Sunday 26 June 2016

Safe Spaces and X-Cards

This post is actually a request for comments, as I am putting together table rules for Toronto Crawl Classics. As such, I hope, whether you intend to participate in the Toronto game or not, you will supply your thoughts.

I recently heard about an individual’s negative experiences related to gaming, including rape jokes, doxixng, unwanted touching, being followed home, and the like. Of course, as I step towards doing a long-term open-table campaign, I would like to make sure that my table offers a safe space. That is, I don’t want anyone to ever feel abused at a game I have anything to do with.

When I was told about X-Cards, I thought “What a great, and obvious, idea!” The more I have been thinking about them, though, the more I am doubting that my initial reaction was the right one. And that is what this post is, really: Asking the community for their thoughts. Anyone who would like to comment should feel free to do so. Anyone who wants to comment anonymously may do so at ravencrowking at hotmail dot com.

Here are my areas of specific concern:

(1) I have a tendency to believe that rpgs should push comfort zones, and there are definitely horror elements involved in Dungeon Crawl Classics. I have some concerns that the X-Card system would remove uncomfortable decisions and experiences from the game. And, in Dungeon Crawl Classics, that might be a lot of the game. Consider:

  • Your PC fumbles and something bad happens. Can you tap the X-Card to undo the fumble?
  • The same, but a critical hit against your PC. Does the X-Card make the crit go up or down on the chart?
  • The same, but clerical disapproval.
  • The same, but mercurial magic.
  • The same, but corruption.
  • Etc., etc.

Worse, I imagine that running almost any published adventure for Dungeon Crawl Classics, and certainly any adventure I have penned, will bring on a host of tapping the X-Card simply to deal with events that go against the characters. Or having to deal with any of the creepy monsters, situations, or choices that exist within the better adventures.

Can you imagine running Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror where the players can veto, without cost, the appearance of any creature or any event within the scenario? I am concerned that the game itself would swiftly lose its point. Which brings us to (2):

(2) Elements in a well-crafted scenario are there for a reason.

One of the X-Card examples I was given is that a player dislikes spiders, so taps the card, and the GM changes the encounter to giant rats.

That is fine in a scenario where the placement of monsters has no specific purpose, but let us take again the aforementioned Bone Hoard of the Dancing Horror. The titular monster collects bones, so the creatures encountered in the scenario have none. The creatures encountered are part of the “footprint” of the main encounter, and it is not so simple to change them. Especially not on the fly.

For another example, what if a player objects to the superior hearing of the Pallas Troth in The Black Goat? The scenario falls apart. You can take almost any well-written scenario, and see where aspects can be removed or changed which will damage (or destroy) the whole.

(3) I have been a strong proponent of the view that the GM runs what he wishes, and the players either decide to play that game or not. The idea that the players can veto anything flies in the face of this position. Does the game adapt to the player, or does the player adapt to the game? I have always been a strong advocate that the player adapts to the game, and alters the game to adapt to herself through the agency of her characters.

(4) It was exampled that a player may use the X-Card for something minor, such as a name, to demonstrate that it is okay to do so at the table. This suggests that players should not hesitate to demand alterations of things that they find only somewhat uncomfortable. It also suggests that not having to deal with any minor discomfort is more important than the value of a coherent scenario to the other players at the table.

(5) While I certainly would not find sexual harassment acceptable, this seems to go far beyond preventing abuse and into some other territory. In fact, the use of X-Cards may rob agency from the GM in terms of creating and presenting scenarios, and the other players, both in terms of (a) reacting to those scenarios, and (b) even experiencing those scenarios.

For these reasons, I am concerned that using X-Cards may make game play anaemic. Because I always want to run the best game I can, I am soliciting the input of you, the reader. What do you think? Should I use X-Cards? Should I not use X-Cards? Should I use them in some limited form? And, if so, what should the limitations be?


  1. The issues you list as things you are keen to avoid would all be serious problems, but I would hope that you could manage those without resort to special game mechanics. The X-Cards solution sounds like it's overkill for that situation. For a public session I'd make it explicit that certain things are not going to come up in play (e.g. sex as that's a sure way to make a lot of people uncomfortable) and ask participants if there's anything that might come up in a horror movie that they wouldn't want to appear. People are familiar with the genre so they know what to expect. That way e.g. someone could say they don’t want any horror involving children and then you wouldn’t have to ask why but you’d be able to avoid zombie children. It may reveal that they’re not suitable for the type of game you’re trying to run. If you did want to use a more formal system I’d say that instead anyone can ask for a 5 minute break at any point in the game, and then can use this to ask you to address an issue – which could be player behaviour (e.g. excessive arguing) or to point out that they’re finding something a little creepy.

  2. Based upon the replies I have received, here, on G+, and elsewhere, that will be a big NO then.

    I am interested in exploring any tools that would make a better game, and I do not always assume that my arguments for or against cannot be challenged.

    Thank you all for responding!

  3. This is a slippery slope argument. X-Cards to my knowledge were first designed for games such as Monsterhearts which deal with issues of sex, gender identity, and the like which have real-world parallels. The phrase of "fun, inclusive, and safe" is a result of the recent cultural movements of diversity, inclusion, and reactionary elements within geek culture spawned by things such as GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian, etc.

    As for the X-Card link, the author cautioned that it's not meant to be a replacement for conversation. Quote:

    "The X-Card is not a replacement for conversation. If you prefer to talk about an issue that comes up instead of using the X-Card, please do. Just because the X-Card is available does not mean it has to be used. But when it is used, respect the person who uses it and don't ask why or start a conversation about the issue. The X-Card is optional."

    And honestly, after having heard of so many gaming horror stories from both close friends and in many gaming communities of women, LGBT, and other gamers not part of the dominant social paradigm having to deal with creeps and people who defend them, I can totally understand the need why folks may find ways to go "now, just because you're the GM shouldn't mean you can do whatever."

    X-Cards are a variance of having players express concerns. Personally I never had a need to use them, but it's little different than asking your players to speak up if certain subject matter which hits close to home for a lot of people (sexual violence, real-world racism, etc) is impacting their gaming enjoyment.

  4. I'm new to your blog, but my take is that if your game is a traditional fantasy game, and you're dealing with traditional fantasy tropes, there's no reason for an X-card. Are you running a game where "uncomfortable subject matter" routinely bubbles to the surface? Are you a mature person with reasonable social skills?

    Some games probably have subject matter that isn't appropriate for everyone. I've played in some of those games, and the usual response is that I just don't go back. Not my cup of tea, and I can find lots of other games to play.

    A more common situation is a GM with poor people-management or social skills. Allowing a player be be abusive to another is just rude. You are in charge of the table; make it clear that that sort of behavior isn't acceptable. No, there is no negotiation at my table. If you don't like it, you are free to leave.

    Granted, I'm old-school when it comes to things like courtesy. I'm also old-school in the fact that if you have issues, it's up to you to deal with them; the game group is not your personal therapy session.