In the latest version of Karma in the Dark, I decided to add a "safety tool" to the core rulebook. After a little thought, I decided to put it first in the chapter called "core concepts." Part of me worried about leading with a mechanic that is controversial in some gaming circles, but upon reflection, this mechanic is probably the most foundational and important in the book. I want players to see it that way. If the idea of such a tool turns them off, I prefer that reaction to someone using my game in a way that traumatizes another person.
This topic has a lot of layers. In a series of three posts, I want to talk about the concept of safety tools, why one is required for Karma, and why I chose Brie Sheldon's "script change tool" out of all the possible options.
Part One: Why Safety Tools
Objection 1: Nothing during gaming is "unsafe", so why do you need a safety tool?
This is a common objection. I rarely like to pull my doctor card, but I've been working in trauma for more than a decade and specialize in treating trauma. So you can bet I have Thoughts on this subject.
First of all, safety is not an objective, physical reality. "Safety" is based on our cognitive (brain activity), neurological (nervous system), and chemical state (hormones like cortisol). The experience of being "unsafe" is based more on our mental and physical status than some empirical standard. This is important, because the same objective situation can be unsafe or safe depending on who you are and the broader context.
For example, if you are a heterosexual teen Christian talking about doubts in your religion, the response you receive will often be very different than if you are a queer teen Christian talking about doubts in your religion. Sure, there are families that will kick out people in the former group, but the chances are much higher in the latter group. If you are drunk at a fraternity party as a senior class male, the chances of you getting sexually assaulted are lower than if you are a first-semester female freshman. Context, when it comes to safety, matters.
Any judgment of safety that does not thoroughly examine context is bullshit.
Second, language shapes our reality as humans. What does this mean in practical terms? If I learn that it is dangerous [A] to be close to a lightning strike [B], and thunder [C] is basically the same as lighting, I will react as if thunder is dangerous. You might remember this transitive property from math:
A = B
B = C
A = C
Thanks to language in the human brain, we make these connections constantly. This is why we can learn and adapt so well. Effectively, all memories and experiences form a web of language. One word can activate numerous related concepts/memories, which in turn will activate other connected concepts/memories. Ever had that experience where someone mentions a topic, and your mind races to a totally different place? But it's connected (in your mind)? That's the language network at work.
This is the core of why triggers are so prevalent in trauma. Our mind has built up associations between things that are not factually related. I've worked with people who associate a certain type of soda from deployment with the death of children. When they hear someone pop open a soda can, they think of those deaths. On the physical side it seems weird, but on the language side, A = B = C. You pop a can, they are seeing corpses.
Language can do just as much. Someone asks them, "Have you killed someone?" their language network goes from killing to seeing those dead bodies. Now they react not as if someone asked them some neutral question, but as if they are in the same situation, seeing those dead bodies. Someone asks them if they like X soda, they think about soda, they think about soda on deployment, they think about dead bodies. These language networks are powerful—and key to our ability to learn, so it's not like we want to stop our brain from building them.
So words? Words are as powerful as physical reminders. Go through trauma treatment, and you will learn that talking about it (at first) will make it feel like you are living it right now. There is also evidence suggesting that words are actually even more powerful than physical elements, which is why verbal abuse has longer lasting effects than physical abuse.
I'll give a personal example. I've worked with hundreds of sexual assault victims at this point. In general, I don't have any symptoms of vicarious trauma. But if you put me in an RPG, and start hinting at sexual violence (through actions or jokes) you wake up a HUGE language network in my brain formed over years. I shoot from your description to images, stories, and physical associations I associate with sexual violence from listening to so many horrific experiences. If I have such a strong response as someone who listens to experiences, you can bet the response of someone with those experiences is 100 x's greater. (Side point: we learn fastest and hardest when safety is involved. Ever had food poisoning and avoided that food for years? Trauma is like that: automatic, hardwire, fierce learning that does not want to let go easily.)
Our reality is shaped by language, and TTRPGs are all about language, so the intersection of your game and people's responses is inevitable.
Objection 2: But don't people say it's better to face trauma rather than avoid it?
First: your TTRPG is not therapy. That is not what people signed up for, it is not what your game mechanics were designed for, and your group does not have the skill or resources to perform trauma processing. Treating trauma requires specialized treatment even among professionals.
Second: Talking about trauma and being exposed to triggers can be harmful. If someone becomes overwhelmed, they view the trauma (or trigger) as even more frightening. Any kind of exposure work is done in an extremely contained, structured setting. I've seen inexperienced therapists manage this balance wrong, and come in the next day to find out someone attempted suicide or got black out drunk after their session and is now refusing to come back to therapy.
Third: Actually, sometimes it's healthy to avoid dealing with the trauma. Trained professionals don't recommend trauma processing (being exposed to reminders) unless someone has a certain level of stability and resources. Why? Because treatment often makes symptoms worse rather than better. If someone cannot manage relatively well at their current level of symptoms, you don't want to start a treatment that makes them worse.
Objection 3: Shouldn't you play with a group where you feel discussing these topics openly?
Let me ask you this:
Have you played with at least 6 different people? Okay, so did one of them talk about being physically abused? As part of discussing expectations for the game?
Have you played with 5 women ever? Did one of them talk about being raped? Or have you played with 2 women? Did either talk about other forms of sexual assault? Ok, so you don't play with many women...have you played with 9 different men? Did at least one of them talk about sexual assault?
In the U.S., approximately 60% of people have experienced 1 significantly adverse event in their life by age 18. More than 1 in 10 has experienced 4 or more adverse events. These are events like physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, drug abuse in the home, etc.
Trauma is common. How commonly do we talk about it?
Some people will say that's what we need to target—making people more comfortable talking about it. But you know what? See point 1: talking about events can feel as strongly as living them. Also, talking about something like that? It makes you vulnerable. And if you've been traumatized, feeling vulnerable is often the state you try hardest to avoid...because that feeling takes you back to the event, too.
And let's be honest: how many of us really, truly want to feel vulnerable? Weak? Exposed? How many people freak out about public speaking? Now we expect people to publicly speak about vulnerable experiences, too?
Objection 4: Safety tools disrupt the game
I find some safety tools more seamless than others (I'll touch on this when I talk about why I like the script change tool). But I'm going to again pull my doctor card.
If someone is anxious or uncomfortable, there are three common coping techniques: avoid, control, distract.
Let's say you start describing a scene which starts to make someone uncomfortable. Doesn't even have to be the fear or anxiety of trauma, they might just feel...on edge. Or uneasy.
Coping 1: they avoid. They might take a break from the game, starting coming late to games or leaving early, or quit all together. Doesn't that disrupt the game?
Coping 2: they try to control. The group is pursuing their adventure, everyone has buy in, except for one person who keeps trying to take over. They want to argue about rules. Or abandon the quest. Or take actions that don't fit with the rest of the group. Or tell the GM how they are using the rules wrong. Doesn't that disrupt the game?
Coping 3: they distract. They get on their phone, they focus more on eating than playing, they flip through the rules for no apparent reason, they increase the side conversations. Doesn't that disrupt the game?
Look, let's say you're the type of person who doesn't care about someone's emotional safety. I hope you're not a GM, but even if you are, the point still stands: you want a smooth game? Help people feel comfortable. Engagement will go up, cooperation will go up, and disruptions will go down.
Why do safety tools matter? Because language shapes reality, trauma is prevalent, people often do not (and should not have to) talk about vulnerable experiences, and because at the end of the day, safety tools help your group be more comfortable and engaged. In other words, they make the game better.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.