DM's Deep Dive: D&D for the Visually Impaired

by Mike Shea on 23 April 2018

This month on the DM's Deep Dive, a proud member of the Don't Split the Podcast Network, I was privileged to talk to my friend and lifelong gamer, Sharon Dudley, about her experiences as a visually impaired RPG player and recent Game Master.

You can listen to the podcast or watch the video on Youtube. It's also embedded in the page below.

The rest of this article outlines notes and highlights from the show.

Sharon's Three Tips for Running Games for the Visually Impaired

  1. You don't need the grid. Instead use descriptive vocabulary of the situation. Sharon has played D&D and Pathfinder for years and does very well without necessarily seeing the exact position of everything.

  2. Pictures aren't helpful. This seems obvious but many DMs rely on visuals and that simply will not work for someone who cannot see them. If you can't describe some part of your game, any part of your game, the parts you can't describe will not work for those who can't see it.

  3. Don't use the words "this" and "that" and "there" which aren't helpful when visually impaired people can't see what you're referring to. Describe what or who you are pointing at or looking at.

Here's a tip from another visually impaired gamer: ask them how you can make the game better for them. Sharon said she would never be offended and would be really happy to be asked how a game can be more accessible to her.

What GMs Do Well?

What's fun for Sharon is fun for everyone. Good plot, great GM that brings the characters and settings to life; these are all great. Music sets the tone for the game. Music lightly playing in the background adds to the atmosphere.

Sharon suggest focusing on giving life to characters. This goes for other players as well as DMs. Sharon loves to work with other characters and that works best when people are into the stories of their characters and not just the mechanics. Don't railroad or just focus on dice. Sharon can also sense when people are on their phones. Players should stay attentive and keep the pace of the game going forward. Sharon likes it when everyone is is present and focused on the game (don't we all!).

On phones, Mike leans towards the idea that people are spending their own time and can play clicker games if they want but their lack of attention can hurt the game for everyone else. Maybe its best to put the phones away from the table.

Mike reminisces about web design and web accessibility guidelines and how focusing on accessibility made the website better for everyone. The things that make a game good for people who are visually impaired can make it good for everyone.

On Initiative

Blind and visually impaired players can't see an initiative tent or board. GMs should make sure that visually impaired players know where their place is in initiative. Many GMs have made progress over the years by making initiative visually available to those who can see but this doesn't help those who are visually impaired. Take the time to describe the initiative order to any visually impared players so they know when their turn is about to come up.

On Ideal Systems

For D&D, 4th edition was really hard for visually impaired. The difficulties of not being able to see meant that push, pull, shift, and slide effects were hard. This made Sharon not want to play. 5e has made it definitely better, as did Pathfinder.

Cortex is challenging for visually impaired because choosing an ability from a particular dice pool is hard to remember between turns.

At Origins, Sharon had to leave a game that had a heavy focus on visual cyphers and word-problems. Players had to see it to figure it out. The game required visual puzzle solving which just plain makes it inaccessible.

If a component of the game requires looking at something, it doesn't work or those who can't see it. Again, this seems obvious but takes particular attention for those of us who take it for granted.

When a GM is making a puzzle, ask how would someone solve this puzzle without seeing anything. If they want to figure out a cypher, how can they solve a cypher without having any sort of visual aid or hand-out?

The board game Baker Street focuses on gathering clues and figuring out which clues are true and which are false. By deducting which pieces of evidence can't be true players can figure out which results can't be true and which can.

Mike likes secrets and clues as a game prep technique that can work this way.

Different voices for NPCs help visually impaired players. Voices are both entertaining and help identify difference NPCs. Describe scents. Invoke the five senses. Again, this is a benefit for everyone, not just those who are visually impaired.

Sound effects using a sound board can add a lot to a game for both those with visual impairments and those without.

Sharon's top traits for great games: music, sound effects, character voices, clear identification of characters, and making the story come alive.

Though she prefers roleplaying, combat in D&D and RPGs can be great fun and a great stress reliever.

Sharon can't stand it when people are drawing battle maps. Not only is it a general waste of time for everyone, it is particularly agonizing for those who are visually impaired and know they will get no benefit at all even when it's done. Arguing about the size of a closet is mind-numbing.

Questions From the Audience

What is the best way to handle dense text builds like wizards or clerics?

Sharon loves rogues but it isn't because of issues with complexity, it's the character type she likes. She also likes paladins. Sharon can play pretty much any class. She just memorizes the spells. Brailing the cards could help for something like wizards. Screen-readers also help. Another visually impaired player said that D&D Beyond made D&D much more accessible because it can be read by a screen-reader.

How can digital tools help?

Sharon doesn't use a screen-reader, she uses her husband, Chris. Chris helps her with the details of Pathfinder.

What is the simplest thing that DMs can do to make their table more inclusive.

Sharon says "say the character's name". Don't say "so what do you think?" say "Gronon, what do you think?" even if it isn't the visually impaired player's character. Address all the players by the names of their characters each time you address them. Visually impaired players can't see eye-contact. Using the character's name instead of the player's name also draws people into the story.

What is your first D&D memory?

Sharon's first character got shot to death by hobgoblins when she turned her back on them.

What game systems work well?

Dragon Age and Quick-Ass Gaming. Fate is lovely.

Sharon can play pretty much any game. A game without tons of numbers are better. Champions has a lot of numbers.

Sharon has no problem with Pathfinder.

Listen to more of Sharon's work and experiences on the Dragonreel podcast with her husband, Chris.

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