When we play games that are largely improvised, there is a risk that material will be introduced that another player finds distressing. We want our games to be ‘safe spaces’ where we care about each others emotional wellbeing. So we use techniques to flag certain topics “off limits” from the start, and other techniques to allow us to redirect roleplay during the game.
This is a summary of the safety tools I use to allow players to decide if a game is for them or not, to put some boundaries in place before play, and to make it OK to interrupt play if something is not OK. I use a different selection of these in different games.
Examples are mostly taken from games I’ve run.
Writeups of Cut, Brake, Lines and Veils are based on too many games to mention.
Tools to help players tell if the game is right for them or not.
For most LARPs I will describe both the setting, and what sort of play the characters can expect. If space is limited in a con description, I may add a link to a web page where I can put more info.
Inspired by the rpg Night Witches, but in a setting rather similar to the BSG reboot – a rag-tag collection of civilian pilots and military dropouts are gathered together to gather the last human survivors and take them to a rendezvous on the edge of the Twelve Colonies.
Ex-military types look down on civilians, there are tensions between those from different colonies, and difficult choices to make about who can be saved. As tensions rise, will they have consequences when our pilots launch their ships and head into danger to rescue more survivors?
Most of the characters will be pilots and navigators – but there are also roles for a commanding officer, a chief engineer, and a medic.
This freeform is split into three Acts, taking place between the missions, and focussing on making difficult choices while feuds between pilots and crew simmer below the surface. The missions themselves are run as short interludes that expose the choices our characters made during the preceding Act. Characters can suffer stress, harm, and die during the missions – usually as consequences of decisions made during the acts. (If your character dies, you can take on the character of a rescued survivor).
The Acts contain social conflict – resolved using cards when necessary.(from: Nighthawks )
I usually try to declare themes of games that I think anyone might want to be warned about in advance, particularly if its not obvious in the game description. This allows players to avoid that game if its not for them. Particularly useful if you’re using Lines – because there may be themes in the game you can’t rule out.
You can also set out themes you don’t want in the game.
The game includes themes of politics, military conflict, immigration and refugees. If these themes are upsetting for you, this might not be the game for you. There are no sexual assault themes in this game and players will be asked not to introduce them, even off-screen.From: 21st Century Fake News
Before the Game
Lines and Veils are two safety techniques used before the game starts.
A Line is a topic that you personally don’t want to be included in the game at all: you don’t have to explain or defend why. So if you don’t want to deal with stories about drug abuse in any way at all: you can declare it as a “line” and it will not appear in the story. You do not have to explain why
A Veil is a topic that it’s OK to have included in the game, but you’d like it not to be discussed or played in any detail – it should happen off-screen, or only by reference. This can be for any reason and you don’t have to explain why
I ask that players send me Lines and Veils before the game if at all possible, so we can edit the game if needed. It’s OK to bring them up at the game start as well, though, and you can do that with me privately.
I will also add my own Lines and Veils to make sure people know its OK to have them
We’ll read out the list of Lines and Veils without identifying who submitted them and put them on display for the players to refer to during play
During the Game
Cut and Brake
Cut and Brake are two safety techniques for use during play. Saying “Cut” stops play immediately. Other players should repeat “Cut” until everyone has heard, and play will stop. Then players will work together to resolve the situation. For example, if an event is unexpectedly upsetting, we can stop and improvise an alternative.
Saying “Brake” signals to other players that they should ease off the direction in which they’re taking the story, and tone things down.
With both Cut and Brake you don’t have to explain why you’ve called it. (Although you can if you want to.)
The game has an Open Door policy. This means that any of you can take a break, or leave the game at any point. If it’s getting too much for you, or you aren’t enjoying it, for any reason – you can step out, without any blame or criticism or needing to explain yourself. And then you can come back and rejoin later, or not, as you prefer – either way is fine. Basically there’s no pressure on you at all to stay in the game if you don’t really want to.
Sometimes I add a specific mechanic in a game to make this easy. For example:
The President Fired Me – It’s not necessary to do this, but if you want to use an in-game method to do this, you can just say “The President fired me”. The President fires a lot of people. If you want to return to the game you can come back and just say “The President changed their mind”. The President changes their mind a lot.From 21st Century Fake News
The X-Card is a tool designed by John Stavropolous, and has been further developed widely, especially in PbtA games.
It’s another option for supporting players with content thats difficult or just undesired that comes up in play.
One or more cards with a large X on is placed on the table. Players are told that if anything comes up that is upsetting they can lift the card up, or tap it. They can also just make an X with their hands. It doesnt have to be a big thing, it works just as well for small things that are just disturbing your enjoyment. You don’t have to explain why you used the X card – but any content you “X” will be edited out of the game.
It’s also important to be aware of the body language and comfort of other players. If you think someone else is uncomfortable with a scene or something in it, you can simply ask “Is everyone comfortable with this, or should we X-card it?” Try not to put anyone on the spot – just be aware of how others are feeling about the game.
To learn more about the X-Card, visit http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg
Fade to Black
Fading to black is a useful tool, particularly in combination with Veils – but also for things that just come up in play. It’s OK for anyone, whether involved in a particular scene or not, to ask for it to “fade to black” and not be played out “on screen”.
Sometimes there’s a plot twist that you’re okay with, but you don’t want to narrate it out ‘on screen’. In that case, you’re always welcome to say, “Hey y’all, I’d like to fade to black at this point.”Monsterheats 2 – page 79
Typically that’s all that needs to be said, because it will be clear to everyone at the table that the characters go on to have sex, or commit some act of violence, or whatever the case might be.
I won’t explicitly use all of these tools in every game – I’ll pick and choose the ones that work for that particular game. What I’m trying to do is ensure that people who won’t like the basic themes of the game I’m running won’t choose to play it, and that people playing it can opt out of things they dont want.
For example: for 21st Century Fake News, which is a very co-created game with some challenging themes around politics and immigration, I used Lines, Veils, Cut, Brake and Open Door.
For a PbtA game at a convention, where players can also introduce content, I’d use Lines, Veils and X-Card.
For a fantasy RPG where I’m running a pre-planned adventure, I’d just share the themes and use the X-Card