We hear a lot about safety tools in RPGS these days. Safety tools are agreements at the table about the content and tone of the story, as well as pre established routines for how to flag a particular bit of content, conversation, storyline, etc. if it moves beyond the comfort of anyone at the table. (If you aren’t sure what I mean, here is a great, short article with some basics, and three examples of safety tools.) This is great! Actively and openly working to tell a story that everyone is enjoying is extremely important. Every table should have some safety tools and conversations about content, no matter what the setting. But this is the bare minimum.
As an educator in a middle school setting, I spend a great deal of time building connections, and a shared sense of community with my students. The way that educators build classroom culture can be instructive to any RPG table, educational or not, and has many crossovers into building healthy table culture.
There are four main ways that I structure my classroom environment to support healthy relationships and dialogue: rules, norms, routines, and feedback.
Rules - These are generally the no-nos. This is similar to the concept of an X card, or lines and veils. These are the safety tools of the classroom. These are things you are not allowed to do in class, or can do only under very specific, agreed upon circumstances. You may not stab things with sharp objects...unless we are doing dissection. You may not stand on the table...unless you are helping turn on the overhead projector, etc. The rules might also include things like, “The host is not responsible for snacks,” or, “do not bring your dog to game night.” (Now, at my house the game is pot luck, and there are lots of dogs and children, but to each their own!)
Norms - This is a very important addition to rules that sometimes gets overlooked in classrooms and even more often at the RPG table. Norms are the positive analog of rules. A norm might be “keep our bodies under control,” or “treat other people with respect,” or even, “meetings are student run.” (My students added that norm when I was talking too much during class meetings!) The idea is that we make a community goal that we work towards implementing all of the time. Current norms in my classroom include, “own your own work,” “news segments appear rehearsed,” “good leaders need good followers and good followers need good leaders,” and “ask before assuming.”
In an RPG setting, norms could encompass things like the relative importance of long term equity of airtime for players, clarity in what the genre or tone of a campaign would be, where the table sees the balance of roleplay versus mechanics based gameplay, how the table sees the role of violence in the storytelling, etc. Having pre-established norms allows us to go back to these norms in times of disagreement. In the classroom, if I am talking too much in the meeting, the students can remind me by reiterating the norm we have all agreed to. At an RPG table, I like the “do what you need to do to be present,” norm. This reminds people to stay focused on the game, but also makes room for keeping hands busy with crafts, stopping to get snacks or take phone calls, dealing with kiddos and bio breaks. It has opened conversations up at my own tables about why someone might just want to hang out, but might be too tired or distracted to play that evening - giving us all a chance to make sense of each other’s behavior.
Routines - these are the logistics that keep a classroom running smoothly. What do you do if you need to go to the bathroom? Come in late to class? Need to ask a question? Need to find a pair of scissors? Are hungry? Need to turn in classwork or homework? Enter or exit the room? Greet each other or say goodbye to each other? Ask for feedback or a break? Know where to sit? Much of the first couple of weeks of school is teaching and practicing these routines. The more these can be established clearly, the less mental load is on everyone, and the smoother it goes overall, especially if something unexpected happens.
At the table, this could be as simple as establishing a clear start and end time, if electronics are allowed at the table, what to do with side conversations and interruptions, how to get food, take breaks, etc. The more routines are in place, the more people can focus on being in the gameworld! It may seem silly, but most people have many routines/habits they follow all of the time in their lives.
Choosing to implement routines in a purposeful way as a group can help clarify expectations ahead of time, so there is less frustration or misunderstanding. One thing I recommend is having at least some people have established places to sit. As an extrovert, I try hard to sit further away from the other extrovert(s) at my table, so that we do not end up focused on each other in a corner, and make more space for everyone to be included in roleplay. Another thing that we have done is established a starting time for the game. That way, it is clear when we are actually going to start playing, and if someone’s life or executive functioning challenges get in the way, we all have the same expectations.
Feedback/Frequent Check- Ins - In the classroom, if you do not frequently reteach and check in on rules, norms and routines, they become stale, sloppy or forgotten. The same is true of your own table. A healthy table can have meta conversations about how the group is working together. If that feels like too big of an ask in person, GMs can talk to players individually, or even an anonymous survey can start the conversation as a group.
It is critical that the people who are driving these conversations model the ability to take and give feedback without being defensive or accusatory. If not, all of this is for nothing. One of the most important moments in the school year isn’t when I set all this up, but when one of my students calls me out on violating a norm for the first time. If I cannot hear and implement the feedback then everything I have said I value in my classroom is a lie. This is true of the table as well. There is no point to setting these things up if we cannot use them for the intended purpose.
Again, this is the place where norms can be really helpful. “One of our norms is Do What You Need To Do To Be Present, but I am noticing that people seem distracted lately,” is so much more likely to start a good conversation than, “Culliope, get off your gol’dang phone for a hot minute, and pay attention for once.” And most importantly, you have a shared sense of what you are trying to accomplish together, so there is a shared place to start the conversation from. Sometimes something works for a while, and then things change and need to be revisited.
Remember, rules, norms and routines are much more effective when they come into being through a process of collaboration. This is true in the classroom or at the RPG table. Often, conflict happens with a mismatch of expectations. If this can be avoided with some extra communication at the beginning, and then peppered throughout, this will make for a more fun game, a safe table and a smoother running classroom. What we are really talking about is doing purposeful communication ahead of time to keep everyone on the same page as much as possible, and give clear avenues of communications and touchstones to return to when there is the inevitable disagreement or misunderstanding. I’d love to hear about any norms, rules or routines out there at other peoples’ tables. Feel free to drop me a line about something that works well for you! Adventuring is more fun when we do it together.