I hope you’ve all figured out by now that I’m a huge nerd, and proud of it. This week I’m flying that particular flag high, doing a post swap with Laurie Trueblood, editor of Adventures to Authenticity. Laurie is a good friend of mine, a keen thinker, and a talented freelance writer who put in a lot of research time to bring you the post below. It’s thorough, heart-felt, and actionable.
Laurie’s work with Adventures to authenticity focuses on the intersection between nerd culture and mental health tips, helping gamers and adventurers of all kinds level up their personal lives. Be sure to follow her on her socials and subscribe to her blog if you want more content like this (links at the end). And if you just really miss my writing, you’ll have to read all the way to the end to get the link to my post on her site!
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has found huge mainstream success in the last few years. First introduced in 1974, the game was once seen as strictly for nerds, but it has changed dramatically. Inspiring a host of Twitch streams, podcasts, and even movies, D&D has a growing audience with over 50 million players last year alone. But while it has become accessible to most, representation and inclusion for disabled characters and players in tabletop role-playing games is still lacking.
Tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), like D&D, are about cooperative storytelling. The players create a character with attributes and skills, such as charisma, strength, and spellcasting or fighting styles. Under the guidance of the game/dungeon master, players determine their actions through a combination of dice rolls and improvisation in a fantasy world setting. Through cooperation, their characters work together to solve puzzles, overcome obstacles, and defeat monsters and enemies. TTRPGs have been linked to higher levels of empathy, creativity, resilience, and improved social skills.
In the fantasy setting and storytelling, TTRPGs are a fun way to escape from reality and into the world of imagination. And as there is great liberty in character creation, one of the broad appeals of the game is that players can play as whatever they want to be. Whether it be an elf or orc, a magical class, or unique personalities or traits, players can experience this game world in a wide variety of ways. While D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast has made significant strides for inclusion based on gender and sexual orientation, there is still a major lack of representation of disabled characters in the game.
Disabilities in D&D
Historically, characters with disabilities were seen as washed-up or sidelined by their injury. Often they are portrayed as past heroes themselves. But after becoming disabled through battle injury, they could only serve as mentors to non-disabled heroes.
Worse yet, disabled characters were portrayed as villains in D&D. Characters such as Hellenrae, a blind monk who is so full of anger after losing her sight that she becomes filled with dark powers. Or Izek Strazni, who loses an arm as a child. He kills all those who mock him and eventually evolves into a total monster by growing a fiendish arm to replace that loss.
In many TTRPGs, there is commonly an emphasis on physical strength in battles and a belief that only the strongest can be true heroes. Disabilities such as blindness, deafness, paralysis, and neurodiversity are seen as negative effects that happen to characters or calculated punishments that lower a character’s advantages and health points.
Even many of the game guides still include outdated stereotypes in their imagery, such as the aged man with the horn in his ear to represent deafness.
Together, these negative views lead to feelings of exclusion and make for a poorer experience.
Why is Inclusivity So Important
People want to become heroes. They like to play as a representation of themselves and become the in-game heroes they wish to be in real life. Several studies have shown that TTRPGs help players with narrative therapy, building their self-esteem and confidence that goes beyond the game and into their personal lives. The bullied student becomes victorious over the minotaur; the timid member has an audience with a king, and the outsider feels accepted and part of the group. And together, everyone gets to play a role in creating the story.
One of the most significant benefits of TTRPGs is that the games give players a safe place to explore themselves and their personal values through roleplaying. People make characters that are either similar to themselves or have unique traits that they would like to experience. Through the storytelling, they can overcome obstacles that may be reflective of issues they are facing in real life.
However, this narrative therapy can be less effective when players have a difficult time seeing themselves in the characters. Ensuring that there is disablity representation in heroic characters helps make this aspect available to a wider audience. All players should be able to have the opportunity to become the hero, regardless of their impairments or obstacles.
Inclusivity also allows non-disabled players to experience playing disabled characters. Roleplaying has been found to increase levels of empathy. Being able to play as a character with different challenges builds better understanding and appreciation of obstacles individuals with those limitations must overcome. And through roleplay, players of disabled characters can learn that people with disabilities are complex individuals and not just the common stereotypes that define their limitations.
A quote from D&D principal story designer at Wizards of the Coast, Chris Perkins, “The game (D&D) allows us to be ourselves and someone else at the same time.” And yet, for the millions of people living with a disability, the desire to play characters based on themselves, ones that share their impairments, is sadly seen as either overly complex or completely dismissed by the community.
Why Not Be More Inclusive?
While D&D and the rest of the TTRPG genre are becoming more inclusive for gender and sexual orientation, the community still struggles with the acceptance of disabled characters.
One of the most benign arguments against inclusion is the commentary on the lack of resources on playing and creating accessible worlds. Being a DM or game master is already a time-consuming effort, and many see additional complexities for accommodations for disabled characters as too much work.
This viewpoint against inclusion in gaming is not different than those often used in real life. There are arguments against making places and services accessible due to the extra costs and time that may be involved. Therefore, putting a physical price tag on inclusion. When instead, equality and acceptance should be considered a basic right for all.
But if costs are to be considered, in a game which is largely done through imagination, the price of inclusion is very low indeed. Things like ensuring noting that the tavern has menus in braille or ramps instead of stairs take little to no extra work. And including additional details in descriptions, such as the texture of the walls, air temperature, etc. can not only help those with sight issues imagine the game better but make it more immersive for all players.
This argument that it’s too hard too or time-consuming is weak. But it may be a lack of understanding or examples that hold back DMs from providing more inclusive games. This can be solved by making more resources available and the industry embracing inclusion as a priority.
Sadly, there is a more ableist argument over why disabled characters would even exist in the fantasy realms. Some people question how a disabled adventurer could survive in a world full of monsters and dungeon crawling. But through innovation, just as in reality, the fantasy world can be accessible for everyone. An example is the Combat wheelchair, a D&D supplement created by disability representation in gaming advocate Sarah Thompson. It was designed “to enable characters with disabilities to go adventuring the same as an able-bodied character… (It) exists for those of us who need and who want to see ourselves in the tabletop games we so dearly enjoy.”
Using a combination of real-world mechanics and in world magic, the device allows players to fully participate in the fantasy realm. From all terrain design to hovering mechanics for climbing stairs and ladders. The combat wheelchair is downloadable to all players and DM for free with full mechanics, upgrades, subclasses, and NPC characters for play.
But beyond the accessibility aspects of the game world, one of the more prominent arguments against disability inclusion is that in a world of magical healing, why wouldn’t a disabled character just “cure themselves?”
As for the technical in-game aspect, only the highest level of casters would have the spells necessary for this type of action. For example, in D&D, regenerating a limb requires a 7th level spell done by a level 13 caster. Most characters would rarely gain this ability themselves or even encounter one in the game world that could have the magical level needed.
But beyond that technical aspects, many of these opponents fail to see that being disabled isn’t about being broken or being less abled than someone else. For many people with physical or neurodiverse limitations, disabilities are just a way of being and how they navigate the world. And if they want to play a fantasy character that shares those disabilities, it shouldn’t be seen as argument. Nor should those that are ableist consider disabled characters as having some negative trait that needs a “cure” in order for them to participate in a fantasy world fully.
While some members of the community are still arguing about inclusivity, progress is being made with growing representation in the genre.
In April 2020, Wizards of the Coast was called out by Sara Thompson for depicting their negative representation of the one-legged character of Ezmerelda in Curse of Strahd. Their positive response was, “we’re gonna fix that” and they do seem to be working towards that.
Later in 2020, the combat wheelchair supplement was released and embraced by many in the D&D community. Last month, an updated version of the chair was released, streamlining some of the rules to make it easier to play, and is available free for download.
In 2021, Wizards of the Coast released two adventure modules that include disabled representation. Candlekeep Mysteries, a collection of stand-alone D&D adventuring, contains the first official wheelchair-accessible dungeon. And Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft sees that the return of Ezmerelda and her prosthesis now does anything but slow her down. As well as the introduction of Alanik Rey, a gun-toting elf detective that uses a wheelchair in his pursuit of solving the great mysteries of Ravenloft.
Other groups are adding content to promote the inclusion of disabled characters. Companies like DnD Disability offer free game mechanics content for physically impaired characters, including supplements for characters with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) or are neurodivergent.
Other creators are developing in-game items. For example, things that allow for nonverbal communication are beneficial for casting spells that are typically verbally conjured. And other items that can make existing game mechanics more accessible to disabled characters.
There is a growing number of disabled characters in streaming TTRPG games and podcasts as well. Groups and events such as EveryOne Games and Accessible Adventure Jam host discussion panels on accessibility in TTRPGs and promote disabled game creators.
There are even TTRPGs that are specifically designed for accessibility education, such as Overisles that teach sign language as part of the game mechanics.
And for the inclusion of disabled players at the gaming table, there has been progress made as well.
For the visually impaired, organizations like DOTS RPG Project make Braille polyhedral dice and offer 3D downloads for printing at home. Similarly, other dice companies make dice that light up to enhance visibility over traditional dice.
Some map designers are working on ways to make their products more accessible, with digital maps that can be enlarged, large print designs, greater use of contrast colors, and creating color-blind versions of their work. And more companies are using dyslexia-friendly writing styles and designs for character sheets and game materials.
While the industry has made many strides in the last year, there is still a long way to go. Most players and game masters are unaware of the options available. And while the hostility over the introduction of the combat wheelchair has died down some from last year, some in the community still feel it is inappropriate. They believe, sadly, that in a fantasy land where dragons can be real, disabilities are not.
But everyone deserves a place at the tabletop and to experience that group fantasy storytelling. Whether it is allowing players to be characters that have different challenges than they do to build empathy and understanding, or letting people play characters that remind them of themselves, inclusivity is key. Hopefully, as the industry continues to make its games for all players, disability representation will be increased. And everyone, regardless of disability, will be able to tell their stories better as well.
Today your favorite blindfluencer says the world would be diminished if you didn’t tell your story.