Creators of Combat Wheelchair Miniatures on the Challenges of Pushing RPGs to a More Inclusive Future

There’s a popular saying in the cosplay community: “Cosplay is for everyone.” This expands to nerd culture as a whole, but sometimes fandoms need a boost. This is where designer Sara Thompson’s The Combat Wheelchair Dungeons & Dragons mod comes into play. Gizmodo has an exclusive look at two miniatures created in tribute to her mod, as well as a talk with the designers about how this is only the beginning.

Strata Miniatures has unveiled a series of new combat miniatures featuring wheelchair users for its ongoing collection, which was designed to model Thompson’s The Combat Wheelchair mod she created for Dungeons & Dragons. The guide debuted last month and had grown in popularity with wheelchair users praising it for creating an inclusive way to bring adaptive devices into D&D. There has also been a backlash, one triggered by the hypocritical belief that a roleplaying game where characters wield magic, weaponry, and otherworldly feats with the greatest of ease cannot include a combat wheelchair.

io9 can exclusively reveal two of the new miniatures, a Human Fighter and a Half-Elf Wizard. Strata Miniatures also recently debuted a Human Bard, which we’ve included in the slideshow below. It’s the company’s first combat wheelchair miniature that includes an amputee design, which they created following community feedback.

In an interview conducted over video chat, I had an in-depth conversation about the combat wheelchair guide, overall community response, and how game companies are expanding their inclusivity with Thompson and miniatures designer Russ Charles (Tom Lishman, who created the miniatures with Charles, was on the call but those answers weren’t included in the Q&A). Below is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.

Image: Strata Miniatures, Other

Image: Strata Miniatures, Other

A first look at the Human Fighter combat wheelchair miniatures.

Image: Strata Miniatures, Other

Image: Strata Miniatures, Other

A first look at the Half-Elf Wizard combat wheelchair miniature.

Image: Strata Miniatures, Other

Image: Strata Miniatures, Other

The Human Bard combat wheelchair miniature features their first amputee design.

Beth Elderkin, Gizmodo: When did you first come up with the combat wheelchair gaming mechanic forDungeons and Dragons?

Sara Thompson: It started around about November last year, 2019 — people get confused with the timeline of how long I’ve worked on this because there was a version, one that came out that preceded it. And it was more like a vague idea, concept kind of pitch that I took feedback from disabled people who use wheelchairs…The first version was kind of like a hit and miss, and then I took all the feedback that I got and spent the next few months reworking it [and] play-testing it.

io9: What was the inspiration? Was this something you were wanting to do on your own? Did you see anyone else trying it, or wanting to try it?

Thompson: My own experiences with wheelchairs have been, like, brief stints, and I’ll probably need one later in life — especially since I’m going to be doing cons and things, and I can’t walk around a convention hall all day anymore. I once did London Comic Con for, like, a day and it set me back a month.

A lot of my friends use wheelchairs, and I kind of wanted to explore disability from a mechanics point of view in D&D, because I once [tried] to play a disabled character at a table and our DM said, “Oh, I’m kind of like not comfortable with that because there’s no rules. I don’t know how to deal with that kind of thing.” And they suggested that I just take negatives, which I didn’t think really reflected what the experience was really like.

I brought it up to a couple of my friends who used wheelchairs and I said, “You know, it’d be pretty cool if there was a wheelchair in D&D that you could use in combat.” Because knowing about the Paralympics and things like sports — like Murderball and wheelchair basketball and even rock climbing with wheelchair users as well — they’re clearly doable. And when you play a level one character in D&D, you’re already more exceptional than the standard NPCs that you come across — so you are at a level of Paralympian, anyway, from kind of the get-go. And I’m like, “OK, well, how do I reflect that in D&D?”

io9: You’ve said you were surprised by the reaction [to the combat wheelchair guide]. What reaction were you expecting?

Thompson: I didn’t really think beyond my own community, really, so I didn’t expect the kind of traction and the blow-up that it got — in terms of it being passed around and also in terms of how it’s affected my actual Twitter account with followers and things as well. Because that’s all really wild. It’s all been pretty overwhelming. I just took a three-day break from Twitter because of it.

I already knew when I put it out there anyway that it was going to, you know, attract bad faith [criticism] and ableists at the end of the day. They don’t like being called that, being told they’re ableists or being called ableist, but they are. They kind of dress it up in terms of: “I’m being concerned about game mechanics.” And all of a sudden the width of a doorway is being questioned in D&D when they’ve always been established to be five feet wide and a wheelchair is only two-foot-wide maximum. It’s funny how now we care about door width when for 50 years nobody’s cared about door width in D&D ever. So the response has been kind of overwhelming, in both good and bad ways.

io9: I do want to focus on the positive response because there has been a lot of it. How many folks have been reaching out to you, and what kind of things have they been saying about trying the game or wanting to try it?

Thompson: One that’s very touching was somebody who runs a D&D game for their little nephew and his friends, and they put an NPC in who used the wheelchair. They were setting up, as they were DMing, and they introduced his character who got involved in the fight and everything and took down a couple of monsters using the chair itself as a weapon with some of the actions that you can do. Then the nephew immediately got up from the table partway through and like ran downstairs and was telling his little sister, who uses a wheelchair, that there’s a character in the D&D game who uses a wheelchair. And she’s since joined the group now, playing a character in a wheelchair. Before she wasn’t very interested in playing D&D, but now knowing that there are people who are like her in D&D and are seen as being capable and being a hero for a change, and a positive representation, and mechanics that actually reflect a wheelchair.

It’s been really cool to see that. And also with people who are disabled who have played D&D for years but now, finally, are feeling comfortable enough to want to play a disabled character. Not just players as well, but GMs have reached out a lot and be thankful for the fact that, you know, that they can now present more representation in their worlds through having people in wheelchairs.

That’s what I made the chair for at the end of the day. It matters to the people I made it for, and it reached the people it was intended for. At the end of the day, I couldn’t really care about the vitriol and the ableism online, because it meant something to the people I spent six months researching and making it for.

io9: Russ, when did you first come across the combat wheelchair guide and what were your initial reactions?

Russ Charles: I came across it on Twitter and I was immediately interested because I, as a child, was a wheeelchair user because of a condition that I have. Also, I got into roleplaying at a very young age. So this immediately was the thing that childhood me would have loved to have had my hands on at the time.

I was all for it, and then I saw that there was some pushback from some parts of the community that were prejudice masked in pretending to care about things like game balance and verisimilitude and, you know, all of the other masks that bigotry can wear. I basically just messaged Sarah and said, “I’ll make you miniatures. You want a character in a wheelchair, I’ll make you a character in a wheelchair.”

io9: When Russ reached out to you about making the miniatures, how was your reaction? How did you feel inside?

Thompson: Not in a bad way, but overwhelmed? Not in a bad way at all. It all took off in a way that like I really — I knew the people who I made it for, my friends, would care and it would probably get a little bit of traction. But then, you know, well it kind of all happened when [actor] Matt Mercer decided to put his two cents in on it. It all really took off in a way that I didn’t expect at all. And then Russ reached out and was like, “Oh, I’d love to make some miniatures.” It took a while to process that — even though I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s great” and everything. And as I was responding to your messages [Charles laughs], inside I was like, “I’ve got no idea what’s going on.”

io9: How collaborative was the process in designing the miniatures? Were you communicating together to come up with ideas, or Russ and Tom were you paid to work on your own and then presenting Sarah with your ideas?

Charles: We took inspiration from the work that Sara had done. But Tom and I, almost to a fault, we have a tendency that once we get started, we have to just fly at our projects a million miles an hour. What was important for me was that, although we were designing and showing Sara, “This is what we’re making, this is what we’re doing,” we tried to make sure she was consulted all of the way. My experiences as a wheelchair user are all 30-plus years ago now, I don’t pretend that I can speak to that community with any kind of deep understanding. It is very important that we captured something that felt authentic and was respectful of what we would be doing.

io9: Miniatures are a very specific part of Dungeons & Dragons, not everybody uses them, but I know some people really enjoy having that tangible character connection. Have you received any positive feedback from folks who have purchased them for themselves, for their own characters?

Charles: I think the nicest tweet I saw was someone saying, “I’m crying, literally, because finally there’s a model that feels like me that I can buy.”

Thompson: Oh yeah, that was one of my mutuals. They’re only like 15 or something, and they’ve gotten into D&D recently. They’ve never had a mini about them, which is really sweet.

Charles: One of the things I’m super excited about is not just all of the people saying how excited they were for the miniatures, but seeing companies like Hero Forge and Eldritch Foundry announcing that they’re putting wheelchair options into their character builds, or they’re introducing wheelchair NPCs into their products. That is the real success story for us — if we actually contributed to moving that conversation forward, helping normalize the idea that these people are not some strange subset. This is just ordinary. Everyone can be that hero. They could all be part of all of these worlds.

These are games about stories. The more voices you have, the better the stories will be. And the more authentic people feel that experience is, the better it will be. From my perspective, the fact that we’re seeing other people seeing it and recognising that it’s something they want to do, that to me is a really big deal.

io9: What would you like to see happen to improve impulsivity in tabletop roleplaying games, and the industry, in the future?

Charles: I would like to think that in the not-too-distant future, I could release the combat wheelchair miniatures and Sara could release “Combat Wheelchair 3.0”and it receive almost no attention at all. Because it’s so normal and so part of the everyday release schedule of new cool things coming out. And they go “Oh that’s cool!” and they buy it or they don’t. That there isn’t this huge conversation about it, because it’s as normal as going to buy a new set of dice. I would like to think we could make that kind of foundational quality change to support gamers and the industry.