I recently watched a talk about RPG safety tools, and I've been thinking about them nonstop since then. It's essential for players to feel safe and welcome at the TTRPG table, but to get the most out of safety tools, it's important to reflect on how they can be used effectively. This means not only using the appropriate tools for the game, and understanding the reasoning for using them. On top of that, with the advent of applied RPGs, the role of safety tools becomes a bit more complex and requires additional tools.
Before I jump in, it's important to understand what a safety tool is. Many TTRPG players are fairly familiar with safety tools, but if you are not, here's a helpful primer.
The first question I was struggling with is, What is the purpose of these safety tools? Using safety tools without specific intent is not helpful, as you are likely to not be thinking about how they will impact how you GM and play. Instead, you have to think about the game you are running and what sort of experiences you are going to be encountering at the table. For example, a simple one shot dungeon crawl likely does not need an extensive discussion around the Luxton technique (although I am always a fan of educating people on the various tools available), but it might be helpful to use x-cards. On the other hand, if you are running a very intense, long term campaign with a lot of dark themes, a much longer discussion and even opportunity to practice using safety tools is a good idea. So it's important to really reflect on your game and where you are going with it, your role as a GM/player, and the content that you want to have in your game. This can also be helpful as a discussion around safety tools and content early in the game can serve to help identify if you want to be part of a group. For example, if discussions around theme in session 0 are trending towards a lot of grimdark areas, and you just want to play a light hearted campaign, this may be an indication that another group may be a better fit. There is no shame in acknowledging that the campaign isn't going to be the right one for you, as it is always better to find a game that is right for you, rather than playing a game where your experience of fun (or safety) is not the priority.
So, to the question of the nature of safety tools, it is contextual to a degree, but the core purpose remains the same- To ensure that everyone at the table is feeling safe and having a good time, and it is always better to err on the side of caution. It's better to have safety tools in place and not need to use them rather than not and have it be a bad experience. Using them wisely and prudently ensures this.
While thinking about safety tools, one thing I started thinking about was the idea of consent. A great tool here is the Monty Cook RPG checklist, but I've also designed a similar tool myself with somewhat less structure to allow for more brainstorming, as well as more space for enthusiastic consent. I think one of the key elements here is identifying that while the Monty Cook checklist is more oriented towards things you don't want in the game, it's also important to create equal space for things that players do enthusiastically want. For example, I recently was in a game where my character was killed. I did not give consent for character death, and I was very much not okay with this. However, the GM turned my character show up again as a bizarre Cronenberg monster. Weirdly enough, I absolutely love that- I'm a huge Cronenberg fan, and while others might hate the idea of becoming a mutated monster, I absolutely loved it within the context of that campaign. By being able to highlight the unexpected areas where you as a player may actually want specific content can create a very rewarding game. It is important, though, to think about the content you want in regards to others at the table- for example, if you actively are fine with bodily mutilations and scarring, but others at the table have said they don't want that at all, it would be prudent of the GM to have a conversation about that specific content. If everyone at the table is fine with you getting scarred and physically mauled from your adventures, so long as it isn't happening to their PCs, then it's fine, but if others are disturbed by it, it might be best to avoid that.
And again, the purpose of this is to create a safe and fun game for your players. Anything to help keep the game safe, while also highlighting where the fun areas is a boon to player and GM alike.
The next question I began asking myself was "What about safety tools applied RPGs?"
This is a bit more tricky, as within the context of most games, the goal is to have a good time. Safety tools are oriented towards ensuring that goal is met, with everyone feeling safe and comfortable enough to have that good time without encountering things that ruin the fun.
But with applied games, fun isn't the purpose- fun is a means to an end. The overarching goal is to teach something, to have some type of therapeutic experience, or to reach some specific goal through gameplay. This means that while safety tools are still absolutely valuable, there needs to be an additional layer of supports.
For example, in a therapeutic game, there may be times when the therapist may challenge a player or bring them out of their comfort zone for the purpose of the therapeutic goal. In this case, while a therapist should not want to absolutely disregard safety tools, they may wish to challenge players in ways that help them grow through a situation. For example, if someone is seeing a therapist for severe arachnophobia, they may state that they want no spiders in the game. However, if that client is seeing the therapist to help work on their phobia, they may come to an agreement to occasionally challenge that limit to help the player become more comfortable with spiders within that context- The player may be experiencing discomfort, but as it is part of the therapeutic process both parties have agreed to, that takes priority. There may be other times when player behaviors start pushing the safety tools of other players and the GM, and while normally this may be justification for expulsion from the group, within a therapeutic or applied context, there may be other tools for working through this. However, these tools exist within the realm of the therapy or education, or whatever the applied RPG facilitator's specialization is. For example, in a social skills group, some players may have issues with impulsive character behavior (read, murder hoboes), but one player struggles with impulse control and regularly acts disruptively in game, so there would need to be some navigation on how to deal with disruptive behavior. And in turn, someone running an educational RPG needs to realize that you not only need both the standard RPG safety tools, but the tools of classroom management and pedagogy to ensure that your goals are being met safely within an educational RPG context. Culliope is currently working on an article on safety tools within an educational context, and I hope to have a similar piece from a therapist's perspective soon.
Thank you for reading, and being willing to use safety tools to create a safe, fun experience for your players. If you have any feedback, or thoughts on additional ways to use safety tools, reach out to me on Twitter @rollforkindness!