On the official Dungeons & Dragons website, there’s part four of an ongoing "tutorial" series about teaching kids how to play D&D. This one’s called "D&D Kids: Punishment."

In it, the author — who is apparently a professional "teacher of RPGs" in Israel — talks about how to punish and humiliate children between the ages of 7 and 11 who don’t fit his idea of what a roleplaying game should be.

Suggested "verdicts" for these "crimes" (the terms are his, not mine) include public humiliation, loss of experience points, character death, and ostracization from the gaming group (called "exile" by the author).

He accomplishes this by applying labels to children, such as "The Astronaut" (for a child who is unable to quickly grasp the complex rules of D&D), "The Crybaby," "The Cheater," "The Serial Character Changer" (a kid who dares to "care more about experiencing different classes and races than about character development"), "The Hyperactive" (with a note to make sure that you can tell who is not just an "attention grabber" but "genuinely hyperactive" — do people even use these words about kids in this day and age? — who might "go bananas"), "The Joker" (who gets compared to Batman’s sociopathic foe for being silly at the game table), "The Chaotic-Stupid" (who deserves character death and return at lower level), and "The Antagonist" (who should just be banished for being a threat to the DM’s authority).

Now, there’s a long history of categorizing gamer types, not always in the most attractive way — I remember the old "Real Men / Roleplayers / Loonie / Munchkin" stuff that I first saw on USEnet in the 80s. Most of this stuff consists of stereotypes and insults coupled with "old school" "hardcore" "grognard"-style gaming advice. (You know, where Gary Gygax tells you that you must punish players who, I dunno, don’t recognize his initials in the map or something.)

Modern gaming has gotten away from the more destructive uses of these categories, and recent advice — such as that found in the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 — focuses not so much on judging and condemning players, but recognizing that different play styles and play goals exist. The best advice sections give hints and tips on how to keep everyone happy within a campaign by understanding what your players are hoping to achieve and realizing that their desires are valid and reasonable.

This "D&D Kids: Punishment" article doesn’t do that. In a move that would be out of place in gaming if applied to adults — let alone children! — the author suggests stripping characters of experience points, levels, and characters for not playing Dungeons & Dragons as seriously as he thinks they should be playing it.

Rather than giving advice on what’s going on in a kid’s head when he or she engages in potentially disruptive behavior — and suggesting ways to work with whatever desires the child is expressing — the article focuses almost entirely on the idea that it’s the role of the adult Dungeon Master to inflict punishment on the children.

The first subheading of the article is "The Cracking of the Whip" — and the staff at the WotC website decided it was appropriate to illustrate this article — about kids! — with an angry demon wielding a flaming whip and a sword.

I object to this guy’s namecalling categorization of young children this way; I’m offended by multiple things throughout this very problematic article. I’m frankly shocked that Wizards of the Coast decided this was worth publishing, since it goes against their current DMing philosophies for playing with adults, let alone with children.

I know for certain that I would not want the author ever attempting to teach my nephews how to play Dungeons & Dragons.

Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice that he only refers — throughout the four parts of this "tutorial series" — to boy players and never girls. He talks in one part about when it’s appropriate or not to give slaves to childrens’ characters as loot/alternate rewards ("slavery is a touchy subject best avoided with younger gamers"), but he never addresses in any place how to deal with a group of mixed genders of children.

If, like me, you need to cleanse your palate after slogging through "D&D Kids: Punishment," check out this recent BoingBoing post by Enrique "NewbieDM" Bertran, "I turned my 4-year-old daughter into a Dungeons & Dragons geek." That’s the kind of introduction I hope more children have to this hobby.

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)

I read the Ampersand column today where martial practices are previewed — rituals, but using martial power and not magic. Okay, cool concept.

But the examples given utterly fail to convince me, because they’re not martial. They’re just…skills. Martial means used in war, not “disguises” or “non-verbal communication” or “forgery.”

I can’t figure out why forging a document would cost you a healing surge, honestly. Or why only martial characters can learn how to communicate without words. (Take that, bards, and your arcane power source!)

When I was reading through the description, before I got to the examples, I thought of martial “rituals” more like this:

Let Me Show You How To Hold That

Your buddy may be good with spells, but he’s got a lot to learn about weaponry.

Component Cost: 1 healing surge and 25 gp

Time: 1 hour

Duration: 24 hours

Skill: Athletics (no check)

Choose one simple or military weapon with which you are proficient. A willing ally (who must be present for the entire practice) also spends a healing surge, and gains proficiency with that weapon for the duration of the effect.


Ah, A Chance To Use This Freshly Sharpened Blade

It’s important to take good care of your weapons before an important battle.

Component Cost: 1 healing surge and 50 gp

Time: 10 minutes

Duration: 1 hour

Skill: Thievery (no check)

Choose one of your weapons. On the next critical hit you roll using an attack with that weapon, add an additional 1d6 damage.


No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy

You’ve got it all planned out in your head before the fight even starts.

Component Cost: 1 healing surge and 100 gp

Time: 1 hour

Duration: Special

Skill: History (no check)

You and all allies within 10 squares receive a +2 bonus on initiative checks. On the first round of combat, you and your allies can shift one square as a minor action. These effects last until you take a short or extended rest.




Broken Backgrounds are Broken

I’m tired of so many backgrounds, like those found in Forgotten Realms (where all divine folks come from Impiltur and all wizards/swordmages from Thay), Scales of War, Eberron, and so on. Many of these are backdoor “feats” which are unbalanced and campaign-distorting.

In my campaign (which isn’t set in any published world), I’m just going to stick with the first three options for backgrounds (and call these the “standard benefits”):

  • Gain a +2 bonus with an associated skill, OR
  • Add an associated skill to your list of class skills, OR
  • Learn one associated language.

Any backgrounds which don’t meet that will not be available to players for free. If they want a specific non-standard benefit, they’re welcome to use a feat slot to get it:

Advantageous Background

Heroic Tier Feat

Benefit: Choose one of your backgrounds. You gain the non-standard benefit listed for that background, or your choice of one of the standard benefits.

You can take this feat only once.

Note: This actually allows someone to gain benefits from two backgrounds. That’s okay, I don’t mind that — for the cost of a feat.

Otherwise, I fear out-of-control background creep. It already seems to be happening, and that’s not cool by me. This way I don’t have to check over each background individually as written and approve or disapprove it arbitrarily; it’s just a set template. Does it fit the above list of standard benefits? Then take it. If not, then don’t.