Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m Peter, and I’ve been in the applied roleplaying game field for over 8 years now. I am incredibly passionate about using RPGs specifically with autistic youth, but I’ve worked with foster care groups. I’ve done a lot of therapeutic and therapeutic adjacent work, I’ve done educational groups, theater groups… so, I’ve done a lot of really diverse types of applied RPG work.
I am a huge believer in using RPGs in a really specific goal-oriented way. I think the inherent imaginative nature and just fun of RPGs makes them really exciting to work with for educational, social work, and social justice means.
Recently, I’ve been working for a nonprofit that focuses on intellectual and developmental disabilities, and I’ve been doing a lot of RPG work for them, and I’ve been doing disability advocacy. I am autistic and queer myself, so the whole social justice thing is very near and dear to my heart.
I recently wrapped up a developmental disability D&D group that was really interesting. This being not oriented towards any particular goal, but more towards inclusion and accessibility. A lot of disability oriented groups are more like autistic social skills groups. This one was just more about finding a way for people who really struggle to play D&D at either a social skills table or a traditional table to have a place at the table and have a fun time together.
That was incredibly challenging and rewarding, just because there were a lot of accessibility pieces that I had to think about and larger pictures of how to work with people with very different disabilities and interests. It was a success, and I had a really good time doing it!
[Steph] I do want to say, a lot of your posts have really helped me, having a recent autism diagnosis too, and what you’re doing and the way you’re framing this is such a helpful and different perspective than a lot of what I’ve seen.
What it really comes down to is there’s stories of autistic trauma and autistic joy, and both are important, but what bothers me is when there’s a proliferation of one or the other. I think that it’s really critical that these narratives are coming from the place of autistics and those that are supporting them, not people who are using autism as a cautionary tale about vaccinations or as a source of inspiration porn.
It’s important to be very frank and valid about the struggles you’ve faced but then also that resilience. Studies have shown that having a joy mindset builds resilience in families. Being able to take things with a little bit of fun is actually how you clinically build more resilient families. Especially for people who have received a recent diagnosis, being able to see joy when having a disability is seen as a universally negative thing, is really critical.
How and when did you start playing tabletop RPGs?
I’m 37 now, and I started about 25 years ago… maybe earlier. It was in middle school, maybe 7th grade.
A friend of mine decided to run a game that he had created that was his own version of Dungeons and Dragons that was called Monsters and Mazes. I remember I was an archer named Bill Gates who shot flaming envelopes full of money. I managed to survive the dungeon – everyone else died, but because I could just shoot people from afar, I could kill all the orcs and live.
That was how I got my start. Through finding a D&D group, I was able to find friends and neurodivergent kind of weird people who wouldn’t judge me too hard, and we’re still friends today! In fact, after this interview, I’m going to be going over to that guy that played Monsters and Mazes with – his house. We’re going to be watching Star Trek: Strange New Worlds or Lower Decks or something, and I’ll be hanging out with him and his toddler son.
We’re still friends, and as an autistic, it’s really important to have community and not feel lonely and to have people who can support you. D&D was a really good platform for me personally to have that. It made a lot of the struggles growing up as an undiagnosed autistic a lot more bearable because I had people that I could talk to.
[Steph] I think tabletop RPGs provide a bit of a social frame, so it’s a little easier – you know what to expect. My D&D group is my core friends group too, and you have that shared experience to create a bond.
There’s a two-fold piece there. On one side, it’s a safe place to practice masking in a fun way. Normally, masking is very stressful for us, but, when we’re masking in D&D, there’s no stakes. Well… there are stakes, but they aren’t really that significant. You can try on different masks, you can explore, it’s very playful and fun, and there’s a lot of motivation to mask well because you want your character, who’s trying to convince the duke to free your friends from prison, to be able to do that well.
On the other side, when I first started playing D&D, I was a cleric, and I knew how many spell slots of cure light wounds I had and my wand has a couple charges here. I knew all these things. So, just saying, I walk here, you’re healed so many hit points… that was valid social interaction.
[Steph] Just having a job or a structure built around it is nice.
RPGs are really good for autistics. I’m someone who has benefited from them and used them in my work. I’ve also actually been a mentor to a student in one of my groups who is now a coworker, and I’m helping her gain more skills and she’s doing great. I’m seeing one of the first second generation RPG facilitators. It feels really good.
Can you tell us a bit about how you use tabletop RPGs with kids or youth?
Ultimately, the base idea is to look at the idea of backwards learning and backwards design, which is kind of this idea that you start with the end goal is – it’s a curriculum design principle.
So, you start with the end goal and then figure out how you’re going to get there. How you’re going to test it, how you’re going to assess it, and then how you’re going to teach it.
Do that with games now. If you have a kid in the group who is having a really hard time speaking out and finding their voice, you might want to have him, of his own volition, speak up during the group and have a reason to speak up and say what he thinks.
How does that happen?
How about the rest of the party gets caught in a big net trap, then some elves come out, and, since he’s the only one who speaks elvish, he’s going to have to convince these elves to release his friends. That way you can put him in the spotlight a little bit and create a situation where he has to find his voice while also being aware to not push it too much and still allow the other players to pitch in if they need to.
You want to really think about the game while keeping those end goals in mind and setting up the appropriate scaffolding.
I’m very fortunate to have a group where the kids never leave – the joke is that I should just hire them. They keep on coming back quarter after quarter, and that’s allowed me to have a really good understanding of what their capabilities are and how to challenge them, and that’s resulted in some amazing progress.
A lot of my kids come, and they’re very quiet and shut down in social experiences, and I see a lifespan of them opening up and being social and then being a friend and then being an advocate. Like, maybe they’re helping each other how to sue the school with an autism discrimination legal suit because they’ve researched all the options together – it’s really cool. Seeing that advocacy towards others, even if it doesn’t manifest in the same way, is really really critical.
[Steph] That’s really cool to see elements tailored to a specific individual to draw that out. It alleviates a little bit of the pressure, but there’s still something there to motivate and give the spotlight. I’ve seen that with my kid while working on social emotional skills in tabletop RPGs too. You can deal with that while it’s in a safe spot in the game.
I think understanding the way that kids experience emotion without real abstract thinking, creating a magical thinking and make-believe space for them where they have that agency, but they’re also removed from it – their feelings are still there, but they’re coming at it through a filter. It’s still fun and still a game, even if I have to go eat dinner. Then you can kind of practice that.
RPGs have such potent motivational pieces, but you can also step away and think, “wow, that was a really fun game. My character almost died, but it was great!”
What inspired you to start using tabletop RPGs in your work?
Before I got into this field, I was running these random gen campaigns at my local game store. I would just do a random generated dungeon and randomly generated NPCs… spend a few hours coming up with a common plot and just run it.
Then, all these foster kids and foster parents started showing up, and I’m like… that’s interesting. I didn’t know that they were a big population at this store, but they kept coming.
The foster kids were having such a great time, and the foster parents were coming up to me after words and saying, “I’ve never seen my foster kid interact with his foster sister for such a long time, and I’ve never seen him laugh that much – this is incredible and thank you so much!”
And the foster kid would just be babbling about how scared I made him and that it was so much fun and how creepy and great the evil cult leader was. I was like.. Thank you, I think?
So, I asked the game store owner what was going on with all these foster kids, and he told all the parents that I was a foster care case worker (little addendum, I used to work in the foster care world), and that I was running foster care D&D groups. I was like… you did what now? That was not my intention, but that was kind of my aha moment.
About a year or two later, I was having dinner with Dr. Raffael Boccamazzo and we talked shop a bit, and he hired me to work for Aspiring Youth.
I had been wanting to do this work for quite some time, so the happy chance was that I actually ran into Dr. B at a cosplay photo shoot where he was dressed up as Archer, and I was dressed up as Cyril Figgis. The whole shoot, he was just being sarcastic to me – I could not keep a straight face. The photographer yelled at us, but we were getting into character, and he was just wisecracking, and I was just busting up. We hit it off very well!
Can you tell me about the game that you’re writing?
There’s kind of two games that I’m working on right now.
The first one, I’ve handed off, so someone else is working on it right now. It is kind of a deconstruction of trauma work through an RPG, and I can’t talk about it much, but it’s amazing. It’s a slow, long process.
The game that I’m publishing now is Caravan Endures. I’ve been working on this one since the early days of COVID. It is a collaborative caravan game where you are some outcasts from urban society, and you have a found family of fellow caravaners. It’s kind of got this Western meets fantasy aesthetic with covered wagons and all. I’m avoiding the Western themes because those tend to get really problematic, but it’s got the cowboy hats and covered wagons.
It’s a cool little world, and it’s actually a product of a queer game jam where I didn’t read the rules. I didn’t pay attention when it was supposed to start, what the theme was… just that it had to be hella queer. It was hella queer, but then I realized I had misread it and decided to make my own game.
I kept a lot of the ideas about found family, which is a pretty significant queer thing because a lot of queer people end up surviving becuase that have found family. Then… I ended up looking at one of my best quarters in my RPG group where I was running a castle management simulation – every single day, they do something and sit down to discuss what happened. I used that same formula with them running a theme park and having to squash problems and handle issues all while making money and making sure that the theme park could stay open. It worked really well.
So, [Caravan Endures] now has where every single piece of it is some kind of skills development. There’s an aspect of journaling and being organized. There’s elements of teamwork too – the game itself, I will flat out say, is mechanically broken, but that is intentional. One… I suck at mechanics, but also, I wanted it to be very apparent that if you want to be successful, you need to use teamwork. It’s a system that will be very challenging unless you find ways to support each other as a team.
The goal is to be using this game to create a sense of working together and supporting each other to create a shared narrative where you are supporting each other. Very often, I think that some of the best pieces of D&D are these moments where you have someone healing and someone buffing – everyone is working together. But, we do it in a nonviolent way, and that was really critical to me.
The guy who is doing the layout, Arturo Serrano, has been saying that this captures a concept called gentle fantasy. It’s the idea that says you don’t need to kill orcs, you can just explore the world. So much of my game is about finding non-violent solutions.
Actually, during playtesting, there is a combat oriented class called the guard… they’re maybe more of a safety oriented class. They’re really more focused around the idea of keeping the caravan safe.
The guard saw that there might be some bandits ahead, and he recommended that everyone turn back, and they did. My thought was that there were only two bandits and the team could totally take them, but they decided that… hey, we’re civilians, and we should let the town guard go ahead of us. It was a challenge, but they realized they didn’t want to get into a fight because someone could get hurt. That’s a really good message!
It’s something that made me stop and say wow. This is a deeply pacifistic approach. I’ve always been a staunch pacifist, but I’ve recently really been analyzing what it means to be a true pacifist and to be anti-war. I think a big part of it is really fighting the idea that violence should be normalized in our media. As much as I love violent video games and horror and all that, I also recognize that there could be a lot of incredibly beautiful stories that don’t rely on that. There is so much violence in the world, and finding narratives that are a break from that are important. We’ve had enough exposure. Let’s acknowledge that it exists and then create better stories.
[Steph] It’s a little like taking the Ghibli or Hilda vibe. Instead of everyone is the enemy until proven otherwise, everyone is a friend until proven otherwise, or we approach things with curiosity and want to find out and explore.
One of the big inspirations for me was an AstroBoy manga that has a character who is the most powerful robot in the world. He is insanely powerful, and he’s also a pacifist. The idea that he rejects violence so absolutely really stuck with me as an inspiration to say that I want to reject violence within my realm to do so.
My games will not have violence; they will reject violence. If you commit violence, that’s a sign that you’ve lost control. It may not be of something that you want to do but something within yourself that says that killing something is justified. It’s something that I don’t like. There’s other ways to deal with a problem than murder.
[Steph] I appreciate that approach and mentality. We get a variety of games that we review for this site, and I don’t want my kid picking up on violent attitudes and approaches, so I sometimes tweak things to be maybe a dance battle or a contest. I’ve been seeing a lot more nonviolent and journaling games coming up, and it’s really nice. There’s no extra work.
I just picked up Thirsty Sword Lesbians, and I’m really looking forward to it because there’s so many diverse stories that fantasy is capable of. For example, instead of killing the dragon, maybe you fall in love with the dragon and then come across a room full of dozens of gilded mummies full of his former lovers. He loves you with all his heart, but there will be another.
Or, maybe there’s kobold that you form a lifelong friendship with, but he’s only got two years to live because they only live to like 20. Maybe you’re in love with a werewolf and they’re becoming feral more and more, so you have to say goodbye. Or, there’s a warforged dealing with there being a new model out and they’re now obsolete. Or a flesh golem made of different people, and they’re trying to find and honor those individual’s stories but also become their own person.
These are the stories of the monsters that you’re slaughtering, and it seems so wasteful.
[Steph] It can get very introspective, and it’s nice where we get those elements. I just played a game with my kid where I actually cried at the end. Before his magic engineer character was leaving home for magic engineering school, he was having one last mac and cheese dinner with his parents, and we were RP’ing that. I was bawling my eyes because 14 years from now… that’s going to be him.
You’re now going to have practice with those feels in 14 years when he goes off to college, and you’re going to think, “I’ve been preparing for this, and I’ve rehearsed this, and we’re going to have mac and cheese, he’ll get on a plane, go to his dorm, and I’ll see him at Christmas.”
[Steph] It’ll be a tiny bit more OK.
And you’ll have some time to practice that. I think that’s one of the real beauties of RPGs is that you can practice things that you NEED to practice in life.
I’ve been playing an online RPG, and my character is a doctor who is able to heal people. A big part of his role is that he’s able to solve things and really help people.
In my life, I’m trying to help people with disability systems and help them cut through red tape or find stable housing or get them help when they’ve been wronged. So, so, so often, I have had to tell them that this is the extent of what I can do. There’s 6 places, all with waitlists, and some of those lists are closed. This is literally the best that I can do.
Being able to be a helpful person in this fantasy is so cathartic. There’s days where I’ve done my absolute best to help someone, but the system is so stacked against them. Even if I can just do that in a fantasy world, I can go and do that again.
[Steph] There’s a bit of a release.
Yeah – just the other day, I went to an event, and someone came up and wanted to let me know that they actually got into some housing. The phone number that I gave them actually helped, and I almost started crying because this is so rare. Especially in Seattle, where we have a huge housing crisis, the fact that she was able to get into some safe housing was phenomenal.
What makes Caravan Endures unique?
What really makes my game unique is that it is explicitly designed towards teamwork and has a focus on gentle fantasy. Plus it’s got covered wagons and fantasy and anachronistic radio towers – there’s a lot of strange world building in there.
Having played with it and doing playtests, it’s a really fun and unique game where everyone who plays it can feel like they’re playing to their strengths, and that receives a benefit.
The person who’s really good at roleplaying gets a lot of bonuses there, whereas the person who’s more mechanically minded, they can just roll dice, and that’s still helping. There’s space for everyone to have that utility that exists in a tactical setting (this person is doing these bonuses or giving advantage), but it’s in a situation where maybe they’re trying to get out of legal fines because they’re 12 days late on a shipment.
[Steph] Everybody has a role to play and HAS to work together to make it work and build that community.
I think that it’s important to celebrate the narratives of the mundane. You mentioned Miyazaki earlier, and my favorite Miyazaki movie is Princess Mononoke, but my second is Kiki’s Delivery Service, and that’s just about someone setting up a delivery service and getting burned out. It’s just the most mundane. It sounds boring, but it’s actually so good and cathartic. It portrays the beauty of recovering from a job that you like but that is kind of overwhelming.
What advice do you have for people who are new to TTRPGs or are looking to introduce a new player?
Really focus on not what YOU want to do, tell, or show, but what WE want to experience. A lot of people going into this field, specifically the applied RPG field, have this cool idea with like an airship and are ready to do this cool sky adventure, and… the kids spend all the time in the forest.
Focus on what your goals are and the experience. What does everyone at the table enjoy?
I remember talking to another applied RPG guy, and he was lamenting that his groups were a failure because they spent the whole quarter in the newbie forest.
Were they getting along? Were they communicating? Were they having a fun time?… yeah, yeah, yeah… but they never made it to the city! They spent all this time goofing off in the forest!
But… you were trying to get them to talk to each other and form friendships. Did they do that? Yes! Then who cares if they ever went to the city! The city doesn’t matter. Focus on giving them the agency to derail the plot. When it comes time to implement your social skills part, they’re thinking they just derailed this plot by ignoring the queen and joining the bandits, and I’m over here so happy – it’s such good teamwork in ruining my stories!
It’s a shared story. I value the world, but what I’m really valuing is watching them grow into kind people.
[Steph] Thank you Peter for the awesome interview! It was a pleasure to talk with you!
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