Updated: Apr 29
The DOTS Guild is a place where people come together with a common goal: improving #AccessibilityInGaming for disabled gamers wishing to play tabletop roleplaying games. There is much work that goes into this project, some of which we follow traditional standards on and others we break tradition and create something new and improved. Join us on this journey as we take a deep dive into the volunteer positions of the DOTS Guild, and learn what makes them so special.
One of our most involved processes is that of creating image descriptions for all graphics in a rulebook or adventure. A Limner is an illuminator of manuscripts, a fitting title for our volunteers who work to paint a picture with words. These descriptions not only help a visually impaired gamer become more immersed in the game they play, they also provide detail crucial to a DM/GM (Dungeon Master/Game Master) running the game for other players. Without being able to see the specific character or creature in the book, a description of what the players are interacting with or seeing with a perception check can be hard to come up with.
While working on braille book transcriptions we were faced with the issue of how to describe the intricate characters and creatures found in RPGs. From the art order to the artist, so much is put into the artwork with every little detail. We wanted to make sure to do these pieces justice and get across as much information as we could, while still being realistic.
Image descriptions, commonly known as "alt text" are normally capped at 100 characters. We felt this wasn't enough, and increased that to an average of 150 characters for our short descriptions and created a new kind of long description with a 700 character max. The short descriptions are placed in the braille book where the image would be in print, and the long description lives in an appendix. For descriptions used on digital products such as PDFs, the publishers can choose to use longer descriptions right where the image sits without having to worry about length. With the expansion on character limits we're able to redefine what it means to describe an image, and move away from the simple informative "alt text" and focus more on the details. Working with these two image description character lengths gives us a better opportunity to accurately describe the image.
For the image of the Mind Flayer pictured above, alt text could be:
Person with purple squid face, claw hand, and dark gothic clothing.
Our descriptions are as follows:
Short: Humanoid with purple skin wearing long dark robes with metal accents. The hands have four talon-like fingers. The head is bulbous and has four tentacles draping down covering the mouth.
Long: Tall thin humanoid in long dark robes with gray-purple skin that is shining as if wet. The robes are dark black with silver metal accents around the edges, arms, waist, and chest. Additional adornments are a silver skull belt buckle, silver wristcuffs, and a slim silver breastplate that extends to shoulder pauldrons. A deep red cape with jagged edges extends up to a large collar that backs most of the head. The creature's hands bear four talon-like fingers, each ending in a long black nail shaped like a claw. It's head is bald and bulbous with muscle texture throughout. It's humanoid eyes are small and pale. In place of a nose and mouth extend four waist-length tentacles.
Finding new ways to describe things in detail can be a great challenge, but a fun one! Though the alt text gets the point across, it's more focused on the bare basics and providing general information over detail and feeling. As many people know, art can evoke many feelings for a person viewing it. We want to ensure a visually impaired person is able to have the same experience as a sighted person. When you think about how other senses besides vision may react to a creature, it opens up many possibilities. Wet skin and textured edges on a collar are things that would be experienced with touch, but describing that feeling can give someone the visual cues for how it might look. It can be a different way of thinking for a person who relies on sight, but it helps to expand the way of thinking and immersing oneself in roleplaying games!
As we developed this branch of our program, we worked on standards that would work for what we were creating. While staying along the lines of normal image descriptions so it would be natural for someone reading it for the first time, we wanted to make sure the experience would be the same across all books. Here are some of our guidelines:
When a race isn't specified by the text relating to the image, we use a generic term like creature or humanoid. Perhaps the artist's vision of the creature is an elf with the hair done in such a way that the tips of their ears are covered. That's not information we have so we won't assume and give the visually impaired reader any different information than a sighted person would have.
Just like with race, when a gender isn't specified we don't assume. We will instead use terms like masculine, feminine, or androgynous to describe the look and they/them pronouns when referring to the character or creature. If the artwork is for a creature that has a male and female gender of the species and this particular artwork shows one gender, we will make sure to clearly define that.
We have found many titles have what we call "accent images," pieces of artwork that have no relation to the written text and may serve as a placeholder or filler on a printed page. These can be anything from flourishing line art patterns to a full page highly detailed colored scene. As our volunteers identify and describe these images, we mark them off as accent images to review when the braille version is ready. Descriptions for the simple accent images such as the flourishing line art patterns that don't provide any information to the reader may be removed from the printed version of the braille book if necessary for proper formatting and placement. Descriptions for full page artworks may appear only in the appendix, versus where the page is in print. For the image descriptions that we work on for PDF files, the publishers may decide not to include the description on the accent images. As every title and piece of art is different it's difficult to treat each one the same.
Something we work on with all of our Limners is how to figure out the difference between art and information, and why it's so important. With each image being a case by case basis, determining the purpose behind each image is a way to find what should be described. A map or depictions of symbols for a unique language will fall more on the informational side and require more detail. A sprawling detailed landscape painting of a port town may require only basic details if it's meant to be something that sets the mood and tone of an area. If it is a painting of the main town that's part of the adventure, the description may receive more detail to coincide with what is described throughout the text and other images in the adventure. Images that are of people, places, creatures or items that are iconic and can be immediately recognized by a sighted person are described in great detail. It's important to share the cultural understanding of pieces of this hobby with those who can't participate with sight.
As with much of our work on accessibility in gaming, we're in uncharted territory. There are many things that have existed to meet accessibility requirements, but not all of them take things beyond the simplest way to do it. The DOTS Guild may still be young and small, but we aim high to expand the way people think about accessibility and inclusion. We want to help provide a warm welcome for disabled gamers to join the magical world of tabletop roleplaying games!