By Kate Baker
We all want our games to be fun, safe, and comfortable for everyone at the table. But how can we ensure that happens? This is where safety tools come into play!
Why do we need safety tools?
There is a common misconception that when everyone at the table cares about everyone else feeling safe and comfortable, safety tools are unnecessary. However, even in games where everyone is considerate and careful, it is often very difficult to speak up that something has made you uncomfortable. Using specific safety tools that the group has agreed on ahead of time make it that much easier to actually say something when the game goes in a direction that you can’t handle. Another misconception is that games involving safety tools are excessively cautious or tame. In fact, it can often be the opposite. When everyone is using safety tools, you know where everyone’s boundaries are and where they aren’t, and you’re actively communicating with each other about what’s okay. This can enable particularly dark or intense games when everyone is actively on board. So, let’s talk specifics! This list is not exhaustive, but goes over a few examples.
This is an important part of any long-term campaign, and not just for safety reasons. This is a session you have with your group before you play your first session of a campaign. You might include things like character generation or collaborative world-building to get ready for the campaign. This is also a great time to talk about everyone’s boundaries and what they don’t want to see happen at the table. This doesn’t replace in-game safety tools, as people may realize during play that there is problem content that they didn’t think to mention or didn’t realize would bother them, but this helps set the baseline for the game.
I find these to be an important tool for running public games at stores and cons. For a Pathfinder or Starfinder Society game, you don’t exactly have a chance for a full-on Session Zero, and a table full of strangers may not feel comfortable with telling everyone else present what types of things cause them trauma. Content notes are a heads-up of the type of content that will be present in the scenario that could be a problem for some players. This might sound like “This scenario includes mention of suicide” or “Is anyone bothered by images of spiders?” You might worry about spoiling the adventure, but it’s more important to make sure that everyone is going to have a fun time than to avoid a vague spoiler. If you’re really concerned, you could write your content notes on a folded piece of paper and let players choose to look at it or not.
You might notice that I use the term “content note” instead of “trigger warning.” A trigger is a very specific psychological term, and the phrase “content notes” is more representative of the broad variety of concerns that people may have. For instance, the issue I’ve come across at the table more often than any other is arachnophobia. It turns out spiders show up in RPGs a lot! Asking before plopping a spider mini on the battle map can stop someone from having a bad game.
What happens if someone does have an issue with a topic you’ve identified? You’ll have to figure it out from there with the player. You may be able to leave out or re-flavor the problem content. Or, if the topic is completely ingrained into the storyline, the player may have to decide whether they’re up for it or if they just shouldn’t play that adventure.
This is a very straightforward safety tool created by John Stavropoulos. You have a card on the table marked with an X. If someone at the table needs the game to stop, they tap the card. The game stops, and then you restart when everyone is ready, avoiding the problem content.
One downside of this tool for Pathfinder and Starfinder games is that there tends to be a lot of stuff on the table already. It can be tough to tell that someone is tapping the X-Card rather than messing with their character sheet. You might consider holding up the X-Card, making a hand signal, or using a verbal cue, like “Let’s X that out.”
Lines and Veils
This terminology developed by Ron Edwards gives you a little more nuance. A line is a hard boundary. This indicates that something will not happen in your game. A veil is for something that can happen within your game, but “off-screen.” Let’s take a topic like killing enemies who have surrendered to you. A line means that the PCs will not do this at all. A veil means that the PCs can do this, but not role-play it out. It just happens in the background. These boundaries are expressed verbally, like “Let’s put a veil on that” or “Torture is a line for me.”
This safety tool developed by Brie Beau Sheldon gives you even more nuance, using specifics like fast-forward, pause, rewind, and even frame-by-frame to go through a scene slowly and carefully. There’s a handy sheet with images you can tap, but you can also use verbal cues for this, such as “Hey, let’s fast-forward though this” or “I need to pause.”
Do I Need to Use All of These?
Definitely not! Using all these tools in the same game could get confusing! Your group should talk together about what tools you think will work best for you. You can even try out different safety tools and experiment with what works best for you.
There’s one last important thing to keep in mind. When someone uses a safety tool, it’s easy to think that you’ve messed up by putting that player in a bad situation. However, it is genuinely a good thing when a player takes advantage of a safety tool. It shows that the player feels safe and comfortable enough to communicate those boundaries.
So, figure out what works for you and have some fun and safe gaming!
Consent in Gaming from Monte Cook Games (This has a neat checklist that can guide your Session Zero)
Safety and Calibration Cards (Includes these and other safety tools you may like using)
About Kate Baker
Kate Baker is most notorious for writing Starfinder Society #1-08: Sanctuary of Drowned Delight, featuring the colorful space walruses, the morlamaws. She played her first RPG six years ago and immediately stopped wanted to do anything else. She first began writing for tabletop RPGs four years ago and will see two Adventure Path volumes come out in the next year: Starfinder AP #22: The Forever Reliquary and Pathfinder AP #154: Siege of the Dinosaurs. Kate is an avid Organized Play participant and she serves as a Venture-Agent in the SF Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and an exceedingly lazy hound dog.