Disability representation in tabletop gaming matters - here are the games doing it right
Recent years have seen stories and characters that avoid ableist tropes, though there’s still work to be done.
Over the past decade there has been a surge of disability representation in pop culture, from movies and TV shows such as Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa and Gotham’s Oswald Cobblepot to the main characters in novel The Fault in Our Stars. One field where this representation is perhaps lagging behind others is the field of gaming - in particular, tabletop gaming. If you know where to look, however, there are examples of disability in tabletop gaming waiting to be discovered.
In the monster-centric board game Horrified, you are tasked with defeating classic movie monsters and shepherding characters from their respective stories around the map, playing as one of a few investigators. Each investigator has a unique advantage in gameplay. Probably the most useful of these belongs to the Mayor, with more actions per turn that can be used entirely as you wish. This allows you to adapt to each hairy encounter and twist of events throughout the game.
The Mayor was also the first character I had ever encountered in board gaming who used a wheelchair. The inclusion of disability alone was significant, but the fact that the disabled character also held a position of authority and was competent at fighting monsters made this little victory that much sweeter. Disability was simply a feature of the character and not a ploy to draw sympathy from players.
Of course, it is possible to include disability within a tabletop narrative without being ableist, something which early editions of pen-and-paper RPG Cyberpunk sadly failed to achieve. Due to the futuristic, high-tech dystopian setting of the game it is common practice for characters to replace and augment body parts as they desire. Sometimes these augmentations are done purely to improve a player character's statistics by making them stronger and faster, but body modification could also be performed as the result of an injury such as the loss of a limb.
The inclusion of disability in Horrified was significant alone, but the fact that the disabled character also held a position of authority and was competent at fighting monsters made this little victory that much sweeter.
In the first few editions of the tabletop RPG prior to the more recent Cyberpunk Red, any sort of body modification due to any reason would cause you to lose humanity - a stat which could lead to “cyberpsychosis” should it fall too low. This meant that any disabled characters - and for what it’s worth, any trans characters who underwent gender-affirming surgeries - were automatically deemed to be less human than their able-bodied counterparts.
Given the decades of institutionalisation and abuse faced by disabled people throughout history, promoting the idea that being disabled meant being less human was dangerous and degrading. Fortunately, for the release of Cyberpunk Red the rules on humanity loss were revised so that only augmentations designed to alter character statistics caused a reduction in humanity.
A much better example of disability representation can be found in Arkham Horror: The Card Game, in the Nathaniel Cho investigator pack expansion. Each character in this Cthulhu-themed ghoul-fest comes with unique benefits and weaknesses - in Nathaniel’s case, this benefit is an ally. Most investigators only have one ally slot available to them; the competition against popular ally cards such as Beat Cop or Venturer means that Nathaniel’s special ally has to be something exceptional to make it worth using.
Enter Randall Cho, Nathaniel’s “concerned brother” and a medic providing essential healing services. According to their backstory, when Nathaniel defied the mafia by refusing to fix the boxing matches he participated in, Randall met with an unfortunate “accident” which disabled him to the point where he needed a wheelchair. Since the setting of the game is the 1920s, this constitutes what appears to be a dining chair on wheels, rather than the specially-designed wheelchairs we see today. While not a main investigator, Randall is a capable and useful ally, lending an empathetic aspect to Nathaniel’s adventures while avoiding the pitfalls of being portrayed as overly pitiful or inspirational.
While cooperative gameplay is preferred by some, disability representation can also be found in competitive games, a prime example being Magic: The Gathering. There are a few cards that depict disability, but the best of these is the Doomed Artisan, who sports a prosthetic arm and prevents sculptures from blocking and attacking in combat. While at the time of its release in the Commander 2019 expansion there were claims of laziness due to the use of the “tortured artist” trope, this says more about people’s assumptions that a disabled person is an automatically tortured soul than it does about laziness in the design.
The representation of a visible disability in such a high-profile game as MTG ruffling some feathers is a testament to the excellent design of the card.
Others expressed disbelief that someone with a prosthetic arm could perform delicate sculpting - but given that former Games Workshop sculptor Michael Perry could lose part of his dominant arm to a cannon and continue his career in sculpting historical wargaming miniatures, this disbelief hardly holds up to scrutiny. In reality, the representation of a visible disability in such a high-profile game as MTG ruffling some feathers is a testament to the excellent design of the card.
The representation of disability in tabletop gaming need not be limited to pre-existing characters designed by professionals, but can be found in pen-and-paper RPGs too. RPG designer Sara Thompson has developed custom rulesets to introduce wheelchairs to systems such as Dungeons & Dragons 5E and Cyberpunk Red, encouraging players of all abilities to engage in new and interesting game mechanics. The result of Thompson’s work has been a surge in the availability of wheelchair-using miniatures across all character races and classes, and accessible dungeon maps for the characters to discover.
Disability inclusion in gaming still has some way to go. A wider range of disabilities should be explored, and there is a need to increase the frequency of disability representation too. It is undeniable that creative and well-rounded disabled characters already exist, however, and that bodes well for the future of representing disability in tabletop games.
Edit: This article has been amended to make clear that Sara Thompson developed the custom combat wheelchair and cyberchair supplements for D&D 5E and Cyberpunk Red as third-party rulesets, rather than publishers Wizards of the Coast or R. Talsorian Games.