Neurodiversity and Dragons - the adventure begins!
Tl;dr: Kia ora all! I don’t often post much about my personal life, but as a parent of two neurodiverse teens, I reckoned that I’d post some of my experience in gaming here on our journey. My daughter was diagnosed with autism almost a year ago and my son is dyslexic/dysgraphia with ADHD like presentation. Both are incredibly bright and very different from each other (my son has lots of friends and is very bright and gregarious if also very lazy while my daughter is very retreating and shy but incredibly driven and motivated). They both love fantasy and fantasy literature, movies and gaming has been a way for us all to connect. Though often what works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for the other. This brings me to my point, I am working on trying to best accommodate the needs of my neurodiverse daughter and include her in an experience that she very much wants to participate in, but often feels frustrated and overwhelmed by. This is an introduction to our journey so far.
For several years, I’ve run ttrpgs for my kids and their friends. Mostly using Swords and Wizardry Complete because I’m most comfortable with the older rules and like the simplicity and elegance of the older systems (I’ve been gaming off and on since 1981). It has been a lot of fun and has led my son to DM his own campaign with his friends. However, while my daughter ostensibly liked the idea of play, she often excused herself from the table, found it difficult to participate with all the other kids (mostly a group of enthusiastic boys that were 2+ years her senior), and seemed rather subdued and kind of miserable. Though she definitely expressed an interest in the IDEA of gaming, the reality of it seemed to be something that was outside her comfort zone.
At the time, I suspected it was mostly due to a bunch of loud boisterous boys being a bit overwhelming (I must confess having a table of 8+ 14-16-year-olds can be quite the sensory overload 😊). At any rate, I always wanted to find a way to create a gaming experience that was more comfortable for her. My kids are definitely aware of my love of gaming and my history of participation as an artist in the community and I think they see it as a way to connect with me (as I do with them).
So as we continue on our journey of discovering how to best accommodate neurodiversity in our family and community, I reckoned I’d like to put together my thoughts and experiences on how things are going with us, as well as solicit feedback from others. This is a voyage of discovery, finding out what works and what doesn’t, and to best accommodate my daughter and other neurodiverse kids in participating in the awesomeness that is ttrpg gaming.
So, here’s the setup: I’ve decided that we’d use D&D 5e to be the base for our game. Why? Well, I figured that if our goal is to eventually accommodate other neurodiverse kids, I want to make sure that it would be a game that is easily available to others in the games stores here in New Zealand. Plus, I am finding that you can play 5e pretty fast and loose, hearkening back to my preferred style of play – rulings not rules.
So, Yesterday I had a one-on-one setup session with my daughter. I wanted to get a feel for character creation and do some general world-building to set the stage. It went pretty well and we spent about an hour setting up her character, some npc companions, and a little bit about the world. We used the 5e D&D essentials set that I got for her birthday last year. I think like the earlier basic sets, it has just enough to define the principles of play without providing an overwhelming array of choices. Neurodiversity is different for everyone but I find for my daughter, having defined choices rather than open-ended options is a good thing.
I made up the setting on the fly, borrowing liberally from various things that have influenced me over the years. I named the setting Faweh (an off-the-cuff corruption of far away) and the starting town of Restover. Restover is a little town that straddles the main thoroughfare between some more far-flung larger cities. Faweh itself is a sort of flat-earth world that is bounded by roiling clouds of chaos, beyond which is the unknown and realms such as the Dreamlands, fairy, the underworld, etc. Faweh is a mutable world with the frontiers of civilization pushing back the veil of chaos as those with the will and the means can carve out their niche (I borrowed pretty liberally from Michael Moorcock and his tale of Earl Aubec of Malador from the Elric saga). Much like Moorcock’s tales, I’m doing away with the traditional D&D alignments and using Chaos and Order with an inclination towards life and death. I think that will strike a nice balance. We’ll see how it goes, after all, my goal is to make an engaging experience for neurodiverse kids without delving into too much moral quandaries that they may not feel comfortable with (and which I really don’t feel comfortable with tbh).
One of the other things that I implemented was a sort of reaction matrix. I don’t think this is anything new, but I do think for people like my daughter, choices can be overwhelming if they are open-ended. Giving her a sort of menu of choices seemed to be much appreciated. Especially when interacting with the NPCs. I’ll work this out a bit more and formalize it, but basically, when she was interacting with NPCs, she had the choice to be overtly friendly, formal, cautious, rude, or forceful. I then determined what the disposition of the NPC was so that her choice would elicit a response based upon a difficulty rating. Not ground breaking, but she appreciated not having to necessarily role play and interact without any guide rails.
One of the other things that I’ll implement is a sort of fate point system where the players can save up points to spend when an interaction or action ends up being less than favorable. Again, the intent here is to not make rigid interactions that she may find unforgiving and upsetting, but able to replay some choices that may have been less than optimal. We’ll see how that goes. So far we’ve just gotten to the formation of a little party after having visited the Adventurer’s Guild in Restover. Next will be her first foray into a small adventure.
At some point, I’m hoping to add in some more kids that we know are neurodiverse, but I want to try some things out with my daughter first to kind of tweak the ideas in a sort of safe space before I get too out there. At any rate, I’m excited. I love making up worlds and adventures. It’s also a journey of understanding not just the neurodiverse community but myself as well. Since her diagnosis, I’ve become more aware of how the world is not accommodating to people that are not neurotypical. I’ve also recognized some ingrained behaviors in myself as well as some neurodiverse traits that I had assumed were more from upbringing than anything (and may be), but still give me a richer understanding of how I interact with the world around me.
So yeah, long story short, I’m excited to share stories and adventures with my daughter and hopefully make some friends and learn some things along the way. Cheers and happy gaming!