A few months ago, I posted an article on why I use Safety Tools. It was met with some mixed criticism and there were a number of respectful objectors with whom I engaged in a back and forth dialog about their perceptions of how safety tools are used at the table. What I learned was that there was a misconception — that some people believed that using safety tools was to dilute the content of your game; taking away elements that your average player enjoyed (e.g. violence), while others thought that there was no need for tools if you can just “talk it out”. So today, I am going to follow up my article to address some of those misconceptions as well as to try to explain safety by drawing in some other areas of my life.
The Goal is to Play Harder AND Safer
I have played a lot of games in the decades I have been in this hobby, and I have murdered my share of orcs and goblins, robbed crime lords, attacked space pirates, etc. I have had most of the standard RPG experiences that we all think about when we think about this hobby — most of those occurring before the hobby even began to explore the idea of safety.
But I also like another kind of RPGs, ones that have deep emotional connections, ones where my pregnant widowed French Revolutionary is executed outside of Paris while trying to escape a siege, where my character gets into a heated argument with their partner about what kinds of sex are intimate and not, and where my teenage vampire’s sexuality is challenged. I like games with charged emotional content, and often with content that I am unsure how I am going to feel about during play.
And the thing is, I don’t want to have to use the safety tools I have put out, and I don’t want to water my games down or remove charged content. Quite the opposite, I want MORE of that. The safety tools are like a Safe Word, in Kink terms (a future Safety article). I want my more intense play to take me up to the edge, to where I am uncomfortable but still safe. The tool is there so that in case any of us miss the mark and we go too far, we can signal that to everyone else.
So when I sit at the table, sometimes I am there to loot a dungeon and have some fun and sometimes I am there to push my emotions and challenge my beliefs. While both are RPGs, they are not the same kinds of experiences. That will be important in a few minutes, but first, we have to nerd up about Project Management.
In my day job, I am a Project Manager. One of the activities as a Project Manager is to perform risk management of the projects I am planning. That activity has me looking at a project and imagining what could possibly go wrong: a component may be on backorder, the solution proposed won’t work when implemented, or this code may not scale as planned. Identifying potential problems is only part of the process, otherwise, it would just be worrying. Once we have identified risks we then look at them in three ways.
Likelihood & Impact
The first thing we do when we identify a risk is ask, “How likely will this happen in the project?” We have different ways of ranking them but the simplest is: none, not likely, possible, most likely. We also ask, “If this does happen, how bad is it for the project?” Here we look at the impact as: none, minor, significant, major. That creates a spectrum of risk across which individual risks fall into.
We then want to figure out what we can do, proactively, to reduce the likelihood of the risk occurring. So for our example component that may be on backorder, we can mitigate that by contacting our supplier ahead of time to make sure things are in stock before we commit to using that component in our design.
The second thing we do is to address what to do if the risk actually happens, because no matter how much planning and mitigation we do, sometimes things still go wrong (keep that in mind). In this case, we come up with a plan that we can enact when the problem occurs so that we can keep the project moving. So with our component, we may identify a second supplier, who is more expensive but has the component in stock. If our primary vendor is out, we will spend a bit more and order from the secondary one.
The Risk in RPGs
So coming back to RPGs. How does risk management fit into a discussion about safety tools and gaming?
When we play games there is a risk that some content of the game is going to emerge that will upset, hurt, or make someone at the table feel unsafe. That sounds fairly simple, but it’s quite complex. There are two things at play: the actual content and the players’ reaction to the content.
When it comes to content we have all sorts of things that can come up in the game that have the potential to be problematic. Most of these center around violence, but can also include things like trust, greed, and addiction.
We then have players (including the GM) who react to that content. How we react is very complex, and draws on our past experiences, the culture we were raised in, the life we lead, etc. Because of that, it’s possible that a piece of content that is distasteful for someone can cause someone else to hurt greatly. For instance, the characters witness the King slap his teenage son across the face after he spoke back. For some of us, we may look at that and wrinkle our nose, and casually cast disdain on the King. For someone who was abused as a child, it could create a visceral reaction and make them upset or angry. The really tricky part of this is that both of those things can happen at the table at the same time in two different people.
Risk Management and Safety Tools
So now that we know we have a risk, we can do some risk management, using the material discussed above.
Likelihood & Impact
When thinking about how to address safety in your game, you can start by looking at the content of the game you are running. What is the likelihood based on what you are playing and what you prepped that you have content that could make someone feel unsafe? In your standard high fantasy game, the likelihood will be much lower than playing a psychological thriller of a group hunting a sadistic serial killer.
As for impact, most of us are not trained to be able to guess the impact content will have on individuals. But if you are playing with people you have known a while, you may be able to take some guesses. For instance: I know that Paul is a recovering alcoholic, therefore having an NPC who is an out of control alcoholic may make him feel unsafe. For things like that, which are obvious, you can easily just change the content, in prep or at the table, to avoid any problems.
With our risk of making people feel unsafe, we can take actions to mitigate that risk. That is, we can use safety tools that are designed to lessen the likelihood of making someone feel unsafe. Some of those tools are:
- Trigger Warnings – we can give people a heads up about problematic content right at the start of the game/campaign, like letting someone know that this Cthulhuian adventure has content about child abandonment and body horror. Then people can make the decision if they want to play this game or not.
- Lines & Veils – with lines and veils we ask people what content they do not want to come up in the game (lines) and what content we can have but should not be overly detailed about (veils). This helps us reduce the likelihood we are going to hit problematic content.
- Open Door – allowing someone to get up and take a breath during or after an intense scene can sometimes be all a person needs to center themselves and return to the game. Having an Open Door allows people to de-escalate the intensity and stay in the game.
As we said before, no matter how much mitigation we do, something can still go wrong and someone may suddenly feel unsafe during the game. For that, we need a plan, which is nearly always to stop play and/or remove the problematic content from the game. Some of those tools are:
- X-Card/Consent Flower – Both of these tools are used to indicate to the table that someone is not ok and that it needs to be addressed in some manner. By tapping the X or touching the red spot, you are indicating that you need to pause the game and deal with what is going on.
- Script Change – Allows someone to either rewind to address something problematic, fast forward past something uncomfortable, or to pause a scene to let the intensity lower.
- Open Door – Sometimes there is no other solution but to get up and go. Having the Open Door policy means that you are telling people it’s ok if you need to go, removing the societal pressure and anxiety of getting up in the middle of something which can sometimes make people sit through things they are uncomfortable with.
Risk Analysis For Your Games
So using the risk management tools above, we can look at what we are playing and decide what tools we think we need based on what game we are running, what material we are playing, and who we are playing with. We can group the games into three simple buckets: Low, Medium, and High. There is no None category, because you can never be 100% sure what content will emerge through play.
These are games where the content of the game is not charged and you know the people you are playing with.
Example: You are going to play a Superhero game with your normal gaming group.
For me, this is my Tales from the Loop home game. I just put down the X-Card and we get playing. It’s there if something goes wrong, but it hardly, if ever, gets used.
These are game where the content may be a bit more charged and/or you don’t know the people you are playing with.
Example: You are going to run a really intense horror game for your home group, or you are going to run something gritty for a group of strangers at a convention.
Tools: Trigger Warning, Open Door, X-Card (or other Contingency tools).
For me, this is when I run Hydro Hackers at a convention. I let people know the game has some themes of poverty and authoritarianism, and if anything comes up to use the X-Card or get up from the table, and if all goes well, it does not come up.
These are games where you are sure that the content is problematic for your players or you may not know the players.
Example: You are going to play a deeply emotional story that centers around abuse and drug use with your home group that has an abuse survivor.
Tools: Trigger Warning, Lines & Veils, Open Door, Consent Flower or Script Change (or X-card)
For me this is a game like Bluebeard’s Bride or the game I am developing, Turning Point, where I know the content is going to be challenging and I want to make sure that I have mitigated as much as I can, and that I have more granular contingency tools to allow us to navigate the content, as the group feels is ok.
The idea is that you can tailor your safety tools based on the risk of the games you are playing. For many people who are playing their published D&D adventures with their home groups, the risk is low that safety is going to break. This is why many people don’t see the need for safety tools because their games are generally low risk. Though I still advocate for something like the X-card because there is no such thing as no risk.
For some of us, who go looking for charged content, that risk increases, and with it we can employ more safety tools to make sure that we can keep the game in a place this is enjoyable.
Plan For Your Risks
Our goal in any RPG is to give people an enjoyable experience. But there is always a risk that the game will cause someone to feel unsafe. By thinking about what we are playing and who we are playing with, we can select the safety tools that fit the game we are running. We can mitigate the risk and we can have a contingency in case something goes wrong.
How do you think about the safety tools you use in your game? Is it a one-size-fits-all, or do you tailor your tools to the type of game you are running?
Note, if you do not believe in safety tools, I am willing to have a respectful dialog about this topic in the comments, it’s doubtful you will sway me, but I am curious to hear your points.