An interview to Ron Edwards about "safety tools" in RPGs

Hi all, I’d like to share an interview with Ron Edwards that I had the pleasure to publish on my blog this week.

If you have more time, and you can tolerate my horribly-spoken English, a complete video version is also available on Adept Play here:

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That’s an interesting topic, thanks for sharing!

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The whole issue of Safety Tools is a fairly nuanced and personal one. I’ve seen many different takes, and learned something from them (including this one).

It’s also nice to see Ron’s description of listening and reincorporation; I’ve seen people who work with him throw around the terms, and now I have a better idea of what he’s referring to.

I posted a long time ago about the fundamental skill of a roleplayer (on Story Games, I think), and this aligns really well with my take there. (I think Ron’s gets at a deeper level in a nice way, though, in its simplicity.)

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Wow, sounds like Ron must have played with some mean X-carders. In the dozens of games I’ve played with the X-card on the table it has never once been used as an accusatory smackdown. It’s mostly been used as an intro to the basic play agreement (everyone’s opinion matters, not just the person running the event), or in a way identical to the way Ron describes saying “line”.

As for “safety tools” making the activity sound unsafe, yeah, I imagine there are cases where that’s a crappy side-effect. I’m not sure how to balance that with the people who absolutely feel that roleplaying is not inherently safe for them, and really want some clear acknowledgement that this table at this moment will give a shit.

I know some folks who do go to cons to play RPGs and then specifically look to play games with safety tools, so they don’t have to choose between “never attend” and “total crapshoot you might get a bigot GM etc.”

Brainstorming content to outlaw pregame is often not super productive, but speaking up for stuff you already know you don’t want pregame is always good. I might be agreeing with Ron there.

Nice to be reminded of the distinction between “no one gets hurt” and “I will not abandon you”! The vast majority of games I’ve played in recently are the latter (FWIW those usually include a small number of pregame lines and veils, and maybe an X-card tap in one out of 5-10 sessions).

Agreed that roleplaying is at its core, “Player 1 says something to contribute to the fiction, and then Player 2 says something which demonstrates their acceptance of that contribution as consequential.” I remember I was initially surprised at how much fun collaborative setting creation was, and I think it’s fun for exactly that reason – a quick and clear feedback loop of “listening and reincorporation” (great shorthand phrase!).

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Great post, Dave.

My experience is the same. I’ve never seen these problematic cases of X-card use or whatever (though they’re not totally implausible, I suppose?). It seems like you’d have to be rather misaligned with the intent of play and social dynamics to use it in that way.

I do also feel that the kind of dialogue Ron is discussing is at the heart of comfortable human relating, so I very much agree with him there. It’s an interesting topic, in any case.

Claudio once sent me a nice article or interview on this topic, as well. Perhaps that is still available on line somewhere.

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It might be regional. I’ve often read people’s accounts of “what D&D is like” and what they actually end up meaning is “what D&D is like among the several hundred regular players playing it, today, in this Very Large American City, where you can be paid for writing about ‘what D&D is like’”. So maybe Ron’s experience is people are slamming their finger down on the X-Card and (voice quivering, surely!), accusing others of Hurtfulness. This is not my experience in The American Southwest But Not Any City Larger Than Albuquerque.

There are two types of game I routinely use the X-Card in:

1 - Convention games that are wide open in terms of player fictional contribution (Bleak Spirit jumps to mind here where literally any horror can be introduced obliquely or directly.)

2 - Convention games where a core element of play is highly edgy, difficult or full of friction. Tall Pines leaps to mind here, where the initial fictional setup is “the death of a beloved teenager in a small town, and it isn’t an accident, it’s homicide or suicide”.

Other games with other content setups don’t really benefit from an X-Card. Primetime Adventures, for example, requires an in depth content discussion when pitching the series (“are we on basic cable or broadcast TV? do we cuss in this show?”) and then a re-evaluation at the end the pilot and at the end of each season. So the discussion is integrated into play.

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@JDCorley does the X-Card end up to be activated often, at your table, in the 2 cases you described? Do you have an example to share?

Yea, in Bleak Spirit I’ve had people tap the X-Card and say “nah, let’s go another direction”, usually when things got too gory/gruesome (it’s inspired by a video game that has a lot of body horror in it so there can be unexpected gruesomeness fairly regularly.) Bleak Spirit is very wide open so there’s lots of things that can happen that aren’t immediately obvious from the initial setup of the game.

In Tall Pines the only X-Card activation I’ve seen is when someone thinks they’re okay with something at the start of a game but once we play out a few scenes they realize they’re not, usually around sexual material of varying degrees. They tap the card and we add some new boundaries for the game going forward. The random element of Tall Pines’ characters also factor in here. If you deal out a lot of law enforcement characters then there’ll be scenes at autopsies, crime scenes, etc. If you deal out a lot of personal connections to the deceased teens the game tends to lean into either abusive scenarios that are or were happening behind closed doors, or the surreal/magical elements of the game.

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Oh, yeah, good call, Jason. All of my X-card experiences are between North Carolina and New Jersey. I have zero personal data from anywhere else. I think Ron’s in Sweden or something, so I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise if things are very different there.

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I have little experience with safety tools, but have been hosting sessions aimed at new roleaplayers for years, so it’s something I’ve been considering for a long time. I read the article, the previous interview, the latest interview and researched the mentioned tools, as I hadn’t heard about the Luxton technique before. By the way, here’s how John Stravropoulos presents his idea for the X-Card (emphasis mine given what Ron has taken issue with):

“I’d like your help. Your help to make this game fun for everyone. If anything makes anyone uncomfortable in any way… [ draw X on an index card ] …just lift this card up, or simply tap it [ place card at the center of the table ]. You don’t have to explain why. It doesn’t matter why. When we lift or tap this card, we simply edit out anything X-Carded. And if there is ever an issue, anyone can call for a break and we can talk privately. I know it sounds funny but it will help us play amazing games together and usually I’m the one who uses the X-card to help take care of myself. [ pause ] Does everyone consent to using the X-Card? [ pause ] Or is there another tool you would rather use? [ pause ] Either way, the people playing here are more important than the game we’re playing. Thank you for helping make this game fun for everyone!"

Indeed, other people at the table may rather use a completely different technique, as explained by P.H. Lee:

Any approach to triggering material that contains any element of “pretend it never happened” is emotionally disastrous for me, because it recapitulates the environment of denial and dismissal around my traumatic experiences. (…) Any game or community that uses a technique that centers this approach is necessarily inaccessible to me, because an environment that centers denial as a coping strategy for triggering material, is in and of itself, a traumatic trigger.

It seems that the vibe I get from this thread and from friends I’ve already chatted about this is that people tend towards some middle ground. On one hand, their X-Card doesn’t immediately nuke what has just been established in the fiction. On the other, they don’t feel prepared to work through a difficult session transformed into a healing experience as proposed by the Luxton technique. I may have something of my own to say about this, but first I just wanted to added these two references to the thread.

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Yeah, there are scenarios and groups where I would not want to avoid a tough topic for just that purpose but at conventions, specifically, where I don’t know anyone and they don’t know me, there is no real healing experience or Luxton technique that would ever, under any circumstances, take place. (“Well not with THAT attitude!”) I don’t really use an X-card in my home games, for example, because other relationships at the table pre-exist the card and can be more strongly relied on.

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My experience is similar. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone really and genuinely use an X-card in the “suggested” way. Generally, it seems to work well as conversation starter or mood setter: it communicates to the group that the people come first, not the game, and that we are aware of that and will deal with it accordingly when it comes up. This changes the vibe at the table and sets people at ease.

I’d be curious to hear about a really bad X-card experience, actually. Sometimes the criticisms (while perhaps valid!) seem to come mostly from a theoretical standpoint, rather than practical experience.

I do think it’s a rather clumsy/blunt tool, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. I’ve certainly had a good few play experiences where its use would have really helped.

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I can see some irony in how safety tools usually face a knee-jerk reaction from folks saying RPGs don’t really need to be formalized and then the X-Card, the most popular tool, seems to almost never be used as suggested. But indeed even just going through the motions of something like the X-Card can make a considerable difference, especially when playing with strangers. And, if we actually look at these tools as different approaches for different purposes, there are several issues that seem relevant to me:

How is narrative control being shared at the table? Safety tools are often explained from a traditional point-of-view where the GM is the main source of content and therefore these tools are like a shield or a filter between what the GM may broadcast and what the players are tuning in. In my opinion, this tendency to add yet one more responsibility to the GM’s shoulders risks having this person be blind-sided by stressful content eventually introduced by the players.

How spotlight-heavy is the game being played? I can understand the X-Card as written as being particularly useful for very low spotlight games where some people may not even feel comfortable talking. They don’t want to get into it, they’re not sure what to do, so let’s just pretend like it didn’t happen and try something else. Taken as a blunt instrument, I think that this is the main use of the X-Card: avoid shining the spotlight on the person using it. On the other hand, I can see how this X-Card shutting people down could be very frustrating in spotlight-heavy games.

Design questions: What job do safety tools have before, during, and after play? Should a specific game have specific ways to address these traumatic issues or aesthetic disagreements? Or should it deliberately avoid designing a solution and just write something in the game for each group of people to address differently? How can RPG designers explore diving into dangerous topics?

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One thing I was quite curious about before the pandemic was the use of hand signals. However, then my gaming went online… so I never got into some real practice of the idea.

I still think the idea has potential. You could indicate some things with your hands without breaking character or pausing a scene and having an aside, once everyone knows a few basic ones. (You can imagine developing simple gestures for Archipelago’s key phrases, for example.)

The idea was inspired by some of the use cases of the Support Flower, which I saw a group use with tremendous success at a con once. I could see groups fluent in those techniques really bringing up the level of their roleplaying through non-verbal communication.

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Some kind of hand signaling has been employed in a lot of larps, in various ways. The most widespread are for stuff such as “I am speaking out of character/in X fictional language” or “My character is hidden due to X ability” in campaign fantasy larps. There’s also a “Cut”, “Pause”, “Lookdown” safety code that has gestures for stopping the scene, briefly discussing stuff out of character, or removing oneself from a situation without being interrupted.

But I’ve seen chamber larp scenarios use them to indicate intensity (ie. telling another player to put “more” or “less” into their performance) or some kind of more abstract, in-universe signaling (there’s a larp where multiple versions of the same characters interact, and another version sitting closer to you means “I’m agreeing with you” vs. scooting further away for “I don’t agree”). All this to say that these sort of modulation tools can be fully integrated into the game mechanics without being a tacked-on toolbox, and they can indeed lead to very interesting results.

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My favorite simple application of hand gestures at the table was definitely imported from LARP. I learned it as the “OK Check-in,” but I’m sure it has other names, plus it almost certainly has been updated since I first learned it, which I’ll explain further below. It also might be the same as what came out of the Support Flower; certainly the vocabulary is analogous. :smile:

In the format I learned, a person could show a circle with the thumb and forefinger: this was the interrogative portion, a kind of “How are we with what’s happening?” A response could be a thumbs-up (“good”), a palm-down rocking motion (“cautious”), or a thumbs-down (“not good”). The interrogative was the check-in part; it could be skipped, though, if someone just wanted to express their position.

So the reason this might be different now is because since I first learned this, the interrogating gesture has become somewhat problematic by being co-opted by hate groups. Last I heard, the preference was to replace it with the thumbs-up, but it’s been years since I gamed in person, so I don’t have current firsthand (ha!) experience. But back when I saw its use, it was definitely a smooth way to integrate consent/comfort feedback without necessarily interrupting the flow of roleplaying.

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Yeah, those are great examples.

I thought in particular of “bring it/more, please” signals (useful when things are getting intense but you don’t want to break the flow) or to indicate discomfort or call for a Veil.

Could be used for pacing, as well.

I should dig up my list somewhere.

(How has the “ok” sign become co-opted?!? That’s news to me!)

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My personal opinion on “safety tools” is a bit long and complex. I explained it in the conclusions of the special (the one this interview to Edwards is coming from) - they start here - but they are in Italian, for the moment. I really hope that I’ll find the time to translate them, sooner or later, but probably it’ll be “later”. :sweat_smile:

In short, I’m okay with these tools as long as they are an optional alternative way to communicate. I believe most of the examples made in this thread match with this use case.
Tapping the X-Card and saying “nah, let’s go another direction” shouldn’t be much different than saying the same words without tapping the X-Card; which is what I would prefer to do, if I was at that table - and I would feel legitimate to do it even if there was no formal “safety tool” at all.
I believe that’s what Ron means when he talks about a “shared vocabulary”. I interviewed @chiakiakito too (a wonderful interview, by the way - Italian only) and she talked about “communication tools” in a similar fashion.
This isn’t about game mechanics, it’s just about communication.

Conversely, it’s quite common, in Italy at least, to describe “safety tools” as full game mechanics, game rules or procedures that must be followed.
This means that it is mandatory to communicate safety needs through the tool (otherwise “we might not understand”) and, when this happens, there is a mandatory procedure that must be followed (which usually doesn’t involve an open discussion).
By the way, I think that most people describing them in such way aren’t really using them in that way (instead, they use them as “communication tools” without realizing it), but the approach is present in the discussions, and creates lots of confusion and misunderstandings.

The hand gestures example is very useful. Let’s suppose I play at your table when we adopt such hand gestures.

Does it mean that I can use thumbs-down to say “not good”, but instead I might speak or do any other (polite and respectful) thing I feel appropriate to clarify my need, depending on the context? This would be fine for me. The possibility to express needs, and the fact to prioritize people, are already present, embedded in the concept itself of “play” (a leisure activity): they would be there in any case, they aren’t established by the hand gestures. Gestures are just like an additional language.

Does it mean that I must use thumbs-down, because saying “not good” with words is forbidden? Does it mean, by extension, that any communication not covered by a hand gesture is automatically inappropriate? This would not be fine for me.

I can see the need of formal tools, embedded in the game rules, when the game is structured in such a way that we are expected to stay “in character” 100% of the time (as in many larps), so a “normal” communication would be impossible and/or misleading: examples by @chiakiakito above are very effective.

But for ordinary TTRPGs I play I don’t see such a need. Even more: I don’t see “interrupting the flow of roleplaying” as a bad thing or something that should be avoided. So, setting up tools designed to communicate without “interrupting” would risk to give players the wrong message in this sense.

Edit: another quick point.
Based on my experience, and on the various experiences of the people I interviewed, I can say that, personally, I do not believe that the presence of a “safety tool” on the table is somehow a guarantee that that table is more aware, more sensitive or more safe than the average, not even by a little bit. They can be a symbol that people at the table share certain values or a certain culture; or, at least, that they think so or they say so. It’s legit to select a table based on that. But it’s not necessarily correlated with the actual safety during play.

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Yeah, there’s definitely big regional differences! I don’t think anyone who didn’t tap the X-Card but who said “nah let’s try something else” here would be scolded for not tapping it.

But I do think in a convention situation someone who was new might not think they had the option to say “nah let’s try something else” without a discussion that the X-card provides a prompt for.

Of course you can have the conversation without the card. But these methods did not arise in a vacuum, from nothing. They were created to handle a situation. Whether that situation existed equally across the world is another matter…

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Just quickly, so as not to derail, several years ago it started as “jokingly” associated with white supremacists, then it started to be actually used by white supremacists. I’ll just share a quick link here since you asked, but I don’t want to get off-track. If you (or anyone) wants to pick up this topic, I’m happy to spin off a thread or take it private.

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