Dreamation rocked, you guys. Seriously. It was an awesome con filled with rules-light Nordic and American freeform games and larps, and many new people playing and facilitating. Over the past few days since, my feed has been filled with <3 <3 <3 for the con and the co-players. It’s also overflowing with emotion, and with concerns about psychological safety in roleplaying games.
We are not the first scene to think about this, of course–I have been following the Nordic scene, where this style of game spawned, for years and have had a chance to observe many of their safety practices, with their attendant successes and failures. Recently, safety has been a bit of a hot topic over there, so there’s been a lot of discussion. I’ve written a little safety guide for players, designers, and facilitators as part of my Pocket Guide to American Freeform (soon to be available for download at an online retailer near you), but I wanted to go over a few things here, in hopes you might find them helpful. I don’t have all the answers or methods, but perhaps this can help serve as a starting point for other folks who are thinking about it.
Also, I’m talking here about emotional safety, not physical safety, since the latter is more clear-cut and the boffer campaigns over here have it pretty much handled. I’m more familiar with freeform games and larps than I am with tabletop, so while some of this stuff would probably work for tabletop, it’s not tailored to that.
First thing’s first, though: Eirik Fatland’s post on safety is really great. You should click on that link immediately and read it.
The Problem with Safety
There are a few obvious problems.
- It’s hard to know what will be hard in a game. If we’re just sitting down at a convention together, I probably don’t know what pushes your buttons and you might not feel comfortable sharing that. In addition, while I know some stuff about the scenario, I can’t possibly know what might come up in play and how you would react to it. More importantly: I don’t think I can reasonably be expected to guess.
- It’s hard to recognize when you are in a bad situation sometimes. If spiders terrify me and they come up in game, my emotions might take over, making it difficult to shift between the mental space player and character. I may also feel social pressure to be hardcore and not ruin your play. This is why cut words, discussed below, are problematic.
- We carry our experiences with us after game. In some ways, the game is never over. Sure, the scenario ends, but feelings and thoughts and impressions can linger for days or even longer. Sometimes you learn stuff about yourself in a game. Sometimes that stuff is stuff you’d rather not know.
- Safety defeats itself. Safety measures can create situations where people take more risks, and are thus more at risk of damage. Don’t take it from me, take it from some experts on economics.
In other words: roleplay is not completely safe and there is no way to make it so. It is a risky activity. Furthermore, for some people the risk is part of the pleasure of it–it can be rewarding to play games that go deep and challenge you. It’s possible to manage the risks, yes, but not to completely eliminate them. It’s up to each participant to decide how much risk to accept.
That said, lots of people play roleplaying games all the time, and the vast majority of them find the experiences fun, and at times moving. Just like the risk of a bike crash is worth the pleasure of riding, so too do most roleplayers find that the pleasure of roleplaying worth the risks.
With that in mind, I offer up some of the classic safety techniques. A lot of them overlap, or are ways of getting at some of the same things. This probably isn’t an exhaustive list or even an exhaustive description–it’s aimed at providing a working knowledge in relatively little space.
As with many of life’s social interactions, informed consent is the cornerstone of a good experience. The issue in roleplaying games is that it’s impossible to be completely transparent because the games all rely on improv on some level, and it’s hard to consent to an experience where you can’t control what will happen, necessarily.
There is no absolute fix for this. However, if you know something is going to come up in your game–if this is a game about ethnic violence–say that up front. That helps me, as a player, decide whether I want to play on those themes. Tell me what you know about the scenario and give me the opportunity to leave before the game starts.
The Door is Open
I stole this heading from Fatland’s post. But basically, this means that anyone can leave the game at any time for any reason. It means more than just telling players this–it means that everyone contribute to an environment in which people feel OK about leaving. It means not socially pressuring others to play or stay in a game they don’t want to stay in, even if that means the game won’t run. It means not bad-mouthing those who leave. It means trying to diffuse the attitude that the best hardcore players stick around for that waterboarding scene.
One way to do this is as a facilitator is that in addition to telling people they are welcome to go, you should also tell them that a game is never more important than their personal well-being and that it’s not a big deal to stop play, because it’s relatively easy to regain immersion.
Out of game community helps with safety on several levels. For starters, if you are playing a jerky character and say something mean to me, I might think you’re mean, unless I know from talking to you before and after the game that you are not. Building community helps people deal with stuff that came up in game.
Community also sets the tone when it comes to safety. If I know that someone will care for me if I have a really intense game experience, then that makes it easier for me to share things in the way that I need to. It also means that instead of having one or two people looking out, you have five or ten. And that’s good.
It’s possible to facilitate community formally–with workshops and debriefs, for example–or informally, but encouraging mingling among players by starting “late,” for example. Or on a player level, by making effort to meet co-players.
Basically, if a game is going to press on a hot-button topic for me, it is a good idea for me to think about whether I am up for that or not. Facilitators and designers can help me do this by budgeting a moment of time for this during the workshop, or maybe, in the case of really intense games, by talking it over with me in advance of the game. This dovetails with transparency–let me decide for myself if I’m up for a scenario that includes romance.
Cut and Brake
“Cut” and “brake” are the most basic rules for a larp. Essentially, just as consent should be freely given, there should be a mechanism for people to freely withdraw it if necessary.
The idea is that if your boundaries have been or are about to be crossed, you call for a cut and game play around you, or in some cases, for the whole larp, stops. You make the person who cut comfortable and take them away from the play area. You don’t force them to talk about why they called a cut unless they want to. “Brake” is its gentler cousin. If you don’t want play to escalate, you call “brake” and your scene partners back off and give you a chance to play yourself out of the scene.
The problem with “cut” and “brake” is that in practice, it’s really hard to use them, in part due to social pressure and in part because when you are in the throes of something that might make you call for a cut, it’s hard to do so through emotion. That is why everyone has the responsibility to call a cut if they think someone else is in serious trouble. Also, simply having them there as tools communicates to players that they should feel aware of their boundaries, and that’s good.
There has been some suggestion that having strong players and facilitators call for cuts and brakes early in a game could set the tone and make it easier for others. That may be true, and the idea is floated a lot, but it seems to not happen in practice. I think this may be because it feels like there is a risk of cutting for no reason, which would feel funny. It may also just be that it is hard to see a scene and know when to cut, because emotions are internal, and I don’t know if you’re enjoying roleplaying an angry character, or if something has actually tripped your switch.
There are other variations on “cut” and “brake.” One is to find a diegetic topic to talk about that signals something to the other players. If I say, “when was that test?” and you say, “Tuesday” then I know you’re OK. If you say “Friday,” then I know you’re not OK. Another is to use a hand signal to check in, a small OK sign, or two fingers against the clavicle, or whatever the group decides. It sounds like my scene is about to start experimenting with these. I’ll be interested to see whether they work better or are subject to the same problems.
Of course, cut/brake rely on stopping something, but what if we did the opposite and tried to use enthusiastic consent to heighten scenes? I have heard about the use of go-words, but they don’t seem to be a big part of most of the safety discussions. I suspect this may be because in a larp or feeform game, conflict and drama is good–that’s sort of the point–so people naturally go for it, rather than waiting to hear “yes, please.” But hey, it’s possible they have worked somewhere at some time. Worth a shot, right?
Discuss Boundaries Directly
Sometimes, it works to have a facilitator simply ask the group, “does anyone have boundaries or worries they’d like to get on the table?” If folks are comfortable speaking up, they can simply say, “I am not interested in having people gang up on me,” and then everyone knows. This tends to work a bit better in smaller games, since in a room with 30 people, if everyone has a major concern, that’s too much to remember.
This can also help with setting physical boundaries for a game that might involve touch. With big groups, a facilitator can ask everyone to close their eyes, and then ask questions about physical boundaries. “Who isn’t cool with hugging?” that then allow them to set a blanket boundary for the whole group without embarrassing anyone.
I most often see this happen informally, but it’s also possible and a good idea for designers and facilitators to budget some time for negotiation before a game or during it. This is when I have a chat, out of game, with the person who is playing my arch-nemesis, and we agree a bit about how we will play it. I can say, “bring the drama” or “I’m cool with a few verbal insults, but I really don’t want you to even pretend to shove me.” It’s also a chance to say, “I’m thinking I resent you because my parents are divorced and I’m jealous that yours aren’t–does that work for you?” It makes me and my nemesis into out-of-game conspirators, angling to make a good story. It also means that we both have a sense of how far it’s OK to go during play, and it establishes that all-important community relationship between us, providing a foundation for aftercare.
It is also great to negotiate with scene-partners about physicality. If we’re playing lovers, maybe I’m cool with hand-holding, but a hug is a bridge too far–you won’t know until you ask!
Check-in is something that happens during play. It’s possible to briefly go out of game and make sure someone is doing OK. Maybe I take a moment with my arch-nemesis. Maybe I see that Frank’s character is taking a lot of flack and I want to make sure he’s doing OK. Maybe I want to tell my nemesis to bully me more and request that we play a certain scene. Designers and organizers can help facilitate this by building off-game breaks into the experience, or providing a place where players can go to have such discussions during play.
Most commonly used in big immersive larps that last a long time, this is a place where you can go to be out of game. Fatland suggests that the existence of such a space weakens cut/brake by implying that it’s mandatory to be in game in the game space.
In freeform or tabletop games, it’s possible to use game tools to create safety without calling someone out. If I’m facilitating a game for Bob, Mary, and Sue, and I see that Sue looks a bit upset and I’m not sure whether it’s OK, I might cut to a scene with Bob and Mary to give her some time to recover without obviously singling her out. Maybe I use the pause to check in with everyone. Not a possibility in all games, but certainly, it is in some.
Soft Take-off and Landing
Essentially, this is a way of easing people in and out of game with music, meditation, ritual, etc. so that it’s not as jarring. For example, I might play a song to give my players some time to get into character. At the end of the scenario, I play the song again and give them a quiet moment to release their characters. You can also do it with other sensory cues, I suspect.
Sometimes this is combined with an end-of-game ritual. At the end of Mad About the Boy, for example, after the ending son, we placed one item of costuming onto the ground as a way of saying goodbye to the character.
Part of getting people out of character can include asking them to talk about their characters in the third person after the game is over, to underscore the difference between player and character.
Some games have an organizer dedicated to looking after player well-being. Everyone is responsible for each other’s well being, of course, but sometimes it’s nice to have one person who is also dedicated to the job, since organizers get busy with other things.
Aftercare means that you don’t just send people off into the sunset after a game. On a group level, it includes at least a minimal debrief to get people processing their feelings. Talking about feelings usually helps.
For facilitators, aside from running a debrief, this might include
- Assembling contact info for players and passing it along to connect people after game.
- Checking on individual players who seemed to be having a tough time hours or days later.
- Making yourself available in the bar or coffee shop after the game in case people want to talk informally.
For players, this might include:
- Checking in with people you had intense moments with. Especially if you feel animosity toward them. Give Bill the opportunity to apologize for that thing he did in game, or at least talk to him about the way you feel. Sometimes this is really hard. Do it anyway.
- Check in on people who had a tough time, particularly if you might be the cause of it.
- Channel your feelings into writing in the form of feedback to organizers, social media, email or something just for yourself. Don’t keep those feelings bottled up!
- Debrief with other players who need support.
For longer games, aftercare can also include assigning people a debrief buddy, a player you meet up with before and after the game to talk about what might and just did happen. They work better for some people than others, but at a minimum they serve as an additional point of contact. Facilitators or players can set this up, but it’s up tot he players to follow through.
Workshop and Debrief
I include these together, because while they are part of safety, they provide the structure for many of the other safety techniques. So during a workshop, a facilitator has the chance to be transparent and set the tone that the door is open and get players to negotiate with one another, just as during the debrief, the facilitator can ask players if they want to apologize for something their character did, and can suggest that people who had intense scenes together should talk to each other. Both of them build community.
A Final Thought
I know this probably sounds like using a sledgehammer to drive a thumbtack into a wall to many readers, but the bottom line is that you never truly know what is going to happen during a game, and that even the lightest of games can provoke an intense reaction in someone. I don’t think every safety technique has to be used every time, but I think it’s wise to use at least a couple in every game. At a minimum, safewords, transparency, a debrief and some community-building are probably wise.
I think that people at every stage of the process of making a game–organizers/facilitators, designers, and players–have the responsibility to be part of the practice of safety. Designers can do it by instructing their facilitators to do certain things. Facilitators can do it by creating social space where other safety practices can happen. Players can do it by taking initiative and applying some of these techniques–for example, negotiation and some of the aftercare stuff–even when not instructed.
I am not a mental health expert and have no official accredations. I also did not invent any of these methods–they are things I have osmosed by being around a bunch of Indie gamers and Nordic larpers who care about safety. Your mileage may vary.
Have more safety ideas and quandaries? Let’s hear about them in the comments.
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