Wisdom of the Masters: Zero Triggers
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fifty Four on 24 February 2021.
Lennon: No, I’m not doing it.
Ostron: Look, we all understand you’re having issues with the transition but the reality is that your new…condition…changes things.
Lennon: See, I don’t feel like it does, and I don’t want people acting like it does, if it’s all the same to you.
Ostron: Fine, fine, we’ll…work around it.
Ryu: I have a problem with your plan.
Ostron: Apparently you need to get in line.
Ryu: I’m sorry?
Ostron: Sorry, yes, what is it?
Ryu: You want me to, and I’m quoting here, “catch the guard captain’s interest socially and ply him for information using feminine wiles.”
Ryu: I’m not really comfortable with what you’re implying here.
Ostron: You’ve done that sort of thing before.
Ryu: Because it was legitimately necessary! I’m a rogue! They’re the captain of the guard for an actual lich king. What’s wrong with torture?
Ostron: I’m assuming that’s a rhetorical question. I actually kind of prefer when we don’t torture people. I mean, fair trial, innocent until proven guilty, that sort of thing.
Ryu: Oh but because I’m dressed in form fitting clothes for stealth, I have to go talk to the male guards whenever we need them distracted, and that’s just the way we do things?
Lennon: Okay, okay, let’s take a breath. Ryu, put the knife back.
Ryu: What knife?
Lennon: I saw your hand move. Either you’re itchy or you’re drawing a weapon, and I know where my money is.
Ryu: Are you sure about that?
Lennon: I…ugh. Okay, not the point right now. Ostron, I think you needed to do some content surveys before you drew up this plan.
Ostron: Some what?
Lennon: Oh they’re really a good idea.
Most people agree and are on board with the idea of doing a session zero before a campaign begins. We’ve covered the idea of a session zero and the topics that should be covered in the past: character creation, party makeup, backstory sharing, and setting information along with going over what house rules will be in place, and if any subclasses or other mechanics are being excluded.
However, another aspect to session zero discussions should be included, particularly if the group you’re playing with includes new members or is a completely new one with people who have never played with you before.
There are a bunch of different names for it but common titles include “topics checklist,” “comfort list,” and “trigger list.”
D&D is a roleplaying game, and even if you play games primarily concerned with finding bad monsters and killing them, everyone is taking on the role of an actual person. With video games, what the characters can or can’t do is limited by what was programmed into the game from the beginning. With a live roleplaying game, there are very few limits. That is an asset to the games, but it can also present problems; there are many aspects of what characters can do that delve into problematic areas of life. It’s very much worth having a discussion of what portions of life people are comfortable dealing with.
Let’s take a mundane example. Romance. Again, to borrow from video games, you can start with the most basic question; are characters allowed to romantically pursue other characters? For a lot of people this seems like a fairly simple question, or maybe even one that doesn’t matter, but if you poll a cross-section of D&D players you’ll probably get a variety of different answers. Some people want to allow for the cliche of the bard trying to seduce anything that breathes (and maybe some things that don’t), but other people aren’t comfortable dealing with romantic plots. That could be for a number of different reasons. Maybe they just think romance subplots put the focus on one character too much. Or there could be a legitimately traumatic issue. They don’t have to share that, and the players don’t have to know specifically, but it’s definitely worth finding out if someone has an issue with romance being included before it comes up in the game. That way the DM will know not to include it in the campaign, and the bard will maybe not try to seduce the gnoll.
At this point some people are probably already figuring out that the conversation can go way deeper than that. Let’s say everyone’s fine with romance. But that brings up other issues of who and how far? Are players allowed to romance each others’ characters or only NPCs? And how detailed are these romantic activities getting? Is it just “yes you succeeded on the persuasion check, they’re in love with you now” or do people want to make it a process? And does that process include anything physical? Is that a die roll, or is someone pulling out a romance novel and reading a few select passages?
Again, some people are probably going “why would you ever think of including that kind of thing in a D&D game?” but others are probably thinking “whatever, if they’re having fun with it, great.” And of course, there are people who are going “please please please never make me deal with that in a D&D game.” None of these reactions are incorrect or not in the spirit of the game, but it is vitally important that people find that out before the game starts, for everyone’s sake.
Romance is an easy topic to pick on but there are a lot of others. It may seem silly to ask about violence in a game where combat is a major pillar of play, but there are a lot of articles and recommendations about making combat more exciting with elaborate descriptions. But you have to consider: do people want detailed descriptions of what happens when a body is engulfed in a fireball or a sword slices through someone’s arm? Because there are probably people who would feel a lot more comfortable keeping it at the level of “you hit, roll damage.”
Horror is another aspect that should be reviewed as well. One of the ways a lot of adventure modules convey a sense of the evil characters are fighting and the threat of the antagonists is to present them with a horrific tableau. In Descent into Avernus the characters can come upon a hill with bodies impaled on trees. Going through the Tomb of Annihilation characters can find a grotesque corpse-like figure surrounded by disembodied hands crawling around like spiders. Dungeon of the Mad Mage has things from…well…you know.
Okay, Ostron’s issues with Spelljammer aside, to some it might seem silly to question horror being present in a campaign focused on a vampire or on a lich’s tomb but again it’s a matter of degree. Some people might be okay with paragraphs describing blood dripping down walls and detailed examinations of exactly how rotten the zombie’s body is but others will be a lot more comfortable if it’s just stated that there’s a zombie and leave everyone to fill in their own mental image. Making people mildly uncomfortable with a horrific setting can be good roleplaying. Triggering a panic attack or a gag reaction is pushing it too far. So it’s worth figuring out how much gore people are comfortable with rather than scrambling for a bucket in the middle of a game session.
Another thing that should almost certainly be discussed is children. Kids can trigger a wide variety of reactions from people, for a number of different reasons, and for better or worse they’re a very common storytelling tool. Suddenly being put in charge of a child is a trope used in horror, comedy, and romantic storylines everywhere. Hurting children is a go-to signal that someone is or should be considered evil. But again, you can end up with wildly different reactions. Some people are going to be very disengaged or even uncomfortable with the idea of interacting with a child, even in a roleplay setting. And the strength of reaction you get from some people, particularly actual parents, if you start putting dead children in a campaign should not be brushed aside. It’s definitely not something you want to be surprised by.
Now of course a lot of these are sensitive topics and the reasons people might be sensitive about them are often very personal themselves. Someone might be uncomfortable with the idea of a romance plot in a story because they just don’t like them, or there could be some sort of trauma they don’t share with anyone. For that reason, in most cases things like this shouldn’t be topics for open discussion, at least not to start.
What a lot of people do to deal with this is to set up anonymous surveys. There are a number of online tools, such as surveymonkey, that allow a survey to be created and distributed online where anonymous responses can be collected. There are also a number of resources online that can provide templates for crafting such a survey to make sure you don’t miss anything critical. And keep in mind, “I don’t want this in the game and I don’t want to talk about why” is a response option for every one of the questions and it should absolutely be respected if you want your game to be friendly and inclusive at all. Hopefully after sorting that out, everyone at the table can look forward to a fun, engaging campaign without worrying about random stress triggers popping up out of nowhere. Other than rolling 1s of course.
Ostron: All right, yes, sorry, I should have polled the group before coming up with the plans, that’s on me.
Lennon: Thank you. Okay then, I’m going to go get my armor ready.
Ryu: Wait you’re what?…He does know he’s an archfey warlock now, right?
Ostron: You just yelled at me about making people uncomfortable with assumptions.
Ryu: Okay, you were making me seduce someone, that’s a personal thing. Putting an archfey warlock in the front line isn’t a psychological trigger, it’s tactical stupidity.
Ostron: Fine, then you go talk to him. I’m going to the scrying pool to see if the dwarves have discounts on bulk diamond shipments. I have a feeling we’re going to need Gath to stock more of them.