Supporting Neurodivergent Players in Dungeons & Dragons (and everywhere)
Fantasy has the incredible ability to accommodate the most unique parts of ourselves and welcome them. However, I never found a better home in fantasy as I did when I started playing D&D. My first character was a halfling death cleric with a mummified squirrel as a familiar. Charisma was her lowest stat, and I loved that she was more comfortable talking to dead people than her friends in our adventuring party. Her social weaknesses were vital to her character and served as a place where I could find meaning for my own awkwardness.
When players build characters, it’s natural for them to exaggerate something about their personalities. Whether you’re playing a dumb-but-strong barbarian, a bookish wizard, or an extroverted minstrel, at the end of the day, you’ve probably created a character who wouldn’t likely be considered ‘neurotypical.’ That’s another part about why D&D is so exciting for people with autism — we can see ourselves in it.
– Meg Leach (“How Autism Powers My D&D,” June 2021, Polygon.com)
Whether a player is autistic or neurodivergent in some other way, Dungeons & Dragons can be an incredibly rewarding and meaningful way to connect with people that they often can’t establish in “real life.”
As a dungeon master at Adventuring Portal, I’ve spent lots of time trying to better understand the needs of my players in order to make our games as fun and enjoyable as possible. When it comes to those who are neurodivergent, I’ve learned many valuable lessons to share.
The best part about these tips is, they’re not just good for gamers. These skills can help all of us better understand and relate to each other, especially those who think and feel differently than we do.
FIVE SECRETS TO SUCCESS ON THE SPECTRUM
- Open Communication
This is key. It’s so important to get comfortable talking about triggers to avoid or ideas to lean into. These are often challenging conversations, so here’s a chance to show empathy and offer support. Understand that neurodivergent people face ableism all the time, so they may not initially feel safe enough to discuss their needs freely.
To help communication in my games, I use a system called “Stars and Wishes.” At the end of the game, every player needs to give another player a “star” or compliment Basically, say something cool that another player did. Then, every player needs to provide a “wish”– something they would like to see in their next game. This is an excellent feedback tool that will improve your game. This helps shift the players’ focus from themselves to the whole group and helps them understand more of the group’s goals.
- Celebrate Failure
If you never fail in D&D, it gets boring fast but in real life, failure sucks and is embarrassing. Learning how to cope with failure is super important. Playing D&D provides a safe platform to experiment, make mistakes and learn to overcome some degree of anxiety around failure/embarrassment because in D&D, there is no winning or losing.
- Encourage Experimentation
When you take away winning and losing in a game, a huge latitude of play opens up. D&D players can experiment with different races and classes. They choose gender, background, traits, strengths, weaknesses — plus a whole lot more. Talking about each other’s special quirks and abilities can be a powerful way to express (and process) complicated feelings.
- Help Others Ask for Help
I was raised on “cutthroat” games like Monopoly and Clue, so it took me years to learn how to work well in a group. Playing D&D was the first cooperative game I ever played. Suddenly, everyone at the table was naturally predisposed to want me to succeed! Accepting, cooperative environments are great spaces to learn to ask for and volunteer help. Take the lead in demonstrating trust and offering assistance.
- Silence is Golden
As a teacher, we are taught to wait a looong time for answers from our students. People take different amounts of time to process information and respond. With this in mind, try to get comfortable with silence in groups. Stop yourself from providing answers, and allow space for your players to plan and problem solve at their own pace.
Fundamentally, D&D is all about relationships and communication. Listen. Speak up. Ask questions. Keep in mind, always, your players’ experiences – are they having fun? Is this adventure engaging everyone? Are there any triggers ahead, and how can the group skirt them? Understanding some basics of neurodivergence can make engagement better fun for everyone.
This article was excerpted from Paul’s blog post, “11 Ways to Support Neurodivergent Players at Your D&D Gaming Table” (May 2022), where you’ll find six more guidelines plus lots more information on autism and D&D.
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