Being an accessible GM

It’s Accessibility Month, which means it’s a great time to talk about how to be more accessible as when running a tabletop game.

What is accessibility?

“Accessibility” is a loaded word, but in this case, I’m talking about accessibility when it comes to various disabilities, and their ability to access all the features and content of a venue or application. Simplified, it’s all the data and all the functions for all the people. When it comes to running a tabletop game, it’s making sure that every person at your table is able to get all of the information they need in order to play, and they can use all the tools required for them to fully participate.

I like focus on six different groups when it comes to accessibility:

  • Blind
  • Vision impaired (yes, it’s different from blind!)
  • Deaf
  • Hard of hearing
  • Motion-impaired
  • Attention / Information-processing issues

Each group has their own challenges, and each group has their own set of tools they sometimes use to navigate a world that isn’t optimized for them. The key to a happy, inclusive table is understanding the challenges, understanding the limits of the tools, and putting together an experience that works for everyone.

Blind

Blind can mean a lot of things. Where I live (the US), there’s one definition that our tax department uses for deductions, another that the department of motor vehicles uses to decide if you can drive, and another for schools and public institutions to decide what services you qualify for. 

If you’re using a VTT, then I’ll be defining ‘blind’ as ‘someone who uses a screen reader.’ A screen reader is an application that reads out the content on a computer screen to someone, and helps them navigate around applications and websites. If this were a class on web development, we’d be spending the next hour getting used to them, but for this post, you just need to know that they exist.

If you use a VTT and have a blind player, you need to have a conversation with them about which VTT works best for them. There’s a very good chance none will work for them, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up! If you’re willing to move to Theater of the Mind, that can be a way to keep everyone on the same playing field. 

But what if you want to stay on VTT maps? Or what if you’re using physical maps at someone’s house? It’s still 100% doable: 

  1. Give other players the ability to move the blind player’s token around.
  2. Make sure to describe new rooms when players enter them. You’ll already have to describe the mouldering skeletons in one corner, so just add the approximate size.
  3. During combat, when it’s the player’s turn, help them narrow down what they want to do by describing who is close to them. “You have a damaged archer 10 feet away from you, an undamaged one 30 feet away, and a swarm of rats just came out of the wall 75 feet away.” There will likely be a bit of back and forth, but it doesn’t add a terrible amount of time to the combat, I’ve found.

Also, for handouts, you’ll want to add a text description for the player. These don’t need to be elaborate, since the purpose of alt text is to get the pertinent information across. What are you trying to express with this image of a ship? That it’s a clear day? The scars of war on the side? The sharks circling beneath it? 

If you’ve gone back to in-house hosting, one of the most important things you can do is make certain your home space is easy to navigate for someone who uses aids. Keep the floor clear. Warn them if there are pets. Don’t rearrange your furniture every week, and if you do move things around, warn them. 

Vision Impaired

What’s the difference between vision impaired and blind? Again, this is one of those things that has a lot of variance, so I’m going to define it for this article as those who don’t need a screen reader, but have some issue with their vision that keeps them from getting the same amount of information as someone with 20/20. That tends to be people whose vision can’t be corrected to 20/20 (low vision), or people who are color blind.

One that people with low vision do on computers is zoom in. So, if you’re using a VTT, keep that in mind, particularly in a few cases:

  1. Handouts with writing. What’s clear for you at 100% is super blurry for them at 200%! Include the actual text somewhere (your other players will thank you as well)
  2. Detailed maps. If something is important on a map, you might want to call it out to players if one is low vision. Just like handouts, something that is clear at 100% becomes a lump of pixels at 200% (again, your other players will thank you)
  3. Contrast! Keep your contrast high. It doesn’t have to be pure black on pure white (that actually hurts many people’s eyes), but they should be fairly far apart.

Color Blind

5% of the world population is color blind. Because it’s a sex-linked trait, it affects 10% of those born with a Y chromosome! There is a very good chance you’ll have a player who has trouble telling colors apart in your games.

Because of this, using color to share information is tricky. Some types of color blindness make some colors look more intense than others. Others can make two shades that would normally look distinct look identical. Because of this, it’s important to be careful about just using color to share information, like types of markers on a map. Instead:

  1. Use color and shape. Is a city on a map a capitol? Don’t just make the dot yellow. Make it a star, too. 
  2. Add a border around tokens or markers. Sure, that red dot stands out to you when on a green forest, but it’ll blend in for those who are red-green colorblind.
  3. Use a key! If using shapes is impossible (for example, if you’ve color coded roads), make sure to add a key to your map. That way, they can least see that what you’re calling “red” is that line.
  4. Use a color-blindness friendly palette. ColorBrewer is my personal favorite: https://colorbrewer2.org/#type=sequential&scheme=BuGn&n=3

Deaf

Once again, let’s talk definitions: For this article, we’re defining Deaf as someone who needs visual aids to understand auditory information. 

Also, important to know: ‘deaf’ is capitalized when referring to a person or group of people, and lower case when we’re talking about the condition. If you’re not sure which you should use, capitalize it.

So, is it possible to have someone who is Deaf at your table, even if no one else signs? It can be! A friend of mine has a Deaf player, and he’s been able to make the switch from physical table to VTT with some adjustments.

First, talk to the Deaf member and be open to finding a solution. Not every Deaf person can read lips, but if they can, and you’re in person, make sure that the Deaf person can sit somewhere where they can see everyone. If you leave the room, don’t continue talking to the table (the Deaf person can’t see your lips!). And be mindful about things like covering your face (so, obviously, unless the group is willing to switch to clear masks, this is a post-quarantine/ bubble set-up).

Let the player guide what they need, because there is a ton of variance in the Deaf community when it comes to their strengths. I’ve known Deaf people who can follow a complex conversation, and some who struggle with just one person. 

VTT can be trickier as video often doesn’t have enough fidelity for lip reading. While live-captioning exists, it can be hinkey. If you do use it, make sure you give the captions time to catch up (they struggle when people self-correct or have a lot of filler words). 

It also may be worth considering moving to text-only. While a big switch, there are upsides to moving to text: Slower speed helps players who may benefit from more time between turns, and you have a record of each game that can be searched. Also, some people are more comfortable roleplaying in text than in person. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth giving it a go for an arc or two.

Hard of hearing

Hey, it’s me! For this post, I’m defining hard of hearing as people who can get auditory information, but they’re not getting 100% clarity. 

One thing people think about being hard of hearing is that the volume on my hearing is turned down. The truth is that I’m missing parts of my hearing range, and my brain backfills. You know that video about Yanni and Laurel sounding the same? That is my entire life

So, what can you do if you have someone at your table who is hard of hearing?

  1. If you’re in person, and they ask you to repeat yourself, just repeat yourself. We’re generally trying to get another pass at what you said so we can make sure we got the words right. We’re not asking you to elaborate. 
  2. Be careful about talking quietly. If you need to roleplay a whisper, don’t actually whisper. Just say you’re whispering, and then speak normally. 
  3. If you’re remote, some tools allow you to change individual volumes. This is a godsend, and every app should do it. If you can use an app that allows for that, please use that one. It can help someone who’s hard of hearing to crank up some people while quieting others.

Motion impaired

For this post, I’m defining motion impaired as anyone who has trouble with motor control. It could be loss of a limb, a nervous system issue, joint pain, or any number of things that makes it hard to be precise over an extended period. Cerebral palsy, arthritis, pregnancy, and injury all fall under this, and can be long-term or temporary. In fact, this is a group that many people will fall into at some point in their lives for at least a time. 

If you have someone who’s motion impaired, the best thing to do is ask them what accommodations they might need. Some VTT features may be hard for them to use (like measuring). That doesn’t always mean you need to switch VTTs! You can always ask other players to help out with something like measuring a distance or moving tokens, especially if the player is one who has fewer things to do between turns, like reviewing spells or a pile of feats. 

In someone’s home, be mindful of where you game. Every person’s needs are different, so ask them what they need. A clear floor? Someone else to move their figure on a map? A comfortable chair? Someone else to take notes? Be open to accommodations, and try to be creative when it comes to finding solutions rather than shutting someone out.

Attention / Information processing disorders

This, by far, is the group you’re the most likely to run into. ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, spectrum disorders, and side effects of medication all fall under this umbrella. For this article, I’m defining it as anyone who has issues retaining or processing information that’s not related to another impairment.

A tabletop game can be a firehose of information, which can be exhausting when your brain is already working overtime to take in information about the world. The biggest thing you can do is talk to the person, because needs vary wildly. Some will do better with less stimulation, some do better with more stimulation. Some common accommodations:

  1. Having a note taker, and having that person share the notes. If you do this, there should really be two note-takers, so that when one person is in a scene, someone is always recording it.
  2. Recording sessions. This doesn’t need to be a fancy set-up with cameras and perfect audio quality. It can be as simple as someone having OBS up and recording (for a remote session) or digital recorder (for an in-person session)
  3. Being clear. Sometimes, as GMs, we’re overly coy, and think saying something once in passing should be enough. Because information isn’t guaranteed to stick the first or second time, be open to repeating yourself, or sometimes just being explicit about how two things connect. 
  4. Offering suggestions. As a GM, one of my rules is ‘know your character,’ but if a player really is struggling with the ruleset, be open to offering clear suggestions. “You want to hit this guy? Okay, he’s this far away from you, so Ray of Frost could work, or you could move closer and use Electric Arc.” This can help someone who gets overwhelmed easily, but doesn’t want to play a mechanically simpler class.
  5. Paste out long passages. Even if you don’t read directly from an AP, there’s something about long periods of the GM talking that can cause some players to shut down. They don’t want to do this, but their brain does it automatically. So, if you have a long bit, after you’re done (or before you start!), paste it into chat so they can take a few passes at it. 
  6. Be open to adding / removing music or other distractions. Of course, you can’t remove some from your home (young kids can be especially tough), but if something can be turned down or removed without too much pain, do it. 
  7. Take breaks. When dealing with brain issues, fatigue is very real. People need a chance to switch gears for a few minutes, so every so often, break from the table and let people take the break. If that means they don’t talk about the game for ten minutes, let them. Don’t turn the break into ‘the game, but now we’re in the kitchen.’

Final thoughts

There’s a saying in the accessibility community: A rising tide lifts all boats. Many of the accommodations help out people without disabilities. 

  • Everyone likes a clear floor!
  • Who wouldn’t like to be able to crank down that one player who shouts a lot, and crank up that player who can’t get their audio working right?
  • Searchable text archives are awesome.
  • All players can have brain farts and totally not remember that they met the dude in the green jacket before.
  • Hearing the GM describe a scene again often clues players into things they missed the first time around.

And my last piece of advice? Listen to your players. I can give some general advice, but the player is an expert on their particular disabilities, what works best for them, and what absolutely doesn’t work. 

Have any thoughts or questions? Ping me on Twitter at @kcunning!

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