Suppose you happen to even glance at the tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) spaces on Twitter. In that case, one thing becomes apparent very quickly: They are not safe spaces. Other platforms have also been shown to be unsafe as well.
In one recent case, abusers were outed for what they have done to women in the TTRPG community. They then had others defend the abuser’s actions or attempt to shame and silence victims. Before that, Table Top Simulator allowed a Transgender person to be treated appallingly by their moderators. Then, they showed the world how not to fix a significant problem while also making it immensely worse. These are just two examples of BIPOC, LGBTQI+, women, people with disabilities, or people from other marginalized and underrepresented communities being subjected to hate and abuse within the TTRPG community.
All this raises the question: How are safe, diverse, respectful, and inclusive spaces created, supported, and protected over the long term?
The simple answer is SAFETY BY DESIGN
This was eloquently put by Ginger Gorman:
One of the things the eSafety Commissioner talks passionately about – and I come to agree with – is a concept she calls ‘safety by design’. Her idea is that instead of being retrofitted after the damage is done, tech platforms must be engineered to protect us from the get-go. This strikes me as just like cars fitted with mandatory seat belts and airbags in case we crash while driving them. Late at night when I’m writing and peeling back all the painful consequences of predator trolling, I can’t help wondering how different things might have been. How many lives might have been saved if social media companies had, right from the start, internalised the Latin phrase all medical students are taught, primum non nocere? First, do no harm.
Gorman, Ginger. Troll Hunting. Hardie Grant Books. Kindle Edition.
First, do no harm. It gets to the heart of what we in the TTRPG space need to do when creating our RPGs.
One does not simply create an RPG…you are creating an RPG and its community as part of the one process. Don’t kid yourself here and say: “I am just making a game.” The game does not exist without the community. And letting the community set the standards for you is a fast path to harming others under your watch.
The creation of their community is where a lot of creators fall down. The inspiration to create your world or system carries you away, and the community created is a by-product of that process or from the process of crowdfunding. The community happens rather than is planned in most instances. For successful RPGs, especially for new designers, this can mean a larger community of orders of magnitude than anything they might have dealt with or managed before. Within will be both good actors and bad, and everything in between.
How are safe, diverse, respectful, and inclusive spaces are created, supported, and protected over the long term? I ask because many spaces fail again and again from ignorance, design failure, lack of time, or a myriad of other reasons. However, some do not care or are actively creating dangerous spaces. Then some speak of creating a safe space but are performative and not genuinely dedicated to it.
These are the bad actors, either via design or omission. They cause harm to others, either because they want to or do not care enough to try and prevent that harm. Money, time, or other factors are more important to them than the safety of their most vulnerable community members. There is no excuse for them, considering the wealth of information and statistics out there, not to do better.
My day job revolves around working with First Nations peoples. I am a white man, part of the settler-colonial society that inflicted genocide, dispossession, and degradation upon an entire continent. Therefore, I need to ensure the cultural safety of those I work with within my work. Much has been written in my country and others about cultural safety and respectful and equal discourse, such as the principles of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. In a similar vein, there are also the TTRPG safety toolkits, and they provide a strong guide on how to create safe spaces.
This is a vital aspect of TTRPG design that needs more consideration by designers and companies. How do you build your community safely? How do you design the RPG to ensure that it will not cause inadvertent harm? How do you provide clear guidance to those using your system to do so respectfully and safely?
Across this article and its follow-up, we’ll attempt to answer those three questions.
For an example of safe RPG design, I would point you towards Coyote and Crow
. If you have not come across Coyote and Crow
, it is a TTRPG written by Native Americans, providing those who engage with the game clear guidance on cultural appropriateness, how to use the material respectfully, and what to do and not do.
That brings us back to “How do you build your community safely?”
I have some thoughts below, but please remember that I have learned these lessons from my professional experiences. Applying them will vary based on the game you’re designing, the developer team, and other factors. But at the core, these questions still remain. The sooner you tackle them, the better your game – and its community – will be in the long run.
To me, at least, several vital things need to be done in using “Safety By Design” for a TTRPG community, which include:
- Ask First and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent
- Design The Space To Be Safe
- The Welcome Measure
- Put Up Troll Repellents
- Listen And Lead By Example
- Make The Hard Decisions
- Use MER – Check In
Ask First and Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
The Ask First principle is used in Australia for non-Aboriginal people unfamiliar with working with Aboriginal people. However, it’s not used very well, as you can probably expect, as it’s a guide, not a legislated requirement. However, at its heart, it says that when working with Aboriginal culture and heritage, ask Aboriginal first in all instances before doing anything.
Carrying this lesson over to the TTRPG space and community creation, Ask First means that when aiming to create safe spaces, ask those you are creating them for and how to do so respectfully and effectively. In most instances, the communities you are trying to support and work with will have a very different life experience. Therefore, in asking first, you MUST LISTEN, take the advice and input, and make it part of your community design.
Also, when undertaking such conversations, the principles of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) are essential. You need to be upfront and honest about what you are doing and why you want to seek advice from someone. The person you communicate with can determine if they wish to participate in the conversation. FPIC is important in any RPG or RPG session in ensuring the safety of all those involved. Still, it also needs to be part of how you communicate how your community will be formed and operate.
This may mean putting in extra effort to design sub-spaces within the community to ensure that safety exists for all, which touches on another point. Equality of access does not necessarily relate to Equity of access. For each part of your community to partake equally as part of the broader whole, you may need to take extra steps to assist them in doing so. This is equity.
Design The Space To Be Safe
How do you design a space to be safe? Depends on what you are doing, and there are a couple of ideas below. I would encourage people preparing for their community to respectfully reach out to those who have built safe spaces. They have likely learned hard lessons along the way and can help you avoid some of the pitfalls.
One way to do so is by inviting audiences to platform spaces you’ve created, such as Discord, private Facebook pages, or your own forums. This gives you a modicum of control over who enters the space, to begin with. This may not be effective in growing your community. Thinking through the functionality of each platform concerning how you want your safe space to operate is an essential first step.
Secondly, you need to be abundantly clear as to the rules. Look for an excellent example of clear, safe space rules and use a zero-tolerance policy for breaches. It may sound harsh but going hard early ensures that any dangerous people who make it into the space will not last long. Such an approach also acts as its own deterrent over time, as your space becomes too hard to disrupt and not worth the effort.
Thirdly, make sure you have diverse moderators, especially in larger communities. Pick intelligent folks, not just a mate who said they would help out. To be honest, you may have to work with the latter, to begin with, or do it yourself. However, in putting moderators in positions of power, you must be crystal clear about your standards and enforcement and communicate this clearly to the community at large.
Don’t hesitate to pull up moderators who step over lines or let go of moderators who fail the community. Moderators, volunteer or otherwise, are seen as part of the “official” group within any space. Your moderators must be above reproach through their actions and how they support you in building and maintaining the safety of the space.
The Welcome Measure
The Welcome Measure is a simple way to ensure those coming into your space will respect it as a safe space. They will be welcomed into the space, as long as the are welcoming to those already there and respect the space. Essentially it boils down to a no-tolerance policy for intolerance by anybody.
It’s a simple first step or rule and needs further support from other policies and standards. Still, as a first step to creating a safe space, it requires the acceptance of the primary goals of the space: diversity, inclusion, and mutual respect.
The welcome measure can also support the next point: putting up Troll Repellents. In a follow-up post, we’ll tackle this and the rest of the list.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below. We’re all learning, so constructive criticism, tips, suggestions, and help are appreciated and welcome. We look forward to engaging with you about these necessary steps to make our gaming tables of the future a better, safer place for all.