Tabletop RPG Rule Books Can Be Beautiful and Accessible

One-page dungeons or business card RPGs can be short releases that are just the right length to see if your layout is too weird. Same for entries into game jams—timed game design contests often hosted on indie gaming marketplace If you still design a less-accessible rule book after this trial run, do not fret: You can always just release another version.

The Case for Multiple Rule Books

The two-version release has gone by a few names: Seger refers to it as print-friendly/artbook files. TTRPG accessibility consultant Yubi describes them as simplistic/stylized. Whatever the name, releasing 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 rereleasing accessible texts, which can inspire publishing houses to backdate rule books from years ago and do better after launch (similar to how video games are patched 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 the designers leading the charge, she recommends using online indie creators as the north star.

“I really think a lot of the best accessibility work is taking place in the independent publishing community, where a lot of TTRPG creators publish accessible modules to,” Warren says. “Those are the ones effecting industrywide change.” At least 6,000 people have taken part in the RPG Writer Workshop’s accessibility lesson since it began in 2018, and their Discord channel is full of designers checking each others’ accessible design. Questions like “How will screenreaders handle Roman numerals?” or “Can we trade alt-text of our battle maps and see if we can recreate it from descriptions?” pepper the chat alongside GIFs and words of encouragement.

When I sat down to envision my TTRPG rule book, I knew I wanted a gritty zine-like PDF full of distorted text, ornamental borders, and 1950s cartoons that had lapsed into the public domain. It was overwhelming to plan, much less read as a player. But just as overwhelming were the questions I had around accessibility: Were my design attempts going to be enough? Was releasing two versions siloing players into either viewing a splashy zine or a spartan list? Was I thinking about every single kind of accessibility concern? Thankfully, the indie accessibility scene is much more forgiving than I had imagined.

“There’s never going to be one document that is accessible to everyone. That’s impossible. You can never plan for every single accessibility issue—there are going to be accessibility issues that we don’t think about today that are going to be really important in six months, a year, five years, 10 years,” explains Yubi—hinting toward new technologies, or even symptoms of long COVID such as memory and concentration problems. “Just being able to provide a choice, to provide options, I think is really powerful.”

Yubi, like many of the consultants and experts I interviewed, returned to the refrain of “don’t let perfect get in the way of good,” as well as the acknowledgment that game designers are trying their best at the time of publication. As TTRPG designers form closer bonds, usually through the online indie world, they can hold each other to a higher standard. I thought I had my zine’s color scheme perfected until a fellow designer linked me to a web accessibility tool to check the contrast of text on 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 that are published, and more consultants are taking calls to make sure games can reach as large an audience as possible.

Sometimes, the accessibility fix required can surprise everyone involved. Part of Joe DeSimo’s job at The Academy of Games, a games-based consulting firm, is to host TTRPG events, such as company team-building activities. In spring 2020, one of the teambuilding Dungeons & Dragons campaigns he was running had everyone in the adventuring party stoked for each adventure—except for one player. DeSimo could tell she wanted to be interested, but “the material, the style of play, even a traditional character sheet wasn’t for them,” he says. He suspects it was because D&D has a 300-page rule book, and this was the kind of person who wanted a comprehensive overview of the entire book—even if their adventure only applied to a few short pages. So DeSimo started a solo session with her, where instead of playing D&D they tried Honey Heist, a one-page TTRPG about being a bear and stealing things.

“She looked at the PDF, and went ‘I can do this,’” DeSimo says. “It was night and day.” She started playing, now significantly more comfortable, and soon returned to the core session. For this new player, her accessibility concern wasn’t the graphic design of the rule book, but the looming scale of the information inside the book. As more empathetic gamemasters and designers notice concerns like hers, and move to fix them with the help of tagged PDFs, easy-to-read tables, and welcoming text and art, the reach of TTRPGs can be expanded to millions of new players.

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