I love tabletop role-playing games. I tend to play all sorts of cinematics, over-the-top, character driven games. I’m frequently the DM, and that’s fun because it scratches some of the same itches that writing does – laying out a story, taking my players on a journey, and building suspense until you can execute a climactic scene that’s TOTALLY AWESOME. But I don’t want to talk about any of those things right now, I wanted to start with what I’d like to call a simple golden rule for gaming – it is an absolute must for any tabletop game to succeed.
Every single game absolutely requires trust. There’s many different forms of it – your players have to trust you to enforce the rules fairly. They have to trust you to tell an interesting story, and to let the characters be. You also have to trust your players to let them role-play, to let them improvise, all while still trying to keep the entire table on track. Trust them to contribute to the story, and it will take you places.
I wanted to talk about a much more fundamental form of trust though: there should be trust around the game table that it is a safe space. Now, “Safe Space” is a kind of politically loaded term with lots of misrepresentations, connotations, and stereotypes. I just mean a safe space (all lower-case), i.e. a space where your players trust that they are going to be a safe space – i.e. not in danger of physical or mental trauma. The characters, sure, they encounter all kinds of trauma– have you seen an Otyugh layer? — but the PLAYERS should be safe. There are two particular areas to make sure they are comfortable and secure: physical safety and mental safety.
First, to the physical safety. Some people may laugh, but if you’re a lady going to someone’s house and you’ve never met them before? Damn right physical safety is up on the priority list. If you have new players you haven’t met in person, perhaps trying to meet up in a place more public with the group is better the first few sessions. Try meeting at a game store. Make sure that game store is also nice and welcoming. We all know those gamers who are a little loud, a little crass, and you know what, if this is a brand new player find a place where that shit doesn’t happen. I don’t care if they are “some of the regulars” or they are “perfectly harmless”, if you have a new player you’ve never met odds are they are not going to be comfortable with any of that. While this is good advice for any new player, I’ll be the first to admit I have heard horror stories from women who are cat-called or oogled or eyed as soon as they walk into a game store. If you can’t understand why a bunch of men making rape jokes would make someone uncomfortable, you probably should be engaging in some self reflection.
Just as important, if you see any remotely inappropriate behavior at the table from your other players, you need to call it out immediately. Is one of your players getting into the physical space of another player? Tell them to back off. Is one of your players being lewd, suggestive, or joking inappropriate and just trying to play if off as “in character?” Tell them to stop. Just because someone is laughing at those jokes doesn’t mean they’re actually finding it funny; often times people will “go along” as a defense mechanism to avoid escalating. And FFS, if a lady is wanting to game with your group, it doesn’t mean she wants to date any of you.
(Now I’ll be honest, there is an incredibly huge and important conversation to be having about how to handle problematic players, things to look out for, and a bigger conversation about how there is systemic sexism in SFF / F / Gaming communities, and I’m not going to go into all of them. These are the first items that occurred off the top of my head. I’m by no means being exhaustive).
Besides physical safety there is also emotional safety. Your players and you need to have the same expectations going in, and it is a natural part of the conversation about what players want in a game. While you’re discussing things like “do you prefer heavy role-playing or a dungeon crawl”, or “Do you want to explore haunted houses or be CIA spies?” you should also discuss what your players don’t want in a game. This can include mundane topics like “I really don’t want to be pirates again,” but you should also encourage your players to be forthright if there are some heavier topics they don’t want to bring up. This is especially true if you are playing a game that can be a little more grim-dark.
Mind you, I’m not saying you and your players can’t have a good time playing a darker game that freely explores some heavier topics. But everyone should be explicitly clear about the kind of game their signing up for. If everyone knows your game might be doing some heavy scenes (graphic torture, rape, harm to children, etc), and that’s what they want then go for it. But do not want to spring heavier topics on people as a surprise.
And if your players say there are things that make them uncomfortable and they don’t want them brought up in the game – do not bring them up. It is not edgy. It is not cool. It is not “good role-playing opportunities.” It is, to quote@‘s panel at Worldcon: “bullshit.” It is a fundamental violation of trust the players put in you. Don’t throw that trust away for a couple bits of raw shock value.
These are items I feel really passionate about, but it is also very easy to not actually think about these things around the gaming table when trying to set up a new game. And that can cause unintended but significant harm to players and campaigns.
At the end of the day, if you play table-top RPGs you do it because it’s fun. While it’s up to every group to decide what fun is, it’s so important that you work to build that trust and encourage the safety of your players so these games can flourish. I don’t care how much time you spent planning that scenario, how many neat magic items you made, or how cool the props you made are, if your players aren’t feeling safe around the table, your game is going nowhere.
Respect your players, and they will trust you.