Jennifer Kretchmer: Making Gaming Accessible and Building a Life Offline
The Dungeon Master balances acting, producing & writing while increasing representation for disabled gamers
Here at Freedom, we frequently find ourselves inspired by the people who use our product. From Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, bestselling authors, editors, and journalists, to developers, illustrators, designers, academics, and entrepreneurs – the Freedom community is packed with curious, creative, and passionate go-getters.
We love to share your stories because we believe the best way to solve the problems we face at work in today’s world is to learn from those who are living those experiences daily– and figuring out how to thrive while they do it!
Meet Jennifer Kretchmer
It may come as no surprise to know that there are a few gamers and Sci-Fi fans among the team here, so we were super excited to learn that Jennifer Kretchmer uses Freedom. Jennifer is a TV producer and actor who has worked in front of or behind the camera on over a thousand episodes of television! She is also a New York Times bestselling author, Twitch streamer, and disability consultant for The Walking Dead game series.
She appears on Vampire: The Nightlife and Heroes of the Planes, and her character, Alyndra, is a playable champion in the video game Idle Champions of the Forgotten Realms.
Additionally, Jen is a Jasper’s Game Day Ambassador and is the creator of the Accessibility in Gaming Resource Guide and the Disabled Professionals in Tabletop Directory. As you can see, Jennifer is a very busy lady, so we were delighted that she had time to sit down with us, share some of her productivity secrets, and shine a little light on the world of Dungeons and Dragons!
You describe yourself as a Multi-Hyphenate Creative – how did you end up where you are today with such a varied resume?
I had been a performer my whole life, so after college, even though I was an English Literature major with a minor in Disability Studies, I was continuing to pursue acting. Unfortunately, my timing was terrible and I landed right when the Writer’s Strike was happening, which effectively shut down the film and TV industries. Eventually, through a wild series of events, I ended up working as a production assistant on a game show, which led to a number of years working on and eventually producing, game shows and events like The Academy Awards.
I had been playing Dungeons and Dragons since high school (I started with 2nd Edition, more than 20 years ago), and had a close circle of friends who were nerds working in the entertainment industry, especially in the brand-new streaming space. Some of them convinced me that it was so rare to see women who played the game, much less were DMs (the person who creates the world and helps steer the other players through it) and that me being visible was an important thing for other players out there who weren’t men. I started streaming games and painting miniatures on Twitch.
Eventually, I decided to be more public about being disabled–I have a connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, as well as some related conditions, that cause chronic pain and fatigue, as well as ADHD – and it became really important to me that disabled players both had access to and could represent themselves in fantasy worlds.
So often, for disabled people, the issue is not our bodies or brains being different, but rather that society is inaccessible, and fantasy worlds seemed, to me, like an incredible way to remove that obstacle. So I put out a survey to disabled gamers to see what they needed and wanted to see in games–accessible formats, disabled characters, accessibility devices in-world. The result was so overwhelming that I reached out to Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of Dungeons and Dragons, to share my findings.
Since then, I have worked on several projects with them, created a show, and was the author of the first official D&D adventure to include accessibility as part of the adventure design, which is part of Candlekeep Mysteries, a hardcover that was released last January. I also have written or consulted on several other tabletop roleplaying gamebooks, and am currently consulting for Skybound Games on The Walking Dead franchise.
For me, tabletop games, particularly live- or actual-play games are a synthesis of my skill sets–storytelling, producing, management, performance, writing, and much more. I think there’s so much value in learning every skill set that I can–they all end up having a function in one way or another. So ultimately, I suppose my resume is as varied as it is because I’m always curious and want to understand how things work, and then figure out if there’s a more efficient way to approach them.
At what point did you realize that tech was taking a toll on your productivity and time?
As a freelancer, I’ve been juggling several jobs at a time my entire career, but I was writing Candlekeep at the beginning of the pandemic while juggling four shows, a number of other freelance assignments, and, as an immunocompromised person, trying to figure out how to shift my life around to stay safe in isolation.
Social media is a huge part of my job, so the noise really started to get to me–I’d notice that I’d lose hours when I’d go to “just check on one thing”. I really needed to stop multitasking and put my attention on writing, and I knew that between my ADHD, isolation, and waning willpower, I needed some help.
With Freedom blocking your digital distractions, what is the biggest change you’ve seen in your day?
Freedom (coupled with the Pomodoro Method, which is another lifesaver for ADHD brains) really helps me cut out the excess noise when I need to focus, and keeps me from going to another device to check social media, etc. I feel a sense of relief once I know that it’s on and that I don’t have any more excuses to get away from sitting down and just DOING THE THING.
How do you stay motivated and focused on a daily basis? Do you have a routine, process, or place that helps to get into a productive flow?
I was always a “work at a coffee shop” type of person. When that became impossible, because of the pandemic, a lot of effort went into figuring out some new strategies. I sometimes work at my desk, but because it has my whole streaming studio, it can be very visually distracting. Because my body can be unreliable, I like being able to work in places where I can move around or lie down if I need to. So it’s less about the where and more about the how, for me.
I run on a spectrum. For really intense, on-deadline work, I like to turn on some instrumental music (the style changes, but it’s always purely instrumental–I get very distracted by any words in music when I’m writing). I like brainstorming and doing revisions on shorter pieces by hand, red pen and all–there’s something about working with a tangible copy or physically writing that gives me better creative results (I like the ReMarkable tablet a lot for this reason, too), while I feel like I have a better writing flow when I’m typing and can edit as I go.
Sometimes I do a short meditation before I start, make some tea, or light a candle, since having a change in my sensory input really can help me change gears.
For streaming, my goal is to be as streamlined as possible–I don’t want to have to think when it’s time to start. I have everything as automated as possible–one-button workflows, voice commands, etc., so I can focus on the story/character or topic I’m about to dive into.
Production is an entirely different animal where I thrive on chaos once we start, but I always need a few minutes of quiet beforehand to get focused.
What is one small shift that you have made about the way you spend your time that had the largest impact on your quality of life?
Recognizing the need for breaks and rest has been so important for me. I always have a million different projects happening, and with my TV background, I’m always inclined to keep working until something is finished or something absolutely forces me to stop. At times, that’s meant I’ve literally worked myself to the point that my body just went, “Nope, not having it,” and I wound up in the hospital.
As I’ve learned more about my body and my disabilities, I’ve discovered how important it is to build rest into my work schedule. Whether it’s taking 5-minute breaks during a Pomodoro cycle or taking a few days off where I put on a vacation email, building in that time, and knowing I can take more if I need it, has been absolutely key. On the occasions that I don’t at least take small breaks, I definitely notice that my work really deteriorates.
Being in the public eye, how do you find a balance between being connected and overwhelmed online?
This one is tricky. I’m SO grateful to the online community, particularly in the last two years. I’ve made so many incredible friends and it’s honestly given me my career in tabletop. But, by the same token, I’ve had to deal with some pretty horrific harassment–when they announced Candlekeep Mysteries, the leadline was about how my adventure was accessible to disabled characters.
That triggered a month-and-a-half-long, truly severe harassment campaign by gamers who felt that disabled characters had no place in the game and that disabled players did not deserve the opportunity to create characters like themselves, despite the fact that nondisabled players had been doing so for years (and including amputee pirates, glasses-wearing scribes–a reminder: glasses, like wheelchairs, are assistive devices, and staff-leaning wizards, among other things).
I had dealt with a milder form of harassment before for being a non-guy in gaming spaces, but I was not prepared for the onslaught of hundreds of emails, messages, posts, and videos I received daily. It was awful, and I dreaded turning on my computer every day.
I found a few things really helpful:
- Tools to limit the posts and comments that I see from unknown accounts: I use the app Block Party, which quarantines those messages into a folder that can be curated at a later time and allows trusted individuals to review the messages on your behalf, if desired
- Post scheduling: I have to check on between 10-12 platforms daily, and different projects require different types of posts/ways to alert the audience. Keeping track of what I need to have go live right before I do tends to be very distracting. I can prepare posts in advance to automatically send on a given day/time
- Curated spaces with trusted friends: This can be a phone or Zoom call, a text message, a private Discord server…whatever gives you the space to speak without needing to be hypervigilant of trolling.
- Preserving some privacy in my life: I don’t post about everything I do, where I am when I am there, photos of family members, etc. This applies, too, to being present in the moment and having friends, activities, and games that have nothing to do with my work. I’ve always said that if I don’t have an unstreamed, just-for-fun home group where I can show up in my pajamas and eat pizza while we play, the scales between work and life are severely out of balance. I need to remember why this is FUN.
- Disconnecting: It’s important sometimes to just put down the phone, hide the app notifications, and go do something completely away from social media.
- Mental health strategies: I’m a huge advocate for destigmatizing mental health. Whether it’s meditation, exercise, drinking some water, talking to a close friend, going to therapy, and/or working with a doctor to find the right medication regimen, it’s so, so important to prioritize caring for your mental health and asking for help if you need it. I’m an ambassador for Jasper’s Game Day, an organization that uses gaming to support mental healthcare and suicide prevention. They have an amazing resource list for anyone looking for help or support, as does Take This, another mental health organization centered around gaming. I also HIGHLY recommend Inclusive Therapists, which helps marginalized folks from numerous backgrounds find therapists with expertise in their unique experiences and communities.
- Using my platform and privilege: I’m incredibly fortunate that I somehow landed in a spot where people take interest in what I have to say. Were I not to use that opportunity to uplift other creators, particularly marginalized and multiply-marginalized folks, call attention to ways we can help in the world, highlight areas where there is need, and support people and groups doing important work, it would be a dereliction of my core values. My grandmother liked to say “action absorbs anxiety,” and that has really been a key concept for how I try to live my life.
I recognize that public visibility is an incredibly fickle and fleeting thing, so it’s so important to me that I build a life on things that remain if and when that aspect of my work goes away. Genuine friendships, a solid skill set, and finding the things that matter to me are ultimately so much more important than post metrics or subscriber numbers.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Hearing from people that I made them feel like they belong in the hobby. Whether it’s someone picking up the game for the first time because the designers thought about how to make the system accessible, a person messaging me how much it meant to them to see authentic representation in a really awesome character who doesn’t fall into the tropes around disability, or someone coming up to me at a convention to say that they started playing the game because they saw me doing it and realized they could too, it never fails to move me.
Although we have a long way to go, we have come SO FAR in the last few years in terms of awareness and representation in gaming. I desperately hope that it serves as a microcosm of things to come in terms of disability representation, inclusion, and accessibility in media and the wider world.
What are some of the most significant changes that employers can do to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible to the disabled community?
The biggest thing I’d want employers to know is that access is a right, not a favor. That’s closely followed by an understanding that your assumptions of disability are probably wrong. So often society thinks about disabilities as an on/off switch–you are or you aren’t, but disabilities are not binary – among other things, 90% of blind people have some degree of vision, most wheelchair users are ambulatory, and some, like me, have varying needs for their devices. (I call myself the riddle of the Sphinx: Some days I’m on two legs, some days I use a cane, and some days I’m on wheels. None of those states mean I’m “better,” and none is superior to the others.) So many people have invisible disabilities. Listen to disabled people when we tell you about our needs and abilities, and remember that even people with the same disability may have completely different needs. Rather than deciding that your assumptions about our capabilities are correct, do your homework and then LISTEN.
I always recommend that everyone start with Stella Young’s HILARIOUS TED Talk, “I Am Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.” It’s only 8 minutes and it will completely change your perspective. In terms of books, I love Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century and Elsa Sjunneson’s Being Seen: One Deafblind Woman’s Fight to End Ableism.
I also can’t recommend the website AskJan.org highly enough for both employers and individuals. It is a phenomenal hub of information about individual conditions, various accommodations and how to obtain or implement them, information on the ADA, and much, much more.
What do you do outside of your work routine that helps you stay productive?
I try to meditate when I can. I love the Headspace app for a lot of reasons–they have great courses, various meditations for different situations, FANTASTIC sleep sounds and stories, and quick emergency meditations for anxiety, overwhelm, and more.
I recently got a stationary bike from Amazon–it’s low-profile, folds up, is one of the few forms of exercise my doctors let me do (EDS means I have fragile tissue and overly-stretchy ligaments, so most exercise, including yoga, can cause both short- and long-term problems). I love that it’s quiet, I don’t have to go to a gym, and I figure that if I can lie in bed or sit on the couch and watch TV, I can just as easily sit on the bike for half an hour and pedal while I watch.
I’m also learning a new language because I just became an aunt, and my niece is being raised in Europe.
What is something everyone should know about Dungeons and Dragons?
It’s some of the most creative, meaningful, imaginative fun you can have. And there’s never been a better time to start playing. (You can even get the Basic Rules, which are more than enough to get you started, for free!)
What projects are you currently working on that you are most excited about?
I’m really excited that Haunted West just came out. It’s a game that weaves real-world history with supernatural elements in a weird west setting while specifically highlighting groups that have often been glossed over in history books–Black, Indigenous, Two-Spirit, Disabled, and Chinese folks, among others. It was a huge undertaking and passion project for Chris Spivey, the creator, and it’s really a masterpiece.
Chris is so passionate about history and did an unimaginable amount of work on the project. His last game, Harlem Unbound, a setting for Call of Cthulhu based in Jazz Era Harlem, was one of the most ambitious and extraordinary pieces of design that I’ve ever seen, so I was SO honored to be asked to work on Haunted West, and the final product is really Chris’ magnum opus.
We’re about to start a new campaign on Demiplane for Heroes, after wrapping our last three-year series, and I can’t wait.
And finally, I think that the things we have cooking at The Walking Dead are genuinely some of the most exciting things I’ve ever gotten to work on. I’m unbelievably proud of it and can’t wait to share (and be able to be more specific)!
There are a bunch of other things in the hopper, but you’ll just have to stay tuned!