Dragon+ Magazine Article: Accessibility & D&D
Updated: Jan 16, 2021
Chloe Mashiter highlights the charities, streamers, and advocates helping to build better awareness around accessibility in the D&D community.
By Chloe Mashiter
DISCLAIMER: During these times of social distancing, we’ve been promoting available resources and advice for playing D&D safely and remotely. You can find out more at this link. The following article discusses options that include in-person play, in the context of further accessibility within the D&D Community. We encourage everyone to continue practicing safe measures when keeping the following advice in mind.
Every D&D table has its own personality. Whether it’s a coffee table overflowing with maps, minis and notes, a co-opted dining table piled high with drinks and snacks for the long haul, or a custom-made gaming table with built-in dice trays, they are reflections of the people playing.
It’s easy to think of accessibility as an extra step that’s taken to accommodate disabled, neurodivergent, or chronically ill players, yet it’s already embedded into most games for the players at the table. As important as the cards a cleric uses to keep track of prepared spells or the digital character sheet a player prefers to the printed one, is the armchair the DM knows will be the only seat still comfortable after four hours of playing. The real step is being aware of the different needs those at the table might have.
[Image of adventurers]
[Image of Rupert Greyling]
Rupert Greyling says it’s striking how many tools (from specialist character sheets and high-contrast dice to physical tokens) are already easily available for a gaming table. Greyling runs Maximum Inclusion events under the banner of The Goblin’s Chest, where people (often children) with specific needs can play tabletop roleplaying games. These events are designed to be inclusive of those who frequently encounter barriers to playing, drawing upon a wealth of resources to cater for players with many different potential needs—from Downs Syndrome to visual impairments.
“We use a single character sheet that covers as many needs as possible. The initial sheet was created by Inuyasharuls and Axelle123 on Reddit for dyslexic gamers but has been edited by myself to include colors more suitable for people that are colorblind, as well as larger colored elements that children with learning difficulties can recognize. Ultimately, it’s a normal character sheet but is friendlier and more fun to look at,” he explains.
[Image of simplified character sheet]
“We also use big, high-contrast foam dice to aid visually impaired children. And we have a bucket of dice at each table as that kind of tactile play helps a lot of kids to focus and not stress out, especially those with ASD on the autistic spectrum.”
Greyling also offers braille character sheets for players, going the extra mile by using a brailling frame to write tactile messages during games. Like many drawn to D&D, he’s no stranger to using improvisation and adaptation and those skills have helped him find solutions for keeping track of other changing elements within the game.
“Because of the tactile nature of the braille character sheets, you can’t simply erase something and write in a new value. However, it is possible to use braille percentile dice to track money and health points. You can also use tactile tokens for things like ki points, rage, or bardic inspiration,” he says.
DOTS RPG Project
[Image of braille dice set]
One of the more specialist accessories Greyling uses at the Maximum Inclusion events are distinctive braille dice. These are produced by the DOTS RPG Project, a nonprofit organization founded with the aim of improving accessibility in gaming. While DOTS initially provided tools and materials for blind and visually impaired players, director Jess Dempsey quickly expanded its reach to help remove barriers for gamers no matter the disability. The organization has grown rapidly in two years, already making a positive impact in the D&D community.
“We immediately had people with other disabilities reaching out and requesting help. It became obvious that this part of society needed a spotlight pointed in its direction,” Dempsey remembers. “A d20 may be nothing special to most players but it can open up a whole new world for someone else when they’re able to roll it for the first time. We get stories of 50-plus-year-old gamers who are getting the chance to roll and read their own dice for the first time in their lives We also have younger children who are growing up blind or with low vision and are finding a brand-new level of joy in being able to play TTRPGs and roll dice alongside their friends.”
[Image of tactile fate die]
Tyler Palermo, Dempsey’s colleague in DOTS, understands the empowerment of being able to participate as a member of the roleplaying community. Having had to carve out their own way as a blind D&D player, they understand the agency of being able to create characters and worlds and star as the hero of their own story.
“I look back and see the change from a place of hopelessness, thinking TTRPGS would be yet another avenue of entertainment I will never be able to enjoy. I applied every technique and work-around I could think of to make it technically possible for me to participate at the table,” Palermo remembers. “Now I’m fully part of this community, playing and running games every week. I’m proud to be part of an exciting initiative to make sure nobody is left out of gaming and storytelling.”
Heroes Without Limits
The availability of inclusive tools and materials is only one weapon in the battle for accessibility. In order to be assured that a hobby is open to them, a community needs to see itself visibly represented within it. Online streams are therefore a powerful forum for demonstrating that D&D can genuinely be for everyone.
“I’m happy to recommend Heroes Without Limits because it doesn’t stop at accessibility and inclusion, it truly celebrates the value of disabled gamers and how important it is to have disabled characters represented in all of our stories. Their streams are good games in their own right but folks can also learn a lot by watching them,” Palermo suggests.
[Image of screen capture during streaming game]
Founded by Sara Thompson, Heroes Without Limits is a community of disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent gamers and allies. Its first stream aired almost two years ago and featured Thompson, Samwise Gamegee, Ethnic Darito, Paladin Butch and Alzzarla and it quickly grew into the multiple streams which now run on the channel, co-produced by Thompson, Gamegee, and Giftnova Gaming.
Streams such as Heroes Without Limits and Knights of the Braille (the latter made up of blind and visually impaired players) strive to make their content accessible in as many ways as possible and are therefore a great place for Dungeon Masters and players to find new tools.
“Go and find disabled streamers and support their games, because your view counts,” says Thompson. “It’s the small things that really do mean a lot. You might not think to have live web captions when you start streaming—we now use a live captioner thanks to a tutorial made by Torn Pixie that allows us to apply it to our shows. We place those subtitles below our faces so anyone who lipreads can still see our faces. That kind of thing is very important, and should be a set norm.”
[Image of Sara Thompson]
Thompson also operates an ‘open table’ rule during games, allowing players who require it to get up at any time, no questions asked. This is to avoid the need for anyone to raise personal accessibility needs, especially when playing with abled people, so no one is forced to explain their disability to others.
“There’s a problem feeling like you can’t bring things up,” Thompson says from experience, as Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can make it painful for her to sit for long periods of time and may require medication that results in “brain fog, where you can’t concentrate on what a DM is saying to you, even though they’ve said it five times to your face. I would always feel pretty terrible asking every hour and a half, ‘Hey, can we take a break?’ while everyone else was really getting into playing.”
Although asking someone at the table about their experiences may seem taboo for an abled DM or player, Greyling says his professional experience has taught him to be as transparent about his ignorance as possible.
“Don’t assume that you know what people are going through. You’re not going to know everything, so ask questions about it. But if you are going to ask a question, think very carefully about what you’re asking and explain why you’re enquiring. Ask if they mind talking about their life experience in order for you to be more inclusive.”
Bear in mind that many people are willing to discuss their disabilities, illnesses, or neurodiversity to help spread understanding but it’s still important to respect their boundaries and not push them for more than they’re comfortable sharing.
“One size will never fit all,” adds Palermo, who says it’s easy to overlook the fact that the same disability will affect different people in different ways, and may affect the same person differently from day-to-day. “Honest, deliberate conversation is the best option. Be straightforward and ask how those involved can work together to make sure everyone at the table is having a good experience.”
[Image of a gnome reading a book]
Creating accessible games goes beyond learning people’s needs and introducing new tools and rules to your table, it’s also about representing those characters in the world you play in. Playing a disabled character might seem like a daunting task for an abled player who doesn’t want to cause offence or further stereotypes. Yet Thompson says not including disabled people in a world is the same as saying that they don’t exist. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources to help players prepare for such roles.
Various conditions (such as the group of connective tissue disorders that make up the Ehlers-Danlos syndromes) have websites dedicated to demystifying them; advocates on Twitter (such as Blind Temple) readily offer information about their experiences; resources such as the Heroes Without Limits discord include areas where you can ask for advice and information; YouTube channels such as Power Up Gamers feature accessibility panels and more; and other amazing projects include the work that is being carried out to create a sign language vocabulary for Dungeons & Dragons—both in American Sign Language via ASL for RPG and in British Sign Language with Somatic Component.
“In Dungeons & Dragons I have power over my own representation and I am able to create people like myself and others to give these worlds the representation they need,” says Thompson, pointing us towards a homebrew that deals with how the mechanics of combat wheelchairs might work in game.
All of these resources provide opportunities to learn about disabilities and feature them in-world from a place of understanding, avoiding common misconceptions such as applying negatives and minuses to stats and abilities. Much as with people in real life, D&D characters would develop necessary workarounds or different ways of doing things to live their lives.
Establishing a New Norm
[Image of adventurers]
While this might seem like a lot to consider, there’s no reason to be daunted by the extra thought that goes into making games representative and inclusive. Most games already have more awareness built in than you might first realize. Whether you’re a DM who knows not to mention spiders because of a player’s arachnophobia or a player who avoids character on character PvP attacks because a fellow player doesn’t enjoy them, gamers often unconsciously show the flexibility and responsiveness that is the core of accessibility. Once people have built up an understanding of the tools, materials, and needs of the group, Greyling says it’s simply a matter of “being willing to amend and being dynamic enough in your approach to things.”
Given the descriptive nature of D&D, both Thompson and Greyling also suggest adapting language as an immediate way to make games more accessible. “Try to describe things in five senses. Even if someone’s playing a blind character they can hear and experience the world that way,” says Thompson. Greyling says DMs for Maximum Inclusion events are always prepped to use “a simple but informative style of delivery, keeping things relatable, and understandable to all the players regardless of their personal challenges.” DMs should also be aware of ableist language that might otherwise become normalized within the game, using resources such as this guide as a useful starting point.
Greyling also suggests DMs consider keeping group sizes small. He caps tables at four players during Maximum Inclusion events to ensure an individual child’s needs get the attention and assistance they require. Having tables spaced far enough apart to allow those with mobility aids to navigate the space is another easy to achieve step.
“Whenever I’ve run games, I have the traditional handouts with all the fancy lettering on and then an easy-to-read version,” says Thompson of another simple step that can improve the accessibility of games.
Accessibility and Adaptability
One of the benefits of a roleplaying game is that the ability to adapt to different people’s needs is already built into its format. A central driver of Dungeons & Dragons is that everyone at the table have fun. All that’s needed is the compassion and willingness to spread that same belief throughout the wider D&D community.
“D&D is a phenomenal jungle gym for people to build their own adventures on, not a ladder with only one way up and down,” says Greyling. “The nuts and bolts are there. But that’s the thing about nuts and bolts, they can be tightened, loosened and dismantled as much as you like. DMs bend the laws of space and time to create an experience that the people at the table enjoy, adjusting the specifics of a situation dynamically, based on the players at their tables.”
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Original article posted April 2020 in Issue 31 can be found at this link: Dragon+ Magazine