will happen without any prompts. I think this is a mistake, and it is a mistake worth pointing out.
I have seen the argument that people will “work out” the safety issues within their own groups, and that they don’t need the rules to address the topic. The problem with this line of thinking is that it defaults to either assuming that everyone at the table has known each other for a long period of time, or that someone new to the table will go out of their way to introduce the topic when they join a group. This is problematic in that it is assuming a static population of gamers, or that the burden of emotional labor lies solely on people new to the table.
We have new game moderators every day. When they read a new ruleset, they need to know that it is normal and expected that they are concerned about safety. We have people that have never thought about safety at the table before. This is not because they want to introduce harmful content, but because it has never occurred to them that they might. They need to know that safety is an aspect of roleplaying, and it affects the table, consciously or not.
The World that Could Be
If a game includes a section on safety or content warnings in the same way that a game might address the rules or scenario creation, it makes safety a normal, healthy, expected part of the game. Directly examining the aspects of your game that may lead to problematic content is designing with intentionality, and discussing those potential issues with game moderators will make their ability to create scenarios within the game stronger. Not only will closely examining the elements of your game make people at the table safer, dissecting the elements used for storytelling is one of the best ways to make sure that the good experiences you have at the table do not just happen by accident, but can be addressed and repeated.
As much as it is important to focus on safety as a community of gamers, if the only drive to include safety tools and to have discussions about content comes from individual gaming groups or people discussing safety on the internet, that puts an undue amount of stress on the participants of the hobby. Every person that creates a game thinks about the content they are creating. Directing those thoughts towards safety, and why troubling content may or may not be included, can be used to help push gaming in a new direction and to give us inertia towards a positive future where more gamers feel included in the hobby.
The Road to Empathy Without those stories, I would not be as likely to try to be better, and I honestly believe that the greatest benefit of roleplaying games is in creating empathy
If you aren’t certain that content warnings and safety discussions are needed in games, try to think back to all of the media that you have consumed over the years. Is there a novel, comic, movie, or television show that received a lot of accolades, but you were unaware of some of the content in that work? If something was more graphic, somber, or violent than you initially thought, would you have felt better knowing those things? Running into that content, did it make you less likely to consume media from that source, knowing that you might be exposed to items you don’t enjoy?
Empathy isn’t something you can turn on or off. We can strive to be empathetic, but until we have the opportunity to interact with others, we will never know how careful we are in observing the needs of those around us. Because empathy is something we must be open to, and that we must constantly refine, we cannot assume that because we do not mean to do harm that we will not do harm. The first step on this path is to open the discussion, and when the game you are playing already includes the discussion, it is that much easier to begin.
I want to stop for a moment and thank every person that has shared their stories about safety at the table. Without those stories, I would not be as likely to try to be better, and I honestly believe that the greatest benefit of roleplaying games is in creating empathy. We continually put ourselves in the place of other people, and attempt to see the world from a perspective that is not our own. This is the true power of the hobby.
Do you have any games that you feel do a particularly good job at introducing safety-related topics? Do you have any stories about safety discussions that made you feel particularly safe at a table? What do you think the best practices in starting a safety discussion should be? We want to have this discussion with you, so please feel free to post in the comments. We will be looking forward to hearing from you.