Thinking about Safety Tools in RPGs

7 October 2022 horror mothership sci-fi RPGs safety-tools

I wrote up a thread recently about safety tools in ttRPGs/mothership, but I wanted to archive it here for future reference and expand on it a little bit. Let’s get into it:

I’m working on the section on Safety in the Warden’s Guide. It’s something we’ve worked on for about a year. This is the 12th draft. It’s not quite there (and after this follows a page with specific safety tools), but it outlines my thoughts: Safety tool are about hospitality.

WIP page from the WOMWIP page from the WOM

To me safety tools in RPGs are getting at basically the same question we’re always asking: how should we treat other people? These are huge huge questions that basically all of humanity wrestles with. But my conclusion is that it’s not about the product: it’s about the people.

Should we design safety tools? Yes. Are they going to protect you from assholes? No. Will they guarantee you have a good time? No. But this is the same in all aspects of life. We still have a lot of mechanism for safety in the real world (which also fail spectacularly and often). That doesn’t mean we stop using them, we just recognize that at the end of the day we’re only responsible for ourselves.

I don’t think you should hand over your safety to a book, or god forbid, a game designer. You and your friends just have to work together (like you do, every day of your life) to be kind to one another. It’s both hard and not hard at all.

I think RPGs are unique in that we’re imagining other people and what they do, but I don’t think they’re that different from what you’re doing on the bus, in the grocery store, at your church, or school. You’re navigating other people and their changing thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately getting better at safety means: getting better as a human. Answering the question how do we not hurt other people” is basically a lifelong task, and that’s why often I feel like our safety tools, while helpful, are inadequate for the larger conversation.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t think they’re useless. And in particular when dealing with strangers at conventions or your local game store, or some pick-up game on Discord I think they’re a good protocol or shorthand where no other exists. You just can’t simply snap your fingers and have the kind of nuance and understand you have with your friends with everyone else.

This is hard to get across in a tweet or a rulebook, but its at the core of what we’re trying to do. The tools outline what’s different about RPGs over real life, but up front we just have to say: if your plan is to be an asshole, the game won’t save you. Neither will the Bible!

As for designers, what does it mean to design a safe game? To design safety into the core mechanics? I’m not sure. I think you can (not always, but it’s possible) sort of reverse engineer yourself into a sort of Hays Code situation.

I think there’s harder work to be done making something beautiful which then gets out of the way of the people at the table. It means being humble and admitting you lack control over the people at home. Just as an author can’t force you to imagine their characters a certain way.

But what a book can do is set a standard or tone that helps self-select for a certain kind of person. We see this all the time, if your book has a ton of crunch in it or bad info-design, then it’ll probably miss me, even if it’s really good! Waving the safety tool flag is also a way of attracting the kinds of people you want to play your game: people who give a shit about this stuff.

A lot of OSR people will kind of roll their eyes at this sort of thing as unhelpful, or irrelevant or whatever. But by exploring this stuff in the book we’re trying to say: our intention is that you be kind to each other and if that’s a turnoff for you, then maybe this isn’t the right game for you. And the hope is that in some way that will help shape the community around our game. I’m not sure! But just by putting pronouns on our character sheet we’ve had a lot of bigoted people self-select out of our game, which makes the community surrounding our game better in the long run. Signs and signals like this do have an effect.

This isn’t to knock any of the amazing designers who are focusing on Safety as a core element of their design process: please explore, I’m consistently in awe of the work you all do.

This is just the work I’m exploring right now: let go a little bit. Trust the players, because you don’t have any control in the end anyway.

You can pre-order the Mothership Warden’s Guide and the rest of the Boxed Set here.

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