Sunday, September 19, 2021

Safety Tools

I have a weird relationship with safety tools. On the one hand, I absolutely see their usefulness and think they are important for a certain type of game. On the other hand, I don't play with explicit safety tools during my weekly games with my friends. 

I have played lots of games with safety tools. Sometimes they have been successful and helped me and strangers navigate some tense role-playing scenes and weird situations. Safety tools have also failed me. I have had painful experiences despite careful inclusion of safety tools and a thorough discussion of how to use them prior to each game session. 

An analogy that seems apt to me is safety tools (like safe words) in sex play. RPGs have a lot of similarities with sex, really. Sometimes you have someone you trust be your dungeon master. Sometimes you pay a stranger to dungeon master for you. Sometimes you play with people that you've been playing with for years; the tools you use to feel safe aren't more complicated than a conversation. Sometimes you're playing a game that's new, is both exciting and a little scary, and everybody benefits from having a discussion about what's coming and setting hard lines not to cross. 

All that said, I have been moonlighting a little writing for a horror adventure game called The Manse of Bad Memories. As a horror game, I think having safety tools to be important due diligence. As I sat down to write this section, though, I had to confront my complicated experience with safety tools. Saying something generic like "Use the X card" didn't seem like it was sufficient. 

This is what I came up with. It is the corollary to the horror post I posted last week. Making everybody feel safe is everybody's responsibility. 

Safety Best Practices

Do you know why it’s fun (for some people) to watch a scary movie or ride a rollercoaster? It’s thrilling to experience frightening situations while knowing that you are, in fact, safe. The catharsis at the end of the experience makes our brains squirt serotonin. 

Did you catch that? Horror is fun if you know you are safe

So you’re sitting down to play a horror game you want to feel both scared and safe. 

Here are some techniques that will be worthwhile to have at hand. 

Sometimes, just knowing they’re there can be helpful. 

Do: Encourage an Environment of Openness 

Playing a horror game together is maybe a little different than sitting down at a dungeons & draughts night at your local pub. Everybody at the table should be invested in making sure every other person there has fun.

This isn’t to say you can’t have meaningful, supportive experiences with strangers. Of course you can. But there should be a feeling of mutual support that’s different from a beer and pretzels game.

An environment of openness means that players who have hard lines or triggers feel comfortable sharing these with the LM and other players. An environment of openness means that when players uncover new upsetting feelings they have the opportunity to work through those without feeling like they’re derailing the game. 

Don’t: Ask for a Sharing Session Prior to Game

We don’t consider it a best practice to put each and every player on the spot and have them share a definitive list of sensitive subjects to them. Putting players on the spot can, itself, be a negative experience. 

Maybe a player just wants to play the game. The game says “horror” on the cover and they feel gung ho. They don’t feel  that sharing a list of their triggers is a healthy experience for them. 

Relatedly, having an exhaustive list of hard lines doesn’t provide room for the fresh experience of new negative emotions arising during play. An LM who says “What, I didn’t do any of the things you told me not to” is not encouraging an environment of openness. 

Do: Check in Regularly

The best way you can tell if other players are having fun is to ask. Here’s what we do:

  • Cross your fingers to signify you’re out of character
  • Ask “Are you okay?”
  • Ask “Is it okay if we go in this direction?”
  • Clarify “This NPC is about to do something really nasty along the lines of what he’s hinting at. Do you want to move forward?”

You can be having a really intense roleplaying scene and still pause to make sure everybody is invested in what you’re doing. Checking in always helps, it never hurts. 

If you check in and someone expresses they’re not okay, say Sorry. (It’s simple, but it’s important.) Ask what they want to do next. 

Don’t: Rely Overmuch on Objection-Based Tools

It is everybody’s job to check in and make sure that your fellow players are having fun. It is not one person’s job to stop the flow of the game to object to something that is stressful, either player or LM. 

Tools like the X card can be helpful. If you and your group like using these tools, please do! 

The caveat is that some players are hesitant to use “objection” tools because they feel like they’re ruining someone else’s fun. If, after the fact, they confess they had a bad time, they can be faced with the jarring question, “Why didn’t you just use the safety tools?”

It can be more positive to check in regularly. If you see that someone is having a hard time, check in and make sure they’re having fun too. Take some of the burden off of them to object. 

That said, an environment of openness allows players to articulate mid-game what is fun for them and what is not.


  1. I want this post to get more attention, because this seems like the most reasonable and insightful take on this subject I think I've ever seen.

    While well-intentioned, the champions of "the X Card" and "Lines and Veils" and all that often strike me as being a bit out of touch with how gamers interact with each other, or even just people. Obviously, if tools like that are working for people just fine, then more power to them. But your suggestions sound like they come from some actual experience and mesh pretty well with what I've always known to be most effective with my players, from those totally unfamiliar with me to the ones who I've known for years.

    1. Hey, thank you very much. That means a lot.

  2. I see X Cards and Lines and Veils as tools for more public games, where you can't always necessarily ensure that everyone is on the same page without such a speicfic tool.

    You idea of just being reasonable and checking in makes total sense for the kind of games where you know everyone is already aware of the need for such things and is going to honour them.

    On a slight tangent, there's a difficulty with horror in not wanting to 'ruin the surprise' I feel. It is a difficult balance between forwarning the players of what is about to occur, without diminishing the impact of that thing then happening.

    As an experienced GM, but a novice when it comes to running horror, I would love to hear more from you on the subject! I saw this post mentioned in the latest 'The Glatisant' by Ben Milton.

    1. Yeah, I think you're right about X cards, etc. They're more useful for public games. They're still not insurance against negative experiences, and like most things, they can be weaponized in bad faith in ways that I mentioned above.

      I'm not *against* using them by any stretch of the imagination, but I also want to hedge the way I speak about them, you know?

      Anyway, to your point about "ruining the surprise." A few things.

      First, I understand your inclination here. In my experience, I think that concern might be somewhat overblown. You don't need to sit down and give out *explicit* content warnings for each and every spook you've prepared. An environment of openness describes a playstyle in which you can talk maturely about the fact that you want to have a horror game. You can sort of T-shirt size it, right? Do you want Small Horror or do you want XXL Horror? An environment of openness also describes a space where players feel comfortable telling you about hard lines they don't want crossed (e.g., cannibalism, child endangerment) either before hand or, crucially, when it comes up.

      And in terms of surprise, if you pull out a scare and it really upsets somebody, you want to be able to have a frank, friendly conversation about how they can handle the subject matter now that they know it upsets them. You can reset the scene and ask how they want to proceed so the players regain the sense of safety.

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