Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Safety Techniques

Tabletop RPGs and LARPs have developed a number of safety techniques to help keep players safe during games. Some of them will adapt to tabletop games like Magic better than others, but they're all worth examination:

Statement of Intent
Before the game starts, the facilitator makes it clear to the players that their safety is important—more important than the game—and that we're all here to have fun, and the best way to do that is to treat each other with love and respect. They ask the players to verbally agree.
It is easier to remember others' feelings when you are reminded of them like this, and players are more committed to safety when they consciously agree to prioritize it.

Magic tournaments could absolutely do this and I earnestly believe it would ease players' stress levels, improve their interactions, and make the event more fun for all.
Open Door
Before a game starts, the facilitator makes it clear that the players' safety is more important than the game, and that one of the ways they should feel welcome protecting their own emotional and physical well-being is to step away from the game. They can do so at any time, for any reason, and they can do so without notifying anyone or explaining why they are leaving, though they are invited to do so if they feel okay doing so. A player might leave to use the restroom or to take an important call. They might leave because their opponent is aggravating them, or because the game is frustrating them. They might return, or they might go wherever makes them feel better and not return.
While I can definitely see this helping Magic players handle tilt, stepping away during a tournament match is obviously problematic. I don't see how to allow players to leave without explanation, because we don't know whether to pause the game, give them a game loss and wait for them to return for game 2/3, or to drop them from the event because they're not coming back.

But we may be able to adopt this technique with the intervention of judges. We could give players the option of calling a judge and telling the judge privately that they need to step away and if they know whether they intend to return shortly, after a while, or at all. Even then, the judge may have [find someone] to accompany them to ensure they're not using the time to cheat.
The X Card
Before the game starts, the facilitator puts a card with a big 'X' on it in the middle of the table (or several, so all players can comfortably reach one). Players are encouraged to touch the X card at any time they feel uncomfortable about the game's content or players' behavior. Doing so is not a judgment, and will not be judged. The table will simply stop whatever they were doing, back up, and find another path forward. The player who touched the X card is welcome to explain what they were uncomfortable with, or how, but there is absolutely no expectation for them to do so, and they are welcome to say nothing.
The X card normalizes discomfort, making it clear to players that they're not wrong to feel uncomfortable in response to whatever causes that feeling, and that easing their discomfort is more important than the game. Having a physical card keeps this reminder apparent throughout the game, and means that a player doesn't need to speak up or draw attention to themselves in order to make their discomfort known. It also means we don't have to place blame on the player(s) who caused the discomfort, probably unintentionally and unwittingly. That preserves the safety of both sides.

Because Magic is neither a storytelling nor roleplaying game, I don't expect the X card will be as impactful, but having a visible reminder that your safety and the safety of other players is important could still have a very positive impact. I imagine placing one between each match, so that players can x card something they hear from adjacent games as well.
Cut works just like the X card but it isn't a physical object. Instead, a player can call cut at any time (often accompanied by a hand single, like crossing your arms to form an 'X'). The group stops what they were doing, backs up, and finds another way. The cut caller may explain or not as they prefer.
I prefer the X card for tabletop games and would only recommend Cut when such cards aren't available (but it's super easy to just draw an 'X' on a card and make one).
Brake (aka Largo) is similar to cut in that you call it out during a game, but instead of stopping play and rewinding, it is merely a call to reduce the intensity of the situation. Speak less loudly, act less hostile, roleplay less hard, calm down, back off, etc.
Brake is less disruptive to a game's flow than cut. Again, it has more uses in a roleplaying scenario, but it's not hard to imagine a Magic player braking in response to a heated match or aggressive opponent. This is the kind of thing players can self-enforce voluntarily, with social pressure from adjacent players when they don't.

Judges would not be needed for the first X card, cut or brake in a match, but would do well to give more attention to those games, as repeated calls would indicate a problem they might be needed to properly address.
Check In
In an intense live-action roleplaying situation, it is very possible for a player to forget that they can cut or brake, or even to think about their own safety. Another player (often a facilitator/NPC, but not necessarily) can check-in with that player to see how they're doing. And you can do this non-verbally to minimize the OOC impact on immersion.
Throw the A-OK hand symbol (touch your pointer finger to your thumb and leave your other fingers extended) to them and wait for a response. They respond either with thumbs-up, indicating they feel safe and are happy with how things are going; so-so-hands, indicating they're unsure how safe they feel or how happy they are, or that they feel somewhere between fully safe/happy and fully unsafe/unhapy; or thumbs-down, indicating they feel unsafe or unhappy with how things are going.
If they throw thumbs-down, we break character long enough to figure out what their concerns are and address them. If they throw so-so-hands, we treat it just like a thumbs-down, because we want to be sure they're okay and because players (especially American players) hate to complain and will often express so-so-ness even when they're feeling bad.

This is an active, external safety technique, so it's up to you to check-in when you're concerned about your opponent, or to check-in with adjacent players who might not be having the best time.
Arm Up, Hush Up
When a facilitator or anyone needs the room to be quiet (either because they need the room's attention, or simply to reset that decibel level), they raise one arm straight up. When you see someone's arm up, you stop speaking and raise your arm. When everyone does this, you can all lower your arms and the initiator speaks.
This is an amazingly effective technique. It works much faster than you'd expect because wherever you're looking, you'll see someone who's raising their hand. It's also surprisingly intuitive. If maybe a quarter of the room knows about and does it, other players will see it and instinctively follow suit.

This isn't a safety technique, but it's useful in any crowd, and directly applicable to Magic tournaments.
Not all of these techniques are used by any single RPG or LARP, and not all of them should be used in tabletop games. Even if we do use multiple techniques, we don't have to introduce them all at once. My recommendation is to start with the Statement of Intent at large tournaments, and see if we can't get that to filter down to small store events as a quick ritual that explicitly tells players new and old alike that they are welcome here, and should value one another's safety. I would also love to try out the X-card between duel pairings to see how that works out. And I will absolutely use Arm Up, Hush Up at any event I'm running just so I don't have to shout into the crowd to tell them when pizza's ready.


  1. I'm skeptical of AUHU being workable in any setting other than a small game store, especially since a raised hand is already the universal signal for "calling a judge."

    The Statement of Intent would be great if Magic players actually paid attention at player meetings. :P

    More than trying to introduced specialized lingo, I get the general sense of whether a store is welcoming by the tone set by the people in it. Does the store staff greet newcomers? Do people refrain from trash talk? Is the judge helpful? (Is the store visibly, and olfactorily, clean?) It requires a community effort to weed out the bad apples and encourage the good ones to speak up.

    Will there be any design content running this week?

    1. I've seen AHUH work for a crowd over 100 people, even while dining. That said, it was not an average crowd and that may skew the results.

      Hands up already being the hand signal to call a judge is a very good point that I missed. We don't want to confuse those things.

      Agreed. Yesterday's article focuses on community effort as the primary vector for change. These techniques are purely supplemental.

  2. Counterpoint on AUHU:

    Game stores and larger events should set clear expectations on acceptable behavior and consistently enforce those rules until they become norms.

    1. I will trust that author to know what they're talking about in the classroom, and it may be that a Magic crowd is more like that, but with the adult gamers I've done this with, it is fast, and far reaching in a way shouting for attention can't approach.