“Karnik Greywind approached a small square sitting room of his adoptive family and mentor, Torgga Fireforge. His glittering golden axe and polished plate mail armor now stained with the blood of several mercenaries that sought to impede his advance, he coordinated with his companions to ensure that all points of entry to this room were covered. Karnik gripped his holy symbol on one hand, and opened the door with his other. Seeing several mercenaries waiting within, he cast a powerful spell. Dancing flames flanked his adversaries, preventing escape for all but the most desperate. As if rehearsed his trusted allies opened the remaining doors, and the mercenaries met with a swift and chaotic end.”
“Karnik allowed his concentration to break, and the fire fizzled briefly before dissipating. As he stepped in to check for survivors, he made a chilling discovery: his adoptive family had been forced to wear the mercenaries garb. Their lives had been extinguished by his own hand. Karnik stared on, his face void of expression.”
Breaking character, I stood up from my seat, excused myself and walked away. I had no way of knowing it, but this experience had unearthed trauma I was not aware I harbored.
As a game master, we strive to provide an enjoyable, safe experience for the players at our table. There are several steps we can take to reduce exposing our friends to triggering or traumatic experiences. We can outline the sorts of experiences a player can expect during a session zero. We can have ongoing conversations about everyone’s comfort level with the material being presented. We can utilize some or all of the behaviors outlined in the TTRPG Safety Toolkit. Even with all of these (and other) strategies, it is still possible that scenarios may play out that are upsetting to a member of the party.
How we handle situations like these as a table can make the difference between an opportunity to further solidify the party bond or a catalyst for a player departure or worse: the disbandment of the party and table itself. There is no panacea for navigating through a conversation regarding trauma experienced during a game session, but there is advice that can be offered.
Firstly, remember that trauma experienced during gameplay is not a direct reflection of your ability as a Game Master to present and run engaging or enjoyable content. As such, we should be sure to avoid taking offense if the material we run is upsetting to our friends. Propose a pause of play immediately so that a conversation can be had about the experience. If the player is not comfortable continuing play at this time, allow them to disengage. Ask your player and the party if it would be best to end the particular session, and be sure that all agree and understand the decisions made. When the player or players in question are ready, offer to discuss the events that transpired in a setting or climate where they are most comfortable. Be sure the player is given the respect and the space to speak freely and engage in active listening. Our goal is to understand and empathize with our friend as they work through difficult emotions.
If the players do not wish to speak about it, we have to honor that as well. Lastly, if the player wishes to leave the game as a result, remember it is not likely to be a reflection of you. Trauma can sometimes resurface when we return to settings or environments in which it presents itself, and not everyone is willing or able to risk reintroduction. If the player does not wish to leave, you can offer to retcon the event from the collective story or you can allow the player to create a new character to join the party. The most important aspect is that you as the DM, the player(s) who experienced trauma, and the other players in the game all come to a consensus on how best to proceed. That said, no one should be expected to relive or ignore the events that had triggered them for the sake of the story or to avoid inconveniencing the DM or players.
If you were worried about the outcome of the story I presented at the top of the article, the table was able to move on. We all had a conversation like the one I outlined above and I was able to continue forming bonds and creating memories with my friends. In my case, we decided Karnik would have “modify memory” cast upon him and the events would not be brought up in game. That worked for me, but others may need a different approach. Not every solution will work for every person or scenario. Trauma experienced at the table feels real to those who experience it, but it does not have to spell the end of a story. If handled appropriately, it can actually bring tables closer together.
The TTRPG Safety Toolkit is a resource co-curated by Kienna Shaw and Lauren Bryant-Monk. The TTRPG Safety Toolkit is a compilation of safety tools that have been designed by members of the tabletop roleplaying games community for use by players and GMs at the table. You can find it at bit.ly/ttrpgsafetytoolkit.