#RPGaDay2021 Day 14: Safety

My experiences as a TTRPG player and GM have made me acutely aware of the ever-increasing importance of Safety tools and, as such, today was no election. I had to talk about this, I feel.

The What

Safety tools in tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs) are exactly what they sound like: tools to ensure that everybody feels safe around the (virtual) table. Regardless of how they are structured or their specific way of working, all safety tools share the same raison d’être: the protection of players.

But, protection from what?

From one another, of course.

The Why

This is the uncomfortable truth as I see it: we TTRPGers tend to hurt each other in unexpected ways while playing pretend.

As weird and obtuse as it may seem, it is not so if you think about it. Have you ever cried or laughed or felt good inside while reading a book? While watching a movie or a TV series? If your answer to any of these questions is “Yes”, you then get the gist of the issue: fiction can affect us emotionally. That’s a fact.

Now imagine that you are not only expectating a story: you’re also acting in it. Moreover, the character you’re playing is not something that someone else wrote, no. You wrote it, little by little. Every detail of their personality and every action they’ve ever performed was your choice—and yours alone.

Do you get why a situation in-game can affect us so much? It’s not because we’re fragile little flowers (although I am one, I confess), but because we’re super duper close to the thing. We’re sometimes living and breathing the thing.

Maybe TTRPGs in the beginning were not supposed to be like this, but the fact of the matter is that they’ve evolved for almost 50 years into a highly specialized and unique narrative form. One of the best, in my opinion.

But such greatness has a cost. We need to be hypervigilant, or people will get hurt in the process. And, worst of all, we’ll probably don’t even realize.

The How

So, here’s the thing: when you’re feeling uncomfortable, the most difficult thing in the world, in my experience, is saying so.

When two people argue, I start sweating. Honestly. Good honest sweat. And I want to go away, to move as far away from their side as possible.

I wouldn’t dream of saying: “Hey, can you stop arguing? I’m feeling uncomfortable.”

Now imagine asking me not only to say that, and not to two people, but to a group of people. Some may be my friends, but they seem to be having fun. Why should I get in the way? Best if I just stay quiet and let the moment pass. It’ll soon end, that’s for sure. I’ll better think of a giant, fluffy Pikachu hugging me tight.

See what happened there? That’s exactly what happens when I’m confronted with something I don’t want to experience in a TTRPG. I shrink ever smaller. I want to disappear and I totally zone out of the game.

I may not look like it, but I’m not having a nice time and if you don’t ask me directly, you’ll never know.

If only we had a way of communicating apart from asking each other every five minutes how we are doing… 

Coming Back, Full Circle

That’s why I think safety tools are so important: they are currently the best way we have to protect each other. It’s not that I or anyone else, I think, believes that anybody at our tables are predatory monsters, assholes who want to make other people suffer, no. It’s that we are acutely aware that we can hurt each other unknowingly because of our passion for the game. In our desire to have emotional moments that we can remember for years to come as if they were our own, we know that we run the risk of going beyond the line of what is OK and what’s not.

So, at least for me, safety tools have—finally—come to stay. I won’t GM without them any more, and I’m happy to report that so far nobody has argued against them when I present them before my Avatar Legends games. No one has used them either, but that’s not the point. As with contraceptives, you use them to avoid something happening; their success is as much in preventing an occurrence as in being used.

For the sake of your players and your own, I hope you are using safety tools. And if not, start using them soon.


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