Wednesday, March 7, 2018

X Marks the Safety Spot (Fun With Misdirected Gnomes)

Respecting other human beings is very important, and sadly not a universally held value. Making others feel welcome in the gaming community is a hot topic, which is odd, considering the gaming community can’t grow if we build a wall around the hobby. This particular post is going to wrap its arms around some of my favorite people talking about a topic, and my personal experiences with that same topic. We’ll be casting a wide net, but hopefully we’ll be pulling it in tight towards the end.

External References

There are two main sources that sparked this article. The first one is Phil Vecchione’s safety article on the Gnome Stew website ( ) , and the responses to that article. The second is the 300th episode of the Misdirected Mark podcast ( ), which discusses safety at the end, in reference to the article and discussion above. There was also some follow up discussion between Phil and Chris Sniezak which which is only available to those that viewed the live show recording, or Patreon supporters of the podcast.

Quick Summaries

For anyone familiar with the sources referenced above, please let me know if I’ve misrepresented anything in the discussion.

Phil is a huge proponent of using safety tools at the table, including using visible artifacts at the table, such as the X Card. Phil’s article explains the benefits of using safety tools at the table, and some of the most commonly available forms of physical objects utilized as safety tools.

In response to his article, there was pushback of varying degrees about using safety tools. Some responses were more vehement and were framed as safety tools being objectively bad for society as a whole, while other responses that were reticent, but were more focused around losing control of the table to players.

Phil’s response to the initial respondent was a bit more vehement, but the more moderately toned responses garnered actual back and forth discussion. Phil attempted to ascertain if the respondent actually knew how most safety tools were used at a table, and if not, how they may not do what the respondent thought they did.

In the discussion on Misdirected Mark, Chris agreed that safety was important, but expressed that he doesn’t use physical safety tools, but rather safety procedures, such as line and veils and periodic table check-ins. He further mentioned that some people may have developed a natural antipathy for physical safety tools at the table due to second-hand narrative about those tools.

This is where things get interesting, because I think, just like in the Clone Wars, there are heroes on both sides. Some people in the chatroom were strong advocates of physical safety tools being present, and many expressed a lack of concern for accommodating people that have any level of antipathy towards safety tools.

Phil advocated for education, but pushing out some people from the RPG community, and Chris advocated for reaching out to people that have said antipathy, but not by trying to get them to realign their thinking on physical safety tools, in particular.

Lines in the Sand

Some people are just problems in any community they participate in. They are never going to be worthwhile participants, and they are going to make an environment hostile. These are people that have firmly decided that they don’t need to play with people that don’t match their views on gender, race, religion, or politics. Anyone not standing in the place where they are standing is wrong, and need to be demonized for "not getting on board."

I don’t think anyone thinks that someone that has carved out that hard-line position is someone who will benefit from time and patience. If they have some kind of change of heart or conversion, its going to have to come from within, with personal circumstances beyond the people they interact with in the hobby.

Standing on the Line

I’m going to posit something that I believe to be true, and I welcome people to discuss this with me and tell me where my reasoning may be flawed.

  • We live in a world that has become more cynical, which makes people very skeptical of things they have not yet encountered
  • We live in a world where very negative voices have a very broad platform to say many, many negative things
  • If someone is not already vigilant against picking up outside influences, humans tend to pick up vocabulary, terminology, and quirks mirrored around them

Taken collectively, I think this creates a group of people that aren’t hardened against their fellow human being, but may have picked up some vocabulary and habits of some of the worst elements of modern culture, and who may naturally be wary of anything they are told will fix societal ills. Even if they wish society were a better place, their natural cynicism tells them that nothing is going to fix the garbage fire of modern society.

My belief is that these are the people that may learn a knee-jerk reaction against something that is regarded as a positive thing. But these are also people that are not hardened against other human beings, only the idea that the world can get better. I firmly believe that we have an army of people that aren’t empathetic, not because they do not wish to be, but because the armor of cynicism has dulled that part of them that can reach out, for fear of vulnerability.

Supposition City

I hope I’m not crossing a line by saying that I think Chris Sniezak has a more natural tendency to be able to speak his mind than I do. I tend to be diplomatic to a fault. I tend to hang back in difficult discussions until I can find a “hook” to vector into the conversation. I think there are times this is good, and there are times it takes me too long to react to something that was best handled immediately, in the moment.

I bring this up because, for someone like Chris, who is more likely to speak his mind and who is more outgoing, I think using safety tools that are not physical objects works very well. He can ask up front where people’s lines are. If someone gets close to that line, he’s not going to hesitate to jump on that situation.

Me? I’m more comfortable inhabiting the space "one step back" from the actual situation. If I see a safety concern, I am more comfortable engaging a mechanism, which I’ve already established has some particular rule attached to it, because, to me, it feels less like jumping to a conclusion or doing the wrong thing, and more like tapping the brakes on my car because there might be ice on the road.

The Right Tool For The Job

Safety tools, whether they be procedural or physical objects at the table, are tools. The usefulness of tools is based not just on their functionality, but with the comfort level and preference of the person using the tool.

To move it to a less charged space, I still can’t get comfortable with virtual table tops for running online games. I’m obsessive about bells and whistles, and if I can’t get a VTT to look and react exactly the way I want it to react, with no interruption in flow when I’m running a game, it distracts me. That has nothing to do with potential players, who may not care if it takes me 30 seconds to get a map to display, or if we have to re-roll initiative.

That doesn’t mean I think people using VTTs are making a mistake or doing it wrong. That doesn’t mean I can’t see how awesome they may be for the future of roleplaying. That doesn’t mean I don’t run games online using my own workarounds.

When it comes to the X-Card ( ), specifically, it is not my favorite tool. I think it was a great innovation, and it has started a lot of excellent conversations on safety. It has fostered empathy. But it is a very binary tool. Visually, it only communicates “there is something in the game I do not want in the game.” If someone is uncomfortable, they should not have to explain themselves, but there may be times when there is room for more nuance.

I tend to like the Script Change tool ( ), because it does have a little more nuance to it. Sometimes people need a break, but they don’t need anything removed. Sometimes people are okay with an element being in the game, as long as its not the focus. Sometimes we just need to start over and make sure everyone is good with how a scene is playing out.

I’m not saying this to say one is better than another, just that we all have preferences. Some GMs may not want physical tools at the table, but may use other safe practices. Some GMs may not see the need to use safety tools, because they have never encountered a situation where they felt safety tools were needed. If you don’t feel safe gaming at that table, there is nothing wrong with you, but that GM may not be a person that is actively excluding or regressing the hobby. Someone that has never needed to erase something that they have written isn’t going to see the virtues of using a pencil over a pen.


From all of this broad range of discussion, I’ve been trying to come up with some takeaways. Here is a stab at them, but these are only from my point of view.

  • Not everyone that has an aversion to safety tools is a bad actor in the RPG hobby
  • Not every GM that doesn’t use physical safety tools at the table is promoting exclusionary play
  • If you don’t feel safe at a table that isn’t using physical safety tools, there is nothing wrong with your decision to leave the table
  • If someone at your table asks to use physical safety tools for themselves, when you aren’t providing them as a GM, denying them is telling them that they can’t tell you when they are having a problem with the game, because that’s all they are doing, just with a physical object instead of words
  • Some people have bad habits and may someday get rid of those bad habits
  • It is not your responsibility to teach anyone to set aside their bad habits, but others might want to do so
  • If someone wants to do something or not do something at their table, and it isn’t harmful to anyone at their table, and you aren’t likely to be at their table, try not to tell them, in absolutes, that they are wrong

I could have a bad read on any of these takeaways. I’m human. I try not to be cynical, even when I really want to collapse into cynicism. It is always possible that I’m over-correcting to avoid that cynicism. But the biggest thing is that I want to keep learning as much as I can about others, and how to utilize empathy to make the world better. I know I fail at it, a lot. I just don’t want to quit trying.

Let me know where I’ve gone off the rails. I want to hear from you.

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