RPGBOT.News – Caleb Valorozo-Jones on Neurodiversity in TTRPGs

Show Notes

In this episode of RPGBOT.News, we talk to Caleb Valerozo-Jones and his team. We discuss Caleb’s masters project, Neurodiversity, Dungeons, and Dragons: A guide to transforming and enriching TTRPGs for Neurodivergent Adults. We dig into how we can make tabletop games and the world in general more welcoming, and how we can use skills learned in TTRPGs to make our lives better outside of the game.

If you’ve enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, and rate us on Spotify or your favorite podcast app. It’s a quick, free way to support the podcast, and helps us reach new listeners.

Materials Referenced in this Episode

Transcript

Randall 

The RPGBOT.News. I’m Randall James and with me is Tyler Kamstra.

Tyler 

Hi, everybody.

Randall 

And random Powell.

Random 

Evening.

Randall 

And tonight we have four special guests with us. With us tonight is Colin.

Colin 

Hello. I am an autistic amateur tabletop developer.

Randall 

Perfect. We have Daniel.

Daniel 

Hi there. I’m Daniel. I’m a game designer, cultural consultant, and I guess an Ennie award winning podcaster based in Toronto, I’m also one of the co founders of Level Up Gaming.

Randall 

Awesome. Great to have you. We have Naomi.

Naomi 

Hi, I work with Daniel at Level Up Gaming. I’m an occupational therapist, and I also do consultation work for TRPGs.

Randall 

Awesome. And we have Caleb,

Caleb 

Hi, I’m Caleb, I am an inclusive designer and researcher, and avid tabletop role playing gamer and I created the, my master’s level thesis: Neurodiversity, Dungeons and Dragons, a guide to transforming and enriching TTRPGs for nerd divergent adults. Or the neurodivergent player’s handbook.

Randall 

Alright, Random. What are we going to do tonight,

Random 

In a topic that is very dear to my heart, Caleb has written a fantastic, I’m gonna call it a thesis even though if you went and looked at it, that is very much not the format that you would expect to find it in. Because it is in fact a thesis. And it’s basically a write up of a study into neurodiversity in explicitly fifth edition, but tabletop role playing games in general. And using mechanics inside the game to represent neurodiversity in characters. And I have, if you remember all the way back to why it’s maybe worth listening to me about this stuff in episode zero, I have taught a class about taking skills from games and applying it to real life. And this is actually stuff that I’ve touched on in that class. And so this is something that I’ve been thinking about talking about for oh, five, six years at this point? And so to see it getting a real scholarly focus was something that I just immediately jumped on when we were introduced to this by one of the participants in our Discord. There’s a lot of good stuff. I mean, you, you can actually just go read the thesis, we’ll have it linked in the show notes, and it’s 80 odd pages, I think. But honestly, it’s brilliant. And it made me want to get these folks on and talk about both. Caleb, from an overall perspective, lots of questions for you, and then just everyone else how you got to interact with this project. And your thoughts on it. I think probably from the outset, Caleb, part of your requirement for the people participating in this was that they identify as neurodivergent. So could you maybe explain a little bit what that means just to you know, get the ball rolling?

Caleb 

Yeah. So there’s a lot of complexities about that. And I realized I did not say the spiel about what I was talking about why we came here.

Tyler 

Do you want to do that now?

Caleb 

Yeah.

Randall 

100%.

Tyler 

Yeah. Tell us about yourself.

Caleb 

So I am an inclusive designer and researcher and tabletop role playing game enthusiast and accidental rubber duck, rubber duck collector, but yeah, to speak about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. I had participants identified specifically, not just diagnosed, because there’s so many barriers to getting a diagnosis. There’s obviously the financial and time barriers to it. And then there’s also kind of the societal biases of what a neurodivergent person looks like for different kinds of neurodiversity. And so one of the conversations I actually had a lot with Naomi with conceiving of the project was, we’re often presented with this like dichotomy of neuro divergent and neurotypical. But like, what does a neurotypical person look like? Is there such a thing as a neurotypical person? I would argue, no. And for context, I just got my rubber stamp. I went through the process because I kind of did this backwards where I didn’t come into this as a neurodivergent person wanting to do a project, but it was like kind of questioning and then after finishing my thesis and having time to, I was like, I’m a go see what’s up. And so then I have found out. I got my rubber stamp last week that I’m autistic and ADHD. But the idea that there is no neurotypical brain. And I guess the easiest way to explain it is like, there’s like three levels. So neurodiversity is a collection of people. The collection of all of us, we are neurodiverse. Just as we are bio diverse, we have different bodies and brains and neurobiology, then an individual could be neurodivergent. That is, basically do you fall into a DSM V, diagnostic criteria where you meet certain thresholds. But neuro typicality is basically just like, these, like social norms that we’re expected to behave to, but our brains might not. And so like, I went through almost 30 years thinking with neurotypical. And that’s just because I could subscribe to a lot of these norms. On the surface level, like, outside looking in. I know Naomi has a lot of thoughts about this, too. So I don’t know if you want to pipe it.

Naomi 

Oh, man, yeah. I mean, so just to back up a little bit, Caleb was nice enough to invite me on as his advisor for his master’s project. I’m an occupational therapist. I also work with Daniel Quan at Level Up Hames. So we do role playing games, D&D, most of the time. And we work with youth and young adults who are neuro, divergent. And I definitely think we shouldn’t be thinking about it as a as a binary. Perhaps it’s more either you could think of it as a spectrum, or I think something that Caleb spoke to was the, essentially the social model of disability where in the social model of disability we say it’s not the person that is disabled, it is the world that disables the individual, right? So you have if everywhere in the world had ramps and elevators, then physical limitations, we may not, like, typical society may not think of that as a disability. So same thing with neurodiversity. I think about it as, you know, we have these social norms and for people who perhaps struggle with or feel like they have norms that are different, like, equal, but different. At the end of the day, people can identify any way they like. I think that’s what’s wonderful about the label of neurodiversity is if you feel like you’re, you think a little differently, or you do things a little differently, like you can embrace that term. And I’m really happy to see that, Caleb, his story, I think, is is a little bit similar to mine in terms of like, I haven’t had a rubber stamp, but I definitely…

Caleb 

It’s expensive.

Daniel 

It’s a very expensive rubber stamp.

Naomi 

Yeah, and you know, and then there’s a lot of like issues around like diagnosis and, like, females are under-diagnosed, for example, with ADHD and ASD. And you know, I even when I was younger, I even went into to be tested for ASD and I didn’t meet, apparently, I scored high but not enough to meet the threshold. So I, to Caleb’s point, I think we need to let people decide for themselves. And we could get into a whole other conversation around labeling, but we want to talk about RPGs, because they are awesome.

Randall 

We do want to bring this into RPGs. But I do maybe want to open a little bit of the floor to talk about, I hear this idea that I think Caleb and Naomi both presented, that it’s important to recognize both neurodiversity in the sense that we all have a plethora of thought, due to our backgrounds due to the way that we approach the world, due to the way that we approach social situations. Like our general way of thinking. But that individuals who are neurodivergent, have a particular way of thinking and a particular way of dealing with social issues. So in the past few companies I’ve worked for I’ve really loved the welcoming of diversity of thought. But one of the things that we’ve always talked about is everybody has to be comfortable to bring what they can bring. And if you’re not putting people in an environment to succeed in bringing their thoughts forward, you’re not just doing them a disservice. You’re doing your organization a disservice.

Naomi 

Yeah.

Random 

Absolutely. I know that we’re going to touch on that later. Real quick, a thing that I want to cut in with: DSM that is, so DSM V is the DSM five, which you can look up, it’s a book full of diagnosis criteria, basically and ASD that Naomi was talking about a moment ago, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Randall 

Okay. We’ll have links in the show notes.

Naomi 

Yeah, sorry. That’s like, medical, technical jargon

Random 

Oh, no, believe me. We are all guyilty of throwing jargon in there and then having… usually it’s Randall who comes along and says, pretend that I haven’t been doing this for 20 years. Could you please tell me what you meant?

Randall 

Exactly, yeah. Advanced Dungeons Dragons. This felt pretty advanced to me.

Daniel 

Oh boy.

Randall 

But yeah, so I yeah, I did want to… I really wanted to hit on the idea that we as a society should be pushing forward to find a way to… Yeah, to let people contribute what they want, because ultimately, I think we all have a lot to gain from it.

Caleb 

Yeah. And I guess it’s important to say that from my thesis perspective, approaching from primarily a social model of disability, which is that the environment disables us, not our inherent abilities, but also kind of a mixed model because acknowledging people have different experiences and that, like, if there were certain treatments that were not harmful or abusive that they would want to, like, medically treat some of their symptoms to feel less anxious or to have a better quality of life and acknowledging that that’s some people’s experience. But a lot of this project, and like my work, I try to fit in with the neurodiversity movement, the social justice aspect about seeking civil rights and equality and respect and societal inclusion, like, like you just spoke about. I mean, there’s like, so many aspects of disability that are really important. Such as, like, we talk about marriage equality, like, in queer context, but like, disabled people don’t have marriage equality. And like, that’s like a whole other thing aside from this, but I think it’s important that the more representation we have of disabled people, and I guess I should mention, they don’t have marriage equality, because if your spouse makes too much money, then you’re not eligible for social supports. And so then people aren’t able to get money because they can’t get the social social supports from their government. And that’s in many, quote, quote, first world developed nations. And that’s the other piece of this, I think it’s important, it’s like, it’s not just like, going through the, like, therapeutic aspects of TTRPGs, which are hugely important, but also just representing them, like combat wheelchair, and like, just like showing that disabled people exist, and they have existed for millennia.

Daniel 

Or, you know, like ramps.

Caleb 

Yeah, like ramps!

Random 

Right. Yeah. And we will absolutely link back. We had a episode that talked about that a decent amount with the irata 3.0 that came out, and that route, gotta send it to a longer conversation that talked about things like the combat wheelchair. So definitely go listen to that. Alright, so fabulous groundwork laid. So the the before you play section in your thesis had a lot of interesting stuff. A thing that I have pulled out of my own, admittedly far less scholastic and much more haphazard research. So you talk about how there seems to be a higher draw towards things like TTRPGss among the neurodivergent community because of the clear social rules. During this process did you find that reinforced? Did you find that… Did you actually, like, come to that conclusion afterwards? Is that something that you went in with? And what are your thoughts about the thing that I had noticed that I was bringing up in my class where there’s also a kind of heightened desire for escapism with the constant masking that people have to do?

Caleb 

Mm hmm. So initially going in like, I did have the theory about rules, because there’s so many rules in D&D. I admittedly… not enough of them. But that’s why there’s a rulebook. But there’s like turn orders. And there’s like certain ways people have of signaling when to speak. And so I kind of had this like proto theory going in that I confirmed with like my background research. Like I think there’s like the really good work by fine about the autistic LARP camp where they talk about how the the, the autistic children thrived, because of the like rules that were laid out. And some of these are intrinsic to the game. Some of them are community based. But I think a big thing that Naomi and Daniel had specifically pointed out to me, that I hadn’t considered as big a part of it is that so like D&D. And also a lot of my participants mentioned this, that irrespective of your ability, in real life, your D&D character can do it, you may be very weak and unwise, but your D&D character may be the strongest, wisest person ever. But you don’t have to perform that. You don’t have to do it. You can just like, imagine that experience and go into it. And that was a big thing is that you can kind of try different personas. So an element of escapism, but I think it’s also… Naomi, you put this so well, and I can’t remember how you put it, but it was like it’s the safety… The safety to fail at like, exploring yourself, basically. I mean, you both have worked, worked more doing it like in terms of hours…

Daniel 

What we’ve talked about is that was it failure is as safe as success. Is that what you were referring to?

Naomi 

And just the idea that you can, like, take your time and think about, you know, when the when the GM says, Okay, what do you want to do? You can stop and pause and reflect, you can try things out depending on the situation, and you might even get a do over. But if you try something out and it catastrophically fails, it’s, it’s fine. It’s just a game. But you can kind of reflect on that and think, Okay, well, I, I failed. And, you know, maybe that didn’t feel great, but the story kept going. In fact, the story was kind of a little more interesting because of it. So I think that safe space to kind of try different things out is really, really helpful. Because I guess in the real world, social interactions can be so high stakes.

Tyler 

In tabletop RPGs death of your character is often a possible consequence. Do you find that that affects the safety to fail concept?

Daniel 

Personally, no. Death could be super interesting, especially if you bring in mechanics from like, indie TTRPGs, as well. There is a fairly large safety net in fifth edition D&D, especially with, you know, death saves. That said, you know, especially if you’re playing D&D remotely, and you’re using different digital tools, or even if you’re playing behind a screen using physical dice, the GM has the power to alter the fate of characters, right? Read the room. If death is interesting, and death is something that a player wants to explore, well, you certainly could do that. And if their character dies, you can make it a part of the story. I think, you know, games like Dungeon World handle death really well. I don’t know if you folks have played that.

Tyler 

I don’t think we’ve had a chance. That’s on the list.

Random 

I haven’t yet.

Daniel 

So when you when you die in Dungeon World, you get a roll and the results of the roll basically, to simplify it, dictates your fate. You may come back to life, but you have to strike a deal with an otherworldly patron. And that’s built into the mechanics of the game. Dungeon World also really interesting game when you compare it to D&D, given that you gain XP from failure, rather than from success, which is something that D&D doesn’t handle very well.

Randall 

It’s actually really interesting.

Naomi 

That’s like, so much more true to life.

Daniel 

It’s life! You learn from mistakes. And that game kind of builds that in. A lot of other games handle honestly, the composition about experience is something that I think D&D handles poorly, as well.

Randall 

That makes sense. I want to I want to ask another question in this in a tabletop setting, you can ask the gamemaster how the rules work, or how we’re going to adjudicate the interaction. So it isn’t just you have to make a choice and live with it. And yeah, the consequences are pretty light. But you also have the opportunity to get clarification about what can I do? What can’t I do? What’s appropriate? Do you feel like that aspect is also interesting?

Daniel 

Is that for all of us? I think that’s the magic of it, right? It’s a conversation you’re negotiating, right? You’re negotiating over how you will actually handle risk. And what, how you can approach risk. I think that’s the most interesting part, because you could literally do anything in a game.

Random 

Okay. Oh, go on.

Naomi 

On to that, too. Oh, sorry, Random. To add on to that. I mean, it’s such a collaborative effort too. I mean, the best D&D, or best TRPG campaigns happen when you know, you’re working as a team to tell the story or everybody is on board with that, right. And I know, Daniel is all about, you know, he’s not definitely definitely not the arbiter of good and evil and what happens in the game. To an extent you you have to, you know, provide boundaries around what can and can’t happen. But it’s about the team coming together and telling a cool story. And I think it just opens up that conversation around, like, I’m just thinking about in in real life, how often is clarifying, like, what, what’s the purpose of our social interaction? And what am I what is expected of me? And those discussions are not really baked into, you know, a lot of our conversations outside of game. So it’s so cool how you know, D&D, and other TRPGs have that, like, as a specific part of the process.

Random 

And speaking of, and what a fantastic segue. So one of the other things that you talked about in that before you play section. So you were talking about this concept of co-design that you wanted to bring in to really help the players incorporate how they wanted both your unique mechanics, which we’ll get to in a moment, and also just how the story was going to go. Between that and the other safety tools that you talked about, how would you say that that made the game function compared to other games that you’ve seen that didn’t have those?

Caleb 

Yeah. Colin, feel free to jump in cuz I did a lot of my like pre-pre-planning before I even got to like doing anything with Colin because like, I kind of felt like I was, like, I’m insane I’m going to do a thesis on Dungeon Dragons and people were like doing things that felt a lot more practical. Which, like, they were. It’s just different strokes for different folks. But so I did a lot of talking through about it cuz you’re like, oh, like these rules are very important safety tools. But the thing about D&D, like, when Colin and I would talk through, it’s very prescriptive, it’s like, if you want to be a Monk, you have to be this and like, a lot of things that we discussed was the idea of inherently evil races and about the problematic thing there and like, you know, there’s a lot of cultural appropriation in certain, in certain… in a lot of the different racial breakdowns. And it’s like, kind of prescriptive to put that onto somebody to be like, well, if I’m going to design disability in the game, this is how disability is when we know ethnoracial experiences are very varied across people, and so are disability experiences. And so I felt is very important to highlight that, like, no two autistic people are the same. No two ADHD. Colin, you wanna jump in?

Colin 

Yes, I think as, as somebody with experience in tabletop games, and, specifically, I absolutely love homebrew. I almost do nothing straight out of the box. And I, one aspect of tabletop games that I love is the flexibility. And I love when, you know, the the mechanics feed into the story. And the story feeds into the mechanics. And that is a large part of why I think this idea of custom making the, I guess, tailor-making would be a better phrase, either way. The disability mechanics for individual characters.

Caleb 

I think it’s also it helped demystify it because in our group, the only people who had done homebrew were people who had DMed. So there’s these people who had been playing for, you know, I think our longest players had been playing for decades, and they had never homebrewed. It’s because it felt something that was not accessible to them. Because it’s like, well, I’m not a game designer. Like, here’s the secret to design: anyone can do it. It’s just gatekept. Like, all it is, is making something, trying it and changing it to how you like. And that’s, that’s ultimately what they did. And there’s a lot of constraints because, like, it was a master’s level research project. We had five weeks to play. So it’s obviously not enough time to user test something. lLke something where like with with Level Up Gaming, where you could do like 14 weeks, you could get so much more iteration and connection to your, to your mechanic, so to speak. But it also like helped embedded that like it’s not just my project, because I was also very careful because at the time I was like, I’m not neurodivergent. So like, I can’t tell these people what to do. Like, psyke! So I wanted to make sure like other people’s vices were, were centered. And that turned out to not to be as big as an issue as I thought it was. But I mean, Daniel’s done tons of homebrew and creation. So I don’t know if you have an opinion on it.

Daniel 

I love homebrew. I think it’s better than anything. I think it, you know, listeners might be familiar with my work. I was one of the co-authors of Candlekeep Mysteries. I wrote the 12th-level adventure that’s in that book. And I’ve done work with a lot of other publishers and I think the best, I mean, the best work that and the most enjoyable games that I played are all home games, over anything that I’ve been hired to do. But that’s because you have time to do it. I think with Level Up Gaming. I’ve been doing it since 2016, which I realize now is a really long time. We’ve been we’ve been doing it for six years. And the program that Naomi and I are currently running right now is vastly different than the very first one we did. But the tools that we’re using, the stories we’re telling… Some of the participants are even the same. And we’ve just constantly adapted and I think that’s the cool thing about tabletop RPGs. Not just D&D. And it’s that you know, not only are you trying to find a, a natural point in which which you can marry the narrative and the mechanics, not only for like the system itself, but for also your your group and your table. Because there are there are levels to which these two interact. But what’s interesting is that, you know, we always talk about that session zero. But really as like a group and as a GM, you’re constantly adapting to the needs of, you know, every other person at the table, right? This is a conversation. You are actively sort of negotiating how things are happening. You’re making compromises for each other, not only from a narrative perspective, to allow people to have space, but also from a mechanical perspective to make your table more inclusive to those around you. But yeah, I don’t know how I got there. But it’s very interesting to have this sort of long form conversation about this. Given that not only are we, you know, talking about making D&D more accessible, but we’re talking about making D&D and other games more accessible at a time when gaming groups are fundamentally inaccessible.

Random 

As you talked about, you know, when you’ve been running various programs across the years, have you introduced over time, some of these more, like, safety tools? And the co-design that you all talked about? Or is that something where like, they were always there? Or, you know, basically, I’m, I’m really curious what your experience has been with adding these in and how it’s improved the game.

Daniel 

I mean, for me, co-design is always a part of it. That’s the session zero is fundamentally good, that co-design concept that Caleb talks about, right? But it’s adding things to your session zero sort of toolbox. And that’s the thing I’m really interested in. And, you know, it’s finding those things in other tabletop RPGs. I mean, over the years, we’ve definitely gone and tried different, like, tools to make the game more accessible from like, how we use terrain and battle mats. I certainly really miss doing that and how we basically negotiate space at the table to the kind of themes we’ve gone from having an OT who was sort of a sort of a passive observer, and maybe pseudo-arbitrator if necessary, to having the OT be a sort of a surrogate character that’s actually an active part of the narrative.

Randall 

You say, OT. OT stands for?

Daniel 

Occupational therapist.

Randall 

Perfect.

Naomi 

That’s me!

Daniel 

Yeah, so, so in in our game, Naomi not only serves as the occupational therapist in the group, but it’s also a character in the story. Right now we’re experimenting with something a little bit different where this surrogate character is actually has a pseudo-leadership role, too. We started a game marooned on an island. And well, Naomi’s character was the captain of the ship that had unfortunately chartered them and had ended up in this unfortunate scenario. But we’ve done a lot I think, Naomi, in the past two years, even doing Level Up Gaming remotely. We’ve done almost, I think we’ve done almost eight programs? Almost eight programs. And I mean, the latest one we’re doing is very different from the first one we did.

Naomi 

And they’re different not just because we’re trying to like, like you said, I mean, I don’t even see it as it’s there’s an evolution, I guess we do learn what works and what doesn’t generally, but every single time we say, Okay, here’s our, here’s our crew, you know, my using this ship metaphor being being the captain, most recent campaign, but what are people want out of the game, and what are people liking and disliking? And, you know, it’s so neat to see, you know, Daniel, and I, like, we had our session today, and we had a chat after and just saying, you know, one of our characters really enjoys really, really embracing that Barbarian role. So let’s, you know, let’s try to see if we can guide them towards a city. So that, you know, they realize that, if you smash things all the time, you might get yourself thrown in jail. So just kind of resonating with what everybody’s bringing to the table. And the other cool thing though, on the other hand, you know, things that kind of stick around, like one thing I really liked that we came up with was an exploration order. So you know, it’s great to have that kind of unstructured space for anybody can jump in as they want, but we also were found at finding that when we had a new map or new area, people kind of froze up and they didn’t really know, Hey, are you going to go and record you’re going to do and so we roll for expiration or from time to time and everybody now knows to expect Okay, I’m going to have a moment in the spotlight. I can always pass if I want. But, you know, now I know I can make a decision. So yeah, it’s just really cool how, over the last couple of years, you and I have kind of put our heads together and come up with different ways to shape the game to make it the best experience possible.

Randall 

I think it’s really interesting. What I feel like I heard you implicitly say is that you’ve had the evolution of it over time because you’ve learned things that you want to try, you found things that you think are particularly effective. But because you tend to have different groups of people, the co-collaboration, the collaboration, you know, the building this world together, is ultimately giving you a very different experience each time you execute on this. I think that’s really fascinating. I want to post a question, you know, when we think of this as strictly a social game versus an opportunity for, for for helping people develop, in that co creation time period, sometimes, and I feel like this also came out, Caleb, Caleb, in your work that sometimes you are having a conversation where you’re saying, okay, look, do we want to stretch a boundary? You know, do we want to get a little bit uncomfortable, so we can practice this skill? So we can develop something? Versus do I just want to be comfortable and have fun. I can imagine, like a character where a character of a player, a person who on some days, I’m up to the challenge, and I want to grow, and I want to try these things. And some days, I’m not having the best day. I’m here because I want to be but I can’t handle that day. Did you have this experience?

Caleb 

Yeah, hugely. So I didn’t play like I was purely the observer in it to take notes. But there was kind of the recurring theme in the group of what we call “bad brain days.” And it was just like, I’m not in it, like, I’m having trouble.

Randall 

I’ve never heard it. I understand it.

Caleb 

Yeah. And so like, in the group, they be like, I cannot make words today. So like, I’m really struggling. So I’m gonna, like, take a backseat, or the I’m having a bad brain day, I don’t really want to delve into this. And I think with the co-design in particular. So with co-design, we did like what’s called a co-design activity. So like, in interaction design, or like other design fields, they have like certain design sprint activities. So we did what’s called “rose, bud, thorn.” So rose, what’s what’s good. Bud, what’s bad. Thorn, pain point. And in that we had a, like, a large opportunity to be vulnerable, which I think was like, the biggest benefit of the project was that people could talk about their bad experiences, like people talked about, like, having really what I would call traumatic past experience TTRPGs. Like having, you know, non-consensual sexual assault happened to them. Trigger warning, sorry. And having these things happen to them in game that they did not consent to. And these dynamics, which, A can put you off the games entirely, and like can bring up trauma. And these are really dangerous things. I lost point A. I got point B, but I don’t have point A. I’m so sorry, what were we saying?

Random 

And that’s wonderful. And honestly, that that’s a lot about why we’re doing this. You know, there’s behind the curtain. There’s definitely some notes here as there is for most of our shows, but we’re just talking. So I’m very grateful to to get your thoughts on that. And speaking of, I definitely want to shift this a little bit. So we do as a website in general tend to focus a little bit more on mechanics of things. So one of the things that really caught my eye in your thesis was this, using game mechanics to represent real-world disabilities. And having players come up with in this co-design process, what their characters’ neurodivergence would look like. As a longtime optimizer, I will occasionally fall into the bad habit of immediately looking for the way to make something do do more than was intended. As I was looking through everything, I really enjoyed some of the mechanics and there’s one in particular that stood out to me that the self-abnegation that one of your characters picked, it seemed like, Man, if I if I read this in a rulebook, I would immediately try to optimize around this. So do you find that after people have designed these that they actually use them to foster roleplay?

Randall 

I have to stop for a second. Okay, you said the word self-abnegation

Random 

I sure did.

Randall 

And I’m not prepared for that.

Random 

I wasn’t either. I don’t actually still know what it means but that’s what was called in the thing.

Tyler 

Someone smarter than us. Anyone have a dictionary?

Randall 

So yeah, two steps. What is self-abnegation? And then Caleb, maybe you could describe what the manifestation of the mechanic looked like as well. And then let’s come back and let’s…

Random 

I’m on board.

Caleb 

Okay. Anyone correct me. My understanding of self-abnegation is that it’s basically doing things for others at the expense of your own health or mental health.

Randall 

Okay.

Caleb 

I could be deeply wrong. That is my understanding.

Randall 

We’re gonna make a deal.

Random 

For probably not the first time ever we’ll link like a dictionary in the show notes.

Randall 

Yeah, okay, but now if it’s wildly off, producer Dan’s just gonna cut this whole thing. We’re gonna we’re gonna check out

Daniel 

It’s it’s it’s self-abnegation is basically that denial of one’s own interest in favor of…

Random 

Spot on.

Randall 

And the mechanic of that, Caleb?

Caleb 

Yes. And I should say the participant name that I did not name any of that. That is a five-star letter scrabble word. That’s not even how scrabble works. But anyway,

Randall 

No, it is now.

Caleb 

Basically, this mechanic was that they could reroll any failure on a strength or wisdom based skill, or saving throat skill check or saving throw. But then they would take a penalty to their intelligence, charisma, dexterity, saving throws. And basically, you could use it as much as you want, but you could only do it once per roll and it would be cumulative. And so this participant designed it to kind of reflect the effect of masking particularly. So this idea that like, oh, like, this is really hard for me, I’m not doing well, but I’m going to burn myself out or have this like internal drain of energy to perform well, but I’m going to pay for it later. And that was kind of a recurring theme, like the idea of spoons, Spoon Theory, with self-abnegation. This kind of came out near the end, because all the all the participants kind of felt like they liked their design, but didn’t have enough time to actually have the physical mechanical outcomes happen. A lot of what happened was influenced their roleplay more. So even if it was triggered, they would have… it was more about how they interact with each other, which really interesting, because they said, I’ve never gotten to this into roleplay before, which is what they reported. And so like they were a lot more attuned to their characters, and more invested in their outcomes because these mechanics kind of… I don’t know what word I want to use, but the mechanics kind of had more motivated details. Sorry, go ahead.

Colin 

I was gonna say the mechanics inspired their actions a lot.

Caleb 

Exactly, it was it was more definitive and illustrative of what the character could be,

Randall 

it almost feels like what you’re saying is like, even the introspections that having the thought of, if I had to take how I feel, or something that I want to work on, or something that I least want to think about. And I have to go through the process of thinking about how to turn it into a mechanic. For a lot of folks that might be more powerful than than actually using the mechanic that you came up with.

Caleb 

Yeah, I definitely found that. And then what was interesting was, so they make this mechanic and they have this introspective process. And then they roleplay and at the end, they’re like, I’m really hard on myself. Like, I’m really not as bad as I think I am. Like, I am a smart person. I am creative, I can do these things. And I made my character. The absolute worst I think of me. And it was like, it was interesting to see them have this process and like self esteem building. Like, sad as well. But like…

Randall 

No, that feels like a wind, though. That that sincerely feels like if they can think back to that every time they are feeling that down on themselves. Like, that’s ourselves, right? Like that’s a people… Yeah, I like that.

Tyler 

People are hard.

Naomi 

It’s a really powerful moment, isn’t it?

Caleb 

Yeah!

Naomi 

That kind of stuff. I feel like therapists who don’t play TRPGs are, like, hoping that the people that they work with will have these insights and this stuff is coming out through a game which is, I guess, this is the kind of stuff that really drew me into looking at TRPGs as a as a tool for change. And like it’s so cool to to see Caleb seeing those sorts of things and that it’s not just something that you can get you can develop and grow as a person just weather… obviously therapy is great. Don’t get me wrong, I may have been slightly biased. But at the same time you could you can use games at any time you know, with the right people and the right safety tools to explore your identity and and who you are. It’s really really powerful.

Randall 

Absolutely.

Tyler 

Now, Caleb, so the game ran for five weeks the the length of your study correct and if I remember correctly, the players in your study role strangers.

Caleb 

Yeah, essentially. Like, some were acquaintances just by like default of like TTRPG, like, small group interests. Yeah. Ultimately strangers. And like I should say like we’re still playing that group biweekly now but like they chose to continue it. They asked me to join and like I could now cuz I wasn’t, like, researching them. So like, I don’t I don’t speak of anything that we do like after the fact but they were like “this is fun” So I made my own character that was near divergent. And and we we continue to play. So like they’ve they’ve come out of friendship with it.

Random 

What a fun way to break the fourth wall the other direction. Wandering into the thing that you’re observing that sounds amazing.

Tyler 

That is fantastic. So in five weeks, you took a group of mostly strangers, had moments of significant personal growth, explored neurodiversity based on the mechanics that the players had made for themselves. And you did that in five sessions, again, with people who mostly didn’t know each other beforehand. That seems incredibly impressive.

Caleb 

I have not, like, had a game where I played the strangers that like ever lasted beyond three. So like, I don’t know how it’s happening. But like, it’s it’s go in, and like, we’re still playing with the neurodiversity and mechanics, and we’re still doing it. And they’re iterating on now.

Tyler 

That’s great!

Caleb 

And like even characters, because we have that like safe space, they’re like, feel comfortable explore. One person chose to completely reroll their character, and they’re like, I’m going to explore neurodivergent stuff, but also, I want to explore gender presentation. So we’re going to like mix it up. And so because we have the safe space, they…

Random 

Well and I think that really beautifully speaks both to the safety tools that you laid out at the start the power that that in the co-design gives to the players to feel like, Yes, this is actually a safe space, even though this is strangers, you know, I can open up about this disability, which, you know, is a thing that societally, we definitely still have some issues with people being embarrassed about or, you know, even trying to hide in some ways. Getting that sort of personal revelation, getting that sort of bond with people in a small double digit number of hours is incredible. To that point. There’s a lot of things that I’ve talked about in the class that I think that you can get from D&D, and you really had this beautiful talk about this towards the end of your thesis about psychological safety. You basically, you practice these skills, in tabletop role playing games, you know, you practice adaptability, as a DM a lot more. But as a player, absolutely, you know, you need to be able to react to any of these situations that you’re placed in and advanced with confidence. It feels like a lot of these, you’re really able to have training wheels on because you know, like you talked about earlier, you can have, I know that I’m going to do something here, but I do need to take a few minutes to just collect my thoughts, and think about how I’m going to step forward. And so then you, you know that you’re stepping forward with that, at least confident that this is what you wanted, and you’re not being rushed into something. And then when you do decide to step out with that, then you are building the story with these, you know, three, four or five, whatever other people and effectively communicating your intention behind your action is going to get you such good practice for this. With all of that, and with this, this concept of psychological safety. Do you think that practicing this sort of stuff in the game, and this is maybe more question for Naomi, like, have you seen this translate into increase increased proficiency with these skills, pun, not intended that time, as they take this sort of stuff into the real world?

Naomi 

This is a tough one because I don’t get to follow people into the real world. So I have to rely on what people are telling me. As an OT, people have certainly told me, this game has helped me feel more like I can kind of think on my feet in a meeting or you know, I can speak up a little bit more and self advocate or kind of work through a problem or… So I definitely hear people telling me those sorts of things. I can definitely speak to that being my own experience as somebody who’s played TRPGs. So and this is why we need to do more research. I mean, I’m working on a research project as well. I hope to have it published in a in hopefully a year. These things take a little longer sometimes. We need to we need to explore this. I’m really happy that Caleb has taken this huge first step into looking at how, you know, neurodivergent folks benefit from the game. There’s definitely something to it. I think that myself and Caleb and Daniel and many more people are seeing that these skills are somehow making their way from inside the game to outside. Caleb I don’t know if you have any thing to add as well.

Caleb 

Yeah, I have. I mean, I have a lot of thoughts. One of the things, one of the moments like in the study that I thought was really beautiful and interesting was seeing characters roleplay discussions about psychological safety and boundaries in the game. I do write about it. I don’t remember the page number, but they talk about, oh, this is giving my character stress, this strategy gives me stress, can we talk about how we approach these situations, so we can not have my character’s self-abnegation, like, be triggered, and then we all die. And seeing them like they roleplay like I write about it briefly, but it was like a full like, half hour conversation about what do you need? What do you need? These are my triggers. These are my, like… it was amazing. And I think that speaks to it. And the other piece of being like, play is one of the most important learning tools that we have. We prioritize it so much in like early childhood, but we basically stopped as adults.

Naomi 

Well, some of us do.

Caleb 

Some of us do. But I think it’s, it’s the most like, important thing. I mean, there’s so many like Leo Geotski’s theory of scaffolding and all these, like learning theories about how we build these these skills and go into flow states without realizing, which is like what makes it fun, because you’re learning and you don’t know it. But like I’ve personally from playing TTRPGs. And again, this is me being like I’m neurotypical being like, I’m learning to self advocate and like, do these things and communicate better? I don’t know, if calling could speak to it, because we’ve kind of through this project, introduce more safety tools into like our games, and into our everyday life to like, communicate boundaries. I don’t know if you have a piece to say about it.

Colin 

Yeah, I mean, I think he summed it up pretty well there. But I will acknowledge that a lot of these concepts that you introduced to me and I helped you iterate on for your thesis, I wholeheartedly agree that they’re fantastic and worthy of further study and iteration.

Caleb 

Even the podcast. I don’t want to reveal the secrets, but like, the whole hand signals thing, the stress that it alleviated from me and you’re explaining it to me. Can we just have this in everyday life, like… That’s what I need.

Tyler 

So, peek behind the curtain for listeners, since I don’t think we’ve discussed this on the podcast, we have a small system of hand signals that we use to convey when people would like to jump in or move between topics or conclude a topic. And yes, we do that because it makes things less stressful for us, too.

Randall 

Yeah, and further peek behind the scenes. When you hear me stomping on somebody else. It’s usually because I’m doing it for effect, not because we feel the hand signals. I’m meant to do that. Yeah.

Naomi 

And that’s a good point that Caleb brought brought up, or that we just brought up together is that making these rules or having these rules available, it benefits not just neurodiverse people, it can benefit everybody. I mean, whether it’s exploring your own identity, I mean, like it’s come up again, and again, you know, this journey that Caleb took on his research helped him figure out who he was in, in a way. But, but going back to these kind of… the concept, I don’t know if anyone’s heard of it, called universal design. So basically, we do these things, they’re small changes the way we interact socially or approach things. And they not only have a huge benefit to neurodiverse people or people with disabilities, but I feel like more often than not, you know, able bodied or neurotypical folks are kind of like, you know what this is, this ain’t bad. Like, this is actually kind of helping me out. So that’s, uh, I feel like the the book, right? The book or the thesis that Caleb put out, anybody could read it and probably get something out of it that would make their game better, more fun.

Random 

Yeah, there is a parallel to an amusing moment that happened in our Discord where we were talking about the combat wheelchair, and I just sort of went off on this little mini rant about like, I understand that some people were worried about the power level for the rarity. But you know, you don’t have to be disabled to use the combat wheelchair. It’s there for everyone. You can just use it. That sort of immediate reframe for people’s like, oh, I guess that that’s not really the thing that I’m complaining about, is it?

Caleb 

Well, and not to get like weirdly technical or nerdy but from an inclusive design perspective, 80% of people will become disabled in their lifetime. Whether through aging, life circumstance, or even temporary temporary disability. Like, we think of disability as being kind of like, yes no thing. If you break You’re both of your arms, can you use a door handle? No, you are disabled from entering that. You need help. That is a temporary disability and the interesting part about designing these mechanics was like, well, disability is not stagnant, either. Your experience of it is going to ebb and flow and your needs are going to change based on the situation. So seeing how they would design or, or roleplay or choose to initiate their mechanics where like, I can choose to reroll, depending on the situation was really interesting, but also like, not that we’re like, appropriating disability, but like, statistically, we will become disabled in our lifetime. And I think people have a hard time reconciling that. And not that’s an opportunity to be like, what would that be like? But we shouldn’t stigmatize being disabled. Like, it’s just something that happens.

Random 

Transitioning that into the thinking about how does playing these characters with these, these differences affect us in real life, I really just want to open the floor up to you for a few minutes. And just your whole section on emancipatory bleed was fascinating. And just kind of if you want to throw some highlights at me, that would be awesome.

Caleb 

So that’s like building off of the work of Julia Kemper who is a autoethnographer looking at tabletop role playing games and learn games. A lot of her work that influenced that was

Randall 

May I ask right quick, you said auto…

Caleb 

Autoethnography. So ethnography being the study of people, but auto is like internal. So she does ethnography on her own experiences of LARPing.

Randall 

Okay, good.

Caleb 

They’re a black person. And so a lot of their work is focused on like, the racialized context of their interactions to TTRPGs. This LARP that they play Battle for Primrose Park was it like a Jane Austen LARP, which is like a very white setting historically. And so playing this, like aged widower, and being a black person, like dealing with a different context of that. And so like the theory of bleed, basically being like real life filters into the game game filters into real life was saying, but there’s also capacity for building skills for mass, for emancipation and liberation, like self advocacy, like we were talking about earlier. So basically, making that… recognizing, like, the capacity to like, explore how to stand up for yourself, and carve out a space for yourself in the world, like, this is a very like, overview way of doing it. But like, players that live with complex marginalization don’t necessarily get to explore those in a safe way. And so… And by that, I mean, their ethnicity, their race, their gender, their sexuality, their ability, their neurodiversity, like all these things. You know, intersection identity affect how the world interacts with them, and they interact with the world. And so being able to actually represent that experience in the game, they can practice, basically advocating. I said that in a very long way, but like, it’s a it’s an incredible concept. And like, I highly recommend everyone read it. It’s not just foundational and understanding from an academic perspective, but it’s changed how I’ve played the game,

Random 

It seems like what you’re really getting at is that sort of these these concepts that we’ve been talking about where, you know, people are realizing, Oh, I have gotten to practice these skills, or I have gotten to experience in a more safe setting a thing that I’m maybe less comfortable presenting in real life, and just taking that idea and doing it intentionally, you know, if you’re, like, leaning into, okay, you know, maybe I do want to say maybe I am questioning my gender expression, maybe I intentionally want to roleplay that in the game so that I can see what it’s like in a setting where, you know, we have built in these safety mechanisms, and then the concept there for the emancipatory bleed is okay, now that I have done this in the game now that I’ve seen that I can do this and really enjoy this sort of state of being, bring that back into real life. Which is, I’m, you know, I’ve, I’ve always kind of come at this as the like, these things have been done accidentally. So seeing this whole concept of someone taking this and doing it on purpose was really cool to me.

Caleb 

Yeah, and the other thing, like the thing I say, in my MRP, which is the first step to building a better world is imagining it. This gives you the capacity to imagine like what is a world that we didn’t see stigmatize people for these different parts of themselves, and the collection of those parts of themselves. And like, as a GM, or players, if you decide that is something you’re comfortable exploring, you can literally roleplay out those scenarios of, oh, this person has moved into town, and they’re a bigot, let’s deal with that. Hopefully, you’re not going to fighting 101. But like, you can confront those ideas and, and, and roleplay that. Like, there are the all these… the world. You can imagine it. If you could imagine that you can build it. We can imagine a better world and we can play it. And that is literally a design to creating in our world.

Random 

Well, I am thrilled that all four of you came on and talked to us about this stuff. It really… just when, when this got brought up, and I got to read through this, I was immediately looking forward to this and was not disappointed. So thank you very much, everybody. It’s it’s been great to have you.

Randall 

No, absolutely. Thank you very much. Thank you to the Red Reverend and on the RPG baton Discord for recommending Caleb’s work. We all enjoyed reading it. And Caleb, we enjoy talking to you today. Colin, I’ll say thank you very much for being with us.

Colin 

No problem. I’m happy that I could do what I could.

Randall 

Now we definitely enjoyed you. Thank you for your contributions. Daniel, thank you very much for being with us.

Daniel 

Thank you. Yeah. And if you know, folks are interested in, you know, learning more about you know what we do, you can, I guess you could check out my podcast. The Asians Represent Podcast. We are all about confronting those difficult ideas and having those tough conversations. So much so that we, we’ve been doing it for several years at this point. But yeah, you can find, basically find anything I do game-related on Twitter. And from my Twitter profile, I guess is the root of everything. So you can find me there at Daniel H Quan on Twitter, that’s K-W-A-N.

Randall 

Perfect. And we will stick links in the show notes to any social media that gets shared here. Any links that anybody shares here that way? If you’re looking for it, you’re listening to this right now. Go to the shownotes. It’s gonna be there.  Naomi, thank you very much for being with us.

Naomi 

Yeah, it was a pleasure. Much like Daniel, the Twitter is, is my hub for of activity. I, in addition to doing my OT stuff on there. I tweet about game stuff I’m involved in. I would like to say that, you know, if you liked what you heard of the kind of work that Caleb was doing, you will probably like the Limitless Heroics project from Waterworks Publishing, I’m currently doing some sensitivity consultation, but it’s essentially a compendium of many conditions and disabilities. So you know, whether it’s physical or neurodivergent, or mental illness, mechanics that will allow you to bring some of this stuff into your own game. So again, that’s limitless, heroics. And otherwise, you can come and chat with me on Twitter anytime.

Randall 

Perfect. Alright, thanks a lot. And Caleb, definitely thank you for being with us. We enjoyed your work,

Caleb 

no problem. You can connect me I’m QRNRD. Which is queer nerd without vowels on Twitter, or pretty much anywhere that there’s social media. And if you want to read my thesis, it sounds intimidating, because it’s a thesis. I swear it’s not. It’s a game module. It’s, it’s written in plain language so that it can reach as many people and be implemented by as many people as possible. And the link’s really long so look at it in the show notes.

Randall 

It’s the best idea. And yeah, 100% vouch. like it was it was absolutely readable. It felt like I was sitting down to yeah to read, you know, the books that we love so much when they come out. So absolutely. I think you did a fantastic job putting togethe.

Caleb 

Thank you.

Randall 

Alright, folks, thanks so much for being with us today. And everybody at home hope you enjoyed listening. Okay, now we’re getting funny. All right, great show everyone. That was wonderful.

Tyler 

I feel like I learned a lot very, very quickly and that was awesome.

Randall 

And it wasn’t just dictionary words. It was actually real life. There was one that slipped by me where I, no kidding. A big word gut said in my brain went “ow” and then before I could ask about it, another big word got said and it just we had to go.

Caleb 

Do a pop up video at this vote.

Randall 

Pop up video!

No Responses

Leave a Reply