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Safety as Risk Management

A few months ago, I posted an article on why I use Safety Tools [1]. 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. 

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.

Risk 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.

Mitigation

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.

Contingency

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. 

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.

Mitigation

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:

Contingency

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:

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.

Low-Risk Games

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.

Tools: X-Card.  

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.

Medium Risk

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.

High Risk

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.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Safety as Risk Management"

#1 Comment By Marcelo Careaga On June 22, 2018 @ 9:03 am

This, together with your last post on the topic, should be required reading for most groups, shops and conventions. It is awesome how some simple additions to the context of the games allow for all content to be played in a safe manner and enjoyed by everyone on a table. The idea for any RPG or tabletop game should always be for everyone that plays it to have fun with it, and that can only happen with open communication.
Also, being in a similar work line to yours, I do appreciate that the way you are explaining the rationale here is one of the most educative I’ve seen around the topic. One thing that I would add for new and old GMs is that they need to understand that the GM role in an RPG isn’t to be custodian of the purity of the content. The GM’s main role is to be a storyteller. and a good storyteller will ALWAYS adapt and modify the story in small or big ways to suit their audience, the context and the actions being taken. We need, as GMs, to be open and receptive and empathetic to all players as we move the game along. In the same way that we may relax rules, or change on the fly the result of hidden dice throws or the stats of an enemy, for example, to help the storytelling, we need to be able to do the same with the content and how we present it.

#2 Comment By Phil Vecchione On June 22, 2018 @ 9:51 am

Thank you.

Excellent point about the storyteller role of the GM.

I think one the signs of a good GM is knowing how to adapt your game for the table and the players; when to lean into something and when to back something off.

#3 Comment By Wendelyn Reischl On June 22, 2018 @ 9:46 am

Thanks for a great Article Phil! Question for you, how do you as a player or GM get buy-in from the group that the tools will be used and respected? My biggest question with X-card style tools is, will people use it if they need it?

I have a pair of friends who played together earlier this year where one introduced content that the other was triggered by, but the triggered player did not use the X-card even though it was on the table. These two people discussed it later and it resulted in the triggered player being in tears. The triggered player commented that they didn’t believe the X-card would be respected if used. Where does the responsibility lie?

[note: both are mature adults who had met/role played together previously.]

#4 Comment By Phil Vecchione On June 22, 2018 @ 9:58 am

So I think when you want to use a safety tool, at the table, you need to get enthusiastic consent from everyone at the table. That is you bring out the tool, explain how it works, and then ask everyone, if they agree to use it and to adhere to what it does when used. Then everyone has to enthusiastically agree to that. If someone is not enthusiastic or does not agree, then it can’t work.

In order for safety tools to work, people have to both believe in them and agree to use them properly. We can’t force anyone to do that, but we can choose who we play with based on how seriously they take safety.

If everyone is on board with it, then it is worth practicing how to use it in game. Sometimes a GM will X-card a bit of content they created at the start of the game, just to let everyone see it in use.

All of that said, I once was triggered during a game, got mad at the player who did it, and lost track of the X-card on the table. So there are no guarantees that it will work as you hope.

But if the whole table is onboard, then we can all look out for each other as we play.

#5 Comment By Senda Linaugh On June 22, 2018 @ 11:09 am

The thing I kind of knew but learned the hard way from running the game that Phil is referring to (you can actually hear it and our discussion about the safety break on SASG: [6]) is that we are all responsible at the table. If you can tell someone is triggered, or if you’re not sure they’re okay, you can use the X-Card ON THEIR BEHALF. The triggered party does not have to be the one solely responsible. Sharing that responsibility as a table, where we are all responsible not only for ourselves but for each other, helps to alleviate some of those situations. Having experienced it, I now make sure that I explicitly state this as part of my X Card introduction.

#6 Comment By Silveressa On June 23, 2018 @ 4:02 am

It’s also worth reminding the GM the X card is there for them to use when players take a scene in a direction that makes them uncomfortable. Several years ago (wow, has it really been that long? 😛 ) I was playing in a game where during a session I referenced content in my characters past that made the GM deeply uncomfortable. (The Gm encouraged us to make up our chars back stories as we played hence the reason they were unaware of this particular piece of her backstory)

However, since we (at the time) weren’t playing with the X-card (We were as a group, to the best of my knowledge, unaware of its existence back then.) It was handled after session with a side discussion but resulted in further difficulties down the road when they initially allowed it but then changed their mind several sessions later and wanted to retcon it, but by then the initial permitted background aspect had caused several other meaningful developments within the campaign, so retconning it would also change a dozen other important plot elements and create a far bigger mess, so the end result was in the campaign coming to a somewhat abrupt end.

Looking back on it I see how having an X card at the table would have (ideally) prevented the entire issue by letting our GM utilize it as soon as they felt uncomfortable with the background element I introduced.

#7 Comment By Steve On June 27, 2018 @ 5:09 am

Man, I miss the good old days when Martin and Patrick had actual GM advice. This idea is great for conventions, and that’s it. If your friends/home group need a card to tell everyone when they are uncomfortable then you need better friends.

And I understand that it’s as simple as putting a card on a table with an X drawn on it, but it’s just sad that society has come to needing a card to tell others how one feels. People are shy, yes, and people aren’t comfortable in front of strangers, yes, but that “suck it up ” mentality is repeated by many because it’s true. People need to stand up for themselves in this world and it shouldn’t have to take a card to do it.

#8 Comment By Phil Vecchione On June 27, 2018 @ 7:16 am

And Hello Steve.

So let’s address your points…

First… I have been on this site as long as Martin and Patrick, and have written more of my share of what you are referring to as “GMing advice”, so from time to time I like to push the limits and talk about design and play theory; which this article is just that. But since, you think this piece is lacking, and I have not picked my article to write for July, I am happy to take a request for a good ole GMing advice article to make up for this one. So give me a topic and I will write away.

Second… this does work great at conventions, and you it can be just as simple as putting in X on a card and putting it on the table. I know groups that don’t use X cards and just to Lines & Veils. It works on a number of levels and a number of different ways. This article was to look at this topic in a more comprehensive way and acknowledges that based on what you play and who you play with, that different approaches apply.

Third… about the home group and just sticking up for yourself. I get what you are saying, but I don’t think that is realistic. People have different abilities for dealing with things and emotions. I am definitely one who is able to stand up for myself in a good number of situations. My day job requires me to frequently disagree with my bosses and stand my ground, so I am no stranger to sucking it up and standing up for myself and my teams. But, I have been affected by things happening where I got so caught up that rather than stand up for myself I just went with the flow.

I don’t know if you have ever had a strong emotional reaction to something, something that has shut down your cognitive reasoning.
Something in neurobiology known as amiglia hijacking. If you have not, then you are very lucky. I have and I can tell you that when it happens, you don’t reason through things like you would in everyday life. And when you play highly charged emotional games, you run the risk of that amiglia hijacking occurring; so you can’t always count on doing what you logically know you should do.

The idea of the X-card is not just to have a way to indicate there is a problem, but it creates a visual reminder that you can speak up. So that when someone gets caught up in something that happens, it reminds them that if they are able to they should speak up. You don’t have to touch the X-card if you object to something, you can just speak your mind, but it can help to remind you to when the time comes.

Thanks.

#9 Comment By Steve On June 27, 2018 @ 11:00 am

Thank you for the “much more polite than me” response.

I guess the whole concept just seems bizarre to me. Of course I want anyone and everyone to be able to play RPGs whenever and however they want. But in general this seems overboard. Everyone plays RPGs to have fun, and how everyone interprets what fun is can be different. As mentioned in your previous article, I would never want to play in a game that had child-rape. I don’t see how a game which involves that can be fun to anyone. I shouldn’t have to explicitly state, “My line and/or veil is child-rape, guys. Please don’t put that in the game.” That’s common sense to me. If anyone I played with put that in there, whether friend, colleague or convention GM without stating it beforehand, I would immediately get up and leave the game, and tell them how disgusted I am. And even if I knew beforehand, I just would simply not join in that game. Something as abhorent as that should have no place in a game. I understand that people would argue that things like that make the game more realistic, or we don’t live in a perfect world, etc… But it just makes me feel like the Lines/Veils or X-card is an excuse to allow terrible things to occur in a “fun” game.

Now in regards to some other examples that were stated in the last article/comments (ie. spiders, drunken behavior). Are you kidding me? I cannot remember ever experiencing amiglia hijacking and it sounds like a terrible experience. But if somebody does suffer from such a condition from essentially mundane situations (ie. spiders, drunken behavior) then maybe that person should realize what they’re getting into when they play a game like D&D. A person with this problem cannot realistically expect a GM at a convention to not have spiders in a cave or drunk people in a tavern in a game of D&D. And it seems unfair to a GM to have to dramatically change what they’re going to do because Random Guy “A” at the convention suffers from arachnophobia.

So the Lines/Veils and X-card seem to, in general, allow terrible things to be allowed into games that have no place in games, or allow a person to completely disrupt a scene by the GM having to gloss over details or completely change what happens in a moment, because said person is so disturbed by the usually mundane. Disturbed people, in both situations, in need of actual help.

And no, I don’t have any GM Advice article ideas. You guys have done about a billion of those, which I know is why Gnome Stew has expanded it’s repertoire. I leave the article ideas to you guys, the experts. I just didn’t like this one.

#10 Comment By Lugh On June 28, 2018 @ 10:47 am

Your examples are making the mistake of falling way to either side of normal Lines. They are too extreme to be useful.

Yes, no one wants to see child-rape in a game. Certainly not explicitly described. But what about regular rape? That’s a pretty common story element that can be WAY triggering to some people. What about child abuse that is not rape? There are a lot of dark elements that can be put into a story, particularly to demonstrate how evil the villains are. A “normal” person might not have any Lines they need to declare. (I can’t think of any for myself, though I can think of a few situations that might have me hitting the X Card or using an Open Door.) But the wacky thing about “normal” is that it’s not actually all that common. Most of the people you play with will have something that disturbs them significantly more than “normal” people.

On the other end, very, very few people are going to be triggered by random drunk people in a tavern. But it’s not that uncommon for someone to be triggered by a description of alcoholism. Or even by sloppy drunk behavior that is described in excessive detail. So part of the point of the Line may just be, “hey, we all know how sloppy drunk people act, can we just skip the details on this?”.

And as a counter-example to your example of spiders, my wife happens to be severely arachnophobic. Really, seriously phobic. When we moved up here, we joined up with a new group. The very first session opened with one of the established half-drow characters having been tracked down by his drow family. The scene started with us around a campfire, and thousands of spiders scuttling out of the shadows. It freaked her out but good. She basically exercised an Open Door and walked away from the table. I explained why she was reacting. The DM was very apologetic. And for the rest of the time we played with that group, every time spiders came up they were referred to as crickets. Driders were even called drickets. We all knew they were spiders, even my wife. But that simple change avoided triggering her phobia. It was so very simple, and showed so much respect from them.

No two people, even “normal” people, will have the same reactions to any story element. When you put together a gaming group, there is pretty much no way to predict when a given story element might land really badly. Tools like Lines and Veils give the GM a better feel for where the danger zones are. Tools like Trigger Warnings give the players a better feel for what danger zones might lie ahead. Tools like X-Cards and Open Doors give a simple escape clause to get out of those danger zones. It makes the GM’s job easier, because they don’t have to guess at how to balance gripping emotional stakes with upsetting emotional triggers. It makes the players’ jobs easier, because they can invest a lot more into a story, trusting that that investment isn’t going to blow up in their faces.

#11 Comment By John Arcadian On June 28, 2018 @ 11:37 am

Steve – Head Gnome John here.

The thing about all of this is Respect. First and foremost, we engage in a social activity when we game, and that social activity has to be respectful of the people engaging in it. If we don’t respect someone’s childhood trauma, fear that they can’t quite control, or whatever else we may not know about, well…. we’re kind of being the asshole at the table who smokes and then says its the other person’s fault for being at the table and getting smoke blown in their face.

Without some agreed upon ways to open up that discussion that someone doesn’t want to get into the heavy stuff too far, it becomes a quagmire of how to deal with these issues with respect. This is the BEST kind of GM advice we can have, because it is the sort that is needed most. I don’t want to sit in someone’s game where they’re blatantly ignoring some issue I’m having and trying to make them aware of. If there is an X-card at the table, I can quietly, politely move the game past that, and I know they respect me and the others enough to get into it. I may be more comfortable getting into the heavier stuff, cause I know the GM isn’t an asshole who will ignore me if I say enough is enough and trigger the X card or other safety tool. This may not be something that makes sense to you, but it’s a tool you can use to show your respect to the other players at your table, with strangers or with friends. Because really, respect needs to be the baseline in our games.

#12 Comment By STeve On June 28, 2018 @ 7:28 pm

I never mean to disrespect anybody when I play a game with them whether friend or stranger. Despite how I have portrayed myself on this comment section, I do always play with the utmost respect and have received it. Having thought about, there is no real harm in doing any of the things that this article suggests. But there could be unintended harm if you don’t do what Phil suggests. Of course, a session that plays out without having anyone having to use one of the contingency plans stated above would be ideal. And more often than not, I’m sure that’s exactly what happens. I suppose I’m fortunate enough, and I guess inexperienced enough, to have never played with anyone who had a line crossed as far as I know.

I guess my mistake here is that I stubbornly thought that the mitigation step could and would take care of all problems, and if there was a problem afterwards then shame on the GM for not preparing the offended party. So, sorry I misunderstood the entire intent of this article. It does make sense to me now.

I think my original disconnect with this whole topic boils down to the Respect issue. As I see it, there is a difference between “being disrespectful” towards someone and “feeling disrespected” by someone. I see 3 ways in which “feeling disrespected” can occur:

1. Someone is willfully being disrespectful towards another person. The disrespected party will “feel disrespected,” as they should, and will likely be upset.

2. Someone is ignorant and unintentionally says or does something disrespectful towards someone. The victim will again “feel disrespected,” as they should, and will likely be upset.

3. Someone is NOT ignorant and says something that unintentionally offends another person. That offended person “feels disrespected” when there was no disrespect in the first place.

There’s a slight difference between #2 & #3, and to me it feels like more and more people these days are getting upset over the #3 situation. This annoys me, hence my jerky response, and my original thoughts that what this article suggests is an overreaction.

It’s not an overreaction. It’s a good idea, especially for a convention. Sorry, Phil, for getting all snarky.

#13 Comment By Jean-charles On July 10, 2018 @ 4:41 pm

This is, of course nothing more than SJW propaganda, hidden under a ‘innocent’ GM tool.
My advice: if you are this afraid of being shocked by playing tabletop RPGs, well just don’t.

#14 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 10, 2018 @ 6:45 pm

I was going to cry my snowflake self to sleep after reading your mean comment, but instead, I am going to say that while it’s valid to just not play more intense games, but since other options exist, we can use them.

And if you don’t like intense content or you are so devoid of feelings you nothing triggers you, you play your way.

I will keep offering up advice to anyone who wants to listen. Feel free not to listen.

For the record… Social Justice Barbarian.