Gaming is fun. Psychological trauma not so much.

I see this topic is coming up again in the TTRPG community. Wizards of the Coast recently indicated Safety Tools will be brought forward in the new Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook 2024 and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2024. I love D&D. I love games all around.

Let’s be cool. It doesn’t matter what the game is, we should be having a Session Zero for longer games or a brief discussion of Safety Tools for a one-shot or convention game. Not everyone will need to engage with the tools, but it’s good to have them out there because people sometimes discover something in the course of game play.

My friend’s Vampire Experience.

An old friend of mine jumped into a Vampire: the Masquerade game back before we had Safety Tools or a Session Zero. Her husband was the Storyteller. Everyone in the group knew one another. About halfway through the second or third session, her character was captured and locked in a closet.

My friend went from panic and eventually shut down completely. No one knew she had been locked in a closet and assaulted in college. That was the end of that game. Her husband had no idea it was an issue. Obviously, they wouldn’t have gone there had they known.

How that might play out now.

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If this campaign had run in 2023 instead of 1993, maybe things would have gone differently. For a start, my friend could have mentioned her extreme claustrophobia and other trauma during Session Zero. If a Consent Checklist such as the one mentioned in the Monte Cook Games’ Consent in Gaming FREE pdf, was in use, then the Storyteller would likely have remembered not to go there. Consent checklists are great for discovering player and GM do’s and don’ts at the table. Games with more mature topics, especially with Vampires or Werewolves can push the envelopes of gore, trauma, brutality, and other topics that some players might be uncomfortable with. Even longtime groups of friends might occasionally benefit from going over some topics before a game starts.

Another way this might have played out differently is if the “X” Card had been present. If my friend were to have gotten too uncomfortable, she could have raised the X Card and stopped play immediately. There are some extreme cases in which trauma is so severe that the person can’t react in time and hopefully someone could have caught on in time to help her.

Some of us noticeably shut down or become agitated to the point of being unable to do much of anything. Surround me in a room full of 🦆holes and call it a “performance review.” Watch me have an out of body experience real fast. You can waterboard my physical body. I won’t be in it. No X card can help that unless someone who knows me sees me check out.

Another system is similar to traffic lights. Green card means all is well. Yellow means the GM needs to slow down and maybe change up the narrative of the game. Red means stop. It’s basically an X Card. The person has simply become unable to go on with the narrative. Time to cut scene. Again, my friend would have gone from Yellow to Red in a big hurry in her case.

We need not question why on the X Card.

Some people aren’t comfortable talking about traumatic or sensitive experiences. Other’s aren’t comfortable hearing or seeing them. When the X Card goes up, gets tapped, whatever, the first question shouldn’t be “why.” Instead, it should be focused on what can be done for the player in question. How do we make the player calm, comfortable, etc? It might be as simple as halting the game and taking a 15-20 minute break.

This is a perfect time for the GM to review Session Zero note and/or Consent checklists to see if something was accidentally overlooked. GMs are human like the rest of us and sometimes forget or get wrapped up in the story and neglect important details. I’m just as guilty as anyone on this. It’s just super important to handle X Card situations with compassion, understanding, and patience.

If the player who was triggered needs to step away for the rest of the game, that’s okay. Someone might want to stay with that player in the event this happens just to be safe. In some cases that might even be the end of the session entirely. In other cases, the affected player might step away for a session or two, maybe not even come back. It’s sad, but it happens.

The ultimate goal behind using Safety Tools is to retain players. Sometimes the conversation about the triggering event can be had. Usually privately with the GM. Other times, it’s enough to know that the X card was used and whatever we were doing before it was used needs to be cut from the session and pick up from a new scene.

For example, if someone is afraid of snakes, sending their character into a pit filled with poisonous vipers and subsequent dungeon full of Yuan Ti is probably not the ideal adventure for that player. BUT, if the group encounters a trap that releases two giant anacondas in the middle of the dungeon and the GM forgot that room was there? X Card goes up and we move onto the room after as if the group conquered the room. If the encounter is absolutely unavoidable or essential to the plot, the GM could re-skin the monster or use a different one entirely.

I can’t think of a situation in which ignoring a Safety Tool would be okay.

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Back in the days before Safety Tools, if something came up, we only had a few options. We could tell the GM, Hey, I’m really concerned about “X.” Could we maybe not go there?

OR if that wasn’t doable, one could always leave and find another game. That is the typical “Old School” approach to dealing with a player’s feelings. Either suck it up and deal or go find another GM. It’s kinda harsh, but that’s how it used to work. I never said it was the easy or correct thing to do.

If a GM is ignoring or blatantly refusing to use Safety Tools in their game, it’s probably time to find a new GM. If talking to the GM outside of game or even prior to starting the session doesn’t lead to players feeling 100% comfortable, maybe it’s better to not have a game.

It would be like if you knew some relatives tend to fight when they play Monopoly, maybe that’s not the best game to pull out at a family reunion. It’s the same thing with poker in my family. If I know what I’m walking into, I don’t empty out my change jar before we leave. It’s also why alcohol is no longer served at family functions. Okay, that and the time when my cousins got the police called on us…

“It’s not my job to be the group’s therapist.”

I once heard a YouTuber complaining rather adamantly about the DM having to be the group’s psychologist along with other duties. I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. The DM doesn’t need to be a therapist, but everyone at the table is capable of basic human empathy. I can’t say, “common sense” because what is common to one person makes no sense to another.

Session Zero and other Safety Tools might not be in the Old School Renaissance playbook, but it very well can or maybe even should be. Hey, what works at one table may not work everywhere. Personally, I don’t want to risk making someone else’s trauma, PTSD, flashbacks, or whatever worse than they already were. I don’t care if it’s D&D or Pinochle.

I’ve talked about using Safety Tools HERE

and also in this article.

My goal in life is to make sure we’re all having fun playing our favorite games in our beloved hobby. Dealing with some things that aren’t fun before they cause problems is just one more way to ensure everyone is welcome at the table. Everyone is welcome in TTRPGs, and we should all renew our commitment to keeping the TTRPG table a safe space for all.

Thank you. Have a good one. Until next time.