I have, I believe, a unique perspective on story game safety because when I started playing I had no triggers--or was in denial of having triggers--but for the past few years I get triggered quite easily. So I've been on both sides: not needing safety but wanting to make sure the people who did need it were safe, and needing it myself.
This has been hard for me to write - these thoughts have been swirling in my head for a couple of years now and I haven't committed them to paper because talking about this stuff is unpleasant for me. I'm going to be triggering myself just to share, and then will no doubt get triggered some more as the inevitable tweets come in. Not fun. If I hadn't been asked by some folks starting a meetup in Ohio for some tips I may never have gotten around to it.
It's hard for me to write for the same reason it's hard for some of the people who need safety in story games to use the available safety mechanisms: some of us don't want to admit or reveal our vulnerabilities--for me it is tiresome, like 'here I am still whining like a victim'--and often the very act of trying to negotiate our triggers is in itself triggering.
I went through some trauma some twenty odd years ago and while for the longest time it didn't seem to affect my tastes in media just in the past few years I've found that I really dislike being exposed to talk of firearms or suicide. (Side note: try to go a day in the United States without being exposed to images or talk of firearms. It's nearly impossible to do unless you stay in your home with the television and internet turned off. It's like noticing the air.) Symptoms for me can range from ringing in the ears to an upset stomach to elevated heart-rate to just plain feeling shitty. I've been diagnosed with PTSD and while I no longer agree with that diagnosis I bring it up just to show that one psychiatrist thought my stuff was pretty serious.
So playing the X card or calling a timeout or however you want to veto unpleasant content going into your story game is a thing we need to have. But it sucks for a variety of reasons:
- By the time I play the X card the problematic content is out there. I can stop things from getting any worse but I've already been triggered at least to some extent.
- When I play the X card I'm revealing my vulnerability. I'm perpetuating my victim story. This can be less pleasant for some people than just gritting their teeth through the unpleasantness (and then maybe never playing with that particular group again) though I prefer to play the card.
- When I play the X card it is just the slightest bit annoying for everyone else, even though they will deny it and be glad to respect my wishes. I feel like a wet blanket and that they'd have a better time playing without me.
- Playing the X card often invites conversations I might rather not have, but that are probably necessary. "Oh, no guns? Are crossbows ok? What about lasers?"
- The X card can be used as an excuse to play insensitively: "I didn't realize that bothered him. He should have said something."
I've done the last one myself, and thinking back on it, if the X card had not been present in those games that I went Too Far, would I have? Probably not! Honestly, it makes me wonder if whoever invented the idea of being able to veto triggering content in the first place had experienced the problem themselves or were just trying to find a solution to a problem they didn't understand first-hand.
So what can we do instead, or additionally? Another approach is to pre-negotiate what is okay and what isn't okay. This in some ways is even worse, because now I'm revealing my vulnerability before I even have to, "triggering myself now so I don't have to get triggered later" (credit to Marc Hobbs for that expression.) Or I'm asking other people, often strangers, to reveal their vulnerabilities.
Nevertheless, when I'm running my story game meetup I do draw those lines--"no firearms; no suicide"--before we start play and invite others to veto any content they want to keep out of our games as well. I do it mostly to set an example. When I play in con games I estimate the likelihood that Stuff I Don't Like is going to show up in the fiction, and draw the line if I think there's a good chance. Game set in a medieval fantasy world? Don't need to say anything. Superhero game set in present day? Absolutely need to bring it up (and am quite possibly in the wrong game and may need to recuse myself.)
We can bring in parallels to BDSM: the X card is our safe word, the lines and veils are our pre-negotiated contract. People I know who are heavy into BDSM point out that their mechanisms are not panaceas either, and people having their consent accidentally violated is a Thing That Happens.
So: we cannot rely on systems or mechanisms for safety. Having them is better than not having them but we still need, ultimately, to be aware of ourselves and each other. Don't use them as an excuse. Don't say 'they should have told me.' Pay attention. If you're going to introduce some content you think might be problematic, you can check with the group first. If the story is going in a way that you're worried is going to make you uncomfortable, you can try to head it off at the pass. If you sense someone has checked out, you can steer the story away from what you think might have triggered them without putting them on the spot. When people do use a mechanism to stay safe, thank them! (I still remember a game of Bluebeard's Bride where Ross Cowman thanked me for playing the X card.) People over processes.
So when I run story games with strangers now I not only tell them about my personal vulnerabilities, and encourage them to play the X card when necessary, I remind them to play carefully. And if I introduce something I think might be problematic with someone I don't know, I ask them for permission first.
It's a hard problem, and it takes practice, and I don't blame people for giving up on story gaming because they don't want to risk being triggered or exposed while people slowly learn how to play sensitively. When things were at their worst for me I thought about giving up on story gaming myself, but it has been one of my favorite things to do for many years so I can't give up that easily. Ultimately, for me, I get enough fun out of it that it justifies the times that things go off the rails and get unpleasant. I hope we can all work to make it safe enough for others so it's worth it to them too.