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Safety Tools

by Mike on 21 March 2021

Safety tools provide simple rules to make sure everyone's comfortable and having a good time during our D&D games. There are a lot of different safety tools we can choose from to bring the right ones to our game. Today I'm going to focus on two: "lines and veils" and "pause for a second".

For a video on this topic, see my Safety Tools Youtube Video.

Quick Guide for My Preferred Safety Tools

Here's a set of safety tools you can easily incorporate into your game to ensure you and your players have what you need to run a fun and comfortable game. Discuss these with your group during your session zero before your campaign has begun, and whenever a new player joins the group. These are intended to work both in-person and when playing online.

Why We Need Safety Tools

Humans are complicated creatures. We've all led unique lives and many of us have dealt with trauma from a wide range of potential sources, situations, or phobias. Whatever these experiences are, we don't need to bring them into our D&D games when we're all just hoping to sit around the table (virtual or physical) and have a few laughs with our friends.

Our adventures aren't always G-rated affairs. As an example, when getting ready to run Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden I wrote down potentially traumatic themes in the adventure and had quite the list at the end including:

That's a hell of a list and I doubt everyone's fully comfortable with everything on that list. Incest? Seriously?

If we're playing games with more extreme themes like Rime of the Frostmaiden and Descent into Avernus, safety tools are valuable tool to ensure we're steering the game towards a good time for everyone at our table.

Not as Hard As You Think

Safety tools don't need to be a big deal and any group can benefit from them. Even if you've been gaming with your friends for a long time and know them well, you never know if a topic will take a hard turn and adversely affect them. Even they might not realize how something will affect them until it happens. Why not offer a simple tool to give everyone the opportunity, without a big confrontation, to say that they're not happy with the current situation?

There are many different types of safety tools. For more on this topic see the TTRPG Safety Toolkit and Consent in Gaming. Today we're going to look at a couple of tools we can use together for both in-person and online games.

Campaign Subjects and Themes

When we're first considering a campaign, we can list the specific subjects or themes that some might find troubling. If you want an idea of the sort of things you may want to mention, check out the checklist in Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games. It's not perfect (it doesn't mention slavery for example) but it's a good start.

Lines and Veils

Lines and veils work alongside our list of themes mentioned above. Some players may have hard lines to avoid certain themes such as no sexual violence, no harm to children, or no character-driven torture or harm to animals. Some players may prefer to have themes "veiled" — keeping the details off-screen. Torture, slavery, sacrifice, and NPC-based harm to animals may be ok but only if they happen off screen. During the game, we don't dwell on veiled themes.

When we're first sitting down to prepare our session zero, we can define our own list of lines and veils to begin with and let the players add to it during the session.

Lines and veils are a two-way street. The GM can mention what's off limits for the table, what's veiled, and what potentially sensitive topics might come up in the campaign. Players can mention other topics that may not have been mentioned but could cause problems if they do.

This need not be a long conversation but it's an important one — particularly if you're playing with players who might not know your style. Even if you do know your players very well, it's still a useful conversation to have.

"Pause for a Second"

Even after you have a solid list of potentially troubling topics and a good idea of your table's lines and veils; you still want another safety fallback. Not everyone knows what will bother them until it starts coming up during the game. We need a tool that lets players communicate their discomfort without causing a big confrontation.

The X card by John Stavropoulos is the most popular safety tool of this sort. The GM puts a 3x5 card in front of each player with an X on it. If the game is going in a direction uncomfortable to a player, the player can tap the X card and let the GM know they're not comfortable.

The X card can feel strange for a group that isn't used to it. Instead, there's an easier verbal version I think fits better into our typical gameplay from a system called Script Change by Beau Sheldon.

Script Change offers up that we can say "pause", "fast forward", "rewind", or "frame by frame" to change the pacing of the current scene. That's all good but I think "pause" is the most important piece and we can work it into a simple bit of natural language thusly:

"Pause for a second"

This is the verbal way of tapping the X card. It's a way for players or GMs to stop what's going on in-game and pop out of character to make sure things are going in the right direction or steer the direction.

While this phrase is in natural language, GMs should clearly define it during a session zero so everyone knows that when someone says it, we all need to break out of character and pay attention to what the person asking for a pause is saying.

This also works very well in online games where not everyone might see someone holding up an X card or typing it into a chat. "Pause for a second" should immediately interrupt whatever else is going on.

The person calling for the pause can bring up what they need, the others agree, and the game moves forward. Here are a few examples:

"Pause for a second. Let's skip the details on the sacrifice."

"Pause for a second. Can the spiders be something else?"

"Pause for a second. I don't need the details of the sex scene, can we skip forward?"

"Pause for a second. I'm not comfortable beating this goblin for information."

"Pause for a second. I'd like to slow down and make sure we're all cool with the decisions we're making."

Like the X card, the person asking for the pause need not explain why they're asking. It's important that the group respect the privacy of the person asking and recognize that they simply don't want something or want to steer the game away from certain subject matter.

"Pause for a second" can be used for numerous purposes. If the characters are having a conflict about what to do with a potentially dangerous magic item, we can say "Pause for a second. Out of character, are you ok destroying the item if the others vote that way? Do we need to do something else?" Not everything needs to be about big traumatic experiences, we can normalize its use by ensuring everyone's on the same page in lots of circumstances. This makes it less confrontational when someone does use it to check in on a potentially traumatic situation.

Safety Tools: A Simple Technique to Keep Things Fun

Safety tools are an easy way to ensure everyone around the table is having a good time. They're not overbearing. They only take a little time to implement, and they put in place some powerful tools to make sure the players behind the characters are having a great time. Find the right tools to bring to your own game to ensure you and your players are having a great time sharing tales of high adventure.

Other Resources

The topic of safety tools has exploded in the last few years. Here are some of the resources I found most valuable while researching this topic.

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