The idea is that when playing roleplaying games or storytelling games, especially with people you don't know very well (with a new gaming group, or at a convention with strangers, etc), there's always a chance that the game may veer into territory that is uncomfortable for some players. It's less likely when you're with a group that you know quite well, but even then, it is still a possibility. When such a theme pops up in a game, it may diminish the fun for one or more players. In extreme cases, it might even trigger a traumatic experience.
The X-Card is a way of helping to avoid such experiences as much as possible.
The X-Card is, quite simply, an index card with an X drawn on it. The concept is described in great detail by its creator, John Stavropoulos, in the Google Document he wrote. In this article, I'm going to provide a brief overview of the X-Card, some background, and detail the advantages of using it.
An Overview of The X-CardTo use the X-Card, simply place it in the centre of the table. There is a short speech detailed in the document linked above which describes the use and purpose of the card, to ensure that players know what it is, what it's for, and how to use it. Then begin your game as normal.
If, at any point, a player feels uncomfortable with something that's happening in the game, that player raises the X-Card, or taps it, or places a finger on it. This lets the other players know that the current topic is an unpleasant one, and the players (the GM included) will steer away from that topic. That theme is, as the original document describes it, 'X-carded.'
No questions asked. A player who X-cards something is not required to explain why the topic is being X-carded. If it's necessary to clarify what exactly is being X-carded, the GM can take that player aside for a brief discussion. Otherwise, the topic is simply excised and the game continues.
The X-Card is not the first attempt to make gaming a safer space. The concept of 'lines and veils' was an earlier attempt to make the gaming world more welcoming to everyone. However, John Stavropolous noticed two major flaws with the 'lines and veils' concept. First, it required people to describe the issues they want to avoid before the game begins. This can be problematic in that asking people to talk about their triggers can be a trigger in itself. If something bothers a person, best to avoid talking about it at all, rather than asking that person to talk about it before the game even starts.
Secondly, 'lines and veils' is based on the idea that everyone will be able to foresee all the topics that will come up in a game session. It is entirely possible, after all, that someone will encounter an uncomfortable theme in a game that they did not anticipate.
The X-Card avoids both of these problems by allowing players to signal their discomfort, after it has arisen, without a need to worsen the trauma by talking about the source of that discomfort.
Advantages of the X-Card
The first and most obvious advantage of the X-Card is that it makes gaming more accessible to people who would otherwise be driven away from the hobby due to fear of suffering (or re-experiencing) some sort of mental trauma. For example, I know an individual who is triggered by yelling. Although it seems like such a minor thing, I witnessed an occasion on which this person spent an entire evening feeling miserable and uncomfortable as a result of a brief outburst by someone else.
Why would we allow anyone to feel such unpleasantness in a hobby that is supposed to bring people joy?
By presenting a simple, easy, and effective way to communicate our boundaries, we ensure that everyone at the table is able to have a good time.
Criticism of the X-Card
There have been many people who are opposed to the use of the X-Card (or other similar techniques). Some people say that using such items will limit the creativity of the GM, or cause players to feel restricted in the actions they can take. But in practise, this method allows both players and GMs to feel free to explore the limits of their creativity without having to worry if their actions will upset anyone at their table. Knowing that there is a failsafe to prevent anyone from getting upset allows people to push the boundaries of what's possible.
There are also those who feel that accommodating people's triggers is an indication of how society has become 'too sensitive.' Such individuals often invoke 'the good old days,' when people were tougher. 'Back in my day,' the common refrain goes, 'people weren't so afraid of every little thing!'
But what's actually true is that we, as a society, were less aware of legitimate psychological issues suffered by many people. There were plenty of people 'back in the good old days' who often suffered endless mental anguish as a result of real problems, but were not properly cared for.
When you stop to think about it, those who invoke such arguments (Why can't they just toughen up? Back in my day, topics like this didn't bother anyone!) are really saying, 'I want to explore this topic, and I don't care if it upsets anyone else.' Such people are only showing themselves to be callous jerks. In my opinion, if anyone refuses to use or abide by the stipulations of the X-Card, you should not play games with that person.
I was very excited to discover this amazing new tool. In fact, just recently, I found myself accidentally upsetting one of the players in my game by discussing a topic that the player found bothersome. I was completely unaware that there was anything going on, until another player pointed out the distress that the first player was experiencing. I felt terrible for not noticing the discomfort I had inadvertently caused. If we had had the X-Card at that time, perhaps this situation could have been avoided.
I know I will be using the X-Card in the future. I hope that you do too! But even if you don't, hopefully I've at least given you something to think about. So ponder this issue, and remember to play more games. And in case you've forgotten, allow me to give you your weekly reminder to