An Optional selection of Calibration Tools for Pen and Paper Sessions

When playing Pen and Paper games I highly recommend the use of “Calibration Tools”. These are more commonly known under the name “Safety Tools”, but since they enable more than just “safe” play, I prefer “Calibration Tools”. These tools take the form of additional rules and/or processes that formalise the process of finding common ground on what stories we want to tell at the table.

No tool is perfect and no collection of tool is perfect for every table. The choice of tool(s) is dependent on whether you play with a fixed group, re-use systems or whether you play a campaign or a one shot. With the name “Safety Tool” you might think that it's only important when you play potentially triggering genres like horror, but they still hold much value even when you play tamer games, like Cozy Town.

Before I go through the tools that I use, I'll point you in the direction of the Safety Toolkit, which lists even more tools you might find more fitting than what I use. My selection of tools is based on the fact that I often play with new players, always play new game systems and only play one shots.

Before the Game

Before we begin playing I use “CATS” as a guideline to introduce everything about how the session will go. Part of CATS is introducing the other tools we'll use, one of which also happens before the game, namely “Lines and Veils”.


The “CATS” acronym stands for “Concept, Aim, Tone, Subject Matter”1. This list is just a reminder for all the topics I want to explain before we get further into it. The original explanation of this tool can be found at this link, but here's my explanation:

Lines and Veils

With Lines and Veils everyone gets the chance to mark certain content as “Line” or “Veil”. Most people also add the categories “Ask First” and “Interested”. The more severe categories overwrite votes in the less severe categories. If a person marks something as a Veil and someone else marks the same thing as a Line it is now a Line.

Anything marked as a Line is a hard limit and will simply not appear in the story or discussion at the table. Things marked as a Veil will be “hidden behind a veil”, meaning that it will not appear directly, but might be hinted at. For example, veiling the topic of death might allow us to describe a man lying in a hospital bed and as we leave the room we know that he's not going to make it. We don't say that he dies, but he does not reappear in our story. Ask First means exactly that, to ask before introducing something. This might be used if it's very context dependent whether you like the content to be in the story. Interested just tells everyone that this is a topic you're interested in. Anyone might try to push the narrative into a direction where these topics can be explored together.

To decide on Lines and Veils, it helps to have a list of possible triggers beforehand. You can come up with them yourself, sometimes the rules of the game or adventure provides them, or you can find generic lists online. In the best case it would also be possible for everyone to anonymously provide their choices, which is why I wrote a WebApp to do just that. The idea is that one person opens it on their phone, defines a list of content that might show up in the session and then hands their phone around and everyone fills the form with the option to add new content as well. It's then summarized and anonymized.

During The Game

Since you can't think of everything beforehand and some new things will come up during play, you'll probably want to use another tool during the game. I use the “Open Door Policy” and part of “Script Change”.

Open Door Policy

I explicitly state, that “If you need to leave for any reason, you can leave without explaining why.” This is quite easy online, but that's why I find it so important to highlight it in person as well. I also want to point out that you can apply this policy to the rest of your life as well.

Script Change

Script Change frames the whole gaming session as a movie. It's a very extensive tool that has ideas for what to do before, during and after a game. I only use part of what it suggests, so do check out the full explanation to see if there's stuff you like.

What I do during the game is to lay out a bunch of index cards with different symbols and commands that should be familiar from TV remotes. During play anyone can either tap these cards or say the command to use them. None of these require justification to use. These are the “buttons” and their functions:

After The Game

After the main story wraps I often allow players to narrate the “Movie Credits”, which is my very simplified version of the Script Change Reels. After that I love to wrap with “Stars And Wishes”.

Movie Credits

It depends on the kind of game we played what exactly I ask for here. Most often it's vignettes and sometimes also bloopers.

Stars And Wishes

Finally, I end my sessions with Stars and Wishes, or Roses and Thornes (or Buds and Thornes). This gives everyone opportunity to award “Stars” (or “Roses”) and talk about “Wishes” or “Thornes”. Here's the original source for Stars and Wishes.


Phew, that was a lot to get through! But remember: These tools—just like the rules of the games themselves—were developed by people to fit their needs and be fun and usable for their groups. The way that I have explained the tools here is already different from how I first encountered them myself. I hope that you, too, take these as inspiration, try them out, and hack them to better suit your table's needs.


[1] The German publisher System Matters translated it as “GAST”: Grundidee, Ablauf, Stimmung, Themen.

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