Safe Words and How to Use Them

Safe Words and How to Use Them

Many larps have adopted safe words, as a form of meta-communication between players (rather than between characters). While in normal interaction it is sometimes possible to read non-verbal clues of fear or distress, the embodied nature of larp means there is no way to distinguish whether signs of fear or discomfort comes from the character or from the player, hence the need for a meta- level of communication.

Exact words vary, but a two-level system is in widespread use in the Nordic countries:

Brake is an indication that play is on or near someone’s limits. Play can continue without openly stepping out of character, but should not get more intense, should progress slowly or move in a different direction. For example, if used in an interrogation scene, the interrogator might switch to a different approach, or decide to let the prisoner dwell on their situation.

Cut is an indication to immediately break character and resolve the situation. Play might be restarted once the situation has been resolved.

British larps have traditionally had a single-level safe word of Man Down. While not explicitly limited, this is usually explained as being a way to stop physical action to handle possible injuries.

There has been increasing recognition in recent years that there are issues with the use of safe words. This article will discuss these issues and possible approaches to address them.

Awareness and Surprise

Consider the following example diegetic situation: As part of an interrogation scene, one character intends to throw a bucket of cold water over another character.

In order to safe-word appropriately, the receiving person needs to be aware of what is about to happen. If the interrogator threatens them with the act verbally or makes a show of slowly moving the bucket towards them where they can see it, this informs the character and player of what is about to happen. If the interrogator surprises them from behind with the bucket of water, then they have not had the opportunity to safe-word.

This telegraphing process is an important part of the meta-communication, yet can usually be carried out via in-game acts. Like all communication, it is not perfect – a receiving player may be distracted and not notice what the interrogator felt was a clear indication, or may have assumed the water would be at least room temperature and not cooled with ice. However, as long as play escalates gradually, the player of the victim can at least prevent further escalation even if the cold water was slightly more “hardcore” than the player was expecting.

In a scene where the in-game balance of power is more equal, one clear and viable form of telegraphing is to reverse the active party: one character invites or tells the other person to perform the action, which ensures their awareness. To use a simple example, offering a hand for a handshake invites the other person to shake hands, making physical contact. Again this not a certain means of communication; a player from a non-contact larp tradition may do so expecting a non-contact representation of a handshake.

Normalised Interaction and Absolute Limits

For situations which need surprise, the concept of normalised interaction comes in. These are forms of interaction rendered normal for the play space, agreed upon by entering it. For example, a boxing ring has different normal interaction to everyday life, and entering a match in that space indicates acceptance of those interactions.

By playing a larp with airsoft or foam weapons, players consent to be hit with approved weapons in the approved way, including by surprise; while safe words still apply, telegraphing is not required. Such actions are within the normalised interaction of the larp.

As part of defining normal interaction, there should also be defined absolute limits. These are distinct from individual player’s personal limits, being something forbidden even if consented to within the play space.

This may be because of being regarded as beyond the limits of bystanders and potential witnesses, even if all directly involved consent. For example, many British larps do not allow nudity. Absolute limits can also cover mention of certain topics. For example, the British festival larp The Gathering bans mention of arson and god(s).

Defining and communicating the normal interaction and absolute limits should be part of the larp design. While it is impossible to cover all interactions, covering the expected ones that are likely in the setting/ premise (e.g. a court intrigue larp will have different likely interactions to a prison larp) is normally sufficient, and gives general guidance for other eventualities.

To return to the previous example, an absolute limit that ice would not be used in torture scenes would give the victim player an assurance this would not be case, which might therefore mean they decide not to use a safe word. Alternatively an absolute limit might have been set that real water would not be used at all (the bucket being empty, off-game), with a meta-technique that they should react as if the bucket is full.

It is possible to have more subtle absolute limits that can vary within the play space. To use a real example from Dragonbane, fighting with wooden practice swords is beyond the absolute limits of a boffer larp. However, if a character freely enters into a duel where it’s clear such weapons are being used, their player accepts the new normalised interaction.

Actual Use of Safe Words

Safe words are generally not used as often as they should be. Reasons for this might include:

  • Using a safe word is breaking character, and in the case of a Cut, stops play completely. This goes against the core premise of many larp traditions (but not scene-based play).
  • A desire to be seen as “hardcore,” and a wider player culture that glorifies being “hardcore;” a fear of being thought of as weak, “boring,” or being stigmatised for safe-wording. Related to this, the perception of blame being attached to someone for creating play that resulted in the use of a safe word can deter a person from using it.
  • Being caught up in the experience. For example, if someone has a phobia triggered, the condition may prevent the clarity of thought to use a safe word.

One practical problem with safe words is a failure of others to hear them in some situations, such as with loud music or when wearing masks.

It has been argued that harm has already been done when a safe word is used. This is a flawed position because:

  • A player may successfully use a safe word before the harm is caused (e.g. before the water bucket is thrown).
  • Even if this is the case, the safe word prevents further harm.
  • When dealing with potential trauma, it is important how the situation is handled in the short-term afterwards, to shape how the experience is processed into a life narrative. A safe word which allows the situation to be well handled can make the difference between a “briefly unpleasant” experience and a “traumatic” experience.

Some Possible Approaches to Address These Issues:

  • One rule of thumb to convey in briefing is the principle: “if you are thinking that maybe you will need to safe word, the answer is already yes.”
  • If the larp includes scene cuts or “fade to black,” make it clear anyone can call this when they feel appropriate. Cutting a scene in this way is effectively a more discreet version of using a cut safe word, but can be positioned as being done for drama.
  • The use of a “double tap” or “double squeeze” as an alternative way to convey a brake. This overcomes the loud noise problem. It also allows one person to very discretely convey a brake to one other; some people may be more confident to safe word this way rather than speaking out loud, especially in front of a crowd.
  • A meta-communication word that invites (but does not require) others to escalate a scene. This helps normalise the use of meta-communication words; After using a meta-word to escalate a scene, it may be easier to use another meta-word to brake a scene.
  • An “are you ok?” meta-communication pair of words (or repeated word) that checks if another player is ok. This might be used if a character displays a fit, seizure or panic attack, to establish if it is in-game or off-game. This empowers another player to initiate the meta- communication.
  • Avoid glorifying being “hardcore” in the wider discourse around larp. Be clear that placing one’s own limits at a certain position is simply different, not better or worse. Stress this narrative when discussing such topics.
  • Avoid any notion of blame or guilt being attached to the use of safe words: neither to those that use safe words, nor to the other players whose play led to them being used. Feeling that blame or guilt will be assigned to either party discourages players from using safe words and from having the confidence to test their limits.
  • Avoid imprisonment/restraint situations, unless an essential part of play. This gives players the option to simply leave as their characters, as an alternative to using a safe word. For example, two characters discussing a certain topic might be distressing for a third player even if not directed at them. The player of the third character might be reluctant to safe-word, but can simply move away.
  • Planting a pre-arranged situation where a respected player uses a safe word, to demonstrate it and establish it as normalised interaction for players.
  • Explicitly practice using safe words in pre-game workshops. Like other meta-techniques, this can feel false using it out of context, but it may still be worth doing.

Post Safe Word

Some thought should be given to what happens when a cut word is actually used; comparable to having an accident plan in case of an injury.

Firstly, make sure to stop play. Have everyone who hears the safe word repeat it to make sure it is heard. Anyone sufficiently far away to still not hear it can be considered sufficiently removed from the situation to continue play. This increases the chances everyone hears it and makes the act of safe-wording feel like a group act rather than individual act.

Secondly, make the situation safe. The person who safe-worded has the option to explain what prompted it. Even if play has stopped, the cause (e.g. a phobia trigger or allergen) may still need to be dealt with. There is no obligation to do so if they don’t want to explain their reason. Depending on the context, a brief general check for health & safety issues (e.g. trip hazards, fire risks) in the area can also be sensible at this point.

Thirdly, congratulations. This makes it clear the player was right to safe-word; doing so shows all involved are playing with material personally strong for them, and doing so responsibly. Immediate praise is a good way to encourage use of safe words in the future. In a large group scene this might take the form of applause, in a smaller scene this might be a simple handshake and verbal praise. The organiser should lead on this and invite others to follow.

“Safe word scenes” should thus be framed in a positive light.

The longer-term issue of when to resume play needs to be considered, but is situation dependent and beyond the scope of this article.


The crucial point to take away is that stating what safe words are in a pre-game briefing is not itself sufficient. Some points to reflect on:

  • Consider how best to present safe word techniques.
  • Consider what variants can be used to better support their use.
  • Define the normalised interactions and absolute limits.
  • Avoid in general discourse both glorifying “hardcore” play and assigning blame or guilt to scenes that involve safe words.
  • Have a post-safe-word plan.

This article was initially published in The Knudepunkt 2015 Companion Book which was edited by Charles Bo Nielsen & Claus Raasted, published by Rollespilsakademiet and released as part of documentation for the Knudepunkt 2015 conference.

Cover photo: Game organizers explaining safety rules and safe-words. (Grenselandet, pre-game workshop, Johannes Axner) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

%d bloggers like this: