Ableism in RPG gameplay

This is a guest post by Jonathan Lavallee. Jonathan spends his days toiling about with batch processes and overnight jobs, but in his other life he’s a game designer and a poet who is constantly trying to unpack his suitcase only to find more stuff he didn’t realize was in there already. You can find his blog at Gamish Designer and game design work at Firestorm Ink.

This is a question that came from the Ask a Geek Feminist post, which is still taking your questions. If you’re curious about something you think a geek feminist could answer, ask away and we’ll see what we can come up with. If none of the regular bloggers will pick up the question, they’ll throw it to someone for a guest post or open it up to the general commentating public.

That’s why you got stuck with an ally answering this enchanting question from Timm! (it’s big so I’ve edited it down a bit):

Many table-top RPGs feature a merit/flaw or asset/complication system where you buy little extra things for your character (assets or merits) offset by buying some kind of flaw or complication. It occurred to me that, among all those available flaws, there’s always a list of physical disabilities to choose from, things like blindness, deafness, missing a limb, etc, and this stuck me as potentially problematic. On the other hand, in games that don’t feature this kind of option, you essentially never see any characters who are less than fully able-bodied (at least in my gaming experience, YMMV) unless they have some magical/technological device that completely negates the disability (think Geordi’s visor in Star Trek) so merits and flaws at least encourage players to think about characters with levels of ability different from their own.

So my question is: are these systems problematic/ableist by nature? Or does it matter more how they are implemented from game to game or gamer to gamer? Does the mechanical underpinning of the system figure into this consideration at all? If these systems are inherently problematic, any thoughts on how to implement them so they’re not (as) problematic? Thoughts on RPG characters with disabilities in general?

It’s big, so I might take this apart and talk about it in pieces because there are a lot of questions there but they all pertain to ableism in RPGs, specifically in regards to the character creating process.

are these systems problematic/ableist by nature?

I don’t think that the advantage/disadvantage model (or how ever it is flavoured in the game) is inherently problematic or ableist. The concept is that you want a character that is not perfect, and as such will have to overcome not only external obstacles but internal obstacles. If you read a story where the characters are perfect all the time and there is no potential for conflict because they are perfect it’s going to be a pretty boring story. Like Timm! mentioned, systems that don’t have this kind of mechanic tend to have those perfect characters that go about doing perfect things.

Where the problem happens is when designers try to fill in the blanks for what would be considered an advantage and a disadvantage. The first game I ever ran into that had this concept was the Hero system which had great disadvantages like dependant non player characters (DNPCs) and Enemies and Limitations on Powers. All this was great, and if they stayed there the potential for ableism was lowered greatly because these are just people who depend on you, people you’ve pissed off and times when you couldn’t use your special powers. The problem happens when you get into things like physical and mental ‘disadvantages.’ This is where the ableism is so thick you shouldn’t be able ignore it. Doubly so because as a reason to take these ‘flaws’ the game gives you a carrot in the guise of more points to spend on cool stuff for your character. There are many people who play games with the desire to push the rules as far as they can, and in doing so will take those ‘disadvantages’ because it will get them points to spend without thinking about what that actually means.

Or does it matter more how they are implemented from game to game or gamer to gamer

This is two questions in one. When it comes to being implemented from game to game the answer is no, it doesn’t matter. If you want to use the advantage/disadvantage model, which as noted above I don’t believe is ableist on its own, and then add blatantly ableist material then it’s ableist regardless of what kind of spin they want to put on it. The problem is that they’re all lumped together with all the other negative traits like being vengeful, being intolerant, or any sort of other negative traits. That one isn’t that hard.

What’s hard is when you talk about it from player to player. As a TAB-gamer, playing a character that has a disability has its issues. Much like anyone from a privileged position who plays an oppressed character — a cis-man playing a woman, someone who is TAB playing a disabled person, a white person playing a person of colour — it can be incredibly problematic when done without thought, understanding and respect. This isn’t to say that such a thing can’t ever be done, but that the potential for appropriation and caricature are great, almost too great in that kind of setting. The reason is that unlike a novel where you can take a break and do some research, your answers are improvised and are based off of you, in that moment and that’s often when your privilege is going to show up.

It’s one of my biggest frustrations with the gaming community in general, this cross playing of characters, and I rail against it a lot when it happens around me in non safe settings (conventions being the biggest venue) because more often than not you’re left slamming your head aginst the table as you watch someone reinforce their X-privilege (X being straight, white, male, able-bodied, cis-gendered or any combination there of). There are plenty of guys who try to play, “The Hot Chick” or TAB-players who think that having DID* is fun without any regard of the inherent problems of doing so.

I have stories. Oh goodness do I have stories about that, but that’s for another day.

If these systems are inherently problematic, any thoughts on how to implement them so they’re not (as) problematic?

To keep this answer shorter, because I think I’m going to be repeating myself, the system itself isn’t inherently problematic. I can take an undesirable characteristic, like being vengeful, and attach it to my character to gain a benefit that can be applied elsewhere. The problem is when the designer gives you options that are oppressive. There the fault lies with us as designers to make those options as wide and varied as possible, to create a large number of characters and possibilities, without dipping our toes into frameworks of oppression. I know that I want to be as inclusive as possible to have more people who are able to enjoy the games that I make.

Thoughts on RPG characters with disabilities in general?

I’ve touched on RPG characters with disabilities being played by TAB-people above, so I’ll just make a general comment. The lack of characters with diabilities in role playing game isn’t unique to RPGs. It’s the systematic problem that exists in all media, which is kyriarchal in nature. You don’t see people with disabilities often in television, books, film, theatre and even then when they do exist they’re often caricatures, comedic relief, or done really badly. I remember reading the frustration of a lot of wheel chair users at Glee because people would just push Artie’s wheelchair around. When I heard that, having spent time around people who use wheelchairs, my jaw dropped because that was at best horribly rude. However, that’s how the Kyriarchy thinks, always from their perspective and so they don’t see a problem with any representation that fits within their world view.

RPGs are just another avenue for telling stories. It’s collaborative storytelling that runs into the same problems that any storytelling method has. The storyteller, both as player or as GM or other if you play a lot of indie games, has to unpack and try their best to understand their privilege, otherwise their representation of a character that isn’t exactly them is going to be horribly problematic-ist.

For those in the comments: How do you feel about thoughts on RPG characters with disabilities in general? How do you feel about “cross-playing” as mentioned above?

*DID – Dissociative Identity Disorder, still called Multiple Personality Disorder by many RPG books!

12 thoughts on “Ableism in RPG gameplay

  1. katie

    “Cross-playing” is an issue I’m interested in, because back when I had a regular roleplaying group (in which I was the only woman), I was not allowed by the GM to play any male characters, and I resented it. In my recollection, the gaming system we were following, Ars Magica, didn’t differentiate between male and female characters in terms of abilities. The GM’s position was that cross-playing would hamper the other roleplayers’ ability to interact realistically or naturally with my character — that it was too difficult to see a female player and think ‘male character’. To me this was silly, since we inherently required players to see ‘pimply 20th-century American teenager’ and think, e.g., ‘middle-aged 15th-century German blacksmith’. Wasn’t that a far wider gulf?

    It wasn’t so much that I yearned to play a male character as that I resented the gender-based distinction that the GM seemed to be going out of his way to make. The historical contexts we played in were, of course, terribly misogynist, but from a modern teenager’s perspective I didn’t have much more insight into the the experience of my female characters’ real-life counterparts than a young man of my age. In that sense, “anyone from a privileged position who plays an oppressed character” could be me, a (privileged compared to my character) modern woman playing a (relatively very oppressed) medieval woman. The degree of privilege I now enjoy may be more comparable to that of a man of that era.

    None of us white, TAB kids attempted to play a person of color or a person who was less than fully able-bodied, IIRC. Although we were encouraged to think about our characters’ back-story and point-of-view, if any of us had played such a character, I’m sure it would have been with shameless oblivion.

  2. JeninCanada

    Great post, Jonathan! Very insightful.

    In my current Pathfinder RPG session I’m playing a half-orc oracle who’s lame; she’s got a busted right leg from the knee down that can’t be fixed. It’s been interesting to learn how to maneuver through the world with a character who is hesitant about stairs, running, climbing ropes or anything else physical. The busted leg is, of course, her payment to the gods for becoming an oracle. Other options included blind, deaf, speaking in tongues or haunted by spirits. Noone else I’ve ever met in D&D has played someone on purpose with a physical disability, unless it gave them some major advantage.

  3. Tom

    “RPGs are just another avenue for telling stories. It’s collaborative storytelling that runs into the same problems that any storytelling method has. The storyteller, both as player or as GM or other if you play a lot of indie games, has to unpack and try their best to understand their privilege, otherwise their representation of a character that isn’t exactly them is going to be horribly problematic-ist.”

    I take some issue with that “just”.

    Every RPG I’ve ever been involved in has included the shared representation of wildly antisocial and morally reprehensible behaviour, from murder and rape through torture.

    Many RPGs have an undisguised lenience in their relatively approving shared representation of fictional characters who undertake these morally excursive actions. That is, all the players inhabit the roles of characters who regularly kill or commit other moral offences, this is considered normal, and these characters are perceived positively by all of the group.

    I would hesitate to say that because roleplaying as a hobby tends to encourage the imagined performance of some types of questionable acts, everything should be given free rein. Maybe it means everything should, rather, be reined in.

    However I think it does move one to ask whethe the arguable psychologically exploratory aspect of roleplaying – as distinguished from, for example, passive TV show consumption – should inflect our judgement of representations of actions and characters in the fictional RPG environment.

    In other words, should there be a lenience towards ablist (or other “problematic-ist”) representations in RPGs because they’re RPGs, and not TV, film or literature?

    Or, is this lenience in fact particularly pernicious because of the immersive aspects of the RPG medium?

    1. koipond

      Hey Tom,

      That doesn’t deny the fact that it’s a avenue for telling stories. If those are the stories that the people around you are telling then perhaps that says something about them rather than roleplaying as a whole. Yes, there are people who like to do morally reprehensible things while playing an RPG. Yes, there are games that do encourage that kind of thing. For instance D&D does encourage you to kill things wholesale because that’s the way the game was designed. The World of Darkness books are meant to be that bleak and horrible setting where people have to do horrible things to survive. However, this doesn’t decry the whole gamut as something horrible. We tell those stories all the time in other medium as well, but in the end they are ‘just’ a method for telling stories.

      I mean, I got to play a game called Tales of the Fisherman’s Wife by Julia Bond Ellingboe, and the whole point was that you had a married couple who get split up by the fact that one goes fishing and then you have two other characters who end up playing demons whose goal is to tempt the people while they are alone. That’s morally reprehensible, but it makes for a great story playing the antagonists.

      I would hesitate to say that because roleplaying as a hobby tends to encourage the imagined performance of some types of questionable acts, everything should be given free rein. Maybe it means everything should, rather, be reined in.

      Just out of curiosity, did you read the whole of the post? At the end when the question comes up about playing disabled characters in an RPG I was hesitant saying that because the medium here relies heavily on improvisation which is usually informed by our biases we should refrain from portraying characters from within an oppressive framework because we will be wildly showing our privilege.

      I do not say that it can’t be done, and done well. The problem exists that on the whole it won’t be done well and maybe as such we should at least take a long hard look and consider what we’re doing before we either play characters or allow people to play characters with disabilities unless we/they are able to give the playing of that role all the respect and consideration that it deserves.

      1. Tom

        Yes – I read the whole thing.

        I suppose my first comment came across as a sideswipe. Sorry about that – not trying to derail. Also, the quote you’ve taken from my comment wasn’t intended to directly reflect on your own thinking.

        What I was saying is that, for me, the boundaries of appropriate communication in RPGs are much vaguer than they are in, say, public space, or children’s TV. I think that’s partly because in my experience RPG scenarios often involve fictional representations of transgressive behaviour, and I’m not comfortable with the idea that transgression should be moderated in every space.

        “This isn’t to say that such a thing can’t ever be done, but that the potential for appropriation and caricature are great, almost too great in that kind of setting. The reason is that unlike a novel where you can take a break and do some research, your answers are improvised and are based off of you, in that moment and that’s often when your privilege is going to show up.”

        In response to this, you’re right about the reduced opportunities for self-editing in improvised fiction.

        But – I suppose I don’t think the same standards should be applied to both novels and RPGs, or even to all novels, or to all RPGs.

        I think this diverts us from the worthy topic of your OP, though, so I won’t drive discussion further along these lines unless you’re interested.

  4. MillyAshton

    I am not sure. Roleplaying games with numbers often are very focussed on stats. It is quite obvious that someone that has a lame leg cannot walk as fast as someone without one, reducing movement speed. There is no way to implement this in a stat-based game without the disability being a disadvantage.

    Movement speed is important, and it is limiting a character in gameplay if the movement speed is reduced. It can only be a disadvantage in numbers.

    People who can hear would be more likely to notice things, because I could never hear them, being deaf. Again, deafness gives me nothing IRL that makes up for this. In a game, this can only be done as a malus compared to those that can hear.

    The flaw is inherent in systems that value characters in numbers. One thing will always be worse than another as long as you focus on numbers, and gameplay wise, doing it the other way round (having to buy senses, arms, legs, et cetera) would be incredibly bureaucratic and cumbersome in actual play, because it would mean a long checklist of things you need to buy first. Few would see the point in such a system, if any.

    Another reason for these point costs is that some of them make what a normal adventuring group does almost impossible. Take person without sight. A blind person can life a normal life. We know that.
    A blind person would have a very hard time fighting a dragon, much more so than an able-bodied person. Simply because he can’t see where the dragon is flying, and would have a hard time moving aside when the dragon attacks. Not to mention avoiding the cliffside.

    Everyone who has ever sat in a wheelchair knows how hard it is to navigate these things, how inaccessible society is (see museums where you can’t even access a gallery because there are no ramps, just steep stairs). How would you move around in a castle without help?

    As long as you allow disabilities in RPGs that work based on statistics for each character, they are going to be disadvantages for characters. And in these systems, disadvantages always give points.

    The problem is inherent. It is summing characters up with numbers. The only solution is abandoning numbers altogether.

    1. koipond

      Right now there’s a big movement away from stat based rpgs. That’s not to say that they’re going away any time soon, but there’s a really heavy narrative focused games. Even then, the way that stories are told don’t have to be through a stat based framework. Also, they don’t rely on epic fantasy in order to get past, where someone needs to do great deeds in order for things to be considered a great story.

    2. Naphtali

      Not necessarily. In number-based games, disability is often represented by trade-offs in stats, rather than an overall reduction of stats. For instance, a character with a mobility impairment may *walk* slower, but when given access to a mobility aid such as a wheelchair can use their Strength to determine speed instead of Agility/Dexterity, which might make them faster than their TAB party-members. Similarly, a Deaf character will take a hit to Perception checks, but will also better able to concentrate in situations where noise would provide a distraction, such as casting spells in combat. And besides, a well-prepared D&D party always has at least two characters who are fluent in Drow Sign-Language.

      When working in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, almost anything is possible. In a magical world, stairs might not exist at all, having been replaced by convenient teleportation rings. Depending on their character class, a character might not need to see in order to fight off that dragon. A blind sorcerer might need only to know what her target is and its general direction to be able to hit it with a spell, or might be at an advantage in melee combat in the dark. Heck, in Star Wars, there is an entire species that is sightless, and its still one of the most common races for a character to choose. The species’ eyes have become vestigial because they perceive the physical world through the Force, resulting in a much higher level of Jedi abilities, and the ability to see through walls…though the walls themselves are quite a challenge.

      Many disability activists regard social discrimination as the most significant problem experienced by persons with disabilities and as the cause of many of the problems that are regarded as intrinsic to disability by most people. Put simply, disability isn’t being unable to use part of the body, its coping with an environment built on the assumption that everyone can do so. As much as I hate the term “differently-abled,” in games it is possible to remove those environmental barriers, resulting in disabilities really being more about a difference in how you do things, rather than being about how you can’t do things.

  5. Princess R

    I play a lot of WoD games, and I will say I like the flaws system even though I see the potential for it to become ableist because I can make a character that more accurately represents myself. I am a LARPer, though, so I have incentive to take on things I can fully act out. (Like all my PCs having some variant of bad sight because I wear glasses.)

    What I would like to see is more ST/DM types pushing their players to only get the benefits attached to the flaws if they portray the flaws in a realistic and understanding way. I’m not saying that they need to go out and poke out an eye to represent bad sight, but that I want to see people with these kinds of flaws on their character sheets actually having to deal with the disability (and consequently maybe learn something about their own X privilege).

    1. koipond

      I still say that when someone from a privilege position tries to roleplay a character that comes from any oppressed group there is a really high chance that it’s going to be problematic more often than not.

    2. Naphtali

      The WoD Flaw system, particularly in the new edition of the game has been a really interesting experience for me. For those not familiar, nWoD Flaws don’t give stat bonuses, but do grant a small XP reward for sessions where the Flaw negatively affected a character, especially if the character found a clever way around it. These flaws often fail to come into play, such as when a character with Poor Sight uses glasses.

      When I ST games, I usually require players to choose at least one Flaw, and I do use those flaws against them at least once an arc. It forces them to think about things, and I’ve found it makes them more aware of various issues in day-to-day life. I do, however, have unusually bright and progressive players, all of whom are women, people of color, people with disabilities, or some combination of the above.

      I agree that using disability as a lesson, and especially having someone “wear” disability is problematic, and on the surface, role-playing a character with a disability looks a lot like the fail-tastic Disability Simulation Experience. As most of us know, these neither examine the reality of disability nor show how to resolve disadvantages experienced in society. Additionally, there is no opportunity for a participant to learn strategies to succeed. Wearing earplugs for a day doesn’t allow time for acquiring lip-reading or sign language skills. Sitting in a wheelchair for twenty minutes does not allow time to develop the upper arm strength necessary to operate a wheelchair efficiently. Because of the long-term and introspective nature of the games I’ve seen the players who choose to take physically-based Flaws come away with a more complete and complex understanding than just “wow, being disabled sucks.” The characters are heroes, and have ample opportunity to succeed in many areas, some of which are affected by their disabilities, and most of which are not.

      Additionally, we as players enjoy the ability to portray ourselves in a realistic manner. I’m currently in a game of Innocents – World of Darkness with children as the heroes – in which the entire party is playing as themselves. IRL, all of us have learning disabilities, and the “tavern” where the characters first met and do most of our planning is a HF-SPED classroom. None of us have really talked about our LD’s before this game, and the Classroom has provided us a safely-distanced venue to talk about our shared experiences with the public school system, people’s perceptions of us, and how we cope with (and sometimes even enjoy having!) Dyslexia/Autism/ADHD. And, well, it’s really really nice to get more than just a pat on the head for managing to find ways to do the things that challenge us but “everyone else” has no trouble with.

  6. Patricia

    As my own body become increasingly disabled, I find myself drawn to RPGs in part because they let me represent a character whose body does the things I cannot — running, jumping, climbing. (You can see something of the same impulse in “Avatar,” where even able-bodied characters take on other bodies or Transformer-like fighting suits. One wonders if James Cameron’s knees are starting to bother him in the mornings.)

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