Safety Marks

In the course of writing, playtesting and now publishing Bite Marks I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about safety tools. The conversation has expanded so much since I started role-playing 29 years ago and I love how people are thinking about play culture, baking safety into mechanical design and normalising the use of safety tools and putting more conscious effort into looking out for each other. The idea that we are still only at the start of this journey is really exciting to me – I am eagerly looking forward to the next iteration of safety tools.

Just recently I was in the process of prepping a game of Bite Marks when I realised that in addition to all the stuff written in the book about safety there is something else I do without realising it – I figured I’d write a post about that.

Like many people I use the three most comment safety tools in my games and my play. The first thing you do in Bite Marks (and all my games) is create a list of banned items via anonymous channels as necessary. This is like an anonymous version of Lines and Veils as created by Ron Edwards. I also encourage the use of the X-card by John Stavropolous and Script Change by Beau Sheldon.

But I also consider what aspects of the specific game I’m playing are particularly safety relevant and then discuss them up front. I point them out with a big red hand. For Bite Marks there are three particular aspects of the game and system which may cause tension for players. Before a game I explain those aspects in more detail and talk through the ways in which those elements will work and the ways in which they will NOT work. Below is a blow by blow account of how I do that for Bite Marks and the three elements I highlight.

Bite Marks Example:

Player v Player

“Bite Marks has a player v. player element but not in the sense that the players will be trying to back stab each other. Player v. player conjures up a lot of different images – most of which probably don’t quite fit the Bite Marks setting. In Bite Marks, players can dominate or scrap with each other, they can force each other to reveal their feelings… but they are all on the same team. They are working to the same goal, they don’t have secret agendas that have the players competing with each other. This means the game has all the trappings of player v. player but the game play is really different.”

I always point this out so that the players don’t just see all the Moves they can use on each other and assume this is a game about screwing each other over.

Domination

“In Bite Marks there is a Move called Dominate. This *can* in some circumstances allow one player character to give orders to and mentally dominate another player character into taking an action they do not want to take. That is deliberate because it is about struggling with your werewolf nature, and your werewolf nature wants to take orders from those with a higher status. You might feel uncomfortable about being forced to take an action you don’t want to take – that is cool, your character probably feels the same way so channel it into playing them.

The move reflects how you are conditioned to obey, it isn’t about someone changing how you think and feel about the act.

This means that if someone makes a successful dominate move on you, then, when you have completed the thing you were dominated to do you are at liberty to row with them about it, blame them and have it change how you see them or even whether you will ever trust them again. In fact, it is encouraged that you do just that!”

Dominate takes away some player and some character agency and it is definitely going to lead to uncomfortable situations. So, by stating this all clearly up front (instead of finding out halfway through a session) people can choose how they want to engage with it; or whether this is not a game they want to play at all before the session starts!

Give In to the Wolf

“In Bite Marks there is a move called “Give In to the Wolf”. This Move gives you a big boost to your powers but if you roll a fail the MC will take over your character. This move takes away player and character agency completely. The Wolf is out of control and they are going to do something bad that your character will take the fall for. You can choose whether or not to use the Move, in fact if you don’t want to use the Move because you are scared of losing control I’d suggest playing into it and making it a feature of your character!

Dominate and Give into the Wolf are STILL subject to all the other safety rules, you can’t use it in relation to material which is Banned, people can and should use the X-card and Script Change tools as they wish to (and there is an additional rule in the game text that you can never use these Moves to get around consent in sexual situations – it just doesn’t work).”

I explain these issues at the start of any game (whether in person or ahead of time in an email or similar. A big part of the reason I’ve written this blog post is so that you can cut and paste this wording and use it in your own Bite Marks pre-session prep if you like.

Identifying which parts of a game world, or system might need some extra explanation and framing is a judgment call. I would say that mechanics touching on consent, anything which is a bit surprising or deals with vulnerability and oppression are good places to look for mechanics and background that you need to put front and centre in this way. Games which have themes of e.g.: horror, sex and/or oppression as a core part of their setting are also good candidates for a pre-game explanation. In a Monsterhearts game I might talk about Darkest Self and ‘Turn Someone On’ and Sex Moves, explaining in more detail how they will work, how they will be framed in the game and how to lean into playing them. In any Lovecraftian game I’ll give a briefing on racism and portrayals of mental health. Don’t forget that a lot of historical-style games will come with various forms of oppression baked into the setting which privileged players and groups won’t immediately recognise.

In a convention or game pitching situation you won’t have a lot of time to get into details – so it is worth highlighting the presence of anything safety relevant and then as soon as you have a settled player group you can do a rundown of the safety tools you want to use and go into any extra detail you need to mention. Part of your explanation will also depend on who you are playing with and how well you know them. Personally I’ll skip some bits of the briefing for people who have played Bite Marks before and are familiar with my three ‘red hand topics’ – but I will always stress and restate what safety tools we are using. I would more explicit running Bite Marks at the convention with a table of strangers especially if I know some of them have played Vampire the Masquerade which has a different way of using a dominate-like power.

Ultimately this is all about making sure that everyone is on the same page with the game and giving people the option to leave before the game starts if they don’t want to play with those mechanics or background.

In terms of other safety tools I think that tabletop RPGs could learn a great deal from LARP in how we approach debriefing after the end of a session or campaign and this resource compiled by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk is also a fantastic compendium of safety techniques and goes into much more detail and explanation of the ones I’ve mention above.

If you are a UK lawyer one early principle you learn is called Denning’s Red Hand Rule. This rule states that the more unusual a contract clause is the more attention you need to bring to it. Lord Denning suggested in a judgment that some clauses might only be valid if they were written in red ink with a red hand pointing to them. I apply this principle to the games I run. What mechanics, what themes should be written in red in with a red hand pointing to them. Set expectations early, alongside your preferred safety tools. As a GM you will (probably) have a lot more information about a game than the players. So it is your job to identify land mines before people step on them and then point them out… with a red hand.

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