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!

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels


So you are OK with one person holding a groups fun hostage as long as that person is the DM?

Fair enough.

Pretty much any time someone begins a response with "So you're saying" or "So you're okay with", what follows is almost universally an attempt to twist a persons words into a straw man that's easier to attack.

But taking you at face value, which is more than you are doing for me, if I understand you correctly, you appear to imply that, when the x card is played, the players would be in agreement with the x card tapper in offense at whatever the DM or other player is handling something in the game.

EDIT: I do appreciate the irony that I am doing what I just accused you of doing--restarting your argument. However, in my defense, you didn't actually make an argument, you just restated my position as a straw man.

I guess that could be the case, sometimes. I think a lot more often, it'll be 5 people at the table enjoying the scene that the DM is laying out, and then watching it get derailed because one person decides their feelings are more important than the other people at the table.

This is why communication is way better than a card. If everybody at the table is not enjoying what the DM is throwing down, the DM needs to know. Maybe he or she should bow out and let someone else take the reins. Or maybe the group should find someone else. But no group should be held hostage to the outrage of one person...including the DM. X-cards don't fix problem dms; they just create problem players.
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It's not meant to encourage communication; it's meant to guarantee one particular message is clearly received and understood. "If this happens, we stop."

Generally all participants have the power and in most cases, no participant uses it. It's purpose is that of a safety valve. Making it work without requiring explanation is making any particular use of the ability non-judgemental. Often, in the other scenarios, asking why it was used (after participation has stopped) helps prevent future uses.

That makes a lot more sense--the idea that it promoted communication was the part that broke my brain a little.

Still think it's a bad idea--but glad we see eye to eye that this is not a communication tool.


How do you know what the "thing" is the person is objecting to if you dont talk about it?

Also, most of the time its the DM/GM who is getting the player's back on topic and avoiding tangent offensive humor/topics most of the time in my xp.


First Post
My take on this

I can see the advantages of this in an open setting (IE, where the GM has no choice over players and does not know them) but myself I wouldn’t use it.
(I’m going to avoid the topics of abusive usage & various psychological issues and focus on my perception of how it affects gameplay).
Now, I tend to stick to PG stuff in my games, have yet to have a player express discomfort, and have generally good-natured players who aren’t likely to abuse such a system. Nonetheless, I have some issues with it.
1)It reinforces the notion of “GM as entertainer/administrator”, rather than equal participant.
This is a mindset that can be hard to deal with. It’s also the reason why I have avoided certain narrative focused games. Essentially, it supports the notion that the GM is present to service the player, rather than being an equal participant in the game. System like dungeon world & numenara (to name two I have played myself) tend to relegate GM-ing to an administrative role, there to solely absorb the player’s intent & ideas and generate a context that fits with it.
In an equal participation setup, the players play their characters, while the GM plays the world around them. If the player makes an action, the GM has no right to veto it; in the same way, players should not have a mechanism to veto GM actions.
2) It forces sudden changes with little time for the GM to react.
The bug example is very troublesome to me, in particular since I have used bugs as a theme before and having them removed from play would have required a complete re-creation of theme, story motivations and characters. I like to improvise, but I’m not so good I can pull an entire session together in half a second. I like to prepare my games, and they are usually much better for it. While this isn’t a universal problem (if it’s a single bug, changing it to a dog or a land squid aint hard) it is most problematic for GMs that prepare, or that try to work on a theme.

My overall point is that I object to any mechanic that gives players or the GM an absolute veto on something happening. These quibbles will be seen as minor or irrelevant by some, but they are meaningful to me. It’s also why I prefer simulationist systems, as it allows the player a specific, quantitative measurement of their ability, rather than a loose notion of what you are good at depending on GM whims.
Now, I am sensitive to the overall issue of dealing with discomfort in games. I approach it in a different fashion however.
1) Ask players before the first game about major issues.
If someone has a major phobia of insects, I will look for ideas other than an insect-filled dungeons. Same goes for what the player enjoys; combat, storytelling, character-building. These things MUST be determined before the first play sessions.
2) Develop a culture of openness.
This may be a no-brainer, but players need to know you will listen to them, both for praise, criticism and general comments. If they have issues, or major difficulties addressing a particular subject on that very day, having it shared before the beginning of the game allows the GM some time to react and adjust things that can be adjusted. As a last resort, the GM can also ask the player to sit this game out and come back for the next one; they aren’t the only player, and if the others do want to deal with the subject they should be allowed to.
3) For difficult subjects, avoid flowery prose
To return to the bug example, I have known a lot of GMs who LOVE flowery prose. Who will describe in tortuous detail how you disembowel an enemy, or the various terrible feature of the swarm of bugs about to assail you. That is not necessary. Stick to the essential elements (IE, there is a dangerous swarm of bugs on the floor) and avoid detail. While it will not completely remove the issue, this will allow it to pass as quickly and painlessly as possible.
4) Not all player and GM styles are compatible
I can see that this is not necessarily a point a lot of people can deal with. When you run a game where you have no choice of players, then the X/O can be useful, because as was said, we can’t read minds. However, I run highly thematic, sometimes high-concept games (current work: a conceptual/memetic maze). I have lost players on my premises alone, and the dominance of D&D (and related systems) has a lot of people focused on the traditional, combat-heavy standard medieval fantasy premise and they have little interest in anything else. I also tend to run story-heavy games, which I know will bore my dungeon-diving friends to tears.
5) Know thyself; I know it’s hard, but you will get maximum fun by doing so.
There are a number of game types I will pointedly avoid. Horror games make me paranoid, high-mortality games make me anxious and pure-narrativist systems leave me confused. I also avoid playing characters who resemble me too much, as I get too invested in the character emotionally. As a player (and a GM) you need to know what you are comfortable with, and be open about it.
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Nope, not at my table, no X, no O. The rare times children (teens) are at my table, they are either mature enough to play with adults or given a print out of the basic rules and encouraged to start a game with their friends after session.If a player doesn't like how something is going, they can talk to me after session, or quietly pack up and find another table. I'm not catering to anyone else's hangups. The only rule I have is fade to black and pick up next scene if things ever get naughty, bc I have no desire to roleplay half of some slash fanfic with others. This is as bad as paizo trying to force "social contract" obligations on me as a game master that i'm expected to oblige in the playtest. I'm not a therapist, I'm definitely not my player's therapists, I'm not payed to be anyone's therapists. Players: Leave your hangups elsewhere and play the game if you're at my table. We're here to have fun and have limited free time, and don't need these kinds of intrusions into game time when it's hard enough wrangling everyone together in the first place.


Naked and living in a barrel
Sounds like some people, in bad faith, will use this to speed run an adventure/try to make some vague political point about society listening to minorities/women/etc.


I think that saying "I have a phobia about spiders" or "I really can't deal with dead kids" isn't too much to ask. If you can't talk about your issues at least to the point of being able to establish some boundaries, then you might need to get your TTRPG action in a special "safe space" group. In a regular group-of-friends pizza and beer game night group, you need to communicate and not just "get triggered." Similarly, if someone in the group wants more puzzles, or more flirting at the tavern, or more combats with tons of minions to get to use a cleave feature, or whatever... freakin say so. No one has ever reacted badly to being told "I like what you did there, do more of that!"

Being a little bit uncomfortable from time to time in social situations is normal, and something that everyone I know just deals with as a part of life. I don't really know when this concept of constant affirmation and protection entered the mainstream, but it bears no similarity to my lived experience.


Victoria Rules
I think you're missing the point of how this is meant to work.
Not at all: I get the point of how this is in theory meant to work.

I can also clearly see how it most likely would work in practice; a much different and vastly worse outcome than the theory would suggest.

Based on the original essay (and most of the other discussion I've read of the concept), the X card is meant to allow players to non-verbally express their distaste for the content of a given scene. The idea is that the tapping of the card is equivalent to saying, "This discussion makes me uncomfortable; let's please move on."

What you seem to be describing is a situation in which the X card is used as a game mechanic -- where the player touching the card is doing so to get a specific benefit or avoid a specific penalty in-game. That seems odd and likely to cause confusion.
See the difference?

As an example, let's use a scene where the party is speaking with the local ruler. The discussion is getting heated and the ruler threatens the party with imprisonment and torture, which provokes a player into touching the X card. That seems straightforward -- the card is being invoked because of the conversation, and thus the topic is problematic.
But is it? Or is it being invoked because the party are losing the argument?

Without discussion, there's no way to tell.

Time to take a moment and direct the conversation down a different path.
In this example, where is the DM supposed to go with this? The party have annoyed the ruler to the point he's threatening torture; is the DM supposed to let the PCs go instead? Or to let them win the argument? Or for the ruler to find something else to threaten the PCs with (which, for all we know, could draw another X touch)?

Different if the DM is going into graphic and gory detail as to the tortures to be applied, and their effects...here an X touch should be able to make the DM back off on the detail, but not on the whole story or theme. The PCs still might be tortured, but the DM can handwave it simply by saying how many hit points each PC loses in the process, and leave them manacled to a dungeon wall to ponder their next move.

But let's say a character instead attempts to steal an ornate set of tableware and is caught, at which point the ruler calls for the guards to apprehend the character, and that character's player hits the X card. Is the player signalling a distaste for arrest or topics involving unequal use of power? Or is he just trying to avoid being punished for being caught stealing from the ruler?
Exactly...and more to the point, would there have been an X touch if the PC hadn't been caught?

Again, it seems like you're using a different function to the card than is intended. In the intended use, there is no 'screeching halt'; the DM simply takes the scene/conversation/what-have-you in a different direction, away from whatever topic appeared to be problematic. In the mechanical example, however, then yes, you would see the game grinding to a halt, because it's not clear why the player invoked the card and thus what the player is trying to say by doing so.
Exactly; and this might be the case even in what some might think are more obvious examples - the DM* might not realize she's doing anything wrong at all, so when the X gets touched it's not at all clear why.

* - side note: we keep saying the X touch is to rein in the DM but it could be to rein in (an)other player(s) as well.

This illustrates that it's just as important to explain what the card doesn't do -- it doesn't undo PC or NPC actions -- it simply allows a player to register discomfort with a topic or point of subject matter within the game so that the table can get past that topic without causing undue discomfort to the player.
No, it doesn't undo PC/NPC actions but it can certainly be (ab)used to prevent them from happening in the first place and-or stop them in their tracks, as per my examples re info gathering and in-party fighting.

And here I think we're kind of getting to your real problem with the system -- your presumption is that, if nobody at the table explicitly complains about a thing, then everyone tacitly agrees to that thing, even if later someone decides that, in fact, the thing is a problem. This leads to the only way that player can express a distaste for a given thing being walking away from the table.
Touching a card doesn't count, in my eyes, as explicitly complaining. Explicit complaining involves words, and discussion, and give-and-take or compromise or consensus...and yes, sometimes also leads to someone leaving the game if there is no compromise to be had.

Best example I can think of -- the game store table populated entirely by middle-aged dudes. A woman sits down at that table, since the table is advertised as 'open gaming'; the first night, one of the dudes refers to a female barmaid as a 'strumpet'. The woman isn't pleased about this, but nothing else bad happens that night, so she's inclined to think of it as a one-off. Then at the next session, a few more comments are made -- she didn't complain about 'strumpet', so clearly she's OK with it, and it's 'accepted at this table', right? Eventually, she leaves and doesn't come back, and the dudes are left to wonder why women don't seem to have the courage and desire to play TTRPGs.
Does she say something about it first and see if anything changes? Chances are they won't see what they're doing as wrong in any way until-unless it's pointed out to them...

But now, take the same situation - an established game-store table of middle-aged dudes - but replace that new player with a different one: another middle-aged dude whose religion causes him to be offended by any mention of devils or demons or deities that are not his deity. Is this new player allowed to in effect twist the game's morality to suit his own?

I certainly hope not.

If that's the way you'd be planning to use an X card, then I'd suggest you stick to your guns and not use them. The idea is that they're a way for a player to express non-verbal displeasure at a topic in a non-judgmental manner. The thought that a player will touch the X card and be suddenly subjected to something along the lines of "what's wrong with this thing we just did? Are you a weak player? What's your problem?" Well, that's not what the player was buying in for.
Oh, don't worry - I ain't about to use this system.

My concern is for people who, on reading an article like this, will take up the system as presented in theory without giving any thought to what might happen in practice.

The X card is not a panacea; it's a tool, and its only as good a tool as the people who use it. With that said, I'd be as leery of a DM who expressed disdain for the tool as I would be a potential dating partner who expressed disdain over the use of protection in intimate situations; it's clearly a sign that that person prioritizes their interests and desires far above mine.
As a player I'd be leery of a DM who used this tool, as it would fly a red flag regarding the table's (or maybe just the DM's) capacity and-or willingness for real communication and discussion.

Lan-"there's no such thing as a right to not be offended; but there is such a thing as a right to speak your mind if-when offense occurs. Immense difference"-efan

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