I reached the two digits! Today presented me with a few options, but the main prompt really hit home: Trust.
In Elder Days…
Back when I started playing tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), in 2001, there were no safety tools or any real discussions about problematic occurrences while playing. I do remember, however, that our female players shared with us horror story after horror story from their previous experiences. We, of course, felt like our group was a safe place but, still, we had a highly problematic ensemble.
My First Major Failure as a Game Master (GM)
I was running one of my first long-ish campaigns, back in 2001. It was AD&D 2nd Edition in the Ravenloft campaign setting and I had a group of four (I think), with 2 thieves, a paladin, and a ranger.
The paladin was the classic example of the lawful stupid stereotype but, more importantly, he really disliked one of the thieves out of character. Moreover, I think he really wanted my attention as a friend, and felt that the thief was stealing (sic) me to “his side”—whatever that means.
As you may probably guess, this ended up in tragedy.
One more antecedent to add: the ranger and the paladin were in a relationship.
So it came to pass that we were playing at a Burger King and the 2 thieves coordinated to steal a huge part of the treasure while the paladin was sleeping. At first I allowed the paladin to roll to wake up and he did. He scolded the thieves and went back to sleep. And then the thieves tried to steal the treasure again. This time the paladin failed his roll and I remembered that something else happened then; maybe the thieves set up a trap that the paladin later on sprung or something like that.
In real life, the paladin player stood up and left the table. The ranger player followed him, and I was left with the two thieves, with tears in my eyes.
We were young, it’s true, but that situation left an indelible mark in me. From then on I learned the hard way that paladins and thieves (rogues, later on) don’t mix.
What I should’ve learned, however, is that a TTRPG is a conversation that requires trust. Everybody at that table trusted me, but they didn’t trust one another. And, under those circumstances, you can’t really play. Something like this is bound to happen. Out of game shit will inevitably trickle into in-game conflict if you don’t speak about it.
Tears and a Broken Heart
Just one other anecdote before I move on.
Maybe a year or two later we’re about to start a Werewolf: The Apocalypse campaign. I’m just a player and I’m super excited to play a Hominid Galliard Children of Gaia. I’m basically playing a pacifist who wants to heal the world.
First scene, my character sees two Garou fighting with each other. One of them triumphs and the other is on the floor, bleeding out in Lupus form. I declare that my character shapeshifts into a Lupus, comes to the fallen, and licks their wounds (I was adding a little bit of flavor my character’s use of the Mother’s Touch gift).
The GM declares that the Garou NPC feels offended by what my character did because she’s a Black Fury and I’m playing a male Garou. Moreover, she’s of a higher Rank (she’s Cliath and I’m just a Pup), so she invokes The Litany and challenges me to a duel.
At this point I really don’t know what to do and I’m looking around the table silently asking for help… But I don’t say anything. I feel like shit and I can feel the blood on my cheeks.
I finally accept the challenge.
The GM asks me to choose from among a combat challenge, a riddle challenge, or a knowledge of The Litany challenge. I, as a player, know barely anything about The Litany and even less about Garou riddles, so I choose a combat challenge.
Long story short, the NPC rips one arm off my character.
At this point I stand up and leave the table crying. I cried a lot for the next few hours and, what’s worse, I felt awful about having to meet with the other players and the GM the next day at school.
When we see one another the day after, nobody asks me how I’m feeling and the GM says nothing. Their only comments are that I’m too sensitive and that I should check myself.
Unsurprisingly, I’m still scared to this day of acting impulsively while playing a TTRPG. And, when I do, I totally separate myself from my character emotionally speaking. I learned my lesson well: investing too much emotion while playing a TTRPG is wrong.
It may not look like it, but both anecdotes are very useful to illustrate a point people often make when opposing safety tools in TTRPGs. They say that they don’t need safety tools because they play with friends and they know each others’ limits.
I call bullshit on that.
People never know each other enough to know everything that will trigger a negative response while playing a TTRPG, in the same way that nobody can predict what will happen in a given TTRPG session.
If you are wondering, I don’t feel like I could have prevented any of the disasters I just told you about. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. What was worse, however, is that I had nothing to help me stop either situation once they started deteriorating.
In other words, I had no safety tools to help me when the implicit trust of my friends failed me.
I don’t think that this implicit trust is the best way to form TTRPG groups that are functional and long-lasting. I don’t trust (sic) in people’s “common sense” because the so-called “common sense” is the least common of all senses. People are way too complicated to believe that we’ll all get along without any prior conversation and explicit understanding of one another because… magic?
Safety tools in TTRPGs are, in my understanding, ways of establishing common ground, to make sure that we avoid as many of the miscommunications and group conflicts that may arise from having no idea what kind of content may make someone feel uncomfortable.
They shouldn’t be optional or recommended: they should be mandatory.
Nowadays if I sit at a table and there’s no safety tool available, I feel uncomfortable. I don’t want people assuming that I’m going to trust them. I’m very picky about the books I read and the stuff that I watch. Why wouldn’t I be at least as equally picky when it comes to TTRPGs, which are active creative experiences with other human beings?
As it often happens, the people who are most against this expliciting of trust are the ones that needed the most. They are usually cis white heterosexual men telling us that there’s no such thing as harassment of women, BIPOC, or LGBTQIA+ people at their tables, where all the evidence provided by the victims points to the contrary.
So yes, safety tools should be a must, a core innovation in design that should be widely adopted. Even if it won’t help prevent every instance of harassment, unsolicited sexual advances, or imaginary rape, they’ll at least help us weed out the most evident potential aggressors.
I, on the one hand, won’t play at a table without safety tools for the foreseeable future.
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