The TTRPG Industry: Designing Safer Games

Not too long ago, I was at Pax Unplugged doing a panel with some wonderful people on Safety in Gaming. It was a great panel with great people on great and important things. The subtitle of the panel, created by the hosts Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk, was More Than Safety Tools. I was excited by this title because I think safety tools are, and remain, an afterthought in gaming.

Safety Tools are a conversation in gaming that is dependent on a couple universal truths we don't generally acknowledge. Instead, we focus on the here and the now. Like most people not accustomed to examining the history or the reason beyond a phenomenon, we keep plodding forward on the same path never asking "Where are we going?" or "Where did we come from?"

We can't figure out what Safety Tools are if we don't know why they exist. These universal truths are the why of Safety Tools.

The first universal truth of safety tools, is that games aren't safe. In order to acknowledge that we need and must develop better safety within games, we must first acknowledge that games are fundamentally unsafe things. The very nature of storytelling means the unknown looms, could be revealed, and may be upsetting once revealed. Combined with the inherent fact that triggers are also not universal, can be anything, and are often unknowable, we must accept that games (and stories) are not safe.

The second universal truth of safety tools, is that they are a response to failed social contracts. We have been creating games for decades now, and only in the last two decades have we really begin to tackle the first fundamental truth. This was the result of watching ourselves and our friends get hurt.

For a long time, I believed that Safety Tools were the result of games not acknowledging they could be unsafe and designers washing their hands of their implicit responsibility. After a lot of research, it turns out that Safety Tools are more so a response to play culture. They were developed by caring people to protect themselves from others, often from their friends.

Community members noticed that people were getting hurt in games. Given they couldn't change the games nor were the games the problem, they chose to change the play culture around them. They created tools to the social contract we all enter when we play a game. They founded the idea that hurt and harm could happen at the table.

In my research, I found that the earliest conversations on safety were responses to heavy content. In the mid 90's, the conversation was taking place in various White Wolf products. By the 2000's, the conversation had shifted from game content to player and GM behaviour. Games weren't the problem, it turns out. We were.

The battle over Safety Tools has been around as long as I can remember. We've made headway. But the conversations we're seeing continue to be that we're focused on game content, on how some content shouldn't exist, and how some stories just shouldn't be told.

The truth is, some people aren't caring storytellers. Not because they aren't good storytellers, but because they have no understanding of the harm they can do, and refuse to take accountability for that harm.

So how do we ethically tackle this? 
Because yelling about it on Twitter certainly isn't working.

I'm a safety editor. I read games and work with designers to create a robust safety network within the game. I believe fully that games need to take into account and create pathways for safer play culture and care culture.

The best way to explain this is through a metaphor Camdon Wright introduced me to: a game is like a car. Right now, we design the car (vehicle for stories) without any safety features. We have X-cards and lines and veils and consent flowers that we slap on top of them and hope those airbags glued to the window help protect someone.

And sometimes, they do! Sometimes someone brings their own seatbelt and others join in. When we design games, we should be installing those safety features into the car itself. Everyone should be wearing a seatbelt or the car won't be going anywhere.

Beyond that, a car has airbags, locking, all wheel drive, and cameras for backing up. Its basic structure and frame are also part of safety. There are rules and regulations of the road to help keep everyone in the car safe.

And when things go wrong, because let's be real, even with all the safety features in the world, cars still get into accidents, there are people to show up and help mitigate the damage.

Games don't have those things. We, as game designers, can deal with the car. We can forge the structure, frame, and install the safety features we believe are most effective for our games. A game's base structure and frame are its' mechanics.

Mechanics are a viable option for creating and fostering safety. Embedding contracts into your game for consent for content and behaviour is a key part of design. Design can no longer be sustained at a setting and content level. Designers must take some accountability for designing the car, and begin to look at the basic structure and installed safety features.

So how do we do that?

We test drive it. We see where accidents could happen. We learn from the tragic mistakes happening with other games and we build in new safety features to mitigate those. We build parameters for what the vehicle can and can't be used for. We educate passengers of their roles in the car and their tools to be safe. And we give drivers the tools to drive safely.

We know that safety tools are a response to the people in the car being unsafe. Unlike with actual cars, we can't tell drivers Don't Drink and GM, or other unsafe practices, but what we can do is build those lessons directly into our GMing chapters. We can remove the idea of safety tools as optional and make them part of the foundations of our games.

Every game should be working towards this. We should be providing built in social contracts. It shouldn't just be a paragraph on safety with a casual X-Card mention and a link, it should be part of our mechanics and our character creation and our play. It should become so fluid in our game design that it's no longer even noticeable.

My favourite examples of built in safety mechanics come from a variety of games. The first is in Bluebeard's Bride. The move "Shiver With Fear" is brilliant.

This move is brilliant because it puts the narration of the story in the player's hands. It allows the player to say what happens to them, thus automatically getting consent. Consent is built in to the mechanic. This is how you bake safety into the mechanics. 

Another way is to consider Golden Sky Stories that has Dreams. With the Dreams mechanic, you give Dreams when players do something cute or funny. This creates a play culture of awarding positive behaviour while ignoring negative. Thus, positive behaviour increases and negative behaviour decreases as we live for those sweet sweet Dreams.

The Consent Form from Monte Cook Games approaches this differently by front loading consent. This is another tool to toss on top of the car, but what if we just made it part of the game? What if it's part of character creation? 

In these mechanical examples, we can see how safety and consent can be pushed into the mechanics of a game. This isn't enough. We also need to consider we need escape hatches. Mechanically, we can design parts of the game to signal time out. 

Make it a basic move in your PbtA game. Make it a standard move in any game. Just make it part of your core mechanics. You can flavour it with your setting and make it part of the theme. This way, it feels like a living part of the game instead of an afterthought people can choose to ignore.

We need to stop framing safety tools as add ons and just make it part of our games. This will give GMs the tools they need without the option of casting them aside. Designers should also realize that most people don't know how to care for each other, and expecting them to is hurting people.

Safety Tools are essentially tools for trying to teach other how to care for one another. 
Without giving us actual lessons on caring.

Teaching each other how to be caring has been an uphill battle. We've worked with Safety Tools to empower players (and GMs) to say no, stop, rewind, and I'm done. What we haven't done is address the power dynamic of players and GMs, of the social pressure of self advocacy, or the very real truth that sometimes trauma renders us incapable of advocacy during games.

Games need to start understanding that part of designing safety is designing care culture. We can't just say "Check in on your players" or "Look for signs of distress" without telling them how to check in, what to do if the player is distressed, and what distress actually looks like. The training program for running our games (aka the GM section) needs to be robust and teach them how to care for their players.

We also need to teach players how to care for each other. Community care is what Safety Tools, I believe, are trying to engender. So to create a better sense of play culture that focuses on care culture, we must teach care. We must teach them how to be ethical, how to respond with kindness, why it matters, and how to respond to discomfort.

We can use our games to literally teach people how to be good community members. Having Fun is the point, right? It's no fun if everyone's being cruel, careless, and people are getting hurt.

It's important to remember through all of this that no matter what we do to create safe cars, people get into accidents. Shit happens. Games spiral. Buses catch on fire. 

There is no fool proof way to ensure your game doesn't get driven by a careless driver or that things just align perfectly for it to randomly explode. And because we don't have paramedics, we need to instruct our groups on how to care for each other mindfully when things do go south. We cannot abandon them when they need us most.

Maybe there needs to be an external resource where we can learn all this. For right now, it's incumbent on designers to put this into their games, on community and convention leaders to insert it into their spaces, on GMs to make it part of the normal play culture, and players to uphold and advocate. We are responsible for protecting ourselves and protecting each other.

If our response to bad storytelling behaviour is to blacklist and harass someone, we teach that mistakes are met with punishment and abuse, and people will avoid those communities and games. We need to learn to correct, care for the hurt parties, and teach how to do better next time. We need to learn to ease off on the punitive approach and  understand that the only way forward is through education and care.

The only way to teach those things is to model them, and ultimately, make them core components of our games. We know Safety tools are flawed, because the part they are often missing is what happens after they are used. Or when they aren't used but should have been. Our game text often skips over the very human element of our human-driven games.

Ultimately, Safety in Games is a loaded, uncomfortable topic that implies we are doing bad thing if we aren't practicing safe gaming. We need to get used to discomfort, because it's only in discomfort we can begin to unravel the bad learned behaviours, the shitty social contract, and break down the negative play culture we have. 

Games need to design with safety and consent in mind because it's the ethical thing to do. We need to build safer cars because the casualties are pilling up and we, as designers, can be a strong, unified defence against harm. Even more importantly, we can be a loud advocate for care of each other, for changing the social contract, and for demanding a communal approach to safety and consent in gaming.

We can change this, if we want to. 

A thank you to all those who spoke to me about their experiences. 

Notable thanks to the creators and keepers of Safety Tools who took time to talk to me about their journey with safety and consent in gaming:
  • Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk (TTRPG Safety Toolkit)
  • Quinn Murphy (Rights to Play)
  • Beau Sheldon (Script Change)
  • John Stravopoulos (X-Card)
  • Tayler Stokes (Hand queues)
  • P.R. O'Leary (CATS technique)
  • Phil Brucato (White Wolf safety)
  • Ron Edwards (Lines and Veils)
  • Shanna Germain (Consent in Gaming)
  • Meguey Baker (I Will Not Abandon You)
  • Emily Care Boss (Bleed, Cut/Break)