Jennifer Hykes asks:
How do blind or low-vision players interact with games that involve token placement or movement on a grid or map? Are there ways to make those games more accessible, for either virtual or physical grids?
First, let me start by saying I love the tactical gameplay offered by using miniatures on a battle map. It’s how I learned to play D&D all those years ago, and it’s a love I don’t think I’ll ever lose. I still collect miniatures to this day, even though I can no longer see their finely crafted details.
With that said, battle maps are not a blind person’s best friend. Certainly they pose a lot of challenges from an accessibility standpoint. It simply isn’t practical to reach across the table and feel around until you locate your mini, then… what? Wait for everyone around you to help you guide your mini where you want it to go?
There are a few interesting tricks people have come up with over the years. They work to varying levels of satisfaction.
One method is to make a tactile battle map. You can use glue to raise the lines on the grid so a blind person can more easily count squares. You might get really creative and devise magnet or Velcro spots and miniature bases so you don’t easily knock things over when you search for your piece. If you’re really crafty these can be fun options.
Unfortunately, there’s still the issue with spatial awareness. It’s still really difficult to know where you, your allies, and the monsters are.
Another method is to use a virtual battle map using a program like Microsoft Excel. See the article in AGQ Issue 4 entitled “Need a Map? Try a Spreadsheet” by Travis Peterson. The article outlines how blind people can use a spreadsheet to quickly create a map, place characters, and move them around. Since spreadsheets are generally accessible using screen reader technology, it’s a great way to track everything.
The down side is that it isn’t great for face-to-face games. A blind GM may use it to keep track of what’s happening on the map, but it isn’t as easy to share that map with the rest of the group.
Justin Oldham presents another take on battle maps in his article “The Big Picture” (later in this issue). This is an interesting solution for low-vision players who can make use of large print maps.
My solution has been to simply ask questions and get comfortable having other people move my mini for me. Even as a GM, I trust my players to move the monsters where I tell them to and to be honest about who each monster might be threatening so I can make good, tactical decisions about who to murder.
It may seem like this goes against everything I stand for when advocating for accessibility, but I would argue that is simply not the case. This level of trust and discourse helps strengthen communication between players at the table. It also helps non-blind players begin to think more like a blind person in terms of how they encounter and describe the world around them. It helps blind players learn, in a safe space, how to ask for help and seek clarifying information.
It’s less about getting other people to do things for you and more about getting everyone involved.
One thing I have noticed over my years of playing like this is that there are a number of players who think ahead about how to describe the battlefield. The moment my turn comes up, they have already gauged the situation and anticipated the questions I might ask. That helps the flow of the game because it means we don’t have to stop everything to reassess the map when my turn comes up, so we can keep the game moving at a nice pace despite this type of action being inherently slower.
We all come out better players and people for the experience, and that is what I am all about.
I will note, however, that not all blind players feel the same way. Jim O’Donnell, a frequent contributor to the zine and the man behind the Knights of the Braille community, has expressed dissatisfaction in this method of play. He has expressed that his preference is to use “theater of the mind” or Fate-style map zones which are easier to keep track of in your head. Although my own experience has been that players are helpful and communicate well with me at the table, Jim expressed on Twitter he finds sighted people tend to take control of a blind person’s character and that limits his autonomy. It seems like there may not be one perfect solution.
Overall, I think it comes down to you and your group’s preference. Every individual is unique, so every adaptation is going to be unique as well. If you are designing a game to be accessible from the ground up though, you might consider ditching maps or using simple map zones, because these two methods are probably more universal than any other accommodation.
Nate Lee asks:
I know PDFs are often problematic for screen reader users. What document file type is easiest to access, assuming it’s correctly accessible?
Great question. PDFs are the de-facto standard in digital game products. They allow publishers a great deal of control over a book’s presentation and can precisely replicate a printed page. The format is also available on nearly any device, making it accessible to many audiences in one sense.
The powerful capabilities of the PDF format are a boon and a curse. Without proper forethought and formatting they can completely break a screen reader. Some publishers also disable certain features, such as copy / paste or the ability to print, and those disable a screen reader’s ability to access the text at all. In other cases, scanned images of text are often imported into PDFs, and although they are clearly legible to sighted readers they are inaccessible to screen readers.
I have written extensively about how to improve PDF accessibility (see my book entitled Accessible Guide to RPG Layout). Todd Crapper, the layout guru who produces Accessible Gaming Quarterly, has also pioneered Vision Layers which help make PDFs much more friendly to people with print disabilities of all kinds. PDFs aren’t inherently inaccessible, but they do require effort to make them as accessible as possible.
That’s all a long way of saying that I don’t think PDFs are necessarily bad for accessibility, but there are alternative options which each have pros and cons.
HTML files are what the internet uses to present web pages. Every screen reader in existence takes great care to read and understand HTML files, because the internet requires it. I love using System Reference Document (SRD) websites such as http://www.d20pfsrd.com to read about game mechanics, because my web browser is one of the most accessible tools I have. As a bonus, HTML files are also easily searchable.
HTML files can be read from a computer even when it is offline. They don’t have to be accessed via a website, so publishers could, in theory, offer HTML versions of their books in a zip file for easy download. ToastmastersInternational, an organization dedicated to helping people become better public speakers (of which I am a member), offers their training courses in downloadable HTML format specifically for screen reader users. I don’t think I have seen many RPGs do this.
The down side to HTML, from a publisher’s perspective, is that the files are easy to copy and redistribute. There are inherently no copy protections built into HTML documents. They also don’t easily mimic the precise layout of a printed book.
ePub files, which AGQ also uses, are basically HTML files wrapped in a special kind of zip file. They share a lot of accessibility benefits with HTML and are easy to redistribute. Even better, publishers can offer versions of ePub files in both flowable and fixed formats; that is, they can be altered like a web page or they can replicate the strict design of a book. I love ePub in theory, but the downside is that ePub readers are often hit-and-miss with their screen reader support. The files themselves may be accessible, but that doesn’t do any good if the screen reader struggles with the software used to read them. Thorium Reader, which you can download for multiple operating systems at Thorium Reader – EDRLab, is a great choice for screen reader users.
Document file types, such as Microsoft Word .docx and Open Office .odt files are also highly accessible. Most screen readers handle office software very well because people use these programs all the time for work. There is a lot of incentive to build amazing screen reader functionality and keyboard support into document software, and that makes it a great option for presenting text. The downside here, once again, is that these file types don’t mimic a printed page and they are a nightmare for publishers who foolishly wish to restrict copying and redistribution of their products.
This is all a long way of saying that the more accessible a file type is, the less people—particularly publishers—want to use it as a final output file. Screen reader accessibility is simply one part of the broader equation.
As a publisher, I feel like it is worth the added effort to make accessible PDFs. I also love using ePub because it offers a mix of flexibility and accessibility. You will find AGQ in both formats, and I am grateful to Todd who puts forth that extra effort so we can all enjoy this zine in a format that is comfortable for us.
Angela Quidam asks:
What do you think of audiobooks? Is it better to have the entire rules as an audiobook or could it be better to have recaps of each chapter?
Audiobooks are great for fiction when done well, but it can be difficult to find examples of them for RPG rules. There are a few, but I haven’t had the opportunity to read many of them.
When I was in college, I was sometimes faced with getting my textbooks in audiobook format as an alternative to printed text. Textbooks are the closest thing I can think of to RPG books, because they contain a lot of technical details, charts, and graphics.
I absolutely hated reading my textbooks in audio format. They were difficult to navigate, the narrator was often droll, and it was hard to finely control the pace. Once textbooks became widely available in PDF and Kindle formats, I was finally able to get some use out of them. That is, when the PDF or Kindle files were accessible enough. The same issues apply to them as they do to RPGs.
With all that said, audiobooks have their value. As with anything, they require some additional forethought to prepare. When properly implemented they can work very well.
Russell Collins, a friend and contributor to Accessible Gaming Quarterly, recently released a Quickstart book for Tears of a Machine SC. You can check it out for free at DriveThruRpg: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/358534/The-Tears-of-a-Machine-SC–QuickStart
This book uses a relatively new audiobook technology that synchronizes the spoken word with the text in an ePub document. As a reader skips back and forth within the document, the audio moves with them. It’s easy to skip around, read a specific block of text, or re-read a passage that you didn’t understand the first time. The narrator can be speedup and slowed down too, so people like me who are used to listening to text read at lightning speed don’t have to slow down to a snail’s pace to listen to the text.
When I first read through the book using the audio format, I didn’t know I was going to be impressed. Reading the book start to finish meant I was listening to it just like any other book. The real value came when skipping back and forth to review a passage or two. The narrator read what I wanted him to and kept up when I jumped around.
Even with those neat features, I wondered about the value add. It’s neat, but is it worth the extra time and energy a publisher puts into producing it? After all, can’t the same thing be done with a screen reader?
I ran my screen reader through the same product and noticed a few key differences. For one, there were a lot of game-specific terms and character names in the text that my screen reader couldn’t pronounce properly. The narrated version of the text pronounced every name as it was supposed to be read, whereas my screen reader simply took a poor guess at them. The human narrator also sounded more natural than my screen reader, of course.
Finally, I realized that not everyone who could benefit from narrated text is a screen reader user. Sure, most blind and visually impaired people will read a book with JAWS or NVDA, but people who are dyslexic or have other forms of print disabilities may not use these tools. Including an audio version of the text means the book opens new, accessible options to all sorts of people.
I highly recommend giving this book a try. It’s a great game from a great publisher, but it is also a good demonstration of how this type of technology can be employed.
To answer the original question: I think audiobooks have some interesting use cases. I’m still not quite sure if they’re for me, but I would love to see more of them in the future.
As for whether I think they should provide the full rules text or just a recap? That answer is much simpler: they should contain the full rules text. Otherwise, people who depend on the format simply wouldn’t have access to all the same information as everyone else.