Part 1: Definitions and Wherefores
[EDITORS NOTE: This is PART 1 of a multi-part series. Links to the other parts will be provided as they are updated. -dc]
More and more these days my thoughts turn to how I can make my roleplaying games more accessible. I spend a fair amount of time Game Mastering at conventions and in public space, and I want my tables to be available to anyone who wants to play. With more people than ever entering the hobby for the first time, I don’t want my GM style or my table set-up to be the reason someone might decide tabletop gaming isn’t for them. It’s definitely a challenge to make your game broadly accessible, but it is also worth doing. Over the next several weeks I’m going to look at existing resources and what you can do to make your table welcoming to the folks who are not bio- or neurotypical. As well, we’ll talk about some ideas I have for where gaming companies and tabletop publishers can fill in the gaps.
But first, let’s define some terms and talk about why you should bother making your table accessible. And I’ll give you the first step you can take to make it so, useful for any situation.
I used two terms above, biotypical and neurotypical, which deserve some definition before we continue. When we talk about an “x-typical” person, we’re talking about the typical human make-up from either a physical or mental standpoint. So when I talk about someone as being biotypical, I mean that physically they have all the abilities we associate with the human form. They have all their senses, their limbs all function, and they have a full range of motion. Neurotypical follows the same lines, with a neurotypical person having no cognitive or emotional impairment, either through physical, mental, or emotional trauma, or by a difference in brain chemistry.
Two things I need to note right away. One, I have avoided the more commonly used terms “bio-normative” and “neuro-normative” because I find the “normative” part problematic. It implies that if you deviate from those two states you are abnormal, which is simply untrue. In the wide variety that is human life, talking about “normal” humans is a pointless exercise. Which leads me to my second point: the biotypical or neurotypical human is a construct, not typically (heh) existing in the real world. Like many things in nature, these are not so much states as spectrums, and everyone exists at some point on the bio-or neurotypical spectrum. Take me, for example. At a glance I might seem biotypical (you can’t tell if anyone is neurotypical just by looking at them, whatever idiots on the internet may tell you). But while my senses are relatively intact, I wear glasses for nearsightedness and I have some hearing deficiency in my left ear from years spent working in noisy industrial settings. I’m not missing any limbs, but I do have some mobility issues related to injuries old and new. Neurologically speaking, I suffer from Seasonally Activated Depression (absence of protracted sunlight causes a neuro-chemical shift in my brain, activating depression). So it can be hard for me to be social during the winter or during long stretches of cloudy weather, though that second hasn’t been an issue here on the Canadian prairies.
What does all that mean? Well, for my own comfort I will tend to print or write slightly larger so I can more easily read material at the table, and I appreciate it when GMs give easily readable handouts. Given the choice I will sit next to the GM, on their left side if possible, so I can hear them better and tune out table talk more easily. And while I will do my best to stick to our group’s campaign schedule, during the winter I may have one or more absences due to just not being able to give a damn. And if I didn’t tell you, you’d have no idea about any of these things just by looking at me. Are these things which keep me from gaming? Not usually, as I take steps to mitigate them. And nothing I suffer from needs any special intervention from the GM or the other players, excepting some patience during the winter months. But imagine I was blind instead of nearsighted, or that my depression wasn’t seasonal. What then? That’s what we’ll be looking at over the next four articles.
You might be thinking that making your table accessible is going to take a lot of work, and why should you bother? For a variety of reasons we have more folks than ever entering our hobby, all looking to enjoy the shared experience we’ve enjoyed and continue to enjoy. Personally, I don’t want to be the asshole at the gate telling folks they can’t play because it’s too hard to work them in. There are challenges involved, as with anything worth doing. But I honestly believe that everyone’s experience is improved when we increase the number of folks who can play, and that doing so is one of the surest ways to grow our hobby. Also, I’ve been in this hobby going on thirty-eight years now, and I can tell you the non-neurotypical have been a part of tabletop gaming all that time already (I’m an example of that). We just didn’t have an understanding of what that meant until fairly recently, and so those players were usually just branded as problematic or weird, used as examples of what the non-geeks thought geeks were. But they were looking for the same experience we were, they just didn’t have the same set of tools as other folks.
Okay, we’ve talked a great deal about what we’re going to talk about. But I also promised to tell you the first thing you can do to start making your table inclusive and accessible. It’s pretty straightforward, but sometimes gets missed in the rush to roll some dice. Ready?
Talk to your players.
Simple, right? And many GMs have already got that step on lock. If you’re running a table you should be checking in with all your players before you start, making sure they have what they need and are ready to start. If I’m running a game at a convention or other public event, I always have a short introduction where I go over what the event is, how I usually run my table, and I end it by asking if the players have everything they need or have any questions. Remember what I said about not being able to determine non-neurotypical folks at a glance? You’d be surprised at how often the simple act of asking if anyone needs anything nets a positive response, and lets me make the play experience better for all my players. Sometimes it doesn’t get a response, and that’s okay as well. In that case I keep my eyes open for any signs I might need to adjust my game, and play on.
I also think having a conversation with your players before you begin a campaign is vital, as you will often discover things you’d have no way of knowing if you didn’t talk with them. For example, my regular Wednesday night gaming group had been on hiatus for a little while due to scheduling issues. Instead of trying to jump right back into a game I asked if we could talk a bit about the campaign, and options for when not everyone could make the session. It was helpful for several reasons. I don’t think my players knew what our other game options were prior to our talk, so they assumed it was just Pathfinder or nothing. But I have about 6-10 different systems I can break out for a one-shot or short campaign, and now we have a game plan for when we’re missing one or two of the players for Pathfinder. And we learned some important points about everyone’s game preferences. Before we talked I had no idea that not only did one of my players not want to play anything Cthulhu-related, but that the sub-genre actually gave him nightmares. Knowing that, not only do we save the Trail of Cthulhu and Call of Cthulhu one-offs for when he can’t make it, but I now know to look for and adjust similar content in our Pathfinder campaign.
So that’s where we’re going to start. Next week I’m going to begin to talk about bio-typical bias in our games and gaming environments, what resources exist and what we can do as GMs, and suggestions for resources I think still need to be developed. I hope you’ll read along, but if this isn’t your cup of tea then check back in February when I’ve wrapped these articles up. Cheers for now!