Tools to use before play

This is part of the article series “making your game fun for everyone“.

There is no substitute for talking about your preferences when it comes to the most elementary choice you have to make: what game to play. If you’re the one proposing a game, it’s your job to let people know what that game is about. Tell everyone about any themes that might cause problems,  so they know what they’re getting into. Be open to the possibility that some people won’t want to play this particular game.

Thinking about the themes in the particular game you’re playing is also helpful for thinking about what tools you might need to use. For instance, in horror games we deliberately create discomfort and push against normal boundaries. In such games you want to identify any boundaries that people don’t want pushing against (and any they actively do) right at the start.

Thinking about the specific issues that might come up in your game can be a helpful way to centre your conversation about what’s fun. If you’re playing a game about war, the level of explicit violence is a good place to start. In other games you might need to discuss sex. Think about what’s likely to come up and start there.

It’s great to do this as part of a wider conversation about what the game is about. A good tool for this is CATS (Concept, Aim, Tone, Subject Matter), which will help you quickly and clearly give everyone a really good idea about what they’re getting into. Relatedly, the Gauntlet suggest the option of using Content Warnings to signal difficult themes before play. You can do this in conversation or in your game pitch – especially a good plan if you’re offering a game to strangers, such as at a convention. The Garrison conventions use tags (such as “PvP”) as a simple way to signal content in game pitches.

Another way to get under the skin of what a game is about and whether it matches your preferences as a group is the same page tool, which gives you a set of questions as prompts to tease out some of the potential stumbling blocks you might encounter ahead of time.

It’s obviously possible that any of these approaches might lead to you choosing an entirely different game. That’s a good thing, because it means you’ve identified that your original idea wouldn’t have been fun for everyone, before you started playing it. As opposed to finding out too late.

Tools to use at the start of your game

Someone (probably the GM) will need to explain any tools that you’re going to use in your game. It’s a good idea to do this right at the start. Explain what the tools are, why you’re using them and how they are used. You’ll need to remind people about them during play, and you may need to lead by example a little by demonstrating them yourself, so people feel confident to use them.

A really simple tool you can use right at the start of your game is to let everyone know about anything you would hate to see in the game. It could be because it squicks you out, it could be because you find it boring, it could be because you’ve just had enough of that thing right now. It could even be because it’s something you have a phobia of, or other mental health-related issue with. It doesn’t really matter which of those it is. If including it would mean you won’t have fun, it’s ok to ask not to include it. This is where Lines and Veils come in.

Lines and Veils are a simple way to express these preferences. Lines are a list of things you don’t want in your game, full stop. Veils are a list of things you don’t want to happen “on camera”, in other words you don’t want anyone describing them in detail.

Let’s take torture, for example. There’s lots of reasons you might be uncomfortable including it in your game. If you add it to the list of Lines, then we don’t include torture in the game. Nobody does it, nobody refers to it, it’s off the table. Sort of how you wouldn’t include torture in a daytime soap opera, or a wildlife documentary – you just focus the game elsewhere. If you include it in the list of Veils, though, torture might happen in the game, but we just fade to black once we realise it’s going to happen. We say “and then Esmerelda is dragged off to the torture chamber”, and then we move straight on to whatever happens after the torture has occurred.

People can be uncomfortable about sharing the things that squick them out, and obviously that goes double when someone has a serious mental health reaction to something. So it’s not a bad idea, as suggested in When the Dark is Gone, to let people do this anonymously. You can hand around a piece of paper, then read out what’s on it.

The Script Change Toolbox is discussed in more detail in other sections but worth mentioning here is its idea of including a film rating (PG-13, R etc) for your game. This is a simple way to cut out lengthy discussion of specifics if you’re short of time.

Another cool thing to do is to point people at the sort of stuff you do want to see in the game. The simplest way to do this is through a list – just like with Lines and Veils, only it’s the opposite. This isn’t used in many games that I can think of – the closest I’m aware of is Microscope’s palette (where you list things that are definitely in the game’s background). Regardless, there’s no reason you can’t make a list of Asks that everyone is explicitly trying to include in the game.

A great tool for this is flags. A flag is basically a little piece of character background that indicates something you’re interested in playing through. There’s a plethora of games that use flags in their mechanics, but you don’t need flags to be in a game’s mechanics to use them! Try to identify a thing you want to focus on in play, write it down, and share it with the group. Examples include:

  • A relationship you want to explore
  • A belief your character has that you want to test to its limit
  • A goal your character wants to pursue

It’s a really good idea when using a flag to talk further about what you want out of it. You might give your character a goal because you really want to see them fulfil it, or you might want your character to be perpetually thwarted in going after that goal. Both are legit, but you obviously don’t want your friends to mistake one for the other.

Next let’s look at Tools to use during play.