It’s time again to look at one of Evil Hat’s purple books for Fate. The Fate Toolkits, or the purple books, are the cornerstone of Fate rules hacking and, in my humble opinion, some of the best resources for a Fate GM out there. Today’s purple book takes a very different approach than the others, but still provides a comprehensive resource. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit is the book in Evil Hat’s lineup which deals bluntly with how to approach disability in your games, both in terms of characters and players.
RPGs have a checkered history with dealing with disability. GURPS, ever the standard-bearer for reality-driven gaming, tends to model disabilities as character traits with negative point values assigned. While it’s possible to make a fair and interesting disabled character in GURPS, fact is that a lot of gamers don’t want to see something central to their lives boiled down to just being negative points. Disabilities provide a new spectrum of positives and negatives, and in the world of role-playing games there’s no reason to say that a character is less capable than another character because they’re blind, hard of hearing, autistic, or dealing with trauma or a chronic illness. These are elements that many gamers want to see reflected in their characters, without dealing with the baggage that comes from a system that is “realistic” but only from a narrow viewpoint.
Thanks to the modularity and flexibility of Fate, this product has landed in a great mechanical ecosystem. Written by gamers with disabilities, the Fate Accessibility Toolkit goes into a fair amount of depth when it comes to using the system’s rules around aspects and stunts to emulate a swathe of disabilities within the authors’ experiences. There are also some expanded mechanics around conditions which enable that particular rule to be used to emulate a number of, well, conditions which are concomitant to some of the disabilities discussed in the text.
Inclusion in Characters
The centerpiece of this book is the guidance for how to emulate disabilities both accurately and respectfully at a gaming table. Disability runs the gamut, and the Toolkit hits a lot of different points: the ‘Nitty Gritty’ chapters cover blindness, deafness and hard of hearing, mobility issues, dwarfism, chronic illness, autism, depression and anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolarity, and PTSD. It’s a sampling, but it’s a broad one, and each chapter has an author who has personal experience with the disability being noted, which helps ground the perspective. One thing that makes Fate a particularly good choice in terms of a system to attack this is that, due to the mechanics around Aspects, there are a number of ways to mechanically model any of these disabilities, and they give players a lot of control in terms of how the disabilities are made manifest both positively and negatively.
The thrust of the guidance here comes from a simple perspective, which is that all gamers want to see themselves reflected in their games. It’s not up to the narrow perspective of a person of typical ability (such as myself) to draw any lines in the sand with regard to what affects someone positively and what affects them negatively. We aren’t playing games for realism’s sake, after all, so it isn’t up to any one person at the table to state whether something is good, bad, or indifferent. With that considered, the aspect and stunt designs around each disability examined in the book are well done, and put forth a solid effort to represent the disability in fair terms while not limiting the potential of the character who may be created having that disability. Some of these require a bit more turning over in your head than others: it’s more straightforward, if not necessarily easier, to consider and then accommodate players and characters with blindness, deafness, or mobility issues than it may be to do the same with characters who have chronic illnesses or are on the autism spectrum. The book provides a solid amount of context but also a fair number of reminders that people have unique experiences with any disability.
One interesting thing that the authors have in this game is faith. Let me break that down a bit. The bulk of this book is designed to make it easier and fairer, to say the least, to play characters with disabilities. I have, in both being a white male for all of my existence as well as being a gamer for the last 19 years, not seen many flattering portrayals of characters with disabilities in my gaming history. I’ve played through games with questionable sanity mechanics, the aforementioned GURPS with its simplistic Advantage/Disadvantage schema, and Cyberpunk 2020, which definitely makes light of people losing limbs. While I’ve seen things get better, I have yet to see a game that provides the necessary context to play through things like mental health with the compassion and empathy necessary to give players with conditions that might be emulated at the table a fair shake.
So it’s first necessary to say that what Evil Hat has done here, finding authors to write about their experiences, is laudable. I really appreciate the perspectives in the text, and the more direct examples being used to give guidance for developing stunts and aspects. I still think this book is an expression of faith that gamers will take this guidance and use it to make fair and faithful portrayals of these disabilities in their games. I, perhaps from spending too much time commenting on Reddit or browsing Twitter, don’t necessarily approach this topic with the same optimism.
None of my misgivings are from a fault in the book. Exploring the experiences of others via role-playing games can be immensely powerful, educational, and humbling. Without guidance, it can also send you to a version of the tropes you were trying to get away from in the first place. Ultimately everyone considering the character guidance in this book, especially if they’re doing so from a neurotypical and able-bodied perspective, must meditate on the limitations of a game to show us what these experiences are actually like. I think people who live with the disabilities that are examined in the Fate Accessbility Toolkit will find this a boon to help create characters that represent themselves in important ways. I think those of us who don’t have any of these disabilities need to tread very carefully when attempting to emulate a disability in an RPG character. This may be the best resource I’ve seen when it comes to giving many disabilities fair treatment, but it is only one perspective. Players without disabilities who want to fairly represent a disabled character must be aware that something like the Fate Accessibility Toolkit is necessary but not sufficient for giving the character a fair shake vis a vis the experience of an actual person with the disability being reflected.
Accessibility at the Table
To be honest, this is more what I thought this book would be about, though there are a number of reasons it’s not. For one, many of the tools for gaming with disabilities are out there and more or less freely available. Both the X-Card and Script Change are discussed, though here much more in the context of trauma and other relevant conditions. There are some new tools made available here, though. The Fate glossary in American Sign Language is not only really useful but it also serves as a stark reminder that RPGs are full of jargon which serves as an accessibility barrier to many communities, those with disabilities and not. The large-print character sheets are also well done, and also serve as an example of just how information-dense RPGs can be and how difficult that can be for someone who is not processing visual information in the same way as, say, I would. Doing the design work here for making Fate more accessible serves to illustrate by context how rarely the design work is done.
Although there are only a couple specific sections which call out the mechanics of making an accessible table, the perspectives of the authors shine through in the entire book, and serve to remind GMs that accommodating the real-life players as well as their characters often require the same set of perspectives and the same amount of empathic work done. Overall, the groundwork laid by the “Nitty Gritty” section is an excellent place to start in terms of approaching at least the disabilities covered in the book with empathy. As for any of the many different disabilities not covered, empathy is still the watchword, and as long as you run your game with deference to your players’ experiences and their desires for how they want them made manifest in the game, you’ll at least be in a good starting position. In that case, the examples in the book can serve much like examples in other Fate Toolkits, and help you work with your players to come up with representations that best allow them to play the characters they want to play.
The only problem with the Fate Accessibility Toolkit is an industry issue rather than a flaw in the book itself: in many ways, it stands alone. I want there to be many resources out there which help players both play the games they intend to play (whether they have sight or hearing issues or not) as well as help players make the characters they want to make (whether those characters are helping them explore trauma, schizophrenia, or something else). But in terms of strong products in this area, the Fate Accessibility Toolkit is a rarefied breed. Evil Hat went out of their way to find designers who could speak about disabilities from a first person perspective, and that more than anything else should sell this book.
That said, I feel the need again to caution the audience who is looking for resources to play characters with disabilities they don’t have. I think this book is well done, yes. I also think that understanding the experiences of other humans is a methodical process, and this book alone will not prevent you from steering into harmful tropes or stereotypes. If you are a gamer or GM who is trying to make their table more accessible to gamers with disabilities, this is an invaluable resource. If you are a gamer with a disability who is looking for perspectives on how to reflect your experiences into a game world, this is an invaluable resource. Evil Hat has done their homework here and brought in some great authors, and if you want to fairly reflect gamers and characters with disabilities this should be an addition to your library.
There is another thing worth noting, while you’re all still reading. The Fate Accessibility Toolkit was caught in an awkward spot in Evil Hat’s product planning cycle, and it almost didn’t see the light of day at all. My copy of the Toolkit, as well as the one you’d buy on DriveThruRPG, is a “prototype edition”, without any internal art. Evil Hat has been able to adjust from their previous budget woes, but this product is caught in limbo. If you have any interest in seeing the Fate Accessibility Toolkit in print, or even just with some solid art direction, consider buying the prototype edition. If they have enough sales they’ll be able to buy art and offer a print-on-demand copy, and your Prototype Edition will be upgraded to the artful version at no cost. If you like the purple books, the system toolkits, there’s no better time than now to show your support and help the line continue.
Thanks to Sean Nittner of Evil Hat for providing us with a review copy!