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Friday, 6 November 2020

I've been x-carded!

You know I mentioned a little while back that I was planning to run The Wars mini-campaign from The Yellow King RPG. Well, you didn't miss anything because it never happened. Why? I got my first x-card.

What dat, you ask? Here's what the Yellow King RPG has to say:
"Each player receives an index card with an X on it. When someone introduces subject matter that a player finds truly, personally fun-ruining, the player holds up the card. The player can either suggest that the troubling element be dialed back, or dropped entirely. You and the other players, as the fine and considerate people you are, accede to the request without pushback, adjusting the narration as desired."
In preparing for the first session I'd been assigning nicknames to the player-characters, who were all members of an infantry platoon in a sort of not-quite WW2 with bits of steampunky WW1. One of the players complained that one of the other characters' nickname was in poor taste. Don't worry, it wasn't some awful racist David Starkey offence; I'm not that insensitive to modern etiquette. It was pretty much in the same line as the name of the corporal pictured left, actually. But I don't do "no pushback" so I pointed out that squaddies in a brutal mid-20th century world war would not share the sensibilities of civilians in 21st century London. Taste would be very low on their agenda when inflicting a nickname on a new recruit.

In fact it helped me make up my mind to pull the plug on the game. It's always better to do that before wasting the players' time on a session or two, as happened with another famously crowdfunded RPG that I'd better not mention. It wasn't because of that x-carding -- I could easily enough have changed the character's nickname to something untroubling to that player -- but because it had been dawning on me throughout the character-creation process that the Wars campaign I wanted to run wasn't the one most of the players wanted to be in. Mine would have ideally been The Red Cavalry meets Kafka, and I'd have settled for Charley's War; the players were hoping for Kelly's Heroes (perhaps with a dash of 'Allo 'Allo) and would have settled for Fury. And it was quite enough work just to prepare the game; I didn't also want to have to stop and justify my creative choices every session against what one or other of the players might regard as good taste. Once you do that you start to self-censor, and then nobody is happy. Better to walk away.

We are back to the question of how sentimental and moral the universe of the campaign was meant to be. For me, there would be no heroes or villains. NPCs would say and do the sort of things I'd put into a novel, where nothing should be out of bounds. Attitudes would be harsh, soldiers brutalized, taste offended. Players who are accustomed to adventure stories in genre settings would not find that water lovely. (Case in point: listen at 24m 24s here to the Appendix N fellows describing how to efficiently ruin a fine Robert E Howard story for the sake of making it palatable to the dopiest readers.) Even if I removed the original cause of offence there'd be something else to complain about in short order, because the real problem was the disconnect between my whole gaming ethic and the players'. One player said to me, "This groups prefers games where we survive and win." So of course they were never going to go for a campaign set in an endless war whose origins defied logic and where their characters' orders were (a brilliant touch by Robin D Laws, this) to report to their own side for execution.

Gumshoe-style RPGs like The Yellow King frequently liken campaigns to long-running TV shows. The shows I like best tend to be the ones that get cancelled, often before the end of their first season: Vinyl, Action, Journeyman, Aquarius, Cupid. Same with the kinds of games I'd like to run if I could. A couple of players might say they were great; most would find something else to do until the campaign wound up. To avoid doing lots of set-up work that ends up in the bin, I have to rein in my own preferences, keep an eye of the Neilsen ratings, and just do it "for the network". It means never pushing the boat out to try anything very startling, disturbing or original, but that's what RPG referees have in common with TV producers. C'est le jeu.

The takeaway is to think about the kind of game the players want. If we must see roleplaying campaigns as TV shows, the referee/GM is the showrunner and the players are the cast, sure, but they're also the audience. Ask yourself if this is going to be a show they'll stick with over seven seasons, or one they'll want to switch off after half an episode. Don't wait until they start to fling x-cards at you. An x-card means "I don't trust you to run this game" and the signs should be there long before you reach that point. You'll save yourself a lot of work if you're alert to reading the room, not blinded (as I was) by my enthusiasm for the campaign inside my head.

But here's one of those opportunities that playing over the internet has opened up. I don't have to find a campaign that appeals to the whole gaming group. Before, when we all arranged to meet up every other Thursday, whatever we played had to appeal to all of us. That was the equivalent of the network TV drama. But over Zoom, Skype, Discord, whatever, my campaign can be a cable show. There's a good reason you don't get stuff like Breaking Bad or Succession on ad-supported networks -- smaller audiences equals more quirkiness and more daring. So maybe I should be pitching the campaign concept and players can decide if they're up for it -- and for those who aren't there's always the other channel.

Judging by this review of The Yellow King by Mike Cule and Roger Bell-West, I have that x-card to thank for dodging a bullet. Roger mentions "the frankly intimidating amount of work it would take to run it well" and Mike alludes to the near-impossibility of improvising anything that could inflict shock or injury, which are the two metrics of damage to characters. I had already put in a full week just prepping the first session of The Wars, only to realize that what I really needed was another game system, a different war setting, and to invite only those players who were intrigued by the pitch. If you're worried about missing all the unsettling Ligottian stuff I had planned, though, I'll hopefully still find a home for it somewhere. Maybe in a scenario on this blog for Armistice Day -- if that wouldn't seem in poor taste.


  1. A comment from Roger Bell_West that I'm posting here because Blogger won't let him:

    "I haven't yet found a way of making X-cards work through pure video chat, but mostly I haven't played with strangers that way anyway. I see the thing as best suited for convention games, where the players and GM don't know what each other may consider acceptable; my convention games often have a significant element of horror and potential squick, and while so far I've been able to read the room well enough not to have a player stalking off or breaking down (in part by making sure the blurb says it's a horror game so some people simply won't turn up), I certainly intend to have an X-card on the table when I start running convention games again. For a group I know well, I have some idea of what they'll be unhappy about.

    "But your problem sounds to me like the one that Bill Stoddard solves with campaign prospectuses: even before someone's committed to running the game, they've all seen the blurb that says roughly what to expect.(This is also good for me as the potential GM, because it encourages me to think about what the default adventures will be, as well as mood and tone and so on.) What I try to get out of that, and I admit it doesn't always work, is that the players have chosen _this_ game out of the ones on offer, and therefore have an initial commitment to "surrealist horror" or whatever one might call it.

    "For example, Mike is rather more on the 'survive and win' side than I am. I enjoy Call of Cthulhu even when the resolution is "you all go mad and die", because I trust the GM that there was a _chance_ of winning but we messed up. (There is at least one published adventure for Trail of Cthulhu which is unwinnable, and that's outside my comfort zone; it feels like just a tour of the horrors, and for that I'll read a book or watch a film.) I think my ideal CoC outcome is that we _win_, we hold off the horror for another decade… _and_ we go mad and die.

    "But given the players I know I tend to run a bit less viciously than that; I see the RPG not as showrunner/writer/cast/audience (for all I use a lot of TV-series metaphors about it) but as a collaborative process of generating excitement, enjoyment, and in the end a good anecdote about that time when. I don't run the same game with Whartson Hall that I'd run with the Wednesday night Cambridge group (even if it's the same scenario).

    "I applaud your optimism in potentially turning to the Internet for players. If I did Twitter or Facebook I might have a larger potential audience, but as it is I'm mostly reliant on people I already know and the occasional newcomer. (And to be fair I have no time or creative energy to run more games anyway, much as I'd like to.)"

    1. I was hoping you'd comment, Roger. And, like you, I use the TV show analogy without really believing in it. But then, all analogies are only picking out parts of the whole. Comparisons are invidious.

      I don't run convention games (and recruiting players online would probably be that problem squared) but if I did I'd need a better problem than X-cards. Once the card is played, suspension of disbelief is never fully going to recover. It would be like providing cinema audiences with buzzers: "Be sure to press that if anything offends you and we'll stop the movie while everybody discusses it."

      At the same time I don't want to cause offence. Or rather, I don't want to cause offence to a player who can't tolerate being offended. I can't really use a prospectus because I don't want to force the game into a genre wrapper. The most I could say upfront is: "Anything goes. I have no idea where the game will take us, and if you find you're regularly disliking what happens then it'd be best for you to drop out. If you do, I'd prefer if you did that at the end of a session rather than walking out during a game, and I'd rather you walked out mid-game than stop the game while you tell the other players what you didn't like about it."

      (In effect: "This is going to be X-rated. If you can't take it, don't play.")

      Mainly this isn't because I want to inflict offence on the players (I don't plan events that tightly) but because I don't want to miss the moments when I myself am shocked by what the players do. Often I find their behaviour horrifying. Well, good. Characters in fiction frequently horrify, offend, astound, delight or disgust me too. I'm playing for the same reasons I consume any art, to experience new sensations whatever they may be. If I only wanted certain sensations I'd watch only pre-watershed commercial TV and children's movies. (Those truly would offend me, I'm sure.)

      But offence aside, what do I do about the plain differences in taste? A prospectus here would work better, because I don't have to commit myself to a genre to give the players a sense of the tone I'm hoping for. In the case of The Yellow King, I could have saved a lot of time if I'd realised most of the group were bound to want to play it as a gung-ho adventure. The X-card didn't actually relate to that, it was just a timely wake-up call.

      To use a very outdated analogy, I often say to my wife that I'd like to watch the version of Doctor Who that would be on late at night on BBC2; I want to live in the alternate world where the show grew up with its viewers. I fondly imagined that with online play we could set up a superposition of both worlds for our Last Fleet game: the RTD jokey hi-jinks plot-driven version for the "survive & win" players and the Nigel Kneale downbeat character-driven version for the players like me. But on the first week when I and one of the other non-combatant players said we'd sit it out, the adventure-motivated players voted to skip the session. They want *everybody* to play survive-&-win, not have a two-speed game for the different groups. So it's back to the drawing board...

    2. In our Cthulhu games I’ve had one character go mad but keep functioning and even recover, only to die when he attempted to use an immortality device taken from a foe. Our GM had decided that there as no knowledge there for us to understand, but my guy was (unfortunately for him) a scientist. Another character did save the day but went mad, recovered to extent of being just about able to function in daily life (there’s a pattern) and then got sucked into another dimension rather than kill a creature in the form of a little girl. And my other character was a Jesuit priest who got possessed by a Cthulhoid tattoo and effectively got taken over by the GM. I don’t really mind whether they succeed in the adventure because I rarely take much notice of the ostensible objective anyway, regarding the plot as a McGuffin to hang our character interplay on. I might differ from almost all the other players on that one.

    3. Above: "I'd need a better *solution* than X-cards." Duh. I blame the distracting effect of the election!

    4. Roger replies:

      > Once the card is played, suspension of disbelief is never fully going to recover.

      “I don't have the same level of problem with it. (Or with wishing not to be offended in general.) I don't encounter people using this for trivial stuff; it's more along the lines of someone with a personal terror of eye injury who really can't cope with that, so the answer is to elide the description and move on to the next thing. After all, in the rare case that someone just wants to be an arse and spoil the game, they have plenty of ways to do that already.

      “I do see your point about wanting to follow the game where it goes, and I think RPGs are a better medium for this than many other sorts of fiction; I just don't find this particular way of saying "look, Roger, I'm really uncomfortable with this, can we move on" any worse than any other.”

      >Offence aside, what do I do about the plain differences in taste? A prospectus here would work better, because I don't have to commit myself to a genre to give the players a sense of the tone I'm hoping for.

      “Yes. The prospectus approach does have the disadvantage that you can't surprise the players with major campaign twists, but I don't really regard that as a bad thing. I once joined someone's long-running modern mercenaries game, only to discover that that was the session he'd chosen to send the party through a one-way gate to Fantasyland. Could have been interesting, but not the game I thought I was joining, and I didn't go back. (No idea how the other players felt about it; I didn't know them well.)

      “The great thing for me about a text paragraph rather than a checklist of genre-style-tone-etc. quite apart from problems of definition is that one doesn't have to specify things that may vary; if tone is the important thing, that's what gets the detailed treatment.”

      > I fondly imagined that with online play we could set up a superposition of both worlds for our Last Fleet game: the RTD jokey hi-jinks plot-driven version for the "survive & win" players and the Nigel Kneale downbeat character-driven version for the players like me.

      “I think it would be tricky to maintain distinct tones for different styles of game; to take just the first example that comes to mind, KnealeWho would probably have quite a bit of crippling and killing of regulars, while DaviesWho mostly wouldn't.”

      > I don’t really mind whether they succeed in the adventure because I rarely take much notice of the ostensible objective anyway, regarding the plot as a McGuffin to hang our character interplay on. I might differ from almost all the other players on that one.

      “For me it's helpful that success is on the table, even if it's not achieved. And in most of the actual games I run and play in… well, not counting Tunnels and Trolls I don't remember the last time I witnessed a PC death.”

    5. Re the contrast between DaviesWho and KnealeWho, I was weaned on the Hartnell era and expected to see companions die suddenly -- Katarina, Sara Kingdom, even Antodus:

      Now that I've mentioned KnealeWho, I keep thinking "if only". Some will argue that was the Pertwee/UNIT era, but that was very much the kiddie version of Quatermass. I suppose the nearest to what I'm looking for is the first couple of episodes of The Stranger.

      I'm wondering what it would take for RPGs to be taken as seriously as, say, drama. Kids lark about ("I shot you, you're dead." "I'm taking my cowboy hat then.") but can't we get adult make-believe to the level where participants really commit. I grew to loathe playing on Discord because some players put up funny videos and cartoons as comments on the action (the solution is to turn the monitor off and go full radio theatre) and what I'd really like is a group who all throw themselves fully into the shared fantasy. Other than Tekumel games, though, I've never seen that happen.

    6. If you just came in, I'm posting Roger's comments because Blogger won't let him do it:

      “Now that I think of it, there was a Call of Cthulhu PC death not that long ago – which wasn't strictly necessary to the narrative but certainly came at a climactic moment, which is at least more fun for the player than ‘oh, the 17th orc has done one more hit point to you and you've run out’.”

    7. Death by attrition can seem bathetic, and it’s certainly the dramatic demises I remember best, such as when the hero Chaideshu was beheaded by Origob on the demon planes -- that was an MCU-worthy moment. But I’m a firm believer in “the game is everything that is the case” and sometimes the anti-climactic deaths are also powerful because they’re unexpected and futile. In our GURPS Legend game, Joe Lynch was a mighty warrior who boasted about laughing in the face of hopeless odds, and then he fell in a fight we thought almost beneath our notice. GURPS earned its keep that day, because the fall-out from Joe’s death spun a whole bunch of interesting developments in the party.

    8. Roger B_W: “Sometimes a funny aside is tension management, cracking a joke because otherwise things are too grim and dark; with some of the players I know that can happen in-character, which I love. But while I enjoy the deep game such as you describe I also enjoy the shallow game where we've all had hard days at work and want to relax a bit. (And particularly this year I've felt players drifting more towards the latter; my situation is such that I've been relatively unstressed by quarantines and so on.)”

    9. I’d never want to banish humour, not even out-of-game asides (though I much prefer the jokes players make in-character), but sometimes it feels like it’s being used to avoid committing to the game. And I get that players can feel tired, stressed or over-worked and don’t have the energy to throw into playing in-character, but in that case I’d rather they sat on the sidelines. But perhaps I’m not making enough allowance for the stress of lockdowns here. Like you, I haven’t been too bothered by it, as I work from home and enjoy my country walk much more when it’s through a landscape uncluttered by other human presence.

    10. Roger: “In short (thank goodness), I agree that this is an expectation mismatch but I have no idea how you'd go about getting players who are a better match (unless, I suppose, you start by picking from those who have the supreme good taste to read your blog).”