For this issue, we’re starting with a follow-up question to one that was asked last time around. Understanding the first question isn’t mandatory, but if you’re curious you can go back to Issue 7 (January 2022) for Patrick Farrell’s initial question.
Patrick Farrell asks
I know there are a variety of articles that talk about making PDFs more accessible, but it still seems TTRPG makers shy away from it. How much harder was it to add Vision Layers in your PDF, and how much extra time did it take for layout with the different fonts?
Todd Crapper’s answer:
While there hasn’t been much evidence in greater accessibility in the past, I have seen evidence that publishers are looking to improve. Since I started actively promoting vision layers two years ago, I have seen more interest and desire amongst publishers to increase their accessibility… they just aren’t sure what’s needed. More exposure and a greater variety of products will help, but it’s only when a highly accessible product becomes noticed and sells incredibly well will we start to see TTRPG publishers actively try on their own.
As the effort involved, it depends. To build a new layout file with vision layers, it’s definitely much easier than adding them to an existing product. However, even that depends. For just over a year, I’ve been struggling to update TimeWatch (a 400-page PDF) with vision layers and confronting numerous errors and file crashes because of how the files were built, which was not with the intention of adding optional layers. It’s not built “wrong,” just like it’s not wrong to build a deck with twice as many nails; it just takes longer to take that deck apart and rebuild. Yet I was contracted to add vision layers to the new superhero RPG, Ascendant, which has 500 pages and those have so far been flawlessly adapted in just a few hours. So it really, really depends on the cleanliness and organization of the original layout file.
For AGQ, each issue is built with vision layers in mind. The first issue is always the hard one, mostly because of the font layers. Because AGQ is not written with elaborate presentations, icons, glyphs, or even that many tables in each issue, this only takes about another hour or so to switch up the text into two additional font layers. Of course, none of that happens until the original text and images are approved and locked in stone.
When trying to be inclusive, should one avoid common statements like “you are standing in front of a monster” – some can’t stand – “something moves in the corner of your eye” – some can’t see, etc. Is it painful for people with disabilities to read those, or actually fine?
When we’re consciously trying to be inclusive, it’s important to consider these types of questions. The thing about inclusive language is that each person finds different things offensive or off-putting, and unless you come out and ask for peoples’ individual preferences (and then try to really learn them) it can be difficult to know what the answer is.
We often default to using language that society at large has unconsciously trained us to use. Phrases like “stand tall” and “look at that” aren’t necessarily harmful or wrong, but they also don’t consider individual differences in peoples’ abilities.
As I blind person, I don’t personally find it offensive or hurtful when someone says “look at this” or when a GM says “you see a giant, hulking monster looming over you.” I suppose I have my own unconscious way of filling in the blanks and I’m as much a product of my society as anyone else. I do, however, think we can do better.
When writing text for a game or narrating a scene to our players, let’s try to use multiple senses to describe a scene. Let’s also come up with a way to describe actions without relying on one type of physical ability. We can u se words that mean similar things but apply to a variety of situations.
To take examples from the original question:
- Instead of “you stand in front of a monster,” we can say something like “you find yourself in front of a monster.”
- Instead of “you see something move out of the corner of your eye,” you can say something like “you detect movement nearby.”
These examples use more inclusive language and leave the situation open to interpretation. How do you find yourself in front of the monster? What sense(s) did you use to detect the nearby movement?
Naturally, you can tailor these things to suit your players and their characters. Don’t feel the need to always use broad terms to describe a situation if you’re speaking directly to a player or character who has a certain sense or ability. When writing for a game, try to describe the scene with multiple senses in mind, rather than no senses in mind, and allow the GM and players to interact with the world in the way that suits them best.
angela quidam asks:
What do contributors of the zine think of disabilities used as “character creation points”? Such as Vampire in which we can choose a disability to gain more skill points?
(Question inspired by the Addressing ableism articles by Fay Onyx)
My thoughts on this topic were shaped several years ago by an article I read by Elsa Sjunneson (@snarkbat on Twitter). I was unable to track down the specific article, but the main point was this: disabilities aren’t flaws, drawbacks, or faults. They shouldn’t be treated as a game mechanic that only serves to give you more points to buy better character traits. They certainly shouldn’t be minimalized or erased by powers and abilities that negate their effects. Lastly, we need to re-evaluate the language we use to describe disabilities.
Just about anyone reading this is probably familiar with the character Daredevil from Marvel Comics. He’s a normal (i.e., non-super powered) human being who went blind as a child. As a result of being blinded, his hearing became hyper-sensitive and now he has the very-much-not-super-powered ability to echolocate and hear minute details from great distances.
In game terms, he took “Flaw: Blind” which gave him enough points to pick up “Boon: Echolocate.” His ability to hear like a bat generally reduces his need to rely on a blind cane and replaces his ability to see, thus erasing the Blind flaw.
Daredevil’s disability is treated as little more than a trope and reinforces a harmful stereotype that blind people have enhanced senses. When we play TTRPGs with similar game mechanics, we tend to create characters like this.
Furthermore, using words like “Flaw” or “Drawback” to describe disabilities is offensive at best. I’ll grant that these words are used to describe any negative character trait, but then we lump disabilities in with other negative character traits which again reinforces harmful stereotypes. By doing this, we’re saying “disabilities are always bad” and “disabled people are less than.”
When I started writing Survival of the Able, the survival horror game about disabled people overcoming a zombie plague, I specifically set out to create a game that avoided these tropes. Disabilities are not treated as game mechanics in any way, yet all characters in the game are disabled. I designed mechanics that modelled the spectrum of human senses, treated people as a sum of their motivations and personalities (not their physical abilities), and gave characters the ability to choose any available skill regardless of who they are.
Designing Survival of the Able has given me a lot of tools to discuss disability in terms of game mechanics in a different way. I have caried these tools forward into other game designs, and the freely-available System Reference Document (SRD) version of the rules can be studied and used by anyone who wants to incorporate similar techniques in their games.
In short, the way I feel about game mechanics that treat disabilities as flaws is simple: I think they are dated and could use an upgrade. The games that use them are not necessarily bad or wrong, but they harken back to a time when people weren’t considering the impact of their language and rules. Now it’s time for the industry to move past that and start producing games which include everyone.
Do you have a question you would like to have answered in Accessible Gaming Quarterly? Let us know in the comments. ????