Most RPG theory wonks are well aware of the implied social contract that coalesces around any social activity. With role-playing games, that unspoken agreement to abide by certain rules of conduct becomes even more necessary – after all, in a story-based game, any scenario could arise, limited only by imagination, unlike, say, in a game of badminton where all you have to worry about is a lack of sportsmanship.
I’ll give you a personal example. I love cats. Love ‘em. I don’t feel that way about most animals, to which I am fairly neutral, but there’s no neutrality in me when it comes to cats. To my way of thinking, they are animal perfection.
So I cannot abide experiencing feline distress, even fictional. I am quite clear about that. Not so much an issue in a game of badminton, cats being actually rather good at staying out from underfoot. But in an RPG, I have to be cautious that some GM doesn’t just sacrifice the fictional family’s feline for dramatic effect.
The problem is that the aforementioned social contract is a vague, undefined thing. It relies on participants to not only know what bothers me, but where the line is. It likewise relies on me assuming that not only is the GM aware of this stuff, but that they have committed to respect those limits of mine – although they have made no such overt declaration.
This is where things can and usually do go south for gaming groups. It is utterly unsurprising that most people don’t know each other as well as they hoped or expected, and it’s likely that while one player was counting on avoiding certain story experiences, the GM may have decided in his heart that “that’s just where the story needs to go.” So it seems quite unreliable to assume this stuff will take care of itself. And that’s why I included in Dream Factory the idea of explicit Safeties, written into the Game Plan.
I could write a whole series of posts on the Game Plan itself (and perhaps will sooner or later) but suffice it to say that the Game Plan is the character sheet for the game. And written into it in black and white are the game’s Safeties.
Coming up with the Game Plan is the first thing you do in a Dream Factory game, and part of that is for the players and the GM to have an explicit and direct conversation of what constitutes for each of them the limits that they don’t want to endure – anything from unacceptable outcomes like the loss of innocent lives or the loss of their own characters’ lives, to antipathies like stories in which the villain always gets away, to squick factors such as adult themes, the sufferings of innocents – or cats.
By having that face-to-face conversation directly and on point the players can let the GM know what really won’t work for them – and the GM can let the players know if they have any limits that don’t work for the GM. It’s possible that a Safety a player needs is one that for whatever reason a GM cannot offer – but at least everyone knows that going into it, and the player is free to choose to sit this game out, or find a gaming group more sensitive to their needs.
Usually, however, the GM won’t really mind coloring within the limits the players’ need as Safeties, so long as the GM knows them ahead of time. And having this discussion before the game even starts and then writing the Safeties down in the Game Plan for all to see fixes all these problems before they start. I don’t know why more RPGs don’t handle this more explicitly, but I am pleased and proud that Dream Factory does.