Psychological Safety for GMs in TTRPGs
The term “Psychological Safety” pops up in TTRPGs a lot and it’s important to take a look at what it is and why it’s important for discussions at your gaming tables.
At its most basic level, psychological safety is defined as the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It’s a common thing to want to feel psychologically safe in every relationship humans are involved in, and the gaming table is no different. Sometimes the things that come up are triggers that impact the mental health of one or more of the players at the table. Psychological safety enables you to feel included, learn, and contribute without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.
Dr. Tyson Bailey wrote an article for Take This in 2016 called Trauma and Trigger Warnings, in which Dr. Bailey says,
“Now consider the lives of people who have experienced trauma, which can be defined as an event that is ‘extremely upsetting, at least temporarily overwhelms the individual’s internal resources, and produces lasting psychological symptoms’ particularly when the exposure has been repeated over time.”
These are the kinds of experiences that can lead to the need for discussions at the table so that all players can have a good time.
This phenomenon, the things happening to the character(s) having an impact on the player(s) around the table, is known as “bleed out”. Dr. Sarah Bowman talks a lot about bleed out in her book The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems, and Explore Identity.
While we often hear about safety tools to keep players safe in the games they play, it’s important to remember the psychological safety of the GM as well. So what does that look like?
It starts with remembering that the GM is a person too, and they also have things they both are and are not okay with at their tables. If a GM has an extreme fear of spiders for example, they may choose to not allow players to summon a spider, but find a work around for something similar instead.
It can also mean that players provide feedback about the game in a way that is constructive, rather than tearing down the work the GM has done to run the game. Telling the GM that the game is terrible, that they should do a better job, and so on, is damaging. It can make them never want to run a game in the future, even if they are surrounded by the most supportive players.
One other idea is for players to recognize when a GM might not be in the right headspace to play, and don’t guilt the GM into running a mediocre game. Ultimately, everyone, the GM included, wants to have fun. It’s important to know when fun might come in the form of a movie night instead.
What are some ways you make sure everyone, GM included, feels safe at your tables? Leave a comment below and share your ideas!