Tools to use during play

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

Even if you’ve had a really good conversation at the start of the game, it’s easy to stumble or drift into something that one or more people aren’t finding enjoyable. Let’s talk about tools for handling this situation.

Before we get into specifics, let’s note that many of these approaches require you to drop what you’re doing and potentially change where the game is headed, or even change something that’s already happened. That’s right: you describe something happening, and then after the fact you decide it didn’t happen after all. This is no big deal. We do it all the time if someone makes a rules mistake or describes something that isn’t consistent with some previously-established detail. “Oh, I guess he couldn’t have been there because he was travelling through the haunted wood at the time, so forget I said that.” Hopefully if you’re willing to do that out of respect for the rules, you’ll be willing to do it for your friends too.

A really basic thing you can do during play is to keep an eye on each other. Intervening to stop play or ask for something to be changed for your own benefit is incredibly awkward. If one of your friends seems like they might be uncomfortable or not enjoying themselves, or even if they seem fine but the game is touching on subject matter that you know is difficult for them, you can and should check in with them.

The simplest approach to handling problems in play, as already discussed, is to talk about it. A slightly amped-up version of this approach is called the Luxton Technique. In brief, what it means during play is that any player can say if they are unhappy with what has happened in the game so far, they can say so. This can (but doesn’t have to) include saying that they want or need to change stuff that has already happened, or change the future direction. Either way, everyone listens, and does what they’ve asked for.

The X Card is a way to enable people to remove stuff they don’t like from the game, without having to get into discussing it. It’s a good approach for handling issues that people don’t feel comfortable verbalising. Instead, you use a card with an X written on it (hence the name). Anyone can touch the card or pick it up and show it to everyone, to indicate that something has come up that they don’t want in the game. When that happens, apart from any clarificatory questions to establish what they’re X-carding, everyone retroactively deletes the offending material from the game, and moves on. You can also supplement this with the N Card (for steering away from difficult material before it arises) and/or the O Card (for signalling when you want to continue exploring something).

Another approach to this is the Script Change Toolbox. In addition to a structured framework for discussing your game at the start, this includes a series of simple film-themed keywords you can use during play. “Rewind” allows you to identify something you’re unhappy with and then go back and replay it; “fast forward” allows you to skip over stuff you don’t want to play through; “pause” is used to stop play and make time for discussion or a break; “frame by frame” calls for play to be slowed down and handled a bit more carefully. Slowing down play is a good option to have in mind even if you aren’t using Script Change – never underestimate the benefit of simply taking your time and exercising extra care and attention.

There are a lot of other similar tools out there:

  • Archipelago uses ritual phrases like “try a different way”, “harder” and “describe that in detail” to guide other players’ contributions.
  • Another set of keywords (from LARP) is “cut”, used when you want to stop play because you’re uncomfortable, and “brake”, used when you want the current scene not to escalate any further.
  • The consent flower uses touching the different coloured petals of a flower to indicate whether you want to push things harder or slow things down.
  • The Ok check-in is a hand signal used to check if another player is ok to continue.
  • Tap out is a physical cue used to paused play and potentially ask for a change in direction and/or leave the room for a time.

The exact tool used is probably less important than making sure everyone is really clear on how it works, keeping it simple enough that people can use it in the heat of the moment, and making everyone feel as comfortable as possible with doing so. You should also consider the type of game you are playing: some tools lend themselves better to LARP (e.g. Ok check in, tap out), others are great for tabletop (e.g. the X Card). For online play it can be harder to interrupt an ongoing scene verbally, so you may need to adapt your tools using hand gestures or the chat function. If so, it’s a good idea to make sure that someone is always on duty to watch out for such signals, which can sometimes be missed if people are looking at their character sheet or similar.

The open door is a simple rule that says you can get up and leave whenever you wish. This sounds obvious, but by explicitly letting people know they can do it, you’re giving them permission to do so. One issue that might come up with this is a lack of clarity over when it’s ok to go and check on the person, once they’ve left. It’s a good idea to discuss that ahead of time – agree five or ten minutes as the default, for example. There are also some formalised signals you can use to indicate you wish to leave the current scene, such as tap out and look down.

A contrasting approach is I will not abandon you. With this, you agree in advance of play that you will be tackling uncomfortable subject matter, and that you will stay engaged and support each other through it. This approach demands a lot of focus from the people around the table, and trust that everyone will be ready to support each other as needed.

The final part of this article series is Tools to use after play.