Aaron Preece

First published in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) created the tradition of table-top role playing games (RPGs) while also inspiring many other types of media such as video games, books, and films. Table-top role playing games lend themselves naturally to accessibility. The bulk of the game consists of a game or dungeon master (GM or DM) describing a scene to the players and then the players responding with how they would like to act. Dice rolls are made to add a bit of randomness to outcomes. The main barrier to access over the past several decades, with D&D in particular, is access to the game sourcebooks that include the rules. D&D is currently in its 5th edition (5E), but until the current edition, sourcebooks were only available in print. Now D&D ebooks are officially available from the publisher, and other efforts have been made to make the source material accessible to people with visual impairments.

This article details various methods for obtaining the D&D 5th Edition sourcebooks, along with other tools that make the game more accessible. Though I'll will discuss some other accessible RPGs, I'll be focusing on D&D in particular as it is currently the most widespread RPG and the game I have personal experience playing as someone with a visual impairment.

What is D&D?

Before discussing the accessible source materials, it will be useful to define some of the particulars of D&D. D&D provides rules for playing adventure games in a high fantasy setting—think Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Players take on the roles of characters in a party of adventurers, with each player choosing a character race and class. Races include fantasy staples such as humans, elves, dwarves, and goblins. Classes include fantasy archetypes such as Fighter, Rogue, and Sorcerer. The earliest edition of the game focused on exploring the titular dungeons, labyrinths filled with traps, monsters, and treasure. Later editions widened the scope so that it is now possible to play nearly any sort of fantasy story that you can think of using the D&D rules.

As mentioned, D&D and other RPGs use dice rolls to help in determining if the characters are successful. In addition to the standard six-sided die, D&D uses several others including the 20-sided die (D20) and the 10-sided die (D10). Most situations are resolved by rolling the D20 and adding various modifiers based on the character's capabilities. D20 rolls can be made for a number of situations, such as when a character is trying to convince a noble to support their cause, when they are trying to dodge a falling rock, or when they are attempting to swing their axe at an ogre. If you would like to see how this works in practice, this introduction to the D&D basic rules has an example of play.

D&D Accessibility Efforts in the Vision Loss Community

Efforts have been made by the National Library Service Talking Book Program (NLS), Bookshare, and others in the visual impairment community to make the D&D 5E sourcebooks accessible.

National Library Service

Recently, the core rule books for D&D have been made available as part of the NLS talking book program. The core rule books are the Player's Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master's Guide. A player need only read the Player's Handbook while a prospective DM will need all three. I tested these three books using the BARD Mobile app. D&D books often contain many complex tables of information and many different numbers that need to be remembered. I wanted to see if using an audio book would be as viable as using a digital form of the content, where referencing specific details tends to be easier.

When playing D&D, you will be referencing different content throughout the book and not reading it from cover to cover like a traditional text, so I wanted to test the level of access a reader would have to various sections of the book. The books have been marked up with various section types from the main parts of the books. The sectioning ranges from the individual chapters to individual monsters in the case of the Monster Manual. This means that you can quickly adjust the heading level and move to the section you would need. It's not as fast as a digital version, but it is viable.

The books also present the complex information, such as tables and monster statistics, in an understandable way. For tables, the column header is read before each cell of the table, for example, on a monster size table you may hear "Monster size, Medium, Space, 5 feet." I found this allowed me to keep track of where I was in the table without difficulty. I think it would be possible to reference character class tables without issue for players using this book, but if I were a DM, I would most likely want to write down monster details in shorthand either in braille or on a digital device for easier reference.

D&D Sources on Bookshare

There are several D&D books available on Bookshare, though only the Player's Handbook was available for 5E at the time of writing. The other books available on Bookshare are for Advanced D&D, the version that was published in the late 70s and 80s. The Basic D&D rules, published in the 70s and early 80s, are also available. I found that older D&D books were not formatted well, particularly in reference to tables and monster statistics. If you are playing the original version of D&D, I think using these books would be frustrating, but you could try.

The 5E Player's Handbook was formatted properly, meaning that it can easily be used for reference. There are some errors, such as using "L"s instead of "1"s, but otherwise tables were formatted correctly and I never encountered a passage that was unreadable. It looks like the older D&D edition books were added in 2004 while the 5E player's handbook was added in July of this year, most likely explaining the difference in formatting.

Accessiware and Knights of the Braille D&D Resources

The access company Accessiware offers several of the D&D sourcebooks in accessible HTML formats. For legal reasons, these versions of the books do not include information on any of the game content, such as player classes/subclasses, race mechanics, monsters, spells, magic items, and the like. They are formatted well for a screen reader and the Player's Handbook in particular is useful for referencing rules. Most of the other books available will be useful if you are interested in D&D lore since these portions of the original books are included. Links to these books can be found at the Knights of the Braille player resources website. At this same website you'll also find accessible character sheets in Excel format. I have not used the accessible sheet in a game but after reviewing it for this article, I will most likely convert my current character sheets to the new format. The document provides different pages for different aspects of your character. Separating these aspects means that it is much easier to navigate to the area you wish with Excel keyboard shortcuts. I currently use a plain Word document for keeping track of my characters, but it can be cumbersome to find the information I need.

In addition to hosting these resources, Knights of the Braille run several D&D games that they stream live on the Twitch platform. They accept sighted players but the games are aimed at those with vision loss who wish to play. It seems that they are open to new players, so if you are interested in playing, this may be an avenue to find a group. Find more information at the Knights of the Braille website.

DND Beyond, Official D&D Accessible Sourcebook's

As I mentioned, it used to be that if you wanted to play D&D 2nd through 4th editions, you had to purchase and scan your own sourcebooks, which made it more difficult to begin playing. With 5E, the publishers of D&D offer all of their sourcebooks and published adventures for DMs on the DND Beyond platform. DND Beyond can be accessed through their website and through a mobile app. The mobile app also allows you to download purchased sourcebooks for offline reading. DND Beyond also provides various tools for DMs and players, including an online character sheet, but these features are outside of the scope of this article.

There are three main sections on the DND Beyond homepage. The first includes a search box, links to social media, the DND Beyond change log, and your account data. Next is a series of tabs that appear as buttons. The two most important here are the Game Rules and Sources buttons. When you press one of these buttons, their content will appear after this list of buttons and below the links to Forums and New Player Guide. The Game Rules button allows you to find various content easily including races, classes, spells, items, monsters, and more. Content here is based on what you have purchased. For example, on a class page, you will only have access to the subclasses present in the books you have purchased, or the subclasses you have purchased individually. Choosing something you haven't purchased yet will take you to the marketplace where you can buy it. The third section of the page contains the main page content. This can contain the table of contents for a book, a book’s chapter, details on a specific piece of content (monster, spell, class, race, etc.), or other content. When you first load the homepage, there will be a video at the top of this section followed by recent DND Beyond articles.

I only encountered one accessibility issue when in the game rules tab. When I was reviewing content in a table, such as spell lists. It is possible to determine that the content should be in a table, but screen readers do not recognize it. Fortunately, each spell or other item is provided as a link so you can navigate by links to move through the content quickly.

The Sources button displays a list of all the sourcebooks available as well as the published adventures. Basic rules are available for free, but you must purchase the others. Selecting a book will open its table of contents. Each chapter in the book is presented as a heading with subsections listed as links below it. You should be able to select a specific subsection and be taken directly to it, but in my experience you are always taken to the top of the page when the chapter loads. This adds a bit of navigation time but since the chapters and subsections use different heading levels, navigation to a specific point doesn't take overly long.

I have explored various sourcebooks and a few of the published adventures and discovered that all of the text content of the books is accessible and tables are formatted properly. There are images throughout the text, but these do not have labels. In most cases this does not cause any problems; I have only encountered two situations where this could be a problem. In the Monster Manual, the text detailing the monsters doesn't always describe what the monster looks like. I have found this is most often true for the Aberrations, monsters that seem most in need of a description. When reading through adventures, there are maps available when the characters will be exploring a particularly complex environment, such as a cave system or temple. Each part of the environment is detailed in its own section and in some cases, the text details which sections connect to others. For example, one area stated that a climbable stone shoot led from section 1 to section 8. Without the map, the connections between areas aren't always clear. If you are running a published adventure, you could either place uncertain sections in whatever configuration you want, or work with someone sighted to figure out the connections and note these down. To determine the appearance of a monster that is not described, you can find that monster's entry on the Forgotten Realms Wiki as often monster entries have descriptions here even if they don't in the various published bestiaries.

The mobile version of the DND Beyond website is almost identical to the desktop site with less clutter. The same tabs exist on the mobile site but appear as links instead of buttons. Also, these can be swiped to using VoiceOver but do not appear visually unless you double tap on your avatar on the right side of the screen.

The app is also fully accessible. Standard tabs across the bottom of the screen allow access to Sources, Bookmarks, Your Account, and "More" which includes listings for spells, items, and monsters as well as others. The app is helpful if you are looking to read the sourcebooks offline, but the app often has long load times and there is a good deal of extra space in listing entries (spells, monsters, etc.) so I find I only use it when I need to read offline or conserve data.

Playing D&D with a Visual Impairment

I am currently playing characters in three D&D 5E campaigns in person with local sighted friends. The groups with which I play use the Fight Club 5 app for character sheets. This app is not as accessible as DND Beyond but the compendium of content (spells, races, classes, etc.) is quite usable. I found the character sheet aspect of the app to be less accessible so, as mentioned earlier, I currently use a Word document on my laptop to keep track of my characters. Fight Club has content from the basic rules, but you must manually enter information from sourcebooks. It is also possible to export your compendium and share it with others, so if you are asked to use this app, your DM will most likely have created a compendium for use. There are many apps for rolling dice. The easiest way to do so accessibly is to find an online die roller or ask a digital assistant such as Siri or Alexa to do so. There are two dice rolling apps, GMA Dice which is free and for Windows, and Ready to Roll, which is a paid app on iOS. Both of these programs are designed to be accessible and make rolling quick and easy. I personally use braille dice from the DOTS RPG Project. These use the letters K through T to represent numbers 11-20 on the dice. This sounds like it would be confusing but you only need to remember that K through T in braille is just A through J with a dot 3 added. Once I began thinking this way, I have no problem immediately recognizing what I have rolled. The D4 and D6 from DOTS have traditional braille numbers. The company 64 OZ Games also produces a set of braille RPG dice.

So far I have found that the DM of my games provides all of the verbal context I need to play effectively. If he shows the other players a picture of a monster, he will describe it to me. If the players are using miniature figures and a grid to more accurately play out a combat, I find it fairly easy to keep track of enemies in my head and if I want to be sure I don't accidentally drop that fireball on my friends, I tell the players which enemies I want to hit and who I want to be outside of the area effect of a spell. So far, they have been able to tell me if I need to move before performing an action or if the maneuver I have chosen is impossible. Not everyone uses minis and a grid, but when we do, I feel that I can equally contribute to the combat.

The Bottom Line

If you like the idea of an RPG but are not interested in fantasy, there are many other rule sets available for various types of games from spy thrillers to slice of life games on a college campus. My experience has been with D&D 5E so I can't speak to the accessibility of other sourcebooks, but when I have briefly looked at other rule sets, I have found that most offer the rules in a PDF file.

There are a few other rules systems that I can say for sure are accessible. These games have similar mechanics and settings to D&D but have some minor, and major, differences.

There are many who appreciate the feel of the original editions of D&D from the 70s and 80s. This movement is called the Old School Revival, and there are many rules systems that aim to simulate a game similar to early D&D. If you are seeking an accessible version of these rules, I would recommend exploring the rules for the Basic Fantasy RPG Rules for this system are presented in accessible PDF and Open Document Text (ODT) for use with the Open Office word processor. The PDFs are tagged properly and tables are coded correctly, making these rules easy to read for a screen reader user.

The main competitor to D&D is called Pathfinder. This system is based on the D&D 3.5 edition rules and offers the rules for free in an accessible format. The Pathfinder 2nd Edition was just released in August and appears to streamline the rules while departing further from its D&D roots. Pathfinder also has a science fiction/science fantasy variant called Starfinder.

If you want to try D&D 5E but want to avoid spending on the sourcebooks before you know if you will enjoy the game, the Basic Rules, linked previously, have everything you need. The rules give you access to all of the core D&D races, all of the classes, one subclass for each class, many spells, and a good selection of monsters.

D&D has risen in popularity significantly over the past several years and its beneficial aspects are also being recognized. This short documentary explores D&D's popularity and benefits. If you are interested in seeing a D&D game in action, there are many who podcast or stream their games. The most well-known is arguably Critical Role, a game played by various voice actors. A good introduction to game play is this video in which Critical Role DM, Matthew Mercer, takes Stephen Colbert through a solo D&D adventure.

I was thrilled when I finally had the opportunity to play a table-top RPG. It was everything I could have imagined, and the most fun I have every week. I believe that what makes D&D so special is the social aspect. You are spontaneously creating this epic story with your friends. In addition, it is a fantastic way to meet new people and increase your social engagement. When I began playing, I knew one other player in our group but found that the game made it easy to meet others with similar interests in a comfortable setting. No matter the game, whether it has hundreds of rules or just a few, table-top role playing games are like no other experience.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Aaron Preece
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Product Evaluations and Guides