I often half–jokingly call myself a “terrible GM”. This is not a judgement of the quality of the games I run, but it is a mindset—one that helps me identify elements that work in my games and formulate patterns, prompts, and ideas that I can fall back on to keep the story moving forward in a fun direction. A “terrible GM” cannot rely entirely on their own skill as a storyteller, but must create tools, rules, and guidelines they can fall back on to help them tell compelling stories in case their raw improv skills don’t suffice. This page is a collection of tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years from my own games, from watching and listening to other GMs, and from conversations with friends much more experienced than me.
These notes are a result of very specific experience with TTRPGs—it’s rare, now, for me to get to play with experienced groups, and back when I was surrounded by experienced players and GMs, we bonded primarily over our love of playing horror and investigations. I’ve rarely chosen to play or run classic dungeon–crawling and monster hunting.
I played more Genesys (and the Star Wars FFG systems it derives from) than anything else, and so a lot of these notes specifically work in that system, or are meant to make Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green more exciting (I like playing Cthulhu, but the GM advice 7e gives is some of the worst I’ve seen).
They might not work in crunchier systems, or ones that more strictly mandate who around the table narrates the action and how. In particular, Genesys strongly favors player narration, successes–with–threats, heroic feats, and cinematic pacing and action. This might be important to keep in mind throughout this post.
A lot of my approach to GMing also comes from Microscope—ironically, for a GMless game. Microscope’s “metacausal” approach—the idea that the past can be added to just as easily as the present and the future—was the biggest eye–opening moment I’d ever had when it comes to narrative design, and you’ll find that I try to aim to tell stories that end up being interesting when all is said and done; in the moment, I prioritize giving the players compelling character arcs and big dramatic scenes, but try not to focus too much on where the story is going, because I want it to go where the players would be most excited to see it go. Only as an arc comes to a close is it my job to tie all loose ends and threads together and provide a climactic finale.
I also have not ran games in English. The narrative examples here might be clunky. Sorry.
Magic Spells for the Terrible GM
This is a collection of the most effective narrative tricks and phrases my friends and favorite GMs use that I’ve picked up and adapted for my own games; these are the magic spells I keep in my spellbook to help me, a Terrible GM, run great games:
“Describe them to me.”
“Describe them to me” and “What do you see?” are, in my opinion, by far the most powerful weapons in a GM’s arsenal. These might not work for every system or every style of GMing, but they do a vast majority of the heavy lifting at my tables—I want to make my games collaborative storytelling and do my best to avoid and dispel the impression of the GM’s role being to tell the players a story as they sit and listen. Especially with inexperienced players, this Magic Spell helps immediately assert that we’re building a story together:
“You walk into the saloon. Tell me what it’s like inside; what’s the atmosphere? What are the people like?”
“The Stormtroopers drag you down the sterile corridors of the ISB blacksite until you find yourself thrown into an interrogation room. An Imperial Intelligence lieutenant in a spotless white uniform is standing by a transparisteel window; tell me about them.”
“There’s an old ship that’s clearly seen better days sitting in this forgotten hangar bay. Describe it to me.”
“There is a weapon in the display case that immediately draws your attention. You pick it up, and it feels– perfect; as if it was made specifically for you, for your hand. It feels like an extension of yourself. What is it?”
There’s hardly a better way to make sure you incorporate ideas your players are excited for in your story than to ask them directly.
Asking a player to create a character, item, or location in this way also serves to strengthen their bond to it—they’re more likely to remember something they came up with, an opportunity to steer the story in a direction they’re excited about, than one of dozens of random NPCs met in passing. Because of that, it also serves as a convenient idiom for signaling that whatever is being described is going to be a recurring, or at least briefly significant element of the story—much like a character in a movie having their own musical cue or being introduced with a dramatic closeup shot.
“How do you fail?”
Let your players narrate their failures and consequences of augmented success (i.e. including not just success and failure, but also advantages and threats) rolls. I find that Genesys encourages this a lot with the narrative dice system, since it’s so strongly biased towards success–with–threats; if having players narrate successes–with–threats, it’s not a big reach to have them also narrate failures–with–advantages.
As with all of the Magic Spells listed here, overusing this one can be dangerous and ruin the players’ immersion through what I call the “Broken Lockpick Effect”—for some rolls it’s hard to come up with side effects and consequences, and in systems with augmented success it feels miserable to have a lockpick break or the door jam every time the players attempt to pick a lock, while at the same time coming up with more interesting consequences may be particularly difficult.
Instead, “How do you fail?” works best in combat and in rolls where the players are trying to pull off something particularly cool, flashy, or dramatic. They’ll often have a better idea of what’s going on “on stage” in those cases than when e.g. rolling to interact with a computer or talk to an NPC.
In Genesys in particular I find the given tables for spending Advantages and Threats a bit restrictive, so I’m a lot more lenient with what my players can spend them on if they’re narrating a failure—I’ll allow a e.g. a free maneuver on a roll that only had one Advantage if the player’s narration of the failure justifies it.
“You jump out of hyperspace, only to see the familiar outline of the Wild Karrde already in orbit around the planet directly in front of you. The ship’s computer signals missiles locking on.”
“Wait, didn’t we just hear the Wild Karrde was at Coruscant? That’s days of travel away, how did they get here before us?”
“Yes, how did they get here before you? Very strange.”
Running mysteries is hard. I would argue it’s one of the hardest things to GM. A good mystery almost necessitates careful design and meticulously planning each clue, twist, and red herring—but yet, , or just over chance of the story going the way you planned it. That’s barely more than a coinflip!. Even if your players only need three clues to solve the mystery, with, say, a near-certain 90% chance to find each of them and, in your estimation, the same near-certain 90% chance that they’ll interpret the clue correctly, that’s…
This gets complicated even further—even outside of investigation–focused scenarios—by the fact that the GM is just human, and so fallible. You will make mistakes; you will forget clues you were supposed to bring up, mix up places and locations and times, maybe even accidentally use the wrong statline for an encounter. Sometimes you get lucky and it goes unnoticed and doesn’t interfere with the story, but often your players will notice.
That’s where this Magic Spell comes into play.
“Very strange” is an extremely powerful tool. How did the antagonists know the party would be here? Why do the two witnesses’ testimonies contradict each other, even though they have all the reasons to tell the truth? Why is the ship not where the players left it? Very strange, huh?
You weren’t planning on having a mystery here, but you now got handed one for free, and your players are already invested in it.
“Very strange” lets your players come up with mysteries for themselves. It’s a hook you can use to create mystery where you weren’t planning on one but feel it would make the campaign interesting; it’s a way to “yes, and” the theories the players come up with, to play off plot twists that come your way by themselves. With “very strange” in your pocket, even mistakes can be hooks for new story beats.
“Who is your character at this moment?”
This one I didn’t learn from a GM, but from Matthew Stover’s legendary Revenge of the Sith novelization:
Of course, neither I nor my players are Matthew Stover, and so it is unreasonable to expect this kind of narration in the moment; nevertheless, I find “Who is your character right now?” to be a very powerful framing spell. It might need some gentle prodding:
“What is going through Cabal’s head right now, as they stand there surrounded by ghouls, ready to attack? Who do they see themselves as in this moment, what do they think others see them as?”
Hard–hitting emotional beats come from internal conflict and from characters reevaluating who they are when faced with adversity and tough choice; let your players have and share that moment with the table. It’s the difference between a wide, unfocused shot of the scene where a door at the edge of the stage opens and a character walks into the room versus a dramatic, tense cut to the door as it swings open, revealing a silhouette of the character backlit by sunlight with a swell of the music. “Who are you in this moment?” lets the players direct a closeup, establishing shot of their character just before a dramatic action scene.
Touch, Atmosphere, Vision, EaRs, Nose, Story
I suck at describing things. “You enter the bar. You see a bar with people next to it. There are a bunch of tables with people drinking.” Ew.
I’ve heard a bunch of mnemonics for helping guide better descriptions—SASS (“Smell, Atmosphere, Sound, Sight”, IIRC), EASE (“Environment, Atmosphere, Senses, Events”). Any of them would probably work just as well here; this is mine:
“TAVErNS”—Texture, Atmosphere, Vision, EaRs, Nose, Story. The descriptions of the senses come in order of urgency, of how immediately perceivable they are, and are nicely bookended by a story hook—a description of something that will move the story forward, which often leads very cleanly into. Here’s what a TAVErNS description of a scene where a character wakes up in a basement after being kidnapped by terrorists might look like:
You wake up.
Texture: The first thing you notice is a pressure around your wrists that keeps them restrained behind your back. You try to move them a bit and feel the scraping of what can only be a coarse rope binding them in place.
Atmosphere: The air here is stale and dusty, unpleasant to breathe. This must be somewhere underground, somewhere that hasn’t seen use—or a vacuum cleaner, for that matter—for quite some time.
Vision: It’s dark and you can’t see much;
Ears: You hold your breath for a moment and try to listen for any noises, but can’t hear anything.
Nose: There’s a vague smell of blood and rust.
Story: You’ve got to get out of here.
Nose or Smell is the spicy one here—doing research for this post, most other GMs seem to focus on smell as one of the first things, which, I have to admit, seems more logical; I just like the vibe and color of using smell to close out the physical description of the scene. “The man smells nice, and has a deep, raspy voice; he’s about six feet tall” feels, to me a lot less evocative than “The man is about six feet tall and has a deep, raspy voice. He smells nice.”, even though they convey the exact same information with the exact same words.
Any of the elements of TAVErNS can be skipped for brevity or even to move the game forward if I can’t come up with anything on the fly, but having this checklist in mind helps me be less clunky when painting a scene.
There are also some anti–magic words, where I feel that, although they can be used effectively—and I’ve seen friends and other excellent GMs use them to great effect—for my own GMing style, they rarely feel appropriate. The ones I hear about the most are…
“Are you sure?”
I have a feeling this is going to be spicy.
“Are you sure?” and the accursed “You can certainly try” get brought up a lot as responses to the players declaring an action, but they rarely feel appropriate in my games. Not only are they Mercerisms that actively work against a GM trying to combat the Mercer Effect, but I find that they can create an impression of the GM being an adversary to the players, and, more importantly, contribute to a disconnect between the table and the events of the game.
If my instinct is to ask “are you sure?”—to second–guess the players’ decisions—that can indicate a deeper problem with the scene; perhaps my player or I missed an important detail, or I failed to understand what the player wants to happen. Similarly, when a player asks “can I do X?”, they rarely want to hear “you can try” as a response; they’re looking for information about the options available to them and the risks associated with those.
The GM’s job is neither being a safety rail for the players, nor an antagonist for them. The GM’s job is to take whatever the players want to do and ensure it ends up being cool. Instead of:
“I want to leap across the river of magma.”
“Are you sure?”
“That’s a failure. You die.”
“Can I leap across the river of magma?”
“You can certainly try.”
“I want to leap across the river of magma.”
“That will be difficulty three; it’s a pretty ambitious distance, even for someone as athletic as you, and you’re not sure this will work.”
“I want to do this.”
“That’s a failure; you take a step back and start sprinting towards the cliff, launching yourself into the air, but the distance is too great. Your outstretched arms don’t quite reach the other edge and you hit the wall hard. The impact knocks the air out of your lungs, and as you tumble down only through sheer luck does your hand find purchase on a protruding rock. Take 5 Strain.
You’re now hanging on for dear life above a bubbling river of magma as the fight rages on above you. It’s now Mike’s turn.”
When a player attempts a risky action, they don’t want to be punished for it; they want to create momentum, drama, and action. It’s the GM’s job to help them accomplish that.
Half–Dispel: The Three Clue Rule
“For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.”
This one gets brought up more than anything else any time running mysteries gets discussed online. The Alexandrian post it comes from is great, but I don’t think the Three Clue Rule is the most important takeaway from it—or even necessarily a good one.
I don’t like thinking about the story in terms of “clues and solutions”; it encourages thinking in terms of “these are the beats we must hit”; “this is the door the players must open to progress the story”., and if the players don’t want to or can’t think of a way to open the door, the story still has to move forward.
Why does the the title of this section read “Half–Dispel”? Because I do, actually, agree with the linked Alexandrian post—just not with the Three Clue Rule itself. Let’s read further:
COROLLARY: PERMISSIVE CLUE-FINDING
[…] if the players come up with a clever approach to their investigation, you should be open to the idea of giving them useful information as a result.
Here’s another way of thinking about it: Don’t treat the list of clues you came up with during your prep time as a straitjacket. Instead, think of that prep work as your safety net.
Over time, I’ve learned that it’s actually a lot more fun when the players surprise me. It’s the same reason I avoid fudging dice rolls to preserve whatever dramatic conceit I came up with. As a result, I now tend to think of my predesigned solution as a worst case scenario — the safety net that snaps into place when my players fail to come up with anything more interesting.
If the door becomes a challenge the players fail to overcome, that’s great—I got handed a great moment to use later; I can open the door in a dramatic scene and reveal that beyond it lies… whatever would be most fun, narratively! Not all challenges and foes have to be defeated; I can use the time the party spent trying to open the door to let the bad guys catch up to them and start a confrontation they barely escape from… only to later, at the climax of the arc, when the party finds themselves this close to finally defeating the Big Bad, remind them of the door and reveal that it hides the final piece of the puzzle. In a way, “missed” or “failed” clues and challenges become a bit of a “free asspull” card—they’re story beats that have already been introduced and established, but are open to go in any direction.
Going back to my complaining about Call of Cthulhu’s GM notes—Cthulhu suggests using “Idea Rolls” if the players are stuck, which, when successful, forces the GM to give them the clue outright, or, when failed, implies a timeskip to the party finding themselves in a crisis (usually, surrounded by bloodthirsty cultists). This is possibly the worst way to move the plot forward, but it does move the plot forward—and the Three Clue Rule post has a much cleaner version of this core idea that doesn’t suffer from the same issues:
COROLLARY: PROACTIVE CLUES
A.K.A. Bash Them On the Head With It.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the players will work themselves into a dead-end: They don’t know what the clues mean or they’re ignoring the clues or they’ve used the clues to reach an incorrect conclusion and are now heading in completely the wrong direction. […]
This is when having a backup plan is useful. The problem in this scenario is that the PCs are being too passive — either because they don’t have the information they need or because they’re using the information in the wrong way. The solution, therefore, is to have something active happen to them.
Raymond Chandler’s advice for this kind of impasse was, “Have a guy with a gun walk through the door.” […] in a more general sense, “the next part of the bad guy’s plan happens”. This has the effect of proactively creating a new location or event for the PCs to interact with.
The idea with all of these, of course, is not simply “have something happen”. You specifically want to have the event give them a new clue (or, better yet, multiple clues) that they can follow up on.
If the players can’t find a way to move the story forward, it’s up to the GM to keep the momentum. Any clue missed, ignored, or misinterpreted is just a hook for a future Big Reveal; something to bring back once the party almost forgets about it and use it to justify how the Big Twist was there all along.
Leaving more clues around won’t get things moving, because, sooner or later, you’ll get a party that misses or ignores all of them, no matter how many you give them.
Rules Of Thumb
No Plan Survives First Contact With The Players
Players will miss hints and prompts, come up with theories, and, very frequently, get obsessed with ideas you couldn’t possibly have foreseen.
Here’s a little story:
One time in a campaign I ran, the party was supposed to meet a spy in a motel, only to find him murdered in his room with a bullet hole in his chest. Despite the particularly thin walls, nobody had heard a gunshot, which was supposed to be one of several hints for the players that the body had been carried there from elsewhere—there was no blood or shell casings on the floor, and despite the bullet having gone clear through the victim’s chest, there were no traces of a bullet impact anywhere in the room either.
My players promptly ignored all these and decided that their ally had to have been murdered by one of the motel’s cleaning staff, who then proceeded to mop up the blood from the scene (why they’d leave the body, don’t ask me). At first I assumed that idea would get dropped just as quickly as it came up, but just a few moments later the party had gotten the addresses of the two housekeepers at the motel and was preparing to investigate. They found out the first one had an ironclad alibi, after which I expected them to verify the second housekeeper’s alibi as well and realize the cleaning staff were a dead end—but get fed some helpful testimony in the process.
Instead, my players enthusiastically announced that because the first housekeeper has an alibi, the second one must be the killer, and so they’d have to break into his apartment to look for evidence.
They didn’t stop there! They also prepared a backup plan: if they couldn’t find any definitive proof at his apartment, they would plant fake evidence—a briefcase they got from the spy—and use it to elicit a confession.
At that point I think there’s a voice inside every GM’s head going “how the fuck did this happen?” as they resist the urge to sink their head into their hands and give up on whatever cool intrigue they had prepared. Maybe an instinct to keep deus ex machina–ing clues that would get the party back on track, or even tell them outright that they’re going really far off the rails.
But that doesn’t make the story interesting and fun.
If my players decide that the housekeeper has to be the killer—my job is now to justify that, to have him deny it until the very end while I sprinkle little clues and hints that would confirm to the party that they’re on the right track until they finally find enough evidence to expose him and trigger an epic final confrontation with the surprise antagonist of the chapter. My job is to justify how his housekeeping job is just a cover for his real identity as a counterintelligence operative, how he used a silenced pocket pistol so that nobody would hear the shot, and how the players’ sudden arrival meant he didn’t have time to get rid of the body, despite having cleaned the blood.
No plan survives first contact with the players, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan at all—just that, rather than planning out the sequence of events (or even just an unordered list of beats to hit, as many resources suggest!), I find it more useful to prepare a grab–bag of “words” to insert into hooks madlibs–style; a set of possible motives for the crime, a bunch of potential types of clues to find (spent shells, eyewitnesses, signs of a fight or forced entry, etc) that I can then use in the story when my players look for them. If the party went out of their way to bring a metal detector to the crime scene, they should find something metallic that will move the plot forward, no matter what I had planned.
The Entire Character Sheet Is A Hook
A lot of systems have fields for Strengths, Flaws, Motivations, Desires, Fears, Relationships, Histories and similar non–mechanical but narratively important details on the character sheet. They should not be the only hooks for a GM to use to involve a character in their story—the entire character sheet is a hook.
Take note of what each player invested their character’s stats into. They want to play someone with a particular set of skills and weaknesses—use them. Give the buff tank of the party more detail about how strong or threatening enemies seem, how their stance implies inexperience, or, conversely, years of physical training. If your player is playing a minmaxed master hacker, give them an opportunity to talk about their past exploits and run–ins with three letter agencies. If they invested all their points in Leadership, build hooks that ask them what it means to lead and how far they’re willing to go for their team or crew.
I’ve seen this be a problem particularly with new Call of Cthulhu GMs; Cthulhu (and especially Delta Green) has a lot of very specific skills on the character sheet (for example: Psychology, Psychoanalysis, Charm, Fast Talk, Listen, Persuade, and Intimidate are all separate skills; Mechanical Repair and Electrical Repair are separate skills, etc) and I’ve seen a player go “I’m going to play a machinist!” and invest most of their points into Operate Heavy Machinery and Mechanical Repair time and time again… only to never have any substantial machinery show up in the story.
Players build characters based on what they want to do. If a player invests half their skill points into Operate Heavy Machinery, that’s them telling the GM they want to operate heavy machinery. It’s now my job as a GM to make sure they have heavy machinery to operate, and to make it a cool, cinematic moment when they get to use the skill in a climactic encounter.
Dice Are Luck; Skills Are Skill
A scientist with Research as their highest stat attempts to look for information online and they roll miserably low. Whoops, they got misled by a fake Facebook post—
No! If the player spent so many points on a skill, their character is incredibly competent at it; bad rolls don’t mean they suddenly forget how to do things they’ve spent their entire life doing. Bad rolls mean that they couldn’t succeed despite their amazing abilities.
I mentioned, at the top of this page, how I feel like Call of Cthulhu has some of the worst GM advice I’ve seen; one of such pieces of advice is pushing rolls—“whoops, I failed a roll, let me try again”, which soon leads to the “broken lockpick effect”; if allowed, players are going to keep attempting to pick open a door until they’re out of lockpicks or render the door physically inoperable. It can completely destroy immersion and make it feel like “reloading saves” until a random roll works.
If a skilled picker attempts to open a door and fails, at my table that doesn’t indicate they forgot how to pick or fumbled, but that unfortunately the lock is an uncommon, exotic design that will require specialized tools to defeat. An expert gunslinger doesn’t miss an aimed shot due to a bad roll, but is instead suddenly forced to duck behind cover at the last moment while blindly firing off a round.
The only time it’s okay to point out the character’s lack of proficiency in a skill is… if they lack proficiency in the skill. Not if they happened to roll badly.
Don’t Make Characters Less Competent Than Players, or “Metagaming is fine, actually”
“The detectives couldn’t establish a time of death.”
“A–ha! I know time of death is established by measuring the temperature of the body, therefore it must have been stored in a freezer!”
“Your character wouldn’t know that, you’re a cook.”
No. Don’t do this. The player knows that, and chances are they’re not a forensic pathologist either. They’re excited to share their knowledge and that it came in useful in a TTRPG session—that’s a great moment to celebrate, rather than dismiss or punish them for:
“A–ha! I know time of death is established by measuring the temperature of the body, therefore it must have been stored in a freezer!”
“Ooh, good trivia knowledge! You’re right; there’s somethinggoing on here.”
Don’t force your players’ characters to be less competent than the players themselves; if the player has a moment of brilliancy, let them feel brilliant.
I view safety tools as a necessarily two–part system with a “passive” and an “active” component. The two are, as should become clear in this section, not mutually exclusive, but are both, in my opinion, necessary for a safe, fun, and comfortable environment that everyone around the table can enjoy equally. A lot of my approach to this is informed by moderating online communities and discussions, and so I consider the single most important feature of an effective safety tool to be its ease of use. A tool that does not get used might as well not be there in the first place.
The “passive” tools are those which should not need to be explicitly invoked—because they remain in effect throughout a session, I find that my players are less reluctant to use them. Lines and Veils are perhaps the most familiar of these, and I always use them, but I treat them as shorthand; a helpful sheet to keep in front of me during play to clear any potentially spicy developments with before even considering sharing them with the table. What I think is arguably more important is a good Session Zero and productive debriefings after each session.
Session Zero, Debriefings
A Session Zero is like pitching a movie night—it’s the time to talk about what parts of the upcoming campaign we’re excited about and why, set expectations, get an idea of the atmosphere and vibe we’re going for, and assert what we’d like and what we don’t want to see. Even with Lines and Veils and something like the X-Card in place, it’s one thing to encounter gore and body horror after signing up for a horror campaign and something entirely different to find oneself surrounded by a gory massacre in what seemed, up to that point, like a cozy slice–of–life setting.
I’ve sometimes seen concern about how to implement these kinds of session zeroes and still retain the impact of plot twists and dramatic tone shifts; I think it’s a false dichotomy. If the time seems right to turn the cozy slice–of–life on its head and shift into horror, that’s a fantastic place to drop a cliffhanger and proceed to an extended debriefing, or another “session zero”.
Especially in longer campaigns, I feel like having mini–repeats of a “session zero” at regular intervals works wonders for the quality of the story, for the players’ immersion, and to ensure the story hits everyone’s expectations and hopes while remaining safe and fun to take part in. A “session zero” or extended debriefing works wonders as the end of a chapter or act of the story and a time to talk about:
- What moments we enjoyed and what will stick with us; I like to start by commending the players on particularly cool or important RP moments and actions, since it establishes a positive tone for the debriefing (which might be helpful if the session ended on a narratively dark or tragic note) and draws a clear line between the game that happened up to this point and the out–of–character debriefing happening now.
- What parts of the story the players enjoyed, what they didn’t like, what they’d like to see developed. These might change and develop with every session, and so I find it always useful for guiding the story to check in about where my players would like it to go.
- What our expectations for the next “episode” are. Ideally, if it’s going to get dark or unsettling, we ended at a point that makes that clear—it’s now time to establish how dark or unsettling.
- Who the characters are. Players will flesh out their understanding of who their characters are with every session; encouraging them to talk about it out loud both helps internalize that understanding, and get us on the same page about what drives them and what emotional beats might be interesting. I like this question as a framing device, so I don’t always ask it during debriefings—I find it very powerful to use it during a session (see —but when a particularly strong beat has just come up in the story, knowing how the characters feel internally, what they fear and hope for and what they believe is extremely useful for guiding where to go next.
- How we feel after the session. This is a time to bleed out emotions and assert which feelings are ours and which are those of our characters; it also serves as the start of our final “exit” from the game space.
- Updating our Lines and Veils. Encourage this explicitly and actively; ask that everyone take a moment to double–check their Lines and Veils and add anything they might now think could come up that they haven’t anticipated before. I believe the GM should always lead by example when it comes to safety tools, and so I will generally go “I’m now going to think about where we got tonight and what might happen next week and review my Lines and Veils and add anything I think might come up in the future that I wouldn’t be comfortable with. I would ask that we all now take a couple of minutes to do the same.”
- How do we feel about the system. Asking about mechanics helps finalize our emotional exit from the game; it also lets identify any friction the system might be causing, any unclear rules and mechanics that might benefit from additional explanation, or, in the worst case, even warning signs that the system completely isn’t working for our campaign and we should look to change to a different one.
Active Safety Tools
An “active” safety tool is one that is out of play until explicitly invoked by a player. The X-Card is perhaps the most well–known example, but I personally don’t prefer it for several reasons that I’ll get to in a second. I’m happy to play with an X-Card available, and I’ll almost always prioritize choosing safety tools that my players are already familiar with, if possible—but if given a choice, I prefer a slightly more flexible system. See also: “The Insufficiency of the X Card And Story Games Safety”
The single most critically important attribute of an effective active safety tool is minimizing or entirely eliminating any friction involved in using it. If a player is reluctant, embarassed, afraid, or unsure how to use a safety tool, it’s completely ineffective as a safety tool. An active safety tool should never involve memorizing a dictionary or language of symbols and phrases and learning involved protocols. It should also not ask the player to justify their use of it.
I haven’t found a better way to get players comfortable with safety tools than to use them myself openly and actively.
I picked up a streamlined variation of the Script Change toolbox for my games, somewhere halfway between that and the X–Card, closest perhaps to Roll20’s Safety Deck (which I wasn’t familiar with until doing research for this post!).
I find Script Change to be overly wordy and clunky, with a lot of overlap between safety tools (the Pause and Rewind cards) and standard debriefing or even normal gameplay elements that can easily feel forced if formalized in this way (Vignettes, Freezer Frames, the Red Carpet Walk), and way too many terms and ideas to remember (What’s a pick, squick, and ick? What’s the difference between PG and PG-13? Is cutting off an arm PG-13 or R? What do two fists mean in response to a “Thumbs up?” check?) that make it entirely unviable, in my opinion, to implement as–written—but its core, the pause/fast–forward/rewind system works great… Mostly.
It’s sometimes hard to draw the line between Rewinding something because a player is unsatisfied with their roleplay or consequences of their actions versus use as a safety tool, and the ability to Fast–Forward isn’t sufficient to express the preferred way of handling sensitive scenes—sometimes I want to reveal an important hook during a scene, and skipping forward with “the screen fades to black, we resume when John’s chest is already open and you can now see that he’s a robot” is not a narratively satisfying option; this alone makes me reluctant to use Script Change—any safety tool where I can foresee myself or anyone else questioning or trying to look for ways to sidestep its usage is not useful at my table, and could even be actively harmful by creating an illusion of safety.
The Roll20/Burn Bryte Safety Deck is perhaps the most frictionless and useful of the active systems I’ve seen. It’s a tool that, at its core, encompasses three verbs—“Keep Going”, “Slow Down”, and “Stop”—and I’ve been using a closely related system extended with a fourth one:
- “Keep Going”, or a check–in—this is by far the most important. Most active safety tools limit themselves to skipping past discomfort once it occurs; regular and explicit check–ins any time the story could get spicy prevent it from happening in the first place.
- “Slow Down”—the element I haven’t really seen in other safety toolkits, and the one I’m most likely to use at my tables, both as a player and a GM. It serves as a heads–up that we’re getting close to something that might get spicy and allows everyone at the table to adjust their expectations and plans for the scene to avoid crossing the line of discomfort.
I find the “Stop” verb to suffer from the same problems as the X–Card, and so I feel it works better when the players have two options explicitly available to them:
- “Skip”—this works the way the X–Card wants to work; we skip past the scene immediately with no questions asked and adjust our approach to the game to avoid similar situations in the future.
- ”Stop”—this works the way the X–Card often actually works. We immediately stop play and take five; whoever asked to Stop is free to take this time to set expectations and lines (and adjust Lines and Veils) for the future, but will not be pressured to do so. It effectively serves as a “Skip” that also forces a break rather than an on–the–fly readjustment.
I feel like effective implementation of these safety tools requires two things from the GM:
- Explicit and enthusiastic, repeated (at the start of every session) assertion that the safety tools should be used to interrupt me (or anyone else, for that matter). Players are often reluctant to interrupt narration in progress and can feel like they have to wait for it to finish before speaking up, and I try to combat that reluctance by asserting that the tools we’re using are there for them to be aware that they can and should use them as soon as they become necessary, regardless of what’s happening at the table.
- A protocol for handling safety cards being invoked without putting undue pressure on the player invoking them that also, importantly, leaves no room for questioning or pushing boundaries. “Let’s pause and take a break from talking about what’s happening in the story. Should anyone want to use this moment to update or review our Lines and Veils or talk with me privately, please do so; otherwise, this is a good moment to take a bathroom or water break or stand up for a bit—we’ll get back to talking about the story when we’re all ready to continue.”