Dragon Plus Article Obscures D&D Accessibility Issues

It has been almost seven months since I last wrote for the blog. A lot has happened since then, including a cross-country move from Oregon to Kentucky. That doesn’t mean my website, my design, or my ideas are dead–they’ve just been dormant for a while. Now it’s time to start getting things rolling again.

Recently I started talks with a local group about starting up a family-friendly Dungeons and Dragons group. I haven’t played much D&D in a long time, and that is in small part due to its inaccessibility. When the D&D 5e Basic Set came out in PDF several years ago, I ran into considerable barriers trying to access and read it. Couple that with the fact that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t release their core 5e products in PDF, and that led me to be completely disinterested in the game. After all, why should I jump through hoops to play their game when dozens of other companies are going out of their way to make accessible books for me to read and games for me to play?

With my inclusion in this new group though, I thought I’d give it another try. I found that the D&D 5e System Reference Document, available in accessible HTML format through various websites, is stripped down to the basics. That is, the SRD includes only the rules outlined in the D&D Basic Set.

D&D is known for having tons of player options, from multiple races and sub-races, several character class archetypes, feats galore, and spells out the wzoo. In the Basic Set, each class is limited to a single archetype, there is only a single feat and character background, and many of the spells and sub-races simply aren’t included.

When I put the word out to Twitter and Facebook to ask about legal ways to get accessible D&D products, my brother and some of his contacts came back to me with D&D Beyond–an officially-licensed service which allows gamers to purchase electronic versions of 5th Edition rules and use them as part of an integrated toolkit through their website. Through D&D Beyond, people with print disabilities can access HTML versions of the rules in a format similar to an SRD website. The difference is that you can purchase all the rules which aren’t available in the free Basic Set. The caveat is that you don’t have an offline version of the rules, and there doesn’t appear to be any way to pick up the material and read it cover-to-cover like you would with a PDF.

So why does all this matter?

Through this research process, I found an article written by Dragon Plus about D&D players who are blind. It starts by talking about how one of the players of a popular D&D Twitch show wanted to play a blind character, so he reached out to an actually blind D&D player for guidance. He wanted to be respectful to the blind community and not portray us in a negative or stereotypical light.

That is really commendable. In media, blind people are often portrayed in unrealistic ways, and it seems like nobody bothered to interview an actual blind person before committing to their role.

The article also highlights the DOTS RPG project , which seeks to provide Braille dice, character sheets, and other player aids for blind gamers. I love that the article really went into detail and highlighted DOTS. I also really appreciate how the article helps raise awareness for people with disabilities who are gamers.

With all that’s right and awesome about this article, I almost hate to criticize it. Still, I feel this must be said.

This Dragon Plus article is being hailed by some as a testament to Wizards of the Coasts’ commitment to accessibility, but I feel like this simply isn’t true. You can’t simply signal boost for others and claim to be inclusive yourself. You must put your money where your mouth is, and I still feel like Wizards isn’t doing that.

First of all, D&D Beyond–the website offering legal access to 5th Edition material–isn’t run by Wizards of the Coast. Rather it is a third party licensee who is authorized to sell this material to the public.

Second, Wizards refuses to sell D&D 5th Edition products in an accessible PDF format. PDF is the de-facto standard for electronic books and especially RPGs. When properly structured, screen readers such as JAWS and ZoomText can easily read these documents. A blind reader can virtually flip open a book and read it start to finish the same way a sighted person can with a physical book. (Check out this article I wrote on how to make accessible PDFs, if you’re interested.)

Part of the problem with only having access to legal copies of the game rules through a website like D&D Beyond is that there isn’t a way to get that same experience. If you’ve ever tried to learn a game through an SRD website such as http://www.5esrd.com, you’ll know how difficult that can be. Rules are presented in a way that makes them easy to reference in small chunks, but they don’t have a consistent flow to them.

Finally, even the D&D Basic Set PDF isn’t properly accessible. It often reads text out of order, such as the right-hand column first and the left-hand column second. For a document which is essentially just a huge wall of text, there really isn’t any excuse for that. Certainly not from a company the size of Wizards.

The bottom line is that the world’s oldest and most popular RPG still has a long way to go to catch up to accessibility standards. It’s 2019, and there really isn’t an excuse for that. It simply isn’t acceptable to not provide an accessible electronic book–whether that’s PDF, ePub, or another similar medium. Roundabout access through a third party website is useful for people who want to play, but it simply does not say “we care about accessibility.”

What are your thoughts? Have you had a similar or different experience with RPG accessibility? Am I being too critical, or is this really the big issue I think it is? Let me know in the comments.