i have been thinking a lot about disability in tabletalk rpgs lately, mostly because people keep fucking it up in really obvious ways.
from cyberpunk red. to quote my good friend nathan @jakobvongunten: "trans and disabled people love when you make distinctions between 'medically/therapeutically necessary' and 'elective' procedures"
cyberpunk tends to be one of the worse offenders in this genre, but rest assured that most sci-fi is prone to similar problems and so's fantasy — the fact that physical scarring leads directly to social debuffs regardless of context in games like Heart: The City Beneath and Dungeon World comes to mind here. i think there's several things at play here, and i want to talk about what they might be and ways to address them. i want to start with a general principle about how to address what i think might be behind some of the mindset that produces this kind of thing, and then cover four basic tips to avoid it.
THE GENERAL PRINCIPLE: LETTING GO OF ANXIETY ABOUT WHETHER ONE'S BODY IS ADEQUATE
disclaimer: this may not be applicable to every person reading this! as the saying goes, all advice is autobiographical, and this is certainly a mistake i made and had to fix (thankfully well before it got to the publishing stage.) but i think it is a useful principle to keep in mind: you do not need to justify the existence of different kinds of bodies in your games.
about two editions of Songs for the Dusk ago, i was trying to figure out the three types of people you can be (the type we have today, furries, and robots), and i recall having written a great deal of material to "balance" them — furries and robots would get animal parts and robot parts, and then normal humans would get a "general buff" to equalize them. a friend talked to me about this and was like, hey: why do the factory-edition humans need to be "brought up to par" with the other kinds? i thought about it and was like, right, they don't. this is an anxiety about whether being human is worth it if you can be "better."
to that end, i found it useful (and you may too) to make an effort to let go of the idea of "better." i feel like a lot of cyberpunk is wrapped up in anxieties about no longer being the best — racially, in terms of the fear of various asian countries hijacking the position that the west once held in global politics and economics, and bodily in terms of the fear of what cybernetic augmentations could mean for our "natural state." the cyberpsychosis stuff from project red feels pretty fundamentally designed to offer the soothing reassurance that yes, the natural human state is perfectly adequate, and exceeding it always carries a price, so there's no need to feel inadequate. the most reliable way i have found of getting past this is accepting that it doesn't matter if machines become capable of that which we once thought was exclusive to humankind. we aren't valuable because we're unique, or because we're the best, or because we're capable of performing to some standard. we're valuable because we are.
i'm making a point of starting with this principle for a reason: it matters the most out of anything in this post. the fact is, fucking up in good faith on any of what follows is tolerable. some people won't be thrilled about reading it, but they'll accept it if it's written with the understanding that the author doesn't think of the body as a symbol for whatever their social anxieties are. fuck that principle up — treat the body as a canvas and real configurations of it as tools for thematic storytelling rather than simple facts of the world — and people will be much less generous.
TIP 1: DON'T TRY TO BALANCE MINDS AND BODIES
i've covered this somewhat already, but it's worth getting into in depth here: in the same vein that you don't need to justify the existence of different kinds of bodies, you don't need to balance different kinds of bodies in your games.
this is probably in your awareness already if you've ever been frustrated with D&D's racial bonuses system, but it applies just as well in this context as well. in many cases, there's a design urge to balance bonuses of various types so that every player is starting out with an equally balanced body. humans may get a +1 to everything, but orcs get a +2 to con and improved healing. balanced! you can take the mute disability to get extra points in intelligence or whatever. again, balanced!
you don't need to do this, and in fact, probably shouldn't. the question of whether these aspects of a person even should be turned into numbers is a thorny problem in its own right, but suffice it to say that you don't need to make those numbers reflect the body and the mind, or to average them out according to certain mind and body categories. this isn't me saying throw away stats entirely (i'd be a hypocrite to do so), but it is me cautioning against using them as a way to justify the existence of different kinds of people. at the end of the day, people just are. they have a range of capabilities, and that range is sometimes affected by what you can see and sometimes by what you can't.
practically speaking, i think Forged in the Dark games have gone a long way towards sidestepping this by focusing on rating actions rather than traits. "i have a 4 in Skirmish" says nothing about your character's body and demands nothing of it except the end result. i don't know that this is necessarily a perfect solution, but to my mind it's a strong start.
TIP 2: UNDERSTAND THAT DIAGNOSES ARE INVENTED CATEGORIES AND THAT DISABILITIES ARE ENVIRONMENT-SPECIFIC
medical science's tendency towards specific causal links is a useful one, but it's still worth remembering: a disease and its diagnosis start as a collection of symptoms, and pick up an explanation through research later.
when you think about infectious diseases, these processes seem (and typically are) fairly straightforward: all of the symptoms are a result of a single agent, which is a bacteria or a virus, and if you stop that thing, the disease stops. but many of the diagnoses we live with — depression, autism, chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis, etc. — aren't that simple. we understand depression as having a few different causes, the research is very much out on "what causes autism," if anything, and CFS/ME remains to this day something of a blanket condition/"we don't know what to do with you" diagnosis. these diagnoses are made of two things: 1. a collection of associated systems, which may or may not have a singular cause, and 2. significant reason to accept that these symptoms are debilitating enough to demand addressal.
this leads me to the second point: disabilities are specific to a person's context and their environment. for small stuff, this is obvious — a hayfever allergy doesn't matter to someone who doesn't live near their allergens, and we largely don't consider nearsightedness a disability because very little of modern life requires 20/20 vision and the parts that do can adjust for it with very little trouble. but the fact remains that this is true even at the broader scale; autism, for example, is a disability not because there is something inherently socially impairing about the autistic mind, but because allistic social norms demand social conformity and punish people for deviating from it. in a society that didn't feel the need to punish that deviation, it's likely that autism wouldn't exist as a diagnosis, or that social difficulties wouldn't be part of it — we might instead just have a "prone to sensory overload" condition, or maybe we simply wouldn't categorize people this way at all.
this is worth thinking about in your worldbuilding especially, because not every society you build is necessarily going to value the same traits that modern western society does. it's especially relevant when addressing something like the "scarred" disabilities i mentioned earlier. hell, any number of people in today's societies will tell you scars are hot; this is pretty obviously proof that the primary question of scars here has nothing to do with their effect on your body and more to do with how other people respond to you. none of this is to say "so there's no such thing as disability," because of course there is, but it's worth remembering: disabilities are specific to the societies in your game, and if those societies have different values than the one you live in, then the things considered disabling in them will be different too.
TIP 3: ASSISTIVE TECHNOLOGIES ARE USED TO MANAGE DISABILITIES, NOT TO ERASE THEM
people who wear contacts have to take them out every night. this is not a surprise to anyone, i'm sure; we all know how contacts work. i bring it up because contacts are perhaps the most unobtrusive assistive tech we have — they're even more inconspicuous than glasses. and they STILL have to come off every night. the point i am driving at here is that there is virtually no assistive technology that can erase a disability; everything we have ever devised is used to manage them instead. modern myoelectric prosthetics are largely imperfect, to say nothing of the conditions demanded by insurance companies of their users. sci-fi and fantasy love to play with hyperadvanced cybernetics or clockwork-enchanted prosthetic limbs, but as is often the case in situations like these, some of the more mundane realities associated with their use — maintenance, expense, etc. — are often left behind.
of course, there is the fact that you're writing about an advanced future or a magical world, which is why i wouldn't suggest that the assistive technology you create must be bound by the same laws as the real stuff. but it's worth recalling that you, as an author, are ultimately writing for today's audience, and i generally consider it a good call to have your writing reflect that. hell, if it helps — every time you include a prosthetic in your game, ask yourself if the people who use it sleep with it on. consider the mundane aspects of how your assistive technologies work, and the situations in which they might not.
TIP 4: DON'T GAWK
this is one of the more straightforward ones, and one you probably already understand if you are any kind of minority, but for real: quit staring. this applies to disabled people in and of themselves, but it also applies to the assistive technologies they use, too. from a writing perspective, this means not hyperfocusing on bodily difference or assistive technology, because this inevitably alienates your disabled characters from the abled ones. let these things fade into the background sometimes, and exist as just one more entry in the library of ways people can live.
we are at the end of the post now
at the end of the day, a lot of this advice could be boiled down to "disabled people are people too," but if there's one thing i want to drive home it's the focus on mundanity here. a disabled life is a life, and lots of people live disabled lives which are full of not just the same joys and sorrows but the same maintenance and habits that abled people's lives are. most people put on shirts in the morning; some put on limbs too. the social rules we use to separate abled from disabled are, at the end of the day, somewhat arbitrary. if you can move past the mental block of comparing people against each other, it becomes much, much easier to grasp this.
(many thanks to @cass @avi & @boo-cool-robot for prompting the discussion that led to this post and having a lot of very intelligent things to say about it! tune in next tuesday for more tabletalk thoughts, if i have them.)