DnD without sight – making the character sheet

I’ve already written a post about making DND accessible for someone who is blind. Today I thought I’d go in to more detail about how we make the character sheets for my characters.

I don’t think that there is any one right way to do this. What is helpful will depend on how the person likes to work. Someone with partial sight might enlarge the character sheet or use a magnifier. Someone who’s not as confident with access technology or a screenreader will probably prefer a more low-tech solution.

I use Excel a lot at work and for organising just about every aspect of life! So it made sense for us to use a character sheet in Excel. However, we couldn’t just download one from the internet and go, because many of them don’t take into consideration the things that are important to a blind person using a screenreader.

So I explained to my partner, who is also our GM, what’s important and what causes problems for me, and we built a new character sheet from scratch.

Things to consider

My character sheet looks a bit different from standard ones because I have the things that I need regularly at the top. My special abilities are more relevant than my eye or hair colour most of the time, so I prioritise the things that I need to refer to more often.

I don’t use a mouse. In Excel, I move around from square to square using the arrow keys. I won’t notice something if it’s way off to the right somewhere, so we start everything in the first column. Individual tables can stretch out into the columns to the right of this, but I don’t like multiple columns of text or figures that are placed next to one another, because I could miss something important.

One of the biggest problems I had with the generic downloadable character sheets was merged cells. I hate them with a passion! They might look good for spacing and printing out, but I think they are a total pain and quite disorientating. For example, if you have a line of 4 merged cells next to each other, and you press the right arrow key, it takes you a cell to the right of the furthest point on the block of cells, not just one cell to the right as would normally be the case.

When I’m setting up other spreadsheets, I usually have one table per page. This isn’t the case with my character sheet, but I split up blocks of information with a blank line so that I can jump back and forth between the blocks using control up and control down arrow.

It doesn’t matter to me whether all of the information would print out nicely on one page, because I’m never going to print it out! I do share it with my GM, partly so he can have a copy as he does with other players, and partly so he can help with design improvements, but we just have a shared folder in Dropbox, so it never gets printed.

If someone doesn’t like or know how to use Excel, they could use Word or even Notepad to store the information, but you do lose the number-crunching and automatic updating of cell functionality that comes with Excel.

Things don’t always stay the same

I guess it’s the same with anyone – if you need a piece of information often enough, you can memorise it. However there is also a search function in my screenreader software, which means I can search for a word that I want to locate in the text, and my focus will jump to it. This is also quicker than having to scan a lot of information with my fingertips.

Another benefit of working on the spreadsheet is that I can quickly note down changes such as decreasing hit points, how many spell slots or crossbow bolts I have left, how many times I’ve used my cone of cold etc. We’ve got it set up so that I have a permanent value, then a temporary value, and a cell which calculates how many uses/spells etc I have left.

We try to automate as much as possible without making the sheet ridiculously complicated. One way of doing this is pulling information from other sheets in the workbook, so the main sheet doesn’t get cluttered with unnecessary additional information.

One of these sheets is all the spells I can choose from. So when I reach a new level and can add additional spells, I can go to the complete spell list page, see what I want, start typing the name of the spell on my main sheet, and the rest of the row will populate with the saving throw, description, damage etc. The same works if I’m playing a character that swaps out spells on a daily basis and having the information populating the rows saves me time.

In terms of magical items or potions, the others use cards that are handed out, then handed back if the item is used or sold. I have the cards too, but I keep track of them on my character sheet, deleting things once they have been used.

Taking notes

I think I take more notes than most other people. Partly it’s what I have always done in previous jobs before I started working for myself – I had the laptop with me and could usually take down more information than someone trying to keep up with a pen and paper. That meant I often ended up taking the notes, and taking other people’s turn to do so in exchange for help with stuff that I found more difficult.

I do it in our DnD sessions because I can’t see the maps and it helps me to build up a mental image of what’s around us. It also gives me the chance to help other players out if we forget the name of the NPC we met a couple of weeks ago. That gives it more of a feeling of give and take when I ask for help with exactly where to go in combat or finding the best position.

So, I have a big space at the bottom of my character sheet for making notes. Each session gets a row, and each individual bit of useful information gets a square. I keep moving to the right until the session is over. If there’s a lot of combat, I don’t tend to write much. If we’re moving around and interacting more, there tend to be more notes. Having the spreadsheet means that I can not only access the important information about my character, but constantly add my own notes as well.

Using Braille

I have heard people talking about Braille character sheets before. I used one once, because we went to a one-off game in a pub garden, and I knew there would be no plug sockets. Making notes wasn’t so important, and it was a low level character, so I used a d20 to track the number of hit points I had left. It was ok, but I missed the ability to write stuff down and I wouldn’t want to do it all the time.

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Why we backed the Critical Role kickstarter – blind fan to find out how the characters look

The most popular post on my blog this year was the one about making dungeons and dragons accessible to blind gamers I don’t write about this hobby a lot on my blog, but it’s something that S introduced me to and that we do regularly. I think the interest came because there’s not a lot of information about blind people getting involved in this hobby, but with a few modifications, it’s definitely possible.

S has bought things on Kickstarter before, but I never have. That changed this week when we backed the Critical Role kickstarter, which means that we will get a selection of models to represent the characters in the two seasons of the live action campaigns of Critical Role

I mentioned Critical Role before in my first D&D post. S watched it on YouTube, and I really got into it when they started posting the audio files as podcasts as well. (I prefer podcasts because the app allows you to play them at double speed, whereas the YouTube app does not). I’m used to listening to my phone and computer at high speed so that I can read information quickly – and therefore it’s harder for me to stay focussed at normal speed now. Also some of these files are about 4 hours long!

The adventures are set in Exandria, a world created by Matthew Mercer. The players are all voice actors, which really brings them to life when you’re listening to them. Hard to believe that Jester and Vex’ahlia are played by the same person because the voices are so different!

Critical Role is now into its second season and as well as enjoying the epic adventures, listening to others play helps me to understand more about the game, gives me ideas about my own characters and what you can do with them. The first character I ever played was a half-elf Druid like Keylith, and I enjoyed watching her develop. Grog the Barbarian was hilarious and his voice suited him perfectly. Scanlan’s songs and antics made me laugh. I enjoyed the chemistry between brother and sister Vex’ildan and Vex’ahlia.

If you haven’t listened to season 1, I’d recommend it – and there’s 373 hours of gameplay to listen to!

Season 2 saw a whole new group of characters – and even Frumpkin the cat gets featured on the model!

This information is taken from the Kickstarter page, which I have linked below:

“The first Critical Role campaign centered on the ragtag group of heroes in Tal’Dorei known as Vox Machina — Pike Trickfoot, the Gnome Cleric, Keyleth, the Half-Elf Druid, Percival “Percy” Fredrickstein Von Musel Klossowski de Rolo, the Human Gunslinger, Grog Strongjaw, the Goliath Barbarian, Scanlan Shorthalt the Gnome Bard, Taryon “Tary” Darrington, the Human Artificer, Vex’ahlia (and her animal companion, a bear named Trinket), the Half-Elf Ranger and Vax’ildan, the Half-Elf Rogue. The first campaign ended in November 2017 after 115 episodes and 373 hours of gameplay.
Critical Role is now in its second campaign, in which the Mighty Nein begin their adventures together in Wildemount. The Mighty Nein consists of Yasha, the Aasimar Barbarian, Beauregard, the Human Monk, Mollymauk Tealeaf, the Tiefling Blood Hunter, Fjord, the Half-Orc Warlock, Nott the Brave, the Goblin Rogue, Jester, the Tiefling Cleric, and Caleb Widogast, the Human Wizard. Shakäste, a human cleric, has proven himself to be a trusted ally of the Mighty Nein.”

Some gamers collect minis as a hobby. I don’t do that, but I do have one to represent each of the characters I’ve created, both to use during the games, and as a reminder of those characters. When playing online, you don’t use the minis, but if there is a map out on the table to show where everyone is, people use the miniature models to represent their characters. I usually get a description of what’s going on and then tell my sighted team-mates where I want my character to be on the map.

I also have a bunch of wolf minis – because wolves are cool! S had some and I wanted a set too!
I think that miniatures are really good for blind players because it gives us an idea what things look like – especially things that you’re not likely to come across in real life, such as dragons, goblins, and water elementals! S has quite an extensive collection, so when we encounter something or someone on our travels, as well as the other players seeing what it looks like, I can imagine it too by touching the model.

On podcasts, players often describe their characters. There’s also a lot of fan art for the popular ones, but someone with no sight is not able to appreciate them because they are drawings or paintings. You can get to know and love characters as you follow their adventures on Youtube or podcasts, but I don’t really know what they look like, as I would if I were reading a book about them.

So – when I heard that there were going to be minis of the Critical Role characters, I wanted to find out more!

Some minis have to be assembled – you get lots of pieces and have to stick them together. My wolves came like that and S assembled them for me, but I was happy to see that the Critical Role ones are pre-made PVC minis that can be used in your own games or kept as part of a collection. I need to find a way of getting Trinket the bear as an animal companion for one of my future characters!

I was going to post this later, when I could actually post a picture of them, but I thought it would be nicer to do it now so that I can share the link if anyone is interested. The Kickstarter is open for 5 more days as I write this. The minis are due to be shipped in March 2019 and it costs £45 for the set, which works out around £2 per model – a really good price when standard minis can cost anything from £1.50 to £5. Larger and rare ones can be much more expensive.

So if you want to find out more, you can go to the Critical Role Kickstarter page. This is not an affiliate link – just something I care about and would like to promote.

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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. You can find out more about how we made the character sheet here.

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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