“You open up the hatch in the floor and can see a man standing in the distance, shrouded by the shadows of the room,” I grunted beneath my breath, quickly turning it into a cough instead. A shooting pain riveting up from my spine and reached out across my back. Suddenly, I stood at my seat, leaning over the table.
“You alright Mysty?” a player asked, concern written across his face.
I shrugged with a reassuring smile, “Yeah, just can see and hear everybody better if I’m standing,” I half-lied. My head did barely pop above the DMs screen when sitting, I could lip-read much easier if I stood at the table, but I could neither sit nor stand for a four hour period. My back was always in shambles when I was finished.
We continued on with our session and around 10pm I was gritting my teeth and clenching my fist so hard my knuckles were turning white. I kept them out of sight. I didn’t want people to be concerned, or to ask if I was okay, or to question why my body language was so tense. Usually, I’m able to hide it, even when crammed in a room of 16 people playing Dungeons & Dragons together.
As I returned home from my session I immediately applied heat to every area of my back I could. Sweet, sweet release happened as soon as I could sink into the couch while soothing my muscles, bones, and joints. I was home, broken again, and unable to distract myself well enough from the pain. At least I found some solace for four hours while playing the game with friends.
Growing up was a chore. By the age of two, I had broken several long bones in my leg, including my femur. My legs were bowed, I was incredibly small, and I became accustomed to the feeling of pain through-out my body by kindergarten. I was diagnosed at birth with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, better known as brittle bone disorder, which effects a collagen gene within my body. Unfortunately for those with OI, collagen is in everything and effects much more than our bones. Our heart, lungs, skin, hair, joints, hearing, muscles…I can’t think of a single thing that isn’t affected, to be honest. If I cut myself, I struggle to stop bleeding, I bruise so often my parents were sadly accused of child abuse multiple times, but what people don’t realise is I bruise with the simple flick of a finger. My disability is both physical and not. Many people with it are visibly disabled, but for myself (and my siblings, father, and child with it as well), the disability is generally invisible.
So, what does this have to do with tabletop RPGs and D&D? Everything. So much of everything.
Multiple times a week I get to sit at the table, or turn on Roll20, and breathe a bit more freely. I forget the pain, I briefly forget about the compression fractures in my spine, I forget about my daughter’s experimental treatment which is coming up, I forget that I’m different and I can simply be with friends for a little while. I can be a Paladin or a Cleric who can take a hit without a single break. I can climb stairs without being winded, I can sit at a tavern table without the pain exploding all through-out my joints. I can be free of every restraint my disorder has put on me. Even if it’s only free in my mind, it gives me the sweetest of reprieves.
And I know I’m not alone in the release from my body that D&D gives me. I’d like to briefly share other’s experiences with physical disabilities and mental health struggles and their interaction with the tabletop RPG world.
I don’t know if I use it as an escape but playing dnd online makes it possible for me to have a social life when I’m in too much pain to physically leave the house.
— Sasha (@sunshadeauarts) April 9, 2018
playing online with friends makes it more possible for me to play as a partially deaf person—hearing anxiety makes it hard for me to join in person groups of strangers.
it’s nice to play characters who don’t have to worry about hearing
— goodnight sweet binch (@lichsona) April 9, 2018
I got diagnosed with RA in 2015 and during the year it took me to get meds to help, I could barely text, play video games, style my hair, etc because of the pain and fatigue. DND was the only thing that helped me feel like I could do anything and wasn’t limited by my pain.
— Rachael Allen (@pip400art) April 9, 2018
Before I had my hip replaced (at 27!) arthritis had taken quite a bit from me physically and emotionally.
I might not have been able to walk confidently at that time, but my Paladin did.
— h.h. carlan 🐙 (@stopthtoldwoman) April 9, 2018
Hi! I have a condition called POTS. It causes chronic fatigue, pain, and fainting. DND is a fantastic escape. My chara doesn’t have to worry about walkers, saline infusions, fainting, migraines, or her heart rate.
— 💖 Sachairi 💖 (@sachairiah) April 9, 2018
D&D, and other tabletop RPG games, especially in the new era of virutal tabletop, has been not only a comfort and a release but also a form of pain relief. Though it has been there for many others, I believe we, as a community, can still do so much more to widen the doors of inclusivity for physical disabilities.
I hope in the near future we see more characters with walkers, wheelchairs, chronic pain, anxiety, cleft palates, characters who are visually impaired or hard of hearing…seeing characters with these attributes will only simply extend the welcoming atmosphere that tabletop RPGs have. It will also help to make it known that we are capable and competent individuals, too. We may wish to forget about our disorders and our troubles from time-to-time, but they make us who we are. The same would be for the characters with these same attributes. I have said it about many subjects and I say it about this here and now – representation matters.
But how can we make our actual tables more inclusive?
- Make sure your home or LGS is accessible for those who may need to use assistive devices for walking (generally at least four feet of space around all walkways and tables are needed for this)
- Ensure there is enough space for sitting and standing for players and GMs
- Try to make the area conducive to those who may be hard of hearing (lower noise levels, and in large groups implement strategies so all players can hear and see each other clearly, FM transmitters if necessary, and different ways of communicating even if sitting at the same table)
- Have safety tools such as the x-card or support flower available at your table
- Be welcoming, make it known that if fellow players are struggling, that you are there to assist privately if they so need it
- Take breaks. My goodness, take breaks
- If you’re online, use text for important NPCs, places, and events
- Have a variety of options in playing the game (visual, 3D, 2D, descriptive/audio, text, etc.)
These are simply a start on how to make your games more inclusive to those around you who may have more particular needs. More importantly, ask every player at the table if there are any accomodations they would like to have in their playing experience.
D&D can be an escape, and often is, for many individuals from many roads in life. For some, it’s an escape from the busyness of the every day, or an escape from a negative situation that may be plaguing them, or an escape from their bodies and minds.
When you are weary, when your body aches, when you’ve spent all week at doctor and specialist appointments, when you’re fearing the bills that come from surviving, when you’ve pushed yourself to incredible limits, when you break your back again just by picking up a cat…you can let that all slip away as soon as you sit at the table.
Let’s ensure, as a community, that everyone has the same access to that escape.
End Note: As I am rapidly losing my hearing, I have gathered a few individuals who know ASL and play tabletop RPGs. If you are one of these people and we have yet to speak, please feel free to Contact me via the “Contact” page or to DM me on Twitter.