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This past weekend I began a new tabletop campaign with a group of friends. The game we are playing is City of Mist, a superhero RPG with a noir setting. It’s a fascinating RPG that explores the stories and legends we learned growing up and how they would manifest themselves through people. It emphasizes the struggle between normal human beings with jobs, spouses, hobbies, personalities, and goals and these supernatural, almost god-like entities that want to take over their lives. And as a game set in the world of noir, it has the potential for some very heavy themes – loss, revenge, corruption, and crimes of a very personal nature run rampant in this sort of setting.
The group I am playing with is a mix of folks I know on a variety of levels. Many of the folks there were some of my closest friends in college, people I have known for six or seven years and have played RPGs with countless times before – the very first group of people I played with, in fact. Another player I have known for quite some time, but we didn’t necessarily have the same level of emotional vulnerability with one another that I had with the others at the table, and I’ve never been her gamemaster during an RPG. Finally, two of the folks there were married to my good friends; these are people who I am just starting to get to know, so I know very little of their backgrounds, worldviews, or sensibilities.
Because the group was such a mix of players, and because the game we were preparing to play deals with such heavy material, I felt it would be important to discuss how to create a safe environment at the game table. This is something I’ve never dealt with in the past, but I learned a lot about the importance of consent in the tabletop RPG space by watching other folks play online and studying under more experienced gamemasters. In particular, on a show I watch called Office Hours, Dungeon World co-creator Adam Koebel discussed briefly a concept called Lines and Veils. Edit 4/21/2020: Given Adam’s recent history, I would not recommend Office Hours to anyone looking to learn techniques for table safety. Instead, maybe get started with this safety tools discussion by Random Tuesday. I’ve removed any links to Office Hours and have only left the text because it’s still in the audio recording.
Lines and Veils were originally discussed by Ron Edwards in a piece called Sex and Sorcery. He speaks very specifically about dealing with sexual behaviors in games, and describes a theoretical scenario where a sorcerer has bound an attractive female demon and during the course of their interactions has sex with her. In one scenario, it is vaguely established that “they have sex;” in another, all of the details of the interactions are played out at the table, from the position of the participants to the dialogue they share during intercourse. Edwards poses the question of the appropriateness of this scenario – which way would you play this scene if a woman was at the table? If she was the GM? If there were no women? This situation for many players could be seen as crossing a line – you don’t go into detail about that sort of thing at the table.
This is the essence of Lines and Veils. There are some lines you do not cross at the roleplaying table. There are some topics that need to be handled with more care than others. Lots of reasons can be named for why you would do this. Mental health is one – you could very well be interacting with players who suffer from past trauma, depression, anxiety, or any number of mental health struggles that would make dealing with difficult content unbearable. Respecting cultural distinctions is another – players from different countries or backgrounds will likely have very different ideas about what is and isn’t okay in a campaign. Ultimately, the idea of implementing these boundaries within your game is that for everyone to have fun at the table, everyone needs to feel safe during play.
So how does it work? The term lines refers quite simply to lines you do not cross during play. It’s not necessarily that this kind of thing never happens anywhere in the game world, but in the story that you specifically are telling, it will never be given attention. The lined material is not discussed, is not part of someone’s backstory, and definitely is not described as part of a scene by the GM or the players.
Then there are veils. Veils are subjects that can exist in your game but you never cover them in detail. You metaphorically throw a veil over it, covering it up so that nothing concrete can be seen beyond the veil. If say, for example, consensual sex is veiled, when things start getting hot and heavy between two characters the scene fades to black and we skip ahead to some time later. If graphic violence is veiled, we perhaps get a static camera image of two shadows on the wall, seeing a brutal stabbing in the silhouettes with no blood or gore to be seen. Veils can be a part of someone’s backstory, villains can commit veiled actions, a veiled event can be given “screen time,” but you don’t look at it directly.
These two concepts, when working together, allow your game group to establish their boundaries before play begins. Whether folks want to line their triggers and phobias or just get rid of content that makes them too uncomfortable, discussing Lines and Veils before a tabletop helps to make the space a safe one where everyone can have a good time playing the game.
I was interested in the concept before utilizing it for myself, but true understanding of exactly why this is important didn’t come to me until I incorporated it into my game. Lines and Veils were the very first thing I discussed with my group, before we even discussed series concept or character ideas. My goal was to make it very clear right in the beginning that respecting these lines was important to our game. To make sure that no one felt uncomfortable about sharing their Lines or Veils, I asked everyone in the group to text me their preferences and then I shared them anonymously with all of the players.
My first surprise came when I received Lines and Veils from every single person at the table. I honestly anticipated that at least one or two people wouldn’t “get it,” that someone would think it was silly or wishy-washy or whatever. At the very least, I figured not every person would have content they were uncomfortable with. Remember, many of my closest friends were seated at this table. The fact that their Lines and Veils surprised me just goes to show that we don’t always understand what people are dealing with or what makes them uncomfortable, even when we think we know.
The next thing that caught me off-guard was the sheer number of lines we were looking at. Some I anticipated – things like rape, child abuse/molestation, and gore/torture were quickly taken off of the table. But some lines I would have never thought of; spousal abuse, vivid depictions of depression/self-worthlessness, and alcoholism all came up in addition to the usual suspects. In fact, so many different types of content were lined that one of my players stated “it’s going to be really hard to do film noir without all this stuff” – and at first I was inclined to agree with him. Noir is notoriously dark and deals with heavy content. With my inspiration and understanding of noir coming from films like Sin City, I had a very difficult time picturing how this game could go without touching on any of these topics.
It took a conversation with my wife to help me visualize just why Lines and Veils are so important. I shared with her this concern voiced by the other player, this idea that so many lines could actually be harmful to the game, and she didn’t quite understand it.
“You said the whole point of having Lines and Veils was about making the game fun for everyone, right? I look at this list and I don’t see how adding any of these things to the game would make it more fun.”
And there it was. There’s a simplicity to the whole thing that I failed to grasp at first, but her statement is at the heart of why Lines and Veils works. I as a GM was interested in exploring a darker setting with heavier themes – themes I might have Veiled, certainly, but still including material that could potentially be uncomfortable. I am able to consider these themes because I personally have no experience with them, but for many of my players the themes I would have explored hit home. They’d feel personal to those men and women in a way that they do not to me.
Does a game dealing heavily with themes of racism, sexism, domestic struggles, personal crime, and loss sound intellectual stimulating? Possibly. Philosophically engaging? Maybe. Could it push us to think about what it would be like to live in a different time period or to put ourselves in another person’s shoes? Sure. But does it sound fun? Even I look at the list of things my players Lined and think “well yeah, this all seems like a bummer.” The kind of game that I was interested in running for my group wasn’t the kind of game that they were interested in playing – and by golly is it a good thing that we got that out of the way before we did anything else!
In Sex and Sorcery, Ron Edwards makes this statement: “the most sensitive person in the group sets the line.” That’s the lesson that my wife helped me to see during our conversation after the game. I as the GM was not the most sensitive person in that room, and I needed to adjust my vision of the game to what everyone at the table was comfortable with, not just me. Doing that changed the vision I had for the game pretty dramatically, but that’s okay – I am more excited about the story we are going to create together than whatever story I could have originally visualized in my head.
If you are like me and you’re looking at playing an RPG, it may be easy to see Lines and Veils as this frustrating barrier you have to surmount. The more content you take off the table, the less you have to explore, right? It’s confining, it’s restricting – you can’t do as much as you could have done. But my experience in introducing this concept to my players has shown that there is a kind of freedom in setting ground rules. I don’t have to be uneasy about what kind of content I incorporate into the game – I know I can go all in with what options I do have because my players have established that it is okay. Being challenged to run a game that everyone at my table is comfortable with is pushing me as a content creator. Lines and Veils aren’t stifling my creativity – they are pushing it to a new level.
I hope that reading through this has helped you to see what I learned from Lines and Veils – there is great value to establishing boundaries at the table. A comfortable group of players and a creatively stimulated GM are a great combination for a compelling tabletop RPG. This has been a huge learning experience for me, and if you are preparing to begin your own roleplaying journey, I encourage you to consider utilizing Lines and Veils at your table. There are other resources for creating a social contract at the table as well, such as the X-Card. Find what works for you and use it to create an environment where you and your players can all have as much fun as possible playing the game.
If you have any questions for me as far as utilizing Lines and Veils or introducing them to your players, you may post them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer based on my experience. Heck, you might have some advice for me as I move forward – this is, after all, my first experience with Lines and Veils. I’m always glad to hear from you in the comments, adventurers, so please feel free to share stories or ask questions as needed. Thanks for reading, adventurers!