I am developing a character for a Curse of Strahd campaign that is a wheelchair user (for context, I’m an able-bodied person), and I’m worried about accidentally falling into ableist tropes. My character is a lawful evil necromancer working on kind of a Victor Frankenstein theme. I’ve read your tips for writing disabled characters and specifically disabled villains (I intend to play him more as an antihero, but I still want to be conscious of those tropes) and I’ve made some adjustments to his character based on your advice. I’ve also been working with my DM to make sure that he won’t be the only disabled representation in the game.
My main concern is whether or not having a disabled necromancer is inherently ableist? These two aspects of his character are completely separate in context, but I’m worried that the association between a physically disabled character and the undead draws upon harmful stereotypes regardless. I absolutely want to play a necromancer for this campaign specifically. Is my character concept inherently flawed? Do you have any advice for taking a respectful approach to this character, or should I start over from scratch?
Thanks for the question. I’m really glad that my writing is helping you in this process!
To start with, I want to say that, just as it isn’t inherently wrong to make a disabled villain, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with making a disabled necromancer. It’s all about being aware of ableist patterns and avoiding them, and it sounds like you are already doing some good work on this. There are two prominent concerns I would have about the representation of a disabled antihero necromancer. My first would be making sure that there is a clear separation between the character’s disability and their necromancy. My second would be not having an antihero be the only disabled representation. You already seem to be working on both of these.
You might already be doing this, but the other thing I recommend is taking some time to think through the details of your character’s disability, if it affects him in any other ways, and the mechanics of how his wheelchair works. For example, is his wheelchair manual or powered? If it is powered, what is the source of that power and what are its limitations? When he encounters locations that aren’t wheelchair accessible, what does he do?
Also, how wheelchair accessible is the setting? Most pre-made adventures include a lot of staircases in their maps, but this is usually done unthinkingly. Because D&D races range from three to eight feet tall, ramps are actually a much better design choice than stairs for most buildings. Practically speaking, any building designed to be used by multiple different D&D races should have at least some ramps in it. With your GM’s cooperation, it should be relatively easy to replace stairs with ramps.
When it comes to necromancy itself, there are some additional ableists tropes to be aware of that come up in the representation of undead monsters. On the Writing Alchemy blog I have a short article, Ableist Monsters, that covers the basic aspects of this trope and what to do instead. I do recommend checking that article out for a broader perspective of this topic. For the rest of this discussion, I’m going to focus specifically on some common depictions of undead monsters.
One of the biggest areas of concern in the representation of undead is the depiction of disease and contagion. For example, the idea that a person who has been bitten by a zombie needs to be killed because there is no way to stop them from turning into a zombie is a staple of the horror genre. This stigmatizing narrative acts out cultural fears about diseases like HIV in harmful ways. Because D&D has spells like “Cure Disease,” this isn’t usually as extreme in D&D settings, but it is still worth paying attention to how disease is being portrayed.
Another area of concern is the way that certain kinds of undead monsters are represented as having mobility limitations that are similar to mobility limitations that are associated with real-world disabilities. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with monsters that have mobility limitations, but it is important to present this respectfully. For example, it’s important to avoid portraying limited mobility as “unnatural” or using things like “shuffling footsteps” to make a monster seem more threatening.
The third major area of concern for undead monsters is the representation of monsters with “low intelligence.” It is fine to have monsters that function like automatons that have no minds of their own. It is also fine to have neurotypical, sapient characters that are undead. The trouble comes with stereotypical portrayals of humanoid monsters with “low intelligence.” Offensive representations often include depicting them as being child-like, easily manipulated, and unable to make “good” decisions. These are harmful stereotypes that affect people with developmental, cognitive, and learning disabilities.
Because of this, I would suggest having any undead that your character magically controls function as automatons, while portraying any sapient undead as characters with free will, regardless of whether or not they are neurotypical. These sapient undead could then be followers of your character who believe in him and his cause, but they would be portrayed as full people in their own right. Alternatively, you could explore creating undead animals which would have their own animal-like intelligences.
I hope that this helps. It sounds like a fun campaign!