When it comes to pen and paper tabletop gaming, there are two distinct types of player; those who create a character radically different from themselves, and those who play the best version of themselves adapted to the setting. I fall into the latter category, more often than not playing a healer with a loud mouth and a questionable moral compass. Since I also use a powered wheelchair, from time-to-time, I will incorporate this into my character design as well.
One of the very first characters I ever created was Athaena, battle-sister hospitaller, in Warhammer 40k: Wrath & Glory. According to the backstory I hastily put together, and having just watched the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine about Melora, Athaena was born and raised in a low-gravity environment, and was disabled by the increased strength of gravity on the various planets we visited. There are no specific rules for wheelchair users in this system, but the GM (Games Master, and in this case also my husband) suggested incorporating the wheelchair into the power armour my character would wear. This worked surprisingly well, particular once I managed to mount a mini-gun to the wheelchair midway through the campaign like a high-tech Bloodborne enemy, but beyond the narrative elements of having to find elevators instead of stairs it had no real impact on the gameplay.
A few campaigns and non-disabled characters later, I decided to once again incorporate disability into my character design. This time the system was FATE, a system so rules-light that even the setting isn’t specified. Our long-suffering GM set the campaign in a post-apocalyptic Yorkshire, which is not too far removed from current circumstances, and as such there was no way for my character to charge a powered wheelchair. Instead, I came up with the unique solution of riding a genetically-engineered unicorn to cover long distances, but even in a system so rules-light by design, the impact of my character’s disability beyond the narrative was insubstantial.
There are other ways to bring disability into pen and paper games, primarily through the introduction of NPCs. In a Call of Cthulhu campaign set against the grim backdrop of World War 1, when our characters were taken prisoner, our cell-mate was a disabled man by the name of Hugh Mann. The war had quite literally cost him an arm and a leg, and as a result he made use of prosthetic limbs. Once again, however, the only dice roll that had anything to do with his disability was to use his prosthetic arm as an improvised weapon.
More recently, pen and paper games have begun to develop rulesets for wheelchair use in combat, most notably for Dungeon’s & Dragons 5e, but also for Cyberpunk Red. While I have sadly not had the chance to make use of either ruleset to date, their mere existence has inspired the creation of paintable models, step-free dungeon maps, and incredible character art.
The use of wheelchairs becoming increasingly visible within these circles has an impact far beyond tabletop gaming. With increased visibility comes reduced stigma, opening people up to difficult discussions on the wider issues of ableism. Considering the mostly sedentary nature of tabletop gaming, it is quite surprising that it has taken this long to get formal representation for wheelchair users into the game mechanics.
Disability, however, is not limited just to the use of wheelchairs. Many like myself can walk short distances with mobility aids, and some don’t need a wheelchair at all. Still others have problems with their sight or hearing, and neurodiversity would almost certainly impact how a character interacted with the other players and the world around them. Indeed, a good friend of mine who is autistic has described to me how the structure of pen and paper gaming enables him to enjoy an activity more social than his usual comfort zone, even making the exhaustion he inevitably experiences afterwards well worth the effort.
I heartily encourage players of all abilities to explore the portrayal of disability in pen and paper gaming, and not just those who are disabled themselves. The addition of new mechanics for experienced players will present a fresh challenge to attempt, and for new players provides variety to the world opening up before them. It’s not about pandering to the petty wants of a handful of people, but about adding depth and detail to the stories we tell together.