Safety Tools and the Birth of a Megalomaniac

No Thank You, Evil!/X-Card and Kids

I wish I could jump ahead five years and see how raising a little roleplayer with good safety tools in place will turn out.

In No Thank You, Evil!, the players can always use that phrase in play to stop and rewind something that makes them uncomfortable, scared, or otherwise unhappy. The classically trained gamer in me scoffs: suck it up, kid, you don’t always get what you want. I’m the boss and you’re not getting a participation trophy.

But lately I’ve been thinking long and hard about that classical training: AD&D in 5th grade, run by the “older kids” (middle schoolers or high schoolers, usually). Me, playing a paper-thin magic user with peer players who have no idea how to collaborate, coordinate, maybe you know fucking protect the magic user if it comes to that.

In their defense, the “older kids” who ran my earliest games didn’t have any idea what they were doing either. Either they were running modules and strictly following instructions, or their homebrew campaigns and nudging and shaping events to fit the arc they wanted to play out. But at no point was there really any awareness at all of what we think of now as safety. I mean, it’s all make-believe, right? So your dude died, suck it up, make a new one.

The first time a character of mine died, it was that paper-thin magic user and his…whatever, 10 hit points. I was 11. I don’t even remember the circumstances. But I was 11! I cried and cried. And rather than sympathy or even just a little space, the “older kids” thought it was the height of comedy. Then the peers got the message and joined in.

I think we all understand, especially for kids, that it’s not as simple as accepting that you’ve opted into a game so now you must accept literally anything that’s thrown at you. There are lots of subtle and not-subtle pressures to conform, to go along, to keep showing up even when you don’t really want to but your friends are there and that’s the important thing.

Really the problem was the inevitable evolution of the DM/GM role as absolute authority at the table. Oh, even as a kid I’d heard about college kids playing through scenarios with the Dungeon Master playing more of a referee role, willfully neutral arbiter between the game materials and the players.

My solution of course was to become the DM. Problem solved! Caves full of goblins weren’t my character, whatever, they can die by droves. Hey, I’m not the one killing your party, it’s the trap as written. Look at how willfully neutral I am.

I know this is an utterly cliched story and many folks went through it. I also know many folks did not, had a healthier relationship with the game and the power/authority/credibility dynamic at the table. But their experiences don’t disprove my experiences, so let’s not do that.

Anyway, back to the modern day.

I’ve run NTYE! three times for my daughter, who has just turned 5, and my wife, who has played a few mature games (Sagas of the Icelanders, Firefly, Fall of Magic) but is basically devoid of my “classical education” in early-80s dysfunctional gaming.

I treat the “no thank you, evil!” safeword sequence as absolutely inviolable. Not once do I fight her about it, raise an eyebrow, or even slow down. She knows she’s only to use it if stuff gets intense. And to her credit, she has never abused it just because things were a little intense or just not to her taste.


When the heroes show up at Ghoul School, they discover there’s been forced integration at the school. There are the ghouls and the old scary teachers, but now there are also ghosts at the school also learning their trade. There’s a whole racism undertone to the thing that she’s not sensitive to, but my wife is and we play with it a little.

Well so the ghouls eat ghouly things in this Hogwarts-esque dinner setting: boiling green pots filled with fingertips and barf. But the ghosts can’t eat that stuff. Instead, they get bowls marked “memories” and “sadness” and “dreams”. The bowls look empty.

My wife, in character, is excited to try ghost food. Iris, my daughter, is totally not. She like…vigorously shakes her head and her eyes get huge. But my wife’s character dips into “memories” and comes away with a flashback scene of their own parents, outside their house, pregnant with my daughter’s character. She is fascinated by this scene but no way no how does she want to try it.

“Do we need to stop?” I ask her.

“No, it’s okay, I guess my little sister is braver than I am,” she says, referring to my wife’s character.

So it’s interesting, right? I know as a former X-Card denier/skeptic, my instinct was that players would regularly abuse the rule to get out of uncomfortable or “losing” scenarios. But of course you can always cook up another scenario, right? It’s not a get-out-of-jail-free effect, it’s just a reframe. You can still introduce discomfort. And in my kid’s game, I totally do.

I can’t wait to see what becomes of her when she hasn’t been fed a steady diet of viking hats and weird power/authority stuff.

And I wonder how much different I’d have turned out if I hadn’t had to adapt to the dysfunctional power stuff that kids inflict on each other. Some of me suspects I’d be less good at the hobby now. Some of me suspects those sorts of thoughts are just there so I don’t think too much about the worst parts of a hobby that’s taken up my entire conscious life.

11 thoughts on “Safety Tools and the Birth of a Megalomaniac”

  1. Would that reviving old RPGs could happen uniformly without reviving old RPG baggage. I feel like mostly this doesn’t happen, but I’ve seen it happen enough. Ref: the last conversation about the X-Card I had in that space.

  2. My first D&D experience was when I was 8. It was diceless of all things (because the DM forgot the dice) so it was entirely DM fiat, for everything.

    I rolled up a 1st level M-U in a party of 3-5th level characters. We promptly got captured by a high level evil Druid who was master of the giant stone fortress we were raiding (no idea…)

    Every escape plan we came up with to get out failed (pick locks, fail. Bend bars, fail. Potion of gaseous form, it worked but then he just recaptured us in a jar, fail. Tunnel out, fail.)

    Eventually the other players got bored and decided to kill me for fun. They killed me. Then buried me. Then dug me up. Then tortured my corpse, then the Druid raised me so they could kill me again.

    I was totally hooked.

  3. I wrote a long post about a recent D&D campaign I quit because of an important (to me) but apparently disposable (to the GM) trans NPC, and the GM’s “defense” that their narration of the surprise death was only a consequence of PC action. Then I deleted it because who cares about the detail. Not sure an X-card would have helped with that situation as it developed, but you never know. It might have saved about a year of campaign.

  4. Great post, Paul. The first time I played D&D was one-on-one, with an older mentor figure (karate coach) taking me through a dragon slaying adventure.

    The second time, I was the GM for all my friends at the time. I railroaded so badly that I wouldn’t even let my best friend choose which class to play (I just knew he’d love being a wizard, you see, and I already had awesome plans for giving him amazing magical items he’d love). Yikes!

    I set straight for “recreating Lord of the Rings”, right out of the gate.

    However, I also instituted a rule that the GM chair would rotate every session (with the same characters), so I had a bit of the hippy jiuice in there, too. (I guess my grandiose plans either didn’t pass a single session at the time, or I just didn’t consider how other people GMing could screw them up.)

    We were the opposite of abusive, in a way – we all gave each other way too much cool stuff and no one ever died and it was power fantasy all the way. So much so we had to start over because the PCs were impossible to challenge anymore.

  5. Keep the stories coming, Paul Beakley​! I feel a tickle of pride every time my 4yo son gets out the game and starts distributing the tokens. We’ve played almost every day since Christmas. He’s so excited he can’t sit still and runs around the room while he’s describing his character’s actions.

    We’ve never had to use the phrase so far, but I’m still probing what’s interesting and what gets his involvement. When he doesn’t like something, he straight out interrupts me and says what he wants to happen instead, and I often ask loaded questions and use the answers. It’s fun!

  6. Perhaps this is the answer to raising players who are not fully intent on reliving the awesome murder hobo from their youth? Just ordered, maybe I can get my three oldest to play a round…..

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