On Google+ Lizzie Stark asked a simple question that turned into a very good discussion of safety techniques and crossing personal boundaries in roleplay. I’m adding my own experiences from larp here, because my mind is too full of words for comment-fields.
Stop words (Cut & Brake)
In nordic larp there’s a tradition of using the words Cut and Brake to signal when you want out of a situation. Cut means play stops right here, right now until the situation is resolved for everyone, brake means that a given scene is de-escalated down and out instead of taken further.
I’ve yet to see anyone use brake myself, and cut only for immediate physical injuries that required medical assistance. The imperative to keep game flowing, a macho-like mentality of not being overly sensitive and the fact that if you are in a place that is bad enough to warrant stopping the game you probably don’t have the willpower to cut it yourself, often keeps the techniques from being used even when necessary. Most of us fear the unknown consequences of cutting more than getting a knock on the psyche.
The tradition of larp players meeting up before game to workshop play and characters is often counted as a safety measure. The workshops usually contain mockup scenes of intense elements from the game, at for example Kapo we tried some social situations, the traumatic entry into the camp and sexual assaults with ars amandi.
This, combined with meeting the people behind the characters in a fun offgame setting helps create connections and knowledge of the real person. If you are creating your characters as well, you have a chance to speak out if someone is making a concept that might lead to triggering in the game.
This gives a much safer situation for the game, with more trust. Having met the real person makes it possible to take the play further into the fiction and feel safe that they are in character.
There’s some potential problems though. Most likely you’ll workshop directly with a smaller subset of the cast and end up playing with everyone, so you still have unknown factors. The baseline feeling of trust and content of the larps usually push boundaries further than people are comfortable with and having met the other players also pushes the expectations for the game further. You might feel even worse cutting the game than with strangers.
Rules and metatechniques
Most often thought of as a way to add additional layers to a game, it can also serves as a safety feature. Some techniques outline exactly how far things go, Just a Little Lovin’ had very realistic sexual simulation, but one very clear rule: “If you’re naked, you’re not roleplaying.” And of course Ars Amandi let’s you play with the emotional side of intimacy without crossing physical borders.
Other techniques works by giving players methods to share information, providing input and direction to each other. Some examples: Shadowing allows one player to put thoughts in the head of another, but that player always has a choice to act on them or not. It does however signal that it’s okay to push further if you want. Blackbox/metaroom play gives chances to try out scenes bracketed by offgame and thus adjust to each other.
It’s important to have the right metatechniques in a game, the worst cases of broken boundaries I’ve seen in larp happened in areas that the game didn’t cover with clear rules or lines. Players trying to have fights or sex with no rules to mark the edge, psychological play without communication. You need to know the limit of escalation, otherwise it doesn’t end well.
My favourite is still to have a running dialogue with my coplayers during the game. Funny enough I found this strongest in larps, where going offgame is trickier, than at the tabletop. Some larps have official offgame areas or times set aside for offgame talk. If not, it’s usually easy to step outside for a few moments.
It’s as simple as going offgame and hearing if play is going in a fun direction for the other player and if you can do something to make it better. If you have even a small bit of empathy you can easily tell if the other is having fun or are on edge over something. Ask where they want to go from here or suggest a direction yourself.
In nearly every case you both come away feeling more comfortable and ready to push play to new and more intense places.
Strangely, this is harder at the tabletop. I suspect it’s because you can’t really do it one-on-one, it’s usually the whole group. And with the Story Now imperative, it’s sort of taboo to speak of the direction play is taking, but usually more than worth it. At the table I often call a proper break, so while some players are off to visit the bathroom or gather supplies, I can chat individually with the others. For at home campaigns I can usually take some time before or after play depending on the mood to check up with the other players.
I’ve never had my own boundaries crossed doing larp, the worst for me is being unsure if my coplayers are still okay. That feeling kills play for me, I’ll go offgame and check instead. I’ve found some boundaries I didn’t know I had and played right at the exciting edge of others. Every time it was because I had a running dialogue with my fellow players. It’s not rocket science, if your co-players object to offgaming, just don’t go that deep with them. I’d never go anywhere near boundary land with anyone unless we have good offgame rapport as well.
So, my main advice: Just stop and talk once in a while, the game won’t suffer. On the contrary it goes even further. And play is stronger with clearly defined limits and tools.