Gaming should be fun. Metaphorically crawling out of a session of gaming feeling horrible usually isn’t fun if that wasn’t the intended result. When we’re roleplaying, emotions can run high, things can get too difficult to deal with, and unpleasant past traumas can be triggered in our memory by the fictional circumstances we’re in during a game. We have to give our players and GMs tools to play games without doing serious emotional harm to themselves.
The first time I saw someone ask this before a game, it was like a little choir sang from above.
“Is there any content you guys don’t want to have come up while we play?”
Bam. We went in a circle, each of us contributing topics that would make the game far more upsetting then fun if they came up. No questions, no one was judgmental, and I instantly felt twice as at ease. Where was I for this heavenly moment? I was playing Fiasco at the Gen Con Games on Demand, and in the few years since, have become friends with a number of people I played with that day. I don’t think I would have had as much fun, been as open, or wanted to keep in contact if that pre-game question hadn’t been asked. When you volunteer yourself to ask that question, you may have just made the day of anyone agonizing over how to ask the question themselves. People often feel guilty or awkward about having boundaries around specific topics, situations or phobias. By having low-key, supportive pre-game tone setting, we can put up a healthy boundary around the red zones people have. When we do that, we allow for deep exploration of other topics and content. And we establish that the space does not put someone else’s ‘fun’ over a player or GMs comfort.
Player Discretion is Advised
I used to do a lot of live-action roleplaying, and was a ST (Storyteller) for a live-action group for many years. I first saw STs for the troupe issuing player discretion advisories while I was a player. I was warned the content of the next scene could be emotionally difficult, that I was allowed to ask for a break, or even a “fade to black” at any time. My ST giving the advisory made me feel like I wasn’t being blind sided by the content. I was given tools to use if at any time it was too much for me, and told it was okay to ripcord. I encountered a number of permutations on that advisory over my time with the troupe.
Whether someone is playing their regular character, an NPC, or helping narrate a scene, a substantial amount of their emotional safety is on their game facilitator/ST/GM. Some players (and GMs!) feel unable to ask for emotional considerations while gaming. They might not even be from a gaming background where those tools were ever presented. Never assume someone will speak up if they’re uncomfortable, even if you know them. When I started as an ST for a troupe, the live-action experience I had before that group had only taught me “fade to black,” issued no content advisories, and had never been told it was okay to ask for a scene break if it got to much.
Scene Breaks and Fade to Black
No matter how amazing and compelling a scene can be, it may be too much. It doesn’t matter if it’s an emotional overload that carries the added weight of past traumatic experiences, the need for a break shouldn’t be questioned. Asking for a moment to be out of character, to turn to your best friend who’s in the same scene and ask for a hug, a scene break is an option that should be put on the table for people to use. That goes for any kind of gaming, be it online, around a table, or standing around at a vampire garden party. Part of what makes gaming so much fun is that ability to get swept away in the moment. But sometimes the moment is full of soul-sucking, heart breaking overwhelming pain, and both players and GMs should be able to take a moment to breathe, collect themselves, and continue.
But there are scenes we just can’t finish. For any reason, it’s just too much. It is far more intense than we’d realized going in, something about it has made it a scene we can’t roleplay through to the end. In that case, we can fade to black. Maybe just for that player, maybe for everyone in the scene. Get the people who are suffering out of that scene, out of character, and let them breathe. There’s a lot of scenes that can be ended with a brief narrative recap of the rest of the events that were playing out. If the whole group of players want a fade to black in solidarity with someone who needs to, let them. Fade to black often involves some level of co-sharing narrative authority, as players and their GM determine how things would end, sounding each other out for a conclusion that doesn’t feel like a fiat. That co-sharing may feel weird for some GMs. But it’s often the best way to get that painful moment over for the player(s) who needed to walk away, and give some measure of narrative closure to the scene.
Sometimes, players may need to take a break from their character. It can be hard for a player to bring this to their GM, so presenting them with options and assuring them that you understand things are Not Fun right now can do a lot to keep trust and communication open in the situation. It may be an out of character breakup has created painful in character dynamics. Perhaps recent, traumatic events that happened to the player’s characters are making for too scary headspace to play in. For whatever reason, game breaks can come in a lot of forms, and some of them can even precede each other. There could be a full-stop break, where the player doesn’t show up to game sessions. Unless they want to disclose to the group, respect their privacy about their reasons for taking a break.
They may be in need of a break from their character, but still want to game with the group. Introducing an NPC, or even a “temporary character,” if it makes narrative sense, can keep them involved without having to play their regular character. Some players may even enjoy their temp characters more than their regular character, and request retiring their character to play the new one. If they’re comfortable with it, sound them out about it. When people fill us in about their emotional process, and the things they find useful or not about the tools we give them, that can give us feedback to become better GMs.
I should note that game breaks can occur for a lot of other reasons outside overly intense game experiences; new job, new baby, moving, just lost a job, schoolwork, an array of occasions and events that boil down to one takeaway. Our lives outside of game trump the game. The health, safety, happiness and sanity of our players and GMs is more important than the game, the story, or the scene.
If there are tools you use to keep your GMs or players emotionally healthy, please share them in the comments. More tools and examples give people more options to adapt and use with their own gaming communities.