Minnesota dwelling Ex-pat New Yorker Paul Weimer is a Hugo Nominated podcaster [The Skiffy and Fanty Show 2014], SF Signal Irregular, Genre reviewer/columnist & writer. When he isn’t doing all of that, he loves photography and playing and talking about roleplaying games. You can find him on Twitter, and commenting on genre blogs far and wide.
by Paul Weimer
In roleplaying games, players inhabit other characters, other people, in other worlds. Wizards in a city in a desert, fighting a battle against the incoming horde of the Sand Sultan. A sword swinging barbarian delving into an ancient maze of tunnels called the “Londn Undrgrnd”. The pilot of a starship full of rogues and freebooters, the kind of woman who has the engines hot for the inevitably necessary getaway. The gnomish clockmaker, building golems to defend his allies. The Paladin of a Goddess of Law, who fights for justice not only on the tourney field, but in the Courts as well. Characters of all sorts of ethnicities, races, species and genders.
Is playing a character without legs, or with a mental disability, so different than these? Sometimes, when you roll perception plus awareness, you’re rolling for a character who has special needs. The one-eyed archer. The wheelchaired mutant with psychokinetic powers. The police officer, former army veteran, with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The dark elf cleric, an exile to the surface world, who is severely weakened by sunlight.
In the early days of roleplaying games, there were few or no rules for playing characters with special needs, or they were at best, ad hoc. Fighting rules for blind characters (-4 to hit!). The possibility of getting a mental disability from a psionic attack. The attack of the underground lake dwelling aboleth, whose tentacle strike makes a character only able to breathe water, and no longer able to breathe air. There were few consistent rules or guidelines for a player to ask a GM how to handle a character with special needs on a recurring basis. A GM and a player can come to develop table rules, of course, but there were few established guidelines for less adventurous GMs, and little encouragement within the games themselves to play such characters
In the 1980s and 1990’s, games like GURPS and White Wolf’s Storyteller system started to filled this void. These games build characters on pools of points of various types. Want your character to know English as well as their native Mandarin? Give a character a superpower? Have the character be physically strong? All of those things cost points. And you only have so many points to go around.
So, the idea of these game is this. To encourage, and compensate players who want to play characters with disabilities, have such disabilities give the characters extra points to use somewhere else. It’s a good idea in theory.The idea and the heart behind it is a good one. In games where points count, where character balance is a goal, a blind character should have compensatory advantages, so that they aren’t irretrievably weaker than their counterparts. You encourage players to tell stories about characters with special needs in strange worlds.
What it leads to, in some gaming tables, however, is the type of player who accumulates disadvantages to get extra points to get powers and abilities. The disadvantages are often soft-pedaled or even ignored. The webcomic Darths and Droids highlights this idea. The basic conceit behind the comic is that the events of the Star Wars movies is really a GM and the players homebrew roleplaying campaign. The player who designed R2D2, in particular, has tried to min-max their character, getting lots of points for disadvantages that aren’t always consistently played. Like, for example, R2’s inability to have his beeps and boops understood (a disadvantage in speaking). This character build bribery still exists in many roleplaying games to this day. There will always be players who try to “min-max”.
However, some recent roleplaying games explore the development and playing of disabled characters in a more nuanced and careful manner. A recent game that handles this well, for example, is Robin Laws Mutant City Blues. In Mutant City Blues, the players play police officers who have mutant powers. Not long ago, an accident released mutant powers on the world, in a manner analogous to George R.R. Martin’s Wildcards universe. In MCB, you play cops with mutant powers whose job is to deal with crimes involving the use and abuse of those mutant powers.
Where special needs characters come into this is in character design and the Quade Diagram. The Quade Diagram is a in-game document as well as one in the game itself, predicting what sort of mutant powers align with each other. The trick is, certain combinations of mutant powers invariably lead to disadvantages, special needs. Want a character with super speed AND lightning decisions? As a consequence, you will have attention deficit disorder. As the players are playing cops, and are aware of the Quade diagram they can reverse engineer this in play. A telekinetic mutant criminal is showing signs of autism? Better watch out, she probably can produce force fields, too.
In the end, however, it’s not about the points or powers at all. It’s challenging and ultimately worthwhile, to take up a character with special needs in a roleplaying game. One of the joys of roleplaying is to create and inhabit a life not one’s own, and so doing not only entertain oneself and others, but touch other parts of the human experience. I, and many other players, don’t need to be bribed into doing it with extra points.
Gamemasters, too, have a responsibility, a duty, even, to provide a tapestry of characters for their players. Just as people with special needs populate our world, having an imaginary world without such people would be unrealistic, false, and as discordant as making all of the characters of one gender or one ethnicity. Even as playing characters can be a challenge, but ultimately worth it, running them from behind the GM screen is challenging, valuable, and helps provide a real universe at the gaming table.
For example, in my own diceless Play-by-Email roleplaying game, Strange Bedfellows, based on the Amber novels of Roger Zelazny, I as the Gamemaster, I am called upon to run any character the players run across or seek out. Men, women, people of various ethnicities. And yes, characters with special needs. Two important characters from those Amber novels with special needs prominently figure in my game.
Readers of the novels will quickly realize who I mean. Vialle, wife to Random, King of Amber, was a Rebman lady of seemingly little rank who was married to a Prince who became King. She was, and is, also, blind. It takes care and tact to write a character who is blind. While she is blind, I strike a balance to show the consequences of this, rather than explicitly defining her with it. She’s a Queen, an artist (sculptor), confidant and diplomat. She just happens to manage all of this, sightlessly.
Prince General Benedict of Amber is lacking an arm, cut off some decades ago. In the Amber novels, he briefly obtained a prosthetic to replace the missing arm, and its nature, gain and loss are part of the plot of the Amber novels. In the era of my game, years later, he is still one-armed. And even with just one arm, he is the best military mind in the multiverse, and even more remarkably, one of the most dangerous men with a blade.
An avatar of him, however, seen in a magical contact similar to a videophone call, still possesses two arms. I wrote this to show that Benedict doesn’t self-define as disabled, that in his mind he still has two arms, even though he has come to, over the last decades, to deal with and work with his long-term disability.
And other, minor characters in my games deal with less visible special needs such as mental disabilities, in some cases the result of their too-close connection with their God and source of power. Or the scion of a water-elemental-aspected noble House, whose visit to a Efreet City of Fire very nearly killed him.
Characters in roleplaying games should never be defined by their disabilities, but the richness of human experience is better captured when players and game masters remember to include them in all of their humanity, strengths and weaknesses, in their games.