Monday, August 23, 2021

Learning Life Skills or Just Playing a Game? Why Can't It Be Both? An Autistic perspective on TTRPGs

Shawna Spain
twitter.com/LikeSevenSpoon

Woman with braided hair and purple glasses is bent over a notebook with a character sheet for "Veri Truestone." There are various dice around her, a rainbow set, a ceramic set, some resin sets and two metal dice in a tiny glass jar. There is a dice vault with rainbow colors, another with wood burning of a map, and then a dice bag with purple fabric. The dice are from Heartbeat Dice, Die Hard Dice, and Everything Dice. The rainbow vault is from Heartbeat Dice, and the map vault is from Deven Rue. The dice bag is from Tea & Tails. The rolling trays are from Wyrmwood Gaming and Die Hard Dice. And the book is the Adventure Journal from Table Titans.
Photo courtesy the author.
[image: Woman with braided hair and purple glasses is bent over a notebook with a 
character sheet for "Veri Truestone." There are various dice around her, a rainbow set, a ceramic set,
some resin sets and two metal dice in a tiny glass jar. There is a dice vault with rainbow colors,
another with wood burning of a map, and then a dice bag with purple fabric.]

I didn’t know I was Autistic when I started playing Shadowrun, a table top role playing game. My boyfriend at the time was playing, and I overheard a couple of sessions where they seemed to be telling a collaborative story—and I never heard any arguments or weird pauses, which is how most of my social interactions went at the time. So I asked a lot of questions: 

Like, you all agree to the same rules? 

Yes, he tells me, it’s all in this book. 

A book I can just buy and read? 

Yes, he said. 

So I asked, you all tell this story, like together? And he tells me well there’s someone who runs the game, so they like, decide ahead of time what we do, like which adventure, etc. And I was hooked. 

(I am paraphrasing this human for the record because this was over a decade ago, so cut me some slack please? I only have a short term memory for spitting out exactly who said what. :)) 

Ahem, back to this game. 

I begged to be in. BEGGED. To be in the game. I wanted to play so badly, here was a built-in friend group. With agreed upon rules of engagement. With prescribed social situations I could LITERALLY study for. Sign me up.

Now again, I was undiagnosed as autistic, so most of these thoughts were unformed and nebulous. I didn’t really have the words to say that I had no close friends in the city I lived in, that I was anxious at parties and other social situations so I dreaded them—emphasis on the dreaded part—because of that awkward silence, which always happened. The awkward pause that rings out with such piercing clarity after I say something. And all I know is I said something wrong. Because no one will actually explain what I did. 

All I knew was this game had rules, and it was social, and I wanted to do it. 

They let me in. It was amazing. 

Then I moved away, for reasons I will not go into here, and it looked like I wouldn’t have a game again. Until someone invited me to a Pathfinders game—and I immediately agreed. And I learned a lot. And then I moved again. 

It was some years before I got up the courage to actually run my own game. I was diagnosed as autistic by that point, and as a result I was constantly thinking I shouldn’t do this, someone socially competent should run the game, what would I bring to the game? And I decided, well, organization, for one. Organizing a group of people to play a game was something I’d had practice with, albeit on a less regular basis. 

I am of course referring to what I did when my psychiatrist—the one who diagnosed me with autism—said I should try to engage with more than one person (not someone I lived with) once a week, and more than two people once a month. And I said, how the heck am I supposed to do that exactly, and he said, well you like playing board games. Try that. 

And he was right. Board games have rules. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And then people leave. (Usually.) 

For me, board games were glorious. I learned about being a poor loser. I learned about being a poor winner. I learned that sometimes people want to play a different game than you have planned. I learned that, sometimes, people don’t show up. I learned how to schedule enough people to play a game. And no, I didn’t learn any of this in a school environment, or a working environment, and sure I was often confused by how people reacted to my reactions, and why I didn’t have friends. But given a loose structure—I learned. 

So when I decided to run my own Shadowrun game, these learned organization skills were what I thought I could bring to the game. I completely skipped over storytelling, despite years of people telling me I should write a book (haha), or a play, or a movie. Despite years of me writing actual (unpublished) books. I was focused on the prescribed social interactions, with a set schedule, and rules. 

Glorious rules, that we would all follow. They would all agree to follow them, forever. 

All I would have to negotiate on my own was reminding them about the game, them getting into the house, hosting them, and then them leaving again. And most of those guidelines I could get from movies, and with careful data collection over time, I could figure out that one person always left immediately after the game but doesn’t hate me, another person is going to hang out forever so I need a clear signal when I need to go to bed, and a third person will only ever bring their own drinks, also not because they hate me. 

It was a win. I found a place where I could be myself, my pedantic, rules-driven, storytelling-obsessed self. 

I have to say, I am not great at running Shadowrun. It’s too crunchy. It took a huge amount of work for me to prepare it, and if anything did not go as planned during the game, I really struggled to course correct, which made for some clunky storytelling. I thought it was all because of the mechanics, too many dice, too much lore I couldn’t comfortably adapt in my head because of the Rules I have in there rattling around. 

I switched to Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) a bit after that. And…I overplanned. I sat down and planned for hours before every game, sometimes longer than actual game play. And I could never remember all of the rules, which used to frustrate me greatly. But I had super patient people playing with me, who knew my quirks at that point after years of putting up with my board games regimen. So they were patient as I learned how to run a game. 

And heck, did I learn. And here’s the thing: what I learned in games, I could use in real life. It took me a long time to figure this out, but nowadays if someone tells me they are a game master (GM), or the storyteller for a game, I find I can ask a couple of simple questions and really get on the same page as them. Because of that built in structure. Though this can be both good and bad. 

For example, if you are talking to someone who plays these kinds of games, and you ask them what they think about the orc issue, or whether they like the new racial rules, you can see where they might be on racism. Or if you ask someone if they like session 0’s and safety tools—you can usually tell how amenable they are to being inclusive and encouraging safe spaces. 

Or if you ask a GM how they keep their adventurers moving in the right direction—are they the kind of GM who must have a map, must plan out the story in advance and can not deviate from it, or is an improv GM? This usually tells me how much direction an individual might need, how well they would do at leading a team or running a project in my actual real day job, the one I get paid for and has nothing to do with games and requires heaps of very tricky social interactions, and so I have a cheat sheet. 

You know where I didn’t learn how to figure people out like that? Anywhere that was not a game. Not in previous jobs, not in books, not in school. I learned these life skills using a table top role playing game (TTRPG), purely by accident.

I slowly worked my way from a Over Prep GM to an Improv GM, meaning I used to spend heckin time building maps (love/hate relationship right there) and plotting story lines or modifying modules (I am absolutely incapable of playing modules as written). Now as an Improv GM, I mostly make everything up on the spot and I don’t use maps, I use Theater of the Mind—meaning I describe everything instead of using a map for positioning. 

There are benefits to all ways of running a game, and I am not here to tell you which one is best. You do you, my friends. What I am here to say is, learning to be an Improv GM has made me a better manager in my real day job, has taught me coping skills for when things change suddenly, and has allowed me to trust my inner storyteller as a real life skill, not some little hobby I keep to myself because it isn’t applicable to real life. 

Being a skilled Improv GM means all of the watching and mimicking I do to fit into everyday life is useful, and I can see how it’s useful instead of feeling like I am cheating. It means the research I do casually to understand why people do what they do has an outlet that is not harmful. I do not practice unregistered psychology on my friends—but I do tell fascinating stories with interesting puzzles. It means all of my quirks and brain Rules have a place to exist comfortably. 

And, yeah, a part of me still thinks I have tricked these people into playing games with me, and are they really my friend, what is a friend anyway. But mostly I am thinking about the next story I can tell, and tell collaboratively. I am wondering what frame I can sketch out so my friends and I can fill it in. What joy can I bring to them with different puzzles, or items, or the other non-player characters in the game. What kind of story can I tell with each group I run a game with. 

And I create safe spaces, which is true joy for me. As an autistic, nowhere is safe, because most of society relies on intuition and unspoken rules and what I semi-affectionately call Neurotypical Bullshit. There is rampant racism, classism, and ableism out there and it is HARD to navigate as a neurodivergent. I don’t know everything and I make mistakes, but in my games, I build in ways to give polite and constructive feedback. Sometimes I am the first person who has been able to explain that concept to someone, and they learn a useful life skill. Often I learn things from my players, all in the guise of telling a story, playing a game. It is wonderful. It is comforting. It creates balance in my life. 

TTRPG’s didn’t save me, and they aren’t the only reason I am the way I am. They are a component in my history, and my present, and probably my future—but they are an important one. 

Take this away with you: collaborative storytelling can be a very rewarding social situation when there are safe spaces to agree on rules and parameters for that social engagement. If you have an Autistic in your games, try setting some really clear expectations and create unambiguous ways of giving and receiving feedback. 

If you are an Autistic: you can do this. No one ever told me I could run a game (except my husband) and I didn’t see myself represented in games for the longest time. I am here to tell you: you are allowed to play this game. You are allowed to run this game. You will make mistakes. But done correctly, this is a place to make lower-risk mistakes, and learn from them. And heck is it fun. 

No one made me do this, although there are therapeutic groups that use these games to help with social skills, and I support them as long as there is no force or negative manipulation involved, and it truly is a game. I figured everything out on my own over time—I knew my social skills weren’t what neurotypcial people expected; the dreaded awkward pause still haunts me to this day—and I eventually realized running games was helping me with this in a low risk environment. I had good friends, a safe place, and a structure, and I thrived. 

I think all of this is something not a lot of non-autistic people realize about autistic people like me. When we have good people, safe spaces, and a structure around whatever we truly enjoy, we can thrive so well. And we can drive that journey ourselves; the independence is wonderful. 

And if you look at it right, technically I have a lot of support doing my GMing, and a lot of accommodations. And I am excellent at it. But no one really questions that support or those accommodations because I have integrated it into the game environment. What more could we do as humans if we had more of those spaces, places where we were comfortable, not forced to be someone else, not forced to conform to neurotypical expectations? 

That is what I am telling you. I use TTRPG’s as a way to build an environment I feel safe in, that I can practice and play in, and that I can thrive in. This should be an option for other autistics, and even if maybe they’ll need a little help to get started, that is okay. I want to repeat that mistakes happen—you’re a human, mistakes happen, to everyone—and it’s what you do with that learning experience that matters. 

Oh and did I mention? You find the right group, the right game, the right structure- and it is heckin fun.