Safety first!

TTRPG Play Culture: Safety and Consent

There was a recent incident with a streaming tabletop role playing gaming (TTRPG) actual play (AP) show where boundaries were crossed. In the video announcement about the cancellation of the show, they kept referencing how Safety Tools were not in place, and how they will be implementing Safety Tools moving forward. This is indeed a great step forward, but I want to talk a little further about Safety and Consent in TTRPGs and how play culture is extremely important. A safety tool is a good step in the right direction, but it is only a step, not the be-all end-all.

But first…

Play Culture 

Your game is different from my game, which is different from someone else’s game. Even if we are “playing by the same rules.” This might be because different people have  different interpretations of the same written rules. It might be because we have different backgrounds,played different systems in the past, and bring different preconceived understandings to these “same rules”. Some of how you play one game system will be very similar to how you play a different game system. 

If you play with more than one group of people, those assumptions and “how you play” will likely be different for each group of people. Whether that’s multiple regular “home” games with different people or game systems, a game at a local store, company-sponsored league play, a gaming convention, an online game, or a game for a streaming or recorded show with an audience. Each of these different groups/settings/contexts will have a different set of assumptions and ways that you play — they each have a different play culture. Play culture is all the assumptions, expectations, habits, and rules we bring to the game session. It drastically affects how we interact with the rules and other players. It’s a phrase that helps us understand why your experiences and my experiences are different even though we are playing with the “same rules”.

Safety Tools

A safety tool is something we use to help keep us safer. To prevent or reduce harm. One common misconception I often see with TTRPG safety tools, is the idea that they will PREVENT harm, when in reality most of them are reducing harm. A seat belt is a safety tool. When you get in a car crash, you still get in a crash. You might be banged up, but hopefully you’re more or less okay. Hopefully that seat belt, that safety tool you used, helped mitigate some of the harm you could have received. 

There are a lot of safety tools. The TTRPG Safety Toolkit is a resource created by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk. The TTRPG Safety Toolkit is a compilation of safety tools that have been designed by members of the tabletop roleplaying games community for use by players and GMs at the table. You can find it at bit.ly/ttrpgsafetytoolkit. 

Culture of Safety

Safety tools are great, but they are only useful if they can actually get used. Seat belts are great at reducing harm from car crashes. But there are still people out there who don’t use them. I would bet that most people can imagine how hard it might be to get a fidgety seven year old who’s never worn a seat belt to put one on. How do you get that child to use one? Create a culture where it becomes commonplace and everyone always puts the seat belt on, no matter what. The car doesn’t start moving until all the seat belts are on. 

The first time you use a safety tool in an TTRPG, it might be awkward it might be comfortable, or it might be somewhere in between. That is okay. Keep at it, keep trying. Maybe that particular safety tool isn’t working for you. Try another one, or several. I typically use 5+ different safety tools in my games. 

For example, there is one incredibly simple underutilized and understated safety tool that I first experienced at Games on Demand at Origins Game Fair (a large tabletop gaming convention held annually in Columbus, OH). I don’t know who created it or what it’s called, but I think of it as the “Safety Welcome.” It is basically a statement used to preface play, and the wording is something like this: “I’m so glad to have you all here. We are incredibly lucky, because all of us here care more about each other, our health, our well being, and our safety more than any fictional story we’ll create together in the next couple of hours.” It’s not much, just a couple of sentences, but it starts to set the tone and the culture at that table that we, the people, come first. It starts to create that culture of safety, where we can always fall back to caring for each other. 

Getting Started

One comment I see when someone brings up safety tools is, “You don’t need a tool for that, just talk to your players”. That’s great! It sounds like you might have a play culture that has already embraced safety where each of the people are more important than the shared story. Keep at it!

But for me, that hasn’t always been the case. I have been in plenty of game sessions where something happened and I wish I had a way to address it and bring it up, but I didn’t. Now if you can bring up when you feel uncomfortable in front of a group of people, open yourself up and be vulnerable, good for you! I am Japanese American, and I grew up in a culture where I was expected to be passive, to be deferential, to be quiet, to not make waves, to be the model minority. Speaking up about something that was bothering me wasn’t something I was used to doing, nor was it something I was expected to do. 

The first safety tool I was introduced to was the X-Card, and to me, it was revolutionary. I had no idea that there could be something that gave me permission to speak up, to do something I had culturally been trained not to do, but wanted to.

Maybe YOU don’t need a safety tool, because you can just speak up for yourself. Maybe I don’t necessarily NEED one for myself now. Maybe, with a culture of safety, I can just speak up and have a conversation with people. 

BUT, I am always on the lookout for old me. The person who didn’t have the experience, the training, the confidence, the ability to speak up for themselves. And besides, even if I don’t “need” one for myself, I’ve grown accustomed to them, and I find it WAY easier to use safety tools than to not have them present.

My Setup

As alluded earlier, I use 5+ safety tools on the regular, all for different reasons. I figured I’d go through my setup to show how I try to have a whole culture of safety, not just a single tool.

The Pitch & CATS (Concept, Aim, Tone, Subject matter)

For me, safety starts at the ideation phase — what game system are we playing? What kind of content can we expect from this game system and the scenario, what are the player characters likely to be expected to do, what type of situations will they get into? What kind of tone are we going for? What subjects might come up? 

I really like playing games where everyone is enthusiastic about the game system, the scenario, and the story we’ll be telling together. If someone doesn’t want to play teenagers, especially sexually active teenagers, Monsterhearts is probably a poor choice of game system. 

Lines & Veils

I typically use a Google Doc set to where anyone with the link can edit. I send this out a week, or more, before the first session. That way everyone, at their leisure, can edit the document anonymously (with the setting “anyone can edit,” you can edit the document anonymously). We can even ask questions and clarifications ahead of time.

I love doing this ahead of time, so when we get to the first session, we all have an idea of things we are just not including in the game at all (Lines), and stuff that we will allude to or Fade to black on (Veils). 

Safety Welcome

As mentioned before, I welcome everyone and stress that we, the people, are more important than any collective story we tell together. 

Open Door Policy

The Safety Welcome typically rolls right into the Open Door policy, where I tell people that they can get up and leave for any reason at any time. Maybe they need to answer the phone, go to the bathroom, get a snack, just stretch their legs, whatever reason. Their comfort and needs are important and they can do what they need to do, even if that action is to leave the game and not come back. I ask that, if they are able to, to let me know if and when they are coming back, I appreciate it, but it is by no means required. I typically play online, so sometimes the internet and technology just makes things harder, so sometimes you can’t communicate, whether that is for technical or non-technical reasons. I will handle the absence as best I can, but it’s on me, the facilitator or GM, not them. That communication is a courtesy, not a requirement. 

X-Card

I introduce the X-Card (http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg) by John Stavropoulos (https://twitter.com/JStav_) during all my sessions. This is the primary tool I use for triaging incidents during game sessions. There are other tools that can be used in place of this, like Script Change (http://briebeau.itch.io/script-change) by Beau Sheldon (https://twitter.com/ThoughtyGames). I personally use the X-Card, but will happily switch to other tools if other players want. I like the X-Card, because for me the default assumption is that you don’t have to talk about the content being removed, but you can if you want. 

I like to remind people that the X-Card does not have to be used JUST for problematic content. I give the example of, “Hey can we not use Y name, it’s my Z, and I’ll just get confused.”

I also take this opportunity to circle back and explain how the Lines & Veils document we started is a living document, and how when we X things out we can update the Lines & Veils document to reflect our new shared understanding. 

Asking for Consent

During play, if I want to introduce something that I think could be problematic, or needs buy-in from others, I ask (out of character). For example, “Hey X, I think it would be interesting if our two characters were dating, does that sound interesting to you too?”, or “Hey I would like to have a rivalry with someone, is that interesting to anyone?”

Culture of Safety vs. Safety Tools

I use a lot of safety tools.  I think they are useful and valuable. I want them in all my games going forward. I won’t willingly get rid of them. I might swap out one for a different one, but I would like to have something. But that variability in the particulars is all based on a culture of safety. The baseline, that we, as people are more important than the fiction or game we are playing. For me, you can put any specific tool on top, but you NEED that strong base. 

With any of the safety tools designed during play, I am basically doing a similar thing but with different details.

  1. Assess. How do you recognize something has or is going wrong?
  2. Act. What are you going to do right now in the moment to mitigate further harm from occurring?
  3. Plan. How has what happened going to change your actions or the story going forward?

This thought process is happening for me, no matter the details of which safety tool we are using. Whether I need to say, “X that”, “Cut”, “Brake”, “Pause”, “WTF is going on here?” I am trying to assess what is happening, making sure I can act, then discuss and plan what to do based on what has happened. 

Any one safety tool or set of tools isn’t going to stop harm from happening. Hopefully they can help mitigate how much harm occurs. To me, it is necessary to start from a strong base, a base of a culture of safety and consent. 

The Incident

The recent incident occurred during a live stream. In a Discord conversation, Jim Crocker (https://jimlikesgames.com) pointed out that, if they were not live, but were recording ahead of time and releasing a pre-recorded episode, a lot of the harm could have been mitigated. The act of recording ahead of time is a safety tool in the context of Actual Play content. While it doesn’t have a fancy name, and people don’t think of it often, pre-recording can be considered a safety tool.  Had it been implemented, things would have played out very differently. The offending incident probably still would have happened, but the cast would have had time to talk about, debrief, and possibly retcon and re-record something different instead. The audience wouldn’t have been exposed to harm. The cast wouldn’t have been exposed to harm in front of an audience. The cast might have acted or experienced it entirely differently as it was happening, if there wasn’t a live audience watching with them. This is an extremely common practice in television. Even live TV is on a delay so they can quickly edit things if need be. Having it pre-recorded doesn’t excuse the action or the behavior, but it is a way to reduce harm and give the cast members more agency over the content that is presented to the audience

The announcement of the cancellation of the show talked heavily about how the show, and the network, didn’t have safety tools in place. It talked about how that was going to change moving forward. This to me is a great start, but just a start. Having a safety tool or a set of safety tools is great, and will likely help. But I think what is most needed is that the culture needs to shift. One where the people, the cast and the audience, are more important than the show.

Do I think Actual Play shows have to be pre-recorded and no longer live? No, I totally think you can do a live show that is “safe enough,” but there is a trade-off to doing it live. Pre-recording is just one of many safety tools that could have helped. 

I do hope that safety tools become more prominent in streaming TTRPG shows. I would love to have seen that incident play out with multiple safety tools in place “on screen and live”. Imagine if the player had asked and gotten consent before introducing problematic content? Or if one of the other players who was visibly uncomfortable was able to stop the fiction and the cast could take action about the problematic content before resuming the fiction. That would have a much different broadcast. To me, a much more educational and useful broadcast. Yes, some harm may have happened still, but a lot would have been mitigated. It could have been a great demonstration of how safety tools can work to prioritize the safety, consent, and well being of people over the fiction. I think it would have been a better show.

In a more entertainment focused show, there is often tension between “the show must go on” and the wellbeing of the participants. The show culture can often prioritize seamless entertainment over the safety of the participants, whether that’s the cast or the audience. This obviously doesn’t have to be the case, and different shows can make different decisions, but I hope that more shows recognize it as a decision that needs to be made and make sure their actual play culture aligns with their values.

Many Actual Play shows are more entertainment first, actual play second. To me, this makes them more similar to “reality tv” with a lightly scripted structure or an improv show, than how my game sessions are actually done. I do wish there was another label to differentiate between these more entertainment focused shows and Actual Plays more similar to what typical game sessions actually look like. 

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