Disabilities in RPGs and other fiction

Someone on Dreamwidth recently pointed me to this article about writing characters with disabilities by Kari Maaren. It's a thoughtful piece, well worth reading. Here's a taste:

So when I see fictional disability, I recognise the tropes. I’ve heard Matt Murdock described as “a blind man whose power is that he can see,” and yeah, that’s a common one. The “blind seer” is a particularly frustrating trope because its purpose is so dazzlingly clear: you want a blind person in your story because that’s so tragic, but you also don’t want the inconvenience of, well, having a blind person in your story. So he’s blind, but it’s okay! He can really see through his magical powers! He’s been compensated for his disability! Yay!

I tweeted a link, and somebody replied there asking for tips on including disabilities in role-playing-game systems without being disrespectful or creating broken player incentives. I said a few things there, but I think my readers are likely to have useful thoughts on this and why should we do it in 140 280-character chunks? So please comment, share useful links, etc. I'm going to share a link to this post.

Game (or other fictional) characters have a variety of traits. We gamers sometimes over-focus on a few stats, but a real, rich character is much more than ratings for strength, intelligence, endurance, dexterity, and so on. That's true whether the extra richness comes from the character's family background, formative experiences in wizard school, handicaps, affinity for fire, compassion for small furry animals, or whatever. So to me, three-dimensional characters depend on the players wanting to play that kind of game. I think these tend to be the same players who are interested in story-based games.

That's not all players. That's ok. You can't, and shouldn't, force richer characters where they're not wanted.

Regardless of game mechanics, players who want to play characters who are disabled in some way -- really play them, I mean, not use them as jokes or sources of offsets for abilities -- will do so. I had a player once who played, well, a vision-challenged character -- a challenge that the player proposed as a logical consequence of the character backstory he'd invented. He wasn't looking for any offsetting benefits.

Now, the game system can help or hinder this, and the person I'm talking with is interested in developing game systems that support disabled characters in a meaningful way. Game systems, like players, come on a spectrum. At one end it's all about optimization; at the other end it's all about good story. At the optimization end, you get players saying things like "I'll take the blindness penalty in order to get extra points for spellcraft". Champions was like this. I never actually played; I went through character creation once and decided it wasn't my style of game. But people did (and I assume do) play, and not all of them are only focused on points optimization, so I'm interested in hearing how they roleplay rich, sometimes-disabled characters in that kind of game system.

At the other, story, end of the spectrum you get games like Dogs in the Vineyard, where characters are nothing but collections of interesting backstory, traits, and growth. I only played a few times and not recently so I might have this wrong, but I don't think there even are stats for things like strength. What you have is things like "I had this formative childhood experience that made me really afraid of guns" (minuses to shooting, panicking under fire, etc), and during the campaign as you have to interact with guns that characteristic might gradually change. You know, just like people often do. Meanwhile, during the game you have other experiences, which might be character-affecting too... There's not a lot of bean-counting, of tit-for-tat -- I took fear of guns, so I'm allowed to be extra-good at riding. It works if the group wants it to work. Dogs has a system (and I'm told there's a broader "Fate" system that uses the same mechanic, if you're not into the setting built into Dogs), but it's not a very pushy system. When we played Dogs, we were mostly telling a collaborative story with occasional dice-rolling.

A story-oriented game system can support character disabilities well. Willing players can support disabilities in any system. What I don't know is how game systems not already at the story-oriented end of the spectrum can facilitate good treatment of character disabilities. Or is this something that is best left out of rules systems and placed in the hands of players?

Thoughts? (If my Twitter correspondent is reading, you can log in using any OpenID credential, create a Dreamwidth account (easy, no spam), or comment anonymously.)

There's lots of interesting feedback in the comments.