#RPGaDay2021 Day 14 - "Safety"
My pinned Tweet has been unchanged since I put it up last November, and I have no intention of changing it anytime soon. Its message is simple, and I'm reposting it and my response comment below:
I just commented about safe-space gaming to someone.
And I just want to reiterate: Every game I run is a safe table, regardless of race, gender, LGBTQ status, being an introvert or anything else.
And if I don't know the players, I tell them that explicitly.
I have to add two things:
To carry these ideas forward, I'm going to describe a topic that is very dear to me: how I ensure that players always feel safe, comfortable and welcome at my table as a GM. I'll also touch on how I do that when I'm playing as one of the characters instead of GMing.
This is super simple: my tables are about the game, and about having fun. They are inclusive and welcoming and non-judgmental for any and all participants. At conventions, I put up a sign that say that this is a safe gaming table. I've also started to say something like "Before we begin, as you can see this is a safe table. That means that you are welcome here, and will not be made to feel uncomfortable in any way, including race, gender, LGBTQ+ status, or anything else. This is a convention, so things are pretty PG-rated, but if you are ever uncomfortable with a topic, event or treatment, just say so, and we'll rewind, no questions asked."
That statement sets a tone that has always received a positive reaction, and on several occasions I've seen relief. From there, we've moved on immediately and just played the game. The game hasn't changed in any way, except that it's been defined as a space where we're free to just play without fear.
For my campaigns at home, I don't say explicitly address this, but only because I've played with these people for years and I know them. However, I *have* followed up a few times when something touched an area of possible concern, and just confirmed that we were okay (or changed it a bit.)
The other half of safety, which has fortunately never come up in 25 years of running at conventions, is enforcement. If there's an issue it needs to be addressed immediately and decisively. I've thought a lot on this, and I've realized that if someone said or did something inappropriate, I wouldn't white-knight one of the players--because it puts them on the spot, and makes it about them not the action/statement. Rather, I'd speak for myself: that the comment or action was inappropriate, that I was offended and it wouldn't be tolerated.
The other half of my believe is that every player is welcome. I'm so glad they are there and looking to trust me with 4 hours of their convention, or in the case of at-home campaigns, much more of their time. I work to indicate that by making sure they are aware that they have agency. I listen explicitly to every player's approach to problems, encounters, situations or whatever the game throws at them.
If someone is being shy, I encourage but don't push. If someone is taking over, I force things into a clear round-table of "who does what" so that everybody gets equal time. I use open questions, to draw out more complex answers and actions by the players. And I reward people's efforts with real effects in the game.
This is especially important if a new player doesn't know the rules, my setting, or whatever else. In these cases, it's easy to feel left out. So I work extra hard to help them get up to speed, while letting them make the ultimate choice of what they do. One thing is that I try to limit suggestions to a few choices, with explanations of the implications--in just one sentence or so per choice. One nice thing about RPGs is that nothing is too bad of an idea, so players can pick something, and just see how it plays out, and learn how they might do it next time.
And I've found that it usually only take a couple cycles of this, before they get it, understand the situation, if not the mechanics, and are quickly able to do what they need to, and/or are confident about asking, if they aren't sure what to do.
As a player, I try to do the same things: show respect for other players; don't offer advice unless asked; be friendly and engaging, but don't push it. Show support for other players actions; Cheer their successes, laugh with them at failures and be supportive of any mistakes. The important thing is that it's collaborative play, and that if everybody is having fun, that's really all that matters.
I should also say that I always respect the GM, their decisions, and so on. I treat them as I want to be treated when I'm running. On the rare occasions that I know the game we're playing, well, I might offer up a comment on a complex situation, but it depends on the GM. (Personally, I appreciate it when players correct me if I glitch a rule--especially D&D where I've played 6 editions over 40+ years, and we flip between 3.x and 5e, so keeping rules straight is a challenge.) I don't assume that everybody wants my opinion as a player and if I do make a comment, I judge the reaction.)
For some reason, these are controversial. I don't get it. They are nothing more than optional tools. Some allow the GM to learn about people's areas of discomfort ahead of time. Some allow players to just say "Nope" about a given situation, and ask for a rewind. There are several tools from several groups or companies, but they are all implementations of these two things.
To me the existence and use of these tools are just obvious. Most people who say they don't use them follow it up with "I know my players of several years." and that's fine. Even for those, though, I know that my games touch on some topics that *could* be problematic, and I want even my closest friend or a new player that I play with to know that if I get something wrong, they can let me know and I'll fix it.
One of the very best safety tools, for my campaign games, is Session Zero. The session where we set expectations around the game: What kind of story do we want to tell, what kinds of players are people bringing, and what are their connections to each other. The same session can be used to ensure that people are all on the same page about how the game will be played. My most recent game is very open world in an urban setting. The city is very old and fairly corrupt. Certain crimes, such as bribery and smuggling are part of the world. I set those expectations early. People were fine with it, though it's honestly taken them a while to get into the spirit of it. If wanton violence by guards, or other potentially triggering situations were likely to come up, I'd have absolutely gotten an opinion on that ahead of time, so I'd know as we went forward what to include, or not.
One example of a situation that didn't bother anybody but might have: I was running a game where there was a gravity trap. I was improving the scene, and had a bird or small animal travel across the space, and suddenly be crushed by the trap. It was designed to be shocking, weird and mysterious, and it was taken as that, as they tried to figure out what had happened. But it occurred to me later that animals being crushed might very well bother someone. Just in case, I didn't describe it that way in future runs of the module, but I also would like to know that the players had an easy way to say "not that please" without risk or embarrassment.
My own experiences
I've had three experiences at GenCon that have tweaked my feelings on this subject.
I ran a game at my first convention (GenCon 23) and a couple of the players came back that convention for another game I was running, and to some of my games the following year. I realized how much of an effect a good or bad experience could have on people, and that my good experience caused them to want to play more. It also made me think that bad experiences might drive them not only from my table, but from others. I took that very seriously.
I played one Call of Cthulhu game where we were caught in a weird gameshow. Each of us was trying to win, as we went from one weird scenario to another. My character, as defined, was a horrid racist. In the context of this weird game, I leaned into the role. My character actually won the "game" and was rewarded for his efforts with an eternity in Hell with his own personal demon: it was karmically fitting. But in the years since then, I've thought about that game. I couldn't play it now...I can gleefully RP a villain, but couldn't do a racist. If it came up now, I'd have to say we need to do something different, or I'd need to leave the table.
Finally, I was playing a game that I really liked. Things were going really well at the table, and only so-so in game. One of the NPC's made some threats that I found really inappropriate, especially in the presence of my two adult daughters. The GM was a nice guy; the NPC was a bad guy, and he was just ad-libbing some horrid threats to make a point. But he was about one sentence from having me "Red-card" the conversation, because it was really bothering me. He moved on to something else and there was zero return to that subject the rest of the game, and he never showed anything other than respect and desire to have fun. It was a mistake and I think if I had called foul, he would have backed up, changed it and everything would have gone on.
Bringing it all together, role playing games are about having fun. They are about collaboratively telling a story, with dynamic input and engagement from everybody at the table. The price for this is that:
- There needs to be basic respect for every person who shows up to play, regardless of who those people are.
- There needs to be an awareness that some people don't consider some subjects enjoyable as part of an entertainment narrative. Ideally those can be identified early, but if they can't be, there needs to be easy ways for people to let their concerns be known.
- Some of those "easy ways" have been refined into tools. Use of those tools are optional, but the underlying need to ensure everybody is having a good time shouldn't be.
About The Art
I chose this piece because it's both surreal and delightful; there is a bird, who as a species are generally all about not being in danger, standing on a strange creature vaguely like a fawn. In fact, the bird is not just standing on it, it's leaning in with interest. The fawn creature, with no discernable head and no clear indication of what it is, is in a very relaxed pose. This scene is one of serenity and trust and safety, and it made happy to see it.