Assistive technology is an amazing thing. I used to tell friends that for a large part of human history, careers for the blind were restricted to beggar, musician or soothsayer. That’s a fair bit of hyperbole, but by and large a wide swath of everyday occupations and leisurely pursuits were entirely closed off to people with even a minor visual impairment. But then came one leap forward after another in the world of computing and soon software existed that could read printed text aloud, turn computer output into spoken feedback and provide access to information in a coherent and digestible form. I graduated from law school in the top 5% of my class, record and produce a podcast enjoyed by literally dozens of people and make a nuisance of myself on social media just like anyone else. We truly live in a golden age. On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I thought it would be useful to describe some of the tools I use to (effectively) run tabletop role-playing games online and in person as part of TRF.
First of all, we need to discuss what problems a visually impaired GM has to deal with. First there are the books, it’s hard to run a game without access to game rules, examples of system mechanics, scenario seeds and the like. Then there are tools, dice, tokens, assorted other counters and bits for which one must find replacements in order to make the game run. Depending on the setting, you may also have tools for communication, be they chat client or pieces of scrap paper to transmit information either publicly or privately to players. Lastly, there is a need for a means of recording what is happening or has happened to prevent you from shifting the reality your characters inhabit every time you open your mouth.
For much of the history of the printed word, books posed a somewhat fundamental barrier to entry for blind people for somewhat obvious reasons. Aside from having someone read the book to you, there really weren’t many options. And when was the last time you read a paragraph of game rules for the first time and got every bit of the text down in a single pass? Imagine having to process an entire page that way, or a chapter. When I was in law school, I would have to rely on human readers for about a month each semester until publishers delivered accessible versions of my books. Picture if you will someone with no legal training reading a case about real property from 1816 to you for thirty minutes. Being introduced to character creation second-hand can feel a lot like that.
I’ve already tipped my hand as to what I can do to make this work. “Accessible formats,” are those I can independently read and understand with the aid of assistive technology. With a scanner or document camera and optical character recognition software, I can technically make any print book accessible, but having a properly formatted, electronic text document to start with is a vast improvement. DrivethruRPG is a godsend for people like me. Publishers who make their titles available in formats other than PDF like epub meant specifically for eReaders with proper indexing and bookmarking are my heroes. I can’t describe to you how overjoyed I was when I heard that the original Delta Green books were being made available through DTRPG a few years back.
Now, these files are still visual media. How do I make them work for me? You probably encounter more text-to-speech technology in your life than you realize. Anytime you hear a computerized voice giving you instructions at a parking garage, airport, public building or the like, you’re likely hearing a synthesizer reading a block of text from a database somewhere. The tools I use are pretty much the same.
One thing to understand about assistive tech is that it’s often very expensive. Using proprietary technologies or intended for a relatively small audience, software packages are usually designed with the goal of being licensed to institutions or sold to the government for the use of people undergoing vocational rehabilitation. I received a copy of Kurzweil 1000 to read law school textbooks more than a decade ago and use it for everything I can to eke out as much value from the $1000 purchase price the state dropped on it for me. It’s a versatile application that got its start as a tool for converting images acquired by flatbed scanners into speech. It now does a great job of performing the same function for PDFs. With it, I can scan a PDF, correct any recognition errors and save an easily navigable text document that I can easily consult for any bit of game trivia.
QRead and VoiceDream Reader
One of the great developments in recent years in the realm of software for the blind is the increasing availability of more economical solutions for accessibility needs. These include open source initiatives like the free NVDA screen reader and apps for Windows from individual developers that provide much of Kurzweil’s functionality at a fraction of the price. These apps don’t perform OCR on a document, but instead pull the text from the file: they can’t work with images. What they excel at however is quickly opening books and providing quick navigation through their contents. I often use these programs depending on platform to do a skim of scenarios before running them through Kurzweil for use when I actually run the game.
Dice, Tokens and the Fiddly Bits
What’s an RPG without dice? Well, it could be a diceless RPG, but that’s neither here nor there. To play most RPGs, you’ll need some sort of random number generator. When I was first starting out with RPGs, this meant dice rolling apps. I used a fair number, trying to find the best mix of accessibility and functionality: for blind users, this can often be a moving target as app features and resulting interface accessibility can fluctuate from version to version.
Board games for blind people thrived as a niche market for many years before RPG accessibility was contemplated in any form. Braille versions of Monopoly exist for instance. To this end, a few companies make tactile d6s to support these games and to enable people to keep playing with their families as their vision degrades. In 2014 however, two kickstarters came along that provided the prospect of Braille dice. My favorites can now be purchased from Shapeways and have served me well in many a campaign for the last two years.
For the other bits, tokens like chips and other markers, we’ve substituted any number of random objects. Anything will do so long as it’s distinguishable by feel. We’ve used marbles of different size, little decorative pebbles and fake gems.
When we started TRF, online video chat was a pain. We used Hangouts for the most part, and it worked most of the time. I found it easiest to connect using an iPhone and then record audio with the computer for later assembly. Now we use Zencastr and all I have to do is show up.
As far as the secret communications go, Hangouts works well, so long as I remember to keep it open.
Notes can pose a challenge because it’s one more thing on the desktop. If I’m using Kurzweil, I open an extra blank document and type notes into that or add to the notes I’ve already prepped for the session. If I’m running things out of QRead, I use a notepad document.
Running Games in Person
When I’ve run games in person – usually at conventions – I’ve taken a different tack. I save the scenario I’m running and notes I’ve taken as a word document, open it using the iPhone version of Pages and just scroll through it as needed. Braille dice work just as well there as in front of the computer.
So that’s my process. It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, but it gets the job done. I’d love to hear any suggestions you might have and of course welcome any questions.