Roleplaying is improvised, and sometimes a game can go in an unexpected direction, or explore difficult subjects. Fortunately, there are lots of content calibration tools that help players communicate their boundaries so they can continue to play in a way that’s still fun for everyone.
In 2017, Dale Horstman and I collaborated to create a flier for Big Bad Con that summarized many of the tools they recommend to their GMs and attendees. You can read more about the con’s recommended safety techniques, and download a free PDF of our flier, on their website.
Dale and I expanded and reformatted the tools in 2018 to be a deck of cards for the “Baba Yaga’s Gift Box” backer level of Big Bad Con’s 2018 Kickstarter campaign.
We expanded the card set again in 2019, and it is now available for purchase (or a free PDF download) on DriveThruRPG! Proceeds from deck sales will be donated to the charity of our choice, as determined when sales pay out from DTRPG quarterly.
Not all techniques are appropriate for every style of play—some are better suited at the table than for live-action, and others may not be a good match for a given game. Some games may also have similar techniques already built in. As a facilitator, take some time to think about which tools would work best for your story. If playing a GM-less game, have a group discussion on which technique people prefer. You may only need just one, or you may want to combine a few.
It’s important to model and practice any tools you’re using before the game starts, so everyone is comfortable using them. Also, discuss as a group what might happen in this particular game that could prompt someone to need to use one of these tools. These techniques will only be successful if the group trusts each other and is committed to having healthy interactions.
Once a technique has been agreed upon by the group, it can be used by anyone, at any time, no questions asked. The appropriate response to someone stating their boundaries is “Thank you.”
Cut and Brake
Often used in larping, players can say the following or make appropriate hand gestures at any time in the game:
- Say “Cut” and/or cross your hands, palms facing down, to halt the game. The player(s) and facilitator will discuss how to adjust the session to make it better for everyone before resuming play.
- Say “Brake” and/or hold up both hands at chest-height, palms facing out, to signal to other players not to intensify the scene any further. Variations on this tool may use “Largo,” “Softer,” “Slow Down,” or a custom word instead.
Cut, Brake and related other safeword tools were developed by the Nordic larp community. More information can be found at https://nordiclarp.org/w/index.php?title=Safewords and http://larpwright.efatland.com/?p=339
Fist on Head
Mostly used by larpers more than tabletop gamers, players can make a fist with one hand and rest it on the top of their head to talk out of character. A variation on this is to hold a fist to your forehead or the side of your head, or to raise two crossed fingers to your head instead.
This technique was developed by the US larp community.
Lines and Veils
- “Lines” are firm designations of what topics will not be explored in the game. The group should discuss lines before starting play, and anyone can draw a line mid-game to edit out that content.
- “Veils” are “fade to black” or “pan away” moments. The event is still part of the story, but calling to veil a scene indicates that the group won’t add further detail.
Lines and Veils were developed by Ron Edwards. More information is available here: https://rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/30906/what-do-the-terms-lines-and-veils-mean
While larping, a player can shield their eyes with one hand to move in and out of the game space or disengage from a scene without disruption. This is a signal that, as a player, you need to leave, even if your character would have stayed. This tool is helpful in large games with simultaneous discussions.
The Lookdown technique was developed by Johanna Koljonen and Trine Lise Lindahl. More information can be found here: https://participationsafety.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/toolkit-lets-name-this-baby-bow-out-mechanics/
When the need arises to talk out-of-character, particularly to negotiate boundaries within a scene, players can preface their statement with “Off-game,” as in “Off-game, is it okay if my character gives you a hug?”
This tool was developed by Maury Brown, Johanna Koljonen, and the US/Nordic larp communities
Used primarily in larping, a player can hold an “okay” sign to their chest to ask another player how they’re feeling. The player should give one of the following responses:
- “Thumbs Up” indicates that you’re doing fine and enjoying the game. The person who asked will continue play.
- “Thumbs Down” indicates that you’re not doing okay. The person who asked will drop character, alert a facilitator, and offer assistance in a previously agreed-upon manner (stepping out of the room together, stopping play, or otherwise negotiating the scene until everyone is ready to continue).
If the player repeats the “OK” gesture back, this could mean the same as a thumbs up, but you may want to repeat the check-in again to make sure.
Any other response (such as a wavy hand) or no response should be treated as a thumbs down.
Ok Check-In was developed by Maury Brown with Sarah Lynn Bowman and Harrison Greene, later adapted by Johanna Koljonen and the Nordic larp community*. More information available at: https://participationsafety.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/toolkit-the-ok-check-in/
At any time, for any reason, a player can leave the game without judgement or discussion. This might be to check your phone, to get some water, or simply because this game isn’t for you. If it’s the latter, it’s helpful to let the facilitator know you’re not returning, so nobody is concerned about where you went.
The Open Door technique was developed by Eirik Fatland and the Nordic larp community. More information can be found at: http://leavingmundania.com/2014/02/27/primer-safety-in-roleplaying-games/
Write the words listed below on cards and place them on the table where everyone can reach them. At any point during the game, anyone can tap or hold up the card (or just say the words on the cards) to do the following:
- “Rewind” backs up a scene and revises the content.
- “Fast Forward” skips over part of a scene.
- “Pause” lets you take a quick breather before continuing the scene without making any changes.
- “Instant Replay” gives you a chance to clarify any details or just share enthusiasm about the previous scene.
- “Frame-by-Frame” indicates that players should take the next scene slow, and occasionally pause to check in that everyone is treating the content with care.
- “Resume” returns the game to normal play.
Script Change was designed by Beau Sheldon. More information can be found at http://briebeau.com/thoughty/script-change/.
Draw a flower with a red center, a middle ring of yellow petals, and an outer ring of green petals. Place this in the center of the table where everyone can read it. During a scene, tap a petal to indicate if you want the other players to push harder (green), maintain the current intensity (yellow), or de-escalate the scene (red). Sometimes this is also referred to as a Consent Flower.
The Support Flower was designed by Tayler Stokes and is based on the tool Support Signals by Jay Sylvano. More information can be found at https://theactapart.com/support-flower.
Draw an “X” on a card and place it on the table where everyone can reach it. Anyone can tap or hold up the X-Card mid-game, and the group will edit out any of the scene’s content.
Alternatively, players may make an “X” shape with their fingers and arms. Players in live-action games may also use this method.
The X-Card was designed by John Stavropoulos. More information can be found at http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg
For further reading about content calibration in games, check out the following: