I grew up in the 1980’s when D&D came in two flavors: Basic and Advanced. Back then, we just played the game and didn’t worry about table safety and how people felt. That was in a large part for two reasons: First,Â we lacked the experience and lexicon to describe the concept of table safety. Second, we were kids and safety, in general, was mostly an alien concept. As evidence, I submit the giant dirt ramp we jumped on our bicycles without helmets, Roman candle fights, and riding in the back of station wagons without seat belts.
So it might sound like I am not a big fan of table safety or safety tools. Wrong.
Today, I am going to share some of my reasons why, and how I handle safety at my tables.
We Got Better At This
Just because we rode in the back of station wagons without seat belts then, does not mean that my kids don’t need to wear seat belts now. Nor are my kids allowed on their bikes without helmets on. The reason being is that as time goes on, we learned more and develop better safety tools (helmets, airbags, etc), making things safer. Why wouldn’t we want to be safe or make the people we love safe?
The same is true for role-playing games. Yes back in the Moldvay D&D days I was not using an X-card, but I was certainly triggered by an adversarial GM who could (and did) ruin sessions based on their mood. Today, we have learned about table safety and we have real tools we can use to communicate safety. Similar to how I won’t leave the driveway until everyone is seat-belted in, I don’t start running a game until I put my X-card on the table.
This article is more about why I use safety tools than what they are, but for those not totally familiar with them, here is a brief recap of some major concepts.
- Safety – the feeling of being respected, having a voice at the table, not being bullied, being candid, and not having any emotions triggered.
- Safety tools – items and procedures that can be used during a game to set boundaries and to indicate when safety may have been compromised.
- Safety break – when something in the game causes one or more players in the game to lose safety. Sometimes referred to as triggering or being triggered.
There are a number of great safety tools that can be used. Each approaches safety a bit differently, but all have the intention to maintain safety at the table. For an awesome list of safety resources, check out the Safety webpage for Breakout Con (shout-out to Rachelle ShelkeyÂ for compiling the list): Â https://breakoutcon.com/index.php/extras/safety-tools/
My Favorite Tools
I have three favorite safety tools that I use in my games today. I don’t use all three in every game, but I have all three available when I play. They are:
- Lines and Veils – This tool establishes boundaries in a game; defining what we won’t include in the game (Lines), and what we will include but not in great detail (Veils).
- X-Card – This tool is a card on the table that any player can touch to indicate that some content in a scene is breaking safety for them and that we should move on. This is like a circuit breaker, it kicks in when safety is about to be compromised and allows us to change direction.
- Support Flower – This tool is pretty new (to me) and it works similar to an X-Card. It allows players to check in with three levels: green (ok), yellow (slow down), red (stop). This is more analog to the X-card’s binary state. Also, it creates an environment of active consent, where everyone can check in where they are during a scene.
How I use them
I use a safety tool in all the games I run, at home and especially at conventions. What I use, and how I use them, differs.
Here, I am playing with friends who I know fairly well. We have played a number of games together, hung out socially, etc. I know most of their triggers, like Bob’s fear of spiders. For my home table, I use the X-Card. This turns out to be all the safety I need for the average game. It does not matter if we are playing Blades in the Dark or Damn The Man Save The Music, I have an X-Card on the table.
At a Convention
These tables are a mix of strangers, acquaintances, and friends. I don’t know everyone’s triggers, so safety is much more precarious. Here I like to start with Lines and Veils and create some boundaries of things people do not want in the game. Then I will put down an X-Card so that during the game if something was not covered with Lines and Veils, we have a way to identify and deal with that.
One last case: there are certain tools I will use for certain games. Turning Point, a game that Senda and I are developing, can deal with heavy emotional content. In this game, we often start with Lines and Veils and if the subject matter is not too emotionally charged, then we will use an X-Card. For the more delicate subject matter, however, we will use the Support FlowerÂ to make the safety a bit more active and granular.
What Having Safety Tools Says
When I put out safety tools, another GM puts them out for their game, or a convention provides or requires their use, it conveys a message. It says two things:
Your safety is important. The fact that tools are being used means that this table (and convention) values your safety, and wants you to have a positive experience at the table. This is important. Imagine that you got in the car with your parent driving and they did not tell you to put on your seat belt. You would feel put out as if they did not care for your safety. Â Having tools at your table is like telling people to put on their seat belt. It shows you care.
Its ok to say something. When we put out tools, we are also telling people it is ok to express their discomfort at some content in the game. We are not asking people to “suck it up” or “get over it”. We are encouraging them to express themselves and telling them that we will respect their feelings. It says that we will work together to avoid those things that would make someone not feel safe.
But I Run A Safe Table, I Don’t Need Tools…
It’s a common excuse usedÂ by people who don’t use safety tools. They just run safe games, so tools are not needed or are at worst silly. Back to my car analogy – I am a really safe driver. I use blinkers, mostly drive the speed limit, and at least sometimes use two hands on the wheel. If you have never met me, would you be ok being in my passenger seat without a seat belt and if I disabled the passenger-side airbag? But seriously, I am a safe driver.
Yes, you may be a very conscientious GM who runs a clean table. That does not mean that you have any idea what is going to break safety with any random player at your table, nor does it guarantee that you are going to see the signs of someone who is in distress when their safety has been broken.
Put the seat belt on, put the safety tool on the table.
Keeping It Safe
Over the 30+ years I have been gaming, games have gotten more sophisticated and elegant. We began to develop a language for what is going on in the mechanics of our games and what is happening at our tables. From that understanding, we came to understand safety and then learned how to protect it.
Just like cars went from only seat belts to include airbags, crumple zones, backup cameras, and now collision detection, our gaming community developed tools to help make games safer. We have tools to define boundaries, to indicate threats to safety, and ones to convey active consent. There is no reason not to use them. They don’t make you weaker. Rather, they say that you care about who you are playing with, care that they remain safe, and that they have a good time at your table.
So buckle up before you role…play, that is.
Do you use safety tools? Do you use them for your home games? Con games? Which tools do you prefer? Which ones are you curious about?
This is wonderful! Perfect – we need to create Safe Spaces for Delicate Flowers so as not to possibly Trigger any uncomfortable feelings. Nobody should EVER feel uncomfortable or be challenged in their feelings or beliefs. All fantasy RPGs should conform to societal norms, as dictated to us by Twitter, Advertising, and Hollywood, of Generation Z. Any deviation thereto should result in ostracization and casting-out of any who would dare challenge the orthodoxy. Safe Spaces for all!
Considering your tone…let me start by paraphrasing Luke Skywalker…
Impressive. Every word in that paragraph was wrong.
Playing games with uncomfortable content is totally possible using safety tools. In fact easier, if everyone at the table believes that we are all taking everyone’s safety into account, we can totally play in very uncomfortable places and with challenging content. Some of the best games I have played with some of the most difficult and uncomfortable content have been played like this.
As for not wanting to play with people who don’t care about my safety. Yea that is right. So if that is a problem for you…then in the places where I game I have two choices for you… Evolve or Die. I don’t need you in my hobby. I have been here for a long time, and you are not doing anything to make it better. So Evolve and consider that taking peoples feelings into account is not a sign of weakness, or Die off…and get out of the hobby.
But based on the buzz words you are using, you are not actually interested in a real discussion about this. So we have both said our points. If you want to really discuss this, I also have a podcast where I would be happy to have you on and we could honestly debate both sides of this.
Congratulations on watering down the word “safety” when you really mean “comfort.” People like you, who are extremely white and too privileged to interact with society at large have no concept of what it means to truly be “unsafe.”
Enjoy your table-top children’s games. The rest of the world is on fire.
I don’t deny being white or privileged. I was born both.
As for comfort vs safety…that is an opinion. I think that safety includes not causing harm, and I think that there is absolutely a chance to harm someone at a gaming table. So I am comfortable using the community-wide term, Safety. I understand if you think that it is watering that word down.
And you are totally right. I really don’t know what it means to be unsafe. I am a middle-aged, cis-white-male who is middle class. As Scalzi said, I am playing life on easy mode. I am not proud of that, but its true. I walk at night often not worrying about what is out there. I don’t worry about unwanted sexual advances or saying no to them. I can get pulled over by the police and not fear for my life. People take me at face value.
All of that being said, none of that means I cannot promote safety and comfort at my gaming table, especially when I am playing with strangers. I want people who have truly felt unsafe to recognize that I take their safety seriously even if I can’t fully understand their experience.
Physical, emotional, and mental comfort are absolutely part of what makes something “safe”. We, as gamers, need to invite MORE discussion on this, not less. Phil’s experience is no less valid than anyone else’s and I applaud his awareness of his personal privileges and his efforts to make gaming safe and accessible for all peoples.
You don’t make the world a better place by casting derision on other’s efforts. You make the world a better place by being constructive and working with people in your chosen hobby.
I look forward to adding these safety mechanics to my games to make my table a more inclusive and welcoming space.
Thank you for this article, even if there are still backward people who want to lash out about it.
The X-Card is one of the easiest safety tools to deploy, understand, and use intuitively, and I’m a big fan, particularly in convention spaces. But, as you said, useful for all occasions. I like the idea of the Consent Flower, but I have yet to use it at a table.
Another tool I like that others might like, too, is Script Change.
Its basic use adds Pause, Rewind, and Fast Forward buttons as the safety mechanisms, which I think are also pretty intuitive. Rewind is sort of like X-Card functionality, Fast Forward is kind of an in-game Veil, and Pause is…just what it sounds like, which allows for a little extra breathing room to let a player deal with a scene but doesn’t X-Card it out of existence. There’s also some other mechanisms like debrief tools and such, but at its basic level it’s (like the X-Card) easy to understand and implement and has nice, visual reminders!
This has absolutely nothing to do with safety, its just to reinforce the notion that those who plead offence are indisputably correct. Those that show the most offence must have their issues skirted around to the detriment of the other players and the game itself. Gaming had a built in safety net and it’s called leaving the table. If I don’t feel safe in a car with you I have the right to get out, I don’t have the right to demand you drive a certain way.
So first, you clearly did not follow the link in the article. If you had you would have seen that leaving the table is a perfectly valid safety tool. It’s called the Open Door policy. The other tools work to prevent anyone from having to leave.
What I do not understand is your belief that either you or other people in your group are somehow more important than anyone individual person at the table? From your statement, one person being uncomfortable in the game is less important than the rest of the table. Is there an equation of how many people need to be uncomfortable before it matters? Is it 2, 3, 4? Does it only matter if you are uncomfortable?
What I talk about in this article is basic empathy. The idea that the feelings of anyone matter as much as anyone else. In fact, I am using right now to address your comment, rather than just deleting or blocking you. That your opinion, be it the minority, matters.
Is it that you do not believe in empathy or other people’s feelings, that what you feel is the only thing that matters? Is it that you don’t want every player to have a good time at your table, as long as you are having a good time?
I certainly didn’t, I’m replying to this article not another one. You can’t understand why someone would value the opinions of the group over someone who is offended but not enough to speak up about it or to leave? You can’t espouse your empathy if you only empathetic toward one person and only on the basis that they feel offended. The fact you can’t see your hypocrisy is mesmerizing.
Tim what I am not getting is that the tools I mentioned in the article are a way to speak out. Tapping the X- card is saying that you are uncomfortable and using Lines and Veils is a way to speak up before play. While I have no problem covering with a group things I am not comfortable with (child violence, rape, racist/homephobic/transphobic/sexist slurs), there are people who are not as comfortable speaking their mind.
And where I think the gap for me is, is that you feel if the group is cool describing child violence, and I am uncomfortable with it, being the father of two children. That I am somehow at fault, and that everyone else is more important.
Perhaps I am reading you wrong, but is that how you are running your table?
If you’re at a movie and you see child violence or anything else that triggers you, do you demand that the movie be stopped? The other people in that theater must be punished because you didn’t have take the time to do any research on the movie. It seems you want everyone and everything to be detrimental affected by someone’s lack of foresight or just complete laziness not to leave on your own.
First, if you knew me, it’s nearly laughable that I would not do my research before seeing a movie. I don’t go to a restaurant without finding the menu online and picking my meal before I leave.
But I like the movie analogy. You are totally right, if I went to a movie about child violence, after doing the research, or choosing not to do the research, then that is on me. I would leave rather than ask the movie to be turned off.
Along the same lines, if I went to a convention game, and the description of the game said…”lots of child violence” I would not sign up. Others can, but it’s not for me.
Ok…but now if I go to a convention game, where the description says…go and slay a dragon for tons of treasure, and when we start playing the GM begins to describe graphic mutilation of children…I have a problem. And I would use a safety tool then…or in the absence, I would say to just stop. And I would expect the GM to tone down their description, or I would leave.
That, for me, is where I like safety tools, in the places you don’t expect. In that place that helps people express themselves, when content, that they did not expect, surprises them in an uncomfortable way.
When we game with people, we don’t know their histories. You don’t know who was abused as a child, who was raped, who served in combat. Everyone carries something that hurts them. If one of those comes up, I want to tone it down or remove it for that player.
If you got to an animated Disney film, you certainly have a right to be offended about the torture scene, but you still don’t to impede on anyone’s enjoyment of it. D&D is an R rated game, if you have an issue with dark themes or violence you have already been warned by the title and history of the game. If you go forward and do so without mitigating your potential offense the fault rests squarely on you.
Tim…I am not sure I am on board with you about D&D being an R-Rated game. I am doing a bit of checking on that.
But I do agree that you can totally run D&D in an R-rated manner. That is something you can communicate to people to give warning.
Yea…i did some checking. The 5e box set is Ages 12+ and going all the way back to my first D&D set, the Moldvay set, it was Ages 10+.
By its creation, D&D is not an R-rated game. It it’s sales are not restricted to minors. It is played in schools, its played in libraries, it is run by parents for their kids.
As I said before, your version of D&D may be R-rated and you are entitled to run it any way you like. And you are right, with proper warning, hopefully the people in your game are prepared. But what if your game gets X-rated, is that also ok?
To be clear, I run a lot of R rated games. In fact most of my games are pretty dark and creepy. My convention games are more PG-13 because I dont know who will be around or walking by, so I take it down a notch.
In either case, I don’t think you and I are too far off. I think that if people state what their game is, then the people who go to that table should expect that kind of experience.
But when something unexpected happens, is when I will have my safety tool, to help keep my game at the level (be it R or otherwise) that I advertised.
I completely agree if I’m running good a R-rated game and we all agree to it, I’m not going to trash the session mid way be as cute someone feels more secure with a PGC setting. They have the right to leave and find a better suited game.
I’m going to back up a few levels to reply.
Sorry, this belongs at the end of the thread but it’s gone haywire. We haven’t seen a thread this long in ages.
You’re constructing a situation here that should never occur except by negligence on your part. If I am a new player joining your game and I am used to and comfortable playing a G rated game and yours is NC17, that is something you should have made clear before I ever showed up, at which point I would have said: “This is not the game for me then. Thanks anyway. Best of luck” But what Phil is describing, and what Phil’s tools are for is a game where it’s MOSTLY unoffensive but occasionally dives into more adult territory (somewhere in the PG13 range) OR games with a set of completely unknown players who might h ave objections with God only knows what, so since there is more of a chance in those games that you might suddenly discover a trigger, you ought to have a simple way for people to say “Whoa! Hold on! I’m not comfortable with that!” (understanding that for some people, just yelling that at a table full of acquaintances to strangers is harder than others).
Games that are rated G or NC17 have less of a need because they are less likely to run into difficult situations or have constant difficult situations respectively.
At least, that’s how I see it.
First point: For some reason, I seem to have a trauma reaction to drunken behavior. I wish it included flashbacks so I would have some material to tell a counselor, because I don’t remember any specific events that might justify it, but there it is. I try to tell people not to have bar scenes or town drunks.
In spite of this, one of the last games I was in, a session started with “You are in the bar, and somebody makes a drunken bet…”
Clunk. I don’t really remember the rest of the session, mostly just me sitting in a corner trying to get my heart rate down. I might have walked out, I don’t recall. It’s really stupid since I don’t actually know why that happens. I mean, it’s not that I am a huge enemy of alcohol or anything, it just pops a breaker for some reason.
I know other people are like that with other things. I don’t really want to risk having a game disrupted by subjecting people to that. That’s not “comfort” but even when it is, who cares? Why would I want to make my friends uncomfortable on a recreational activity?
Second, kind of an aside, is there some way to get a picture that’s not male without putting out a bunch of personal information? Because having to fight through a tooth grinding gender dysphoria spike just to make a comment about avoiding spikes of a similar variety kind of bites in an ironic way.
It sounds terrible what you go through, therefore you must mention this to the DM and the rest of the group before playing right? You couldn’t just wait for an alcohol scene in order to mention it, and if you did you can’t really call the game a risk to your safety.
I specifically stated that it was an issue before character generation.
This was an early game. It was fresh in their mind. The GM decided that I should just roll with it anyways.
I have another serious irritant that is hard to explain. It almost never comes up though.
Content Warning: Fictional Rape, Gun Violence
These are the reasons we have tools to make it easier to have these conversations. Things like the X-card help a person signal a desire to move past certain elements of a game to make sure it remains fun. I’ve had a character raped in game by a vengeful GM, I prefer not to do “super-sexy” scenes sometimes. I know people who have, in real life, shielded family members from another family member with a gun. Talking about those sorts of things in the context of the game isn’t always easy or viable, so having tools that make it easier to quietly have those conversations, or even just say we are going to respect the people at the table, even if we don’t know what we need to respect, help us have those conversations.
In the end, that is all it is about – respect. Do you care enough to do a bare minimum to try to help other people, or is your viewpoint that other people have to come to your way of thinking.
As far as the image, I’ll look into it. The system we use to generate the basic gnome image only allows for one. If you have an account, you can change your own image and upload anything you want. The guest commenting is fairly limited, but if I can add in multiple images, or make a non-gendered one, I’ll make it happen. Thanks for pointing that out!
It’s not perfect, but more generic. I’m going to see if I can code in multiple custom avatars for guest posters on my next upgrade binge.
I have been a fan and follower of your game projects and writing for years. I started playing DND in 1978 and moved to Savage Worlds in 2007. This article had me scratching my head as I donâ€™t recognize how a gaming group could need this. We never needed more than the golden rule, including team frisbee and neighborhood basketball. Itâ€™s seems like a page out of the same stuff running thru our universities about microagressions, triggers, etc. You used the word â€œtriggeredâ€ along with all the safety processes to make your article unmistakably parallel to the politically charged â€œsafe spacesâ€ language. If that is what your gaming has come to the sadly for me, it would be time to let this hobby go. To claim that itâ€™s laziness on others parts to not do as you have done is is insulting and simply not true. Weâ€™ve called bad behavior what it was, and it that meant we stopped for the night or the campaign, then we did. Youâ€™d be lucky to get the modern young gamers to do any prep these days and now you want to add a series of processes that in the description essentially tells them there is the potential for bad behavior and harassment so egregious you have to have agreed upon safe words. For heavens sake!?! Is your gaming world really that bad? I could see a very limited agreement as part of a convention game with strangers but your own group? Again, if more than the golden rule is needed, this to retire the dice.
So, based on my comment above, can you please explain how the “golden rule” or “avoiding bad behavior” would guide you to not role play your character as slurred and wobbling drunk? Because I can guarantee that would make me have to walk out of the game for the night, possibly the campaign, ruin my night, waste my time, and I don’t even have any other objections to alcohol use.
I actually need things like that in some form, not necessarily formalized as much as suggested but something. It’s kind of annoying that you would rather quit playing than agree to a politeness that will make me more able to comfortably play at your table. You must not want anyone like me to play with you..
To be honest Derek. I don’t know if we have ever used an X-card more than once in an actual game with my home group. Like I said in the article, I know what they like and don’t like. But mistakes can always happen. I do it because I like to play with groups beyond my home group, and I use one standard so that I am consistent.
Perhaps your 80’s D&D groups were better than mine, but I had some dickish things happen to me in games because I was the youngest in the group. Eventually, I just ditched those guys and went and ran my own stuff. Would a safety tool help, who knows? But there was no option back then. I am in favor of things tipping the scales in the direction of more good sessions.
For conventions, I am providing a service to the players at my table, so I like to go over things a bit more just to make sure we are all going to have a good time. That may be different to how some people see the table. I am a proponent of Servant Leadership, something I use at work and at my table. I am there, as the GM, to make sure people have a good time. For that, I am more than willing to take some steps to be safer.
My games are not fraught with players breaking out in tears or X-carding every encounter. My games run no differently than yours, I suspect. There is just a card on the table, just in case. It’s like the car analogy. I don’t crash every time I drive, but I still put the seat belt on when I go.
But at the same time, I like playing games that go out on the edge. I like uncomfortable topics and situations. l like my games edgier than just bashing some goblins for some gold. So I like to know that when I am doing that it’s being done safely for the people involved. I don’t want my enjoyment of those topics to come at the cost of anyone else.
As for the trends of little prep in modern gaming. I land squarely in the middle. I wrote the actual book on prep…and I am also totally comfortable ad-libbing a game. Neither way is better, they are different styles of play, and I use them depending on the game I am running.
The point of safety tools is not that games are so unsafe or that you can’t speak up, but rather its the idea that not everyone at a table always feels like they have an equal voice. That sometimes putting something on the table empowers that person to say what they need to.
This year at my local convention, I used safety tools for the first time. I used these tools, http://www.briecs.com/p/script-change-rpg-tool.html which Brie Sheldon did a fine job creating. If you end up using it, you may want to drop a few dollars in the tip jar.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to go over, but the more I read about the convention experiences of various gamers, and the more I thought back to some of the things that I have seen and experienced myself, the more I realized I needed to do this. No, you probably won’t need them in every game you play, but when you have been in a game that ends up in contentious or uncomfortable territory, you will appreciate having an extra means of communicating.
In one session, using the fast forward card actually led to us exploring darker themes than we originally planned on, because everyone felt safe enough to fast forward some of the darker material. It was there, but it was easy to communicate that someone at the table didn’t want details. In my final session, I had a gamer that had never played at a convention before thanking me for bringing them to the table. He had never been to a convention, as was worried what gaming with strangers would be like. He told me that he felt greatly relieved that he had some degree of control over the content, and he enjoyed the session much more because of it.
Additionally, one of my regular players, that also showed up at the convention, mentioned that the cards would be good for regular play. While most of our current group can have a civil discussion about politics or religion, there are those times when the topics come up in game, and invariably drag us off on a tangent, and he mentioned that the cards would be great for confining those discussions to our post-game conversations.
I’ve been in convention games where players started playing offensive racial stereotypes for laughs. I’ve been in a convention game where I had a character mentally controlled to perform acts that I was not comfortable having my character participate in. I’ve had someone I gamed with for years do something terrible to one of my characters because he thought he could play it for laughs. It’s very easy to freeze, especially when you retain the mindset of the GM being an authority figure that is supposed to “control” the game. In that situation, investing that kind of authority in the GM adds an extra layer of hesitancy when it comes to bringing up problematic content. If the GM hasn’t done something, maybe I shouldn’t say anything. I’m sure it won’t get any worse, right?
Introducing safety tools before a game session is a reminder that the game session doesn’t belong to the GM, but it also reminds everyone that the GM’s role isn’t to be the sole enforcer of social contracts at the table. It’s everyone’s game. The GM has a role to play, but everyone is there to have fun. If someone isn’t having fun because of the content, it will affect the table, and it’s not up to the GM to determine if that person’s hesitancy to engage with content is “worthy” of altering the game.
Safety tools are just a means of communicating in an efficient manner and having a constant, visual reminder that you can make your concerns known if you need to do so.
I am going to close comment on this article now.
Not because I don’t want to continue the discussion. I very much do. But in talking to people here, I came to understand some misconceptions about safety tools and their uses, that came out in our discussions.
Now I want to write an article about those so that I can attempt to do a better job at education. Debating in comments can be fun, and I like a polite spirited debate, but my point to all of this was education. So I am going to take what I have learned from everyone, write a companion article, and open that one up to a discussion.
Thank you to those of you who chose to discuss this with me in a polite manner, and thanks to those who showed support.