Keeping It Wheel?

Last week, the social media archons decided my reality should feature discussion of the question “If one of your players wanted to play a character in a wheelchair, would you make your dungeons accessible?” My answer—no doubt unsurprisingly to frequent readers—is: it depends on the exact circumstance.

The question hides another one: if one of your players wanted to play a character in a wheelchair would you let them?

In all but the most collaborative of roleplaying games, the group is divided into players, who control the protagonists, and a gamemaster, who creates the world those protagonists interact with. So, however much freedom a given group gives players to create their character, the bounds of the possible lie with the GM. Thus, for there to be player characters in wheelchairs, the GM has to agree that the world includes wheelchairs.

A painting of Chinese philosopher Confucius in a wheelchair
The top of the first page of “Xiao er lun” (Dialogue [of Confucius] with a child), from the collection Wanbao yaoxue xuzhi; aotou zazu daquan (circa. 1680) showing Confucius in a wheelchair.
(Public Domain)

Assuming wheelchairs do exist, the GM also has to agree that the society the game is set within includes wheelchair users who have the right kind of agency; after all, the game is about a tiny subset of the population not all of it, in the same way that the real world contains a lot of professional piano players but war stories aren’t filled with professional piano players. Or the GM agrees that this character is defying convention. Which reveals the second hidden question: why does this player want to play a character in a wheelchair?

Taking the trend-bucking potential character: if the player wants to play a wheelchair-using hero in a world where wheelchair users are pitied for their infirmity, then their wish to play a character in a wheelchair is founded in the interesting bit of world being unsuited for wheelchair users. Making dungeons as easy to manoeuvre in a wheelchair as on foot would be to deliberately build a world that didn’t offer what the player wanted.

So too with other reasons: each comes down to the player wanting their character’s use of a wheelchair to make it a different experience from their character not using a wheelchair; if using a wheelchair doesn’t, then it is a purely aesthetic question, needing no more consideration than “The picture of an human fighter in the book has mid-brown hair, but can my character have dark-brown hair?”

Thus, the question becomes, if a player wants to change their experience in a certain way, then would you make a world that provided it? The answer to which depends entirely on whether the strengths and weaknesses seem fair for the game one is playing, whether the change will improve or weaken enjoyment for everyone. Not whether doing it meets some objective standard of fairness or whether someone would enjoy it, but whether the specific group think it will make this specific game fun; because the question of whether to make a wheelchair accessible dungeon is no less about the GM creating a game that their group enjoys than is the question of whether or not to allow a player to have a plasma cannon in a game set in a fantasy version of 13th Century Mongolia.

Or to put it another way: If one of your players wanted to play a mage, would you you make the creatures and structures of the dungeon susceptible to magic?

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