Trigger Warning Follow-Up
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.
So on Thursday of last week my latest blog post caused quite a stir on social media. It was all about how to use trigger warnings and why they’re important at the table. It seems like trigger warnings are a hugely controversial topic and I did not quite realize the reactions I’d get. Looking back I could have given some better clarification.
Before I move on with the rest of this post I just want to say to those of you who come here looking for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons resources and worldbuilding advice – have no fear. On Thursday we’ll get back into the swing of those things with a post I’m currently writing about the lingering injuries module in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
You May Not Need Trigger Warnings
I saw A LOT of people decry the entire notion of trigger warnings and X-cards. While some folk could have been a little less flippant (and in a very few cases less graphic or bigoted) in their responses, I get it. Many people don’t want to compromise their story and have been playing in the same group for years. They already know the limits of their friends and have an open dialogue about everything in the game which comes naturally. In other words everyone is comfortable with one another. I have this kind of relationships with two groups that I’ve been GMing since college. I don’t need to give trigger warnings and they feel comfortable telling me, “Yeah, I’m uncomfortable, move on,” on the rare occasion that it happens.
I would say that if you’re GMing a game with a new group, especially if it’s in a store or at a convention and you’re covering something questionable (like sexual assault), consider giving a warning (or better yet put it in the description of the event if there’s a posting for it). It will take 30 seconds and there’s a strong likelihood the group won’t care and you can move on without changing a thing in your game. If someone says, “I’m not cool with that,” then you as the GM have a choice to make. You can change the game or let the person know you’re going to proceed as is and let them bow out. In any case doing this before a game with strangers starts will save you and your players time and anguish in the long run.
Do I Have To Give Warnings for Everything?
I got a lot of sincere questions from people asking if they were expected to give trigger warnings for everything. One trusted friend gave a great example saying some people have serious issues with food addiction and did that mean he should be giving trigger warnings before playing a game in which he as GM gave a description of a feast?
My thought is that, no, you do not have to give trigger warnings for everything. I think most people sitting down to play a game have some assumptions about the content that game. For instance in Dungeons and Dragons players expect to have at least a PG-13 level of fantasy violence where they’re slaying monsters and villainous humanoids a la The Lord of the Rings. In a Cthulhu game players can assume all of the horrors and mental instability which comes in one of the works of H. P. Lovecraft. You don’t need to give a trigger warning for every little thing, but you should give warnings for the sensitive stuff that doesn’t happen in every game session of the system and setting your group is using (like sexual assault in D&D).
Just make sure that any new players know what they’re getting into. If you don’t know the person well and they’ve never played or heard of Monsterhearts or Cthulhu, a little advanced warning is courteous and only takes 30 seconds. Again this kind of thing is perfect for conventions and public play.
The food addiction example above is trickier. That’s the kind of thing that’s unexpected at many tables, but for some people is a serious trigger. The best thing you can do is create an environment of open communication and let your players know they can bring anything to you even if it seems trivial.
You Don’t Have to Change Your Game
In response to last week’s post I saw some people say, “I tell people if they need a trigger warning not to play in my game.” Flippancy aside, this message is actually a trigger warning and it’s a fair one for private home games. If you feel the story you’re trying to tell is more important than another person’s particular sensitivity, it’s good to be upfront about that. Don’t waste their time or your own and get into a situation where a person can be hurt or made upset. Odds are if you don’t want to adjust your game for a player with a particular sensitivity or trigger, that player doesn’t want to play in your game. If you can hash that out before rolling any dice, you’re both better off for it.
I’d advise courtesy and manners while giving this message to players, since a lot of flippancy may leave you with no one to play with. Not everyone needs trigger warnings, but most people hate playing with jerks.
A few GMs out there hadn’t heard the concept of the X-card and it made them nervous. They were worried players might abuse the card to skip through difficult combat encounters and other challenges, especially because the X-card comes with a no questions asked policy. While I’ve never heard of or experienced a player abusing an X-card in such a way, we’ve all been burned in the past by players abusing a rule to the point of ruining the game’s fun. It wouldn’t surprise me if this happened, especially if someone wanted to drive a GM crazy for choosing to use an X-card in the first place.
If you feel someone is abusing an X-card, talk to them about it. Ask them, “Hey you seem to be using the X-card a lot. Is there anything in particular that’s coming up in our games that’s making you use it?” If they don’t have a good answer, explain to them that the card is there to avoid upsetting situations, not as a cheat to get through challenges. If the abuse continues, tell the player you’re not sure that they’re the right fit for the game your playing. It doesn’t matter if they’re using a cheat or using the X-card all the time for legitimate reasons because in either case the statement is true.
Communication is Key
At the end of the day communication is key. I think people see the phrase, “trigger warning,” and it sets something off in them. Yes, that’s irony. I saw a lot of hate for trigger warnings followed by statements like, “My players and I talk through issues because we’re adults.” That’s awesome, people! If your communication is open and honest, you’re doing it right. So if your group is experienced, new, young, old, bawdy, family friendly, comfortable friends, or a group of strangers at a convention the most important thing is you have a great time gaming together.
I’m Not Trying to Ruin Your Game
I think I owe many of you an apology. When I posted about this on social media I let my inner marketing copywriter get the best of me and used the phrase, “Why you should use trigger warnings in your game.” As stated above not everyone needs them because they already have a gaming group full of friends and honest communication. I’m not here to ruin your games. If I give some advice on the blog that you don’t like, you don’t need to take it.
Sorry if you felt like I was shoving my apparently game-ruining (and according to some life-ruining) philosophies about tabletop games down your throats. Surely, that was not my intent. My intent was to provide advice for those looking for it and let people get a look into how I run games with questionable material. I’d love to hear what others do when they want to run a game with some more serious themes with groups of new people. Sound off in the comments below.
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June 30, 2015 @ 9:21 am
The X card isn’t just for negative effects. You can also use it for divergences from the intended tone of a game. A player (or GM) can tap the x card because an extended period of jokes is ruining the tension of a horror game (ocasional bits of humor help release tension, which then lets you build the tension higher. 5 minutes of standup kills the mood) or that your grimdark batman impression is kind of derailing the game of Ponyfinder, or whatever. (You could totally run a batman inspired pony, but make sure that Frank Millar isn’t too big of a part of the DNA.)
I wish that more GMs who think their story is more important than the people at the table would be as up front about it as some of the comments. I’ve played with a number of GMs like that, and their self focus and lack of empathy tends to make both for poor games and poor story telling.
June 30, 2015 @ 10:53 am
Good call on the X-card for other uses. Definitely a great thing if something is killing the game’s mood.
I agree about being upfront. Better to know what your game is and what you won’t compromise and tell the players rather than be a dick later on.
June 30, 2015 @ 1:40 pm
A few years ago, a couple of old friends moved to town and joined a campaign I was DMing. One of them pulled me aside, looking anxious and apologetic, and said, “I hate to ask this, but can we avoid stories about rape? My last DM had my character get raped without warning me about it, and it kind of ruined the game for me.” That’s why trigger warnings matter: saying “I can’t play with them, they ruin my story,” is saying “my story is more important than my friends ability to enjoy themselves, and our game.” Obviously, communication is key, and that goes for the X-Card, too: “Do you all think we need a trigger warning card?” could lead to interesting discussion: “Nah, we never touch anything triggering.” or “If we had one, I’d feel more comfortable exploring issues more complex than ‘kill goblins, take stuff.'” If you have the kind of group that’s likely to sneer, “Gee, Dave, can we talk about your FEELINGS some more?” then the conversation will take five seconds and you’ll move on. If it makes *one* person at the table more comfortable, then I feel like a GM who won’t at least talk about it isn’t doing their job. (GM’s job: facilitate a good time for five or six people that gives equal or greater value than watching two good movies, back to back.)
The X-card could be abused, but there’s a cost: if a player hits the X-card to get out of a difficult combat, it has two effects: it either diminishes the X-card’s importance (because everyone knows why they did it), or it makes everyone at the table think that player was triggered by something in that scene, and they’ll always be wondering about it. Who really wants to look like they have emotional issues with rakshasas, when all they really wanted was to get out of a tough combat.
June 30, 2015 @ 1:43 pm
Good points all around here. I would game with you any day!
June 30, 2015 @ 2:18 pm
I had a game where I was approached by two players after having the lines and veils discussion (before I had a name for it) one of them asked not to have any discussion of vomit. The other asked not to have spiders. One player had a physical reaction to talking about vomiting, the other was afraid of spiders.
In my very next campaign, where neither of those players were part of the group, one of my players played a character who’s go to activity was vomiting out a swarm of spiders to destroy his enemies. (Thanks pathfinder, I really needed the spell “vomit swarm” to be a thing…)
June 30, 2015 @ 3:16 pm
Just goes to show you… all kinds of awesome people play games.
June 30, 2015 @ 5:49 pm
Thank you for pointing out that saying “If you need a trigger warning, this is the wrong table for you” is itself a trigger warning. It seems like common sense to me, but so does not rubbing your friends’ noses in past trauma in the name of fun, so I thought maybe I was wrong.
Too many people seem to think that being edgy for the sake of it makes them the second coming of GRRM.
June 30, 2015 @ 5:51 pm
Yeah being edgy for the sake of edginess doesn’t make a great story either. Some tables can handle themes and ideas others cannot. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a good idea to lay it out there if you’re getting into darker territory. Thanks for the kind words about the post.