Building Reusable Convention Adventures Part 3: Safety Tools


I was going to leave the discussion of safety tools for nearly the end of this series, but lately I’ve seen and heard about some arguments when GMs request safety tools and the groups they GM with don’t want them. As someone who formerly stood against safety tools, I feel since I’ve changed my tune it’s a good time to talk about them. Also, you should pick a safety mechanic that goes well with your games, so it’s a good idea to learn about the options and think about them as you work. Just like all other tools and gaming mechanics, you can always make adjustments for your specific needs.

What Are Safety Tools?

Safety tools are communication mechanics designed to prevent people from being exposed to content that might otherwise make the game unenjoyable for them, ruin their fun, or at the very worst, trigger a flashback or a panic and anxiety attack in those with PTSD or other trauma-related conditions. The worst case scenario can lead to ruining the entire convention for that person, which is what makes safety tools so very helpful to GMs.

These tools can be strapped on to any system and any game to aid all types of communication. They are supposed to be a nearly-stress-free way to say ‘hey, can we maybe not describe that in so much detail?’, or ‘Can I get a recap?’ without having to explain why. They can be simple or complicated, and go a long way to help us get over any shyness of awkwardness inherent in working with a group of strangers.

I’ll only be discussing one safety tool in this article in detail because there’s only one I’ve found that’s easy to use, universally understood, and takes less than two minutes to explain to the group, but I highly recommend looking into as many of them as possible, and ultimately choosing what works for you. Lucky for me, Phil Vecchione outlined the most popular tools along with links to deeper descriptions in an article on Gnome Stew, where he also gives his own perspective on the importance of safety tools.

Why Use Safety Tools?

Now, before you discount this whole thing because you don’t think you’ll ever have someone with PTSD in your group, here are some statistics. 70% of adults in the US experience some form of trauma. Up to 20% of those adults go on to develop PTSD. That’s 44.7 million Americans, alone, struggling with the disorder. At any given time, an estimated 8% of Americans HAVE PTSD. That’s 24.4 million people, or the total population of Texas.

To complicate matters more, one out of every nine women develops PTSD, and it’s even worse with transgender people. In one report, 98% of those examined reported at least one potentially traumatic event, and 91% of those reported multiple events. Transgender populations experience more mental health issues, more PTSD, more suicide attempts, more everything.

So, if you’re not using safety tools at your convention tables, the people you’re most likely to harm are marginalized people, and if that’s not enough to make you cringe, veterans experience an extremely high rate of PTSD. Rather than a diagnosis rate of 8%, the rate ranges from 11% to 30% depending largely on their service era. Naturally, those rates go up for women and transgender veterans.

Now, when you’re running a game at home where you can tailor who is and is not invited to the table, and where you’re more than likely to have known the people you’re playing with for a long time, safety tools might not be necessary. Might. When you’re running for a convention group, though, you’ll have no idea who will be at the table before you get there, and no idea what might make them uncomfortable or flat-out trigger them.

I have some trauma, myself, from chemotherapy and cancer treatment in general. One of my triggers is almonds, because my husband frequently brought them to my chemo treatments as a snack. I get super sick smelling, seeing, or tasting almonds. While almonds aren’t likely to be an in-game issue, that’s just an example of how strange and unexpected triggers can be.


What Safety Tools Can’t Do

It’s important to note that safety tools aren’t the be-all end-all of safety at the table. They are designed to address things happening in or about the game. They won’t cover Handsy Hank touching people without their consent or Rules Nazi Nathan constantly interrupting and trying to take over the table via useless rules trivia. They don’t even cover Plays-the-Girl Gabe, who spends all his time describing the voluptuous curves and bouncing titties of his character.

We’ll talk about dealing with Hank, Nathan, and Larry later on in this series. For now, just remember whatever safety tool you choose to implement in your game will do nothing for bad behavior at the table. The short explanation for how to deal with these guys is to always have a script ready for ‘what might happen’, so if it does happen, you don’t have to think, you can just react and ‘read’ from your script.

Safety Tools also absolutely do not replace the GM’s ability to empathize with the players. Even the best tool requires a player to indicate in some way or another that something is happening that makes them feel uncomfortable. It’s quite possible to head off that interaction at the pass if you notice the game going in a way that’s making a player uncomfortable. We’ll cover that in the same section we deal with Hank, Nathan, and Larry when we stop talking about prepping and start talking about running.

The Safety Tool I Love

I confess, I used to be one of those people that scoffed at safety tools. I did this in large part from personal preference. I was too scared to use any of the safety tools on offer for a variety of reasons. The X-Card required I ‘out’ myself too much. There’s not supposed to be an explanation, but there kind of has to be an explanation. Lines and Veils, and the one with the flower and the petals? I can’t even tell you how those work, even though I’ve read about them multiple times.

I would be too frightened to use any of those tools because A) explaining the thing would be terrifying, and B) asking for an explanation on how the safety tool worked so I could use the safety tool would be terrifying. I am the Goldilocks of safety tools. It can’t have so few features I feel like I have to talk a lot, and it can’t have so many features I can’t remember them all, or they require an explanation.

I’m not saying these aren’t good tools, and I think you should evaluate them all and choose for yourself, I’m just saying there was nothing that worked for me. Until just last month when I was introduced to Script Change at Queen City Conquest in Buffalo. I’m not gonna lie, it kinda changed my life, and not just because of the safety tools. Some of it is just good communication tools.

I like these tools so much, I’m making up my own set of cards for the “Buttons”. Script Change was created by Brie Sheldon, and you should very much thank them by dropping a tip for the printable Script Change file if you choose to use it.

The tool uses terms people already know: Rewind, Fast Forward, Pause, Frame-by-Frame, Resume, and Instant Replay. To simplify things even more, you can always just use the first three options, but I love the enhanced communication and fun that comes into play with the other options. This isn’t simply a set of tools for ‘if things go wrong’, it helps with all kinds of communication.

These tools perfectly hit that middle mark I thought didn’t exist. Pause the game, rewind, or fast forward for literally any reason. Icky content came up, or someone at the table didn’t understand something and wants to undo what they previously did, or someone had to go to the bathroom and wants to know what happened while they were gone, or… anything.

Evaluate and Choose What Works for You

No safety tool replaces simply talking about a game’s content with your group before you start the game or putting the right age rating for the game when you submit it to the convention. Talk to your group about anything you need to steer clear of (within reason), and be sure to add something of your own to help open up the conversation. For example, I’m still in cancer treatment, and do my best to avoid the experience in games, so I ask that no one be in cancer treatment or have an NPC relative going through the same thing.

I gave you some links to places to check out for more safety tools, but I recommend sitting down with Google and going through as many of them as you can find on the internet, then use what works best for you, since you’re the one who will be implementing the tool. As I mentioned above, the type of tool you choose to use or modify might also be dependent on the adventure you’re writing, so keep all this information in the back of your head, especially for games where world development and narrative is a shared act between the GM and players.

I recommend safety tools for all convention games. Home groups should evaluate for themselves whether or not the tool would add to the experience, but at conventions you never know who will be at the table, making it impossible for you to imagine all the possible things that could happen. And as always, it’s better to be prepared and not need the tools than to find yourself in a bad situation where they could’ve been valuable.

Stacy Dellorfano