Pre-game Lines and Veils discussions

I’m listening to an actual play recording of Julia Ellingboe’s Steal Away Jordan, recorded by Sam Chupp at Spelman College as part of a presentation that Julia was making there. It’s interesting stuff, especially as I’m beginning to do some serious prepwork to run the game. I’d promised Crystal a while ago that I’d run this for her, and I really need to keep my promise.

But that’s not the focus of this post. Instead, I want to discuss briefly a technique that has entered indie roleplaying called a “Lines and Veils discussion”. Don’t know what a Line or Veil is? I’m glad you asked.

Ron Edwards coined these terms in his supplement Sex & Sorcery. A Line is an area that is off-limits for play. In other words, nothing is allowed to enter the fiction that crosses this Line. For example, if you have a Line about violence against children, then that’s simply something that isn’t allowed to enter play at all, even off-stage.

On the other hand, a Veil is an area that is placed (figuratively) off-stage or obscured in play. The action enters the fiction, but it is passed over lightly, without much detail. So, if you have a Veil on sexual activity, you might “pan away” to blowing curtains or the like.

I’ve found these concepts to be very helpful in play. However, people took these ideas and developed the idea of a pre-game “Lines and Veils” discussion, where you formally establish these boundaries up front. This can be problematic, and I think that this AP recording gives a good illustration of why that is the case.

Check out 1:15:30 to 1:17:00. This is where the discussion takes place. First, notice that none of the players actually provide any Lines or Veils. In fact, one of them makes a joke about the whole thing. So, what are we to make of this discussion? Are these players really saying that they don’t have any Lines or Veils? Sure, someone said “PG-13”, which is helpful, but I’ve seen enough PG-13 movies to know that this is a grey, fuzzy line.

Julia’s Line about the use of racial language illustrates this point. Would other players have been offended if someone had busted out some racially derogatory language? I’m guessing so. However, none of them said it. Would the “PG-13 rating” have been sufficient to keep this language out of play? I don’t know, and I wonder if the players did, either.

I’m not arguing for untrammeled face-stabby play, where we sit around and abuse each other. People really do have Lines and Veils. The problem is that they tend to be relative. Depending on the group I’m with, I will definitely have different Veils and sometimes different Lines, and I don’t think that I’m unique in this. Lines and Veils can’t be present before play. Rather, they are discovered in play.

So, I don’t think that the Lines and Veils discussion, as framed, is helpful. Instead, I think that it’s better to use that time to establish a formal awareness that anyone can “tap out” of a particular narration, citing a Line or Veil. At the same time, it’s the responsibility of the players to be sensitive to each other, watching body language and the like to see if narration is approaching someone’s Line or Veil. That way, anyone can feel comfortable to pause the action and ask for clarification to make sure that Lines aren’t being crossed or to see if a Veil needs to be drawn over the action. If the game has a strong GM, this is particularly his job, but everyone at the table has this responsibility.

Roleplaying can be a dangerous activity. Sometimes, the issues and subject material can be fairly harsh, and I respect the desire of my fellow players to take proper safety precautions. However, in the final analysis, I believe that the formal Lines and Veils discussions that are in vogue are not as helpful as they appear, and that the better route is to encourage an open environment, both implicitly and explicitly, where players are able to raise their concerns and are also watching about for the concerns of others.


2 responses to “Pre-game Lines and Veils discussions

  • Adiel

    That makes a lot of sense. Especially because in real life relationships we don’t have the option of a Lines and Veils discussion. We have to feel our way with other people. The idea of establishing L&V ahead of time feels like yet another way we try to simplify relationships and dumb life down for the typical person. It sure would be easier if everyone walked around with their likes and dislikes and emotions written out in detail and pasted to their forehead. Hardly anyone takes the time to be aware of others and read into their words and actions.
    Speaking of reading into things, I’m sure I’ve taken this thought a tad too far, but hey, it’s just been that sort of a day. 😉

  • Seth Ben-Ezra


    That’s exactly what I mean.

    Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that players shouldn’t pipe up at the beginning of the game if they *know* that they have potential trouble areas. Julia gives a good example in her AP recording. She didn’t want people to be using racially derogatory language, because it would be offensive to her. (Note how I tiptoe around the specific word, eh?) Given the nature of the game and the likelihood that this would be an area that would come up, it makes sense to me to say this at the beginning of the game.

    Another factor in all this has to do with the Social Contract of the game. Once again I cite I Will Not Abandon You vs. No One Gets Hurt. Depending on the group’s purpose, a Line or Veil may be “We don’t go there at all”, or it may be “We will only go there for good reason, understanding that we are pushing someone’s buttons.” Having a formal pre-game Lines and Veils discussion can undermine this second option, because it has already been established that these areas are off-limits.

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