Tabletop RPG rulebooks can be beautiful and accessible
One-page dungeons or calling card RPGs can be short versions that have just the right length to see if your layout is too weird. Ditto for entries in game jams– timed game design contests often held on the itch.io indie game marketplace. If you still design a less accessible rulebook after this trial, don’t worry: you can always publish another version.
The case of multiple rulebooks
The two-version version goes by several names: Seger refers to it as printable/artbook files. TTRPG accessibility consultant Yubi describes them as simplistic/stylized. Whatever the name, the release of an experimental version and a more accessible version allows designers and players to get the best of both worlds. It also sets a precedent for republishing accessible texts, which may inspire publishers to backdate rulebooks from years ago and do better after launch (similar to how video games are fixed for accessibility, balance, and community feedback). Ashley Warren, director of the Storytelling Collective, an online program that teaches TTRPG design through the RPG Writer Workshop, has seen the industry change for the better. For the best examples of accessible design and leading designers, she recommends using freelance online designers like North Star.
“I really think a lot of the best accessibility work happens in the indie publishing community, where a lot of TTRPG creators publish accessible mods for itch.io“, says Warren. “They’re the ones making industry-wide change.” At least 6,000 people have participated in the RPG Writer Workshop’s accessibility lesson since its debut in 2018, and their Discord channel is full of designers checking everyone’s accessible design Questions like “How will screen readers handle the Roman numerals?” or “Can we swap out the alt text of our battle cards and see if we can recreate from the descriptions?” pepper the chat alongside GIFs and words of encouragement.
When I sat down to dream up my TTRPG rulebook, I knew I wanted a grainy zine-like PDF full of garbled text, ornamental borders, and public domain 1950s cartoons. It was overwhelming to plan, let alone read as a player. But the questions I had about accessibility were equally overwhelming: were my design attempts going to be enough? Did releasing two versions force players to watch a splashy zine or a spartan roster? Was I thinking about all kinds of accessibility issues? Luckily, the freelance accessibility scene is a lot more forgiving than I had imagined.
“There will never be a single document accessible to all. It’s impossible. You can never plan for every accessibility issue – there will be accessibility issues that we don’t think about today that will be really important six months, a year, five years, 10 years from now,” says Yubi, hinting towards new technologies, even long COVID symptoms such as memory and concentration issues.” Just being able to offer choice, to offer options, I think that’s really powerful.”
Yubi, like many of the consultants and experts I’ve interviewed, returned to the refrain of “don’t let perfection get in the way of the good”, as well as the recognition that game designers do their best when it comes to the publication. As TTRPG designers form closer bonds, usually through the online freelance world, they can hold each other to a higher level. I thought I had perfected my zine’s color palette until a fellow designer linked me to a web accessibility tool to check the contrast of the text against the background colors and their readability. I’m back to the drawing board, but I learned something along the way. Every year more accessibility resources like this are released and more consultants are taking calls to ensure games can reach as wide an audience as possible.
Sometimes the required accessibility fix can come as a surprise to everyone involved. Part of Joe DeSimone’s job at The Academy of Games, a games-based consulting company, is to organize TTRPG events, such as team building activities. In the spring of 2020, one of the Dungeons & Dragons teambuilding campaigns he was leading delighted everyone in the adventuring party for every adventure except one player. DeSimone could tell she wanted to be interested, but “the material, the style of play, even a traditional character sheet was not for them,” he says. He suspects it was because D&D has a 300-page rulebook, and he was the kind of person who wanted a full rundown of the entire book, even if their adventure only applied to a few. short pages. So DeSimone started a solo session with her, where instead of playing D&D, they tried Honey Casse, a one-page TTRPG about being a bear and stealing things.
“She looked at the PDF and said ‘I can do this,'” DeSimone explains. “It was day and night.” She started playing, now much more comfortable, and quickly returned to the basic session. For this new player, her accessibility concern was not the graphic design of the rulebook, but the impending scale of information inside the book. As more empathetic game masters and designers notice issues like his and work to resolve them with marked-up PDFs, easy-to-read tables, and welcoming text and artwork, the reach of TTRPGs can be extended to millions of new players.
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