The tabletop gaming community offers a place for communication and togetherness that can be incredibly rare in modern culture. It’s a privilege that nerds have gotten better at sharing in recent years, particularly with those who need community most.
Dr. Elizabeth Kilmer is a clinical psychologist who uses tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) in therapy, and she herself was diagnosed with ADHD. “Narrative and metaphor have been used in therapy, healing, and educational practices for a long time,” she explains. “You can see examples in folk tales, parables, and other oral traditions. TTRPGs can be a powerful tool because they are so interactive, and they allow us to be vulnerable through our character, while protecting ourselves.”
“At the role-playing table, we can pretend to be braver than we feel in real life,” agrees Jacob Wood, founder of the Accessible Games Blog and a longtime blind TTRPG player and GM. “Through fantasy, I learned to be comfortable talking to groups of other people, even if I didn’t know them very well. Without these chances to express myself, I’d still be hiding away in my house on my own.”
Understanding the Problem
As experts who have brought tabletop gaming to disabled and neurodiverse people for years, and part of the community themselves, people like Wood and Kilmer have created accommodations for people who haven’t always been able to participate.
“Communication is hard,” Kilmer reminds us. “Passive and indirect communication strategies can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent individuals (and isn’t great for neurotypicals either). This can contribute to the stigma that autistic and ADHD players shouldn’t or can’t play TTPRGs.”
In Issue 11 of Wood’s Accessible Gaming Quarterly, autistic author Divid Poetters lends their take on autism at the table, highlighting the expectation for masking behaviors—the imitation of neurotypicality at some games. Masking can range from the avoidance of stimming, hiding over-interest, or otherwise denying one’s discomfort, all of which can frustrate neurotypical people who may have no frame of reference for such behaviors. This misconception has the potential to lead to burnout and shutdown, but it also means people on the spectrum and other maskers are hiding who they are because they aren’t treating the table as a safe place, nor an opportunity for self-expression, which defeats the very purpose of coming together to create a space to play the game. At worst, it can accomplish the opposite, by turning what ought to be a safe space to unwind into a socially draining one.
“Personally, I lean toward two-hour play sessions,” Kilmer explains, “I design a character that allows me to lean into tendencies that can work well in TTRPGs (like impulsivity) that I have to manage in my day-to-day life, fantastical or otherwise, and I make sure to have a “session zero” with other players where we talk about our hopes and expectations for the game. I also have something to fidget with if needed, and I try to plan games for a time where I’m able to stay focused.”
Solutions on the Table
Session zeroes like the sort Kilmer insists upon have grown as a quality-of-life improvement for all players concerned about synergizing play style and bringing fantasy to life. It’s especially important for those concerned about potential pitfalls with their group. Even so, much more can be done.
“Accessibility is more cultural than physical,” agrees Dale Critchley, creator of the Limitless Heroics project, which publishes materials for accessible play. “Creating places where we can feel comfortable and open about neurodivergence and other conditions goes a long way, because masking is exhausting.”