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.
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