Fate SRD asks:
How should my group of hearing players approach playing a game where all the PCs are deaf?
Context: A wailing wind was released on the world, causing those who hear it to either go crazy or become servants of dark power. Only the deaf are immune.
First, let’s set aside the discussion about the word “crazy” as an ableist term. That’s a huge discussion by itself, but for the sake of this discussion we’ll assume the supernatural wind has caused those who hear it to behave erratically.
Next, there’s the question of motive. Are we playing deaf characters because we want to explore a certain aspect of gameplay or the human condition, or because it’s simply a conceit of the adventure? If the latter, I would challenge you to reconsider your motives and perhaps the adventure as a whole. Motives and intentions are powerful, and they can set the stage for what happens at the table. We’ll assume that the intention is to explore the topic in a meaningful and respectful manner, and I firmly believe that is the case for you and your hypothetical party because you wouldn’t be asking this question if it were not.
I believe that all people, regardless of disability identity, have the right to play disabled characters. Not everyone agrees with me, but I wouldn’t have written Survival of the Able if I didn’t believe people could be trusted to play disabled characters respectfully. You don’t need to be deaf (or blind, or live with chronic pain, etc.) to honestly wish to explore what it might be like in the context of a game. There are a few things I would suggest when exploring disability through gameplay though, and they apply equally to the aforementioned adventure seed, Survival of the Able, and any other game where you might wish to play as disabled characters.
Living with a disability and using props to play act as disabled are two very different things. I wouldn’t sit down to a game where all the characters are deaf and expect the players to wear noise cancelling headphones so they couldn’t communicate verbally with one another. For one, it might prove difficult without knowing proper sign language. For another thing, it does no service to anyone and only furthers stereotypes that having a disability must be hard, so it’s okay to pity disabled people.
This would be akin to putting on a blindfold and trying to live a day in the life of a blind person. If you’re not accustomed to it, you’ll bumble around, break things, and come away without a real understanding of how blind people actually operate.
What I would encourage, then, is to do what role-players do best: put yourselves in the role of your character, whoever that is and whatever abilities they may have. You don’t need to know how to cast magic missile in real life to be able to pretend it in-game. You don’t need to be deaf to imagine your character facing adversity and overcoming the challenges that might present. The key is to remember that disabled people can be bad-asses too, so don’t let their disabilities prevent them from being heroic and doing heroic things. Let their disabilities shape who they are and how they interact with the world, but remember that they’re capable people.
When playing characters who have disabilities you haven’t experienced yourself, just remember these three things: be respectful, remember they are people too, and have fun.
Readers, do you agree or disagree with my take on this? Do you have anything to add? Send an email to email@example.com and we may feature your comments in a future issue of the zine.
Many games use sanity levels separate from health levels. If your sanity falls below a certain point, you’re insane until your next rest/healing. It’s a fun idea, but definitely offensive. How do we fix it? Can we fix it? Is there an alternative?
Returning to the discussion about the word “crazy” being ableist, the same can be said about many sanity mechanics. Terms such as “crazy,” “insane,” and “stupid” have been used to ridicule and diminish people with mental health differences and learning disabilities. Words like these have been weaponized and are often harmful even when not used with the expressed purpose of injuring someone.
Many games, especially in the horror genre, have a sanity mechanic that is used to illustrate your character’s mental fortitude and well-being. Once you lose all your sanity points, you are said to go insane. Depending on the game, this can be a fate worse than death.
I admit, I struggled with this myself when designing Survival of the Able. As a horror game, it seemed fitting to show the mental strain and trauma that a character experiences when facing hunger, thirst, discomfort, and zombies. I wanted to showcase a bit of the human experience and how characters may respond negatively when faced with horrors beyond their knowledge.
Ultimately, I opted to give characters a Stress track. As a character experiences various stressors, such as severe hunger or encountering the undead, they suffer a bit of Stress. When a character simply cannot withstand any more stress, they experience a Nervous Breakdown.
How does this differ from losing sanity and going insane? After all, aren’t Nervous Breakdowns often equated with mental health concerns?
That was an issue I wrestled with for a long time. I decided that the language is part of the key here. Literally everyone experiences stress in their lives, so there isn’t the same stigma attached to stress as there is to sanity. People who have elevated levels of stress for extended periods of time are encouraged to seek help, and if left unchecked a person who experiences too much stress can literally experience a nervous breakdown. This has real mental health considerations, but in a game where disabilities and mental health are at the heart of character creation, I felt like this was something worth including and exploring.
As with everything, I think intentions and implementation are key. We must treat mental health with the same respect as everything else. That means we have to look at a game’s design and mechanics and ask ourselves: was this included as a prop? Does it heighten stigmas surrounding mental health? Are players encouraged to behave in a way that would be disrespectful to a marginalized group?
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we need to consider how we interact with these mechanics. Game designers should consider alternative mechanics, and players who enjoy such games should consider how they choose to implement the rules. We don’t need to throw out our favorite games just because they have problematic mechanics, but we can choose to interact with them in a way that doesn’t harm others.
As for alternatives, that is a topic that deserves more time and attention. There are a million and one ways to do just about anything in terms of game design, and I would love to hear what our readers have to say on this topic. Here’s a brief overview of one alternative, which I also use as one overall aspect of character design in Survival of the Able.
Anxieties and Assurances: Briefly put, Anxieties and Assurances represent things that cause a character strife (Anxieties) or things that sooth them (Assurances). In this game, every character has two Anxieties and two Assurances, which are specific types of situations that cause them additional Stress or help them relieve Stress. These are not the only things that help them manage Stress, but they are custom-tailored to a character and their personality.
An Anxiety may say something like: “Whenever you are forced to slow down or take it easy, take one Stress.” This might be for a character with a high Energetic Quality who doesn’t like being delayed by other people or who would get frustrated by those just can’t keep up.
An Assurance may say something like: “Whenever you get to keep something that is not intended for you, recover one Stress.” This would be for a character with a high Selfish Quality; in a game where resources are limited, getting to horde something might help such a character feel better about their current situation.
You could easily adapt these to remove the Stress references altogether, but to instead impose different limitations or provide different benefits depending on the game. For example, I have also ported this mechanic into the upcoming Super Able, which uses the Pip System™ by Third Eye Games. In this game, an Anxiety might impose a penalty on your next roll, while an Assurance might let you heal one point of Mental Health damage.
I like Anxieties and Assurances because they allow us to explore the feelings of a character without relying solely on a mental health or sanity track. They can be tailored to individual characters too, which helps make the mechanic more meaningful and less generic. I think this could easily be ported over to other games of cosmic horror, dark fantasy, or any genre where emotional well-being is an important part of the game.
That’s what I have come up with so far. What are your thoughts? If you have other ideas of ways to express mental health in a game without using old-fashioned sanity mechanics, we’d love to hear about them. If you would like to write an article about the mechanics you use, submit your pitch to us. If we like your idea, we’ll pay you to write about it for the zine.