Boundaries in Play

I’ve been thinking about how to handle mature themes and adult content in role-playing sessions.

Right now, I’m gearing up to run an Unknown Armies campaign. It’s a contemporary-setting game where the characters are broken and the horrors are personal. It’s implicitly rated for disturbing content, and is designed with a core mechanism that models psychological collapse.

It can be hard and it can be gritty. Which is part of the appeal. But that doesn’t mean that anything goes.

My Limits

Having said that, I’m struggling to think of something in-game that would shock me so much that I would not want to play.

I wouldn’t automatically rule out some of the usual themes that are cited – child abuse, rape and torture, for instance. These can certainly be lazy devices to throw in for shock value in any horror game (which I’m not interested in), but in some scenarios they can have some narrative authenticity.

In any case, whether they appear as plot hooks, in character backgrounds or as events/incidents that are met with in play, I draw the line at gratuitous or indulgent descriptions. If I need to know that they happened, then that’s all I need to know – spare me the graphic details.

I would also rather throw a veil over explicit sexual encounters (whether consensual, violent or otherwise) than have them described in any detail.

My tolerances are quite high. These might be the only content situations that I can predict where a game session will become problematic for me. They are not so much hard lines, but boundaries to explore, and limits beyond which descriptions are veiled.

Boundaries and Context

Which is also not to say that something cannot cross a line for me once a game is underway. The specific context that might tip the scales on potentially distressing content only really comes into play then.

In a horror game like Unknown Armies, that possibility is part of its delicate balance. You do explore boundaries and test limits. The characters will – and should – face stress checks, especially when their fear, rage and noble passions are triggered.

But the players shouldn’t.

Ideally, their anxieties and issues shouldn’t even be triggered.

This can be avoided more easily with gamers who regularly play together. But you can’t have the same assurances when you combine (a) a relatively new group with (b) a dark game which (c) invites you to explore boundaries.

So, when – not if – it looks like things are going too far for anyone playing the game, it’s important that there is a mechanism to pull back. And it’s important that everyone in the group feels comfortable using it.

Social Contracts

I’m not sure that I would want to rely on an assumed expectation that if something is cutting close, people will pipe up and call it out – whether that’s in-game content, or at-table behaviours.

I’m also not convinced how effective codified social agreements such as I Will Not Abandon You, To The Pain and Nobody Gets Hurt are. Honestly though, I don’t have any direct experience with them.

An inclusivity policy can be helpful to establish a safe gaming space, by outlining the tolerances within a community or at a gaming convention, and to encourage behaviours that proactively recognise or call out potentially distressing experiences.

To be effective though, it needs to be backed up at the gaming table, which I guess is why The Gauntlet include their Tools of the Table round-up as part of their policy.

Overt Mechanisms

I mentioned Lines & Veils earlier. I’m reasonably convinced that it’s not enough on its own, especially in sandbox games. I’m also intrigued that it may actually be counter-productive. It can certainly be an awkward conversation – “this might sound silly, but no … please” or “anything goes, but I’m not a deviant sociopath, ok?”

The pre-cautionary declarative process may wind up being a trigger for a bad experience itself, set the wrong expectation, or simply lack the context that helps it make sense as why it’s something worthwhile to do.

That’s fortunately not been my (limited) experience of Lines & Veils. I can only remember it being used once with a game that I was a player in recently, alongside John Stavropoulos’ X-card mechanism.

The initial discussion that covered both mechanisms was most useful in some very specific ways:

  1. It helped establish a common understanding of some of our boundaries.
  2. It made explicit the possibility that something else may come up in-game which pushes our limits.
  3. It gave us pause to be considered and inventive about what we brought to the table, and how.
  4. It gave us the comfort to know that the X-card was available to use – without question – should that happen.
  5. It gave us some confidence to be able to use the X-card without stigma, if that possibility was ever realised.

As it happens, we never needed to call upon the X-card, so I’m speculating on the last point (though it certainly felt that way).  But for the sake of a diplomatically handled up-front conversation – which took all of no time – we quickly established some trust between us as players who had never gamed together before, and went on to thoroughly enjoy a suitably dark horror gaming experience.

What I particularly like about the X-card is that it is about what could happen. As Stavropolous says in the X-card guidelines:

“Since most RPGs are improvisational and we won’t know what will happen till it happens, it’s possible the game will go in a direction people don’t want.”

That feels especially relevant to games like Unknown Armies, which strongly emphasise a collaborative setup.

The O-card is Kira Scott’s variant of the X-card that appeals to me as a new GM. In the same way that players can use the X-card to say “none of this, please” the O-card is used to say “more of this, please.” I like that the two combined can empower players (including the GM) to negate and affirm within the game and help create a safe and enjoyable experience.

In Practice

For my upcoming online Unknown Armies campaign I want to test the limits of the characters that are created and the world we collaboratively build without pushing the buttons of my players.

  • I want to create a safe space to have a conversation about boundaries and limits for the game.
  • I want to build consensus around the tone and themes we want for the game.
  • I want to be able to acknowledge any lines and veils as they might be declared or emerge, and to avoid them as the campaign progresses.
  • I want the group to have the confidence to use some kind of X-card mechanism to react to in-game situations.
  • I want the group to have the opportunity to use something like the O-card mechanism if the game delivers outstanding gaming moments to build on.

I’ve not used much of this stuff before to establish and sustain boundaries in play. All combined, it may be excessive. I trust the group of players I’ve got, and I have to assume that’s reciprocated (or presumably they wouldn’t have bought into the game).

That said, this will be my first major gamesmastering endeavour for a while. It’s with a game that can easily transgress lines, and I want to present a safe playing environment.

It feels like that’s my responsibility as the GM, before we each take responsibility for keeping it safe.

So, let’s see how that all goes.

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