Traffic Lights Are Communication Tools

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The Traffic Light

The Traffic Light communication tool is a piece of paper that has three large dots on it: one red, one amber and one green. It is placed in the center of the table within reach of all the players, so they can tap on it to indicate how they are feeling towards scenes in the story. Any one of the players, including the GM, can use the Traffic Light tool.

Red: Stop!

When the red dot is tapped, play pauses and the play group addresses the concern by:

  • Replacing the unwelcome story detail with something else and proceeding from there.
  • Rewinding and redoing the scene, steering it in a different direction.
  • Discussing the situation out-of-character, then recalibrating the group’s expectations about tone and boundaries.
  • Adding the theme or topic that caused concern to the list of content the group has agreed to avoid. (see Lines & Veils, Ron Edwards, 2004)
  • Taking a five-minute break.

A player never needs to justify their use of the red dot and they get the final say about what solution is deployed. 

Amber: Proceed with Caution

When the amber dot is tapped, it indicates that the player is feeling unsure about the scene as it’s unfolding. This lets all players know to slow down the pace of the scene and make sure everyone is on the same page and agrees on what’s happening, both in the fiction and in terms of rolls and moves. This also lets players ask to lighten the intensity of the scene, check to see if something needs to fade to black and move on to the next scene, or point out that the scene seems headed for content the group has agreed to avoid. 

Green: On the Table

When the green dot is tapped, it indicates that the player is having a great time! Some reasons why it could be used are:

  • The player is in an intense scene, where their Crewmate may be experiencing distress, but the player wants to indicate that they are having a good time.
  • The player wants to see more of a specific theme or topic, so other players, especially the GM, can linger on the scene a bit more, or bring the theme or topic back in play later.

The Traffic Light can be used at any time during the game, including during Session Zero. This tool is designed to improve dialogue between the players at the table, not replace it. Once all players feel ready to move on, the game continues from where they left off.

The Traffic Light communication tool was initially used for tabletop roleplaying games by game designer Meguey Baker in 2015, adapted for use on-line in 2020 with the Babble On Equity Project, and the details for including the tool in a game text as laid out here were written by Meguey Baker, Sen-Foong Lim and Banana Chan in 2024. This text was first included in the game Tiān Dēng: Diaspora in Space, published in 2024. 

It’s entirely possible parallel design has occurred; traffic lights are very familiar to many many people as a way to keep each other safe and regulate the flow of traffic, and thus a perfect metaphor for regulating anything else that can move forward at different speeds, like conversations and stories. Thanks for taking care of each other. 

Holding the Conversation: Communication Tools

One of the things Vincent and I have been saying for the past dozen, maybe 15 years, is that roleplaying, with friends, is a conversation. It has the ebb and flow, the bursts and lulls and accidentally bumping into each other, or stumbling into a topic that’s too heavy or too light or too uncomfortable for the moment at hand. To help navigate this, especially with strangers at conventions, some sort of structure is useful. Enter communication tools!

Starting with Lines & Veils (Sex & Sorcery, Ron Edwards, 2004) and continuing through a lot of variations and iterations, these tools got mis-labeled as “safety” tools. My background is in sex ed and postpartum depression support, both areas that have potential for a LOT of conversational difficulty, including everything from an awkward moment to actual confusion, unconscious micro aggression, or lasting pain. As far back as the late 1980s, I was designing and using conversation tools to help groups of people have meaningful conversations about all kinds of topics, while practicing clearer conversation.

From the start, calling these same sorts of things “safety tools” when used in an tabletop role-playing setting, seemed…off. A couple years back, in the depths of COVID, Elliot and Vincent and I were having a conversation about this, and Elliot said “they should be called communication tools, because that’s what they do. They can’t guarantee anyone’s safety, but they can help people communicate better.” And he’s right!

Remember when there was a shift in awareness and therefore in conversation around the idea of a trigger warning? That as it turns out one cannot possibly know what everyone else may find triggering, it’s much more effective and practical to put content warnings on what you made, rather than try to predict what others may find disturbing? It’s time for a similar shift in how we talk about these tools. They are communication tools, they are only as effective as the people who use them in good faith with a shared understanding of how they work, and they will not, cannot, make a situation “safe” merely by being present. Please call things like Lines & Veils and the Consent Flower and Temp Check and Traffic Light communication tools, and pick the one that fits your table. (Anecdotally, I have an actual trauma response to the X-card, as to me, it is a reminder of being barred from acknowledging or talking about real and serious problems. I understand that was not the designer’s intent; trauma responses are not always logical.)

A stick figure holding forward a green checkmark labeled "Communication tools!" and holding back a red x labeled "'Safety' tools."

So now the history: when I was a 15 year old peer-educator, in 1986, we needed a way to quickly, easily, check in with the room during intentionally challenging discussions. We were talking about everything from how to hold one’s boundaries around birth control with a new partner, to what action to take to stand up against racist behavior, to how to come out to your parents, to the nature of mortality.

We used lots of communication tools, but two have jumped to tabletop roleplaying. One was Temp Check, where anyone could say “Can I get a Temp Check on this?,” the facilitator would reiterate and say “Temp Check please!”and everyone would hold out their hand somewhere from waist level (I’m cool & calm) to chest (I’m a bit uncomfortable) to over their head (I’m hot & not happy about this). Sometimes it was just a thumbs down/level/up, to be more subtle. The other was the Traffic Light, for smaller groups, to nonverbally provide on-going regular feedback while talking. This made it easy to adjust on the fly, and keep the conversation moving forward

Nonverbal communication tools are amazing!! I took this tool with me to my postpartum depression counseling work, with a slight modification, so that people could use it to signal “Oh me too!! I have had similar experiences!!”(green), “I don’t understand, can you clarify?” (yellow), and “I am angry on your behalf, and here’s what I would have done” (red). This cut out the majority of interruptions and worked great for giving each person their chance to speak. I didn’t always use it — when it was 4 people who had been meeting together for a year, there was no need! But when it was that first session in September, and there were people showing up for the first time, overwhelmed by new parenthood, buffeted by opinions everywhere, and seeking connection, it was a wonderful part of creating and holding a space where transformative conversations could take place.

Now, there’s a whole fresh round of conversation about communication tools, their role in roleplaying, if they have any use or not, if using one means you are somehow more fragile than those who insist they don’t need any such thing. There’s a LOT of difficult conversations to be had these days, and not all of them are in a roleplaying game. My hope is that by encouraging a reframing towards communication tools, there might be a wider awareness of the need to practice communication, and the availability of tools to help.


4 thoughts on “Traffic Lights Are Communication Tools”

  • Very interesting article. Thanks for sharing. 🙂
    My 2ct: I’m not convinced yet that the term “communication tools” is a good alternative. I feel like it is way broader than safety tools and thus less descriptive.
    As an example: “Too bad no one used communication tools at the con” is a less comprehensible statement than: “Too bad no one used safety tools at the con.”
    The first statement sounds a bit off to me, and I feel like people who are unfamiliar with the term “communication tools” would have no clue what I was talking about. They’d probably imagine that no one was talking at all.

    So my argument is: You can call more things “communication tools” than just safety tools. This makes the term less clear-cut, and thus less useful.

    My argument probably just comes from a place of not wanting to change something I got used to. And maybe I missed a point somewhere. So I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on this.

  • Thanks for your thoughts!
    One of the things we have learned, over the past 40 years, especially of convention play, is that, sometimes, things that happen in a game can cause lasting discomfort / upset / hurt / etc. Having more ways to support clearer boundaries is good!

    I see your point, and agree, that communication tools could in theory also cover things like clearly marked convention signs, and masking policies, and a system to handle harassment etc etc. The reverse is also true, though, that “too bad no one used safety tools at the con” could mean there was no hand sanitizer around, no report system in place for dealing with aggressive or abusive behavior, no “watch out for wet floor” signs.

    A lot of this is examining how we _think_ about these tools. I want to break habits of just slapping an X Card or etc on the table and figuring that will mean the table is in _technical_ compliance with the convention standards of there being tools in place to help people communicate their boundaries and needs clearly, without actually doing so. I want readers to consider that people who scoff at the idea of a “safety” tool might actually see the reasoning behind a communication tool. I want to help foster a wider understanding of _what these tools actually do_, which is provide specific structure to conversation, so that designers and players can make more informed choices about which tools to use when.

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