The experience of trauma is unfortunately common, and it affects how we relate to others within occupational, personal, and communal settings.
The ACEs study provides an overview of trauma and its impact. (When you view the site, click "open all" tab to see the information).
To summarize: 66% of respondents experienced at least 1 adverse event in childhood and more than 20% reported 3 or more adverse events. The adverse events can have longstanding effects on many areas of person's life, health, and relationships. In the medical field, there is a push for "trauma informed care", i.e. medical providers should interact with patients' in a way that considers trauma-responses when they work with patients and develop care plans.
The core idea of trauma informed care can also provide useful guidelines to communities who want to create a safe and welcoming environment.
The core principles of trauma-informed care are:
You can see a full explanation with examples here.
These principles can also apply to running tabeltop RPG games and community dynamics.
Lets translate them to more gaming-focused language:
Focus on people's strengths and encourage them to use them. For example, if a player likes to describe setting but clams up during conversation, don't feel the need to push them to play the "right" way and engage in dialogue scene; spotlight them with their own strengths, maybe asking them to describe the physical environment or what their character sees. As a community, encourage people to contribute in ways they feel comfortable and confident instead of asking them to "push themselves" or "stretch themselves" by taking part in a way they dislike.
When running a game, offer options when possible. This starts with the session 0 conversation: include players in a conversation about the game premise, about the game's tone, and review safety tools to help set and respect boundaries.
This doesn't mean you always have to change a game completely for 1 person, but make sure people make an intentional choice to buy-in with the final decision (e.g. "Maybe this game isn't going to fit what you're looking for. Do you want to see if there's another game group that would fit better?"). It's important to have these discussions from a place of goodwill and support; it's not about using ultimatums to force people to agree.
Choice can also come up in mid-play, especially in games with a "fail forward" dynamic. Consequences can potentially inflict unpleasant experiences on a player without them getting a chance to say no. Instead of simply narrating the bad thing that happens, try giving them an option, e.g. "You can jump to cover but lose your target, or stay on the target's path but get shot". This is especially important around themes of violence, sexual content, grief/loss/death, phobias, or anything that takes a player's agency from them (e.g. mind control). You can also navigate this through the use of safety tools.
Some traditions in games establish the GM/DM as the all-powerful judge of rules, game narrative, outcomes...really anything you can think of. Hierarchy reinforces unequal power dynamics found in abuse. Does that mean all hierarchy is inherently abusive? Maybe not. But the combination of power imbalance and social pressures to "just go along" and "not ruin fun" means it can easily cause triggering or uncomfortable dynamics. Collaborate as much as possible. This also means having a shared sense of responsibility for a game, which can take pressure off the GM to "make it fun/work" for everyone.
This will be supported by games to a different degree. Games which allow for the group to set goals, share narrative responsibility, or have express rules for out-of-character collaboration can help. If your group struggles with collaboration, it might be useful to try some GMless games, take turns being the GM, or rely on games with rules about setting shared goals to help make your group more comfortable with those dynamics.
Help to establish physical and emotional safety.
Physical safety can include things like: meeting places people feel comfortable; knowing and respecting physical boundaries; keeping noise low to avoid over-stimulation or triggering those sensitive to loud sounds; making sure people can easily reach the exit if they need.
Emotional-social safety can include: supporting each other's boundaries; giving people advanced notice of possible of changes in plans (as unexpected changes can be triggering for some/lead to a sense of no-control); maintaining open and respectful communication; being aware of people's different lived experiences and cultural contexts, and how that changes the way they perceive events.
Safety is a much larger topic. You can always refer back to the main post on violence prevention and the resources post for additional ideas.
There are actions we can take to build up trust and to block it. When someone has experienced trauma, there are some specific techniques which can help:
Create clear expectations.
This can range from who will be at a game session to how long it will run to safety tools that can be used to how characters death will be handled to when and how a campaign will end.
Make the ambiguous concrete when possible.
When you can, be as concrete and transparent as possible. "I want this campaign to last until we finish the adventure module." If that changes, communicate about the changes: "I'm getting really busy at work and can't keep playing. Let's schedule 1 more session to wrap the campaign up." Ambiguity leads to interpretation, and if someone has experienced trauma those interpretations will be overwhelmingly negative.
This can apply to transparency/being open about changes to how you act in a game. You can always say, "I'm tried, so I might be more quiet than usual."
You can't communicate about everything or anticipate every source of ambiguity, but if you can telegraph your intentions in some ways—especially in new groups or when changes happen—it can help.
This is all easier if you establish a culture of open communication. Using something like the Wrap Meeting from Script Change or a habit of debriefing sessions creates a culture of talking openly, so hopefully someone who feels anxious or nervous will be more likely to mention it or ask questions.
Maintain awareness and offer non-critical support.
Try to stay aware of how people usually act in a game and when that changes. Reach out to the person by describing what you notice and asking if everything is okay. By describing behavior first, the question can seem less critical, e.g. "Hey, I notice you've been cutting people off more usual. Is everything okay?" is going to feel very different than "You seem angry. What's going on?"
Finally: Maintain Your Own Health
I want to close with a final important principle of trauma informed care: preventing secondary traumatization and burnout. It's important to stay aware of your own energy levels, your own capacity to help someone, and when you are feeling stressed by a situation. Just as you need to put on your own oxygen mask first in an airplane crash, you need to maintain your own health if you want to relate to others in a healthy way.
If you are trying to help someone and feel overwhelmed, lost, stressed, irritated, etc., reach out for support. This can mean connecting someone with professional resources, finding another supportive friend to help them, or talking to a different friend about the situation to get another perspective and advice.
We cannot support a healthy community by sacrificing our own well-being.
This post covers a range of resources for education and support around issues of violence. This list is nowhere near exhaustive. I will continue to add to it over time. It's simply a starting place.
Note: You may find that many resources default to using male pronouns for those who commit abuse and she pronouns for those who experience it. This is not to say that only men can be abusive or only women can experience abuse, nor do I personally intend to negate people with a nonbinary gender. I simply want to acknowledge this gender trend in the linked materials, which come from a range of outside organisations.
Statistics on the Rate of Violence & Research Links
Warning Signs & Education
Resources for Support
The prevention post provides a blueprint to creating your own preventative model, but you may reach step 3, which focuses on intervention strategies, and feel lost. What interventions actually work? This post seeks to provide additional guidance for that intervention-planning step.
Levels of Prevention
If you look a prevention models based in healthcare, there are usually three levels of intervention:
Medical jargon aside, this model can also be helpful for preventing violence within our communities. We need to:
Each level of intervention involves different strategies.
Level 1: Stop Violence from Occurring
Primary prevention focuses on education and healthy skill building. This makes sense: we need to know what we want to avoid and how to avoid it. In the medical field, this takes the form of vaccines, altering risky behavior, and banning substances known to lead to the condition. Let's translate that to relational violence
Vaccinate against violence
Vaccines are about controlled exposure to build up defense. In relational violence, this means educating people about abusive dynamics and providing information about healthy ways to respond when they see these warning signs.
Altering risky behavior
In relational violence, especially within the context of community, risk-reduction falls mostly at the community level. You can refer to the EEOC chart for organizational-risk factors for harassment and look at ways to minimize those within your community.
For example, members of marginalised groups are at higher risk of being harassed and less likely to report if leadership only consists of non-marginalised people. You could make an effort to include people from a diverse range of experiences and identities at all levels of the organisation, so everyone has someone they feel more comfortable contacting.
Banning Substances That Lead Lead to the Condition
In relational violence, the key components of abuse are power and control. These come out most often in the attitudes of:
You can ban these substances by creating community values based on equality, partnership/collaboration, mutuality, assuming goodwill, respecting autonomy, and validation. If these terms are unfamiliar to the community, it can be helpful to link to resources or examples of what this means. Then as a community, you encourage positive displays of these values, and intervene early when the controlling or power-based dynamics appear.
For example, let's look at the attitude of competition vs. collaboration. When we want to collaborate, we need to listen to and respect the views of others, even if we ultimately don't agree. When we want to compete, we attack and undercut the views of others. This attitude can be spotted by asking, "Am I trying to understand the other person or am I trying to prove that I am right?"
Refer to the resources post for links to additional educational material.
Level 2: Intervene Early
There is a tendency to let "lower level" instances of harassment or abuse go unaddressed. However, abuse it ultimately driven by unhealthy attitudes, so the chances it will escalate (or has already escalated in other spaces) to more severe abuse is high. Waiting for abuse to get "bad enough" exposes people to a higher level of harm overall and means any kind of recovery from the event will be harder.
The wait and see approach is especially problematic because we all have different levels of "bad enough" based on our own context and experiences. This difference puts people from marginalised groups at even higher risk of experiencing abuse that others do not take seriously or stop.
Let me provide an example.
Research shows that men and women experience physical threats online at close to the same rate. However, research also shows that women experience physical violence within relationships at more than twice the rate as men. It makes sense women may take a threat of physical violence "more seriously" than a male counterpart, because they know threats can escalate into violent acts more often. Similarly, men and women experience sustained harassment at similar levels, but women are almost 4 times more likely to experience stalking. It makes sense women will perceive sustained harassment as more serious if they know it is more likely to escalate into stalking.
In practical terms, intervening early means paying attention to fundamentally abusive dynamics and attitudes. This dovetails with level 1 prevention: become educated on abusive dynamics, recognize warning signs, and have a system in place for addressing the abuse patterns as soon as they appear.
Importantly, early intervention does not need to be as severe as intervention at later stages in abuse. If someone is assuming ill-will and name calling another community member without seeking to understand their perspective, intervention may consist of highlighting the problematic part of the interaction and asking that person to take a break from the conversation until they can re-engage with a more charitable mindset. This is very different from a community member who has physically or sexually assaulted someone, where the intervention requires banning them from the community completely.
This is another advantage of early intervention. You can start with less-severe interventions and potentially maintain more people in your community. As long as the intervention works (i.e. the person changes their behavior) you won't need to escalate to more intense and long-lasting interventions.
Level 3: Support and Help Those Who Experience Abuse
Level 3 interventions come into play when the abuse has already occurred. Unfortunately, prevention and early intervention cannot stop all abuse. It is important to prepare for this eventuality and how it will be handled ahead of time. Fortunately, the community plays an essential role in an abuse survivor's recovery:
Research shows that the intensity and duration of trauma symptoms is predicted more by the community's response to abuse than the severity of the abuse itself.
Communities can help by:
If you are unsure what will increase safety, ask the person who experienced the abuse for their preference or permission. They may feel overwhelmed, so it's helpful to give them a short list of options (e.g. we can do A, B, or do nothing until you have more time think it over).
Any response will be more effective if the community develops a policy before the abuse occurs.
Example Intervention Model
This model provides an overview of how to think about prevention and intervention. While it focuses on sexual violence, the overall model can be applied to many forms of abuse.
General Guides for Intervention
These cover a miscellaneous collection of resources. As there are common traits in abuse and helpful interventions, I'm including them to provide a wider range of background material for this topic. They also link/reference additional resources within them.
This post provides an overview of the public health approach to violence prevention from the Center for Disease Control. This model is intended to act as a roadmap for groups or organizations that want help developing their own violence-prevention methods. The end of the post provides an example application of the model.
You can find the CDC's summary here.
Step 1: Define the Problem
The first step in preventing violence is to understand the problem. We need to be able to define the target of our prevention efforts.
Step 2: Identify Risk & Protective Factors
Prevention models usually split their intervention between two populations: 1) general population and interventions everyone benefits from, and 2) the at-risk population, and targeted interventions to provide extra support for those most at-risk
In this step it's important to identify who might need that additional support or education based on risk factors.
Where can I find research to answer:
Step 3: Develop & Test Prevention Strategies
We can't implement "prevention" as a one time effort and call it good. We need to develop strategies, apply them, then continually assess and improve the strategies based on outcomes. This step separates prevention efforts from being performative to being effective.
Where do I find information to answer:
Step 4: Assure Widespread Adoption
This final step focuses on executing the prevention model. It needs to be communicated across your community, implemented, and monitored to insure it is being followed and shared with new members to the community.
An online TTRPG community wants to insure its members feel safe in the community and have avenues for alerting mods if they experience abuse or a member known for abusing others joins the community. They primarily interact through Discord and online-based games organized through the community.
Step 1: Define the problem
The community wants to prevent abuse between members of the community. They recognize that a lot of interactions occur outside their Discord but can still affect the safety of the community, so they want to make it clear that abusive treatment will not be tolerated by any community members, even if the abuse takes place in a different space.
The leadership team decides they want to prevent: verbal abuse, harassment, stalking, physical abuse, and sexual harassment and abuse. In other words, they want to stop relational abuse, period.
Now they need to dig into the specifics. Who is affected by these forms of abuse and how common are they?
As they start looking for answers they realize this is a big undertaking. They decide for their first prevention plan they need to define their problem more specifically. Since they primarily interact online, they decide to focus on online harassment. They find the Pew reports from 2014 and 2017 which breaks online harassment into six categories:
They find research that shows 40% of people personally experience online harassment and 73% witness it.
They decide to adopt these categories of online harassment for their prevention efforts, and they now know that online harassment affects nearly 75% of people online.
Step 2: Identify Risk & Protective Factors
The community decides to continue using the Pew research report they found with a quick Google search, since they are a nonpartisan fact-finding research group.
They find that age and gender seem to change the amount and type of harassment people experience. Someone points out that the report doesn't seem to address sexuality, gender, or ethnicity in their results. Seeing that gap, they look for more research.
Based on reviewing the reports, they identify risk factors as:
The community wants to create a safe space for gamers of all backgrounds. Looking at these risk factors, they start to realize that a one-size-fits-all approach won't work. They will need to provide some extra help specifically for younger, female, PoC, and LGBT members.
A community member wonders if there is anything about the community itself that can create risk or protective factors. They find the summary of risk factors from the U.S. EEOC and decide to include its list as they think about prevention.
Specifically, they note that a homogeneous group or group with only one minority is also a risk factor.
Step 3: Develop & Test Prevention Strategies
The community starts this step by looking for strategies that have already been proven to decrease online harassment. After all, why reinvent the wheel?
The group starts looking at tips provided for stopping online harassment. At first they find that most tips are reactive (after harassment has already started) or place all of the responsibility on the victim (e.g. advice to appear gender neutral, or never share personal information). This doesn't seem very helpful.
They search a little more for research-based programs and possible protective factors. They find through Blue Prints Programs that some protective factors include:
They community decides to take initial action by:
Step 4: Assure Widespread Adoption
The community leadership develop a plan for how they want to establish and sustain this prevention model. They decide there are 3 groups to address: leadership/moderators, current members, and new members that join later.
This post is going to provide an introduction to a violence prevention model and link to resources with more details. I hope this can be a starting point for conversation; it is not meant to be an exhaustive plan. I will be adding to this resource over time.
For ease of navigation, I have broken this up into several different blog posts so you can navigate to different sections more easily.
This overview is provided primarily for communities and organizations that want to make a concerted effort to prevent violence. The resources post does include links to education that is useful on the individual level.
If you have questions or concerns, you can use the contact link on this website to send me an email. I will try to answer simple questions.
If you are asking about developing a plan or have more in-depth questions, paid consultation is available based on my availability.
The provided information is based on research, established medical models, and my own experience working as a victim advocate and treating perpetrators of abuse. That said, no information on this site should be considered medical advice.
This post links to all related content for easy navigation