Dark Arts of Nerdery: DMing DnD5, as a non sighted DM
So this last week-end I tried, for the first time, to DM Dungeons and Dragons, fifth edition. These are some thoughts on DMing DnD5, non sighted (but for seing players).
I am, personally, an “old school” role player. For me it has always been about the actual “role”-part, or even “playing” as in “playing games”. Not playing as in “reading and lawyering rules”. Even before I was blind, I totally hated any “counting squares” element and/or endless tables reading.
My scariest RPG moment ever was when I as a newly blind person was introduced to Fourth Edition, in a gang where all the other people were sitting, Players Handbook in hand and moving miniatures on a battle grid. (It worked out not too awkward in the end, because of a really nice DM.)
But when DnD5 was released, I was delighted to find both a “Basic Ruleset”, streamlined processes for making “standard” characters and an overall nice feel to the rules. And at some point I decided that I wanted to try to DM it. In the very same, scary DnD4 gang. So this last week-end was the introduction to the game for everyone involved.
We had a blast!
But it was also a great learning experience for all of us, so here are some thoughts from my perspective on how to make the most of it.
Stats – How To?
Even if you were to obtain a copy of “The Dungeon Masters’ Manual”, “The Monster Manual” and / or “Players’ Handbook” electronically it is hard for any sighted player to truly appreciate how hard it is to quickly find anything in these texts. Or, when you find it, to make sense of the tables in a hurry. So, in order to make stuff work quickly, but not betray the thought behind the rules, I tried to simplify some rules.
“Static stats“, such as Armor Class – that is used all the time, but really does not change, was put on an Abacus, right next to the computer. I used the rows of the Abacus just to store these values.
Hit points, though, were represented by snacks (dry roasted and salted soy beans is my favourite) put in Egg Cups, one per NPC / Monster. When the person / monster took a hit, I ate the equal amount of soy beans.
The players got to keep their own records.
This made it a lot easier to deal with stats for combat encounters.
Simplify for your own sake! If you have to keep one stats table on your computer, make it the biggest / most important / most different monster in the encounter. Other than this Big Bad, keep it simple. I, for example, let all my human baddies wear the same armor and have the same weapons. My players never asked with what kind of crossbow they were shot at, and never reflected upon the fact that they seemed to be attacked by groups of clones.
Organizing the Combat
If you are blind, you probably find it uncomfortable with large, open areas, where it is really hard to get a sense of direction and don’t have a lot of marks to help you navigate. This is directly transferable to DMing combat. If you have several Characters and NPCs and Monsters, all at once, keeping track on who and what is where, quickly gets real tough. Especially when everyone starts to move. Keeping track on who is attacking whom, and who is engaging or disengaging in battle can turn into a nightmare. Quickly.
I worked around this by having the fights taking place in rather tight places, or where there was natural cover, so that the players didn’t move around too much. No one seemed to mind. But it kept tactics clean.
I came to this gang who have been obsessive fans of 4th Ed, and miniatures, for a long time. I kinda realised that it was bound to happen that the minis would come out. So I tried to come up with plans beforehand on how to deal with it.
My players are “square counters”. I say that lovingly. But how was I to adapt to this?
Before the game started, I decided to bring along my tactile chess board – it is at least 8*8 squares (so 40 by 40 feet in DnD) which is almost enough for most combat enocounters. But we never used it.
I also had this idea of building walls and stuff out of Legos, but never did that either.
Instead, the players themselves did the old “drawing on the battle grid” and placing of the miniatures. Everyone was happy with this. Since the battles were all indoors or in relatively small places, I didn’t have to keep track of loads of different directions, and could simply keep it in my head. (I suspect more blind DM’s than me will have action scenes play out on bridges, in the future…)
Now – let’s be clear here. DnD5 does not need you to play with miniatures. If you as a DM don’t like ‘em – just don’t use ‘em.
Just general hardware to make it work:
To DM as a blind person is tough. You have to keep a lot of stuff in your head and it is harder to lookup or check stuff on the fly. On the other hand, as far as we are talking RPGs, you can often make up your own house rules for some situations anyway, to keep things flowing.
I use my computer, all the time. Even though I can just have one line of braille (40 chars…) under my fingertips, I have stuff like weapons stats and this and that there. I also write down the Initiative order when we come to combat, there, so I can scroll through.
I had my eggcups and my Abacus.
I have a set of really big dice, but I used to have an app on the phone for most throws. I have heard others use Excel’s RAND function, but I really loved the feeling of throwing dice.
When I need to make NPCs or story elements on the fly, I tend to use a Storydeck (a deck of cards with seeds or short story elements) marked in Braille. I call my own “Lore Weaver“. But I know people who use Tarot decks and what not. (Sorry, the link is in Swedish).
And I have a DM screen. It is easy to forget how the others are not blind. Wink.
In the end it is all about having fun
Player or DM, in the end “it’s all ’bout the Funny.” And it’s all about creating a style of DMing that works for you. I tend to love the Old School, exploring and dungeoncrawling type of role playing. But others are more into combat. I like puzzle solving and conflicts that don’t gets resolved by combat. Others play a different game. And it’s all cool.
Being blind, I love the fact that I can play games at all, with my sighted friends and family. RPGs are great in that respect! And DnD is a solid game. Ed5 works great, both for sighted and non sighted alike.
With a bit of preparation, some core rules commited to memory and great portion of humor and an open heart to actually playing roles – DMing as a blind person worked out great for me and for us in the gang. I am now promoted to the official DnD5 DM of the group, which I am very proud of.