This is part 3 of 3 about safety tools in tabletop RPGs and why I chose to make Brie Beau Sheldon's Script Change Tool a core mechanic in Karma in the Dark.
In this post, I explain why I didn't choose some common safety tools. This is not to say those tools are fundamentally "bad" or "wrong", they simply didn't provide what I needed for my game.
A summary of the tool and link to the original is included at the bottom of this post for reference.
Part 3: Why Script Change
I read the Script Change Tool more than a year ago. On my initial read, I appreciated the fluid, dynamic nature of the tool. I wasn't focused on tone management at the time, so I filed it away as an interesting idea.
Since then, I heard people constantly talk about the "X" card. I played in games with it. No one used it. I started asking myself if that tool existed in my own uncomfortable examples, would I use it? I didn't think so. Maybe for overt references/threats of sexual assault, but nothing else. It just felt so . . . aggressive. Even at a con, I'd have to feel pretty upset about something to X card it. Also, my own comfort and engagement level with topics tends to vary from week to week, often dependent on the content of my day job, so it felt too black and white.
Next I heard about lines and veils. This tool allowed people to define strict boundary lines (i.e. don't include this at all) and softer boundaries (i.e. it can be included, but let's not spotlight or detail it). This allowed for variation in the starkness of a boundary, but it still didn't fit what I needed. It spoke to consent, but in a game built around challenging and grappling with oppression, I needed a tool that responded dynamically, supported adaption session-by-session, and most importantly, taught people how to discuss tone effectively and manage it collaboratively.
As I struggled with this issue of open, assertive communication, I found myself thinking about a type of group therapy called interpersonal processing therapy. In one version of the group, each participant sets an agenda for themselves, identifying one aspect of interpersonal relationships they want to improve. They practice this specific micro-skill in the group session. A lot of patients in my group struggled with anger and/or difficulty with assertive communication. So a typical practice would be, "Notice the first moment you feel angry or frustrated and let the group know." This helped them practice awareness and initiative in communicating.
Now, if someone struggles with assertive communication, the idea of interrupting the group could paralyze them. So we had a rule: anyone could say "pause", and the group would stop. Then they could practice their skill (expressing their emotion, asserting a request, etc.) and receive feedback from other group members. After just a few instances, the entire group became comfortable calling "pause", and working on their identified skill. Many found it a relief they didn't need a diplomatic way to insert themselves; "pause" was accepted, encouraged, and non-ambiguous. Eventually, people felt comfortable enough to assert themselves without using pause, but it was necessary as they learned how to talk more openly.
As I thought about this dynamic, I remembered the Script Change Tool. I went back and read it again. This was a tool designed for facilitating communication. It wasn't only about safety or consent, it provided a framework for everyone in the group to speak up, discuss, collaborate, and define their own group norms. It also took a dynamic approach. There was no assumption "if you fast forward past a death one time, you should always fast forward." Instead, it encouraged players to use the tool whenever it applied.
It also included two specific tools that excited me as a GM: the highlight reel and wrap meeting. The highlight reel carved out a time for each person in the group to talk about a favorite part of the session. I knew I would love to hear that as a GM; instead of guessing about what "worked" I could hear it straight up. I've done these check-ins informally, but having the rules call for it gave the process structure and weight. Now we weren't engaging in extra talk, we were following a game rule. A core part of Karma GMing is finding out what players love and placing it at risk; the highlight reel would provide concrete feedback to make that task easier.
The wrap meeting is a set time to discuss anything that didn't work or could be changed. Again, by making it a rule and a natural expectation of the game, it creates a space for more honest, critical feedback. This could help the GM and players identify concerns or problems, and address them proactively. This dovetailed with more core principles of Karma: managing tone is everyone's responsibility, and the story is a collaborative process between all players.
Script Change appealed to me for a final reason: it tied mechanics to universal concepts and common language. Most people understand pause, fast forward, and rewind. As someone who plays with people worldwide, the language and concepts seemed straightforward across a number of languages and cultures. Even if someone could not exactly remember "the rule", the idea of pausing, rewinding, and fast forwarding captures the process perfectly. It feels natural.
While this series began with the idea of safety tools, Script Change Tool goes far beyond the concept of safety and consent. It teaches groups how to engage in dynamic, collaborative communication to improve the experience for everyone in the group. For a game that describes roleplaying as "having a conversation", this made Script Change the natural choice for Karma in the Dark.
Script Change by Brie Sheldon
The Script Change Tool by Brie Sheldon (http://www.briecs.com/p/script-change-rpg-tool.html) gives your group some tools to manage challenging content dynamically. At any point during the game, if a player or GM finds that they are uncomfortable with the subject matter or actions happening in the game—or they feel the game’s tone has shifted in a away that’s hindering gameplay—they can call for a Script Change. Simply declare the rule you want to invoke: fast forward, rewind, or pause. Each session will end with the highlight reel. If needed, your group can also include a wrap meeting.
When you declare fast forward, identify what you want to skip past. It helps if you can explain why to the group. This tool can be used to skip over unpleasant or uncomfortable content: maybe you want the sex scene to fade to black, or want to skip the gory details of someone being disemboweled, or need to skip an encounter with a large snake. It can also be used to speed through a boring stretch in the gameplay. If you feel like a scene has become tedious or is unnecessarily lagging down play, request a fast forward. You don’t want to use this to pull the action spotlight away from someone else back to you, but sometimes conversations or a series of tasks continues because people feel stalled; a fast forward can jump to the next interesting action.
This tool does exactly what it sounds like: when someone declares “rewind,” you pause the action, and rewind back to a requested point. This is useful if something was already said or done that you take issue with. Maybe a PC murdered a child, and you aren’t comfortable with that content in the game. Or maybe you described your PC reacting one way, and realized it was out of character and didn’t fit the narrative. You can request a rewind, and discuss whether that action fit in with the story the group is telling together. Try to be clear about what content is the issue, and be willing to work together to see where the story should go from there.
When you ask for a pause, the in-game action halts. This can be useful in several scenarios. If a scene is becoming intense, you can request a pause to discuss the scene’s direction out-of-character, or just to take a breath. It can also be useful to call for a pause if group members seem distracted and might need a break, or if you or someone else is confused by what’s happening. It can also be a clear way to separate in-character from out-of-character conversations for when your group needs to discuss the game. You can resume action at the same point, or rewind or fast forward from there depending upon what your group needs.
The highlight reel helps you learn more about what everyone in the group enjoys and is a way to end a session on a positive note. Each player should have the opportunity to mention a specific scene or interaction they liked in the session, and the GM gets the chance to do the same. This is a strictly positive thing, and the intention of the tool is to allow players to point out things they liked. As your group learns what everyone enjoys, you can all encourage those aspects in future sessions.
Since it’s inevitable that players might have negative or constructive feedback for the game, it’s suggested that all sessions have a wrap meeting as an optional tool – for emotionally intense games they’re heavily recommended.
Wrap meetings are an opportunity for the group to go over anything that happened in the game that people might need to discuss, from constructive to negative. It’s good to develop a habit of talking these things through. People might want to talk about a certain action in game that went over their boundaries and they didn’t feel comfortable calling pause or rewind, or if something had an impact on them emotionally that they need to talk out.
This should be a supportive environment, and no one should tell someone their feelings are “wrong.” Constructive criticism is great, including in regards to plot choices, feeling imbalanced in character focus, or mechanics disagreements. Use wrap meetings to talk about the game and what could be improved and how it’s impacted the players, or the GM. Everyone is an equal in this conversation.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.