Helping Your Players Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

by Sean Murphy

Maybe after your last dungeon crawl you are interested in having your players visit a village being terrorized by a demon cult known for unspeakable acts.  Or it might be time your Mythos investigators faced a real-world horror ripped from the headlines.  Or you wonder how the crew will react when they hear of the strange sex acts of the alien race they meet on a distant planet.  In this post, we’ll explore some actions to take when going into previously uncharted and potentially uncomfortable territory.

The first step is to know your players as people and as a group.  Some players are ready to face whatever dark situation you want to throw at them.  Ritualistic torture?  Weird sex stuff? No problem – all part of the fun. I also know groups who try to outdo each other in terms of their murdering hobo violence – they will cheerfully set an entire town on fire to flush out one hated foe.  These groups didn’t start off this way but over time developed a particular playing style, as well as trust in each other.   If you know what you are going to present is consistent with the sorts of extremes they have seen before, maybe you feel safe with your new direction.

But if you are unsure you should take a moment - out of game - to talk about player expectations in terms of the potentially disturbing experiences ahead.  Sometimes this discussion should be broad, as in “Are there any topics that you would prefer I not introduce into the game?”  You will likely hear themes like violence against women and suicide, but you might also encounter unexpected topics like needles and medical procedures.  At other times the conversation should be specific because you know it is a sensitive area: “Without going into specifics, would anyone be uncomfortable if the topic of child abuse was introduced into the game?” 

The important thing is that if someone identifies a topic as upsetting you should accept that it is off limits and remove it from your game without further conversation.  Period.  Opening up about a real fear is a deeply personal act and should be taken as a sign of trust.  Following up with a series of questions (“When you say “drug use”, is it all drugs? Is marijuana ok?  Is it just drug overdoses that bother you?”) may pressure that person to go places they would rather not, and no matter how amazing you think your new plot is it isn’t worth alienating one of your players.

Once the game begins, your group needs to continue to be on alert when uncomfortable parts of the story unfold.   One tool I’ve started seeing at conventions is the X-card – an index card marked with an X sits in the center of the table and if anyone taps it the GM and players move away from that unpleasant topic with no questions asked (for a full explanation, see John Stavropoulos’ discussion at http://tinyurl.com/x-card-rpg). 

But be aware that even tapping the card might be difficult for some. They may not want to draw attention to themselves, or be seen as the problem player in the group. (As a side note, the player with the real potentially debilitating trauma may be the last one you would have expected.) So, even with an X-card on the table, you need to monitor your players. And if you see someone  starting to withdraw from the action in the scene you should move to change the topic or take a break, even if you don’t understand the source of their discomfort.  Any inconvenience in terms of game play is a small price to pay for making gaming a positive experience for everyone in the group.