What I Say at the Beginning of a Game

I run a lot of RPGs at conventions, typically for 4 hours for 3-4 players who may not know each other. Because I believe a GM has an important role to play in helping the players shape a safe space to play at the table, there's a particular talk I give at the beginning, inspired by and adapted from various other talks and writings, including Game Storm's Indie Hurricane, Go Play North West, Fabricated Realities' We Are Here to Game Intro, John Harper's Special Moves ("When you have a concern..., When someone..."), Vincent Baker (Permissions and Expectations), and Avery Alder's March 2014 Safe Hearts (PDF) on navigating boundaries and vulnerabilities in Monsterhearts, which you should definitely read.

You're welcome to use my opening words or adapt them to your own needs. Sections in (paranthesis) aren't part of what I say, they're commentary.

First I introduce myself, and then go around the table having players introduce themselves. Just first names is fine, whatever they're comfortable with. I write down their names in my notebook I keep game notes in, clockwise from me.

"Hi, I'm Carl Rigney, your GM. Thank you for playing [Name of Game] with me today."

After introductions, I ask who has played [Game] before, or read it, and if its a Powered by the Apocalypse (PBTA) game I ask anyone who hasn't played it if they've played Apocalypse World-like games before. Sometimes someone volunteers this is their first RPG, which is rare but great, and I ask them to ask me to explain anything they want more information on (Like "What's an NPC?").

I give a brief description of what the game is about, and then discuss Lines and Veils. As I talk about Lines and Veils I'm not just giving them permission to raise concerns, I'm also watching people's reactions and body language to see if they're getting that, or tuning out, to get a feel for whether it's likely to be OK to enter uncomfortable territory, or best to stay well clear. I'm grateful to The Dreaming Crucible's author for teaching me that point and illustrating it in play.

If we're playing Monsterhearts, I might say:

"Monsterhearts is a game about teens and monsters messing with each other's hearts and bodies in a small town. Because it deals with teens, strong emotions, possibly sex, possibly violence, there may be elements you'd rather not see as part of the game, because they're unpleasant to you, or would ruin your enjoyment, or any reason at all, you don't have to explain your reason. If that's the case, just ask to draw a line and we'll roll back the story and go in another direction. If you're OK with something happening but don't want to get into details, or would prefer it off screen, that's a veil. Just ask to fade to black, skip to the next morning or scene, avoid getting into detail, or whatever your comfort level calls for. It's also fine to check in with the table and see if things are OK or if they need to be eased back. If you can't find words for your concern, just raise this X card." I put a card with a big X on both sides on the table. "Wave it to get my attention if you need to."

"When you have a concern, issue, or comment about the game, go ahead and say it to the group. When someone has something to say about the game, listen to them respectfully." (The Harper Moves)

"Please don't suffer in silence. If you're uncomfortable bringing something up to the entire table you're welcome to call for a break and to talk to me privately."

(Commentary: Some people may be reading all the above and going "Why do you have to tell people it's OK to speak up if there's a problem? Doesn't everyone do that anyway?" I never even realized I thought that way until I had my eyes opened. Role playing games, like much human interaction, are built on permissions and expectations (with thanks to Vincent Baker for that insight), and so I find it important and useful to set player expectations that they have explicit permission to raise concerns.)

"If you have any questions on mechanics or what's going on, please ask. I'm here to teach the game as well as run it, and if you don't understand something I'm happy to explain."

I try to give this talk before every game I run, even something like Golden Sky Stories, a heart-warming slice of life RPG in which magical animals in a small Japanese town help others through the power of friendship. Because I don't know what a player may find upsetting, and I want them to feel comfortable. For instance, GSS has a giant spider-god who rules the mountain. If a player has arachnophobia, I know to leave that out, before she appears and a panic-spike torches their fun. Or maybe there's something about the scent of peaches on a hot summer morning that would ruin their game, and I have no way of knowing that, so I need to try to let them know it's OK to object to whatever they need to object to.

I draw lines and veils myself as needed (rare, but there are things I won't have in a game I run). I don't ask people to list lines and veils first, because somehow those often wind up feeling like goals rather than limits. (A lesson learned from an early Go Play Northwest's Apocalypse Now Mountain Witch run, which I wasn't in but heard much about.)

All that takes only a few minutes. I then mention any game-specific important points, like for Monsterhearts:

"There's a move called Turn Someone On. Because when you're a teen you're not in charge of what turns you on, but you ARE in charge of what you do about it. So just because how the New Boy walks down the hall fills you with Feelings, what you do about those Feelings is still up to you."

"Does anyone have any questions up to this point?"

"OK, let's create characters together. Feel free to ask questions of each other and talk as you create them. Your characters may have secrets from each other, but as players you don't need to."

The rest of this is commentary, not things I say at the table. As people make characters and begin play, I try to pay attention to their interactions, and nip potential problems. The two biggest things I watch for are boundary-testing, and player suppression.

Explaining why would make this even longer than it is, so instead I highly, highly recommend you read Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear and if you're gaming with children or teens, also Protecting the Gift.

I'll probably make a hash trying to explain this in only a paragraph, so please read the book. There are people who look for victims by testing how resistent their defenses are. So they'll look for boundaries, then push on them, to see if the potential victim resists strongly, or accepts the violation. Each step is small enough so there's deniability, but step by step it leads to bad places, and I don't want that happening at my table. OUR table, because the table and game don't belong to me as GM, they're shared by the group, but if I can lever my social power as GM to make our table and game safer, I'm fine with that.

The second one, player suppression, is where a player's ideas and input keep getting blocked or overridden by another player. In the excitement of a game where everyone's contributing and under time pressure as most convention games are it can be really easy for someone or multiple people to make suggestions for each other's characters. Sometimes that's fine, and welcome. Sometimes all a quiet player wanted was a moment to THINK about what their character would do, or say, or feel, and it gets drowned out in the heat of action. I am the guiltiest person on the face of the earth about this, but I'm trying to be better. A key point to PBTA's "Play to find out" is that we're playing to find out what the character's player would have them do, not what I as GM or the other players think is coolest or best.

So there's my opening, and even as long as this is it's really only the tip of an iceberg. The payoff of helping shape a safer place to play and helping players build trust together is that you can get some really amazing games as a result. Perhaps some other method works better for you. That's fine. Over hundreds of games, this is what I've come up with, and I'll continue to refine it as I learn more, I hope over hundreds of games to come.

last updated Thu Aug 11 20:47 PDT 2016