Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
So you want to play some D&D. You've learned the basics, you've watched some actual plays and now you’ve found some leads on groups to play with. Great! You’re ready to go now right? Roll up that character and jump in!
Well, not quite. You see, not every D&D game is the same. Anything can happen in a game of D&D. And I mean anything. It’s not like a video game or a movie with a content label and a summary that tells you everything that could possibly happen. The appeal of D&D is that anything can happen. The downside is that anything can happen.
So before you jump into a game, a healthy gaming group is usually going to have what is called a Session 0. It’s called Session 0 because it is literally what happens before the game ever starts. And a good Session 0 will cover a range of topics. These range from safety mechanics to make sure everyone feels safe and comfortable at the table to rules, tone and genre questions for the game. We’re going to cover these topics over a couple of posts and today we’re starting with Safety Tools.
One of the most important parts of Session 0 is safety tools. Remember, you’re creating an unlimited shared imaginative space with this group of people. Anything could happen. And honestly none of us are cool with truly anything happening. And those things won’t be the same for every table. Safety Tools are various systems that let players decide together what is going to happen in their shared game.
Some systems are active in play. For example, some games use a red/yellow/green card system. At any time a player can show one of their cards. A red card means the scene needs to hard stop. No questions asked, the DM will just pivot away and move on. A yellow card means the game is veering into unsteady territory. A green card is a way to reassure the table that everything is fine even if a scene seems intense. Sometimes folks just simplify this down to a single X card (same as the red card). These are only a handful of tools. It’s a good idea to take some time and browse through the TTRPG Safety tool kit. It’s a collection of various safety tools and guides that can help you see what options are out there.
Before you even play though, your party should work out topics and scenarios that are or are not appropriate for your game. Traumas and phobias are easy examples. If you are deathly afraid of spiders and your DM drops your character into a cave full of infinite horrible giant spiders and then describes your character’s suffering in great detail that might be upsetting. D&D characters can experience some pretty awful things that we generally avoid in everyday life. A good table will go over these sorts of topics and let folks mark some as totally taboo (will not happen at all) and some as off camera or fade to black only. This process is often called lines and veils.
D&D characters can also do some pretty horrible things we generally avoid in real life. D&D is definitely a combat game so (unless your game is very particular) there will probably be violence and killing. But there is a spectrum. Killing an inhuman teeth monster is not the same as killing an aggressive humanoid in self defense is not the same as killing a helpless child. Player actions are important boundaries as well. This can also include all sorts of other behaviors, like player characters stealing from one another or fighting or casting harmful spells on one another (especially things that remove player agency like mind altering magic).
There are also a lot of real world topics that will need addressing up front. Some folks experience enough racism in the real world that they don’t want to see it at all in a fantasy world. Some folks want to have fantasy racism so they can punch fantasy racists in the face. Both of these approaches are fine if the whole table is on board. Don’t be a fantasy racist though. Just don’t. Sexism, slavery and various forms of bigotry are often topics to check in on as well.
Another topic that can catch people off guard is sex and romance in the game. This is a place where games can wildly diverge from each other. In the process of creating complex player characters some players will potentially want to form attachments between those PCs and NPCs. Sometimes even between PCs. For some folks this is one of the most significant parts of the game. Others don't want to go near it with a 10 foot pole. This is probably the single topic that needs the most ongoing discussion and clarity in your game. No one should ever be surprised when these things come up.
This is barely a surface level skim of a very important topic. These tools are often the difference between finding a great game and a D&D horror story that scares people out of the hobby. Honestly if you find a table that isn’t willing to have these sorts of conversations just steer clear, that’s a huge red flag in and of itself.
It’s better to know where your table is coming from before you even start so no one is caught by surprise. And a healthy gaming table will be listening and communicating early and often to make sure everyone can have a good time gaming.
We'll be back next time to continue talking about Session 0 and how to talk about rules, tone and genre for your game. See you next week!
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.