X & O For More Fun

The main purpose of RPGs is to have fun but ensuring that everyone enjoys themselves is tricky. First you have to agree on a game, then a play style. A dozen or more things after that can make or ruin a game. John Stavropoulos created an elegant solution to a common fun killer by creating the X-Card.


Whether a GM is running a store-bought adventure or their own campaign, no GM is a mind reader. It's also impossible for other players to guess what will turn an exciting time into a major turn-off for their group. Instead of forcing a GM (or the other players) to guess what may or may not work as fun, a simple card with a big X on it is placed in the center of the game table. If something goes too far for someone's comfort threshold, they simply tap the card and the game moves on from that thing. If you're not clear what caused the X-Card to be tapped, a short break is called while the GM confers with the player. Because the player doesn't have to defend or justify the card being invoked, it avoids hurt feelings and increases fun and safety.

While people assume using the X-Card stifles creativity, the opposite is true. A GM running a Delta Green or World of Darkness adventure is liberated to plan whatever scenario or evocative description they like, knowing that their players easily maintain their enjoyment. No mind reading is needed.

While the X-Card is often associated with story games or indie RPGs, I've had them invoked the most in D&D games. While running Tales of the Yawning Portal last year a player of mine tapped the X-Card when the players hit a bug-infested area. Later he explained that while fixing some wiring earlier that day (he's an electrician) he had to go into a crawlspace that was infested with bugs, and it had skeeved him out. This was a guy I've GM'd for years. He had never indicated an issue with bugs before so I couldn't have guessed that on that particular day he'd be bothered. A month later, it wasn't an issue.

The X-Card also makes convention games better. It's impossible for a GM or players to guess what strangers will like.

During a game a few years ago, two players were arguing in character. One guy said, “That plan is suicide. You might want to die, but I don't.” Sounds like a typical argument, right? What none of us knew was that the other guy had had a family member commit suicide recently. By tapping the card and saying “no suicide comments” (so we'd understand the issue) the game and in-character argument continued with a pause of only a few seconds. He didn't have to feel embarrassed or awkward or explain more, though after the game I overheard him mentioning it to a casual friend in the same game.

On the flip side, Kira Scott created its counterpart, the O-Card. It works the same way as the X-Card except it signals “more of this, please.”

As a GM, have you ever wondered if players were enjoying a specific sequence or aspect of a game? By using the O-Card, you don't have to guess. If it's invoked, you know the banquet scene that is all role-playing doesn't have to be rushed or next time, add more word puzzles for the players to solve.

Safety tools provide an easy way to ensure everyone enjoys the game, and the GM doesn't to guess about what is and isn't working.

This article was contributed by Beth Rimmels (brimmels) as part of ENWorld's User-Generated Content (UGC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
 
Beth Rimmels

Comments

ajchafe

Villager
I have seen this a while back and loved the idea. I am (hopefully) starting a D&D club at my local library soon and plan to use it there.
 
The x-card is definitely something I consider an important part of my table in the time I've begun to use it, and I'm definitely interested in expanding it using the o-card too.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
I have a dynamic in my group where they simply state whether they are okay with something or not. But a topic that they are uncomfortable with has never come up during any campaign I've run, because of the way we do our session 0:

During our session 0, we discuss what themes will be in the campaign, and how controversial topics will be handled. If for example a player states upfront that they don't like sexual content, then I make sure it doesn't come up during the campaign.
 

Baumi

Explorer
What is the big advantage of an "X" Card versus just saying "this makes me unconfortable, lets skip this"?

I understand than in a Convention or a group with total strangers it might be easier to just tap a Card instead of speaking up (might be shy), but in such a Constellation I would never use problematic Elements anyway (torture, sex,..). And in my home group I would like to talk about that so I understand the problem for future Adventures.
 

rknop

Explorer
I will walk away from any table that insists on using some sort of system like this.

This is feeding into forces in our society right now that encourages everybody to do everything they can to figure out why they should feel traumatized or victimized.

Do some people legitimately feel traumatized or victimized? Yes, absolutely. Should people at an RPG table have respect? Yes, absolutely.

This system, however, <i>encourages</i> you to <i>find ways</i> to decide that you're traumatized or victimized. (It suggests that the GM use the system early to "model the behavior" and normalize it.) Nobody will ever get over the things that traumatize them -- or, let's face it, just irritate them -- if we systematize ways to make it so that anybody can at all times avoid thinking or talking about something they don't want to think or talk about. And, yes, I know RPGs are for fun and escapism, not for therapy, so it's not the place to confront serious issues. This, however, is a mechanism to take issues that probably aren't serious, and make them de facto serious. It feeds into the unfortunate tendency in our society to insist that whenever anybody say something that makes you a little uncomfortable, it is an attack, and you have a right to silence that person.

I recommend reading this op ed by Arthur C. Brooks from 2015 in the New York Times about "victimhood culture", and whom it really endangers.

Easy tools of silencing and censorship in general tend to harm the marginalized more than the powerful. The only topics that are OK for the discussion become the ones that maintain the consensus and the status quo, and speaking, or even thinking, blasphemy, becomes a powerful social taboo. The long history of humankind shows that blasphemy laws, or social mores that dictate a wide range of things blasphemy that should not be discussed, not only do not end well, but also end up being much more in favor of those in power than anybody else.

Use this system if you like it. But also feel free to say that you don't like it, and don't think that there's something morally wrong with you if this system makes you roll your eyes, or if it makes you feel like you hobby where you're just trying to have fun is being turned into a force for political and social normalization.
 
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So... In relative private, I have absolutely zero filter. For a game at home, or with those that I consider my friends, I would definitely not use this. Those who are sensitive to any subject at all are safer and will be better off if they simply avoid my company.

For a game in public (on the internet, in a game store, or at a convention), however, this sort of thing is super useful. Many people find some subject to be sensitive, and they should absolutely be able to go out and engage in their hobby of choice without being subjected to topics that they find objectionable.
 

Warpiglet

Explorer
I will walk away from any table that insists on using some sort of system like this.

This is feeding into forces in our society right now that encourages everybody to do everything they can to figure out why they should feel traumatized or victimized.

Do some people legitimately feel traumatized or victimized? Yes, absolutely. Should people at an RPG table have respect? Yes, absolutely.

This system, however, <i>encourages</i> you to <i>find ways</i> to decide that you're traumatized or victimized. (It suggests that the GM use the system early to "model the behavior" and normalize it.) Nobody will ever get over the things that traumatize them -- or, let's face it, just irritate them -- if we systematize ways to make it so that anybody can at all times avoid thinking or talking about something they don't want to think or talk about. And, yes, I know RPGs are for fun and escapism, not for therapy, so it's not the place to confront serious issues. This, however, is a mechanism to take issues that probably aren't serious, and make them de facto serious. It feeds into the unfortunate tendency in our society to insist that whenever anybody say something that makes you a little uncomfortable, it is an attack, and you have a right to silence that person.

I recommend reading this op ed by Arthur C. Brooks from 2015 in the New York Times about "victimhood culture", and whom it really endangers.

Easy tools of silencing and censorship in general tend to harm the marginalized more than the powerful. The only topics that are OK for the discussion become the ones that maintain the consensus and the status quo, and speaking, or even thinking, blasphemy, becomes a powerful social taboo. The long history of humankind shows that blasphemy laws, or social mores that dictate a wide range of things blasphemy that should not be discussed, not only do not end well, but also end up being much more in favor of those in power than anybody else.

Use this system if you like it. But also feel free to say that you don't like it, and don't think that there's something morally wrong with you if this system makes you roll your eyes, or if it makes you feel like you hobby where you're just trying to have fun is being turned into a force for political and social normalization.

I would have a hard time using this with adults in that if we anticipate these sorts of issues, perhaps they should be dealt with prior to gaming on the part of the person with the issue. If we are all hanging out and watching a film does the "triggered" person get to shut the projector or TV off?

I trust my emotional intelligence too. If kids are playing, we are going to avoid profanity or overly dark themes. Mashing skeletons with a mace? Sure. People being impaled by invading orcs? Nah, we can skip that.

But generally speaking if I am gaming with adults I would trust that they have the necessary coping skills to survive a PG-13 movie. If not, perhaps they can form a group that avoids upsetting elements. I don't however see value in making a game tame for the rest of the group. They have rights too.
 

Jester David

Adventurer
What is the big advantage of an "X" Card versus just saying "this makes me unconfortable, lets skip this"?

I understand than in a Convention or a group with total strangers it might be easier to just tap a Card instead of speaking up (might be shy), but in such a Constellation I would never use problematic Elements anyway (torture, sex,..). And in my home group I would like to talk about that so I understand the problem for future Adventures.
1) They might not feel comfortable at the moment talking.
2) Talking up derails the adventure. This is a simple, understood gesture. You move on.
 

machineelf

Villager
What happens if someone O cards a room full of bugs, and then someone X cards it?

In general, it seems to be too be a better idea to speak up in the moment if something makes you uncomfortable, or wait until the session is over to discuss the issue. And if no resolution can be achieved, then the person who is uncomfortable should probably no longer be a part of the group rather than forcing others to bend to a single person's wishes if the others do but feel the same way. The cards seem like a distraction and a little less adult than how I would want to approach it.

In my games we do sometimes address some adult and tough issues, like slavery, death, abuse. I stay away from having villains do things like rape, but there are very evil villains in my games, and they can do very bad things. I go for a dramatic story telling style, and some stories are difficult. I understand if some of those things could make people uncomfortable. I try to address these issues in Session 0 and let players know they may encounter these kinds of things, and tell them to talk to me after if there is a topic that they really found disturbing. But ultimately I try to play with people who know that this is a story and not real life, and that goodness of heroes sones brightest against a backdrop of real darkness. Still, if someone has gone through abuse, for example, and hearing a story about that is hard for them, I would want them to tell me after the session. If they are on all accounts a mature and respectful player, I would try to be considerate of them.
 
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dguerrieri

Explorer
I had not heard of this before, I love the concept. I expect I will be trying it out at some of my upcoming Greyhawk Reborn tables, and will be discussing it with our author/GMs and admins.
 
I have to agree that while this might appear to be a useful tool, it's actually creating more problems. I will caveat that statement with the main tool I use at my table: I keep my games "PG" and if I run a game for kids, or with kids, then I level it at a "G" unless the parents have indicated a higher threshold of tolerance. As a parent, I will run a game for my own child that he is comfortable with, and not put him in the position of feeling scared or unhappy to begin with.

The GM's job of showmanship is not self-indulgent story time for the speaker....it's an extension of the time honored tradition of the storyteller in general, and the purpose of tale telling is to both to entertain and to elucidate. I guess my position is, "Know your audience." So in general, I don't throw themes at the audience that they don't want.

It is also worth noting that one can not want unusual carnage (body horror, rape, other themes) in a game on principle, and not merely because of trigger warnings. I've never been comfortable with any game where someone might feature rape, but I'm an adult middle aged guy with no special issues....I just find the concept distasteful and not the sort of fiction I want to deal with. That said, since it is not a trigger warning for me, I have no issue with explaining to a GM why I won't continue to participate in his or her games if such subjects are rampant.

Second caveat: some games may clearly be "subject intense" and if I were to play Vampire, for example, I'd expect uncomfortable content to come up and not hold it against the game, players or referee since that's sort of the point of the game. A game like CoC though I might expect to have lots of body horror but no rape or other violence (at best hinted at or alluded to, as in the source material) so a CoC game which played like Vampire might surprise me, but if it sticks to the form of the fiction after which it was modelled I'd be less surprised.

I guess the TL;DR would be:

1. Know your audience
2. Know the game you're playing
3. Inform anyone at the table if your expectations on content are different than might be expected
4. Especially if you are playing with minors or people you don't know
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
I would use this. Except I would keep both cards near the GM screen, and affix a long popsicle stick to the X card. Whenever someone made a move on the X card, I would use the end of the popsicle stick, from behind the GM screen, to slide the X card away until the player's hand landed close enough to the O card that I could say, "oh, you like this? Great, let's continue."

X & O cards aren't a bad idea; they're just a sign of the times.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What happens if someone O cards a room full of bugs, and then someone X cards it?
X card wins.

In general, it seems to be too be a better idea to speak up in the moment if something makes you uncomfortable, or wait until the session is over to discuss the issue.
"Wait until the session is over," means you have to put up with the problematic element for the rest of the session. That's rather missing the point.

Tapping the X-card is speaking up - taking an action to inform people of a problem.

At the table, the GM launches into something that turns out to be problematic for a player. If the player says, "Please stop," do you immediately know if they are speaking in character or out of character? No. Invoking the X-card gets past all confusion on the matter. The X-card (at least as originally presented to me) is a no-discussion veto. The player who invokes the X-card does not have to explain themselves. There is no simple English word for this. You need, "I invoke the veto-without-discussion rule!" The card is somatic shorthand. I just tap it or show it around, and I'm done.

And, to be honest, making the indicator non-verbal supports it being a no-discussion item. Invoking the card is explicitly *not* starting a conversation, where saying, "I don't feel comfortable," will be taken as starting a conversation by many: "Why not?" and "Don't be a baby!" are going to be common responses.

I try to address these issues in Session 0
And, if you are playing only among a group of people who know each other well, in a controlled environment, where there is a Session 0, maybe you don't need the card, and that's fine. But your particular group isn't an indictment of the concept.

Consider other scenarios - say, at a convention, where you don't know the people, and there's no time to explore people's hot buttons? Or in a large campaign setting, where there's 50+ people involved? The card makes a whole lot of sense.

and let players know they may encounter these kinds of things, and tell them to talk to me after if there is a topic that they really found disturbing.
Here's the thing - "uncomfortable" is probably not the right word. Neither is "disturbing". Try "offensive", "distressing", or "triggering" (in the original PTSD flashback sense). If I step on a hot button that may launch a player into a full-on panic attack, or offend them in some deep way, as a mature adult I do *not* want them to have to sit and stew in it or an entire session. I want to know I should stop *now* while we might still save the session for them. I want to make it as simple and non-judgemental as possible for them to give me that information.

Mature players should care about each other as people more than they care about the integrity of the RPG story, no?

But ultimately I try to play with people who know that this is a story and not real life
Let us be clear - the implication that someone with an issue doesn't know the story is not real life is a major insult. The response of the human mind is *not* dependent on the stimulus being real.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I'd have more problems with the O card than the X card. Stopping something is simple. Keeping something going when I think I've hit the natural limit feels much harder.
 

Vexorg

Villager
Great idea, but it needs to be paired with a sticker chart so everyone knows if they get too many X cards, they have to sign a "pledge to think about my actions" form, and if they get no Xs they get a Skittle.
 

Dualazi

Villager
Whether a GM is running a store-bought adventure or their own campaign, no GM is a mind reader. It's also impossible for other players to guess what will turn an exciting time into a major turn-off for their group. Instead of forcing a GM (or the other players) to guess what may or may not work as fun, a simple card with a big X on it is placed in the center of the game table. If something goes too far for someone's comfort threshold, they simply tap the card and the game moves on from that thing. If you're not clear what caused the X-Card to be tapped, a short break is called while the GM confers with the player. Because the player doesn't have to defend or justify the card being invoked, it avoids hurt feelings and increases fun and safety.
Or, instead, they could talk it over like adults, and if necessary the player in question can bow out. The X card only increases 'fun' for the perpetually sensitive, at the expense of literally everyone else at the table. If the group is having fun running a game leading into a body horror theme, better hope the DM has an amazing plan B if a player decides to shoot down the entire concept without even needing to justify or explain it.

While people assume using the X-Card stifles creativity, the opposite is true. A GM running a Delta Green or World of Darkness adventure is liberated to plan whatever scenario or evocative description they like, knowing that their players easily maintain their enjoyment. No mind reading is needed.
There are no situations where the X card enhances creativity. By its very nature it exists only to shut off potential topics and play options. I also find it hilarious that you picked those two games, which are definitely more likely to be negatively impacted by the X-card than more blase, wide audience RPGs like D&D.

While the X-Card is often associated with story games or indie RPGs, I've had them invoked the most in D&D games. While running Tales of the Yawning Portal last year a player of mine tapped the X-Card when the players hit a bug-infested area. Later he explained that while fixing some wiring earlier that day (he's an electrician) he had to go into a crawlspace that was infested with bugs, and it had skeeved him out. This was a guy I've GM'd for years. He had never indicated an issue with bugs before so I couldn't have guessed that on that particular day he'd be bothered. A month later, it wasn't an issue.
I like how you don't explain any of the fallout of this. Did you award xp/loot as normal? Was there anything plot relevant in this area? Is there now just a gaping hole in the session as you teleport somewhere else? It's also convenient that the guy was all better a month later. What do you recommend when it's never going to get better? Does a recovering gambler get to veto any session involving casinos in perpetuity?


During a game a few years ago, two players were arguing in character. One guy said, “That plan is suicide. You might want to die, but I don't.” Sounds like a typical argument, right? What none of us knew was that the other guy had had a family member commit suicide recently. By tapping the card and saying “no suicide comments” (so we'd understand the issue) the game and in-character argument continued with a pause of only a few seconds. He didn't have to feel embarrassed or awkward or explain more, though after the game I overheard him mentioning it to a casual friend in the same game.
Perhaps the only semi-salient point in the post, and only due to it being easy to adjust language use. If it was in a campaign or run where suicide was important to the plot/theme, then all of the above criticisms come right back.

On the flip side, Kira Scott created its counterpart, the O-Card. It works the same way as the X-Card except it signals “more of this, please.”

As a GM, have you ever wondered if players were enjoying a specific sequence or aspect of a game? By using the O-Card, you don't have to guess. If it's invoked, you know the banquet scene that is all role-playing doesn't have to be rushed or next time, add more word puzzles for the players to solve.
Or I could talk to my group like human beings and ask them what they enjoyed or didn't about a particular run. The O card is entirely useless, and in a worst-case scenario might send the message to the DM to artificially drag out the current favored topic to its detriment.

Safety tools provide an easy way to ensure everyone enjoys the game, and the GM doesn't to guess about what is and isn't working.
Let's get something 100% clear right here and now: no one was ever 'unsafe' as a result of topics brought up in a pen and paper RPG. Of all the modern word-twisting going around these days, "safety" has to be near the top of my pet peeves. It's invoked every time a person or organization wants to push for changes in another person or organization, because it plays into a convincing emotional plea that most people naturally agree with. I mean everyone wants to be safe, right? So why not start doing this thing we want that makes people "safer"? It's basically "Think of the Children" but with less focus and it should be ridiculed whenever it's attempted.

The X-card is not a new idea, and unfortunately it gets pushed in gaming spaces every couple of months, and thus far most of the replies have been thankfully that of sane repudiation of the idea. It's a garbage tool that puts undue work on the GM, enables a minority of players to grind the session to a halt on their whims, and proponents of the idea always make sure to remind you that you can't even inquire as to the reason or explanation. I can't really condemn this idea strongly enough, I consider it a poison to emotional maturity and it will absolutely never make its way to tables that I GM, and I would encourage others to do likewise.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
X card wins.

"Wait until the session is over," means you have to put up with the problematic element for the rest of the session. That's rather missing the point.

Tapping the X-card is speaking up - taking an action to inform people of a problem.

At the table, the GM launches into something that turns out to be problematic for a player. If the player says, "Please stop," do you immediately know if they are speaking in character or out of character? No. Invoking the X-card gets past all confusion on the matter. The X-card (at least as originally presented to me) is a no-discussion veto. The player who invokes the X-card does not have to explain themselves. There is no simple English word for this. You need, "I invoke the veto-without-discussion rule!" The card is somatic shorthand. I just tap it or show it around, and I'm done.

And, to be honest, making the indicator non-verbal supports it being a no-discussion item. Invoking the card is explicitly *not* starting a conversation, where saying, "I don't feel comfortable," will be taken as starting a conversation by many: "Why not?" and "Don't be a baby!" are going to be common responses.
No-discussion vetoes in any situation are a quick road to disaster.

In this particular instance it would not be due to those who might be legitimately triggered by something in the game but due to those who would abuse it in order to squash someone else's fun and-or as a spotlight diversion.

Example of what I mean: some players love in-character information gathering and planning, others find it tedious and boring. Wouldn't take long before the bored ones realized they could shut down the info-gathering just by tapping the card...no thanks.

Another example: a player who taps the X card for the sole reason of drawing attention to him-herself. (I've had at least one player in the past who would fit this bill) No discussion allowed, but the game grinds to a screeching halt...no thanks.

And a third: a player who taps the X card to stop some otherwise normal part of the game at the table from taking place, be it in-character PvP (arguing or worse) or out-of-character Monty Python references or bad puns; particularly if such is by precedent an already accepted element of play at that table. And here, without discussion, it might not even be possible to figure out why the card was tapped at all - are we supposed to stop all Monty Python references or just the one about the black knight getting all his limbs chopped off? No thanks.

If you're going to tap that card you'd better be good and ready to explain why, and - in examples like I give above - to be comprehensively overruled.

And, if you are playing only among a group of people who know each other well, in a controlled environment, where there is a Session 0, maybe you don't need the card, and that's fine. But your particular group isn't an indictment of the concept.

Consider other scenarios - say, at a convention, where you don't know the people, and there's no time to explore people's hot buttons? Or in a large campaign setting, where there's 50+ people involved? The card makes a whole lot of sense.
If you're DMing a group with over 50 players (and ye gods and little fishes why would anyone ever do this?!!!) and use this system you run a significant risk of getting nowhere at all, as with that many people the chances of story element A setting someone off are hugely greater than in a group of 5 or 6.

Lanefan
 

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