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.