Designer’s Diary: Accessible Games – Survival of the Able

Survival of the Able
Survival of the Able is a survival horror RPG being published by Accessible Games and funded via Kickstarter.
By Jacob Woods

Learn more about Survival of the Able at

Back the game on Kickstarter at

Welcome to the latest Designer’s Diary, a column where designers are given the opportunity to take readers on an in-depth ride through the design and development process of their system, setting, or product. If you’d like to share your product in the Designer’s Diary column, send a message to

Designer’s Description
Have you ever played an RPG and felt betrayed by an ally, angered by an enemy’s insult, or outraged by some great injustice? When your favorite character was killed, did you feel a sense of loss?

If so, you were feeling empathy for what your fictional character was going through. If you’re like most people though, you’ve never stopped to think about how that empathic link can affect you in real life. You’ve also probably never considered channeling it for good.

Enter Survival of the Able, a survival horror game in which you play as a disabled character during the 14th Century Black Plague. In this game, you’ll fight zombies, get lost in the wilderness, struggle to find food and shelter during the direst of times, and receive little help by those who see you as a burden. After all that, you’ll show everyone just what you’re capable of and prove once and for all that you don’t have to be the biggest, the strongest, or the fittest to be a survivor.

By the end of your first adventure, you will hopefully have felt that same empathic connection. This time though, you’ll be encouraged to consider what people with disabilities face on a daily basis even in the 21st Century. You’ll get a sense of the struggles people with disabilities face, and hopefully come away with better understanding and a desire to do your part to end ableism.

If nothing else, you’ll have played a fun game about surviving the Black Plague and a zombie uprising.

Survival of the Able is a game about empathy. It’s about getting others to feel attached to their disabled characters so they can come away with an understanding of some of the injustices and rampant ableism that still plague our society today.

One of the misconceptions people will almost certainly have about this game is that I’m trying to teach people what it’s like to have a disability. Hell, even I wrote that in some early drafts of my manuscript and marketing material. It’s an easy thing to say, but in reality it isn’t possible to teach non-disabled people what it’s like to have a disability. No amount of role-playing or education can substitute for the real, lived experience of having a disability.

When I realized that was the wrong way to look at the game’s intent, I had a moment of panic. If I wasn’t teaching people what it’s like to have a disability, what on Earth was I trying to do with this game? Then it struck me that the purpose was never actually to relate that experience, but to get people to empathize with others.

That realization opened up a big design space for me. Suddenly I was able to give myself and the GM carte blanche to be as miserable and disrespectful to the players as possible. The way I see it, if I can make the players feel outrage on behalf of their characters, then perhaps those same players can feel outrage on behalf of real disabled people in our world.

Although this is a survival horror game, I can’t say I’m influenced much by the genre. I rarely watch horror movies or play horror games. I have only tangential knowledge of what lovers of the genre find fascinating, and I only have that knowledge because I researched it a bit.

I know I’m not necessarily breaking new ground on the genre, but it’s completely new territory for me. My hope is that others who aren’t survival horror fans will find the game just as interesting as I do, since it lacks any meaningful connection to its roots. With luck, fans of the genre will also find it fun.

My real influences have to do with people. Elsa S. Henry wrote the blog post that kicked off my desire to experiment with this concept. My own challenges with disability and ableism have also been a huge influence on me, as have the shared experiences of others in the disabled community. I think I’m influenced more by my experiences than any outside subject matter or pop culture reference.

A lot of work went into making this game historically recognizable. I say “recognizable” because accuracy was never the goal. There are zombies after all.

The first thing I had to do was research the Black Plague. I learned that it didn’t start in Western Europe, but our ethnocentrism often leads us to believe that it did. According to several sources, the plague actually started somewhere in East Asia and took years to travel to Europe. Still, I chose to set the game around the time the plague was thought to have reached Europe because that period is recognizable.

I also delved into the causes and symptoms of the plague. There were several theories at the time about what the plague was and how it started, but most (if not all) of those were incorrect. We now know that the plague was caused by bacteria, but putting yourself into the character’s shoes means you have to ignore that fact and go with what they may have believed. That ignorance is part of what caused the plague to spread so far and wide, so it’s important for characters to remain ignorant and part of the problem.

Plague symptoms obviously didn’t include zombieism, but there were a lot of nasty issues that make it perfect for being described in a horror game. Boils, sores, puss, dark splotches on the skin, coughing, fever, and almost-certain death are all pretty gruesome. The plague makes a perfect villain that everyone can hate without feeling bad about it, which leaves room for them to hate the real antagonists of the game—discrimination and bigotry.

Finally, Catholicism was the prevailing religion of the region during this time period. I knew I wanted to include some sort of mechanic to give the players a tool they could use in times of need, so I designed a mechanic that allows them to pray to Catholic Saints for help. I’m not Catholic myself, so I tried to do my research to ensure I was treating the subject with respect and not appropriation. I made sure all the Saints listed in the book were canonized prior to 1347 so they at least made sense for the setting, and I chose them based on information found from official Catholic sources.

Art Direction
Almost from the beginning, I started thinking about what kind of art I wanted in Survival of the Able. I knew I wanted it to be inclusive, That poses some challenges though, as I try to figure out how to portray ordinary, non-heroic disabled protagonists in positions that don’t make them seem powerless.

One of the ways we see ableism in our culture today is through the depiction of disabled people who can’t help themselves. We praise stories about fast food workers who take their time to feed a disabled patron, for example. We’re focused on what the able-bodied person is doing to help the person with a disability, and we lose sight of the fact that the disabled person lives the rest of their life without that one person’s supposed heroic deed.

I don’t want to portray people with disabilities as being helpless, but when I have specifically called attention to the fact that they are ordinary people I didn’t want them to appear super or heroic either. In the art I have commissioned so far, I’ve tried to keep things either passive or reactionary. There is one image of four characters having a discussion around a campfire (passive), and another where a character is defending herself from a zombie (reactionary).

In the latter example, the heroine isn’t going out of her way to battle a zombie. When faced with no other choice, she picks up a torch and defends herself. She isn’t helpless, but being a brave zombie hunter isn’t exactly her idea of a good time.

Finally, I wanted to have representation not just in the illustrations, but from the people who make them. I have hired female and disabled artists to give the book a style that was designed by the very people I strive to include. The book just wouldn’t be the same if it were designed entirely by able-bodied white dues.

Gaming Experience
I describe Survival of the Able as a survival horror RPG. I absolutely want to put players into situations where they are forced to make difficult and uncomfortable decisions. I want them to feel like their backs are against a wall. I want them to feel like there’s a real struggle for survival.

That’s only part of the experience. I also don’t want players to feel like they’re incapable of beating the odds, because I don’t want to give players the impression that being disabled makes them weak. On the contrary, I very much intend for the players to come out on top despite their disabilities. In the end, I want them to come away feeling like ordinary disabled people have what it takes to face overwhelming odds, because in the real world that’s what we do every single day.

The game’s included adventure is designed with all this in mind. I write advice for the GM to give them tips on how to make things challenging for the players. I encourage the GM to belittle and demean the characters. I point out places where it would be a good idea to kill off an NPC or sew some strife into the party. The intention is to make the players double down in their efforts to win, and the final scene gives them an opportunity to show off just how much a ragtag band of haggard disabled characters can do.

Hopefully, the players will come away from the experience feeling accomplished. The goal is to make them feel like they have conquered something challenging. It’s not dissimilar from how other games reward players for being heroic, but in this case the characters don’t come from that background. They’re just ordinary disabled folks who have found the grit and determination they need to outlast a zombie onslaught.

I honestly can’t compare this game to any I have ever seen. It’s built on the bones of the Fudge System, but it’s 100% rewritten with a specific experience in mind. It’s survival horror, but doesn’t really follow most of the genre’s tropes. It’s also about disabled protagonists who don’t have super powers to offset their other traits.

The only way I know how to compare it is by telling you what it isn’t. It’s a game where you fight zombies, but it isn’t about zombies. It’s a game where the protagonists are disabled, but they aren’t mystical, magical, or super in any way. It’s a game about survival, but you play as characters who aren’t considered worthwhile, much less capable.

It’s not a game about the survival of the fittest. It’s a game about the survival of the able.

Development Process
I started writing this game at a time in my life where development meant having an idea strike me and then typing furiously to get it out of my head. I didn’t do a lot of brainstorming, outlining, or storyboarding. Rules and design elements came to me, and I put them on the page.

Originally, this game was just supposed to be something of a Lady Blackbird heartbreaker. My goal was to create a game with simple mechanics that were focused on telling one specific story.

I started, as I often do, with the Fudge System. As I began tweaking it to fit my idea of what the game should be, I added more and more elements to tailor it to my tastes. Eventually, I realized I had created so many custom elements that the game was no longer as small and light as a game like Lady Blackbird. It wasn’t something you could just pick up and play using nothing but the rules printed on a character sheet.

With that said though, most of the pertinent player rules do fit on the back of the character sheet. This isn’t a rules heavy game by any means.

Once I realized the game wasn’t just about one specific story, I had to go back over what I had written and figure out how I had designed the game’s four main characters. I didn’t have a Character Creation chapter at first because you were supposed to just use the included pre-gens. I decided the game needed to be more   open though, because I wanted people to have the chance to build any disabled character of their choice. I had to add Character Creation rules and then modify the existing characters to be sure they fit. By the time I had done that, I was ready to scrap the notion that it was a Lady Blackbird knock-off.

Development was slow due to real life. There were some setbacks and some huge milestones, and they didn’t leave a lot of time for game design. Still, I gradually plugged away at the game because it kept calling to me. I knew it was something I needed to one day finish. Finally I came to a point in my life where I could devote a little more time to the project, and I decided to see it through.

Now with the game on Kickstarter (as of October 19th, 2019), it’s ready for the next stage of development. Fund raising, editing, art, and layout are next. After that, we’ll see where life takes us.

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