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When it is represented at all, most tabletop role-playing games present disability in limited and stereotypical ways. As a result, it is hard to create disabled characters that are realistic and respectful representations. The goal of this guide is to provide a better system for creating disabled player characters that can be used with any tabletop role-playing game. This system is designed to replace preexisting mechanics for creating or representing disability within the game.

For a detailed discussion of the reasons this project exists, Game Mechanics that Treat Disability as a Limitation discusses in detail why most commonly used systems for representing disability in tabletop role-playing games are stigmatizing.

This is an ambitious project and it is a work in progress. I’m publishing this now to get the conversation started. I expect there to be errors and problems. I am hoping to incorporate the input of other disabled folks and make it better. If you have thoughts, problems, or concerns, please let me know! Let’s have a conversation about this. 🙂 Also, I’d love examples from a wider range of disabilities, so please share examples from personal experience if you have them.

A group of four disabled queer Black folks talk and laugh, relaxing across a large bed. Everyone is dressed in colorful t-shirts and wearing a variety of scarves, bonnets, and durags. One person braids another’s hair, while the third friend wearing a C-PAP mask laughs, and the fourth person looks up from an open book. Illustration by Jonathan Soren Davidson for Disabled And Here.

 

Step 0: Research

If the character’s disability is not one you have personal experience with, then portraying it respectfully starts with research. For real-world disabilities, that research will be focused on the details of the disability, what it is like to live with, and stereotypes about it (google searches for “myths” tend to have the most results). For fictional disabilities, the research will focus on common experiences of disability and real-world disabilities that have similarities to it (including myths and stereotypes). In either case, doing some research on ableist tropes is also important.

One useful resource to be aware of is the FATE Accessibility Toolkit, which has some good general information, as well as descriptions of what it is like to live with specific disabilities. If you are playing a FATE game and have $7.50 USD, then I highly recommend getting and using this toolkit.

Another useful resource is How to Write Disabled Characters. This new series on Allison Alexander’s blog contains “interviews with chronically ill and disabled people on how to write characters with their conditions.”

 

Step 1: Identify the Key Effects of the Character’s Disability

The key effects of a character’s disability are the most significant ways that the disability affects their life. They are kinda like symptoms, but more specific to the character. For example, two key effects for a character with a chronic back condition could be: 1) They harm themselves when they lift more than ten pounds. 2) They experience pain when they use furniture that doesn’t support their body (this includes chairs without back support and saggy beds).

For some characters, these key effects will be limitations caused by their disability or by ableism, while for others they will be neutral differences or a combination of strengths and weaknesses.

When defining these key effects, it is important to be specific about what happens and when it happens. For example, a key effect for a character with social anxiety could be experiencing intense fear when they are the center of attention. “Intense fear” is what happens. “When they are the center of attention” is when it happens. These key effects should be specific enough that they can be clearly defined, but broad enough to repeatedly come up in game play. Also, making them broader means that they will be easier to keep track of because there will be fewer of them.

 

Step 2: Choose Their Tools

This step is about the long-term tools that the character uses to meet their needs. These tools can be assistive devices, medical care, and other supports. They include a wide variety of things, such as medical devices like insulin pumps, prosthetic limbs, medications, glasses, hearing aids, mobility devices, screen readers, service animals, nurses, and disability support workers.

For each key effect that makes the character’s life harder, consider what tools the character can use to address their needs. For example, a blind character could use their cell phone to help them navigate their environment. Note that some key effects might not be addressed with tools.

When a tool is chosen, figure out its benefits and limitations. What specifically does it help the character do? Are there things it can’t do? What is its biggest limitation? Some common limitations are side effects, time costs, financial costs, fatigue, pain, limited battery life, setup requirements, ongoing maintenance, and situations where it is ineffective.

 

Step 3: Figure Out Their Coping Strategies

The goal here is to figure out what behaviors the character and their community take in order to address the needs and access barriers in their life. Focus on how they address key effects that make the character’s life harder, including those key effects that are also being addressed with tools. For example, a character who is a wheelchair user might always check a building’s accessibility before going to a new location.

Here are more examples: A character with a cognitive disability can write things down to help themselves keep track of them and also have community members who take notes for them. Someone with chronic pain might have things they do to distract themselves from the pain and also have support people who will be with them when the pain is overwhelming. Similarly, a character with anxiety might use orienting techniques to calm their mind and also have support people they can call when they are having a panic attack.

For each coping strategy, decide what it accomplishes, how helpful it is, and any limitations that it has. Some possible limitations are that it is only partially effective, it takes additional time to do, or it is unreliable.

 

Step 4: Check for Character and Adventure Mismatches

The focus for this step is making sure there aren’t unaddressed barriers that will prevent the character from fully participating in the adventure. This is done by comparing the basic requirements for participation in the adventure with the character’s abilities. Any mismatches indicate a problem that needs to be addressed.

For example, a slow moving disabled character in a game with on foot chase scenes might literally get left behind. One way to address this mismatch is to give the character a mount or fast mobility device. Another approach would be to alter the adventure so that chase scenes use vehicles. Both approaches are valid, but they create different game play experiences.

In order to identify mismatches, the game master will need to spend a bit of time thinking about the core requirements for character participation in their particular game. The following non-comprehensive list can serve as a starting place.

  • If the game has emotionally intense content, does the character have a way to cope with intense things? This doesn’t mean that the character isn’t impacted by the intensity, just that they are coping enough that they can participate most of the time.
  • Will there be frequent combat? If so, then the character will need to be mentally and physically capable of engaging in combat.
  • What are the mobility requirements? This includes the requirements to physically access important locations, how fast the characters will need to move, whether there will be a lot of travel, and if there are physical barriers that require mobility, strength, and dexterity to overcome.
  • Is endurance a requirement for participation? Some characters with chronic conditions run out of capacity quickly. How much they are able to participate depends on how often the characters are able to rest and recover.
  • Are there important things that can only be detected by one sense? For example, if you have a mansion full of ghosts silently acting out important history, this will be a mismatch for a blind character.
  • Be sure to assess the participation requirements for anything that is distinctive or special about this game.

While these mismatches are basically unmet accessibility needs, in fiction we have a wider range of options for addressing them. In addition to giving the character enhanced equipment, support, and coping strategies, the adventure itself and the character’s abilities can change. Also, keep in mind that disabled characters might approach challenges differently than non-disabled characters. This means that full participation can look different than it does for non-disabled characters. What matters most is that the representation of the character feels good to all game participants (prioritizing anyone with lived experience of that disability) and that the player feels like their character is fully participating.

Because games are dynamic, this is something that might need to be revisited periodically as the game progresses.

 

Step 5: Represent Each Key Effect in the Game

Take each key effect, along with the tools and strategies that the character uses to address it, and decide the best way to represent it in the game. What works best will depend on the key effect, the game system, game play styles, and what mechanics are easiest for the player to do. The following list has a range of options with examples.

  • Role-play Only: If a key effect will come up naturally through role-play, then only handling it in the role-playing could work well. For example, if an anxious character hates talking on the phone, that could be role-played by the character never answering their phone.
  • Character Stats: In those game systems that have character stats, like strength, dexterity, wisdom, and charisma, some key effects of disability can be represented by a low or high number. Having a number that is high in some circumstances and low in others can also be useful. For example, in a Dungeons and Dragons game a character with anxiety could have a charisma of sixteen when talking to someone one on one, but a charisma of seven when talking to a group. Other game mechanics, like aspects in FATE, that are used to represent core character traits can be especially useful for representing disability.
  • Speed Differences: For those games where a character’s speed matters, some key effects can be represented by having a character be faster or slower. For example, a manual wheelchair user might travel at the same speed as a average walking person when on well-maintained sidewalk, but be slower in environments with cracked sidewalk, insufficient curb cuts, and infrequent ramps.
  • Situational Bonuses and Penalties: These are used to represent situations that make something easier or harder to do and they are great at representing a wide variety of situations caused by disability and ableism. Depending on the game system, situational bonuses and penalties could be numbers that are added to or subtracted from rolls, increasing or decreasing dice pools, using a different die for a roll, and changes to difficulties. For example, a character with anxiety could take a -2 penalty to social skills any time that they are interacting with strangers.
  • Increased Costs: Limited capacity, time costs, and extra financial costs are common experiences of disability. These increased costs can be represented in different game currencies. The options vary based on game systems, but financial costs can be represented with currency systems, time costs can be represented with action economies, and limited capacity can be represented in uses of character abilities. For example, if a wizard has chronic migraines, then casting spells while experiencing a migraine attack could cost two spell slots instead of one. Be aware that increased costs can have a big effect on game play and balance.
  • Conditions: Many game systems use conditions to represent temporary states, such as being shaken, angry, exhausted, guilty, insecure, confused, injured, and sickened. They are useful for representing temporary states caused by disability. For example, arachnophobia can be represented by having a character take on the afraid condition when in the presence of a spider. Note that some game systems have conditions like “blinded” or “deafened.” These conditions can work for modeling temporary states in non-disabled characters, but aren’t good for representing long-term disabilities.
  • Additional Dice Rolls: If a key effect involves the character struggling to do something that is automatic for a non-disabled person, then having the character periodically roll to do that thing can be a good way to represent this struggle. For example, one effect of albinism on vision is that it makes depth perception harder, so a character with albinism could need to make perception skill rolls any time that they want to gauge depth or see in dim areas.
  • Specific Things the Character Can’t Do: In some cases, there are certain things that the character can’t do. It is important to define these clearly so that it is clear when they are and aren’t happening. For example, deaf characters can’t hear, so they can’t make rolls to perceive things that are entirely or primarily auditory, but they can roll to perceive things that significantly involve one or more of the senses that they have.
  • Custom Mechanics: Another option is to create a unique game mechanic to represent the key effect. Usually this is done by combining mechanics like conditions and penalties with additional pieces. For example, any time a Dungeons and Dragons character with celiac disease eats food prepared by someone else, roll a twenty-sided die. If the result is a one, then the food contained gluten and the character is poisoned. For more examples of custom mechanics for a broad range of disabilities, check out this list of “D&D Disability Mechanics” created by sleepyspoonie.

 

Step 6: Balance the Character

The goal of this step is to ensure that all player characters are equally capable so that they each get opportunities to shine and contribute meaningfully in the game. This is done by assessing how capable the disabled character is compared to non-disabled characters, and giving them any mechanical boosts needed to balance them out and make them equal. These mechanical boosts should in no way erase the character’s disability, they are just giving the character additional strengths and talents that they can draw on.

Not every character will need boosts to be balanced. Characters that receive a combination of strengths and weaknesses from their disability may already be balanced. In addition, working through the process of meeting the character’s accessibility needs in the previous steps should have helped balance many characters out. However, there also will be characters whose contributions will be significantly impacted by the mechanics chosen to represent their disability. Also, keep in mind that some games start with an imperfect balance between different types of characters, and this can also help or hinder character balance depending on circumstance.

Some people may not like the idea of giving boosts to disabled characters and think that it is unrealistic or that it implies disabled characters are insufficient as they are. If you feel this way, you don’t have to do this step. However, I do want to remind you that game mechanics aren’t a perfect modeling of reality that values every capacity and contribution equally. They are tools designed to create a specific game play experience. Game mechanics do that by prioritizing certain capacities and contributions over other ones. This means that another way to think about giving mechanical boosts to disabled characters is that we are choosing to shift what is being valued by the game mechanics. This is also a choice to prioritize a game play experience where disabled characters are impacted by their disabilities, but are also able to contribute equally to overcoming the challenges in the adventure.

Another way to think about these boosts is that they represent capacities that the character developed because of their disability, like empathy, a high pain tolerance, or meditation skills. They can also represent capacities that the character developed when the combination of disability and ableism in their life prevented them from doing other things. For example, a disabled high schooler that is unable to participate in gym class can spend that time doing independent study on world mythology. Another example is someone who spends a lot of time lying in bed spending their time watching nature documentaries to distract themselves from the pain.

The following list contains some examples of possible mechanical boosts that can be used in this balancing process.

  • Character Stats: Increase a stat that the character is strong in or add to a neutral stat.
  • Skills: Make the character better at a skill by training them in it, increasing their level of training, or giving them a bonus to it.
  • Abilities: How abilities work varies across game systems, but the idea is to either give the character an additional ability or enhance an ability they already have. For example, in a Powered by the Apocalypse system, the character could receive an additional move. In Dungeons and Dragons, this could be getting another feat or an additional use of a class feature per day.
  • Game Currencies: This can be giving the character a bit more of a character creation currency or giving them an increase to one of their game play currencies.
  • Custom Mechanics: If you want to model a unique benefit that the character got from their disability, like high pain tolerance, creating a custom mechanic is a good option.

What to give and how much to give is subjective and it depends on the character’s disability, the adventure, the game system, and the other player characters. When choosing, remember that the focus here is enhancing the character’s strengths and giving them additional things to contribute, not erasing the impact of the character’s disability. Note that this is a step where the game master’s input is especially important as their knowledge of the adventure might give them unique insight into game balance.

 

Step 7: Find and Work Around Problem Mechanics

The final step is to examine all of the different mechanics for the character, such as their skills and abilities, and check for mechanics that will cause problems or confusion when they interact with the character’s disability. For example, many Dungeons and Dragons spells, such as Magic Missile, require the caster to see their targets. The description of Magic Missile states, “You create three glowing darts of magical force. Each dart hits a creature of your choice that you can see within range.” This is going to create problems for blind and low-vision characters.

In most cases, these problems are accidents caused by game designers that weren’t thinking about disabled characters. Because of this, wording was chosen that unintentionally created barriers, but there is no actual intention or reason for disabled characters to be excluded. This means that in most cases changing the wording of the rule or adjusting how it works is enough to make it inclusive of disabled characters.

A general way to work around these problems is to think a bit about what the rule is trying to accomplish and then create a new, more inclusive version of the rule. For example, in the case of Magic Missile, it seems like the purpose of the rule is to make the character casting the spell specifically choose targets for their spell. Using this purpose, the rule can be changed from targeting creatures the character can “see” within range, to targeting creatures that the character can “perceive” or “locate” within range. Now blind and low-vision characters are free to use their other senses to target this spell.

 

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