• Sensitive stuff at the gaming table

    by  • June 2, 2012 • Essays • 5 Comments

    Everyone has stuff that they are sensitive to, or emotional baggage. That is part of being human. At times that baggage is going to affect your role playing games or your experience at LARPs. This article is about how to prevent sensitive stuff from turning into painful play experiences, and how to deal with it when you can’t prevent it.

    What does this article mean by sensitive stuff?

    In the context of this article sensitive stuff is something highly individual. What is sensitive to one person might not be sensitive to someone else, and vice versa.

    Let’s say that someone has had a bad experience of some kind. That person doesn’t want that subject to come up in the games. Bringing it up will make the person feel uncomfortable, ruin their evening by making them feel like shit, or even trigger stronger emotional reactions like panic attacks.

    One example could be that you have a member of your gaming group that has had some bad experiences while serving in the military. The player doesn’t want to play role playing games that remind them too much of modern warfare. They may still very much enjoy other types of role playing games, like fantasy dungeon crawls or investigative horror games. The player just doesn’t want to play a solider or play campaigns about wars.

    Not all that strange right?

    How does that affect my games?

    Does this mean that you never ever can play or write a game about war? Of course not. It only means that when you game with this player it is nice to avoid the topic and/or to treat it carefully. Some kind of games, like horror games, are a lot more likely to bring sensitive subjects than, let say, a lighthearted dungeon crawl. But the problem can occur in all kinds of games.

    Does this happen a lot?

    Having game play trigger a bad emotional reactions is not all that common, but it is not extremely rare either. You can go a whole gaming life playing with the same group and never see it happening, or you can run into problems like this early on. If you play a lot of games with serious themes, and play them with a lot of different people, the risk is bigger that you might encounter this problem than if you always play lighthearted games with the same people.  But there is always a risk.

    Perhaps you will never run into problems like this. I hope so. But there is a chance that you will or that you already have.

    Do I have to play with people with problems like this?

    Perhaps you just want to play with people who are comfortable with everything. Well… I say good luck finding those people. Everyone is a bit uncomfortable with something. If you find someone who is perfectly comfortable with anything you might be playing with Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps Dalai Lama (I’m not sure which). Normal people tend to have things that make them uncomfortable.

    Of course there is a matter of degrees. There are times when people are too emotionally fragile to be fit to play intense role-playing game  or go to emotionally intense LARPs. It rare, but it happens. Someone who just lost their child is perhaps not the right person to include in the super dark horror game about dead children.

    In my opinion it is okay to say no to players at those rare occasions. If you are afraid things aren’t going to work out with that player, you can say no. You don’t have to kick them out of the group, but you can perhaps choose to play some other game with them instead some other time. But that is an extreme case.

    In this article I will deal with normal players. Players that have a few things they are uncomfortable with or that might be sensitive to them emotionally.

    How to deal with it

    You play a scene and you notice that something is wrong. Perhaps someone seems very quiet and uncomfortable, or someone is very upset. Perhaps it is you.

    If you are at a LARP with safewords, use the safeword.

    If you are at the tabletop table, check if everyone is okay and if they wanna go on. Try to do it while at the same time not trying to push anyone to explain what is wrong. Being forced to talk about it can make people feel worse.

    One way approach the subject is to ask: “I’m not sure that everyone is comfortable with the scene, should we take a break?”

    There is a chance people are just playing being uncomfortable really well and are totally okay with the scene, or perhaps they prefer to take a break. If someone prefers to take a break, then take a break. Don’t force anyone to speak about the subject. But if they want to talk about it, then talk about it. When you feel ready to go on you need to decide how to go on. Skip the scene? Fade it to black? Retcon it so it never occurred? Decide on something, and go on playing.

    Every situation is different, and you have to deal with it in whatever way seems best at the time.

    How can you prevent it?

    Depending on what sort of situation you have, you can prevent the situation from getting out of hand in different ways. I go through a number of different sort of situations below based on the involved players knowledge and attitude to the problem.

    Everyone is aware of the problem

    This is often the ideal situation. Both the player and the gaming group is aware that the subject is sensitive and respects that. Everyone know what subjects and that it best to avoid it and/or approach very carefully.

    Generally, it all works out fine when everyone is aware of the problem. Everyone tends to be careful and problems seldom occur.

    No one is aware of the problem

    One special case is when the player isn’t aware of the problem and neither is of their gaming group. This might seem odd at first, but it not all that strange and it occurs more often than you might think.

    Let’s say that one player has been in a serious car accident. The car accident was years ago, and it never occurs to the player that role playing a car crash might have a strong emotional effect on them. They never talked about the car accident with the other players, so no one is aware that this might be a problem.

    Then the gaming group play in a scene about a car accident, with descriptions of bloody bodies, broken glass, and the smell of burning tires. The suddenly player reacts very strongly, gets a flashback of the real accident and all sort of bad feelings bubble up, and the player starts crying.

    It is hard to do anything about this situation more than try to mend it when it already occurred. It is rare, but I wanted to include it because it can occur.

    The other players don’t know about it

    A slightly better scenario is when the player is aware that there are some subjects they want to avoid, but haven’t told the other players about it. This can be for a load of reasons.

    At a big LARP it might not be possible to tell everyone that you got mugged last week, and would prefer to not get mugged during the game. Informing the 300 persons attending game just isn’t possible.

    At the home gaming table the player might not be comfortable about taking about the issue. Perhaps a player has a sibling that committed suicide, but the subject is so painful that they doesn’t want to talk about it with the gaming group.

    Or perhaps the player knows that the subject is painful but didn’t find it very likely that it ever would be part of the game, and didn’t mention it for that reason. Perhaps the player didn’t think a car crash was likely to happen during a fantasy dungeon crawl.

    Whatever the reason, because the rest of the gaming group doesn’t know that the subject might be sensitive, they can’t help the player avoid the subject. Only the player who is aware of the problem can do anything about it, but there are things that can be done.

    For example the player can:

    • Join games that fits them, avoid games that don’t fit them.
    • Choose characters that fits them. For example chose a character that is unlikely to get mugged at the LARP.
    • Choose games that isn’t likely to include the element they want to avoid. In a World of Darkness scenario suicide might be likely to come up at some point, but it’s not very likely to come up in a happy swashbuckling Discworld scenario.
    • Avoid situations where the situation is likely to occur. For example, by avoiding playing car chase scenes.

    This solution isn’t bulletproof. It is hard to dodge the subject forever, if the topic the player wants to avoid is common and likely to occur.

    Perhaps racism is a sensitive subject to a player. But racism might pop up in all sort of games, and in all sort of genres. Choosing a character that isn’t very likely to be victim of racism doesn’t mean that someone else won’t bring it up against another character or NPC. It is a tricky situation, and sometimes it might be for the best to tell the other players that you want to avoid the subject all together.

    The other players didn’t understand what was said

    At times the problem is that communication isn’t working. One player told them they want to avoid X, but it turns out the other players didn’t understand what they where being told.

    One common example is when people fail to generalize. If someone said that they are uncomfortable with car crashes, then they probably will be uncomfortable with other types of messy traffic accidents as well, like train crashes or plane crashes.

    Another common misunderstanding is when people don’t grasp that someone really is uncomfortable with the subject. Perhaps someone said they prefer to not have fire in the story, and someone else assumes that it is because the fire damage rules sucks, not because fire is an emotionally sensitive subject.

    To err is human. Failure in communication is really frustrating, but this one can be fixed with more communication.

    The other players know but don’t respect it

    This one sucks. Don’t play with people who don’t respect you. Don’t go to LARPs where the organizers tolerate this kind of behavior.

    What do I mean with knowing but not respecting it?

    You can still be respectful to someone by telling them: “This is a WW2 LARP taking place in a war zone. I understand that you are not comfortable with playing a soldier etc., but war is the central theme of this event. I think it might be the wrong game for you if you want to avoid that sort of thing.”  Then you give the player an informed choice to be a part of the game or not. That is respectful and nice.

    Being disrespectful is when people screw someone over. Like when they agree to avoid a subject, and then include it anyway. Don’t do that. Don’t play with people who do that to you.

    Closing words

    People are responsible for their own game experience, and your responsibility as fellow player is to simple to behave in a responsible way. No more, no less. Dealing with sensitive stuff isn’t rocket science. It can be tricky, but the basic stuff is easy.

    When you know that a subject is sensitive for someone, treat it carefully when they are around. Try to be proactive if you suspect something might be sensitive to someone and approach it a bit more carefully. If someone has a strong negative emotional reaction, be supportive and help them out.

    If you  stick to those three sentences, you and your fellow players will probably be fine.


     Thanks to St. Dymphna for copyediting.



    Elin Dalstål is a game designer, larp and convention organizer living in Luleå, Sweden.

    5 Responses to Sensitive stuff at the gaming table

    1. avatar
      June 2, 2012 at 18:42

      I think that the best thing we do to prepare for the possibility is to have a very open attitude at the game table, starting with the GM. If we make an effort to show that this is a group of friends and that it’s safe to voice opinions, objections, concerns, wishes, and fears, then it’s more likely that the person who has a trigger in play will make it known, and that the rest of the group will stop to listen. (Besides, it makes for better gaming overall when we listen to each other!)

      At our game table, when my husband or I are GM we are careful to ask when a particular game is more likely to go in a challenging direction (e.g., in our Unknown Armies game we had a round-table discussion that made clear which subjects were off-limits based on the players’ wishes.) On the reverse side, we also check in regularly what players would like to see more of in the game. That doesn’t prevent surprises from happening but it creates a climate of trust to handle the fallout.

      By the way, I think your example under “The other players know but don’t respect it” needs a little expanding. Right now it provides an avenue for GMs excluding people you think might be triggered, but not for improving their group if they have some players (but not all) who are not good at respecting others’ boundaries. And I agree that sometimes you just have to get rid of insensitive people or refuse to play with them, but sometimes they can learn too.

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      • avatar
        June 2, 2012 at 19:20

        Great points. I think in the cases when people can learn to do better, it a case that the player don’t understand. Or at least i draw the line there. If someone don’t respect you emotions as a human being, and intentionally hurt people then something is wrong. To me ignorance is okay, not respecting other people isn’t.

    2. avatar
      June 7, 2012 at 19:05

      I think that another problem that occurs is when people know, respect the intention, but when there is a conflict of needs at the table (X’s emotional safety vs Y’s enjoyment of the game). This often quickly becomes a position of privlege at the table, or a reflection of positions of privilege at the table.

      Finding a way to express and encourage the priorities of the social contract at the table can really help. If a group is clear where the social priorities lie (ourselves as individuals & our individual emotional comfort levels vs our common experience of the game, and our individual or common aesthetic satisfaction of the game), then people are best equipped to make informed choices around play.

      This is akin to Em & Meg’s social agreement shorthands: I Will Not Abandon You (IWNAY) and Nobody Gets Hurt (NGH) discussion on Fair Game (http://www.fairgame-rpgs.com/comment.php?entry=32) some time back.

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    3. avatar
      June 8, 2012 at 05:50

      Those are great links Mo. That’s the first time I’ve heard of IWNAY and NGH and will add them to my gaming vocabulary.

      We’ve used NGH in our games before without really knowing it. Before games that dealt with sensitive issues we’ve sat down and asked everyone involved what, if anything, should be off the table. There’s usually not that much on the list because I think that a) our group is pretty open to trying new things and b) we know each other fairly well. But we still do it. We also allow for amendments to the list for anything that might come up during play.

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