A month into designing my tabletop role-playing game supplement, I realized I would have to design it twice: once for maximalism and once for accessibility. Although it would have the same core information—campaigns for role-playing sessions, framing information to help the game master, and random tables to generate loot or improvisational monsters—the way that information was presented should radically change.
Since TTRPGs are centered in the players’ imagination and decision-making around the table, there’s frequently much less equipment or paraphernalia than in other games—sometimes just a pen, paper, and a book to explain the rules to games like Shadowrun, Blades in the Dark, or Dungeons & Dragons. Rule books act as tomes, bibles to understand the game’s setting, goals, and order of play. Written supplements act as expansions or additional missions to venture on. They’re cracked open frequently to prepare for an intense game, and again during it, and many are wonderfully laid out for ease of reading, such as those for Mothership and Wanderhome.
Many of today’s TTRPG designers create both the writing and layout for a role-playing rule book digitally. This gives them more power than ever to create unique rule books—with a suite of tools or goodies to draw from, including map generators, paper texture packs, and nearly illegible medieval fonts.
But when you continually layer art and text, pages can get overwhelming and difficult to parse for experienced tabletop gamers—much less gamers with barriers to entry, such as new players or those with disabilities. Are the fonts dyslexia-friendly? Can an audiobook version be released alongside the game? Is all text tagged for those who use screen readers, like people with sight difficulties? Accessible design is good design. As TTRPG rule books become more experimental and artistic, there is a legion of designers, consultants, and playtesters fighting for good design, not of fantastical worlds or campaigns, but of the pages those stories are printed on.
TTRPGs Should Take Place in Labyrinthian Dungeons, Not Look Like Them
A TTRPG rule book can be designed with accessibility in mind in every aspect. It’s more than just selecting a good font. If text is spaced too tightly, the density of characters and lines can make it hard to track your progress in-line or on the page—it’s tough to identify a tree when overwhelmed by a forest. Formatting columns incorrectly can make screen readers read the text in the wrong order, a problem a sighted person could overlook during layout.
Because there are so many types of colorblindness, important colored sections of rule books should be notated in a secondary way: Differently colored player tokens, for example, could vary in texture or shape as well. Writer Adira Slattery has anomalous trichromacy, a red-green color blindness that makes it impossible to read rule books without enough color contrast, such as green text on a teal background. Her favorite games for colorblind accessibility include Dream Askew / Dream Apart, which uses colors in ways that don’t distract from the text, Lancer, which separates and orients text in a superbly clear way, and Beyond the Rift, which does have the harder-to-read white text on black backgrounds but includes buttons on digital editions to invert the entire rule book’s color scheme, perfect for Slattery.
For disabled designer and writer Basil Wright, looking at vivid images for more than a few seconds can cause a headache because of nearsightedness, leading them to question—does this image need to be in the rule book? Wright also points to the positioning of text. “I've looked at a few adventures where the writing will start at the top left corner but then take a circuitous path throughout the page, which can cause a lot of mental fatigue and increase the level of effort to comprehend the text.”
Labyrinthian layouts can be fun for players to explore on their own time, but can you imagine searching for a spell description mid-battle in a rule book that looks less like a mage manual and more like the bizarrely laid out nonlinear novel House of Leaves or the dense sermonic Dr. Bronner’s soap label?
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“Our brain's cognitive processing can only truly hold like 3-5 things in our working memory at a time,” says Amber Seger, manager of graphic instructions for a child safety company and TTRPG graphic designer. “When we look at a spread, you should be thinking about those 3-5 elements. You've got your text, you’ve got illustration, and then you’ve got a piece of art.” With any more than that, they warn, designers are inching toward overwhelming players with each page.
Character sheets are an especially information-dense part of everyday play that might be referred to multiple times a minute: They can list everything from carrying capacity to players’ driving motivation to how many arrows remain in their quiver. Despite their role as constant reference documents, they can get messy, fast. Seger has seen a lot of bulky, unwieldy character sheets throughout their years. On their blog, they created a three-part series redesigning character sheets with accessibility in mind.
In Seger’s experience, a lot of designers suffer from “seductive detailing”—the urge to fill white space with doodles, gifs, and flavor text that doesn’t ultimately teach readers the rules of the game. “If it isn't critical and adding to the learning experience, it really does detract from the overall,” they say.
Cutting out the unnecessary and delineating different sections of any part of the rule book tends to create a more spartan, streamlined spread with a ton of white space. That’s helpful but can raise player suspicion. TTRPG graphic designer The Lone Archivist notes that players can accuse books of “page bloat,” where they might feel tricked that their 300-page rule book has 50 pages of white space spread throughout it. If they spent $50 on a hefty rule book and a collective sixth of it doesn’t have information, they could feel frustrated about not getting their money's worth. But if those pages are well designed, readers likely need that distributed white space to understand the rest of the text.
In recent years, the indie TTRPG scene has seen the aesthetics and visions of rule books balloon out from the traditional format of text columns, lists and tables, and monster statistics. We’ve seen rule books incorporate dozens of “found” letters and archival documents, theme their art around Grecian pottery, and design pages in the style of early revolutionary constructivist art. That’s not to say any of these more experimental formats is less accessible—oftentimes their use of familiar media makes them easier for new players to jump into—but it does mean there are now dozens of cutting-edge ways rule books can be designed, and not all of them might be hits.
Rule book layouts often have a boring layout/“beautiful prog-rock-poster” dichotomy, according to graphic designer Dai Shugars, whose work specializes in book production. He sees a deep need for a happy medium between the two: something readable, accessible, and artful all at the same time. The Lone Archivist thinks the indie scene’s experimental culture makes it possible to probe these mediums without significant commitment.
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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 itch.io. 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 itch.io,” 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 DeSimone’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. DeSimone 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 DeSimone 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,’” DeSimone 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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