Recently, I’ve had several people question me on playing tabletop RPGs with deaf and hard-of-hearing (D/HH) people. Knowing I’m hard-of-hearing and an advocate for D/HH rights, they’re curious what gaming is like when you have hearing difficulties.
So, in honor of Deaf History Month, I’m going to discuss how deafness can affect a game originally designed by hearing people.
Why the curiosity? Well, at 8.6% of the US population, D/HH people are a significant number of potential players and GMs. Also, hearing loss occurs with age, and many of the most experienced gamers (not to mention the founders) are already reaching senior citizen levels.
Also, thanks to the exclusivity of the hearing world, many D/HH individuals are at-risk for mental illness and can benefit from socialization and therapy. Groups that use RPGs to reach and include others provide a valuable resource beyond gaming.
Before I begin, I want to preface that this is advice for running RPGs with a primarily D/HH group, meaning they’re likely knowledgeable in a sign language. Including a D/HH person in a game with hearing people is different, although much of this advice can provide guidance.
Know How to Communicate
It’s true that many D/HH people can speak, read lips, and even hear to some degree (especially with hearing aids). The best way to communicate, though, is through sign language and it changes (and enriches) RPGs.
For one, sign language is a visual language that requires everyone to pay attention. The table must always be focused on whoever is currently communicating, whether it’s the GM or the current player.
Techniques to gain attention can be as simple as waving a hand or banging on the table or floor, but there are better aids. Some groups use handheld lights to gain attention, and a small LED flashlight or similar device works wonders.
This difference in focus also means turn order and providing equal spotlight are essential. Interrupting or “signing over” others is terrible form as-is, but at an RPG session, it can interfere with the game.
Sign Language is the Best Language for Storytelling
I may be biased, but I love storytelling in sign language; the expressive nature involving body language, facial features, and dynamic performance bring stories to a whole new level. An RPG session entirely in sign can be one of the most immersive experiences, even while sitting around a table.
To be fair, there are some differences at a D/HH table, namely the depiction of NPCs and sound effects.
Without verbal cues or accents to distinguish NPCs, GMs may use visual indicators to determine which character they’re portraying. Everything from pictures on stands to miniatures helps avoid confusion, and skilled or fluent signers can convey size, appearance, or demeanor with their language.
Similarly, while a sound may not easily translate, GMs may describe indicators through other senses (like sight or smell) or even vibrations. Native signers can express what a shattering window is like or how heavy footsteps feel in ways Deaf players easily understand.
Not Everyone Signs
After praising gaming using sign language, I need to be clear: not everyone who is deaf or hard-of-hearing signs. Some were raised in the oralist tradition, and others developed hearing loss later; whether they know sign language (let alone the same one) varies by person.
Groups with non-signing individuals may require other ways to communicate, whether it’s written on paper or texted through electronic devices. You may have a group that speaks verbally but needs lip-reading or hearing assistance to understand each other.
Some of the advice I’m providing is still important, however, particularly about making sure everyone is focused and paying attention. Regardless of how individual D/HH people communicate, visual cues, changing the spotlight, etc. are vital to tabletop gaming.
Embrace the Round Table
One of my favorite aspects of Deaf culture is the use of circular seating arrangements. Regardless of how you communicate, it’s vital that everyone be able to see each other.
Most hearing groups use rectangular tables, the easier to fit everyone and provide ample table space. While a square table might work for a D/HH GM and three players, any more than that you should look for a circular table.
In games that require less paperwork or accessories, you can even forgo the table for chairs or other furniture arranged in a circle. Just make sure you (and your players) have access to whatever is necessary to play the game, even if it means some folding trays or a coffee table in the center.
Know Your Environment
Given the visual nature (and needs) of D/HH communication, proper lighting is necessary for any playing area. Nothing is worse than trying to understand or see something in dim light; mood lighting might be cool in hearing games, but I don’t recommend them for D/HH players.
Personal appearance, from clothing to facial hair, is equally as important at the table. Whether wearing outfits that make signing easier to understand or toning down your inner Viking so lip-readers can see your mouth, D/HH groups have extra considerations at the table.
One additional thing about sign language: know how expressive you (or your players) can be and prepare your playing area. Keep your table clear of food and drink, and place map and miniatures some distance from everyone; you don’t want to ruin a game by knocking everything over because you were signing excitedly!
Lost in Translation
Something many hearing people seem confused about is that a sign language is not merely a gesture version of a country’s spoken language. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is a unique language from English, with some words or concepts not translating directly between either.
Attempting to convey terms that may not exist in a language is an obstacle many D/HH can face at the gaming table. If there is no sign for a creature, species, technology, etc., not only does the group have to figure out what it means but also come up with something.
The same is true for game terminology, from “armor class” to “difficulty level,” as well as explaining the rules. Fingerspelling is exhausting and can only get you so far before you need to find ways to translate the book into something everyone understands.
Often, it takes some prep time (mainly from the GM) to make sure everyone is on the same page for how an RPG is played and what specific terms mean. Again, visual aids and examples bridge that gap, whether it’s showing what a hippogriff is or explaining how to read Fantasy Flight Games dice.
I’m sure I could go on, particularly on how to make hearing tables more inclusive to D/HH players or my own obstacles and experiences as a HoH gamer. I’m hoping, though, this not only answers recent questions but makes people more interested in participating in a D/HH game.
If you can find a way to use this advice to bring D/HH people into your game, that’s wonderful. Even if a game is simply more inclusive and accessible, my work is done.
Remember, no matter how we communicate or whether we can hear, we’re all here for the story and fun. Finding ways to bridge that gap can only make our RPG community grow larger and stronger.