Safety First, Always!
Many people do not realize that games and simulations can act in ways that can stress people. Especially depending on the content, as well as at times the process itself. Thus at Hounds & Jackals, especially since we strive to raise mental health awareness, strive to promote safe and comfortable game / simulation / theatrical magic experiences when we release projects. Projects often will note what type of content is within it, but there are many wonderful people who have taken psychological techniques and converted them into useful psychological safety tools for RPGs, boardgames, and can also be used for magic experiences as well!
Thus, I wished to take a moment on discussing taking steps to ensure that the use of experiential material is used in a way to maximize a great experience for all, and minimizing any negative ones that may occur.
Although playing the through experiential games and other theatrical offerings can be entertaining, the topic of psychiatric conditions is a serious matter, and the scenarios never makes light of the subject. In fact, it is the use of the game that allows learning about mental health issues to be more subtle, nuanced and appreciated due to the subject not being overtly forced on participants. Experiential learning is the process of learning through reflection on doing. The learning is active versus passive. People construct their own understanding of the world by experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When encountering something new, the person must reconcile it with their previous constructs, maybe changing what they believe. Hence why experiential learning is a powerful method to address stigma and dispel the myths surrounding mental health issues.
Although H&J projects have the intention to also teach and educate regarding the mental health issues, they are in no way intended to replicate exactly the experience of people suffering from such conditions. The elements within the game are more of an emulation/simulation to help people empathize and understand these conditions, dispel myths, and battle the stigma surrounding them. Many H&J materials are designed for young adults and older, based on the mature themes that are often found in the scenarios.
The projects shared are intended for the general public for education and mental health awareness, and not intended to be used as a therapeutic modality. It may be that some people who play through scenarios, games, or go through some theatrical performance, and after reflection, have had undiagnosed mental health issues of their own, or realize a friend or family member does. It is hoped that anyone affected this way would seek out appropriate health care providers to assess and provide support if that is the case.
One thing to also remember is that these are experiential offerings! Know your players/audience/participant’s tastes. People should never feel forced to play a game or participate in a simulation! Some people hate dice games, some people hate chess, and so on!
So, feel free to adapt, make changes, and run the scenarios as you need to for the purpose of creating a fantastic and safe experience for players. Many projects will have tips for ramping things up and down in terms of intensity. Err on the side of less stress until you know your players/participants. The secret to using common sense is to think and reflect on the audience’s experiences… you want them to enjoy the experience, and maybe give them scares, but not to traumatize them!
I am also including a wonderful article on Safety Tools for Tabletop RPGs from Thomas Weinbeger, of Dramadice, who has kindly allowed me to reprint it. Rather than just give a link, which most readers will never follow, I believe it is important to have this printed in this book near the beginning, so that it has a better chance of being read!
Safety Tools for Tabletop RPGs
Reprinted with permission from Thomas Weinberger from dramadice.com © 2021
How do safety tools work?
The wide variety of stories and topics is one of the biggest strengths of playing tabletop RPGs. But there can be content within these stories that can make some players feel uncomfortable, such as excessive violence or racism. Safety tools help us ensure that everyone is enjoying the game. They are short rounds of questions to get feedback from your players about which topics they’d like to exclude during play. This ensures a safe and pleasant gaming experience while also improving the mutual consideration amongst players. In this article, we’re going to explore the most commonly used safety tools for tabletop RPGs and also cover the common arguments against using them.
When to use safety tools
It’s a good idea to use safety tools when new players join your group; this can be a single new player who’s new in your core group. But usually, it’s conventions and online games where you meet new players. As you’re not familiar with each other, you should try to gauge each other’s no-goes and taboo topics by using safety tools.
Even with a long-standing gaming group with good friends, safety tools can still be super helpful. Perhaps there is an unspoken topic that makes someone in the group feel uncomfortable. This is where safety techniques can work as an invitation for discussion. Also consider using safety tools when switching to a new roleplaying game. In particular, if you try out a horror RPG for the first time. The stories and content within these games are meant to unsettle players, so it’s important to use safety techniques to provide a safe gaming environment that everyone can enjoy.
The most common taboo topics
We’ve asked a couple of GMs about the content their players commonly exclude or discuss when using safety tools in their sessions. Some topics are excluded frequently, while others are okay for players, but only to a reduced extent. Here is a list of these subjects.
Frequently excluded topics
- Sexualized violence
- Child abuse
- Animal cruelty
Frequently toned down topics
- Discrimination against minorities
- Sexuality in general
- Serious illnesses
When you ask your players about topics that they do not want in the story, it really helps to suggest some of the subjects from this overview. For some people it can be easier to pick from a list than to talk about their own personal taboos. That’s because safety tools tackle very sensitive content.
Out of all the safety tools, the following three are used most often. The X-Card is the most popular tool, probably because it is super easy to explain. Lines and Veils is also used by many GMs, as asking your players about content they don’t want to encounter in the story is very intuitive and logical. This lets you accommodate the individual needs of your players. It also gives you some time to adjust your story in case one of the excluded topics is part of the plot you had planned for this game. The third most commonly used safety technique is the Debrief. Many groups enjoy talking about the game they just played. Debriefs have been in use in the tabletop RPG community long before the term “safety tools” was even around.
If you want to try out safety tools for the first time, I absolutely recommend using “Lines and Veils”. This covers most situations and provides a safe gaming environment right from the start of the game. Additionally, there are fewer surprises for the GM during play.
Five frequent arguments against using safety tools
It is super important to provide a pleasant and safe atmosphere for everyone, but safety tools are by no means flawless. This means you’ll need to accept a few side effects when using some of the safety tools we mentioned. Here are the most common arguments against using safety tools.
- “Safety tools are sabotaging my plot.”
Many dark settings and horror games use challenging topics on purpose to unsettle players. But what if your plot contains a dark spider goddess and one of the players wants to exclude “spiders” with a safety tool? Maybe even in the middle of play by using the X-Card? It’s super hard to change a prepared story that quickly. So should you end the session there or should the affected player quit the game? It’s a pretty difficult situation to navigate.
With potentially critical topics it’s best to use safety tools before play. For example, by using the Content Warning technique you can signal darker content to your players way ahead of the session. This gives you enough time to either choose a different scenario or invite other players to your game.
- “Safety tools interrupt the game flow and disrupt immersion.”
This mainly goes for safety tools used during play. Imagine the core topic of your plot is being shut down by the X-Card. Or maybe you’re in the middle of a very emotional scene and suddenly a player quits the game by making use of the Open Door Policy. Then your elaborately constructed atmosphere falls apart. You do need to exhibit a sense of calm as a GM to easily handle such a situation and keep the show going. If this would be too tough for you to manage, then work with safety tools before play. I usually combine Lines and Veils as well as Content Wording to anticipate and prevent these situations. Of course, the safety and well-being of every single player is priority number one.
- “Safety tools don’t work with plot twists.”
Sudden dramatic changes in the story and safety tools in combination can be a challenge. Suppose your twist is that one of the player characters gets possessed by an evil spirit, and the players don’t find out about it before the finale. How can you communicate this potentially critical topic to your players before the game without spoiling the plot? You can only hope that your players actively mention all their taboo subjects to you when you ask them at the start of play. If such a plot twist leads to a player feeling unsafe in the middle of the game, you would need to work out a solution on the fly, which can be very tricky. Consider giving your players a vague hint before the start of the session.
- “I know my players well enough, I don’t need safety tools.”
Sure, if you have known each other for a long time, this can be true. After dozens of game sessions and debriefs, you can probably guess the likes and dislikes of your players. But what happens when a new player joins your group or if you want to try out a new setting or topic? Using safety tools, even when playing with those you have known for a long time, might still be worth considering.
- “Our group is very open anyway; we don’t need complicated tools.”
It’s great if there is so much mutual trust within your group, that you can openly discuss all critical topics and content. But just because a subject is not addressed does not mean that there is none. Even with players who have known each other for ages, it’s possible that there is an unspoken topic that makes someone in the group feel uncomfortable. Just try out a single safety tool to be sure, ideally Lines and Veils. Maybe you’ll find out something about your players that you didn’t know about.
A safe gaming atmosphere leads to more fun at the table
Safety tools invite everyone at the table to talk about taboo topics in a considerate way, which creates a pleasant and safe gaming atmosphere for all players. And if people feel safe, it’s easier for them to open up more and contribute to a great gaming experience. That’s why safety tools can be a great asset for tabletop RPG sessions. What we recommend to every GM out there is to at least try out “Lines and Veils”.
Get the Hounds & Jackals X-CARD
Click on the Image above to obtain the H&J X-Card at Drivethru Cards if you want something a bit more colourful and evocative of what it is supposed to guard against! Although it’s easy enough to grab a paper and make an “X”… I thought I’d make a nice one for people to print out to make it more “present” during the game, so people would not forget it. The image of the Scare Dog is one from a cover image of the book the MIND SPIDER by Fritz Leiber. I’ve always loved that image as a kid…. and it just looks wild! It also seems canine, so totally fits the H&J doggo mindset. I reached out and was given permission by the artist, Walter Rane, to use it for charitable causes. Therefore, here is an X-Card as a free download to help promote mental health. If you feel like throwing in a few shekels, 95% of whatever you give will go to DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS. You can imagine the amount of psychological distress DWB is treating currently along with having to deal with their own reactions to current world events.