Session Zero and Safety Tools

There have always been divisive topics within the tabletop roleplaying game hobby: Tactical battle maps versus theater of the mind; XP or milestone progression; Should you fudge dice rolls? But none of these topics come even close to how riled up some people get about the mention of Sessions Zero and safety tools.

I would argue that everyone—even the most provocative edgelord—uses Sessions Zero and safety tools, unknowingly, to different degrees. They decide together with their friends what game to play, they establish some rules and expectations, and they often try to sort out their disagreements during play. If you don’t have any discussions and don’t set any expectations, the group will eventually fall apart. People who argue against the implementation of Sessions Zero and safety tools seem to misunderstand what they are there for or what impact they have. If they have had successful groups for decades without, in their words, using Sessions Zero or safety tools, they probably do use informal variants of them without thinking about it.

What we talk about when we talk about Sessions Zero and safety tools are formalized tools and structures for ensuring that everyone around the table is having fun. That’s all there is to it. It’s about setting expectations, making sure that everyone is on board, and to make sure that certain lines are avoided if they would cause unwanted emotional distress. But they’re also tools for how to handle such situations when they come up. Sessions Zero and safety tools help to make sure that everyone is having the most fun they can have and explore the stories they want to explore. They don’t take away the possibility for dark roleplay or controversial subject matters—instead, they can help groups be more comfortable exploring emotionally heavy themes without causing players to feel powerless, belittled, or ignored. With the help of safety tools, you can often go even darker and even more controversial without the same risk of causing harm.

Some of the most common arguments against these tools are “it’s just a game” and “you’re trying to make things woke,” whatever that means. Yes, it is just a game, but it’s also an immersive game. When you play a horror video game, you get scared. When you play football and lose, you get frustrated, angry, or sad. Those are just games too—but the emotions are real. Tabletop roleplaying games are very immersive games where psychological bleed is common—this means that your character and your own emotions become intertwined. You want what is best for your character. When they suffer, you do as well. Bleed isn’t wrong or weird—it’s expected to a degree, and it’s important to be aware of both your own feelings and the feelings of others. The whole argument about things being “woke” can be ignored entirely. Some people believe that respecting others is a political statement which is just silly and show emotional immaturity.

Session Zero

So, what is a Session Zero? It’s a session you hold before the game itself begins. At first, use this session to decide what game and story to play, establish expectations alongside the players, determine if you’re going to use any house rules, and outline the terms of a social contract; this can be agreements on how to handle breaks, distractions at the table, how to raise concerns, and things like that. But you don’t want to run your game like a prison, because then it’s difficult for players to feel at ease.

When suggesting ideas for a campaign, start with an elevator pitch and be willing to brainstorm ideas together with the players. If you don’t have ideas of your own, ask the players what the pitch should be. Everyone’s input is important here. People have different preferences, opinions, and quirks, and you want to use this session to foster a collaborative atmosphere.

You can create characters together and advise them on options that will serve the narrative that all have agreed to. You could agree to place restrictions on certain character types or builds, but it could also be restrictions when it comes to certain topics or subject matters. If you’re going to tackle a sensitive or difficult topic, the goal should always be to do so in a respectful way. If you or a player is unsure if the group can handle a certain topic, avoid it.

A Session Zero is also a good opportunity to make sure that the game is accessible to everyone. Talk about scheduling, how long you should play, but also if any of the players have any requests or needs. Is one of your players disabled, ask them what would make the game more comfortable for them. You may need to keep the light levels a certain way, you may need to avoid distracting noises when someone speaks, you may need character sheets with larger print. There are plenty of ways to make the game more comfortable for players, and it’s not just about the content of the game or the attitudes of those playing.

Expectations & Consent

If a roleplaying game session isn’t fun for everyone, the game won’t last long. I did mention that Session Zero is a good time to outline a social contract. Sometimes, these can take shape organically, but there is benefit in establishing them as a group. When outlining your social contract, only set rules for things that you all agree on. If everyone is okay with having alcohol at the table, then you don’t need to make any special rules about that. If someone is uncomfortable with alcohol at the table, then you ought to have a conversation about that and come to an agreement that everyone is happy with. Perhaps some alcohol is okay but getting drunk is not. When outlining your social contract, you shouldn’t treat it as a democracy where you can overrule a minority. Even if only a single player raises concerns, it’s important that they have as much fun as everyone else. You need to come to an agreement—sometimes that means giving in to someone else; sometimes it means standing your ground; sometimes it means finding a compromise.

What you decide on for a social contract can be a combination of implicit or explicit commitments to running fair and respectful games. Every player should be allowed to contribute to the story and have moments for their characters to shine. When someone is talking, others should be listening. In return for running a story that’s fun, fair, and tailored for the players, the players will respect you and the effort it takes for you to prepare and run sessions for them. The players will also accept your rulings, even if they don’t always agree with the outcomes. Should one or more people break the social contract and not try to correct misbehavior, the group may dismiss them from the table. This applies to the GM as well.

One of the first things you should talk to your players about are comfort levels. Ask them if there are any subject matters they want to avoid or if they have any strong phobias that they don’t want to be exposed to. Some players may have a hard time with being emotionally abused by an NPC; others may want to stay away from graphic depictions of gore; or visual depictions of insects. Ask the players about soft and hard limits—or lines and veils—where you can determine topics that are outright banned or that could be present but treaded carefully.

For example, a soft limit (or veil) could be something that you should think twice about crossing since it could create genuine anxiety, fear, and discomfort. A hard limit (or line) should never be crossed. Everyone in the group has some soft and hard limits, but not everyone is open to share them. What you could do is to have the players write these down anonymously. It’s not important who has a limit or why. It’s important that it’s known by the group so that it can be taken into consideration. A roleplaying session isn’t a substitute for therapy after all, and there’s no real reason for a group of friends to start psychoanalyzing each other to figure out why certain limits exist. Take note of them and don’t question them.

If you have established some hard and soft limits, make sure to manage expectations surrounding the soft limits as well. For example, if sexual violence is a soft limit, it shouldn’t be depicted at the table, but it could possibly be referenced as part of a character’s background or as a grim reality of the setting they’re in. If it’s a hard limit, it shouldn’t be referenced at all under any circumstances. Make sure to manage everyone’s expectations surrounding all soft limits. If you agree that the story can benefit from exploring some of the soft limits, discuss how these can be referenced and where the lines are.

Even if we are playing a game where all the darker subject matters are entirely fictional, it’s possible for certain topics to be very real to some people. I’ve been fortunate in my life, but I work with trauma patients daily, and I know how common it is. Even if you haven’t struggled with trauma yourself, you’re likely to have friends or family members who have. Just because they don’t open up to you about everything doesn’t mean their experiences aren’t real. As a GM, you shouldn’t assume that your players are simply okay with everything, because they won’t be. Someone’s real life can intrude on a game session, and the more “dark shit” you throw into your narrative without consulting the players, the more likely you are to cross the line with someone. If you don’t care about crossing people’s lines, you won’t be having friends to play with for long.

While a Session Zero is a good opportunity to address these kinds of things, it shouldn’t be the only time you address limits. New limits may come up in play. Other limits may be removed down the line as the ones who wanted them in the first place could become more comfortable facing them. It’s recommended to check in with players to see if soft and hard limits are up to date as well as remind people to revisit them if they want to suggest changes.

Sessions Zero are important but they aren’t the only time you should talk about things like content and consent. It’s important that the GM tries to gauge player reactions and uses check-ins during play—these are brief windows in the narrative when they ask players if they are okay with what is happening. It could be that a player thought they would be okay with something but learned in game that it deeply affected them. It could be that they thought that they would be distressed by something but learned in game that they felt like they could face that something in a meaningful and healthy way. It’s not uncommon that once a player feels that they can trust their group and their GM, they are more open to explore some issues they raised concerns about during Session Zero.

Character Creation

A Session Zero is a good opportunity for the players to build their characters together, and for you as GM to help them tie those characters into the game’s setting and narrative. It can be helpful to have the players cooperate in game if they have some sort of shared history decided upon before the game begins. Use Session Zero to flesh out details like this. If the players don’t have any shared histories, think about ways to forge a bond between them during their first scenario. If they have shared histories, have the players sketch out some of that history. It’s enough to settle on some generalizations at this stage, with more intricate details being established later.

Something that could help to elevate a game when done right, and that should be discussed in Session Zero, is if there should be any friction between characters. If some characters are rivals or have disagreements, set up expectations and boundaries regarding those to avoid character conflicts bleeding over as player conflicts. If players have a hard time coming up with details on their own, you should ask them warm-up questions about their characters that they can answer either as players or in character. This is something that can add additional nuance to characters and relationships that wouldn’t have come up if ignored.

As the GM, take note of details regarding all player characters and look for opportunities later in game to shine spotlights on narrative character details. Bring people in from someone’s back story, like an enemy from the past, or have the group visit the hometown of one of them where some conflict occurs that is personal to that PC. You can make the game feel much more immersive and personal for all the players.

Addressing Problematic Behavior

Even though players have agency over their characters, sometimes they can use them as tools for inappropriate behavior. The “this is how my character would act” excuse is common to justify bad behavior. These players need to be reminded that they are free to explore darker aspects of their characters, but not at the expense of other players. If someone is being emotionally distressed by the actions of another player, speak with them about it. But also remember to think about how you portray your own NPCs as well.

It’s good manners to reaffirm that things you agreed on in Session Zero stills holds true. Many conflicts that occur in game often do so because of miscommunication rather than malicious intent. As long as people are willing to listen and adjust, most issues can be resolved quickly. It can be difficult to see when things become too overwhelming, and it can also be difficult for an overwhelmed player to speak up and pause the game. The GM should keep an eye out for signs of anxiety, call for breaks during and after emotionally heavy scenes, and help encourage shy players to assert themselves. Communication and awareness are the keys to a lot.

Safety Tools

A Session Zero is simply one safety tool of many. Check-ins during play are another. If you worry about a player, you can communicate quick check-ins without interrupting the game, perhaps by using thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate that you’re good to go or that you want to pause. You could build onto a check-in system by using colored tokens to represent levels of consent, with green meaning full consent, yellow meaning caution, and red meaning to stop the game. Another option is to use safe words, such as a word or a phrase, that means that you need to take a break to discuss a concern. Players could have both no words and go words to signal concern or consent. If players don’t feel comfortable speaking up before the full group, you could give each of your player different words or ways to signal you.

One of the most well-known safety tools is the X-Card, created by John Stavropoulos. This is a card with an X on it, meant to act as a signal to the GM and the group that the player is uncomfortable with a scene. You could show the X-Card to avoid engaging in sexual roleplay or to indicate that some content is triggering a trauma. Once the card is flashed, the game is put on pause or stopped outright. You never have to justify why you flash the X-Card, and it’s inappropriate for others to probe. It doesn’t matter why the card is flashed; you can either edit out the scene that caused the concern or have a conversation, either publicly or privately, about how to edit the scene or avoid the situation going forward. Because the X-Card is a public declaration, there are risks that players won’t feel comfortable using it even if they aren’t consenting to a scene. It’s important that using the card is normalized by the GM. If you want to use the X-Card at your table, use it yourself early in the game to model for others how it can be applied. Once people get used to it, they will be more likely to use it themselves.

Another safety tool is Script Change, created by Brie Beau Sheldon. This uses the words Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause to indicate how to approach a scene. At any point, a player or the GM can call for a Script Change by flashing a card or saying one of the three words: Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause. By doing so, you’re telling a player to either rewind or fast forward a scene, maybe to avoid going into detail about something uncomfortable. By calling for a pause, you take a break in the action to catch your breath. You don’t have to explain or justify the Script Change. You don’t have to use Script Change just for the content either—you can use it to manage tone as well, to call for rewinds if something is going too comedic or dramatic for what is appropriate. Apart from Rewind, Fast Forward, and Pause, Script Change has something called Highlight Reel and Instant Replay. An Instant Replay means that you pause the game after a scene to go over what happened in it, as a way to make sure that everyone is on the same page. A Highlight Reel is similar but takes place at the end of the session. Players get to point out things that they liked, things that they didn’t like, and things that can be improved for future sessions. Sessions with Script Change also have a Wrap Meeting as an optional tool. These are opportunities for players to go over anything that happened in the game that needs to be discussed—either to provide constructive criticism or to sort out some kind of miscommunication, conflict, or poorly executed scene.

The Highlight Reels and Wrap Meetings from Script Change are useful in every game, and even if you don’t use Script Change itself. Normally, these are just Aftercare. It’s recommended to have some form of Aftercare even after games that go well and where everyone is visibly enjoying themselves. The more intense your games get, the more important it is to have a defined structure and an opportunity for players to talk about the experience.

When starting a new game, another safety tool you can use is a Consent Checklist. Here, you print out checklists for each player where they can review themes, how mature the content should be, various consent topics (such as specific subject matters), and opportunities to make statements or clarifications. The players fill out the checklist and hand it back to the GM who reviews it and plans the game accordingly. Before the game starts, the GM should present all of the consent topics that the players agreed to and discuss possible nuances. This is a good opportunity to determine soft and hard limits amongst those consent topics.

There are many different safety tools you can use to make your gaming experience more fun and to be able to approach certain subject matters from a place of trust in your group. But the tools themselves aren’t some kind of miracle solution to make hurtful moments go away. The tools are there to make things easier, but no tool is perfect and no roleplayer is perfect. Sometimes you’ll feel like the tools are failing you, because they are there and they are used but you still feel uncomfortable or hurt in some way. Mistakes happen. And sometimes it’s just not the right game for you, or the right group for you. It could be a temporary thing or it could be a permanent thing. But knowing that, the safety tools can help facilitate as good an experience as possible in the circumstances you’re in.

Art is from Script Change

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