Part two of a series on the accessibility of roleplaying games.

The first post on this topic looked at the accessibility of game rule texts — a vital and important component, but possibly the area in which most of us have the least ability to influence things. We’re not the game designers (well, maybe sometimes we are), and we really can’t retype or rewrite the entire rulebook easily.

For most gamers, the accessibility issue is more personal — it’s at our gaming table. In this post, we’re going to take a look at what sort of physical artifacts are used in many roleplaying games and what the implications are for accessibility. Also, I’ll give a few suggestions as to how accessibility hurdles can be overcome — not the only solutions, by far, but some seed ideas for how we can make gaming more accessible.

Randomizers (e.g., Dice)

Nearly all roleplaying games use a set of dice: the traditional D&D spread of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20; a handful of d10s; a bucketful of d6s; or some other combination of chunks of plastic you pick up and drop again, then look at to read the result.

So, right off the bat there, you can see there’s one possible problem: reading the results.

Tactile DiceMost traditional six-sided dice may be tactile enough that someone who can’t see could feel the result. There are also special “Braille dice” available for not that much more than premium gaming dice; they’re more properly called tactile dice since the faces are traditional die pips and not true Braille numbers.

So, blind players can probably get their hands on accessible d6s, but to the best of my knowledge there are no tactile dice made for any other types of dice. Champions, anyone?

This is one of many times that a laptop computer at the gaming table can come in handy, in addition to reading electronic rulebooks. It’s not hard to find or create a die-rolling program, and with an earbud to listen to the results, a blind player or DM can roll any size of dice needed, without having to worry about buying tactile dice.

Aside: Some of you may be saying, “Wait, why doesn’t the blind player just roll her dice and have a friend next to her read out the result?” Okay, sure, that could work with some gaming groups. But it may also establish a hierarchy in which some gamers at the table are dependent upon others, and we’d really rather have everyone equally independent and gaming on their own terms, right? Also, in many games the Gamemaster will need to make secret die rolls at times, and a “dice buddy” system makes it much harder for a blind gamer to be the Gamemaster.

Dice can also present problems for low-vision gamers if the pips are too small or the dice colors aren’t contrasting enough. Gamers with limited vision will probably bring their own dice to the gaming table. It’s not hard to find a set of larger polyhedral dice, or high-contrast dice such as black pips on white, or white pips on dark blue.

Dice may also be hard for some gamers to roll if they’ve got physical restrictions of their hands. Most of us take it for granted that we can pick up a die, lean over a table, and roll it, but some folks may lack that ability. Computers may help here, or maybe electronic dice — which, again, are available primarily only as d6s.

Not all games use dice, or use only dice; some may use playing cards as randomizers. If they’re a standard deck of cards, large print and Braille packs are available. Specialized cards, not so much so. You might be able to find a way to use someone else’s Braille embosser — a “printer” for Braille — at a nearby university or school for the blind, but buying your own embosser probably won’t cut it as they’re price from nearly a thousand up to tens of thousands of dollars.

Update: In comments, Jennifer adds the following; thanks, Jennifer!:

For brailling playing cards using a “playing card slate” which are available for under $20 from specialty stores that sell adaptive products makes much more sense than using a braille embosser. Most embossers would not be able to accept playing cards because they can only use tractor-fed paper.

For cards that don’t have much information it’s easy to use this slate to braille directly on the cards. For cards with too much information to fit you can braille some sort of identification code on the card itself, and have a longer document that lists all the cards and complete information for each.

For cards that you don’t want to braille on directly (e.g., if the blind person doesn’t own the game), you can braille onto those clear plastic card protectors and put the cards inside them (although that might make shuffling a bit tricky), or even construct a completely alternate deck of cards on index cards that mirrors the regular deck, to be used only by the blind player when they need it.

I had some great feedback from gamers, including games with disabilities, on the last post, so I hope to hear more from you readers about how you’ve played D&D or similar games! Next post in the series will be about miniatures and battlemaps.

So, let’s talk about the concept of accessibility when it comes to roleplaying games.

The word “accessibility” has a number of different meanings; for example, it might mean whether or not game settings are accessible in terms of being easily grasped by people who are not familiar with the background. A Star Wars game set right after the original trilogy might be accessible in this sense, while one set 137 years later in the Expanded Universe may be less accessible. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Accessibility, in this context, means accessible to people with disabilities — the way that accessibility is used when talking about web design, for example — or structural access to a building without wheelchair ramps.

My primarily background with disability work is with web accessibility; I used to do a lot of that, back when I was with the HTML Writers Guild, including work with the the World Wide Web Consortium’s Web Accessibility Initiative. So that’s primarily where I’m coming from — but I’m not going to be focusing on web-based games, but on face-to-face, tabletop games.

What I’m specifically going to do is to look at various aspects of roleplaying games and discuss what the accessibility challenges may be in that game, and possibly provide some suggestions on how they might be overcome. Most gaming — like most web pages were, when I started doing accessibility work — is not designed with accessibility in mind, and thus many games fail to be fully accessible. I may use some games or game mechanics as examples, but this doesn’t mean I’m condemning them outright; instead I’m asking for clever gamers to think harder on how we can make tabletop gaming something that everyone can do, and not just the (temporarily) able-bodied.

Understanding who needs accessibility

To get a good idea of what the accessibility challenges are, we need to look at what disabilities are out there and how they’ll affect game play at the tabletop. Here’s the start of a list — which isn’t comprehensive! — of some ways that disabilities might affect gaming.

  • Some Deaf players might not be able to communicate with non-Deaf players who don’t use sign language. This could prevent Deaf players from joining gaming groups or playing con games, unless the majority of players at the table can sign.
  • Blind players may not be able to read the rulebooks, if not provided in an accessible (usually electronic) format. They may not be able to read most dice, or to keep track of a battle on a combat map.
  • Players with limited manual dexterity might not be able to manipulate miniatures and dice, flip through rulebooks, or fill out character sheets.
  • Exotic game rules — such as Sea Dracula’s “dance off” — may be completely inaccessible to players with some disabilities.

To fully understand what accessibility means in a gaming context, game players and game designers need to think beyond simply what our own abilities are, and consider a larger audience that may not share the same physical abilities. If a game requires pointing a nerf gun at other players, how can you adapt the game (or can you?) for people who can’t point a nerf gun?

Also, proper accessibility for games requires not just that people with disabilities are able to participate, but that they can participate fully. In other words, in games with a Dungeon Master or Gamemaster, people with disabilities need to be able to take those roles as much as any other player of the game might. Game accessibility includes the ability to be the GM.

One more thing to remember: Disability-rights activists (and other folks) will often speak of “temporarily able-bodied.” That’s a reminder not just to the fact that we could get hit crossing the street and end up in a wheelchair, but also points out that the older we get, the more likely we are to acquire disabilities that we didn’t possess in our youth. Roleplaying games aren’t confined to teenagers, and our population is aging — what games will you be able to play when you’re in an assisted living facility?

Part One: Accessibility of the Rules

First off, let’s take a look at the core of any game — the rules themselves. Usually printed in book form, sometimes available as PDFs; what makes any given ruleset accessible or not?

Rules that are available in an electronic format are a huge boon in terms of accessibility. Digital texts of game rules make it possible for gamers who can’t see to use screenreaders, screen magnifiers, or Braille terminals to read the rules. They may also help some gamers who have problems turning pages easily but can operate a computer.

One example of increased accessibility that was an accidental byproduct of another decision: The 3.0 Dungeons and Dragons SRD. The purpose was not to make the rules available to blind players, but by publishing those rules in text and HTML formats, Wizards of the Coast created a pretty accessible game. Unfortunately, the full rules for 4th edition D&D aren’t available in a similar format, making 4e a less accessible game system than 3.0.

Digital game books can still present accessibility problems. It’s not enough to just have a non-paper format available; the text needs to be presented in a way that it can be used without the ability to see images, as with web accessibility. Monsters need to be described in text, not just visually; diagrams that convey information must be complemented with textual descriptions; tables need to be individually navigable and not just images made in Photoshop.

(Also, a pirated PDF? Is almost always a scan of the physical book, i.e., an image, and usually does not provide access to the text via accessibility-enabled PDF readers.)

Readability (of several types) is also a concern. Layout and design counts: a rulebook with tiny text or a very “artistic” but low-contrast background on every page maybe readable to many people, but not to someone with impaired vision. Game rules that rely solely on color — “the skills that can be used untrained are shown in green, while those which can’t are shown on red” — can introduce problems for colorblind players as well as players who just can’t see either color on the page.

Readability also includes the way a book is written. Gamers with cognitive disabilities (including dyslexia) may have a hard time with game rules where the language is overly complex. Online calculators can tell you what reading level text is written for; I ran my own game, “I’m a Pretty Princess!”, through the calculator, and found that it was written at about a 10th to 12th grade level. Probably too high for a game that can be played with kids!

Note: I realize that talking about reading levels may be the most controversial thing I say here. Most gamer geeks are proud of their reading and writing levels, and would see writing at a “higher level” to be indicative of their own intelligence. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. You’re not a better writer if your writing is hard to read. If your goal really is for everyone to be able to play your game — not just people “as smart as I am” (elitist much?) — then you’ll take a look at what you can do about making those rules readable.

And yes, sure, there are problems with any automated analysis like this, but they’re just trying to provide an approximation. The general rule is this: The more readable your writing, the more people who are able to play.

Next in the series: Randomizers (e.g., dice)