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(+) The Negative Impact of Safety Tools

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The EN World kitten
Please take note that this is a "+" thread. If you don't agree with the premise given here, there's already a thread where you can voice an opposing opinion.

Recently, there was a discussion about the use of safety tools in RPGs. While several interesting points were brought up, one poster attempted to address the potential for negative consequences surrounding such things, and was unfortunately shouted down despite bringing up salient issues. As such, I'm hopeful that this thread will allow for a thoughtful, respectful, and nonjudgmental examination of those issues. With any luck, this will be a place where unpopular opinions can be expressed and viewpoints explained without generating acrimony or disrespecting anyone in our community.

First, let's begin with a point that I feel is inarguable: wanting to make sure that everyone is comfortable around the gaming table is unquestionably a good thing. Ideally, these will be brought up before starting a game, so that everyone can have fun without anyone else being upset in the process. I don't think that it's uncharitable to say that everyone wants this.

However, nothing is immune to the law of unintended consequences. Similarly, the same way that the ends never justify the means, it's always worth examining how a particular goal is being sought, as methods cannot be overlooked in favor of results. Finally, I believe that it's important to remain cognizant that just because something is virtuous doesn't mean it should be mandated (i.e. that it's lack of inclusion is worthy of condemnation); this is what's known as a demandingness objection.

So how do those points relate to the use of safety tools in tabletop RPGs?

One point that was raised previously is the choice of language involved. Many RPG safety tools are framed around ideas of "consent," a term which is commonly associated with sexual encounters in our current vernacular. Given the emotionally-charged nature surrounding issues of sexual consent, there's a worry that using similar terms with regard to tabletop RPGs can create something similar to a chilling effect, where the level of risk implied can push people away from the hobby, inadvertently gatekeeping.

However, I feel that the greater issue with regard to safety tools has less to do with the nature of those tools in-and-of themselves than it does with the presumptions surrounding them. This is a much more difficult topic to bring up, because presumptions are typically not expressly stated; rather, they're treated as underlying premises that don't need to be stated, since they're already assumed. In many instances, these presumptions are not only made by people speaking about a current topic, but are taken to be held as true (to some degree) by others, which can muddle a discussion before it ever gets off the ground.

While the exact nature of these presumptions will vary from individual to individual, I'll list some of the ones I've noticed. Hopefully, this will help dispel potential confusion going forward:

  • The onus falls entirely on the GM. This one goes beyond the idea that the GM should proactively let the players know about any potential points of upset in an upcoming game. Rather, it puts forward the idea that a player might be so uncomfortable with a particular issue that they can't bring themselves to even address it beforehand. While that might be the case in some extreme instances, this can result in an escalating assumption of the steps the GM should take in order to satisfy the burden of responsibility with regards to weeding out problem areas. For instance, bringing up a topic in front of a group might be too much, so the players should be consulted one-on-one; bringing up a topic face-to-face might be too confrontational, so it should be done in writing or over email/texts/social media; addressing them preemptively might be too hard, so there should be an option to immediately terminate a scene if someone makes an understood signal of discomfort, etc. The idea here is that the player cannot be reasonably expected to take part in letting people know what they find upsetting, offloading that burden onto a GM who is often ill-equipped to handle it, and that the safety tools can raise rather than ameliorate this burden.
  • Not using safety tools is irresponsible. This gets back to what I mentioned about a "demandingness objection," where the recognition of something as being virtuous is then used to say that it must be done. This often takes the form of a push for greater formalization and expansion of safety tools at the start of a game. Under this presumption, it's not enough to casually mention what the next campaign will be about or ask if someone's cool with topics that are commonly recognized as being "edgy," (e.g. slavery). Rather, there needs to be a more comprehensive utilization of safety tools at the start of the game, and not doing so is akin to putting your friends at risk of emotional harm (often taken in conjunction that they have no impetus to volunteer their own areas of discomfort as noted above).
  • There are no legitimate reasons to object to safety tools. This one is particular insidious, as it holds that any objections raised to the points noted so far can be reliably associated with dubious sociopolitical positions. In essence, it holds that there are no genuine critiques to any of the above points; any objections are either borne of ignorance or are "fig leaves" for immoral positions. In effect, it presumes that if you don't agree with the aforementioned premises, then you're guilty of being a bad person.
I don't believe any of these are true. Quite the contrary, most of this seems to be rooted in imprecise terminology and being too quick to judge those who think differently. I think that so long as we can talk about these without thinking that the goal of any such discussion is to change the minds of people who disagree with you - and in doing so, avoid thinking that 1) our own beliefs are too cogent to be denied in good faith, and 2) that continued disagreement is therefore evidence of moral corruption on someone else's part - we can advance a greater understanding of where other people are coming from, and perhaps put some of this acrimony to rest, creating a more welcoming community overall.

Given the caliber of the EN World community, I don't think that's a goal beyond our reach. :)

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Well, that was fun
Staff member
Nah, I'm not interested in hosting this discussion here or people trying to game the site rules to force me to take action against people advocating for safety. There are other places on the web where you can rant about inclusivity and safety. I'd suggest you go there. [+] threads are not meant as a weapon.

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