Accessibility in Tabletop Gaming

As a special education teacher, and a GM I have been muddling over this questions for a while – how do you include all your players at the table? I had the joy of presenting this panel at three conventions this past year: Emerald City Comicon 2017, PAX West 2017 and Geek Girl Con 2017.  This post documents many of the things we discussed during the panels, and feel free to comment with your own thoughts or questions!

Quick note for those using screen readers, the text on the images is being described throughout this article, there should be no information on the images that is not also included in text.  Please comment if you have concerns and I will happily provide additional information!

Panelists: Adam Davis, Casey Middaugh, Daniel Gray, and Lauren Bond.

The goal of the panel was to identify ways to ensure friends, family members, students and others with disabilities can participate when playing tabletop games.

Before I delve deeper into this question, I want to preface the discussion: as an able bodied individual many of the experiences and concerns I will discuss are not ones I have dealt with personally.  The strategies and thoughts I will be sharing have come from discussion with individuals with disabilities, as well as my training as a special education teacher for working with kids with disabilities.  Ultimately the players at your table will know what works best for them and their specific situations.

Also I endevour to use person first language in this post (which I recognize is a debate issue in many communities).  If you are commenting on this article I ask that you do the same.

In special education we talk about accommodations and modifications, which are two useful categories when thinking about how to help players at your table. Accommodations change how a player accesses the game while they are still fundamentally playing the same game, modifications would be changing the content of the game or the game itself so players can access it.

The first step when talking about accessibility, should always be talking to your players, do they know of things they might need to access your game? Maybe they know about things they struggle with but are not sure how to solve the problem at your table. Listen to their concerns and ideas, be open to having a conversation.  It is important to not presume they need or want something different.

The hope is that by thinking about these things preemptively, those who are able bodied can take some of the burden of asking off those who need accommodations. Constantly having to ask for what you need can be exhausting and tiring and take valuable social energy, if we can already be thinking about the needs of our friends, then hopefully everyone can have a better gaming experience.  At the panels Adam talked about remembering that the reason we play games is to play, and ideally to have fun, if that isn’t happening for everyone then check-in and consider trying something different.

So with all the preamble, let’s talk about some ideas for various disbility concerns.

Physical Access

This includes fine motor,  gross motor, and mobility concerns. When thinking about players who may have these disabilities there are some important issues to think about. 

  • Where are you playing?
    • Is the location accessible for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility assistance devices?
    • Are there a lot of stairs to get to the location, or other obstacles?
    • How far away is the location? Can everyone get there easily?
  • What motor skills are needed?
    • Does the game need manipulation of lots of small objects? Can these objects be replaced with something less fiddly?
    • Are there lots of cards to hold, can they be in a holder?
    • Can you use technology to replace physical objects?

The images on the slide above show a number of concerns and options for mobility. For example accessibility tools from dice rolling apps to simple homemade paper card holders may be useful for many players.  Again this goes back to the core tenant of talking with your friends, they can tell you if something like this will help them to enjoy the game, if it won’t then consider finding a different game. It also shows an example of the game Ticket to Ride which requires a lot of manual dexterity, it is possible if they struggle with fine motor skills they won’t enjoy having to ask someone to place their trains on the board during the game, or maybe they won’t mind at all. Talk to them!

Sensory Access

This includes, hearing and vision loss/disabilities, as well as potentially other senses like touch.

  • Sound
    • Where are you playing?
      • Is there too much background chatter that might make it hard to hear people or participate, or just take a lot more energy to do so?
      • Is there enough light for people who use sign or lip reading?
    • How much talking or communicating does the game need during play?
  • Vision
    • Are the colors visually district for those with color blindness? Do you need to swap out pieces?
    • How big are the fonts, or how much visual clutter to cards/boards have? Do they need to be marked up to make them easier to process?

The images on the slide above show concerns for players with sensory disabilities. For example it shows playing in a crowded game store, it can be important to consider does the location provide good listening and visual conditions for players.  Additionally, there is am image from that examines what game tokens look like for those with various forms of color blindness and another image of a card with a lot of visual clutter. In these instances it may be important to use different tokens for the game instead of the colors provided if a player is color blind, and/or printing, making or altering your own cards if the ones that come with the game have too much visual clutter.  Similarly, ensuring players have access to assistive devices, this can sometimes be as simple as using their phone as a magnifying glass, “no phones at the table” may not always be a good rule.

Emotional/Social Access

This include mental health and social concerns like depression, anxiety, PTSD, Autism Spectrum, cognitive concerns like memory loss and many other disabilities.

  • What is the content of the game?
    • Table top RPGs can often delve into complex and emotionally charged content.  Ensure your group has a way of dealing with these situations that supports the well being of everyone.
      • “Pulling down the screen” or “fading to black” are useful narrative tools to skip over uncomfortable moments like a torture or sex scenes.  Allowing the player and GM to not have to describe things that might be unpleasant for them and others.
      • “White list/ black list” or “lines and pallets” are useful to establish upfront in a game, things that players and the GM do or do not want to have in a game.  Establishing content that people do not want to have in a game is very important up front.  If people want no sexual violence (though that may be a given!) addressing it before play starts can be a great tool to ensure the emotional well-being of all players.
      • X Card, is a tool to use in a moment, players tap of lift the card or even just say “X card” to negate or undo what just happened.  Maybe a particularly gory description by the GM or a sexual advance they did not want.  Without asking or having to explain the group backtracks the story and continues on.
    • Build in breaks, having breaks in any play session is important, and allows people to take space from the table and not be a character or be focused on what is happening.  Focusing for more than 30 to 45 minutes at a time can be exhausting and difficult.  Building in breaks allows people to care for themselves without missing game time.
    • Competitive or Cooperative games? Some people struggle with competition, maybe consider playing cooperative games like Hanbi, pandemic etc…
    • Themes or content of the game may not be pleasant for everyone? For example I struggle with a lot of anxiety and often struggle with horror content, I appreciate it a lot when my friends check in that I will be OK with a particular game based on it’s theme and content.
    • Complexity of the rules? Reading level?
      • When playing a new game consider how people best learn.  Some might want to look at the game ahead of time, or read the rule book, or have a play-as-you-go learning experience.  Others may not want to learn a new game in certain settings.
      • The complexity and reading level of the book can impede some people from playing, or similarly the cognitive memory burden can make game play hard for many.

There are a number of examples of games and tools in the slide posted above.  One images shows an example of the D&D 5E players guide, which has a high reading level and a lot of text that may be difficult for players with memory or reading disabilities.  There is an example of a cooperative game called Hanabi that can be a great option for groups or individuals who struggle with competitive games.  On the other end of the spectrum there is in image of Cards Against Humanity, which is an example of a game that can make many people uncomfortable, and is worth considering if this is the best game to play with your group of friends so that everyone is happy. And lastly, there is an example of an X card, a great tool to use in an RPG setting where complex and often emotional topics can come up.

And again talk! With all things everyone will have different needs and concerns, and being able to help your friends get those things will allow everyone how have a better gaming experience!

Resources and Additional Information

We didn’t talk too much in the panel about some forms of disabilities that might cover a broad scope, such as chronic pain or fatigue.  Much like the major groupings we did discuss, it comes down to talking with your friends, asking them and offering ideas and solutions without placing all the work on them to make gaming accessible. I hope you can all go forward thinking about the needs of your friends and being ready to create more fun and inclusive gaming experiences.

I would recommend checking out a few different online resources for additional information and conversations in this area:

  • Meeple Like Us: a great website that provides accessibility breakdowns of a large number of table top board games.
  • Game Accessibility Guidelines: mostly aimed at developers, but it can give some good guidelines for what makes something accessible
  • 64 Ounce Games: braille add-on stickers for many table top games