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RPG safety tools


e.g. hand signs.
a list of forbidden topics. Things that just don’t exist in the game world.
a list of topics that should only happen “off screen” or implied.
a symbol, gesture or physical paper card that can be used to instantly retcon-erase any game element or topic
I will not abandon you”; a commitment to keep playing through difficult or unsafe topics

Dos and Don’ts

Do genuinely care about the other people at the table.

Don’t assume that criticism of a particular safety tool is the same as criticizing safety in general or criticizing the desire for safety.

Do select a handful of safety tools that work for your group. For our normal home game we have some lines, and a gesture for clarifying that you need to speak OOC or meta. And that’s it. And of course people can leave.

Do let people leave. This sometimes is called “open door policy”, which is confusing because that phrase means something else in office lingo. This should be the default, obviously! I can think of some good reasons why some games might be exceptions to this, but this has to be the default.

Don’t do the “OK for this game you need to use x-cards, lines, veils, change the script, traffic lights, VCR controls, warm/cold, control flower, and these nine simple gestures.” Instead, make it easy! I was in a game at a con where we first spent an hour workshopping a complex, dual layer gesture/color system that sucked because we did end up having a problem that the weird, limited grammar of that system couldn’t cover. We asked for a break, stepped outside with the moderator, talked about the problem in plain English, and had a great game.

Do consider that while lines can be one of the best safety tools in a long-running, established group, trying to establishing them can backfire at cons or with newly formed groups. It’s awkward and painful to list your sorest spots and most vulnerable horrors. Be a mensch and don’t ask that of people. Also, beware the “don’t think of blue rhinos” effect. I have, in several different con games or LFG games, experienced that after the traumatic li’l share fest for establishing lines, people still couldn’t help themselves and had to drop some of those things in.

Do establish some baseline lines for an entire con, an entire community. Just think of it as OK, maybe not feature gruesome _______ in polite company with strangers. Some common sense lines.

Do consider lines and veils as if they were two separate things. Your group can like one and discard the other, or vice versa. Lines and veils serve different purposes and have different, almost opposite effects on the tone of the game.

Don’t assume that everyone wants to go right to the edgiest of play just because there’s an X-card on the table, or other safety tool. Some unconsciously and some consciously see this idea of “we can finally play super hard core, it’s fine because we have a safety tool” as a great selling point of safety tools. Others don’t. So don’t assume that.

Do consider creating custom safety tools for your specific situation.

Don’t be afraid of using natural language. “What do you need to happen?” “Should we take a break?”

Do recognize that some situations are just gonna suck. Safety tools are no panacea and sometimes you just mess up. Take the other person’s reactions seriously.

Do consider a “Postel” approach to IWNAY, if you are doing IWNAY. Postel was a network guy who said something to the effect of “Be careful with your output and liberal with your input”. The “Postel IWNAY” mindset means committing to sticking with difficult play, but not demanding that others at the table do the same. Quite the opposite: commit to being mindful and generous when they indicate they need to tap out. You are staying on that hot tin roof but you don’t demand others do the same. It’s a challenging, deliberately unfair, imbalanced approach to IWNAY. Sort of like a guardian comforting their charge, being patient with them and their fears, without giving in to their own fears. “I will not abandon you — while you are free to come and go safely and by your own volition. You can come up for air at anytime, while I will push myself to stay under the water with you for as long as you need me to be, even though I am terrified. Whether you stay or not, I will trust you. I will not judge you. If you leave, I will only be grateful that you are playing so mindfully and not hurting yourself. I will walk through the fire and the flames.”

Do also care about the other people at the table, or nearby tables at a con or game store. When two people are pushing each other’s boundaries in a way that’s OK for both, maybe someone else, uninvolved, is hearing and suffering.

Do respect that different people are comfortable and uncomfortable with different tools. Some people are really unnerved by the retconny, dissociative experience of X-card, or the subtly glimpsed murkiness of veils. Others, conversely, are familiar and happy with those tools and feel an unsafe lack of control when they aren’t available. Of course each group as a whole needs to settle on an approach to safety that works for them, it can’t be completely individual, but I’m seeing more and more cons and even games who have hard-coded admonitions in the text along the lines of “This game uses X-card, if you don’t you can die in a fire” and I’m not really onboard with that.

I’m not gonna come to your table and take your X-card away just because I don’t like it. Every group can play their own way.