Making D&D accessible to blind players

When I met one of my partner’s friends for the first time and he asked me whether I played Dungeons and Dragons, I had no idea what he was talking about. Some kind of computer game maybe? I’d never heard of it.

No, it wasn’t a computer game – it was the Monday night thing which involved S and some of his friends getting together online talking about dragons, elves, goblins – and doing a lot of maths! So I was curious and listened in a couple of times.

After a while, he asked me if I wanted to join the group. So it would be a bit like drama, but without all the physical running around bits that I didn’t like at school. A bit like creative writing where you get to design a character and create their story, but you do it with spoken words and as part of a team. I could do that.

Ok, I would be the beginner in a group of people who weren’t, but we had something else to think about as well. How could we make the game accessible to me as a blind player?

Getting information

The first part was quite straightforward. I can’t read any of the hard-copy books that line the shelves at home, but a lot of the information is available online. This means I can access it with my laptop and screenreading software, which reads aloud what’s on the screen. Some websites are easier to navigate than others, which comes down to the web design, how well links are labelled, and how many adverts I have to get round before I find what I’m looking for. I’ve also got a bunch of people who have been playing for years who can answer questions because they just know the answers. Still, if I wanted to look something up, I can either go online or ask in one of the D&D Facebook groups that I have joined. I can’t understand some of the jokes and graphics posted there, because I can only read text, but I can learn from the discussions.

I do read Braille, but I have no idea how many Braille books there are about D&D, and in any event, sometimes looking things up online is just quicker. My “pocket dictionary” for German at school was 10 volumes and it took forever to find the right one!

Another really useful resource has been podcasts. Some are made specifically as podcasts, whereas others are pulled from a Twitch stream, but in terms of the ones that I listen to, I don’t miss anything by not being able to see the action. Some don’t even use a map, so everyone is in the same position.

Following along with the characters and their adventures has helped me to understand more of the rules, see how different people build their characters, and learn more about what adventurers may encounter along the way. It’s audio content and totally accessible. I’m used to listening to fast speech, so I play most podcasts at double speed, which means I can learn, and enjoy them twice as fast! I’ll post links to some of my favourite podcasts at the end of the article.

Creating a character

I can’t use a hard copy character sheet, so S helped me to design online ones using Excel. I already love Excel and use it all the time at work, so this was an obvious choice for us. We did look at some online character templates, but I didn’t like any of them. S may have taken inspiration from them, but he built one specifically for me after I’d explained how I use Excel as a blind person and what was particularly unhelpful for me about the templates we found online.

I don’t use a mouse, so I use the cursor keys to move between the different squares. If you merge a bunch of cells to make it look pretty, the cursor then jumps to the other side of the merged area, and it’s annoying. Also, we have all of the tables and information up against the left-hand side of the page, because if you put something in the middle of the page, I might not even find it. Simple things, but this customised template ticks all my boxes in terms of being able to get information fast!

Using the find function in Excel helps me to jump quickly to the thing that I need, and there’s also a big space for me to take notes. I take a lot of notes. Partly because I don’t have the visual information in front of me, but also that’s just a thing I’ve always done – at school, in meetings at work etc. Then I have something to trade! I don’t feel so bad about asking the players for extra information about things that I can’t see, when I know I’ve stopped the party from going the wrong way because of something I wrote down a couple of weeks before!

Using my laptop also means I can keep track of spells used, hit points etc because I know I wouldn’t be able to keep it all in my head!

Rolling the dice

I have played on Roll 20 before. I basically used a slimmed-down version of it and focussed on the box where you type your commands and the chat area. This meant I used to type all my roles, rather than clicking them on my character sheet. There are some quirks on the system that drive me crazy, and I’d love to be able to turn off the function that remembers your last entries, but I can do it when I have to.

When we’re playing at home, I have some tactile 24mm dice. The D20 is still a bit hard for me to read, but I can make out most of the other numbers and just check if I’m not sure. We got them from DnD Dice.

S did find me an enormous D20, but sadly we realised it’s a life counter, and not as reliable for rolling as a normal D20 because of the position of the numbers combined with the weight of the dice, which meant it rolled consistently badly!

One of S’ friends got him a collapsible material dice tray for Christmas, and I went onto the All Rolled Up site to get one too. It’s nice to have a specific place to roll the dice into.

We did try some 3d printed Braille dice. I thought it was a great idea, but just wish they could have been a bit bigger because there is a raised border around the edge of each face, and this is very close to the Braille number, which made it difficult for me to read.

Imagining the world

Whether we’re playing at home with the map projected on the TV screen, or with the map in Roll 20, I can’t see the diagram, so the places we encounter need to be described. I think a certain amount of description is good anyway because it helps the players to visualise what places look like, but I’m aware that I need more in terms of describing where things are in relation to each other, and where I am in relation to allies and monsters. This can take more time in combat situations.

I tend to create and play characters that don’t have to be in the thick of things, so the exact positioning is less important. You don’t have to be leading the way if you can just as easily call down lightning on some evil beast from your place at the back of the party! This wasn’t a conscious decision, but more of my characters are spell casters with ranged attacks, so I don’t have to be as concerned with exactly where people are.

Also, maps and fighting are only a small part of it. When it comes to developing my characters’ stories, understanding why they do things, deciding how they would interact with the people and world around them – you don’t need to be able to see for that. You just need your imagination!

S has an extensive miniature collection, and although I can’t see the pictures in the books, he can show me what things look like using the 3d miniatures.

What’s it like for the GM?

I asked S if he could comment on what it’s like running a game with a blind player and whether there is anything that he does differently. He said:

“Running a table top RPG with a visually impaired person doesn’t really affect the game very much. Sure there are a couple of things I need to be aware of, i.e. not being lazy with the descriptions and just showing a picture which sometimes I have done in the past, or allowing the miniatures on the map be the description of the scene. I do end up having to describe these things in a bit more detail than I normally would instead of relying only on the visual aids but this not only helps Kirsty to understand the scene but also helps stimulate the imagination of the other players.”

Player interaction

I guess I do take more advice from the other players about the best place to stand, where I’ll be in least danger, or where to go so that I’ll have most effect with my spells whilst at the same time not squishing any allies. That part is kind of in their interest anyway!!

But then I’ve heard other people advising one another on podcasts too.

One of our players said: “I was listening to the Critical Role podcast, with them in combat that is how I imagined it must be for you Kirsty as a player. I could get a rough idea what was going on thematically, but couldn’t really think how I would be able to position/act as a character specifically. To be honest I think D&D works well in all non-combat situations as it’s all descriptive and imagination-based, so there haven’t been any differences there.”

So, the biggest thing we’ve identified is that descriptions and combat situations do take a bit longer when it comes to my turn. However, my character does bring skills to the party and I’d like to think that in years to come when I’m at a table with people who know less than me, I’d be able to help them too, if in some other way!

For now, I’m happy that we’ve found a way to make one of S’ hobbies accessible to me, that I can enjoy the game and play an active role.

If you have any questions or experiences of blind people participating in your roleplay groups, let us know in the comments!

Some of my favourite podcasts

Here’s a list of some of my favourite actual play D&D podcasts. I’ve linked to Apple Podcasts, but if that’s not your thing, just use the names and search wherever you prefer to get your podcasts!

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