When I started playing D&D, I was thirteen years old and thought that games were for winning. Perhaps relatedly, I didn’t have a whole lot of fun with tabletop RPGs until I was out of college and it clicked that the thing I liked was telling stories, not solving puzzles or somehow “beating” my friends. Part of that was my own growth, but part of it was becoming immersed in a gaming culture that was interesting, supportive, and—above all—safe.
I was lucky. My friends think hard about play and boundaries, and creating safe gaming spaces runs deep in how we interact with each other and engage in play. But establishing and maintaining a safe space with a new group or with strangers isn’t always easy, and it helps to have conscious mechanisms and mantras in place to provide structure.
The methods below—a combination of general principles and more formal safety mechanisms—are the ones I use to emphasize safety in my games, especially when I’m playing with strangers or folks who are new to collaborative storytelling. That said, no one mechanism is the key to smooth play, and there’s no shortcut to never ever having things get weird or magically fixing them when they do. Strategies help, but the most important thing will always be to listen to the folks at your table.
Have the Conversation
In well-intentioned groups, harm often comes from absentmindedness, not malice.
Games are made up of players, and players have minds and intention. This may be obvious, but I’m going to say a lot of obvious things in the next 1800 words just for the purpose of being sure they’ve been said.
Which is, actually, the point: the first step toward building a safe(r) table is to start talking about safety.
In well-intentioned groups, harm typically comes from absentmindedness, not malice. If you and your table have a pointed, explicit, and intentional conversation about safety before play, the topic will be closer to the surface of everybody’s mind. Of course, just saying “BE SAFE” really loud at your friends has limited impact, so the rest of these sections will fill out some things to talk about.
Set Up Boundaries
Make time to set up explicit boundaries around things you don’t want to see in play or at the table. The common shorthand for this is lines and veils, which gets at the idea of identifying narrative lines that the table won’t cross—even off screen—and places where players would prefer to draw a veil (i.e., topics that the story can cover, but that players don’t want to go over in detail).
Some games build this idea into their setup, even if they don’t use the words “lines and veils”: Microscope asks players to go around the table and make a list of things they definitely do want to see in play as well as a list of things they definitely don’t; Good Society has players collaboratively set the tone for gender and power dynamics in a game (which sets a ceiling for how much institutional sexism the players will encounter) and asks players to list other topics they’d like to avoid; Monsterhearts 2 asks players to think carefully about what Skins (character classes) they want to include, as each Skin has challenging themes woven into it, and suggests that players request that a scene “fade to black” if it’s not something they want to play through or see in detail.
Don’t be precious about ideas you have to throw away. There’ll be another good one soon.
When I facilitate or GM games, I always model setting these boundaries. This serves two purposes: it shows other players how to word the request, and, for the players, it removes the pressure of being the first one to put a restriction on play. Typically I draw a line at sexual assault (meaning that I don’t want mention of sexual assault in the story at all) and ask that we draw veils over scenes involving suicide (meaning that suicide can happen in the story, but I don’t want it described in detail or set up as a point of suspense). Other times, I’ll ask that we avoid topics like transphobia or homophobia—but not always. It depends on the day, the game, and the people I’m playing with.
Things like sexual assault and suicide are big and fairly commonly accepted topics to avoid, but a safe table will respect any boundaries that a player puts forth. If someone doesn’t want air travel or religion in a game, it’s the other players’ responsibility to respect that; ditto if they don’t want heavy rain or scenes set in kitchens. Even if a request feels strange to you, don’t ask for explanation. No one needs to justify why they’ve requested a line or veil be drawn.
Make notes of the boundaries people set up, and then respect them. If you think something might be on the edge, ask; if people at the table forget about any one line, remind them.
Your list of lines or veiled topics should be a living document (conceptually or literally—I don’t always write things down, but you could), and should grow and shift with your game. Just because a player doesn’t remember every single thing they want to avoid before play starts doesn’t mean they should have to suffer through a game that makes them uncomfortable.
Make It Easy to Opt Out
Once play starts, give players easy ways to signal discomfort or opt out of a narrative direction. The most popular safety mechanic for this is the X-Card, an index card with a big X drawn on it that players tap when they feel uncomfortable with the game for any reason. When a player signals the X-Card, play halts, rewinds, and the table tries whatever they were doing a different way. The X-Card has limitations, but I’ve found that its greatest strength is that its presence reminds people that it’s okay to self-advocate.
How much encouragement a group needs depends on the scenario. When I play with my most frequent RPG group, we don’t actually have a physical X-Card anymore—we’ve played with each other for years, and now that all our play is remote we’ve found that we’re comfortable verbally opting out or asking the table to try something different. But when I play at conventions (even if I’m not the GM!), where I don’t know the other players at all, I give each player their own X-Card to make it as physically accessible as possible. I also make sure that everyone at the table knows that they should respect X-Card signaling any way it comes—tapping the card in the middle of the table, flipping the one next to them, saying “X-Card” out loud, whatever the signaler manages to do first.
Make it clear to your players that advocating for their or other peoples’ safety is in no way “ruining” anyone’s fun.
This might seem excessive—is it really that much harder to reach across a table and tap a card than it is to flip over the one next to you?—but the point of safety mechanisms isn’t to min-max some sort of effort-to-player-comfort ratio, it’s to do what we can to establish and reinforce that the table’s priority is the safety of the players. When I’m playing in a group of strangers, I don’t know anything about my tablemates—if they tend to withdraw physically when stressed, they might not be able to make themselves reach across a table or make noise when they need to. Flipping a card next to them is much less physically obtrusive while still being noticeable. Having multiple ways to signal that something needs to change makes those signals more accessible and provides physical reminders that we should prioritize player experience over personal narratives.
The X-Card isn’t the only opt-out method (I’ve seen systems that involve raising a fist and knocking on the table, among others), but it is the most well-known. It also only works if it’s respected: once someone signals their discomfort, it’s the rest of the table’s job to adjust such that everyone can resume play comfortably, no justification needed. This might mean taking a break, changing directions narratively, or skipping over a scene—there’s no prescribed three-step method, because no set of steps will work for every table every time. Communicate with your table to get back on track, and don’t be precious about ideas you have to throw away—good ideas are a renewable resource; there’ll be another one soon.
Debrief and Decompress
Sometimes, folks can propel themselves through a sticky situation in the heat of the moment, and don’t actually identify discomfort until after play is over. Find a way to debrief with your table that works for you.
Some games recommend debriefing immediately after a session, but if that’s not feasible for you—people are busy, and I’m often tired after playing for a few hours—then you can either schedule a time to talk later or just have open group or individual chats and make a point of checking in. Similarly, some games also have lists of questions they recommend the GM or facilitator ask players at the end of play. You can use these, add to them, or adjust them as needed. The important thing is to very obviously create space for players to offer feedback… which, because people are often conflict-averse, often means both actively soliciting it and creating spaces where it can be offered unprompted.
If you’re playing in an ongoing campaign, breaks can also give players a chance to decompress after difficult scenes or arcs. Plan on taking 5–10 minute breaks during sessions, even if you don’t think you need to, and take bigger, session-long breaks from play after arcs finish. This will give everyone at the table time to shake out and process the RPG tension, and spending time doing something other than an RPG (we have a lot of movie nights in my crew), can give everyone a chance to spend time together without the pressure of a story or the screen of in- or out-of-character action.
Above All: Prioritize People
People are the most important part of tabletop RPGs. Not the characters, the real, human people at the table (or the mic, or the keyboard). No mechanic, narrative choice, or character moment is more important than the safety and comfort of any single person playing the game.
If you’re still reading, you probably already know that! But, as before, it’s worth saying. The more you say it, the more you internalize it; the more you internalize it, the closer it will be to the front of your mind when it matters.
Make it clear to your players that advocating for their or other people’s safety is in no way “ruining” anyone’s fun. This means saying those words, but it also means standing up for people’s boundaries and acknowledging when they set new ones. It means keeping bad dads out of play when a player says they don’t want to deal with them, and it means agreeing to fade to black when someone says they’re not up to talking through a scene about torture today. It means saying “sorry, no worries, we’ll try it another way” when someone flags that they’re not comfortable with the body-swap scenario you just proposed. It also means being proactive and looking ahead to things that might make other players uncomfortable, even if they haven’t brought them up themselves, and checking in when something might be on the edge.
Fostering a healthy community, even if it’s just a community made of five people playing a game together, is hard work. You’ll probably fuck up. I fuck up all the time. But owning your mistakes, talking to your friends, and always, always, always prioritizing the people at the table is the best possible way to keep everyone okay and work through things if they do go sideways.
This guide is meant to be an introduction into how to broadly approach safety at the table, but the TTRPG Safety Toolkit by Kienna Shaw is a good resource for additional heuristics and concepts that you might want to apply or be aware of during and around play. Use what works for your table, but remember that there’s no magic bullet for interpersonal relationships—safety is about process and habit, and about making changes to both as your game and players change!
Zora Gilbert cares a whole lot about words, kids, and comics. Find them at @zhgilbert on twitter, and find the comics they edit at datesanthology.com.