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What kinds of games need safety tools?

A topic by Questing Beast created Mar 16, 2019 Views: 1,545 Replies: 28
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Serious question for those who advocate for the use of safety tools for all RPG tables: would you also require safety tools for games that are not RPGs? What features do you think a game or activity has to have to cross the boundary into "we need safety tools" territory?

When we talk about safety tools in a ttrpg settinv, we're usually discussing tools to reduce bleed and strengthen alibi (distancing yourself from your character prevent out of character fights, played trauma, etc). I don't know if those tools would translate well to a game that has no characters, and therefore bleed.

I am however in favor of any tool that helps create an environment where players can enjoy playing, so safety tools for non-ttrpg games may look more like accessibility tools.


If a game involves other people I'd most likely say yes! The improvisational aspect of RPGs is definitely part of it too. These both come down to uncertainty: we don't have a script written out, and we can't know what other people are thinking, and both of those things combined can go badly. 

Single-player games though are a gray area. I think usually content warnings would be enough, but if something unexpected comes up in say a video game a pause/eject button would be good. At least in solo TTRPGs you can walk away when you need to. 

Would you say a game like Chess requires safety tools? What would those look like?


"Shake hands before the match" and other courtesies ARE (very mild) safety tools, framing and grounding the game in good conduct.


Sure, that makes sense. Also, since games like chess are explicitly competitive, where one player is trying to mentally dominate the other, the players would presumably already know what they were getting into.

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I did in fact write a story game that uses chess and has safety tools! But yeah in general people have an understanding of what chess is, and what the pieces do, and what the outcome is. People know what happens in a chess game before they start playing, even if that's approximate. There's very little uncertainty in content, and then of course chess doesn't necessarily come with narrative, although it very easily can. 


In addition to what others said, while chess doesn't have many built in safety tools, the rules of chess venues (such as tournaments) do function as those tools. For example there are rules about personal conduct, noise levels in playing area, and designated people to speak with if you have an issue (usually arbiters or tournament directors). All of these rules, while not perfect, ideally serve the function of making the playing space safer for the participants.

I think 'sportsmanship', whether implicit in a competitive game's culture or explicit in its rules, is another safety tool too, in that its supposed to draw lines and set boundaries on conduct and ensure everyone is comfortable while participating! Safety tools are not unique to tabletop games, its just down to what language we apply :)

There is a code of ethics that's been promulgated by the USCF but there is actually a LOT of problems with questionable/borderline behavior at chess tournaments. It was hotly discussed when I was running tournaments back in the 1990s, and I don't know that it's resolved.

For example, here's International Master Jeremy Silman reminiscing about "odd behavior" he has experienced at the chess table. Ultimately his only response is that if it crosses a line you should report it to the arbiter or tournament director. But we all know that without clear lines pre-drawn, leaving it to the judgment of someone often just permits the standard old discriminatory lines to be drawn.  So actually I think chess is a good example of a competitive game that is really digging around trying to find some way to address the safety and comfort of participants. 


Safety tools are a proxy for the necessary social context needed to play a game safely; that is to say, safety tools are only useful in as much as they set expectations and that the group is able to adhere to or enforce them.

So when do you need these tools? Always. The trick is that they're not always something obvious like a sidebar talking about lines and veils, but rather the design choices you make to defuse and amplify certain tensions in play and your idea of what the play culture of the people playing your game looks like.

Xjere is absolutely right in mentioning that safety and accessibility tools often overlap, especially at community levels, because a safety tool is a kind of accessibility tool.


Going along with what Geostationary said, safety can involve things like: paying attention to your friends and encouraging those who are struggling to be heard, celebrating the cool things that your friends say, and checking in to make sure everything is going all right. The social dynamic is something that the game designer helps to construct with the rules in their game.

Any safety tool is just an abstraction of communicating your needs and feelings: if you have the wherewithal and the emotional energy, you can just say "I would rather we not do ____" instead of using the X-card, but that's not the point. The point is to give people who struggle to use those skills or who lack the emotional energy an easier opportunity to access it. Even in games that seem light or silly, there are opportunities for conflict and frustration - but there are also opportunities to practice positive skills like the ones I mentioned above.

So basically: no matter the tone or content of the game, the person designing it plays an active role in shaping how people play it. Not talking about safety is just as actively shaping the way that people play as not talking about it. 

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Less important than "what games require safety tools" is the question "which groups and in which social contexts are tools needed"? There's no game so anodyne that it can't be used to hurt someone.


Exactly - I can play any game with my best buds and we're fine because we know each other so we'll. Games with strangers, con games, for example, need safety tools because not everyone knows each other.

Content warnings may often suffice for heavily GMed games.


I think the most basic safety tool is informed consent, whether it be in an RPG, traditional board game, or kinky bedroom games. Should that have to be stated in the rules? The idea seems odd; who would play a game they did not want to play? The answer of course is sometimes we agree to or consent to a game that we did not have all the information for.

A good example of informed consent was the Industrial Arts teacher who ran the Strategy Games club in my Middle School. Day one he explained to us in detail (those of us who were new) what Diplomacy was and was all about. So when I got backstabbed by Russia, I was not surprised or that upset. I understood that Diplomacy was that kind of game.

Uninformed consent was when playing a different game (Axis & Allies I think) members of the teams turned on one another. I was a bit boggled by this and did not play with these people again, Apparently this was a common occurrence with this group.

So I think at the very least, when designing a game the designers can and should be explicit about what kind of game the players are getting into. Super casual or some kind of super betrayal Cyberpunk variant where the goal is to succeed in a mission but be the only character to survive and gain experience. Then it is up to players to decide for themselves if that kind of game is for them or potentially so. 

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And I also think the thing about safety tools is they push against some toxic elements in the RPG community, and, by extension, the community of any other game we might be talking about, like miniatures wargaming. I mean, you may remember discussions of the Social Contract from the Forge, which was really in some ways just pushing back against the fact a lot of people go into games with a host of unspoken assumptions which leads to all sorts of problems.

Look, you've been deep in the OSR community and I've been on the edges of it, so let's not mince words here. :)

I think we both know there were some seriously toxic elements of that community, and some of those elements still remain, tho hardly unique to that community. There are people out there in the general RPG community who use RPGs to intimidate people and fuck with them and worse. Again, this isn't just the OSR; don't get me started on some of the stuff that's gone on in LARPs. Safety tools are a way of saying this table isn't going to tolerate that shit. RPGs need safety tools not just because of the uniqueness of bleed, but because of the shit people have done in the past. Even if you don't ever use the tools, by having them available you're acknowledging that you care about people having fun and not having their PTSD buttons pushed at the very least. 

If chess has a history of bullying, it probably needs safety rules too. I'm not familiar enough with chess to say. Like MagpieMirror Test says above, maybe tournament rules serve as those, I dunno. But considering that chess still has the strong male/female imbalance that one see in a lot of geek hobbies, and problems with sexual harassment, maybe it needs safety rules as well. It's a little different because chess is considered a sport and it isn't typically played in the same ways, and with the same amount of personal identification, tho again, I'm not steeped in that culture, so I may be wrong. But there definitely seems to be some serious issues, as this article shows. CW: sexual harassment

We talk about this in terms of RPGs because we're mainly RPG nerds. But to answer your question, any game hobby (and game) that has a toxic culture problem might need safety tools for reasons on top of some of the more general ones that make them good for RPGs.

I hope it's clear I'm not aiming any hostility at you! If you sense any anger in this post it's directed at the sort of people who make these tools even more necessary. 


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So I made a twitter thread about why i think most safety tools are bad and in most cases harmful ( I am honestly too lazy to write my thoughts up on it again but I think it would be useful for the conversation. 


Mm, I don't know. I mean, I get your point, but I feel like this is like... saying safewords are bad and more harmful than not because bad Doms will take it as encouragement to push hard until they make their sub use their safeword, and that as long as they stop when the safeword's called any other behavior is fine, and if the sub didn't use the safeword and says afterwards that they were uncomfortable then they should've just used their safeword at the time and don't have a right to feel uncomfortable now...

Like, any type of tools can be pounced on by the abusive to abuse further. Some GMs will use lines and veils and the X card to purposefully push right up against their players' triggers, and some players will do the same, there's no doubt about this. But those are awful GMs and players, and the only real solution with those sorts of people is to not play with them or (if you're the GM yourself) kick them out of your game and let everyone know that crap won't be tolerated at your table. There's not going to be anything that helps with people like that. If they hear that something bothers you and light up and go "oh, now I can poke and prod at this thing and get their hackles all raised, lol u triggered?" they are also the sorts of people who, if safety tools aren't being used, will note discomfort in your expression or body language, or when you try to speak up without the use of safety tools, and do the same thing.

I get that safety tools are definitely not a panacea; like I said above, really what it comes down to is that some people just... need to be told they're not welcome at our tables. GMs especially need to be very clear about what they will not put up with. And you talk about it putting the onus on the marginalized person to speak out, and like, I won't lie, to some degree that is true. But there aren't real ways around that that I can see. An alternative might be for DMs to just say flat-out that certain things aren't allowed at the table, but what if I'm bothered by something that they don't include in that list, which they can't reasonably be expected to know I'd need them to leave out? Another alternative might be the DM or other players asking me if I'm uncomfortable and if the scene is okay if they feel like they notice me looking or acting uncomfortable, but that feels like a really iffy option to me; the onus is still on me to say "yes, I'm uncomfortable," and being put on the spot like that might make the feeling worse, or I might not have been uncomfortable in the first place and then there's a well-meaning but frustrating "but we can definitely leave out X if you don't like it" "no, X is fine" "are you sure?" back and forth.

I am marginalized, on several axes, and have some stuff I definitely am uncomfortable with and would rather avoid happening in games, and would be super happy to have a way to discreetly say "nope" to a scene without having to explain myself. In my experience, all versions of the safety tools stress that no one need explain themself, that no one is grilled about it, that no undue attention is even brought to it. And in my experience, all the tables I've been at that have used this system have felt a lot safer for me to play it. The GMs who use it and the players who don't get argumentative about it being used are communicating just by its use a willingness to listen and respect if I do need to bring up a problem. And they might be lying! They really might be. But people can lie about anything using anything, and I'm glad a simple method exists these days where I can look at a table and relax a little and go "ah, if I get uncomfortable with a scene, these people won't expect me to bottle it up and keep quiet lest I ruin their fun."

Sorry for the tl;dr, basically what I mean is that while you're right that yes the community itself needs fixed, I don't think it's right to say that a method of making the community as it is safer to navigate is bad because it's not outright fixing the community itself. I'm not sure there is a way to fix the community itself, and if there is, it'll be a slow process. In the meantime I feel like these tools make it feel easier and safer for me to say if something is bothering me, or to make sure things that I know will greatly bother me will never come up in the first place, and I think that's incredibly valuable if not vital. So it feels unfair to frame it as "bad and in most cases harmful" rather than "imperfect and there will always be other things necessary on top of it."

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...good lord I'm sorry that reply was so long. tl;dr I find safety tools to have improved my own experiences drastically and while they're imperfect I'm bothered by them being called "bad and harmful" just because they can be abused, because abusers will use anything to abuse and not using them certainly doesn't make it harder for them, it just makes me more wary of the table.


Long replies are fine! So of course you cant and shouldn't design around assholes abusing something that is a fruitless task and in the end pointless.  In my mind there are 2 types of people who use X card in particular those who are acting in good faith, who are normally more conscious around issues and people, and those who are preformative about the whole idea.  

People who are preformative are the people who would abuse this tool, and in my experience there are a lot of them in the community. Im really happy to hear that you have positive experiences with using X card but the majority of people who I have talked to about this only ever have negative feelings towards the use of the card.  The major problem with the X card is that people use and then go "Right no need to address underling problems or talk in depth with the group I have in front of me I can just tap a sign" and I know people on this forum are in the know on how its important to be communicative with players and the value of trust.  The vast majority of people who use X card don't think past the "rule".  Where I believe  the harmful part, come in is where people will just look at safety tools and go "Yep we are okay now we have this piece of paper".  

I would also like to see more tools created by marginalised people, a lot of what i have across have been written by  Cis white non disabled men and while I'm sure they are trying their very best to be good allies it just shows very clearly to me there are gaps in the knowledge and or experience. 

Im really bad a TLDRS so sorry for the read!


If someone at the dinner table stabs me with a fork, do I remove the fork or the person from the table?

Safety tools are just that: tools. And tools used for a very specific purpose. If someone isn't willing to follow the intent of those tools, then we must ask both if the player will follow the intent of any of those rules, and if we want that kind of person at our table.

as for the point of impetuous of using these tools, that will always be there to some degree, until the day we learn to read minds. Because more games are going digital, however, we can make it more accessible by making it more anonymous. In my campaigns on roll20 for example, I have a custom deck built with one card that's just a giant X. Anyone can play from that deck, and no one can see who played it.


Sure safety tools are tools, however the X card in particular is a very bad one for live play.  Your system sounds like the best implication of the X card that i have heard, the verbal form is what I am against.  Where people gotta raise their hand or verbally say no, or there is someway for people to tell it was Gary who played the X card.  As someone who is disabled I hate having to be singled out because I am uncomfortable, there have been cases where speaking out about my uncomfortably has been more uncomfortable, saying that I'm sure the people I was playing with wouldn't have judged me or made shifty eyes at me but the irrational fear that they would kept me from expressing that i wanted what was happening to stop.

The other problem with the X card is that while I imagine you and other will uses this along side other tools and talking to players etc, the wider implementation of the rule is just to slap a band aid over the problem and never address underlining issues or themes with their players.  I feel there are better way we can design these tools, and even better tools out there in the world that already are a thing other than the X card.  Also some tools designed by marginalised people would be excellent.

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So it sounds to me that the tool itself isn't the problem, but the implementation people have of it? I think a lot of people haven't been properly educated in its use, and that is a major concern. I doubt many people have looked at the documentation, and aren't using the rules of it because they never took the time to learn the rules.

Specifically to the second point: the Xcard is there specifically to negate the need for verbal response. As someone who has had to use the Xcard during a panic attack, it is much easier to touch a card, than verbally express myself, and I think that's kind of the point? That while it might still be difficult, it is easier than the alternative.

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"The major issue i have with both of these tools is that the responsibility is on the person who is uncomfortable with the subject matter to speak out."

I guess my issue here is that I don't understand the alternative. Whether you use the X-Card or the "Be excellent to each other" boilerplate or any standard politeness metric or what-have-you, there isn't a way to access what people are uncomfortable with that isn't communication. You can ask people what they're comfortable with outright, you can encourage them to speak up if there's an issue that you're not aware of, you can pay attention  and check in periodically even if the explicit tool or tools in use haven't been engaged, and so on. Some of these "back to basics" sorts of maneuvers are just less formalized versions of popular safety tools for hopefully obvious reasons. They're mostly just nice efficient packages for the same sorts of rules that keep our friends safe in any less formal conversation.

But nothing, formalized tool or not, functions when the person who is uncomfortable does not speak out. The rest of the table can use all sorts of tools (x-card, "back to basics", whatever) to try and encourage that and can hunt around for whatever best fits the group, but these are all just frameworks for communication. You can't skip the communication part and even "back to basics" doesn't skip it. You're always going to be left with guessing what someone might be comfortable with until room is created for them to speak up and they take advantage of that.

I get why it sounds right to say that it shouldn't be your responsibility to compel everyone to treat you with respect and dignity. I don't get why it sounds right to expect other people to know what treating you with respect and dignity looks like in minute detail without you stepping into that conversation. There will never be a substitute for communicating your needs and preferences. If you can't trust the people at your table to respect that or hear that, there's a problem. Maybe there's a problem with those people or with the community that those people were drawn from or with the kinds of things that particular game is encouraging people at the table to do, and so on and so forth. But I would echo the earlier sentiment that if people are coming to the table and unilaterally deciding to push up close to people's boundaries ... the biggest problem isn't naming those boundaries but those people.  I can see why naming those boundaries might make it worse--there's always going to be a bit of the "don't think of the white elephant" problem even in good faith, but that is miles away from playing chicken with the comfort of other people at the table as you describe players doing in that thread.

That's not a broken safety tool. That's an asshole, and there isn't a safe way to play with people who are not interested in your comfort.


In my experience, it is much easier to say that I am uncomfortable when someone checks in on me than it to say it in the moment when something uncomfortable happens. A check-in is vastly easier to respond to, is usually predicated on care (someone sees that I'm not acting like usual and takes the time to say "are you alright?"), and can be done privately so I'm not put on the spot. There are also ways to do check ins that can involve group consensus around something. You can say "hey, I think this topic might be a bit rocky. What are we feeling about this?" and have people give 👍 or 👎 based on what how they feel about it.

But to your main point, all safety tools are shorthands or replacements for direct communication and that is why they exist. If no one needed a safety tool to communicate their needs fully, then safety tools wouldn't exist or no one would use them. They're frameworks in which rules about how to communicate are established - some safety tools give an outline for direct communication, such as the Luxton Technique - but that's not necessarily what a person needs in the moment. Some people have needs that are best supported by a tool like the x-card, and for some people the x-card fails to support them.

Sterling is expressing how the x-card fails to support their needs in the moment, and the specific ways it fails to support them. There are absolutely tools that exist that could support them better, and that failure is indeed directly the fault of the x-cards design. That doesn't make the x-card useless in all scenarios, but it also doesn't make Sterling incorrect about their own needs either.

I feel like a lot of safety tools are useful for groups that are inclined to use them, and have the potential to make things more uncomfortable in groups that aren't already inclined to use them.


Yeah, I think the fact that the X card has issues doesn't mean all safety tools are bad. I think regular check-ins are an important thing and something I've been trying to build into my games lately, on top of an X-card-like mechanism. I think the Twitter thread that Sterling quotes is less an argument against safety tools in general and more an argument against a particular class of safety tools. It's perhaps not surprising that the earliest version of the tools available aren't perfect.


I think regular check-in is an important part of running a smooth session in general--whether it's for safety or for narrative resonance or for having fun or even just to decide when to take a break or stop for the night.

I'm not expressing that because the tools are a shorthand for direct communication clearly they are a panacea, I am expressing that the abuse of the tools that was described does not look like a tool problem, it looks like a more specific problem with the behavior of the people who did those things. You can't replace caring how people feel and paying attention to that with a pithy rule system nor can you replace feedback from people who are uncomfortable--on the spot, in private, or wherever--with an external tool-suite. These things do not offload the responsibility of diligence, but neither are they supposed to.

I'm not trying to correct anyone on their own needs, but I'm wondering how useful the framework that many or most of these tools are bad because some people misuse them or because they aren't one-size fits all really is. I completely understand that these tools will not support everyone in every situation of need and I personally find the x-card in particular far less useful than other approaches. I'm not looking to dispute any of that, but I'm not seeing where this particular approach leads to.

I suppose we can launch in a slightly different direction and express which tools are best for which sorts of issues and groups, but beyond that I'm in a more optimistic version of the end of the thread--there really isn't a way to design around people engaging recklessly or harmfully, but there are ways to prepare players acting in good faith for issues they might not anticipate. I think my favorite approach is definitely games that describe several of these tools and the reasons for using them rather than dropping one or even several into place as though they're part of the system of the rules rather than part of the more nebulous social contract of sitting down to enjoy this thing together.

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