Labels, Safety Tools, and Zippo the Wonder Badger

Well, finally I have decided to say my piece about safety in RPGs, because hey, why not? But first I want to establish a bigger problem with parts of our community and then view it through that lens.

Let’s talk about labels, shall we?

We have, and have always, had a real problem with labels in our hobby. Let’s just pick a few?

Trad vs Indie – the classical dichotomy of TTRPGs.
Story Games vs OSR – how do you elf-game?
Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist – Ah, the joys of the Forge

In each instance, someone has had the audacity to try to define some aspect of the hobby and the shit has hit the metaphoric fan – propelled by some military-grade bad faith arguments. In most instances, these boiled down to two things:

  1. People wanted absolute, precise, and unimpeachable definitions of terms that were clearly on a spectrum, or else the supposition was null and void.
  2. People would cite extremes that create nonsense when many of these (especially GNS) are an attempt to create a language to discuss different techniques.

But, almost always these arguments boiled down to two very basic closing arguments.

  1. I don’t want ANY theory in my gaming space
  2. You don’t get to tell me what happens around my gaming table

The aversion to ‘theory’ is weird, considering at the core of almost all RPGs is a big old chunk of probability theory and game theory. But, no, we don’t want any theory near our magic maths rocks and complex decision-making games. No, not at all. 

The table autonomy argument (a kissing cousin of the ‘A new edition renders all pages of old editions blank and unplayable’ fallacy) is also nonsense because what happens at your table is the decision of your group, and your group alone. In my last game, we stopped halfway through the game for a platter of really good cheese and biscuits. Does that mean everyone else has to do it that way? Of course not. So if someone calls their game a story game, but you disagree, you don’t have to call it a story game. You can call it whatever you want! It’s that easy.

Those of you who are parents of teenagers might recognise some of these behaviours. ‘You’re not the boss of me now’ and ‘Oh God, stop telling me how to do things, what do you know!’ are pretty common refrains that I’ve heard as a parent and a teacher. It’s a thing.

This leads me to safety tools and I bet you can tell what I’m going to say.

First, safety tools aren’t new. Back in the day, we used to call it ‘common decency’ – if you know something is going to upset someone, you don’t go there. So, if you know someone has recently lost a child, you don’t take your game that way. If you know someone is extremely phobic of something, you don’t include that. If someone has a particularly harrowing job – say, in child protective services – you might want to avoid similar subjects. Why? Because you’re a decent person, and your friend across the table deserves that level of consideration. And this goes beyond the table too. Do you take your shoes off when you enter the house, if it’s a shoes-off house? Do you bring snacks if that’s your table’s agreement? Do you mind your language when the kids are still up and running around the house? Of course, you do. Without any safety tools! So why have them?

We have safety tools because increasingly, we aren’t playing with our friends around a table. We are playing with strangers, online and at conventions. You don’t know their personal foibles, or what’s going on in their lives – and they certainly haven’t signed up to some sort of emotional Hunger Games. So just ask them. 

And you might think, ‘Surely, there’s nothing that can be so harmful in a TTRPG?’

Well first, you’ve been stunned by what you don’t know. I only found out recently that someone I have played with for years has a real problem with slugs and snails. So, I don’t include them. Simple. And second, it’s not my place to make that decision on what’s hurtful or harmful – that’s for the person who feels that way to express. 

So we give them a space to express that, right? Why would you not?

Or let me put it another way – if a player arrived early to your game and took you aside and said ‘I’m really stoked about the game, but my dog just died – I’m playing my ranger and I think I’m just going to leave my animal companion out of it. If she gets killed, it’s well, you know?’

Do you go:

  1. Oh no, Bob, that’s terrible. Beefy was such a good old boy. Yeah, you do what you need to do and I’ll make sure we ignore the fact that Zippo the Wonder Badger should be by your side.

  1. Well, that sucks for you Bob – I’ve already balanced the game around you, and if you’re in the game, Zippo is in the game. So you better bring your a-game because that animal is in clear and present danger at my table!

So, safety tools aren’t new or revolutionary – they are just a way of codifying traditional habits of common decency when interacting with other human beings.

And that’s the problem, because remember, we hate labels. Safety tools stick a name to a behaviour.

The X-Card“GM, can we not go there, please? It’s not something I want to see around the table
Lines and Veils“This is a game of The One Ring. Why is someone being tortured like a SAW film?”
Fade to Black“Bob, we don’t want to sit here while you describe your sex scene, man!”
Open Table“Hey folks, I need to step away for a moment to stretch my legs”
Game Tags“Just letting you know, if you don’t like PVP, this game is full of it so caveat emptor”

And there are many others. So we know that throughout TTRPG history, labels have been … controversial. Additionally, and predictably, we know the arguments too.

People look for unimpeachable applications of these tools. What if someone doesn’t know they have a problem with subject X? What if someone really wants to hear someone’s soft porn fantasy? What happens if some idiot tries to X-Card a dice roll? Yeah, that’s fair-  there are edge cases, but something is better than none, right? If you want to be a dick, no set of suggestions is going to stop you being a dick, just to prove a point.

People hate the idea of someone creating a framework that they ‘must’ adhere to, especially in the sanctity of their own home. At their table. Their blessed table. And you know what? I agree. At their table, with their friends, as part of a long-standing gaming group, you probably don’t need to be establishing Lines and Veils at the start of each game. You might want to check in, once in a while, or show some emotional intelligence around people’s immediate personal affairs, but safety tools might not be needed.

However, and it’s a big however, in open online games and at conventions you have not one scooby doo what the issues the other people at the table are working through. You don’t have the familiarity for them to come and speak to you before, and they may not have the confidence to speak out in the middle of a table of strangers. In these circumstances, safety tools offer a familiar, harmless way of helping your fellow gamers out.

And if you’ve just thought “Oh, but topic X could be central to my game!?” then I suggest you work harder on your improv skills.

So there you are – when we give the basic tenets of common decency a label, like safety tools, we kick off a well-practised set of knee-jerk reactions that make zero sense under close examination. These reactions are based on the petulant reactions akin to those of teenagers, struggling to assert themselves in a world that isn’t always fair and isn’t always consistent. 

It would be easy, therefore, to suggest that some people grow the fuck up, but that’s not helping at all, and never has. Rather, I would suggest maybe considering what you currently do in your games, consciously or unconsciously, to ensure your games are OK for the people around the table, and then wonder whether your problem with safety tools is more about the label and less about the activity.

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