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

Wow! I had no idea. I also don’t want to derail us, so I’ll just quickly say thank you for the link. Wild. Cheers!

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I’m curious about the ideal of “without pausing the scene or breaking character”. Outside of LARP, is this an ideal?

I don’t find myself “in character” in a way that could be broken in the first place, but then, I don’t have much experience with more emotionally intense or character-focused games.

As an aside, I think Ron has played more bad games with difficult people than I can possibly fathom. Maybe, again, because my games rarely have any element of emotional vulnerability, and so much less opportunity for pain and abuse. In my games, the only person who might abuse me is me, when I criticize myself for errors.

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In fact, it’s not—it’s one of the key points of Ron’s opinion there in the second article.

About the fear of interrupting other’s fun

Another thing that I’ve heard many times is that ‘safety tools’ remove hesitations or fears that make people refrain from speaking up. We often remain silent because of “peer pressure” or because we don’t want to “break immersion” or “ruin other people’s fun.” Conversely, when the discussion about content editing is ‘camouflaged’ behind ritual keywords and game procedures, people have the sensation that it’s still part of the game, so it’s not interrupting the activity.

“Inside roleplaying culture, we created an artificial distinction between ‘in’ and ‘out’ of character, which is extremely crude and inaccurate,” Ron observes.

He recalls what he said before: the medium of roleplay is listening and reincorporating, it’s not the record of what was spoken. Some people, he says, feel like they’re the editors of everything that gets spoken at all times. There’s this feeling that if somebody says something in the wrong moment, they’re going to ruin the “final cut” that we’re producing. If we see roleplay like this, then “yes, it’s a fragile medium.” But it doesn’t need to be like this: we’re not on air and we can openly talk about what we’re doing. We can comment, we can edit, and nothing bad happens.

Canyon, I don’t think you’re missing anything. I agree with what Ron said there and I’m puzzled as well by the focus I see with a lot of role-players about staying in character or preserving or editing the scene for a hypothetical audience. I remember talking with a few role-players at Ropecon and getting stuck on this point of “but well, I like to keep the scene flowing”. To me this attitude sounds very far from what I consider functional play.

In my experience, table dialogue is important to comment and continuously re-assess what we are doing. Yes, if you’re doing well you’ll enter a state of “flow” where you are engaging with the game without active reflection, but the distinction between in-character and out-of-character speak is not really as simple as some seem to make it.

Especially as I started to understand each person’s responsibilities (authorities) to make roleplaying happen, I started to play looser and looser with who’s allowed to speak when, since we all end up knowing instinctively if what someone says is a comment or actually introducing content into the game. The best groups I have played with (some of these with total beginners) have done this effortlessly. In this context speaking up if you don’t like something is not a problem, even if someone else has authority over it.

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I’d say it depends, but in larp it’s definitely a key point that transition from in-character to out-of-character is much more… Ritualised? Since you are embodying your character, everything you do, they do, unless otherwise mandated. So having tools to mediate the transition is a pretty big point in most larps, even safety aside.

As @Froggy notes, tabletop is much more elastic with the ic-ooc boundary and essentially requires you to break character to handle mechanics. There are different degrees of this (myself I’d still rather have some form of ritualisation and too much ooc talk can be disruptive to my experience), but yeah.

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Personally, I prefer tabletop play with MORE chatter/out-of-character talk. Meta-talk (talking about playing), reacting to what’s happening, commentary, and so on, is generally welcome and improves the game.

However, I think it’s about communication (the information being put across) more than the actual act of talking itself. So if it’s possible to communicate the same thing in a more economical way, or without pausing play, that’s a nice option to have.

I notice this in particular with online play. Some games have a rule or a mechanism, where, for example, a person picks up a die or hands out a token. It’s tactile and quick - you make eye contact, you slide it across the table, you put it in someone’s hand, whatever. In online play, you have to interrupt the conversation, get the right person’s attention, indicate that you’re doing so, then maybe they have to write it down, etc.

It doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but it does slow it down a lot and is less fun/fluid.

So in many cases I do find it’s nice to have the option for a more quick/efficient communication channel. In the case of hand signals, I don’t (generally) particularly care about the breaking of “in-character”, but I do like that you can do it while talking, without a pause, and keep the game moving. (The main nice thing being that you don’t have to butt in and interrupt, but can do it “in real time”, as the game continues.)

I would use something like a hand signal for something simple but important, and especially if it applies for observers (players currently not in the spotlight). If it’s nuanced and detailed, then better to pause and talk it out.

That said, I do also like that it could be a way for players who don’t like to talk or “break character” during play to actually communicate these things (where they normally wouldn’t, or would find it annoying to). I’ve definitely played with people who are very much into the “acting” part and want to embody their characters. I bet they would be more likely to use a tactile or visual cue than to pause talking/playing and to “break character”.

Another example is a prop: let’s say you’re a GM playing two different NPCs in a scene. If you can have a hat which you always put on when you’re the Duchess, you can save a lot of time and trouble by putting it on and taking it off as you play the scene (without having to explain each time that now you’re speaking as the Duchess, and now you’re speaking as her servant again, and now… so on).

This may actually be, come to think of it, one of the positive features of the X card: if you follow the instructions of a tactile cue (e.g. reaching forward and tapping an actual, physical card), that’s easier/less intrusive than having to interrupt other people talking, which could be a beneficial thing for some players (esp. if you’re a quieter person playing with folks who are loud, domineering, talk fast, or something similar).

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I think (and this is just my speculation) that the centrality of convention play to the use of the X-card is key here. It isn’t just protecting the shy (though it is also that), it is requesting a pre-commitment from the boisterous/edgy that they might not have consciously acknowledged. It could be anyone’s first convention, after all - not just the shy, but the raunchy/aggressive player as well. They might never have even had to consider modulating themselves in play before they came. Even explaining what the X-card is does the inexperienced con-goer a service because it’s a reminder that not everyone’s groups play even the same games the same way.

I would also note that there’s often printed/enforced Codes of Conduct for organized play (here’s the Pathfinder Society’s) which make the X-card unnecessary. You’re playing stock characters in controlled situations (a published module) and have a Code of Conduct explicitly enforceable by ejection from the event. The opportunity to introduce new fictional material really doesn’t exist in Pathfinder module play, so there’d be no need for an X-card (for the most part.)

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we’re not on air and we can openly talk about what we’re doing. We can comment, we can edit, and nothing bad happens.

In the majority of RPG play, I think this is accurate.

In some RPG play, though, people are at the table for a form of virtual experience, feeling like you really are there in the fiction looking out through your character’s eyes. Some people absolutely love this, but also find that it takes some time and effort to get into, and some momentum to sustain, and that any sort of interruptions to the “just imagining you’re there” experience should be handled with care.

It could definitely be argued that “talking and reincorporating” is a bad medium for virtual experience. Perhaps so! Honestly, I think “talking and reincorporating” is a pretty bad medium for tackling challenges too! But I’ve had some successes with both, and they’ve been awesome in pretty unique ways, so I like to think they remain viable considerations for design and play.

To that end, I’ve gotten good mileage out of ritual gestures or phrases to clearly but unobtrusively signal something. I get the impression the LARP world often does likewise.

Finally, I should note that a hybrid option is often my favorite, e.g. where a player raises their hand to signal “I am no longer speaking in character”, then makes a quick comment, then lowers their hand to return to “we’re all in character” mode. So the option is there to “comment, edit, and talk openly” to some extent, but in a structured way that attempts to accommodate other priorities too.

As for combining safety procedures with immersion procedures, I don’t think I’ve ever had to troubleshoot that, but it sounds like something worth getting right. :slight_smile: I would guess that the X-card would be a perfect tool for that, but I can’t speak from experience.

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I once played in a Con game with the “Support Flower”. It’s a laminated thing you put on the table, with various feedback phrases on it. Something like this:


The idea was that you could just silently reach forward and put your finger on one of the “petals” to communicate something.

It was a little awkward to use - not everyone could reach, the text was too small, your hand would block someone else’s ability to read, maybe distracting visually, etc - but it actually felt really really good to use, as well. Non-participating players could communicate nonverbally, for instance, without interrupting the scene.

It was actually that experience that got me thinking about doing something similar with hand signals (which wouldn’t have some of the challenges of the written “flower”, which probably has way too many fairly similar options on it, anyway). I think there’s some potential there for a really good tool (or at least a very different dynamic at the table that’s worth trying).

Based on the previous comments, I think that it would be a good idea to distinguish between “safety tools” and “nonverbal communication tools”.

I mean, if the main purpose of a tool is to allow the communication of certain things without interrupting the ongoing verbal flow, associating it to safety would be misleading in two ways. First, it would be an unnecessary limitation: that device could be indeed used also for a lot of other things not related to safety. Second, it would give the impression that the tool itself is creating safety; while, at least for most tabletop games, the tool is just allowing a certain communication to happen non-verbally, but safety could be guaranteed even without the tool (by making the same communication verbally).

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Safety measures don’t create safety in other fields without being used properly, I’m not sure why RPGs would need different terminology. A handrail on a staircase is a safety feature, but if you don’t put your hand on it, it doesn’t do anything. Even if you do put your hand on it, you might still fall! I would still call it a “safety feature” though. This may be a regional language thing as well.

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@JDCorley, are you referring to my comment above?

@Bille.Boo Yea, I think so! Hopefully this response is long enough to go in.

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My point was not that the tool does not create safety if not used properly.

My point was: 1. that the goal/scope/purpose of such a tool seems much wider than safety alone, and 2. that the tool doesn’t increase the range of messages that we could convey, it just provides a different way of conveying them, a different channel.

While a handrail on a staircase has obviously safety as its main function, and its function cannot be replaced in any ways in its absence (I cannot put my hand on thin air to sustain myself).

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A handrail might have aesthetic purposes as well as safety-enhancing purposes… I don’t know. I find “safety tool” for the X-Card, Script Change, etc. fairly accurate for what most people consider using them for here. Better than “hit points”! (“What do you mean I lose nine hit points, that was only one hit?!”)

I suppose my comments about hand signals and communication could be seen as off-topic in a conversation about “safety tools” (some of the ones I have in mind are only tangentially related to “safety”). I apologize if I started a tangent!

I do think that the potential for using hand signals for some milder forms of “safety” could be really useful (e.g. a gesture indicating to Veil something, or to slow down/lean into some moment in play). A simple “careful here” would be a good gesture, as well (which could lead to a conversation, or not, depending on the group).