Behind the Screen: Visual Impairment and D&D Dragon+ spoke with those trying to make roleplaying more accessible to players with sight issues to see what more can be done to include them. by Matt Chapman
"The power of Dungeons & Dragons is that you can play different roles," says Greg Tito, Senior Communications Manager at Wizards of the Coast, who has been putting that idea into practice as part of the Clerical Error live-stream. Inspired by the work of producer and roleplayer Jennifer Kretchmer, who champions D&D players with disabilities, Tito chose to play a blind character called Faben.
[Image of Greg Tito and his blind character, Faben (courtesy Luke McKay)]
"Jennifer uses Dungeons & Dragons to allow players to step outside the norm and feel a little heroic when they might not get to feel that way in their own lives," he explains. "She thought it would be instructive if a lot more people were telling stories about characters with disabilities that don't restrict their heroism in any way. I thought that was a really interesting idea because I'd never played a character that wasn't in full control of all their limbs or wasn't able to use all their senses.
"We had that conversation just as I was thinking about what my character would be like for this live-stream and I decided he would be blind because I thought that would be very interesting to roleplay."
"Roleplaying has no boundaries. It's all in your head so it's one of those perfect things that everyone can enjoy," agrees Jess Dempsey, who now heads up DOTS—a soon-to-be non-profit promoting accessibility in gaming for visually impaired players. "If you think about how many games of D&D are played at schools or community centers it would be perfect to also have the game played at centers for the blind where all they need is their imagination to get going and to play a game that might last 20 years or more."
[Image of Jess Dempsey]
DOTS was created by Jack Berberette, who started the project as a way to help his friend D, a blind gamer and DM, have more independence when it came to running and playing games. Berberette started out by creating braille dice designs and then used crowd fundraising to buy a braille printer to create books for D.
"And everything kind of snowballed from there," says Dempsey. "We're now all about donations and getting dice and books into the hands of the people who need them."
[Video of Jack and D found on the About page] Understanding Blindness Having taken the decision to play a blind character Tito was aware that he needed to learn more about the condition. "I suddenly realized I didn't understand blindness. I don't know what it's like to actually be a person who cannot see. Visuals are such an important part of our everyday lives and I had never even thought about it," he admits. "That's one of the powers of roleplaying; it can allow you to step into someone else's shoes. "But I wanted to make sure I portrayed it in a way that didn't feel insulting or misrepresent a blind person's experience. My goal is to make them feel like heroes just like any other character on the table." [Image of Temple Smith] Tito reached out to Kretchmer to see if she could connect him with a blind player to give him some pointers. She put him in contact with Temple Smith, a Dungeons & Dragons player and DM who is visually impaired and has made it his goal to speak to sighted people and share what a blind person's experiences are really like. Smith started out playing Avalon Hill board games in the 1970s and first played Dungeons & Dragons in 1980. He still plays a weekly game with his school friends and has played just about every kind of roleplaying game available. In 2009 he lost his sight for eight months and was totally blind until eye surgery restored the sight in one eye. He was happy to dispel some of the common misconceptions. "There's nothing wrong with being blind and I don't have a bad life because of it," Smith tells Dragon+. "I'm just as happy and fulfilled as someone who can see. I simply live in a different world than those people. It's not a worse world, it's just a different world." ---------- “There's nothing wrong with being blind and I don't have a bad life because of it” - Temple Smith ----------
Smith admits that it is frustrating to be misrepresented so often by the mainstream media. With that in mind he was able to guide Tito past some of the more common pitfalls in the portrayal of his character. "When blind people are portrayed on TV they have a pole or stick they tap out in front of them. Temple said many times that the action of swinging the pole extremely far back and forth, with an arc that's six feet in front of the person as they're walking down the streets, is unrealistic," Tito explains. "People who are blind have a good estimation of how wide their body is and they're only waving it back and forth three feet. It's only important whether there's something directly ahead of them and they're not worried about running into something four feet to the left. I thought that was a really interesting insight." Engaging other players in the game meant dodging another common misconception about visual impairment. Tito thought it would be possible to mimic a blind man talking to a sighted character by gazing into the middle-distance. He wanted to sell the fact that Faben is not looking directly at whoever he's talking to but Smith again suggested that's not always the case. "He said it's not like a blind person will have their back to whoever's talking because they will obviously have a general sense of where people are. And in order to show that you're paying attention you orient your body to look in the right direction. You might not be making eye contact but it will never be that cartoony action that says, 'Where am I looking?'" Tito advises. The Daredevil Effect Tito also initially wanted Faben to wear Daredevil-style red-tinted glasses or regular sunglasses but was dissuaded by Smith. "That's an easy go-to in television and movies to illustrate someone who's blind. But when you go blind they don't immediately issue you dark glasses," Smith says with a laugh. "I warned him off that because for a sighted person to be wearing dark glasses and pretending to be blind would be very insensitive to some. It doesn't bother me because I understand that people are trying to convey something that's difficult to portray. But some people will think they're being mocked." The other major stereotype is what Smith refers to as "the Daredevil effect" where the world thinks that going blind makes all other senses more attuned. "You do notice them more but that level of increase in their effectiveness is just not true," he says. "I can't close my eyes and hear people walking around in the other room and know exactly where they are. But television and movies play that up. "And when there's a dangerous situation that happens around blind people on screen they're always suddenly terrified because they can't see what's going on. That's also not true. People that can't see are just as courageous—if not more so—than others in a crisis situation." [Image of DOTS RPG Project business cards with braille]
The DOTS project aims to improve the use of braille for RPGs Character props aside, Smith was also able to impart some invaluable advice about how a blind character would function in a game based on his real-world experience. For example, if a blind person wants to move quickly from one area to another they might take up a friend's elbow rather than fending for themselves and be guided that way. "It's not necessarily holding hands but more like grabbing an elbow so you know you're not going to walk into something in front of you and can be positioned in the right direction for whatever is going on in the adventure," Tito says. "That's also true for actions beyond walking. If Faben's going to examine something with his hands I have one of the companions put his hands where they need to be. I'm playing a cleric so I trust my companions to help with healing or laying on hands to do the touch spells." Clerical Duties Tito shared all the advice he'd been given with the DM for Clerical Error, Lauren Urban. "We talked ahead of time about how to address Faben's blindness in a semi-accurate way in a world of magic without it making his character ineffective. We also talked with the players to instill strong connections between several of the characters so the few times Faben would need assistance it wouldn't be a burden," she adds. Lauren Urban Urban found the biggest challenge with DMing for a blind character was making sure she described things in more detail than simply what the players could see. "It was important that Faben could succeed on checks that would usually be visual and in order to make that happen I needed to come up with ways to describe things by smell, hearing or a change in the air. It frankly pushed me to be a better DM as it made me think about the world from more than just a visual perspective." One part of the game the pair needed to consider carefully was combat. Tito reasoned that Faben would depend on spells like detect magic or detect evil because those would still function for him. "He would still be able to pinpoint a target based on those and I thought that was a good way to make it playable when we did get into combat," he says. "One good combo is if I have detect magic up and one of the other characters casts light on something like a stone. I can then determine where they are based on the blue glow of the light spell in a way I wouldn't be able to with a normal torch." In actual fact there's been little combat to worry about as much of the game has focused on interpersonal relationships and problem-solving. "The whole Clerical Error cast is much more interested in roleplaying than combat!" confirms DM Urban. "So far there has only been one combat, which happened during our Extra Life game and lasted a single round before one character managed to persuade themselves out of fighting!" Practical Help One important breakthrough to help the visually impaired engage with D&D is the ability to create braille dice that can be read by blind players who have that skill. "This is definitely something people were actively looking for and players wanted to see," suggests Dempsey, who says since DOTS first started producing the braille dice they've created a few different versions. [Image of DOTS braille dice version 1] Traditionally braille has no number symbols and a "#" sign is placed next to a letter to signify it is a number. For example, "A" equals number "1", "B" is number "2". The DOTS design eventually took a different approach. "Once you start doing double digits you usually double the letters, such as 'AA'. Instead we changed it up and it went to letter 'K' because a braille reader would find it easily understandable. K is the eleventh number of the alphabet so that must signify number '11'," she details, having also written a blog about 3D printing the dice. "We also removed the '#' sign because if you are holding a d20 in your hand you know that it contains numbers. It was just taking up extra space at that point." [Image of braille guide]
DOTS sells its braille dice already printed via Shapeways.com but a full set of dice costs around $60 and Dempsey is aware that's out of some players' price range. Thanks to donations the organization has now been able to purchase its own 3D printer and once a system is in place will be selling them on its own site for closer to $30 to cover the cost of materials and shipping. On top of that, DOTS plans to donate braille dice to game stores, schools, and libraries to encourage blind player participation. The 3D template files are also available for free on the DOTS website in a similar spirit of collaboration and sharing. "Whether it be schools, libraries or businesses that have access to 3D printers we're encouraging people to download the files, print a batch themselves and donate them to local gamers," Dempsey advises. "People are free to do what they want with dice printed from our files with the limit that they're not allowed to sell them." Spoken and Printed Word One other technical advance that should help improve the lives of visually impaired players is the improvement of screen readers. Having a piece of software take the written word of a book or adventure and read that text aloud instantly brings it to life. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Screen readers deal best with PDFs or websites when they have been optimized for the technology and that doesn't always happen as standard. "It's easy to change a PDF so it's screen reader friendly if you're doing that from the beginning. It's the same with web development because in the HTML programming language you can label things like 'Header', 'Paragraph', and 'Footer' so the reader recognizes them and treats them accordingly. It'll say, 'OK, this is the title of the page so I need to read this first. This is a paragraph so I need to read this second," says Dempsey. [Image of braille book] DOTS would love to hear from braille translators with time to donate "If the formatting is clear at the very start it's a seamless transition to make it screen reader-friendly. If you're trying to do that after the fact it's a lot harder. So it's really about coding PDF, Word, InDesign or HTML documents to have those labels and that's often something the software will have built in as an accessibility feature." "The hardest thing for screen readers to deal with is websites because they break things up on a page into blocks. The screen reader might only read the text in one block and then direct you to something else on the same page so it's very disjointed and hard to understand," adds Smith, who says he found salvation in D&D Beyond. "Fifth edition was new around the time I got some of my sight back but I wasn't able to play it straight away because all of that information was hidden away in books that I couldn't access," he remembers. "And then D&D Beyond came out and I could access that. I have a desktop computer with a 32-inch monitor that I can change the contrast on. So I can lean in close to that and read the text which meant I was able to start gaming again. I currently run two campaigns of my own." Backstory Bonus Tito's character in Clerical Error has been well received and he feels Faben has been successfully brought to life as a blind D&D character. That's largely been down to the group's excellent roleplaying and a touch of humor. "The success of this character has mostly come through the storytelling and I've also been able to land a good joke every once in a while. For example, Demetrios Feredinos' character Jeff has been wearing a fake beard that's obviously fake. A few sessions back I said something along the lines of, 'I'm blind and even I can tell that it's fake,'" he says. "Temple specifically called that out in an email to me and said, 'That's exactly the kind of joke I would tell as a blind guy. You nailed that.' So I'm glad that worked." "Him doing this is so wonderful for the blind gaming community," Smith says. "It's much easier to make a character that's interesting in some way but not that difficult to play and not many people would take the time or the effort to do this. "He's willing to take a risk and possibly embarrass himself in order to help show that we don't have a lesser life because of our sight and we're not weaklings that have to be rescued. I really appreciate him taking that chance." "For Faben it's a detail," confirms Tito. "It's a big part of his backstory but it's not a defining feature of this character because there are so many other great stories that have come through all the other things that have been going on in his life." ---------- “One of the cool aspects of playing Faben was coming up with that backstory. If the cleric wasn't born blind how would he have lost his sight?”
---------- One of the cool aspects of playing Faben was coming up with that backstory. If the cleric wasn't born blind how would he have lost his sight? Tito made the character an acolyte of Lathander who was able to speak to his god a little easier than his fellow acolytes could. Because of that Faben was a prankster who felt he could get away with more than the others. When Waterdeep's new head of the church of Lathander took offence at a frowny face drawn on one of the temple statues he punished the prank by placing Faben in a chamber with an open door to the sun. "Faben was in solitary confinement and told to pray to the sun, always looking at it. Over the course of that week he took the head of the church at his word and by the time it was over he could no longer see," Tito recalls. "He also couldn't receive any of the blessings of Lathander or cast any of the spells he was once able to cast. So the head of the church threw him out and let him fend for himself in Waterdeep." Faben wandered around like an urchin for a long time before he met Riza and Jeff, two members of the Dungsweepers' Guild. Through speaking with Riza he found a patron in the nature goddess Mielikki and began his work to beautify the city and make it as green as possible by sweeping up the dung and using it as fertilizer when planting trees. His mix of spells are now more nature-focused to reflect that devotion. Future Plans Although a lot of good work has already taken place the movement to make roleplaying more inclusive for visually impaired gamers is just beginning. DOTS isn't resting on its laurels having created braille dice and worked with companies to highlight best practices for gamers. Dempsey also hopes to create a worldwide lending library supplying braille books to game stores, while sending any store that participates a set of braille dice they can keep in-house. According to Dempsey, DOTS is hoping to create other gaming aids alongside those dice: "We're looking to make something like a domino-sized token that will have numbers on it and can be used to track health points, spell slots and things of that nature. We're also in talks to create a dynamic fifth edition braille character sheet. There are certain labels for ability scores such as Strength and Dexterity that always stay the same and those would be fixed braille. Next to those is the number that can change and we can do that either by inserting a card with a number on it or by using a spinning dial. We're still working that out. On top of that, DOTS also hopes to start a twice-yearly event to encourage disabled gamers to come out and meet their community. "It would be similar to Tabletop Day and we'd encourage other players to speak to a blind player and learn about the issues they have while playing the game. The same goes for board games because there are a lot of games that could be adapted for visually impaired gamers." Community Outreach Reaching out to a community can be a two-way street for gamers. Not only will they learn about how to include players with disabilities in their regular games, they can also gain valuable advice on how to play a character affected by the same issues. "If you're going to play a character with disabilities an interesting way to do it is to reach out to people in that community and get information from them. This is much easier to do using online communities than it would have been 20 years ago," Tito advises. "It was extremely enlightening to speak to a D&D player who also has the life experience that I'm trying to portray. That kind of dialogue is important and the best piece of advice I could give to someone is don't make assumptions. Don't go off what an abled person can glean from TV or movies. There is no substitute for speaking to people who have that experience." [Image of DOTS RPG Project logo]
Smith identifies himself on Twitter as the "Sightling Whisperer"—sightlings being the name visually impaired people give to those with regular sight. "I explain blind people to the sightlings. On the eighteenth of every month I do an 'Ask Me Anything – blind guy' session. People can ask me about running or playing in games or just questions about blindness in general. I understand that people are curious and might want to ask a blind person a certain question but may be too embarrassed to ask. My catchphrase is: ignorance is the enemy. So I try to help them." Dempsey looks forward to a world where the work DOTS currently does has become obsolete. "I would love to see the DOTS project not be needed anymore. I would love to see publishers and companies—not just those in the games industry but in any field—thinking about accessibility first. It would be amazing if in five years everybody in the games industry was already doing this. I'd be fine with that." Until then games like Clerical Error can help spread understanding. "So far the reception has been positive. I think there are many ways to portray a character with a disability and my goal has been to make sure that the character is not defined by it but it is just part of who they are," says Urban. "They are not a hero despite being blind or because they are blind—they just happen to be blind." You can find out more about the work DOTS does at its official website and connect with Temple Smith, Greg Tito, and Lauren Urban on Twitter. Clerical Error recently finished its initial season on the official Dungeons & Dragons Twitch channel and you can find the archives here.
This post serves as a screen reader friendly alternative to DragonMag.com
Original article can be found at this link: Dragon+ Magazine