Play Safe: consent in gaming

by Chris Cunliffe (1,804 words)

Play Safe: consent in gaming
April 5, 2020 Chris Cunliffe

This month, Chris Cunliffe discusses some topical issues in roleplaying and the concept of consent around the gaming table. 

Roleplaying games (RPGs) have come a long way since 1974, when Dungeons & Dragons was first released. The hobby has become much more accepted than it once was, and standards have improved commensurately. Today, many players crave different things in their games — what evolved from wargames into a system that was intended to simulate small unit tactics now demands so much more: more complex narrative structures, as well as rule systems to support and to create them. 

Systems like Fate, Cortex, and Powered by the Apocalypse are increasingly popular because they move away from simply trying to mechanise combat, but to mechanise the story — with narrative beats, genre limitations, and allowing the players to take more narrative control than they could back in the days when the gamesmaster (GM) was in charge.

However, with greater nuance of story, more complexity of theme, and a more aware audience comes the desire to include more difficult material. This isn’t entirely new — games such as Call of Cthulhu have always tackled horror and insanity, and even Dungeons & Dragons has long included monsters like the Giant Spider, potentially problematic for arachnophobes. 

For a long time this hasn’t been considered a big problem. Tabletop RPGs have relied on the fact that the GM usually knows the players well (except at conventions, but that’s a somewhat different style and challenge again). The GM has written the game with their players in mind, and they’re all friends. If there’s a problem, they can just talk about it. Right?

Maybe not. It can be difficult to bring up a problem with friends — how do you do it without being accusatory towards the GM, who you know has poured lots of time and effort into this storyline and world? What if the other players think you’re being too sensitive? What if the issue is simply something that you don’t want to have to talk about, especially with a group?

And, of course, there is also convention play, where the GM is likely to have never met the players before. There may have been an opportunity to discuss things online, but it’s not guaranteed. GMs can be encouraged to include content warnings on their games for any potentially difficult material they might include, as well as a blurb for the game. But different people have different comfort levels; how many GMs would think to warn about the inclusion of spiders? There’s also the element of surprise — GMs might not want to give too many hints of what is to come. 

And so safety tools are starting to emerge for the roleplaying table. One of the simplest and most well-known is the X-Card, first created by John Stavropoulos in 2016. Used a great deal at conventions, where the GM isn’t going to know the players, it has started to gain more traction in the home space as well. It’s also used at gaming stores, where the playerbase might stay fairly constant but also include new faces from time to time. It simply states that every player (including the GM) has access to an X-Card — simply a piece of card with an ‘X’ on it. They might have one each, or simply one on the table within easy reach. If anybody invokes the X-Card, then play stops. If the problematic component can be removed, it is — and play can resume happily. If not, then the scene comes to an end and play resumes. If it isn’t clear what the problematic element is, then the GM can ask; but an essential part of the rules behind the X-Card is that no explanation is required of the player that invoked it. 

Of course, it might still be difficult to actually invoke the X-Card for the first time. The system suggests that the GM encourages people to use it for anything that they don’t want to see in the game, rather than simply high-risk, ‘triggering’ content, in order both to normalise it as well as to make sure that everyone understands it. 

The system has received criticism. Some say that it’s a very blunt tool where a ‘one size fits all’ solution is inappropriate. Some people worry that somebody will invoke the card about a subject which is inherent to their scenario — for example, invoking it because they don’t like how drow are handled at the start of an adventure set in the Underdark. Some people complain that it opens the game to abuse because somebody could X-Card a bad roll, because they don’t like the potential outcome.

Another popular system that sidesteps these issues is referred to as ‘Lines and Veils’, which was coined back in 2004 by Ron Edwards in his book Sex & Sorcery, a supplement for the Sorcerer roleplaying game. It involves having a discussion with the players before a game starts about what they want to ‘draw a line’ under, and what they want to place behind a ‘veil’. 

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

Anything with a line under it simply cannot happen in the game. It doesn’t happen in play, it doesn’t occur in character backstories, it doesn’t even get brought up in conversation. Anything behind a ‘veil’ can be alluded to, and can be included in the story, but shouldn’t occur live — and if about to, the scene fades to black. Commonly, for example, non-consensual sex might have a line, whilst consensual sex is behind a veil. Similarly, different levels of phobias could be discussed in this style — some players might be fine with hearing about spiders, but don’t want to actually encounter giant ones in the dungeon. For others, even mentioning them might cause a panic. This is a system that I expect most tables have picked up largely intuitively over the years (as mine has). 

And that last part is what is seen as one of the weaknesses of this system: the fact that it does require that conversation from the start. The initial discussions the system requires can themselves be as uncomfortable for people as when topics they’re sensitive to emerge in play. As with the X-Card, there should be no need for explanations — but that still doesn’t necessarily make that conversation easier. Over years of experience as a GM, or if you’re with friends, you can pick up on this stuff; but this often (or necessarily) means that mistakes have been made along the way in order for you to gain that knowledge. 

A third popular system is called Script Change, designed by Brie Beau Sheldon in 2017. It’s similar to X-Card, but more nuanced (and therefore more complex). Script Change originally included three cards, or instructions, that can be used: Rewind (backing up to a point in a scene so that it can be repeated whilst avoiding a problematic element), Fast Forward (if a player feels the need to fade to black or simply move forward in time) and Pause (to call a pause or a break, if things are too intense). In 2018 it was updated to include three more cards: Instant Replay (allowing a pause to discuss the recent action, either to seek clarification or to share enthusiasm about something that happened), Frame-by-Frame (if you are worried that something might cause a problem and you want to play the scene with care), and Resume (play as normal, to be used by the player that instigated the script change).

This system comes with many benefits. It can help the pacing of the game outside of issues of ‘triggering’ and problematic content. I’m sure we’ve all played through a scene that was far longer than it needed to be, with the characters just engaged in small talk because they are waiting for the GM to end it and the GM thinking they are just enjoying the interaction — a call to Fast Forward could fix that, for example. Like Lines and Veils, it also encourages a discussion before play starts; but a more vague one that simply encourages the players to agree on a ‘rating’ for the game (like with films and games) rather than necessitating exhaustive lists of troublesome topics be drawn up in advance.

Most recently, Monte Cook games released a book called Consent in Gaming by Sean K Reynolds and Shanna Germain. This book goes into some introductory concepts around consent and keeping your gaming space safe. It briefly discusses some of the tools mentioned here, and also introduces a checklist which a GM can give to their players before the game begins. Like Script Change, it encourages the use of ‘movie ratings’ to provide a quick guide for content expectations. It also lists potential triggers, asking players to rate them as green (indicating consent for this to be included), yellow (indicating that this should be veiled or offstage) or red (hard line — should not be included). It also provides space for players to include additional topics or themes. 

This provides many of the benefits we’ve seen in earlier systems, but with the additional benefit of some distance. It can be easier to fill in a form and give to the GM to collate than to discuss sensitive matters in person. The book encourages players to use other systems alongside it, such as the X-Card. Obviously, it’s not perfect — no tool ever will be. For example, it requires advance preparation, so wouldn’t work well at conventions.

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

There is some resistance in the tabletop community to using these tools. Not only has the community split into camps over which is the best to use, but there have been several complaints about hypothetical situations in which players might use them in bad faith rather as the safety mechanism they are designed to be. Some argue that they shouldn’t be needed — the GM should know their players well enough, and people should feel comfortable to discuss things if required. 

This writer has only ever acted as GM for friends, and has made mistakes despite having what should be the ideal situation. I’ve seen players become uncomfortable with the behaviour of other players, and I’ve introduced material which later I realised I shouldn’t have. I’ve wanted to discuss not doing things with players, and not felt able to, even though they are friends. So I’m glad we have these tools, and I look forward to seeing them improve with discussion and use, rather than going away.