Dungeons and Dragons and Disabilities

D&D… and D.

I started pen-and-paper roleplaying when I was about 12 years old. My friends and I started out by playing RuneQuest and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons with our older brothers, and eventually graduated in to playing other RPGs and, indeed, designing our very own from the ground up. We developed our own rules for a pen-and-paper wargame as well as a LARP (Live Action Role Play) before we even knew those terms existed.

Around the age of 16 I started losing my vision. Slowly, but surely, my eye sight became much worse until I came to a point where I was no longer able to read standard print. While this has all-but-killed my video game days, it has failed to stop me from playing some of the other types of games that I love, namely RPGs and board games. With today’s technology and an increasing awareness for gamers with disabilities, it is perhaps the best time ever to be a disabled gamer. Here are just a few of the observations I’ve had over the years, as well as some general tips on how you can make gaming more accessible for you.

Observations

Gamers with disabilities are more common than one might think, though in a lot of cases they don’t appear to be as socially integrated in to standard gaming communities and seem to stick with a single dedicated group. This is changing, though; when I was playing in Wizards of the Coast’s Living Greyhawk campaign (a worldwide campaign for Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition) I encountered a number of other blind people at large gaming conventions.

Gaming conventions are large-scale, social events in which a wide range and number of people come together to play games, talk shop, and generally have fun. In the summer of 2005 I had traveled from my home in Eastern Oregon to a little town somewhere in Idaho for a Living Greyhawk convention, and there I met and had the pleasure of playing with another blind person. This man was completely blind and had travelled to the Con himself, and he participated in gaming and having fun just like all of the rest of us.

One of the things I noted was the different ways in which he coped with his disability while at the gaming table. He didn’t bring any books with him (what good would they have done?) and asked for assistance when reading his dice rolls. He had a character sheet that someone could help him look at if he needed to check on a forgotten character statistic, but in general he had all of his character details converted to memory and rarely had to consult his sheet.

In some ways, I game the same way. I bring a large print character sheet with me to the table, though I only consult it when I can’t remember something about my character, and a hand-held electronic magnifier called a QuickLook to help me read fine print if I need to look up something in a book. I use large-size and high contrast dice so I can read my own dice rolls and both of us ask questions related to battlefield placement, since D&D uses a battle map and miniatures to track the location of characters during play.

A couple of years later I found myself at another gaming convention in my new home town of Portland, Oregon. The annual Gamestorm convention is home to both roleplaying and board games of all kinds, but every year offered a large number of Living Greyhawk adventures to play. During one particular adventure I happened to sit down at a table with two other blind gamers, both who used still different techniques.

One of them was low-vision like myself and most of our practices were similar. The other, totally blind, brought a laptop to the gaming table and plugged in a single ear bud. He used the JAWS screen reading software to listen to be able to read his character sheet details from the computer and used an electronic dice roller (a random number generation application on the laptop) to get the results of his dice rolls. Like me and the other blind people, he asked questions related to battlefield placement.
Of the four of us, we all seemed to be successful in adapting to the game that we so loved to play with others. The vast majority of people we played with were helpful, informative, and most of all patient with us as we did what we needed to in order to play the game successfully. This is something I have always encountered even when not gaming at a table that is half-filled with disabled gamers; most of the people I meet “in the wild” at conventions, game days, and local pick-up games are all very considerate when it comes to playing with disabled gamers, and only the rare few seem too oblivious to care.

This is great news for anyone gaming with a disability, regardless of what it might be. One of my biggest fears when I first started attending conventions was that I was going to lengthen game times and detract from play because I needed a few additional accommodations and extra input from other players. Eventually though, I realized that people are, in general, very helpful and understanding and willing to go the extra mile to lend a hand. I was able to feel comfortable and felt like I fit in just as well as anyone else and that, to me, is huge.

Tips for Gaming with Disabilities

If you are gaming with a disability – no matter what it is – don’t hesitate to let fellow players know about it. People are far more considerate and understanding when they know you’re not just being slow, difficult, or inattentive. Some disabilities are more obvious than others – it’s hard to hide the fact that you have a cane, guide dog, wheelchair, or crutches, but it’s hard to spot someone who is dyslexic, color blind, or has some mild muscle condition that may not require assistive technology to correct, but still requires adaptation.

Some (hopefully few) people are embarrassed about these conditions and try to avoid letting anyone but their closest friends know about them. That can cause issues when gaming with groups of people who you don’t know, since they won’t understand that you might need a little bit of extra time to do certain things. There’s nothing wrong with needing an accommodation for something and most people are willing to go out of their way to help, even if that just means being patient while you take your turn.

Also, don’t’ forget to make use of any assistive technology or game modifications that might be available to you. Laptops are becoming more and more prevalent at the game table nowadays, and if you have one that is loaded with assistive software than you might as well use it to your advantage. I have slowly switched away from using large print sheets unless I am gaming in a place where hooking up a laptop isn’t an option and instead I use ZoomText, my screen magnification software, to help me read electronic copies. I can scan note cards, quickplay guides, and other aids included with a variety of board games and view them in larger size on the laptop, or I can use my QuickLook to view them close up even without a computer nearby.

This doesn’t work for everything, though. Many board games use glossy cardboard that makes the game pieces look and feel very nice, but the glossy coating makes it difficult for magnifiers or scanners to read. In these cases, feel free to ask questions of other players or try to develop less-glossy electronic substitutes on your own by having someone read you the information on the note cards and typing them in to the computer.

If being visually impaired isn’t the issue for you, there are still some things you can do. With smartphones becoming so much more popular nowadays, developers are releasing apps that make use of their embedded technology and write software that can provide useful information to people with disabilities. For example, there is an application called “the vOICe” for Android phones which uses a phone’s camera to take real-time video of your surroundings and give you feedback. Among other things, the app has the ability to detect color and tell you what the color is. This is handy for so many board games that are color-coded instead of text-based. For example, you can use the vOICe to help distinguish the colors of currency in the Alhambra board game, which is particularly helpful if you are color blind. Another alternative, of course, is to simply ask another player what color something is, but that isn’t always a feasible option when playing games that require you to keep your playing pieces secret.

If you have problems manipulating fine objects, there are assistive tools you can use to help you arrange a hand of cards very easily. Many people have a game of Scrabble at their homes and can simply use the tile stands to place their smaller playing cards on top of, which can help when trying to pick up and move a card around. These boards can be small though and work best for the cards sized like the ones in Settlers of Catan. For larger cards, you can use a card holder like the ones sold at The Low-Vision Store (http://www.thelowvisioncenter.com/setof4caho.html). You can also use scrabble tile stands to hold other game pieces, like building tiles, money pieces, and other small, flat game pieces that many board games use.

There are plenty of other things you can do to make your gaming life easier. I am not (yet) a complete encyclopedia for such knowledge, so if you have any further suggestions feel free to e-mail me by using the Contact Us link above.

About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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