Moving Target – Making Character Sheets Accessible in Play

When working to make the tabletop experience more accessible for someone with a visual impairment, some obstacles might be more prominent than others. For instance, many people gravitate towards that repository of essential information, the character sheet: but a bigger problem arises when you dig a little deeper and realize many of the items on such a sheet are inherently mutable. Since so many of them are subject to change, even an accessible version, such as one printed out in Braille or large print may not fully duplicate the experience. This is a problem Megan and I have given some thought to over the years and what follows are some of the suggestions we’ve worked out.

First, a discussion of making character sheets accessible will probably help ground this conversation. For most of the time I’ve been gaming, Megan and I have prepared plain text character sheets for any visually impaired players who might be joining our groups. This offers the most versatile accommodation as it can then be accessed by desktop or mobile screen reader or magnifier, or output to a Braille display. If the facilities are available, it’s also usually the easiest starting point for creating a Braille document suitable for printing using a Braille embosser or using enlarged font. So, in essence, we can make the sheet bigger, talk, or tactile. The problem once again is that once play begins, the values on the sheet aren’t likely to remain static for long.

One of our favorite systems around here is Monte Cook’s Cypher System. This rule set elegantly measures characters’ health and abilities together in three or more stat pools. These fluctuate frequently during play and can affect what a character can and cannot do. During our Mysteries of the Ninth World campaign for The Redacted Files, Megan happened on an easy way of tracking these pools. After a trip to Target and the local craft store, we had three trays suitable for microwaving leftovers, and three different kinds of filler for decorative vases. Each tray had a large main compartment and a smaller one to the side. At the start of the game, I would simply count out the number of points and put them in the smaller tray. The system had the benefit of allowing me to close the tray at the end of a session and easily return for the next game knowing the state of my pools.

A green abacus with green and white beads

Another problem presented itself when I found myself on the other side of the table and had to track the health of multiple creatures during combat. A few stats per character is one thing, but what about when you had six mobs to keep tabs on? At that point, I hit on the idea of using an Abacus to count points. This application is definitely one that calls for a heavy abacus, one with beads that don’t move around without real force behind them.

A variety of bump dots in different sizes, shapes, and colors.

Now however, you also have modifiers to consider, such as energy drain damage, fatigue or other conditions that alter one’s attributes.For a game where this sort of variation is likely to occur, I would suggest investing in tactile bump dots or stickers to place alongside the attribute in question that can be removed when the condition no longer applies. If the sheet is single-sided and can be placed on some sort of cork or rubber backing, pins or thumb tacks could also be used instead.

With our purchase of a Braille embosser, Megan and I have started considering these sorts of techniques once again as I ponder the ways we can make playing and running games more accessible for me and  our visually impaired friends. If you have any ideas or other thoughts, please share them in the comments or on Twitter.

Aser is a visually impaired attorney and assistive technology instructor that started playing RPGs shortly before the podcast's founding. He ran our games of The Strange and Night's Black Agents, and is an advocate for accessibility in gaming. His gaming interests tend towards mythos horror, investigation, espionage, and military role-playing games.

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