02 August 2013

The X-Card

There's this really awesome idea that I first heard about from an interview with +John Stavropoulos: the X-card.

His explanation is probably the best, so I'll link to it (linky!) and just summarize it here: The X-card is left on the table as a go-to place for anyone in the game to use when content makes them uncomfortable. You just tap or lift the card, the group edits the content to get past or around whatever is problematic, and the game moves forward. John even includes a pretty awesome little intro speech (with choreography!) that you can use to introduce the X-cards into your game.

This year, for GenCon, I am saying a great big "I can't hear you" to my Imposter syndrome and volunteering as a GM for Games on Demand once again. I'm going to be offering two games: +Brad Murray and +C. W. Marshall's spectacular Hollowpoint, which is a game about bad people killing bad people for bad reasons, and Magpie Games' Our Last Best Hope, which is a game about classic disaster movies, focusing on personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds.

These are games (like every other roleplaying game I've ever played) that have the potential to take a hard ninety-degree turn into the darkness. These are games where having an X-card is not only potentially beneficial but where it might be almost a necessity. I have GM'd Hollowpoint with strangers before -- last year at GenCon -- with men and women and one older teenager with his parents. I didn't know about X-cards, but I knew about checking in with the table in advance, asking about language and "grown-up themes" and trying to watch my players. Even then, I encountered situations where I wasn't sure if we were still telling a story or if we were just trying to see who blinked first.

The problem is this: I'm a woman running a hyper-violent roleplaying game at a major gaming convention. (One day, I was a woman in a Buttercup costume running a hyper-violent roleplaying game at a major gaming convention). I'm constantly concerned that if I mess this game up, it's not going to be because I made a mistake: it's going to be because I'm a Girl GM.

Yeah, this is that post about being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated enterprise. It's about feeling like I'm not representing just me -- because, really, nobody is going to remember my name if I screw up one two-hour gaming session -- but they're going to remember that That Girl GM couldn't keep her NPCs straight. They're going to remember that That Girl GM failed to deliver two hours of rollercoaster entertainment. And they're going to remember that That Girl GM threw the X-card.

You see, John suggests that as the GM, you close out with “…and usually I’m the one who ends up using the X card to protect myself from you all!” and follow up by throwing the X-card on yourself early on. If it gets gory, or scary, or whatever, you laugh, and X-card yourself, to show it's no big deal.

I'm totally behind this concept -- as the GM, it's my responsibility to set the bar. When I GM a game I'm going to influence its tone, its pacing, and the direction of the plot -- even in GM-less games like Our Last Best Hope it's my table, and that means something. I want everyone to be comfortable, and have an awesome time, and go away telling stories about all of the amazing things that happened at Nykki B's table.

But when I'm throwing an X-card I'm afraid I'm not going to be Nykki B. I'm going to be Nykki B That Girl GM who couldn't cut it. And that's exactly what I'm supposed to be preventing by setting the example, aren't I? I'm supposed to be the one who makes it no big deal. And John, he's awesome, but he's never going to be That Girl GM, and I don't know if I can explain what it feels like, being aware that what I do isn't just about me.

It's just a con. It's a really big con that sells out the entire downtown hotel block of a major midwestern capital city, but it's just a con. And I'm just a GM and a woman and a gamer and a geek, and I'm not responsible for shouldering the entire con experience of women in gaming.

So yes I am going to bring the X-cards and I'm going to copy down all of John's awesome speech about using them, even the bit about protecting myself from my players, because fuck you imposter syndrome I am a good GM and I owe the best game I can possibly run to my players.

And I run a damn good game of Hollowpoint. Even if sometimes it means I blink first.


  1. Hi Nykki!

    1. You will be awesome and it will be fun!

    2. If you want to experience my casual x-card pregame spiel I'll be glad to share it with you! It is John's version, toned down a little, and I find it very effective at setting the mood at the table and making the technique accessible.

    Looking forward to meeting you!

    --Jason M

    1. We'll be at the Wednesday meeting and I'd be ecstatic for any tips and pointers you can provide.

    2. We'll be at the Wednesday meeting and I'd be ecstatic for any tips and pointers you can provide.