Safety Tools for Tabletop RPGs
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.
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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.
A list of safety tools for tabletop roleplaying games
Here is a list of the most-used safety tools in roleplaying games. To provide a clear structure, we split them into three categories: Safety tools before, during, and after play. You can also download the list as a PDF file. You are welcome to use it anywhere and also pass it on to others. But please credit dramadice.com as the author when you do so. This PDF file is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Safety Tools before Play
Lines and Veils
With Lines and Veils, by Ron Edwards, you ask your players about their taboo subjects. “Lines” are content that they want to exclude from the plot completely. “Veils” are topics which should only be part of the story in a softened, mitigated form. It helps to offer the players a few suggestions to break the ice. Take some of the ideas from our list of most commonly mentioned taboo topics above.
When giving out a Content Warning, you signal to your players before the start of the game that potentially critical topics will be in your story. This is especially helpful at conventions, where a summary of your game session is shown on an online or offline notice board. In this way, only players sign up to your game who are comfortable with the content of your story.
During a Tone Conversation, you tell your players which atmosphere you want to achieve in your game. Examples are creepy, sad, dreamy, or lighthearted. Clarifying this upfront helps to have everyone work toward the same mood in the scenario.
C.A.T.S. is a safety tool by Patrick O’Leary which lets you provide a rough summary of the content and themes of your session to your players. It includes these four steps:
1. Concept: What is the game about? This is a summary of the setting, characters, and the main plot hook without spoiling any details.
2. Aim: What are the players’ goals in the game? Do they need to overcome an enemy? Is this player-versus-player? What kind of story do we want to narrate?
3. Tone: What kind of atmosphere do you want to achieve? Creepy, serious, goofy? What mood are you and the players looking for?
4. Subject Matter: Discussing potential taboo topics and provocative subjects.
Open Door Policy
With the Open Door Policy, you tell your players that they can leave your game session at any time, no questions asked. No matter if they feel uncomfortable with a certain topic of the story, or if they simply don’t enjoy the game, they can always stand up and say goodbye. Exiting a running game always has a negative connotation. By using the Open Door Policy you take some of the edge off the situation and you show your players that you don’t take it personally if someone leaves your game.
Safety Tools during Play
The X-Card is a safety tool from John Stavropoulos and it’s simply a card or a sheet of paper with a big X on it which is then put in the middle of the table. If someone taps the card during play or holds it up toward the GM, this signals that the content of the current scene is too much for them. The group should then quickly end this scene or switch the topic to something else. In case the offending content is not obvious, it’s okay to ask the player to clarify. It is important to note that the player raising the X-Card is not meant to explain or justify their reasons for doing so. This “no questions asked” policy should encourage players to use the X-Card whenever they feel uncomfortable with a certain topic.
A Script Change, by Beau Jágr Sheldon, is another technique that uses a labeled card on the table. It shows three symbols we all know from television remote controls: pause, rewind, and fast forward. These symbols are meant as an invitation for players to alter the current scene in the story thus “changing the script.” A pause allows players to ask questions and clarify details in the current scene. Rewind enables players to go back in time and adjust what had happened in the last few moments in-game. And fast forward lets players quickly finish the current scene or skip to the next one. This is useful in case you want to avoid a critical topic or if the players want to skip a part of the plot that is boring for them. Contrary to the X-Card, a discussion is welcome and also necessary for using the Script Change function, because such story interventions need consent from everyone at the table.
Sometimes you can tell by the look on a player’s face that they feel uncomfortable with the content of a particular scene. Body language or being very passive for a long period of time are strong indicators of this discomfort. In such a case the GM or another player can simply ask, “Hey, is everything okay? Are you fine with the current scene?” This technique is called a Check-in and originates from LARP. The person you asked then replies with a Yes/No, thumb up or down, or a nodding or shaking of their head. This lets you know if you can move forward with the current topic, or if you should take it easy with the content or even end the scene. You can also use a specific hand signal instead of asking, in order to not interrupt the atmosphere too much.
Safety Tools after Play
Many groups do a debrief after the game to ease up some of the emotional tension that may have built up during play. This lets you go through all the experiences of the session together, tackle any open questions, and give each other feedback. A debrief really pays off after conflict-heavy or emotional RPG sessions. The players and the GM can then discuss critical content that may have been part of the story and also process the less pleasant experiences from the game. In this way, you can leave all these topics at the table instead of ruminating about them long after the gaming session.
Roses and Thorns | Stars and Wishes
Roses and Thorns is a safety tool for getting feedback after the game. You simply ask your players these two questions: 1) Which part of the game did you like the most? 2) Which part of the game would you have done differently, if you could? The trick here is not to ask your players how they liked the game in general. This would only get you a plain “it was good” response. Instead, you specifically ask for the better and worst parts of the game. As everyone starts out with some positive feedback, it’s easier for them to deal with some criticism afterwards. The preceding praise takes some of the edge off of the negative feedback. As an alternative to Roses and Thorns, there’s also “Stars and Wishes” by Lu Quade. This tool switches the criticism (thorns) with expectations for future gaming sessions (wishes).
What are the most used safety tools?
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.
By using safety tools many players would dare to open up more during play. Because as soon as you get the taboo subjects of your fellow players out of the way, you can explore all other topics without hesitation.
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.
1. “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.
2. “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.
3. “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.
4. “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.
5. “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.
Summary: 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”.