Notes on Kutt, Brems and Emotional Safety

So, there is a fairly standardized pair of safewords used at a lot of larps around here – “kutt” which means “Cut! Stop!” and “brems”, which literally translates as “brake!” and means “slow down, buddy – don’t stop roleplaying but do less of whatever it is you’re doing to me”. These safety rules are exposed to constant scrutiny, and it is frequently claimed (for example at the player safety debate at Solmukohta 2012) that they “don’t work”.

My five rambling cents:

  • Kutt and brems work. The fact that these rules are present, are shared and known, brings with them a heightened awareness for players of their own risks and responsibilities. That has inherent value, even if the safewords are never used.
  • Kutt and brems also implicitly instruct players to limit their OOC talking: in situations that don’t qualify for a kutt or a brems.
  • Kutt works. It has been used several times at Norwegian larps to declare medical emergencies – broken legs etc. The word “kutt” contains, in a mere four letters, a full emergency plan: stop roleplaying and fix the problem. This should be common sense. It isn’t.
  • Kutt and brems seem to work less with the larpers who discuss it the most: the folks who debate at Knutepunkt and participate in international larps. All the best examples I can find of these rules actually being used are from larps with a predominantly Norwegian attendance. Unarticulated aspects of player culture certainly matter a lot. The unfortunate hypersensitivity to social status exhibited at inter-Nordic gatherings may provide part of the explanation here, along with the latent differences in different larp cultures.
  • Kutt and brems don’t work unless you train for them. The first time I said Kutt, it was in a noisy room, and nobody heard me. Rather than shouting louder, I chickened out and reversed my decision to kutt (luckily, things got better). Since then I’ve usually had pre-larp workshops where people practice  saying kutt – and supporting each other in saying kutt – in a noisy, chaotic atmosphere.
  • Kutt and brems don’t work well together with an “off-game room”: kutt and brems are, in their native habitat, the only permissible avenues for talking out-of-character. Yes, the door is also open and players are encouraged to seek out the organisers or drag a friend out play if they need a break (which does happen), but there is a big difference between this and the easy affordance of the permanent always-open off-game room where players can hang out whenever they don’t feel like playing. If an off-game room is present it becomes the most obvious place to take your emotional distress, which also increases the pressure to be in-game whenever you’re not in the off-game room, and hence makes it harder to overcome the pressure-to-play and use the safewords. This is one of two reason I oppose off-game rooms.The other reason is the bored or exhausted player – mentally “off” – who is attracted to the off-game room some five minutes before the larp has a chance to draw them back in again.
  • Kutt and brems don’t work. Even with Norwegian players who have trained for it, there are examples of situations where the rules ought to have been used, but weren’t. Usually this is because, in the heat of the moment, players forget. The perception of peer pressure, obviously, also contributes.
  • No safety rule or practice will eliminate physical risk from larp or emotional risk from all kinds of role-playing. Spontaneity is risky. That’s part of the point. Risky is exciting. Risky offers opportunities for learning. Risky is a precondition for great art. Risky is a fundamental property of being alive.
  • But let’s be clear on the level of risk here: real life does not have safe words. Compared to a cinema tour, larp is dangerous, yes. But go to a random but ordinary party and you risk insult, exclusion, new friendships, insight, drunkenness, violence, exposure to street drugs, being provoked, being loved, being unexpectedly filled with desire, unexpectedly falling in love, having unplanned sex, followed by pregnancy, by abortion or parenthood. And wooosh – there your life changed, all in moment of spontaneity. And there were no safe words and  no responsible organizers and no off-game room and no shared commitment to take care of each other.  Unless you managed to provide these things for yourself, through a network of trusted friends looking out for you.
  • And let’s not get started on the emotional risks of attending a school, having a job,  and spending time with your family. Few parties can compete with that.
  • On the fringes of the safety debates there is a position that role-playing should be formalized and managed to the point where no risk is taken, ever. This is an autistic approach. It is also impossible.
  • IMHO the point is to manage risk, to decrease it where it does nothing for us, and to increase it where it is most fertile. I’ve used a “rape does not exist in this universe” rule at a number of larps where the risk of triggering someones trauma, or of the artistic offense caused by rape being role-played badly, contributes nothing to the larp. But there have been larps where I have not used this rule, because sexual violence was thematically relevant. And larps where it went without saying.

The Kutt rule was invented in Norwegian larp in the 90s. The brems rule was added at Moirais Vev in 1997, together with a repurposing of Kutt to cover not just medical but also emotional emergencies. The rules spread to other Nordic countries quickly, in the formative years of inter-Nordic larping. But these are just the most easily transplantable parts of an approach to emotional safety that covers a lot more ground:

  • Soft take-off and soft landing: beginning and ending the larp slowly and quietly, providing “cushions” of quiet contemplation for players. Meditation, walk-yourself-into-character etc.
  • The organiser whose sole responsibility is the well-being of co-players and even co-organisers, and who is always available for a talk about whatever is troubling you.
  • Cultivating a culture of trust : we look out for each other. You can count on your co-players caring. This one is almost impossible to codify.  But it matters.
  • The third-person rule: it is forbidden, post larp, to refer to any in-game actions in the first (“I did…”) or second (“you did…”) persons. Only third person (“your character did” / “My character did”).
  • The “door is open” principle: if the play discomforts you, you are free to leave.
  • The “no questioning” rule: if someone leaves, or says kutt or brems, we don’t question their reasons for doing so.
  • Extensive debriefing: lets hang around and talk about the larp. But with a moderator who makes sure everyone is heard and everyones individual experience is validated.
  • Continued debriefing: writing down your experience, talking it through, processing it. (the kind of debriefing done right after an emotionally intense larp is just a beginning – processing that intensity into something useful or beautfiul takes weeks, months, sometimes years)
  • At larps with a greater than usual amount of risky content: pre-game interviews, in private, discussing concerns and personal boundaries with each player

And then there is the universal technique of emotional safety: the pre- and post-game totally voluntary and not in any way mandatory group hug.

13 thoughts on “Notes on Kutt, Brems and Emotional Safety

  1. “Kutt and brems don’t work unless you train for them. The first time I said Kutt, it was in a noisy room, and nobody heard me. ”

    This is the part that must be practiced. Its pretty easy, you instruct the players to say “Kutt” to one specific person in the game, that then has the responsibility to say it to two other persons, who then etc. Say it to someone, anyone, and they have the responsibility of shouting. If you have a broken leg or a anxietyattack, thats a very good lessening of responsibility, and forces the other players into awareness effectively.

  2. Wonderful summary of the points. I think I agree with everything you say, which means you must be right.

    Minor comment: The word “autistic” seems to be used negatively here?

  3. Great post Eirik,

    My key takeaway is that I do believe we need the safewords and that they don’t work unless we train to use them. But, they surely can work.

    My example:
    I was one of the producers for the emotionally intense larp Just a Little Lovin’ 2012 and at that larp we included a safeword excercise in the pre-larp workshop. After the larp several players witnessed that safewords had been used in numerous ocations.

    But to learn something from any workshop, the workshop needs to be well designed. In the case of safe-words, try to use them in an almost real setting. As the larp JALL contains a lot of realtionships, love, flirting and symbolized sex we placed as scene in that context for the workshop. One player apporoached another as a character wanting to make out and the approached player needed to say to “KUTT” before any making out happens. It could take a minute or two before the approaching happened. This was done in connection to playing other scenes and also testing to play emotional scenes.

    If think the workshop get’s stronger the more close to a real situation it gets, but of course to a limit. The intention of workshop is not to make players unconfortable.

    So my suggestion:
    Include one or two exercises to train for using safewords. If playing it as a scene, use a context in connection to the larp. In the setting and as a possible situation that could happen.

  4. I don’t agree with the off game room. I think it’s so useful to be able to go off game and discuss, talk or just take a break. For me, the game gets a lot better if I have the opportunity to go off game now and then.

  5. Well written – and can I also say that when you did the pre-larp briefing and debriefing for Panopticorp, I at first thought you were being overly cautious in your approach to emotional safety, whereas 48 hours later I was very, very glad we’d had such a thorough and conscious inclusion of debriefing and talks.

    I agree with A-K on the off-game rooms – although of course it depends on the game. I didn’t need one in Just a Little Lovin’ and was happy just to go to the edge of the woods with another player to chat; it felt organic and even if we were observed, an in-game person could just assume we were in-game too. Worked fine.

    In Kapo the off-game room felt like a necessity to me, and it’s also the game where I used cut. But that cut was premeditated; I thought about cutting short my final interrogation, and got to bounce that idea off of a couple of other players.

    Emma and I in the car on the way home talked a lot about something that had been on my mind since Kapo and something she articulates in a much more developed way: the responsibility of the “dominant” (it’s not a perfect word, but you get it) or active person in a scene of violence, yelling, sex, or anything else to check in with the other person. It’s not always easy when you’re in distress to come up with the words. But even more than that, we talked about the responsibility/agency of a third-party witness to a difficult or sensitive scene to check in – basically her word would be “ping”, an easy-to-remember word for us geeks I guess, and as long as you get a “pong”, things are going ok for the game.

  6. With regards to the off-game room: It depends. Im part of Nosferatu-rigging right now, and I think we have decided to have one for crises but not for players to frequent at will. Im not sure I agree with that in a 4 day game. Because that is a long time for a person from the rest of the Nordic-Larpcommunity to be in character. Maybe one should include ingame tickets to a free-zone, with everyone having one, and an hour of luxury (a bathtub) as the price. So you have one timeout as a player.

  7. I, on the other hand, totally agree with not having an off-game room to frequent at will. I am one of those players who are prone to getting stuck in there when I am tired or run low. It would be better for me to just go off game somewhere where the game can court me back into action.

    I am a dominant person, and most often take the active role in games, and I very much believe it is my responsibility to check if the player I am taking control over is ok. I don’t need a certain word for this, but rather an ability to “read” them socially.

    If I get no answer from them, I approach and ask out of game. If they refuse to answer I actually break it of.

  8. I love the idea of abolishing the off-game room.
    Sometimes it is used for leisure time, like eating, cuddling and conversing, relaxing.

    Unless your game is totally hyper-active
    (as some games I do not like are designed for)
    I see no reason why this could not be included in the Diegesis or Story of the characters.
    Even interrogaters andtake a cigarette and play poker.

    People want off-game room for different reasons.
    Talking people into doing scenes that they do not really want to do is ALSO one of them. So I would really like to have zones in the game where people are not out of character, just having down-time, relaxing etcetera.

    If you cannot stand your character, think about the rest of us?
    Maybe you should tweak it to be a bit more playable for both you and me?

    For off-game purposes and planning games would have act-breaks and pre-workshops. Should be enough for the dramaturgy to flow.

  9. @Martin: I agree with your approach. I think this is the best way to explain and train for Kutt.

    @Petter: Good point. Training on Kutt/Brems should ideally be relevant to the content of the larp. And as a side note: the workshop should be relevant to the mood of the larp. The first times I workshoped Kutt I had people shouting at each other in ever louder voices until someone said Kutt. That created an unnecessarily angry/agressive mood.

    @Matthijs: I used “autistic” metaphorically. Similar to the usage in “post-autistic economics“. Which I just found out, whilst writing this comment, has been renamed “real-world economics” because the metaphor was offensive to the literally autistic. Ooops.

  10. Re: the off-game room: I realize that different people have different experiences with off-game rooms, and that the presence of an off-game room affects our play differently. This merits further research and discussion:-) Also interesting to consider off-game rooms and act breaks : does one lessen the need for the other?

    But my main point was a different one: that the vent offered by the off-game room competes with the vent offered by safewords. During the milliseconds when you make the decision to Brems or to Leave or to do Nothing, there is not enough time or impulse to weigh many alternatives.

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