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:
- Concept: Pitch the game. Example: “Trophy Dark is a horror game where treasure hunters enter 'the forest' out of complete desperation to find some treasure. It's 'play-to-lose', so expect for your characters to find a terrible death by the end. It uses a 'writers-room-approach' where we all will have great influence on how the world acts and what events will happen to your characters.”
- Aim: Pitch the session and schedule. Example: “After I'm done with CATS we'll make characters. After a quick break we'll play the game and take 5 minute breaks every hour. Like I said, you'll all die. The game is split into 5 parts, called 'rings'. Some of your characters will find their end in ring 4, and the survivors in ring 5. If it fits, those of you without a character can take control of the forest for ring 5. Afterwards we'll order take out and do Stars and Wishes while we wait for the food. Sound good?”
- Tone: Pitch the tone/genre. Example: “We'll be playing the incursion 'A Warm and Pleasant Hum', which means we'll have lots of insects and body horror. I'd like for us to remain serious, even when we are discussing things out of character. Trophy excels at symbolism so it'd be cool if we can weave that in. But I'm open to focus more on psychological horror or anything else you are interested in, what do you think?”
- Subject Matter: Discuss ideas and boundaries that might come up. Also introduce and explain other calibration tools. Example: “The incursion lists the following content warnings: Cannibalism, Insects, […] and Eye Trauma, but Jenny already said that she doesn't want that in, so we'll avoid it. To make it easier for us to set more boundaries, we'll also do Lines and Veils next. And during the game we'll be using […]”
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 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:
- Rewind: Like the X-Card, you name what you would like to have edited out and we rewind to before that and continue on an alternate path where that thing does not happen. Other than for triggering topics this can be used for things that don't fit the tone or are just plain boring. Examples: “Rewind. The werewolf does not wear a top hat and a tie.” or “Rewind. My character's best friend does not die. Instead they are banished from this plane.”
- Pause: Pause the game and talk out of character. This can be to clarify or change game rules, to take a breather, or to talk about the content of the game. It's also the default option to use, if you don't know which other Script Change button you should use. Examples “Pause. I got to go use the bathroom.” or “Pause. Can we talk about this Luck mechanic? I feel like it diminishes the strategy aspect too much.” or “Pause. I don't like this scene. I guess it's okay to have it in the story, but which of these buttons allowed us to go to the next one? Fast-Forward?”
- Fast-Forward: Fade to black and move to the next scene. This can be used in the same way that a Veil is used as it leaves the content up to here in the story, but tells us to move on to something else. To make my examples interesting, I'll add elaboration, but since it's very clear what to do when someone hits “Fast-Forward” it generally doesn't need any elaboration. Examples: “Fast-Forward. I get that these two characters are about to have sex and don't need any more elaboration.” or “Fast-Forward. These are just two NPCs talking and I want to see what Jenny's character is doing while this is happening.”
- Instant Replay: Go over what just happened out of character. If things are unclear or deserve more time in the spotlight. Examples: “Instant Replay. My character was lying during that whole conversation. Does your character know that? Do you know that?” or “Instant Replay. Jenny, your character just killed the big bad and you're just telling us '17 fire damage'! Please tell us again what exactly your character is casting, what that looks like and what your character is feeling while they kill the big bad!”
- Frame-by-Frame: Take it slow from here. Either to give a scene more weight or to leave enough time to hit any other button should need arise. Examples: “Frame-by-Frame. Remember that 'Harm to Animals' is a Veil. Proceed cautiously.” or “Frame-by-Frame. I want to hear how you manage to run through the collapsing mine shaft in as much detail as possible!”
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”.
It depends on the kind of game we played what exactly I ask for here. Most often it's vignettes and sometimes also bloopers.
- Vignettes: These are tiny scenes or still images. Like an epilogue, mid-credit-scene or “where are they now”. Mostly, I leave the floor open for anyone with an idea, but sometimes I ask specific questions. Examples: “We see the big bad's henchmen collect the ashes. Black. We see them collect herbs in the woods. Black. We see them mix a potion. Black. A drop of the potion hits the ashes. Black.” or “After this adventure the Barbarian returns to school to get his diploma. He sits on a tiny chair and still has his axe strapped to his back.” and “Two years later he sits nervously in an office and Maurice enters and says: 'So you think you got what it takes to deliver chocolate?'” Example questions: “How does your character's family react when they return home?” or “After your character died, who holds out hope the longest?”
- Bloopers: Alternative scenes. This is very comedic, so it only really fits with those kinds of games. Example: “In one take when the big bad activates the trap door below the heroes he actually pulls the wrong lever and Maurice drops from the ceiling.”
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.
- Stars (or Roses): Simply things you enjoyed. This can be moments, characters, plot points, etc. Examples: “I want to give a star to Jenny's character. He was such a lovable idiot, but when he came through at the end… That was epic!” or “A rose to Jenny. This was your first game and you committed to that crazy character voice! So great!” or “A star for pausing before the big fight. It was good to talk about the Luck mechanic and the rule changes we came up with worked really well!”
- Wishes: Things you hope to see next time. This can also be character things or meta things. It might be a good idea to repeat them before the next session to refresh everyone's memory. Examples: “As a wish, I'd like to see Maurice return next time. He was so funny and I really hope he didn't die in that fire.” or “Another wish is to explore the relationship between Jenny's character and my character more. It would be cool to have a scene with just the two of them.” or “I'd like to try something else with the Luck mechanic next time. Not the original rules, but also not what we came up with today. I'll think about it and tell you next time what I came up with.”
- Thorns: Things that did not work so well. Again, story or on a meta level. This can be used instead of Wishes when there's no next time. Examples: “A thorn for me was when we skipped the second break. At the time I went along with everyone, but then we had to pause in the middle of the fight anyway.” or “A thorn was when the big bad trapped us. It was a bit annoying that we didn't have any agency and had to wait for Maurice to free us.”
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.
 The German publisher System Matters translated it as “GAST”: Grundidee, Ablauf, Stimmung, Themen. ↑