Greetings Filbanto Stew readers! Icculus here. I’m going to first preface this post by saying this is my opinion, not necessarily Filbanto’s.
In a previous post, Filbanto reviewed a game which included a link to the X-Card tool, created in (as near as I can gather) 2013 by John Stavropolous. I had run across the name of the tool and it’s general concept before, but had never actually read any details of its use in RPG games. This probably puts me squarely into a particular demographic of “RPG gamer of a certain age.” I don’t like to think of myself as old or old-fashioned, and having just recently had another birthday, I determined that it was time for me to look into this “newfangled idea.” For those of you who, like me, were unfamiliar with X-Card, the idea at the heart of the tool is that participating in a RPG game is a social activity that should be fun and emotionally safe for all participants. Its use involves the GM introducing the idea to the gaming group that any player at any time, if they are uncomfortable with game content or plot that has transpired can display the X-Card (literally a card with an “X” written on it), a simple, even silent request for the awkward or offending game content to be edited/removed/evolved, for any reason, with no questions asked. That idea has now been around long enough that we should have some sense of the need for it and for its efficacy. Looking into it a little, X-Card hasn’t vanished into obscurity, but has gained momentum and popularity for game groups, not only in North America, but worldwide wherever RPG games happen. I could foresee a day when it, or an idea similar to it, is part of every new RPG game published. And after some reflection about it, I think that would be a good thing.
I almost hate to admit that my initial reaction to the X-Card concept was, “well that seems a little unnecessary and over the top.” Again, this probably dates me. As a point of reference for you, and in order to explore my initial response to the X-Card concept, please indulge me a moment in tracing the history of my involvement with RPG games. It goes way back the era of scantily-clad-heroines-in-distress and chainmail-bikini-clad-warrioress paintings of Boris Vallejo, and the racial stereotypes of first edition D&D (orcs=ugly and stupid, dark elves=evil, dwarves=grumpy and money grubbing, etc.) So, for me, coming up during the 70’s and 80’s, there wasn’t a whole lot of nuance or emotional consideration involved with playing RPG’s. At that time, it never really occurred to me that girls or women would even want to take part in such an activity. I guess, to their credit, the 1940’s and 50’s born white suburban (or small town) men who created D&D in the 1970’s did at least include some artwork of female characters, and the rules they wrote didn’t distinguish between sex or gender in terms of statistics and attributes the way they did with character races. Nowhere that I recall in 1E D&D did it state that female dwarves had to have beards or that female elves were smaller and had a lower strength score than males. But neither did those guys choose to depict characters who were queer (I am using “queer” as a reclaimed term, inclusive to refer to those who fall outside of cisgender or heterosexual identities—NOT as a pejorative!!), or black- or brown-skinned, or who had Asian features. I don’t believe that the intention of those game publishers was to deliberately exclude groups of people, simply that inclusion just wasn’t a thing most people thought of then, especially for something as “trivial” as a game. Nor was diverse representation common in much published fantasy or sci-fi literature we had access to then, which inspired our games.
My own personal horizons expanded hugely when I escaped the suburban middle class world I grew up in to attend an urban university and study art and theater. Coincidentally, the world was changing as well. AIDS activism and gay rights became a public discussion. There at college, I got to meet people who were different from me, and got to play games with a bunch of them.
One group I played with was made up largely of guys (yes, all men) who were theater actors and members of a comedy improv group. Those were some of the most hilariously unpredictable and absurd game sessions I ever experienced, but ultimately it was still a group of people from backgrounds pretty much like mine, using current fantasy and sci-fi novels as models for the storytelling. The odds that one of us would be likely to really offend another, or to go down a path that was untenable for another player were lower because we shared a similar background. We spoke the same “game language” and so had few, if any, misunderstandings about game content, or what lines should not be crossed. Truth be told, there weren’t many lines that weren’t crossed at some point.
Another group I played with in college was made up of roughly half queer members, which, in all honesty, , seemed like it was reflected in the game content almost not at all. The games we played were still heavily influenced by the fiction of the time, which was all hetero-normative (with a few scif-fi exceptions I can think of) and only just beginning to contain a larger share of female protagonists. I don’t remember any specific examples of anyone in that game group being offended or uncomfortable with the content of the games we had, but I’d be willing to bet that was because there weren’t any specifically queer characters or story-lines being explored. It was most likely (in retrospect, I’m guessing) a case of the queer players not “rocking the boat” by introducing queer themes into the game. In fact, this was probably the most “normal,” traditional fantasy-themed of any group I’ve played in. This was the late 80’s/early 90’s (tough to recall too many details of the games we played) and that is only my speculation about what took place back then.
A little later, one of the most memorable groups I gamed with was comprised of people with backgrounds that were different than mine. They were a trio transplanted from the Deep South, to the Midwest for school and work. They were a married couple, both openly bisexual, she very “Goth” and Wiccan, and he basically a tobacco chewing good ol’ boy who wore plaid shirts, a long ponytail and a ragged ballcap, always. And their roommate, a gay man who worked as a chemist (who always brought to mind a young Truman Capote). All very intelligent, creative people. I was introduced to them by a mutual friend who soon after left town for grad school. Every time I went to this trio’s house for a game session, I knew something truly weird and unique was going to happen. In this group, I was the odd one. And I enjoyed that. The storyline of the D&D game we played took place all within one huge city, and had the party (comprised of evil-aligned, often scheming characters, kept in check by mutual fear of our boss) working for a wealthy patron who ultimately turned out to be a vampire lord, who at one point had the party drink a potion to become undead so we could carry out a mission on the Negative Plane of Existence. The DM wove this whole weird, dark story completely out of thin air (or at least I hadn’t read anything remotely like that she could have borrowed from.) There were endless explorations and detailed drawings for a tower stronghold we designed and built, down to the secret passages, deadly traps and furnishings therein, and by one player, super meticulous accounts of the extravagant apparel his character designed (complete with watercolor sketches) (yes, it was the gay chemist, okay?) All in all, it was a bizarre and wonderful experience that I still think about almost 30 years later.
What’s my point in going down this memory lane?
First, that gaming with people who come from similar backgrounds to you can be really, really fun.
Second, that gaming with people who come from different backgrounds from you can be really, really fun.
It’s not the easiest thing to do, to seek to join a diverse group. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t done it as often as I should. The likelihood for a heterogeneous group to experience something really unique and eye-opening exists. And to have our eyes opened is good for us. Intuition tells me that gaming groups, like the world at large, are becoming more diverse. And as a result, the chances that someone might be made uncomfortable by the game content increases. Groups from diverse backgrounds don’t necessarily come equipped with a common “game language” of shared experience or even a contextual body language for communicating any discomfort that might arise. I can see where an X-Card might be really useful for a diverse group of people who aren’t as familiar with each other and each others’ backgrounds, as a tool for broaching the subject. If the alternative is a player biting the bullet, not having fun, experiencing discomfort or pain, or even feeling traumatized, and maybe ultimately needing to leave the group, then the group as a whole suffers. A simple edit of the story might be enough to move past it and prevent that discomfort.
Also, since we live in a time when we are (or should be) aware that we need to be more open about emotional and mental health issues, the X-Card could be just the ticket to initiate a difficult conversation, or at least acknowledge the fly in the ointment. There are bound to be in-game triggers for discomfort, fear, or anxiety from traumas people have experienced in real life. I don’t believe that people today are experiencing more trauma than they used to, merely that we are better at recognizing it and more aware that we need to talk about it in order to conquer it, or at the very least manage it. Talking about mental health is not easy, so here’s a tool to make it easier. That’s a positive shift for all of us.
An offshoot (an essential one, if you ask me) of the X-Card, the O-Card, encourages players (and the GM) to use the opposite O-side of the card to approve of game content, a signal to encourage more story in the same vein. Our game group uses a similar convention, the “red chip” (a red poker chip or its virtual equivalent) that the GM awards to players for developing fun game content. Players can also share “red chips” with other players (and by the same “token,” we should probably be sharing them with the GM as well) to encourage fun storylines. The red chips can be “spent” on a re-roll and to avoid “GM-intrusion” (for a fumbled dice roll most commonly) in the storyline. We all need encouragement and positive strokes in life, right? Here’s a specific way to show that we appreciate someone’s creativity and contribution to the shared game.
I’m glad our society is evolving and the gaming community is coming along with it, if not pioneering it in some ways. Thanks to Mr. Stavropolous for creating this needed tool. As I write this, I just saw a blurb about a wheelchair-accessible dungeon adventure that WoTC is publishing for D&D. How cool would that be for a kid who uses a wheelchair to at least have that content available to game with? With a little thought about other people, we can include them in our fun. As a straight white suburban male, RPG games were originally created for specifically for me. Now we can and should share the joy of gaming with everyone who wants to join in.
Thank you for indulging my musings on the X-Card and gaming in general. I feel so grateful to be part of a RPG and boardgame community. Gaming is one of the things in my life that makes me happiest, and I am old enough and (questionably) mature enough not to feel self-conscious about that. For a big chunk of my adulthood, I had set aside gaming as something that “grownups” did not partake in, as too “trivial” for the real world and its real problems. What a loss! From here on out, I’m doing my best to make up for that lost time by saying “yes” to as much shared game experience as I can.