We Can Tell Dangerous Stories Safely

(Trigger Warning: This blog discusses topics of racism, hate crimes, and sexual violence under a separate cut warning at the end. Do not read if any of that content is triggering for your mental state.) (Featured photo by Bret Lehne of Velvet Noir II. Models: Dann Lynch, Jason Brunett, and Victoria Lai.) Safe spaces don’t exist in larping. It’s a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly over the last few months. One person’s safety is another person’s trigger. Safer spaces, however, are a constant goal and we can always do a little better than we did the event before. And the safer you make your space, the more risky the content you can put into it. We can larp highly dangerous subjects in North America more than we have been in the past. However, we can only tackle these high-risk themes by making a high-safety space. 

The more high-risk content you want to handle, the more levels of safety you must have behind the scenes. These elements are in direct correlation to each other. 

Not only must you have those safeties, but you must teach them in a way that players will reach for them in a crisis. Safety tools don’t matter if no one is using them. I have a whole blog on best practices with safety mechanics here. So, teach and practice them in a way that they become second nature to your players. Never shame players for using them. Demonstrate their use in play as staff repeatedly. In addition, you have to be willing to defend your community and promise of a safer space. Allowing toxic elements to flourish in your event, when you claim it to be a safer space, will quickly rip down any trust you have built with your players. 

Trust is the basic foundation of a community being willing to play with dangerous topics. Trust allows us to push the limits of what we’ve been told we can do in gaming. Trust comes through making the safest space possible, acknowledging when we mess it up, and always working to do better. 

Dangerous Content

What is dangerous content? It’s difficult to summarize, but any content that tackles subjects which are high trauma for a large group of people, controversial, close to home for the risk of bleed, or anything that heavily plays on the real world issues people have on a daily basis. This is the sort of content we were told for years we shouldn’t be touching in North American larp. It includes racism, sexism, sexual violence, classism, domestic abuse, police violence, real world religions, hate crimes, and real world politics. While some events have tread close to many of these subjects, and there’s dozens of analogies out there, I know there are at least 2-3 subjects on the above list that most would still consider completely verboten in larps. 

I offer to you that none of that is off the table if you have built a community able to tackle such themes, been honest about what themes are going to be in your game, and have the safeties in order when something does go wrong. I’ll use Velvet Noir as an example, because it’s the one game which has taught me completely that we can push the boundaries of these subjects. Sometimes all in the same event. 

We knew it was going to be impossible to tell a respectful story about minority experiences in America without bringing some very real world, modern day issues into it. Topics of racism, police violence against minorities, immigration raids, and hate crimes are all a part of America’s dirty history and modern experience. We wanted to tackle all of those things and make a place for disenfranchised voices to actually tell their stories in a way that didn’t soften the blow for white, privileged people who often don’t like to look these things in the eye. We also wanted to provide a space that if one of our disenfranchised players was put into an out of character emotionally dangerous state by the content, we could give them multiple tools to come down from the trauma and self care in a place they trusted they were safe. It seemed an impossible task, but we’ve achieved a level safe enough that our players are willing to tackle these subjects. We’re also committed to the ongoing journey building such safer places takes. We revisit these subjects often and are constantly working on learning to do better while we maintain the safer space we’ve already built.

Layers of Safety

In order to create such a space, you need to have several layers of safety. An okay check-in and look down simply aren’t enough. The more dangerous content you are dealing with, the more layers you need to add to the safety mechanics. Here are the levels of safety I see necessary to design into high risk spaces:

Basic Safety Mechanics: Read my safety blog and put those tools into action, or at least some tools like it. You need to give your players clear, concise, immediate ways to slow down a scene, stop it, and withdraw from any scene that isn’t safe for their mental health. These are basic tools which should be in every larping experience in the country right now. Player before game, always. There is no reason a player should be forced to say yes to a traumatic experience which they need to stop for their own safety. If you do not have these in place, you shouldn’t be touching any risky topics, end of story. 

Community Management: This is where it starts getting more challenging. You need to keep your community clean and demonstrate, repeatedly, a willingness to remove toxic elements. You’re probably asking: “What is a toxic element?” Something that is toxic is something which is repeatedly causing damage to one or more members of your community. Anyone can fuck up once, I acknowledge that. The willingness to make a mistake, learn from that mistake, and not repeat it means that person is generally not toxic. (Yes, I acknowledge there are some ‘mistakes’ that are one and done. Violating consent being one of them. But often you will find people who would make such a large mistake have demonstrated previously toxic behaviors and simply weren’t removed before they made the BIG mistake.) But the moment someone becomes a repeat offender: whether that means they have hurt someone in repeated ways and NOT learned from their mistakes, or their presence would be repeatedly damaging to many people, you need to remove them from your community.

For Dammerung (and all Entropic Endeavors games) this means we auto-ban anyone with alt-right or Nazi leanings. Even if they seem incredibly nice in person and might be a good gamer, just having those political affiliations is damaging to our communities, so they are not welcome. 

This also means if there are players which are repeatedly violating people’s consent negotiations, twisting the rules to get power over others in uncomfortable ways, or not respecting people’s off game identities, then you need to be willing to remove them from your community. We have to stop drawing the line at ‘Well, they didn’t sexually assault someone, and gamers are socially awkward, so give them a third, fourth, and fifth chance.’ If someone has demonstrated they are incapable or refusing to learn why their behavior is damaging, you cannot permit them in a community which deals with such high risk stories.

Leading by Example: Muriel Algayres wrote an amazing piece called The Impact of Social Capital on Larp Safety and it’s stuck with me since I read it. Read it, internalize it, and evaluate your own actions by it, especially if you are a game runner or influencer. Larpers will be willing to push their own limits and even emotionally hurt themselves if it’s to get a scene with someone who they see as having more social capital. So, if you are running these communities, you need to use your safety tap outs, look downs, and negotiation mechanics even LOUDER than everyone else. Don’t just implement these mechanics, but show them in action repeatedly, Your players will be far more likely to understand and use these resources when they seem them in action by someone with a large amount of social capital in the community.

Extra Safety Mechanics for High-Risk Topics: When you hit topics you know are going to be triggers for more than a few people, it’s important to put in a few other safeties so everyone can mentally acknowledge and prepare for what they are going to do, or withdraw if they are not comfortable. Our first example in Velvet Noir was hate speech and slurs. It’s still a discussion we are tackling but we did not want to completely erase real world slurs from our event because it’s very real and awful part of our history. So, these were the mechanics we put in to handle them: 

Hate Speech and Slurs: Velvet Noir is a game about oppression and difficult topics. While we do not ever condone the use of hate speech out of character, we feel erasing it from the history of the world entirely is also doing a disservice to the difficult narratives we are telling. However, no one should be subject to hearing hate speech OOC or IC without full consent, warning, and safety measures. Therefore, hate speech or slurs MAY NOT BE USED unless both parties are consenting to the encounter AND FULL CONSENT is gained from ANY PARTY who may overhear the encounter. We recommend it only be used in whispered moments or private scenes between TWO FULLY CONSENTING PARTIES. If there is any risk a non-consenting party may overhear, do not use the planned language. After a scene is finished wherein hate speech has been used, each player must check in with the other and debrief together if necessary. Hate speech and slurs are defined as words or language which would stop a common conversation with discomfort when used. As ever, if you aren’t certain, it’s safest not to use the word. 

The mechanics aren’t perfect, but they are what we have for now and they’ve served us well so far. 

Learning from Your Mistakes: Inevitably, you are going to fuck it up. When you realize that you’ve made a safety mistake as a team, or are touching more dangerous territory than you realized and people have gone to far, you need to be willing to listen to your fellow teammates, design something better, and demonstrate to the players you are immediately willing to fix your mistakes. Making safer spaces is a consistently growing process. Be willing to learn and grow. 

The next part of the blog discusses sexual assault as the ultimate high-risk topic we simply don’t touch. While I’m not certain it’s worth the amount of triggering it does to bring into games here in North America, I want to use it as an example of how all these layers can combine to do something highly dangerous safely. I’ll be discussing how it was treated in Not Only Larp’sConscience”, a Westworld Inspired event that ran in Spain in October 2019. I’ll also discuss how we are touching on it at Velvet Noir. Please, do not read on if this topic makes you uncomfortable.

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Westworld is a story full of consent violations, all the way to rape, and so Not Only Larp felt it important that element was able to be explored in the game. Every single scene had multiple layers of safeties built into it with multiple ways to stop and withdraw from the scene at any point in time. In order to make an off game safe scene about sexual assault, these were the layers of consent and trust a player had to go through:

  • Red Ribbon: Every player interested in even CONSIDERING that play had to wear a red ribbon clearly and enter a pre-negotiated ‘Red Ribbon’ group before the larp to discuss these scenes. If you were not wearing a red ribbon, you were not to be approached, touched with, or even consider the subject. You could remove the red ribbon at any point in time and all pre-negotiated scenes were off the table until you put it back on. 
  • Basic Safety Mechanics: The whole larp had the look down, okay check in, and other safety mechanics which were heavily enforced, especially in those scenes.
  • Pre-Negotiation Rule: ANY ‘red ribbon’ scene had to be pre-negotiated by a rule. The players could NOT do anything dealing with sexual assault without breaking game and clearly negotiating the entire thing with all parties who would be present. 
  • Green, Yellow, Red Light: The intensity of the scene could be controlled with the classic red, yellow, and green light words to calibrate while scenes were happening. 
  • Zoned Areas: Even if everything above was in place, you could not participate in one of these scenes if you weren’t in a specific area of the larp zoned for these possible occurrences. That way, if someone had no wish to even see or hear it, they could remain in the un-zoned areas of the larp and never even touch on that play. 
  • Trust: Not Only Larp as a company has a very clearly outlined Values policy on their main page, which includes player before game, safety first, social justice action, and learning from their mistakes. They have demonstrated themselves as a team able to be trusted with such topics and, therefore, have earned the ability in many people’s eyes to tackle these situations. 

Those elements above are a direct example of how I personally think we can deal with so many high-risk topics in larp if we have an equally high amount of effective safeties in place.

After heavy discussion with our writers, we even added elements of sexual assault to Velvet Noir. While we still have a firm rule that sexual assault will never been on screen at the events, our writers pointed out that such topics could not be erased from the history of the cultures in the game. Sexual assault is, sadly, a very formative part of black culture in America. By us outlawing any existence of sexual assault in our universe, we were erasing the very real, lived, difficult experience of the cultures whose voices we were trying to uphold. So, we added that sexual assault could be an element in people’s backgrounds and off-screen experiences at Velvet Noir. Once more, as with hate language, we put in extra safety mechanics; we have a rule that the topic cannot be discussed without full, knowing consent of everyone in the conversation. Anyone can withdraw consent at any point in time and it must be verbalized before the topic is brought up in character. But it is now a part of our game. Telling honest historical stories in a safe way was more important to us than keeping with the firm rule that no sexual assault will ever exist in stories in North American games. 

I hope people start making safer communities and games, so we can start tackling such subjects without the fear we have had for so many years. 

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