Sensory disabilities in D&D

There was a tweetstorm a few days past concerning someone very upset with a conversation in “the facebook 5e group”, centered around deaf characters. I’m in a few 5e groups myself (most of them quite small), but I’m guessing they’re referring to the generic big 5e group. I’m not actually in that group, so I don’t have the original post on hand. Not terribly important, but hey, backstory. If anything, consider this a caveat for anything concerning this woman’s tweets; I don’t have the full context. Take that as you will.

Here are the tweets:

Oof.

Oof.

I can’t really help but comment on the attitude here. “Something I argue that can only benefit a table, party and gameplay!” One instance in which a deaf or otherwise disabled character negatively impacts the game comes to mind almost immediately; when it becomes an annoying distraction from rolling dice and killing orcs, in groups who like rolling dice and killing orcs. You don’t get to play the “Sympathize with what I think is fun, you couldn’t possibly have any other style of play at your table” game.

It totally flies in the face of the game’s social contract. Other people have tastes, preferences, whatever have you that differ from yours. Spending 4 hours trying to resolve basic communication between two players might appeal to some people out there. Go find them; leave other people the hell alone, unless they show an interest. It’s not too difficult to imagine why someone would think “Can someone invent a spell/potion/item to fix this person?” after yet another stealth segment ruined by a communication failure between teammates.

All that being said, I didn’t want to write this just to rag on some stuck up snob informing everyone else what “Real fun is”, and ironically getting upset with people for not sharing her tastes (whether that’s an accurate picture of the aforementioned or not). There’s a more interesting point to discuss here.

There isn’t much to reiterate on the point of disabilities hindering player characters, and that hindrance proving annoying to other players at the table. There would be problems if Master Chief’s legs stopped functioning every 10 seconds in-game, everyone gets it.

A given disability doesn’t always have to appear as-is in game, however. Certain issues can be adjusted for, like cripples having animal companions that double as mounts. What about disabilities like blindness? How do you “compensate” for something so objectively debilitating? The answer lies in how we approach the problem; specifically, a scientific solution versus a fantastical compensation.

The Witcher 3’s Phillipa Eilheart was a blind(ed) sorceress who attempted to regrow her eyes. She specifically attempted to grow the tissue on stones that served as a focus for the experiment, and wore an enchanted headband that assisted her in navigating the environment in the meantime. This is a scientific solution to a disability; negating the effects of the disability through whatever applied study exists in that world (yeah, that includes magic). The disability functions much like it would in real life. The character simply restores whatever bodily function the disability impedes, generally using things we don’t have access to in real life. There isn’t a functional difference between Eilheart’s enchanted headband and Tleilaxu eyes, only the narrative in which they’re found.

On the other hand, you have Toc the Younger, whose first appearance is made in Gardens of the Moon, of Steve Erikson’s Book of the Fallen series. Toc’s unfortunate affliction is quite the eyesore (I’m so terribly sorry). During a major battle earlier in the book, a chunk of burning rock slammed into his face, destroying one of his eyes. Besides the obvious detriments Toc, an archer, struggled a great deal in battle afterwards due to his lack of depth perception. Quite awful, isn’t it? Wondering if a healer of High Denul could fix it? Not so fast; Erikson has made a fantastical addition to Toc’s state of being. Our One-Eyed King of archers receives premonitions and visions from his missing eye, briefly alluded to as a common superstition concerning the blind in previous passages. This is a common theme in a great number of works, extending well beyond books. The Divine Tomes of Dark Souls 3 are written in Braille, and their descriptions mention great faith being placed in the words of blind church figures.

The fantastical addition is a compensating factor where disabilities are concerned. A blind character receives premonitions, as previously mentioned (and perhaps receives some manner of blindsight). A deaf character hears the voices of the dead. There are any number of ways to add a supernatural quality to a disabled character that are perfectly in-genre, and if pitched to (rather than demanding acceptance of) a D&D group, could be very appealing indeed.