I’ve heard a lot of people say that 4e is really just a video game turned into a table-top role-playing game. The game is too tactical and relies too much on the visual aid of a battle mat and minis. These criticisms always talk about the limitations and restrictions of 4e. I admit that the visual component is certainly important, but the game is certainly not limiting. D&D is so much more than what’s on the table.
When I recently ran an adventure at my FLGS a new player sat down next to me, introduced himself and told me he was blind. I wasn’t sure how to handle this news. I was concerned that I’d have to make significant adjustments to my game in order to meet the needs of the blind player. He was really good about it and just told me to do what I’d normally do but to be sure to describe things (like the map) so that he could accurately picture it in his mind.
This seemed like a reasonable request. After all, everything in the game is described in the adventure, right? Nope.
Think about how much of the game is not described. We just take for granted that because I can see the map and see the minis that I don’t necessarily have to describe the scene in as much detail. But when one of the players cannot see the map or the minis, you realize just how much of the game relies on visual input.
As the game progressed I realized that just because I wasn’t used to describing things to the extent that a blind person required didn’t mean that the details weren’t there. To be honest, I realized that I’d become a lazy DM. But as I was forced to describe those little details I quickly remembered how much more we can get out of a typical D&D adventure by being descriptive.
By adding the intangible details and really describing the scene, the players started to realize that they could get more out of D&D then just moving their minis around the map and killing monsters. Having the blind player at the table really brough the role-playing back to D&D.
Usually when I ask players to describe their characters they give me an answer like, “I’m playing a Human Fighter,” and often the player has a mini that looks like a Fighter. It may not be exactly what they imagine their character looks like, but it gets the job done. After that, we know that the mini with the big sword and green cape is Joe’s Fighter. But when someone at the table cannot see the mini it forces the player to actually describe more than the character’s race and class.
During the game with the blind player the previously sufficient description “I’m a Fighter” became “My character is an average-looking Human male well over 6 feet tall and easily 250 lbs. He’s wearing chain mail, a dark crimson tabard with a gold emblem, and a black cloak. Although his main weapon is a great sword, he’s also got a couple of daggers tucked into his belt, another one jammed into his left boot, and a crossbow slung over his back.”
Suddenly we realize that the lame mini Joe was using to depict his placement on the map looks nothing like the character he’s actually playing. But until he was asked to describe his character for the blind player he didn’t feel it necessary to add these details. More importantly none of the other players felt the need to ask for them. We were content to play on knowing he was simply a Fighter.
And of course, as soon as the first player described his character with this level of detail the rest of the players felt the need to follow suit. What really impressed me was that everyone knew exactly what their character looked like. In their mind they had all of these details worked out, but until this game they’d never felt the need to share these details.
Map and Monsters
Maps make DMs lazy. Why describe a room or the terrain when I can draw it or use dungeon tiles to depict it? I’ll admit that I often just say something like, “This is what the room looks like,” and point at the map. But when the blind player was at my table I had to remember that he needed the non-visual description. I began describing the room with its shape and dimensions, followed by the terrain features and obstacles. I made note of things like the smells and sounds because I realized that a blind person would know to use his other senses to gather information. I had each player describe their placement on the map relative to the blind player’s mini as well as to each other. When monsters entered the room I made sure to describe their placement and their appearance.
Normally when I place monsters on the map I say “These guys with yellow cloaks are actually.” This works well since I don’t have a lot of different minis. It also helps the players quickly identify the bad guys. They know that regardless of what the monster actually is, guys with yellow cloaks are the enemy. However that doesn’t cut it when there’s a blind player.
I had to make a point of actually describing the monsters. In reality the blind player had solid D&D monster knowledge so when I said Gnolls he knew what I was talking about, but I still felt it was my job as the DM to take a minute to describe them. What would usually have been “You face six Gnolls,” became “Six tall, dog-men standing almost 7 feet tall enter the room through the door on the far side. They smell of wet fur, wield clubs and yip like dogs as they move about. Three hug the east wall as they look for cover behind the crates while the other three growl and bark as they charge in a straight line towards the PCs.”
Details Bring About Better Role-Playing
By adding these little details to the description it really changed the dynamic of the game. Knowing that the blind player relied on description to better take in the scene, all the players got right into describing their actions. It wasn’t just moving the minis and rolling a d20. It was describing how they moved, what weapon they used, how they used it, what power they use and then depending on if they hit or miss the creatures, what happened.
In all of the time I’ve played 4e D&D the game with the blind player was one of the most entertaining because the group realized how much fun it was to get into the game and describe the details. They no longer assumed that any action was obvious. When they moved their mini they described it “I rush up, I sneak, I slide on my knees, I cart-wheel, I flip and roll.” Likewise with attacks “I slash at his midsection, a smash his kneecap, I shoot an arrow in his arm, I fire a Magic Missile in his butt.” Taking a few extra seconds to describe things made the game more interesting and everyone actually paid attention even when it wasn’t their turn. Believe it or not the descriptive flare even helped clarify actions in terms of standard, move, and minor, while painting the scene.
Where many players see the tactical map as rigid confinement, these players realized it was merely a guide. So many of the rules rely on precise distances, shapes, and placement that people forget how much fun D&D really is. By taking a few seconds to add some description and some flavour to your actions you become more invested in the encounter and in the greater story.
The next time you’re playing D&D pay attention to how much is described and how much is just assumed based on what you can see. Ask yourself if your descriptions would be adequate if there were a blind persona at the table? I think you’ll find that the added details will improve your game and encourage a lot more role-playing.
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- What Do You Look Like?
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