Friday, November 24, 2023


The X-Card emerged from the indie/storygamer side of the hobby maybe ten or so years ago. Originally taking the form of an index card with a simply X drawn it with a Sharpie or something like that, more elaborate versions--some involving multiple cards--have appeared over the years. (Example)

The idea behind the X-Card is real simple: pointing to it or holding it up is meant to signify that the game is going in a direction that the player finds uncomfortable, disconcerting, or hurtful. The rest of the table then backs away from whatever they were up to, perhaps with some sort of rewind or revision. Since the X-Card was formulated under a framework of ongoing consent, there is no option to challenge or override the usage of the X-Card. Nor is the person who played the X-Card under any obligation to explain or justify themselves.

I've never played in a game that used X-Cards and the kind of safety rails it provides seem less necessary in the stupid and shallow games I tend to run, but I still think they're a pretty smart idea. Especially in convention play where no one knows anyone else's psychological buttons or hard limits. The X-Card strikes me as a genuine advance in the field of role-playing technology.

That naughty fellow Venger Satanis seems to feel differently, though. His Cha'alt X-Cards are a response to the inherent squeamishness of the original concept. Venger's X-Cards come in sets of 8, one each for the major themes of his Cha'alt campaign setting: eldritch, gonzo, science-fantasy, postapocalypse, humor, sleaze, pop-culture, and grindhouse exploitation. Players hold up the card to indicate they want more of that theme, requiring the ref to oblige. In exchange for reminding the referee that Cha'alt ain't your daddy's vanilla D&D, the player earns a point of divine favor, which can be turned in to reroll a poor die throw.

This strikes me as one of those "the opposite of a good idea is also a good idea" situations. I wouldn't use both the original and Venger's X-Cards at the same table, but I think either could could enhance a lot of different kinds of games. To use Venger's idea in a non-Cha'alt game would require coming up with your own list of campaign themes to build your X-Card deck around. I've been thinking about this vis-a-vis my current Dillhonker City campaign. Here are my ideas for card themes:

Technically, We're in Early Modern Europe
Elves Fucking Suck
Wizards Make Everything Worse
Like Tolkien But Stupider

Maybe some of my players will have some additional ideas.

PS: Venger is running a Black Friday sale on his Cha'alt hardcover. Details here.


  1. Anonymous10:52 AM

    I'm not a fan of either concept, myself.

  2. Real X cards (as opposed to the parody of them) didn't seem important to me until the first time I watched a Gulf War veteran have a serious PTSD attack at a con that resulted in injuries and arrests. That all could have been avoided if the GM and other players had listened to the guy when he said things were getting too intense for him. X cards turn the volume up on that sort of warning so even the stupidest, least empathetic dolt can't pretend they don't get it - or if they do, they deserve to get a few teeth knocked out.

    1. Anonymous9:59 PM

      It also could have been avoided if the guy excused himself when he felt agitated instead of throwing a tantrum.

    2. "Stupidest, least empathetic dolt" and "they deserve to get a few teeth knocked out"...WTF?!? Ironically, if I had an X-card in front of me, I'd hold it up for you right now.

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    1. Anonymous5:28 PM

      Honest question: if one player indicates that they don't like a theme in a game, but the entirety of the rest of the group of players is really enjoying the exploration of that theme, is the group in the wrong for politely telling that player that perhaps this particular game just isn't right for that player? Put another way, is it always contingent upon a gaming group to cater to the sensitivities of any player that might wish to join a game?

      Myself, I don't think so. Rude behavior is just that, and we should aim for a high level of respect in all of our interactions with other gamers. However, I think that goes both ways.

      If a player isn't comfortable with a situation, no one should shame them for indicating that fact. However, if the rest of the group respectfully responds that the theme is important to the game and/or something that they want to continue to explore, I don't consider them to be rude for politely saying as much. In such a case, I think the right move might be for that player to simply leave.

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  4. Anonymous2:08 PM

    when I GM a game especially a campaign I’ve long since taken it upon myself to be the go to person who the player can take aside and talk to if they’re uncomfortable with something happening with the other players. with groups of friends I already had this was never necessary but in the last 10 years or so when I run more campaigns for strangers I make it very clear. Especially now that I pretty much run exclusively online games. In discord I make a secondary voice chat called side tavern or whatever where a player can go in and talk alone to me about any problems. I especially but kind of quietly let any female players know or people who are trans or whatever. take me into the side Tavern and let me know what the problem is because “I got your back”. Since these campaigns are primarily made up of strangers and you can only vet so much everybody should know that they have to be comfortable talking to me if they’re uncomfortable or unhappy with something. so no X card necessary. in recent years I’ve become more sympathetic towards a certain amount of player agency .I have considered it for in case somebody has a problem with some thing I’m doing with the game. I do run a game for adults. but again the side tavern can come in handy for that. as for Vengers games I kind of assume that most of his players are fans of his stuff anyway and know what they’re in for. - Kevin Mac

  5. I could never run a Con game these days. I have Anxiety, and the thought of a player pulling an X card on me really triggers it.
    I've noticed that these systems apparently intended to protect players put huge burdens on the GM. Although it's also pretty bad as a player when the GM wants me to tell her my triggers/things that upset me. I find that telling her I have a problem with drowning (because people I know drowned) is far far more upsetting than encountering drowning in-game.

  6. I am actually in a game you run and I think adding a metagame mechanic is less fun than just having your character do things that push the game in the direction you want. A fundamental asymmetry in the x-card vs the anti-x-card is that the x-card is about _not wanting to think about something_ which is sometimes a medical necessity but otherwise always a bad idea to be avoided, whereas having _more_ of a given theme suggests you do want to think about it. And if you _do_ want to think about it: then think hard enough to get it in the game yourself--that is, use the game's mechanism of participation to get the thinking going. Like: I want to think about how the goblin character views elves, that's fun and interesting. If i can just pull a card makign the world agree with me, I think _less_ which is not the point of deciding to use my imagination in a chal;enge-based game. Venger--as a pretty chronic underthinker--probably didn't think of that.

    1. The GM and players have different roles in an RPG. Let's say a particular player with a sky-elf thief believes this would be a good time to increase the scene's eldritch quotient by 7% or whatever. Sure, his PC could start mouthing-off about tentacles or searching the room for copies of the witch-haunted Necronomicon, but that player's ability to affect the world and the story are rather limited, as traditional gaming intends. He's usually free to do those sorts of things with his character, but the GM has a bigger brush and can do a whole lot more painting (both in and outside the lines).

      This isn't the end-all be-all of RPG evolution; however, it is (as you suggested) another mechanism of participation within the medium.
      Or perhaps Cha'alt X-Cards are a fun little metagaming tool that improves our stories by keeping Cha'altian tropes at the forefront? Either way, nothing to get worked-up about. I've used it myself a half-dozen sessions now, and it's made every single one of them a better game.

      Hey, maybe one day I'll invent cards GMs get to use on players in order to inspire PCs to do cool, wild, hilarious, insane, brutal, and Lovecraftian shit? Hmm...

  7. Huh. I thought the X-card was about 20 years old, not 10.