Safety Mechanics: an Essential Larp Tool in Action

(Featured photo from a still of Velvet Noir by Bret Lehne. Models: Ericka Skirpan and Nerissa Hart.) I’d like to share two brief stories. They have similar setups, took place in similar settings, but ended quite differently. They are, of course, stories about larping. Why else are you here? Anyway, roughly 12 years ago, I was playing a Changeling larp at a convention. While we didn’t have the terminology for pre-negotiated scenes back then, I always liked doing my own thing and had talked to a few friends about a scene that was going to happen. My character was going to have a vicious break in temper, try to strangle someone across the room, and two of my friends were going to tackle her to the ground and use magic to get her emotions under control. While we didn’t have any real negotiation rules back in those days, we all knew it’s crappy to forcibly touch someone without their permission, so we worked it out ahead of time.

Fast forward to the third Dammerung event. My character has been having horrible prophetic visions in which she often gets violent, fighting off the people trying to bring her back to reality. I used our safety mechanics and consent negotiation tools to pre-negotiate a scene with a few people where she would have a total break down, need restrained, pinned to the ground, and someone to carve runes of warding into her forehead to push the visions away. While this was pre-negotiated with close scene partners, there were others in/near our faction play who had no clue this was going to happen. We knew it’d be in character dangerous, dramatic play, so we took every step necessary to ensure everyone was safe off-game emotionally.

Back to the Changeling scene. The time happened, the fight occurred, I was wrestled to the ground (fully consensually) and then suddenly there were people screaming from across the room. And they weren’t screaming in character. The whole game, a ballroom full of dozens of people, came to a screeching halt as three of staff shut everything down and began hastily running in our directions, calling for people to let me go and for security staff. It was a disaster. This was partially my fault; we didn’t have the safety mechanics or the rules for physical contact in these games and we were at an unfamiliar convention so people didn’t know just how hard Ericka rolls with her play. The staff had assumed some people violently tackled an unknowing girl and did their best to come to the rescue. It was a disaster. Needless to say, the scene was ruined and we spent a lot of time reassuring the security staff that no, I never felt in danger and my friends were not assaulting me.

At Dammerung, the scene came on Sunday morning. Pregnant and raving, Ingrid stumbled down the path, completely oblivious to her friends and family calling her name. People caught me about the shoulders and then, as I fought, deeper around chest and waist in attempts to control my character. As things got more intense, one of the others who had negotiated the scene flashed an OK-Check In to all involved, to make certain no one was having second thoughts and the people who were there for the initial negotiation felt fine with this level of play. Thumbs up were given, the scene carried on. More people stopped on the road to watch. They saw flashes of check in symbols so knew we all knew what we were getting in for and did not interfere but watched in horror as the drama played out. As they lowered me to the ground, the Osthaler whispered a quick check in before beginning the rune carving. I was pinned to a rocky path by at least 4 people my size or larger, fighting tooth and nail against strength I could not overcome, and I felt beyond safe, protected, and cared for. It was a great scene. None of it could have happened without three different levels of safety mechanics (Pre-negotiation of dramatic violence, OK-Check in, whispered verbal check ins). But having those mechanics at our back means we’ve been able to grow so far from the disaster of a dozen years ago. 

Why Safety Mechanics?

If the stories above haven’t demonstrated exactly why safety mechanics are useful in ALL forms of larping, let me suggest this to you: The more off-game safety mechanics you have to take care of your players, the more in-game risks you can play of telling emotionally dangerous, hard, and limit-pushing stories. Without giving people ways of tapping out before they cross their limits, you are constantly worrying if you are pushing a player too hard. When I go to games without safety mechanics, I know that I am always reserving a good 25% of my brain for watching my other players and the little social cues that tell me they are uncomfortable. I don’t want to break their scenes by verbally asking if this is too much (though I often will) but I also don’t want to emotionally break a person because I was too intense in character.

Even simulationist or gamist larps where there are heavy stats, nothing is pre-negotiated, and players are competing against each other can benefit from using some of these safety check-in systems just to make certain the competition stays in character and doesn’t spill into bleedy, player-vs-player-hating-each-other territory. Sure, sometimes it does. It’s often a bad side effect of those games. But aren’t you doing a lot better if you at least give your players some TOOLS to prove that they care about each other as people, and it’s simply their characters being assholes?

Conversely, in a game where I know they teach and practice safety mechanics, I can look around at all the drama going on and not be worried about if I should be intervening in something that is too much for another person. Lastly, it brings personal awareness to players for their OWN play and boundaries. If you are asked to self-care during play, give attention to your safety mechanics, limits, and personal discomfort in a situation, you will be more willing to use those tools if you are in crisis. No one can pick up a tool they haven’t been handed in the first place.  

Teaching Safety Mechanics

This is probably the most valuable piece of workshop advice I’ve learned this year and it comes from Miranda Chadbourne, who did Eskhaton’s workshops: You need to teach (or practice) something at least six times for it to develop a new neural pathway in a person’s brain that they go to it habitually in a time of crisis. Before Eskhaton, I’d known all of these techniques, sometimes used them myself, and saw them in occasional action at games. But she went over OK Check-In and the Look Down at least half a dozen times SPECIFICALLY IN THE WORKSHOP, making us practice them and really drilling it into our brains. Suddenly, I saw so many more people, many of them new freeform larpers, using their safety mechanics far more often than I did in other games. You might say this is because of the risky/dangerous themes of that game, but I think it was because people had developed a habit of using their self-care tools and so they were more comfortable using them by game on. This is also why, in games where they don’t really teach it might but have implemented the mechanics, it takes people 3-4 games to catch onto using them. They need time to develop a new neural pathway. 

Therefore, if you want to put safety mechanics into your system, make certain you get your players to practice them at least half a dozen times before the game starts. If you don’t have workshops, you can add them to your opening announcements or your registration table. You can teach them over your Facebook groups and challenge people to practice with their friends at home. You can even model and demonstrate in scene for people, if you must, because leading by example absolutely counts as a method of teaching. As long as the players touch on the concepts of those rules in a way that their brain processes them at least six times, your players will be FAR more likely to use them on the ground. We’ve seen it at Velvet Noir and now at Dammerung. I’ve never seen safety mechanics used as often as I have in the last few months since I started teaching this way.

But Ericka, What ARE Safety Mechanics? Where Can I Learn about Which to Use?

In short, safety mechanics are mostly non-diegetic ways to check in with a player that they are emotionally okay or, if a player isn’t emotionally alright, to remove themselves from the scene. There’s a whole bunch of them, but my favourites are:

The OK Check-In: (Polished up for American larp by Maury Brown, Sarah Lynne Bowman and Harrison Greene for New World Magischola). Read the whole article but, in short, this a system where someone flashes the OK sign at someone they are worried about and the person they are concerned for MUST return either a thumbs up, thumbs down, or a wavy hand. If anything but the thumbs up is given, the scene must stop. There has been recent debate about the wavy hand, but I like it as a brief pause to give the other person a chance to catch their breath and really evaluate if they are OK or not. Usually, they are, but it’s nice to have that buffer zone.

The Look Down: (Invented in a bar in Oslo, Norway, during a conversation between Johanna Koljonen and a bunch of people, in particular Trine Lise Lindahl.) This is a way of withdrawing from a scene without repercussion, question, or guilt for doing so. The player in need simply puts their hand over their eyes, looks down, and steps away to get the self-care they need. If someone uses the look down, no one is to question it or follow them, just act as if they had never been there at all and they will get help if they need it. At Velvet Noir, we have started using this as our ALWAYS out of character symbol, so people get very comfortable using it and don’t feel like everyone is worried staring at them for being in crisis because they are using the Look Down. It’s worked well for us and is a good way to withdraw from a scene that makes you uncomfortable without guilt.

There are dozens of more safety mechanics. If you go to the blogs linked above, you can find several others that Johanna has written beautifully about. Using TOO MANY in a game, however, can become overwhelming for players because their minds won’t know which is the ‘best’ or ‘right’ one to go to in moments of need. Therefore, keep it simple. Choose one or two that work best for your play style, teach them at least half a dozen times, and know that your players are going to be in a safer emotional space than they’ve ever been before. And these mechanics aren’t just for violent or physical scenes as described above. They often are best used in scenes of emotional trauma, privilege-play, anger, tragedy, or graphic depictions of things. The first moment you wonder if an interaction could make someone off game feel emotionally compromised is an opportunity to use a safety tool.

In closing, I am never happier as a game runner than when I see someone using their safety mechanics. As a player, I feel automatically safer with someone else in a scene when I have seen them previously use their safety tools because I know I can trust them to tap out if I go too far. I am an incredibly intense player. I spent a lot of my life holding myself back because situations happened, like the Changeling story above, when I was trying to give it my all. Since learning, workshopping, teaching these safety mechanics, and seeing the in active use at our games, I’ve been able to tell more intense and risky stories than ever before. I hope that you’ll at least give these a try and see how much it can do to enhance your game. 

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