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Black and white clip art depiction of audio being turned into a transcript.

Black and white clip art depiction of audio being turned into a transcript. On the left, the sound is depicted by a pair of headphones with an audio wave going between the two ears pads. A simple black arrow goes from left to right. On the right, the transcript is represented by a stylized typed document.

 

In order to make these transcripts as accessible as possible, each one is produced in four formats: as an online post for access convenience, in a word document with a low vision friendly font (Veranda), in a pdf with a dyslexia friendly font (OpenDyslexic), and a low contrast blue on black pdf as an access option for people with migraines (Veranda).

 

Writing Alchemy Episode 18 – Unfamiliar Heroes Episode Zero

Note: ‘*’ is used to indicate music and sound effects that were added to the recording.

[*Intro music that is an energetic, electronic song begins playing.]

TOBI: You are listening to Writing Alchemy: stories that step outside the oppressive grind of the everyday world with your host, writer and artist, Fay Onyx.

[*Music swells and then fades to a background volume.]

FAY: Unfamiliar Heroes is a podcast series in which three disabled, neurodiverse, and /or chronically ill players and a game master play story-focused tabletop role-playing games where all of the player characters have disabilities, diverse minds, and/or chronic illnesses. Today’s episode lays down the foundations, core values, and ground rules of these games.

[*Music swells and then fades out entirely.]

FAY: Hello, and welcome to the 18th episode of Writing Alchemy. I am Fay Onyx and today is the very first episode of Unfamiliar Heroes: my new series in which people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or divergent brains play tabletop role-playing games, where their characters have disabilities, chronic illnesses, or divergent brains. This is a special episode that I’m calling Unfamiliar Heroes Episode Zero because it covers the core principles and ground rules of the Unfamiliar Heroes series. The first Unfamiliar Heroes story episode will be coming out Thursday, July 27th, the last Thursday in July.

This game will be played using the Monster Hearts 2 role-playing system. This game system is designed to create melodramatic teenage monster dramas with supernatural characters like ghosts, vampires, witches, and werewolves. Monster Hearts is a game that is informed by its creator’s queer experience. It handles sexuality and asexuality in a way that is intended to challenge the players to contend with the complexity and uncertainty of desire while respecting a sexual identity. I hope that you’re as excited about this project as I am and will join us on Thursday, July 27th for the first episode.

At this point, I want to take a moment to say thank you to all of the people who helped make this show possible. To all of my Patreon backers, a huge heartfelt thank you for setting aside your money to support Writing Alchemy. Your contributions keep the show going. To all of my guests and participants past, present, and future, thank you for putting in the time, effort, and commitment to add your unique perspective and experience to this show. I can’t do this without you. And to each person who took the time to comment and share this show with others, thank you for helping this project grow. Your participation is creating a community and I am so grateful for that!

And with that said, I’d like to point out that you can follow Writing Alchemy on Twitter, @writing_alchemy, and on facebook at facebook.com/writingalchemy. Visit writingalchemy.net to find all of the Writing Alchemy podcasts, articles, and stories. And if you want to help me keep this podcast going, pledge your support on Patreon at P A T R E O N dot com slash writingalchemy. And now let’s get to the show!

[*A bright, bouncy piece of electronic music plays and then slowly fades out.]

First, I’m going to read a short article which covers the reasons why I feel that this project is so important and needed.

 

We Need More room for Disability Representation

I am going to start by saying that in general, there’s an absence of stories with disabled characters. When disabled characters do show up, they are often confined to specific narrow roles. Most often disabled characters are used as objects of pity, inspiration, or both, where our everyday struggles are treated as if they are somehow more extraordinary or terrible than the struggles in other people’s lives.

In stories that portray disabled heroes, they are either disabled in name only (usually as a character who has magic abilities or technology that makes them effectively an able-bodied person), or they are treated like their mind is the only thing they have to contribute (almost as if the writers wanted to erase or ignore their disabled bodies).

In addition, these portrayals of disabled characters frequently fail to capture the lived experience of being disabled. In these stories, the characters never seem to encounter the barriers that real-world disabled people run into every day. And yet the world they live in is not portrayed as more accessible than modern USA society.

The lack of real-feeling diverse representations of disabled people is a major concern for many disabled writers, artists and activists, and it is a key reason I have put so much effort into including disabled characters in my own writing.

Well, in addition to being a writer, I’m an avid player of tabletop role-playing games. But despite my commitment to writing disabled characters, I have not been playing disabled characters in these games. In fact, until recently, I was struggling to imagine what dynamic, awesome disabled characters would be like in the context of these games. This is because many role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, are action-focused and revolve around power fantasies of characters that are not only able-bodied, but physically capable far beyond the capacity of a normal, able-bodied human. The very structures of these games can make it hard to play disabled characters.

As a queer person, I know that it is important for me to be able to play queer characters, and to have that part of who I am reflected in games. In the same manner, I believe that is important for me to be able to play disabled characters.

Too often, the world around me gives me the message that being disabled is a state of being lesser, broken or incapable. But the truth is that real-world disabled people are capable of many, many things. And we need to be reminded of this in the face of all the messages telling us the opposite. This is why it is so important to be able to imagine and play heroic disabled characters that reflect this truth.

I want to experience diverse, dynamic, complicated, amazing, and capable disabled heroes. That is why I’m creating the Unfamiliar Heroes podcast series, because I want to work with other disabled people to combine our experience and creativity to make something that is bigger and more expansive than any of us could do on our own. Together, I hope we can have fun playing tabletop role-playing games, while we create real-feeling disabled characters that express the diverse lived experiences of disabled people in games that demonstrate all of the genuinely amazing things that disabled people are capable of.

 

My next piece is about one of the core goals of this project. That goal is centering people who experience intersecting forms of oppression. Here, I’m going to say a few words about this goal and the ways I’m building it into the structure of Unfamiliar Heroes.

It is my goal to center people living at the intersections of different forms of oppression. I believe that this will only truly happen if the game is structured to put that priority into action. To that end, I’m establishing structures to prioritize inclusion, to reduce oppression in the game environment, and to interrupt oppression when it occurs.

I recognize that one of the effects of oppression is that some marginalized people have had less time and energy to learn about the oppression that affects themselves and others. Therefore, it is particularly important to find ways of reducing and interrupting oppression that are accessible and inclusive and that assist change without shame.

The current ways in which I plan to accomplish these goals start with the selection of the gaming groups. I aim to pair more experienced people with those who are less experienced, both in terms of gameplay, and (to the best of my ability to assess) also in terms of social justice awareness. In addition, I will be moving people with intersecting marginalized experiences, as well as experiences of disability that are rarely represented to the front of the line for inclusion in games.

To reduce oppression in games themselves, I’m establishing guidelines for game masters that include a list of harmful patterns of representation to avoid as well as game ground rules for everyone. These game ground rules contain a system for quickly changing oppressive language as it comes up to neutral language, as well as a timeout system in which players can pause play to address any needs they have (for example, if someone is overwhelmed, triggered, or if a story has run into subject material that is a problem). In addition, I plan to start each gaming session with a check-in about access needs.

 

[*Podcast announcements music, a calm electronic track, comes in.]

Please stick around for the continuation of today’s episode after this brief announcement.

If you are enjoying today’s show, please help me keep it going by heading over to my Patreon page at www dot P A T R E O N dot com slash Writing Alchemy and pledging a monthly donation. Even a dollar a month is a meaningful contribution that helps me keep doing this. These pledges pay for things like audio equipment, web hosting services, and acquiring all of the interesting gaming systems we will be playing in this series. It is also my hope to grow my Patreon funding to the point where I can afford to increase accessibility with things like episode transcription.

I believe that art is an important source of community sustenance in these challenging times. It also gives us a place to learn, grow, and create new ways of doing things. However, in the larger culture, intersectionally marginalized artists are undervalued and underpaid. It is hard for us to have the resources to keep doing this important work. That’s why your Patreon pledges are so important. They helped me pay my costs and support myself as an artist.

I know that not everyone can afford a dollar a month. And there are non-monetary ways that all of you can support the show. The biggest is sharing the show with your friends and telling them how much you enjoy it. You can also help out by rating and reviewing Writing Alchemy on iTunes. Each five star review helps new people find the show.

And to all of my Patreon backers, guests, participants, and community members, thank you. Your support makes this show possible!

[*Music swells and then fades.]

 

Now I’m going to go over the games eight ground rules as they currently are. These rules are open to input and change through discussion with the players and the game masters participating in this project, and they will be adjusted to the needs of individual participants. I expect them to grow and change over the course of the series. So, this is more of a starting point than a finished set of rules.

And I just wanted to take a moment here to actually talk off the script. But basically what I want to say here is that these ground rules are a starting point. They’re a framework for conversations about inclusion and access for all of the participants as well as all the people listening. And these are not going to work equally the same for every person. Everyone’s got a different starting point. Everyone’s got a different brain. And so this is about finding ways that we all can come together and do our best to meet each other’s access needs. That’s what this is about. So this isn’t- There’s not going to be no judgment, no shame. We all make mistakes. That is the essential first thing about this, we all make mistakes. No one’s perfect. We’re just coming together to try to meet each other’s access needs.

 

So, the first ground rule is use respectful and inclusive language. This means referring to people how they want to be referred to and using their desired pronouns. Keep in mind that people are welcome to use whatever identity terms that they want to for themselves, even if those words are slurs.

Being respectful also means avoiding harmful language, including words and phrases that promote harmful stereotypes and ideas. The English language has many of these harmful words and phrases in it, and learning to avoid them is an ongoing process. What this means is that there will be mistakes. When mistakes occur, my goal is to kindly inform the person who made the mistake that the word they just used is harmful and suggest a possible alternative. If (or when) I make this kind of mistake, I request that others do the same for me.

The following is a list of some words and phrases to avoid that are less commonly known to be harmful. Because the thing that has helped me the most in my own process of learning to avoid these words and phrases is finding good substitutions, I am also listing some possible replacements.

Harmful words and phrases:

Pioneer or pioneering, when used to mean being the first to do something. This is a problem, as many of the historical pioneers engaged in genocide. Instead, you can use something like trailblazer.

Being low on the totem pole. This is based on a misunderstanding and trivialization of the deep cultural meaning of totem poles. Instead, you can use something like bottom of the heap or low in rank.

Walk about. This is considered to be a disrespectful term for a tradition in Indigenous Australian communities. Instead, you can use something like excursion, trip, or spiritual journey.

Crusader. This references a violent history that involves cultural and religious intolerance. Instead, you can use something like champion or reformer.

Using fit or healthy to mean thin. This implies that fat people aren’t fit or healthy. Instead, you can use something like thin or skinny.

Lame. Instead, you can use something like frustrating, silly, or ridiculous. Dumb. Instead, you can use something like frustrating, silly, or ridiculous.

Crazy, nuts, or insane. Instead, you can use something like wild or extreme.Cuckoo or kooky. Instead, you can use something like odd, offbeat, strange, zany, eccentric, or irrational. Drive me crazy/nuts/insane. Instead, you can use drive me up the wall.

Stupid, fool, idiot, daft, or moron. These words refer to people with intellectual disabilities. Instead, you can use something like silly, ridiculous, nonsense, or illogical.

Being deaf or blind as a metaphor for being unable or unwilling to perceive something. Instead, you can use something like intentionally ignorant or irrational.

Handicapped or crippled as a metaphor for things and systems that aren’t functioning well. Instead, you can use something like broken, damaged, or struggling.

Prostitute or whore as a metaphor for degradation. Instead, you can use something like compromised, corrupt, sell out, and degraded.

So, I’m just going to end by saying that that’s a long list. Lists aren’t very good for a lot of people. And it’s not even all of the things because that’s how the English language is right now. And so this is one of those things of, like, mistakes, or not even- mistakes aren’t even just like, understood, they’re like expected. Mistakes are going to happen. And we’re just going to go forward in the best we can.

 

And so the way that we’re going to do this is actually- the ground rule number two is actually a system for this and it is replace oppressive language as it comes up. When someone accidentally uses a harmful word like “stupid,” whoever notices at first will respond with something like, “Let’s replace stupid,” or “Let’s reword that. What about silly or ridiculous?” Suggesting a few quick alternatives, if you can think of them, is helpful.

Then the person who was originally talking will restate what they said in a way that replaces or removes the harmful word or phrase, and play will resume from there. If you catch yourself, please just jump in and reword it.

And it’s going to end by saying that I expect this system to change a lot depending on each person’s access needs. We don’t want anyone to feel jumped on or bullied, and we want it to be accessible. So, we’re going to- we’re going to do our best we’re going to figure it out. We’re all learning. [Laughs] I am going to be learning so much. It’s gonna be awkward sometimes. That’s okay. Awkwardness is part of life. We’re going to just do our best to do this and also have lots of fun.

 

Okay, ground rule number three: respect the access needs of the other participants.

Many of the participants of this project have specific access needs that are important for the group to meet so that they are able to fully participate. Examples of access needs include a scent-free environment for in-person gaming, comfortable seating, wheelchair access, avoiding specific kinds of game content, more time to take in what is happening during the game, a rules-light gaming system, social reassurances, and backup gaming days so that if someone has a symptom flare up, they know it is okay to cancel at the last minute.

For each game, there will be conversations about access needs prior to the game and at the start of the gaming session itself. These may be brief or as lengthy as necessary. As we work to meet each other’s access needs, know that mistakes will happen. This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to only put in a token effort, but that we need to make room for the reality that humans make mistakes, and that certain brains will have a harder time doing specific types of things. When mistakes happen, we will apologize and all work together to address that mistake and its consequences.

 

Ground rule number four: avoid stereotypical characters.

Part of the goal of this project is to create positive representations for the audience. In addition, ironic depictions of oppression frequently just reinforce the existence of stereotypes. For these reasons, I’d like to avoid stereotypical characters in this game.

That said, if someone has a great idea for really digging into oppression by playing with a stereotype that they are personally affected by, then they are encouraged to bring that idea to the group. If the other group members are comfortable with the idea, then we will work together to make sure that the oppression is highlighted and commented on, so that the social commentary is clear to the listeners.

In addition, players are reminded that the farther outside their personal experience they go with their characters marginalized identities, the more research they will need to do in order to give a truthful representation of that experience. Players are encouraged but not required to play characters with disabilities and marginalized identities that they have personal connection to.

 

Ground rule number five: don’t recreate oppressive patterns.

In addition to avoiding stereotypes, I want to avoid other story patterns that recreate oppression. Particularly for player characters who are the heroes of the story, I want to avoid having them engage in oppressive behaviors, unless we have a conversation about it and everyone agrees to it. Examples of oppression to avoid include: treating women as sexual objects, forced kisses, sexual harassment, demeaning feminine men, homophobic comments, turning marginalized groups into jokes (including sex workers, furries, cross dressers, and sexual minorities), slut shaming, fat shaming, cultural appropriation, exotification, trivializing pronoun preferences and chosen names and treating privileged characters—you know, white straight cisgender men—as the norm.

Game masters will need to think about this deeply and broadly. There is a list of common oppressive story patterns to avoid on the Guidelines for Game Masters page, including harmful ways that disability often gets represented. Do note that some settings will include oppression (if everyone consents to that). If that’s the case, the characters will likely witness or experience oppression, and that oppression will be taken seriously.

Again, we live in a culture that is full of oppression and have been raised to recreate it. Mistakes will happen, and we will address those as they come up without judgment while also centering the needs of the person impacted by that oppression. I just want to take a moment here to recognize that not everyone has the same starting point with this.

Education is a privilege. And a lot of the sort of discussions around oppression involves language that comes out of academia. And that the time and energy needed to learn about these sorts of things is a privilege. And so as long as someone is willing to learn, then that is a fine place to start. And there is a place for you in this project.

Now, I’m going to try to work to make sure that people who are doing lots of learning are with people who are in the space to do teaching. That’s going to be better for everyone. Not everyone’s in a space to do that teaching. So, I’m going to try to make that match so that everyone’s going to be doing better with this.

But I just wanted to really make it clear that if you haven’t studied what exotification is, you haven’t had a chance to really understand that, it doesn’t inherently mean you can’t be part of this project. But that we’re going to find a way to include you that’s going to also make space for people who are really affected by exotification, you know. So that’s kind of the goal.

So I’m just going to try to work with everybody to try to balance everyone’s needs, and make space and make community that everyone has access to, you know, community where we’re not creating oppression that’s pushing people out. And where people who haven’t had that education access, have a way to participate, too. So it’s going to be complicated, there’s going to be mistakes along the way, we’re going to do our best and try to just bring our whole hearts to this and try to just work to value everyone in this process.

 

Ground rule number six: for games with sexual content, characters will be eighteen or older.

All player characters and non-player characters that might engage in sexual activity should be eighteen or older. For games with really free-form and open sexual roles like Monster Hearts, that is the majority of the allosexual, which is the not-asexual, characters.

The reason for this is the way that USA obscenity laws work, the complex legal space that under eighteen sexuality exists in, and the deep discomfort that USA culture has with teenage sexuality.

 

Ground rule number seven: focus on positive representation.

Players are encouraged to create complicated, real-feeling characters. Part of that complexity can be flaws, questionable goals, or underhanded methods. Because one of the goals of this project is to create representation that listeners can feel good about, I would like to avoid having player characters that are deeply morally compromised (for example, being cruel for fun or a complete lack of compassion towards others).

Game masters may create disabled or chronically ill felons. But because there is a history of disability being associated with villains, and even being treated as a trait by which villains are identified (for example, Darth Vader), there should be some discussion with the players about what kinds of portrayals everyone is comfortable with.

 

And finally, ground rule number eight: use the timeout system if you need it.

This system is here in case of player gets overwhelmed, someone gets triggered, the story runs into subject material that is upsetting, a social dynamic happens that is causing problems, or if for any reason a person is feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in a bad way (I do want to recognize that discomfort can happen in good ways, when we are stretching ourselves and growing).

If this happens, please say, “Timeout,” and we will take a break to assess the situation. Sometimes a person will just need to take a short break, while other times we will need to adjust social dynamics or make some alterations to plot and story elements so that everyone can continue to enjoy the story together.

I know interrupting the story can be hard to do, so I want to remind people that this is about us having fun as a group. So, if there is something that is reducing your ability to fully engage and enjoy the game with the group, then we all want hear about it. I’m just going to end by saying that this system is flexible. You know, not everyone is going to be able to verbally interrupt something that’s ongoing. So there’s a lot of other ways of doing this, such as having a physical object that you touch if you’re needing to do a timeout. There’s a lot of different things we can do. And I expect this to be adjusted to each individual group based on everyone’s needs.

 

And that is the end of this episode. Please join us next week on Thursday, July 27th for a Monster Hearts-style supernatural teenage melodrama with the first story episode of Unfamiliar Heroes!

If you like what you hear and want to hear more, be sure to follow Writing Alchemy on Twitter @writing_alchemy, and on Facebook at facebook.com/writingalchemy. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or by using its RSS feed. If you want to help me keep this podcast going, pledge your support on Patreon at patreon.com/writingalchemy. And be sure to visit writingalchemy.net where you can find all of the Writing Alchemy podcasts, articles, and stories. There, you can join the discussion and sign up for the mailing list to receive announcements about new podcasts and projects.

[*Outro, a calm electronic track, fades in.]

If you are a person with a disability, chronic illness, or diverse mind and you would like to participate in an Unfamiliar Heroes game, head over to writingalchemy.net and click on the participation link in the sidebar. Future games include recorded audio games, and text games which will be published in chapters.

Thank you for listening, and please join us on Thursday July 27th, the last Thursday in July for the first story episode of Unfamiliar Heroes!

[*Music continues for about half a minute, then stops.]

 

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