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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