Regardless of running at a convention or at home, player safety is a big deal in RPGs. As much as some people like to say we're just doing "pretendy fun time games" a lot of people are lowering defenses and opening up internal doors to let the fantasy happen that may otherwise be sealed tight. Also, while some common topics that make people uncomfortable (rape, torture, etc) are fairly easy to avoid, sometimes there are tamer things that set people off (like spiders, bugs in general, etc.)
Beyond set topics, sometimes people just get uncomfortable. Something about the tone, energy, or emotion of a conversation sets them off. They start to feel uncomfortable. They start to feel unsafe. When this happens, it can pull the game way down. Worse though, it can make someone not want to come to game again. I mean, who wants to spend 4 to 6 hours every Friday being uncomfortable and feeling awkward?
In my games I've always handled this directly. I have a rule, and I tell it to all players at my table regardless of whether or not they've heard it. The rule is simple: if you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or otherwise don't like or don't think you can handle something going on in game you need to tell me.
The idea is fairly simple. I can't know something is a problem if I'm not told, and while I do check in with players who seem uncomfortable, I can't always tell the difference between someone role playing being uncomfortable/squeemish and the player actually feeling that. Once I'm told, per the rule, whatever it is that is affecting the person just stops. The scene ends and fades to black if necessary, spiders can become scorpions, the character can go from drowning to being poisoned, whatever has to happen to make it right is done.
The problem with this is it requires the person to speak up, which can be hard. Thankfully, this GenCon I learned a better way to do it. Enter the X Card.
The X Card is simple. It's just a piece of paper with a large, thick, bold, X that covers the entirety of it. The card sits in the middle of the table where anyone can reach it. Then, if you ever feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or otherwise like something needs to stop you just touch the paper. Game stops, a discussion happens, and the problem is fixed.
It's a lot easier to reach out and touch a paper than to speak up, and that is part of what I really like about this idea. I intend to incorporate it into my own games. Perhaps with some variants (i.e. giving every player an X-Card and they can just show it to me or throw it out on the table when it needs to be used.)
I'm sharing this here because if you're reading a blog about GMing, I can only assume you also care about your players' experience. Use the X Card. Modify it to fit your needs. Give people a way to tell you when they're uncomfortable or feel safe. You may never need it, but as my parents were fond of saying: I'd rather be looking at something, than looking for something.
Thanks to Bryan Buschmann, the GM for one of the 7th Sea games I played at GenCon for the idea. It's an awesome one!