Halloween Horror: Fear, Not Trauma

In this season of horror games it is worth considering whether you might find safety tools useful for your Halloween game, given it’s the time to run something scary. Let’s investigate whether their inclusion might be worthwhile for your group by addressing the common concerns about safety tools.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It Changes How Games Are Run​

This is true. You can play any game the way you want to, no matter what the designer’s intentions. But the inclusion of safety tools in a GM chapter of a game or as a free online resource shouldn't take anything away from your game. Like any GM advice, it is up to you what you use and how you run a game. Even though I’ve been running games for 40 years I still read those GM chapters, because there is often something new I can learn. RPGs offer many unique opportunities to experiment with a new technique or style. So in the same way you may have tried troupe style play, flashback narration, preludes and letting players make GM decisions, you might like to try a few safety tools.

Your Group Doesn’t Need It​

If you’ve been gaming with the same people for a decade or two, it’s not unreasonable to assume you know what they want out of a game. You will undoubtedly know them very well, even if you only meet for a weekly game. But even then, you might not know everyone as well as you think. Even with close friends, it can be hard to find a moment to reveal a past trauma of abuse or a deeply held fear. Very few sufferers want to bring the whole subject up as they don’t want to relive it, and over the years they may well be experts at hiding it. It’s also possible that a shy player has felt upset about some aspects of the game but not been able to speak up for a variety of reasons. Safety tools can sometimes be a way for them to share that they have had a trauma without having to explain everything, and give people a voice.

It's Too Much Work​

While there are a lot of tools out there, safety tools are just that, a toolkit. In fact, just using one safety tool is all most people need. You can even try a variety to see what works for you. Just putting an X card on the table or printing out a safety form for players to optionally return next session is no extra work at all. Safety tools are never an all or nothing proposal. You may also find that opening the conversation in any way is a good way to start a conversation about the game and what people want out of it in general (on both sides of the screen).

Players Shouldn't Play in Games They Can’t Handle​

If the GM has been up front about the style of play, there is an onus on the player to make an informed decision about whether it is for them. But there are still limits. Some players don’t know those limits until they actually encounter them in play, and by then it’s too late. To be fair, if one player doesn’t want a game to feature something that everyone else is looking forward to, they have the option not to play. Not every game is for everyone and if someone doesn’t want to play they don’t have to. If you can’t agree on a way for the game to work for everyone, they can always step out until the next game. But that's quite a situation vs. a surprise sprung on them without warning.

It's Just a Game​

Depending on your style of play, this may be true: if you run through a dungeon and kill a few monsters with some beers and snacks, it probably is. You probably don’t need any safety tools either. But RPGs have the same potential to move and excite as any movie or theatre show, moreso as you are an active participant. As a GM I always want to engage my players emotionally and create a memorable experience. I want the game to strike a nerve on some level, and this is made easier by engaging their imagination to make it more real. But this means the adventure can be very affecting and potentially traumatic if it takes a wrong turn.

While the trauma from a game is hopefully limited, it’s still upsetting. Besides, if it really is “just a game” shouldn’t everyone be able to have fun? We've all heard stories of players so affected by a game that they might cry (often, it's the death of another character). In most cases this is okay, even cathartic, but it just goes to prove how powerful these games can be, and therefore how careful you should be.

It Ruins Horror-Themed Games​

You can scare and thrill players without resorting to cheap tricks, like using their past trauma or taking the game somewhere graphic just for the sake of it. Any creative endeavour has limits and rules, and creating something amazing within those lines is what separates the good artists from the great ones. Just as a roller coaster isn’t a better experience without safety systems, gaming is the same. Gaming offers a spectacular variety and a dark brutal Vampire game is not intrinsically better than a gentle pony adventure in Equestria. Different people like different things and that fine.

Just Talk to People Like Adults​

Communication is always key. Talking to your players about what they want to see in the game is always the best plan, be it in terms of safety or just theme style and setting. But remember that not every player is happy to voice their concerns, even when they are a real problem. So just asking if everyone is okay and taking silence as consent is not really talking to people. Many safety tools are simply there to help give those players a voice. If you truly want to listen to them then this shouldn’t be a problem for you.

Play Safe Out There!

Safety tools are not just for game masters. The GM just has most of the control over style and content in the game. But if a member of the group is uncomfortable with a particular topic, that doesn’t mean they only expect the GM to lay off that sort of thing. Its incumbent on all the players to respect each other’s limits and boundaries. This advice counts for any aspect of the game. Gaming is done by consent. It’s just as reasonable for a player to say they don’t like to see too much blood and gore in a game as it is to say they don’t fancy playing a space opera or a high school game. These games can be powerful, it's part of what makes them awesome, and as such everyone should be on the same page so they can all get the same enjoyment out of the game.
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

Gabe Berger

I have a GM that always asks if we have any triggers before any campaign, so he can avoid them in writing the campaign or take them out of the module. I've been trying to do that too, just so I don't screw up a friendship or make someone feel horrible.

Actually, simply knowing that safety tools are in place could give some players the incentive to join a game and maybe even try topics they might be sensitive towards. Oh gods, I hope I am wording this correctly...
If you have the option of holding up an x-card and "get out" of the ride at any time, you might be more inclined to try and leave your comfort zone, which could be to everyone's benefit.
My long-running group has no need for them since we're pretty open to one another, but for a game with strangers, I'd most likely at least want to have the option on the table to embolden everyone.

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