So it probably goes without saying, but in this post I’ll be discussing trigger warnings at the game table. While I won’t go too in-depth into any one topic, there will be mention of some topics that might make people upset. Just a heads up because I love you all and don’t wish to offend.
I’m almost 30. When I started playing tabletop RPGs as a 10-year-old kid, my games were a lot like The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. By that I mean simple tales with simple themes of good folk battling evil folk and scoring some treasure. As I got older my games became more complex and sometimes verged into themes found in the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin (that’s Game of Thrones to all you HBO viewers out there). Plots certainly became more complex but the stories of my games also dealt with more adult issues. While these themes and ideas made for more interesting narratives and more realistic characters, many of these issues can make players, even fully grown adult players, uncomfortable. Suicide, sexual assault, sexual intercourse, physical and mental abuse, torture, addiction, physical illness, mental illness, and a lot of other serious, complicated real world topics can make for a moving story, but they can also ruin a game for a person who just showed up to have a good time and forget about the worries of the world for a bit.
It’s a Game First, Art Second
Personally when I read or tell a story, anything goes. As a professional writer and producer, I believe in a storyteller’s right to portray these topics as they choose and I believe an audience has the right to not watch, gripe, and criticize as they choose. That’s not to say I’m always comfortable with tasteless storytelling where gratuitous violence or offensive material of any kind is itself the entertainment, but I am comfortable saying storytellers should be able to make what they want and people should be allowed to pick it apart and/or not consume the product as they see fit.
All of that being said, remember that role-playing games are games first and the art of storytelling second. Players and a GM tell a story together for their own fun and entertainment. It should not be a GM or player forcing the story they want down the throats of others. People have given up hours of precious free time to come and sit at a table, often with strangers at a friendly local game store or convention, and don’t need to leave the experience feeling uncomfortable, offended, or ostracized. That kind of stuff doesn’t get people to come back to a game. I’m reminded of a Vice article in which a DM forced an NPC onto a female player’s character. That player left the table in tears and never returned to the game. I think most of us can agree we do not want anything to get that far at our tables even if most people think a topic is harmless. These situations are even more likely to come up at conventions and organized play events where the group may be strangers to one another and have no idea who is comfortable with what. We need to be able to put all people involved in the game at ease. That doesn’t mean these triggering topics are off-limits, but it does mean we need to be mindful and respectful of our fellow gamers.
Here are some handy tips and methods for keeping everything cool and comfortable at the table when you story heads into questionable territory.
Ways to Mitigate Trigger Activation
When someone has a visceral uncomfortable or hurt reaction to an event or description in a game, a trigger response has been activated for that person. Here are a few ways to avoid trigger activation.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
When it comes to trigger activations, nothing helps more than simply talking with your players. Before you get started ask them what style of games they like to play and what books, television, and movies they like to watch. Remember that just because a person enjoys book containing a triggering topic doesn’t mean they’ll enjoy it in the shared environment of a role-playing game but it gives you a good idea of where to start. This is also a great way to break the ice before getting going during a game at a convention or local friendly game store with a bunch of new players.
Remember to set up questionable events with trigger warnings before you play. If you aren’t sure about how a description or event will go down with the players, ask them first. “Hey this adventure includes a possible suicide, but let me know if you’re not ok with that because I can change things very easily. You don’t have to tell me why, just let me know if it’s a problem,” is a great way to give a warning. Make sure the players know they aren’t inconveniencing you or ruining the fun of the game for anyone else. Don’t make them give you a reason why the topic makes them uncomfortable since that defeats the purpose of the warning. Be cool. Everyone is there to have a good time.
If you’re playing a longer campaign made up of multiple sessions, spend some time talking to your players about what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable throughout the run of the game. Let them know they can come and speak with you if they have a problem with anything that comes up. Establish trust by listening to concerns, and by not asking probing, personal questions when concerns are brought up. In addition to providing trigger warnings, talk to them after a questionable event as a check-in to make sure everyone’s still feeling good about the campaign and story. It’s definitely better to over communicate than to have a friend get upset and leave a game.
Set Ground Rules
Before a long campaign there’s time to talk with your players and go over a list of questionable topics that might come up in the story. Why not immediately check off all the things that someone says are off-limits for them? You could email the list to people or talk with people one-on-one so they can respond individually and not in front of the rest of the group. Then you can just let your players know topics that won’t be part of your game so they don’t bring them up at the table as well.
If you’re playing with a group of good friends, you could always have a larger discussion about setting ground rules before a game starts. A discussion like this can even allow for ground rules to be more specific. Rather than removing an entire topic from your story (e.g. physical disease) you might be able to cross off a specific item within that topic (e.g. a specific terminal illness).
Tap the Card
Setting ground rules and lots of communication are great, but what happens when you don’t have the time cover everything before a convention game with a group of strangers? Or maybe you’re playing a game with so many questionable topics, like Monsterhearts, that going over a list would be maddening and time-consuming.
On an episode of The Round Table podcast where we discussed sexual harassment at the game table panelist Barak Blackburn brought up the idea of placing an index card in the middle of the table. Whenever any person for any reason felt uncomfortable with what was happening in the game’s story, that person could tap the card without a word and the GM would simply fast forward and move the story past the scene and the topic wouldn’t be touched again. If you’re running a short game with a lot of questionable material and don’t want to upset anyone, this is a great trick. It’s commonly known as an X-card, because the DM typically draws a large X across the index card.
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June 25, 2015 @ 9:25 am
When using an x card, if is a good idea for the GM to use it early in the session. That sets a social norm that it is OK to use it.
June 25, 2015 @ 9:37 am
One way to do ground rules is called lines and veils. Before you start everyone gets together and discusses two categories of things. Lines are things that just don’t happen in the game at all. Veils are things that can happen, but do so off screen.
June 25, 2015 @ 12:43 pm
These are awesome ideas!!! Good stuff!!!
June 25, 2015 @ 4:04 pm
Every moment of every day whatever you want a ‘trigger warning’ for is happening out there, somewhere. Someone is being raped, murdered, dying of cancer, whatever. Every minute. By ignoring what you can’t see, and asking other people not to bring it up, ie a trigger warning, you are complicit in these actions, because you are choosing to ignore the darkness in the world rather than acknowledging it and working against it.
Don’t indulge in weakness, persevere to find strength.
June 25, 2015 @ 4:15 pm
Thanks for your opinion. I have to say though, we’re talking about a game and a fictional story which is meant as a break from reality. Giving a trigger warning and keeping communication open isn’t being complicit in rape, it’s being a good friend and fellow gamer. Be cool. Some gaming groups can have those things, some can’t. If you don’t need trigger warnings at your table then that’s great. If people do and want some advice then this blog post is for them.