A game of Libreté: Session 1

The other day I got together with some good friends for a game of Libreté. It was on short notice and they had never played before, so I decided to run them through the adventure detailed in the Quick Start Guide (QSG), which features a simplified form of the core rules. Here’s how it went:

Cast of Player Characters

Jack (The Leader), played by Lauren
Sally (The Brute), played by B 

Robin (The Weirdo), played by Abby

Cast of NPCs

The King of Librete: Achilles 

The Smokies: Oilive, Messi, and Rufus 

The Lost Children: Max, Peter, and Elebe

Content Warning

This play session features instances of graphic violence committed by and against children, bullying of the same, and a depiction of a panic attack and subsequent self-harm. Libreté is a game where stress and trauma are core gameplay mechanics, but remember to know your players and practice safe gaming at all times.

Pre-Game

The players assembled, the rules explained. One by one, I offered each participant the chance to tell me a little bit more about their character. Feeding off of this, I asked them about a defining moment in their past that has colored their relationship with the other members of the party.

Through his natural strength and magnetism, Jack had managed to turn a group of dirty, snivelling children into a small-but-formidable gang. Though nowhere near the most powerful group in the fortress, the Smokies had a reputation for taking on tough jobs outside the walls and returning home intact. Eventually, this brought Jack under the scrutiny of Achilles, especially after Jack blocked an attempted interruption of one of Achilles’ infamous “water trials.” Afterwards, the King of Librete came to Jack with a special mission, one that would truly test the loyalty of his precious Smokies. 


Sally was a rough kid who never felt comfortable with the way boys looked at her. Her considerable strength and explosive temper didn’t change the fact that she was a girl and thus ineligible for a place in Achilles’ inner cadre. To protest nature’s cruelty she shaved her head, bound her chest tight with bandages and swaggered around Libreté with a heavy cleaver that had tasted the blood of quite a few fools who had questioned her authority. 


In a better world, Robin’s fascination with bugs and dirt would have made them an excellent scientist. In Libreté, it made them a weirdo, a freak. To protect themselves from the cruelty of children Robin joined up with The Smokies and quickly gained a reputation as a useful kid to have around. Robin saw the world differently, noticed things others didn’t—an invaluable skill outside the safety of The Mall. 


The Session

We began with a flashback to the mission put forth to Jack by Achilles–on a recent scouting mission, a child claimed to have seen a bakery that seemed intact. It was outside of their safe zone, and none of the children were feeling like heroes that day, so they returned home and relayed the info to their gang boss, who brought it to the Triumphirate. With a disarming grin, Achilles told Jack that the possibility of finding fresh milk, flour, or even sugar was simply too good to pass up, and that success on this mission would certainly reflect well upon him and the Smokies. 


We returned to the present, as the massive glass doors in the front of the fortress were pulled open and the gang set out into the misty morning rain. Immediately, Sally began eyeing Oilive’s most recent find: a wooden baseball bat, reinforced with pipe clamps to stop it from splintering. After some gentle teasing and prodding, Sally decided to take advantage of the younger, weaker kid and demanded he forfeit his weapon. Reluctantly, Oilive acquiesced. From the front Jack noticed this and tried to step in, but after realizing that throwing his weight around would only further agitate the two–and possibly drive a wedge between him and Sally–he simply sighed and gave Oilive his own weapon, a switchblade he brought with him from the other world. 


The party continued walking, putting more and more distance between them and the fortress. The scout had said that the bakery was far, beyond the distance usually considered “safe” (though Librete was the only true sanctuary in the city, the Glass Watch kept sirain activity in the areas directly around the fortress to a minimum). To get to it, they’d have to delve further into the twisting streets than ever before, and if everything went perfectly they would only just make it back before nightfall. Jack led his group loosely, allowing for a certain level of aloofness among his friends. After all, Sally was there in case things got bad, and Robin was an excellent scout themself. As the kids moved between wrecked cars and rubble from abandoned buildings, Robin was crawling through the alleyways and side streets, making sure to keep within a few blocks of the main group but otherwise letting their intuition guide them. This would prove to be a blessing, as their discovery of an open manhole leading to the sewers would become their eventual salvation. 


Soon, the gang found themselves at the road leading to the bakery, though it was still a few miles off. Jack allowed his friends a few moments of rest, but it was quickly interrupted by a growing hum in the air and the sounds of rapidly-approaching footsteps–someone was running, in their direction, and fast. Snapping to attention, Jack showed just how effective a leader he was as he brought his lounging gang to fighting positions almost immediately. Crouched behind cars and around the side of buildings, they waited to see what would come out of the fog. 


The silhouettes of the unknown aggressors eventually showed themselves to belong to a tall teenage boy, dressed in torn tennis attire and clutching a large bundle of cloth to his chest. Behind him was another boy, thin with eyes like saucers, and behind them was a thick red cloud of stinging, clicking insects. Jack stood and called out to the first boy, but if he was heard he was not regarded. The boy, jaw clenched and still holding the bundle tight to his chest, vaulted over the curb and kept sprinting. This was clearly not going to be a fight. 


This became more apparent as the thin stranger slid under a car and cowered with his head between his knees. Suddenly, the Smokies found themselves alone in the streets, with the swarm bearing down on them. Jack made another attempt to rally his troops, but in the chaos his words were caught in his mouth and all he could muster was “…retreat!”. Sally heard this immediately, but as she was farther in front than any of the others the swarm descended on her before she could get her bearings. As she flailed to get the biting bugs off of her, she accidentally hit Jack in the head with Oilive’s stolen bat, opening up a thick gash over his left eye. 


The scene was pandemonium. The Smokies had killed Sirain’s before, but a bat or knife was useless against the hundreds of monsters they now found themselves covered with. Oilive and Rufus were still bunkering down behind a car, smashing whatever bugs they could. Sally recalled that she had a bottle of whiskey in her bag, and quickly tore off a piece of her dress to stuff down the neck in the hopes of making a molotov cocktail. But Jack had the only lighter, and despite their best efforts the rain was coming down too hard for the flame to find purchase. As things started to look grim, Robin stuck their head out of an alleyway far behind them and shouted for everyone to run over. It was the alley with the open manhole, and Robin had already guided the first strange boy into it. If the Smokies were to make an escape, now was the time. 


Jack grabbed the other strange kid under the car and thrust him forward towards the alley. Rufus and Oilive had already started towards their friend, and Jack did as well. Sally was the last one to make it to the alley as Jack paused briefly to allow her to get into the hole. Jack was never one to leave a friend behind, and here he paid dearly for it. As he watched Sally slide into the narrow passage, a large sirain flew directly into his left eye. The last thing he saw from it was the creature thrashing about, its razored claws tearing through skin and nerves just before everything on that side went black. He screamed, took a step backwards, and fell directly into Sally’s arms. With a labored cry, she dropped from the ladder into the darkness. 


Immediately, the Smokies gathered around Jack to see what had happened. The strange children kept to themselves, huddled together on the other end of the small subteranean room. The only light was a thin beam from the outside, but it was enough to illuminate the raggedy group and reveal that the mass of blankets in the boy’s arms were actually another child–a small girl, barely six, and the stuffed rabbit she clung tightly to. 


Jack’s eye was a mess. None of the kids had enough medical knowledge to know if it could be salvaged, but they knew their best chance was to return to Librete as soon as possible. The bottle that Sally had tried to ignite was split equally between analgesic and antiseptic, and after a few minutes Jack’s pain had dulled enough for him to finally take stock of their situation. He eyed the new kids with measured suspicion. 


The first boy they had seen was also the first to speak. He introduced himself as Max, the other boy as Peter, and the girl as Ebele. He asked where they were, what those things were, and how they were going to get out. But before anyone answer, Sally stood up and confronted him. “You led those things to us!” she spat. “You didn’t even try to help, and look what happened!” She punctuated this accusation with a ringing blow to the wall with Oilive’s bat, which caused him to jump up and accuse her of causing this by stealing his weapon. If he had been able to defend himself, Oilive claimed, he would have been able to help Jack fight the bugs. And besides, you were the one who couldn’t even make a fire! Sally felt her cheeks redden and shoved Oilive up against the wall. Max stood and pulled out a fixed-blade knife. Jack could see that he was losing control of his friends and that things would soon explode if he didn’t step in, but he also knew that getting in Sally’s way would only make her angrier. He shakily stood up and tried to defuse the situation. 


“Sally tried her best,” Jack said quietly. “Our weapons were worthless, but if anyone was going to do anything with that bat, it’s her.” Oilive looked to the ground, humiliated and ashamed, and slid back down the wall. Jack was always taking Sally’s side. He said he cared about everyone in the gang, but where was he when Sally was pushing us all around? When she called me “lardass” and stole my dessert, or kicked Messi in the balls when they were playing soccer? Sally was just a bully and a bitch, and if Jack wasn’t willing to stand up to her, someone else had to. 


On the other end of the room, Robin had struck up a conversation with Ebele. Ebele asked if Robin, covered as they were in mud and strange markings, was a shaman. Robin answered in the affirmative, and said that they could see the ghosts and spirits that haunted this world. This frightened the young girl, who had found herself in the city as she was walking home from kindergarten. A strange man had approached her and asked her to come with him, and she had run just like her parents taught her. When she finally stopped to catch her breath, she realized she was in an unfamiliar place and was about to start crying when Max, Peter, and Michel appeared. They had been wandering ever since, trying to avoid the clickers and find a way back. Somehow, they had gotten seperated from Michel, but Ebele knew he was going to be okay. Otherwise, Max would have never left him behind. 


As Jack talked with Max, Oilive, and Messi about their next moves, Rufus and Peter were amusing themselves by telling dirty jokes to one another. Rufus never took anything seriously, and Peter liked kids that could make him laugh. He’d joined up with Max because he couldn’t stand to be alone, but Max was the complete opposite–beside Ebele, Max didn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. Peter didn’t see anything special about the little girl, and couldn’t really see her as anything more than another mouth to feed, but he knew better than to say anything to Max. That boy was dangerous. After a few moments, Jack turned to address the entire room and declared that he’d decided on a course of action. He’d told Max about Librete, and the combination of their injuries and the discovery of three new children meant that the mission had to be postponed in favor of returning to the fortress. Now that they knew what kind of sirains lurked in this part of the city, Jack reasoned, they could better plan another expedition to the bakery. For now, their only goal should be getting home safely. 


The room was quiet for a moment as the children considered Jack’s words. They would be returning empty-handed, which was sure to displease Achilles. He might take a liking to Max, however–Achilles liked strong, fit boys and often recruited them into his personal soldiery. Before anyone could voice dissent, Robin piped up with another suggestion. On the way, they had seen a convenience store with its front window shattered, and had happened to spy some snack cakes still in their wrappers on the shelves. They had helped themselves to a few, of course–but there were still some left when they rejoined their friends, and they hadn’t even thought to look in the back of the store. It was only a few blocks from their current location, and a small group could probably make it there and back within the hour. Well-fed, the entire gang could then begin the journey back to Librete. 


Jack was surprised that Robin had hid this from the rest of the group, but then realized that if they had mentioned it, Rufus’ laziness and Oilive’s cowardice would have led them to try and abandon the trip to the bakery altogether. Thanking Robin for this new information, Jack quickly came up with a plan to send Sally, Oilive, Max, and Robin to the convenience store, to return with anything and everything useful they could carry. In the meantime, the rest of them would bandage their wounds and prepare to march back to the fortress. 


Sally was the first to peek her head over the manhole cover and out into the street, which was thankfully devoid of any sirains. It appeared that the swarm was mobile, and that without a clear target had simply wandered on to another part of the city. They would have to be careful not to encounter them on the way back. Hoisting herself up and out of the hole, Sally helped the others up and got into position behind Robin as they began to lead the way. Robin’s information was eerily accurate, and after hopping a few cars and ducking under some dropped streetlights the children found themselves at the broken front of an otherwise-intact corner store. 


Sally and Oilive immediately rushed inside to survey the shelves. The stock was scant but enticing: prepackaged snack cakes, jerky, and salty chips were in abundance. While it was certainly nothing to subsist entirely on, the kids at Librete would definitely appreciate a break from their normal diet of oats and beans. As the other kids began stuffing their faces, Robin gestured to the back of the shop, darkened and unexplored. Sally was the first to give orders: her and Oilive were going to check the south side for the walk-in freezer, and Max and Robin could explore the managers’ quarters in hopes of finding weapons, cigarettes, or toys. After their quick meal, it was back to work. 


Once she knew Max and Oilive were out of earshot, Sally shoved the butt of her bat into Oilive’s pudgy stomach. As Oilive gasped for a breath, Sally sneered: “don’t you ever talk back to me again, butterball. The only reason you’re even in this gang is because Jack has a weakness for charity cases.” With that, she turned and began walking towards the freezer. Oilive wiped hot tears from his eyes as he got to his feet and followed her. From the outside, the freezer was huge and solid; clearly a relic even when the city was alive (if it ever had been). Sally tucked the bat beneath her arm, got a good double-hand grip on the door handle, and pulled with all her strength. As old and rusted as it was, it barely budged, but eventually she yanked it hard enough to slide it open enough for a slender body to get through. Immediately the pair was assaulted by the overwhelming stench of decay: clearly the generator had died a long time ago, and whatever was left inside had long since rotted. Sally leaned in to see if anything was salvageable, and as she did, Oilive finally saw his chance for revenge. He closed his eyes and planted his foot directly into Sally’s back, sending her tumbling into the darkened walk-in and throwing his full weight against the door. It slammed shut like a vault, and Oilive ran for his life. 


Inside, the stench was even worse and the darkness absolute. Sally could feel bile rising in the back of her throat as she felt around for a switch and felt only soft things that squished under her fingers and the motion of many tiny bodies that scattered wherever she moved. She was trapped here, maybe forever, and she would die and be eaten by bugs and Jack would never know where she was and all her friends had abandoned her and she couldn’t ever escape and that little shit Oilive had made a fool of her and oh god she couldn’t breathe couldn’t see couldn’t feel anything what was that moving where is Jack where is Robin where is my mom I don’t want to die here– 


Robin and Max heard a loud noise behind them, but didn’t think anything of it as they knew Sally and Oilive had gone to check out the freezer. Meanwhile, they had been slowly making their way through the maze of corridors in the back room. Here, among overturned shelves and collapsed walls, Robin began to sense that things were not as safe as they originally though. There was a presence they couldn’t exactly see, but everything around them seemed to shimmer and bend in weird ways, like looking out over asphalt on a hot day. It wasn’t right, and Robin had long since learned to trust their gut feelings when things weren’t right. Grabbing Max, they slowly walked back out, exactly the way they came, back into the main store. When they saw that Sally and Oilive had not returned, they went to the freezer and found it sealed tight. 


The first crack of light as the door opened made Sally want to cry with relief. The second made her want to cry with shame as she looked down at the various cuts and cigarette burns on her arms. There was one still smoldering on the inside of her right wrist when they found her, and she hurriedly crushed the cigarette underfoot as she rushed out into the store, brushing beetles out of her hair and wiping the rotten meat juice from her hands. She didn’t hear Robin ask where Oilive was. She didn’t register that they had encountered something weird in the back of the store. She swung the bat into an empty lottery display, spraying shattered glass into the street as she stepped out of the store, hatchet held tight in her other hand. 


The sun was beginning to set, and Oilive was nowhere to be found.

Fin

Check back shortly for the next session, where we’ll wrap up the material in the Quick Start Guide and perhaps begin digging into the lovely content of Fleur Du Mall, as the children begin their attempt to return to the sanctuary of Libreté.

The Five Laws of RPG Science

In 1931, librarian S. R. Ranganathan wrote a book titled The Five Laws of Library Science, in which he set down what he believed to be the most important principles for ethically running a public library system. It’s a dense read, but the main concepts are:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every book its reader.
  3. Every reader their book.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

Barring some awkward phrasing, the laws are simple and sound. Ranganathan’s vision is something I’d call humanistic utilitarianism, or the idea that the greatest resource is the one that’s available to as many people as possible, as easily as possible. Humanistic utilitarianism puts substance before style in every way–anything that breaks one of the five rules is, by definition, a barrier to accessibility.

I believe that RPG’s are really no different, and can thus be approached in a very similar way. In realizing this, I was forced to confront the idea that trimming my RPG philosophy down to five rules would have tremendous impact upon my writing, graphic design, and even social media interactions. My five laws of Role-Playing Games are tailored slightly from their library science counterparts, but the intent is the same: to create a common language for the design and management of communal resources. They are:

1: RPGs are for use.

This may seem self-evident at first, but a glance at any handful of games will show designers who eschew usability for fluff, aesthetic, or verisimilitude. Games that prioritize usability are a rare breed, but their impact is momentous–if only because they’re able to affect the widest audience.

At each point in designing an RPG, thought should be given as to how the game will be used. Everything–system mechanics, organization of ideas, layout and production of the physical/digital product–must reflect this intentionality. When you hide your game behind dense language or a complicated layout, you are building barriers to use.

This is not to say that everything you create should be equal in simplicity to a 200-word microgame. There is a place in games for crunch, but it must serve a purpose that is evidently usable. If your game is about the perils of wilderness survival, it makes sense to have dedicated rules for foraging, hunting, or constructing shelter. Likewise, a game about the complications of managing a polyamorous relationship could have detailed systems for trust and romantic fulfillment. These systems enhance, rather than obfuscate, the purpose of the game they serve. Their individual mechanics will vary depending upon the system you are designing; but again, usability should be the highest priority.

I mentioned production earlier, and I’d like to talk about it specifically as I feel it’s the aspect of RPG publishing that has the largest room for improvement. I’ve written–and will continue writing–articles about optimizing PDFs to present information in a clean, intuitive way. Far less digital ink has been spent detailing the process of creating physical books that are meant to be used. The advent of Print-on-Demand services have given many creators a much wider market for their books, but it has also uniformly lowered the standards of these books by printing them with diluted ink on cheap paper and haphazardly stapling the whole thing together. For a zine or small dungeon, these are fine–while not PoD, The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 is indeed saddle-stitched–but larger products demand and deserve tougher stuff. Consider the complaint levied often against the 5e core books, that their pages fall out: such fragility in an integral part of the game is an unacceptable violation of usability.

If your book has to be referenced often, you are being negligent in not reinforcing the binding, and perhaps springing for heavier, more tear-resistant paper as well. Your book is to be used, so figure out how: could you add a section for notes or other house rules, or embrace marginalia with matte paper and wider margins? Could you design your book to lay flat on a table to better present maps or player-facing rules? If your book works in tandem with another, could you reduce its form factor to ease some of the burden of lugging several full-size books to each session, and later propping them all up on a table?

This rule goes before the others because I think it’s one that any RPG designer can use to improve their product without compromising their vision. When you place usability before everything else, in every aspect of your game, you can all but guarantee your book will be a joy to read and play while avoiding the bloat that mires so many others.

2: Every player their game.

I deliberated on this one (and its sister, below) much longer than the others. In broad terms, this means that every player–regardless of their personal background, experiences, or skill–should be able to play and enjoy tabletop RPGs. The games themselves may differ wildly, but there’s one out there for everyone; if there isn’t, it’s time to make it.

There should be crunchy sword-and-sorcery kingdom building games and there should be transhumanist dating games. There should be queer mecha and gourmet dungeoncrawls and Kobayashi Maru games where the only way to win is to break the rules. Every player has their own ideal game, and part of the brilliance of RPGs is sharing your personal fantasy with the community. When the barrier to entry is so low–you can publish your own RPG without spending a cent–the impetus is to innovate, to expand our humble circle to include genres, ideas, and people that have historically struggled to find a place.

GMDK’s mission is to showcase the talent of traditionally marginalized creators, but it didn’t come about simply as a matter of finding a niche in the market and hoping to capitalize upon that. The lived experiences of these creators shine through in their work, and (hopefully) resonate with the sort of audience whose experiences match ours. We aren’t just in it to tell our story, but to invite you to tell yours as well through the medium of games. If our games aren’t your style–check back, we’re expanding all the time.

There will always be a place for the “stab goblin get treasure” style games and supplements. They’re fun to write, fun to read and run, and have sold consistently for over 40 years. If that’s your game, then consider yourself lucky–there’s enough free material out there to keep you gaming happily ’til kingdom come! But it’s not everyone’s game, and as creators and publishers we have an obligation to challenge the boundaries of the medium. The sci-fi horror fan may never enjoy D&D; give them Mothership. Your cousin who loves Breaking Bad would probably not sit down for a game of Vampire: the Masquerade, but I’m sure you could convince her to give Narcos a try.

3: Every game its player.

The corrolary of Rule 2 states that it’s perfectly fine to create a game for a very specific type of player. It’s okay to create a game that has unique appeal to certain people–The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 is heavily weighted towards traditional D&D players that enjoy horror/dark fantasy dungeoncrawls. Libreté will appeal to an entirely different sort of player who prefers collaborative worldbuilding and weighty social encounters.

No game can be designed without considering the sort of person who will play and enjoy that game. Those who claim their games are nonpolitical are fooling themselves at best and seeking to fool others at worse. However, problems arise when you begin mistaking a games’ systems for its stance. B/X D&D has many rules for violence and plunder because those are areas where heavy abstraction is needed to represent things in the medium of a tabletop RPG. Emotions, relationships, conversations; these are things the game assumes you can run without explicit rules. Speaking and feeling are things the player can do without authorization from the GM, and it’s this lack of rules that makes it so powerful. The combat rules may mean you can’t take the goblin king in a fair fight, but there’s no rules against siding with them in pursuit of a greater threat, or turning the rest of their tribe against them, or convincing the local baron that they need to get involved with the problem. In RPGs, like most conversations, sometimes its what’s not said that’s the most important.

We are not here to cast aspersions at players who prefer different games than us. People play games for countless reasons, in countless ways. There will be games that do not appeal to you, whether for their themes, systems, or method of play. This does not in itself make them bad games. I will likely never play a game of MonsterHearts: its setting and style is not something I’ve ever considered myself a fan of. Nonetheless, I recognize that many people enjoy MonsterHearts as much as I enjoy traditional D&D. They are getting something from that game that I will never get, and that is their right as players. They are players of that game; that game is for them.

In recognizing this, I believe we can collectively elevate the discourse and criticism surrounding tabletop games. No one can deny that criticism is an art in itself, and that earnest reviews are worth their weight in gold to any creator. It’s known that mass reviews tend to skew negative due to satisfied customers neglecting to leave a review at all, so if you find a game that pleases you, let people know! Leave a review, talk about it on social media, recommend it to your friends. Creators who work outside of the mainstream have a tendency to toil in obscurity; if you find an underrepresented game that speaks to you, tell the world.

4: Save the players’ time.

As a designer this has a lot of overlap with Rule 1, but it’s got its own purposes enough that I felt it deserved an entry to itself. Note the position of the apostrophe: it’s important to save your individual players’ time with clear rules and simple layout, but also to show them you value their time and appreciate them choosing to spend it playing your game. This means providing resources like quick-play rules, form-fillable character sheets, and a reasonably-intuitive web presence (something I’m still working on myself).

It also means that we as designers must face the heartbreak of accepting that our game is likely not the only thing the players think about all week. At my table, I have a firm “no homework” rule: all I expect from my players is to show up. It is my responsibility as a game master to know the rules, the characters and their abilities, and the game world at large. When designing an RPG, consider how much weight your players are expected to carry. Consider the following test:

Imagine that, before the latest game session, each of your players was identically bonked on the head by a coconut dropped from sufficient height (perhaps by a passing flock of African swallows) to induce retrograde amnesia. Nonetheless, they soldier on, and arrive at the session without any recollection of how to play an RPG but otherwise no worse for wear. How long would it take to explain your game--its rules, system mechanics, characters, history--before you could jump back into play.

This is obvious hyperbole, but its message is important. I have a player who has been in my regular 5e game for the last 3 years and still routinely asks how hit dice work. He’s not a bad player or a stupid person, on the contrary: he’s a full time worker and engineering student who realizes that his brainpower outside of D&D is better served elsewhere. Luckily, I know the 5e rules well enough to answer his questions easily and without wasting precious session time. I save my players time by taking the onus of game mastery upon myself, but there are ways to design an RPG that save everyone’s time. A clarity of ruleset is helpful, as well as standardizing mechanics whenever possible (if you use a roll-over dice system, don’t switch to a roll-under for particular situations). Consider arranging the chapters of your book so that mechanic are introduced alongside the game world, or duplicate information if it’s truly necessary to have it referenced in separate sections–would it really be so bad if, in the 5e PHB, starting equipment damage and AC were listed in parenthesis by their appearance in the class description? Better yet, you could include a ready-to-play sample character for each class so that new players can jump right in without spending 30 minutes learning character creation mechanics that don’t translate into play!

There are a lot of RPG systems on the market right now, and as much as I’m interested in learning new games it will always be easier to default to one I’ve already put in the time to learn. Lower your barrier to entry, and you increase your chances of that critical first session that could lead to years of happy roleplaying. Good GMs take the burden off the players; good designers take the burden off the GM.

5: RPGs are a living medium.

By this I mean not only that the creation of RPGs will progress and evolve to take advantage of the culture at large, but that RPGs themselves should allow for various interpretations of their contents. RPGs have an evolving and interactive nature that the most open-world video game could never have; even expressly D&D games like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment cannot match their tabletop counterpart for choices.

Take the advent of online play, for example. I was recently taken on as a graphic designer for Petals and Thorns: Strangers in Ramhorn, a 5e/Pathfinder adventure that was originally designed for Roll20. One of the stretch goals was to have the entire thing written and laid out as a PDF for more conventional sessions, and that’s where I came in. Though I know very little about virtual tabletops, what I saw intrigued me: maps with functional fog-of-war, automatic dice rolls and calculations, even customizable databases for monsters, NPCs, and player characters.

As an increasing number of players choose virtual tabletops as their medium, it’s important for us as game designers to recognize the challenges and possibilities this presents. Players mapping the dungeon as they explore was once the standard, but was phased out in many groups as it was unwieldy and slowed game flow. In a virtual tabletop with a “fog of war” effect, might we be able to recreate this sense of dread and progressive exploration without putting the onus on our players to drop their character sheets and break out the graph paper? Is designing for this style of play now easier and more intuitive than ever before?

By virtue of being a living medium, RPGs of the past are never irredeemable. Those that reflect the less tolerant time of their writing can be taken, and rewritten, and reworked to suit our standards–as your games will eventually be changed to suit the audiences of the future. Keep a close eye on these trends, and consider adjusting your designs to accommodate. Steal from the past, build for the future.


These are the five laws of RPG science as they occur to me at this moment. I don’t consider them immutable laws, merely an excuse to reflect on the act of creation and the relationship between creator and consumer. Like a library, designing a game is something of a public service–the act of creating something with the intent of bringing people together for mutual joy and enrichment. I can think of few nobler pursuits.

Exploring Libreté: Brutalism in RPG Graphic Design

While previous installments of Exploring Libreté have focused on key game mechanics and the language used for them, this time I want to talk about how the game looks. In particular, I’d like to explain how I used basic principles of information design and presentation to create a layout that puts everything important right where you expect it, and where you need it most.

To do that, however, we need to take a quick detour into the architectural style known as Brutalism. Brutalism flourished in the middle of the 20th century as an offshoot of postmodern architecture, and emphasized unpolished, geometric, practical aesthetics in brick and concrete (béton brut is French for “raw concrete”).

Brutalist buildings are often maligned as ugly or simply outdated, but I find something beautiful in their raw simplicity. The Brutalist philosophy is one that’s very close to my heart: embrace the material of your trade. Don’t hide behind layers of paint and glass, or obfuscate your design with artistic frivolities. Function before form, always. Utilize the medium, if you will.

This brings us to graphic design. Applying the principles of Brutalism to the layout of Libreté made a lot of sense: it reinforced the games’ themes of urban survival and a sort of cold, sterile post-apocalypse. It allowed me to design function-first, as I already prefer to do. And it gave me the chance to present something that I believe is beautiful in its simplicity.

Let’s go over the principles of Brutalism, as they apply to the design of Libreté.

  • Use simple, reliable materials in your construction. Libreté uses only one font for body and headers: Neue Haas Grotesk, the successor to Helvetica and widely lauded for its versatility and readability. Sections are seperated and emphasized with simple strokes, art, and good old-fashioned white space, but nothing is wasted.
  • Do not hide your materials behind unnecessary flourishes. No textured backgrounds or art bleeding into the text. These not only make your book harder to read for the fully-sighted, it’s a nightmare for accessibility.
  • Design around geometric shapes. Rectangles are good, squares are better. Embrace the entirety of the page and design for the information you want to present. This also allows you to create art out of shapes that reinforce what’s being written; consider the heavy black bars on the background of the page detailing the PCs encounter with a locked gate:
  • Design for use, not distant artistic appreciation. If the words in your book are interesting–and those in Libreté surely are–don’t try to steal the show with your layout. Design every page so as to showcase the information in the most practical, intuitive way possible. For this, you need a good grasp of typography and particularly hierarchies of information. Expect a blog post on that in the future.

The examples shown above all come from the Quick Start Guide, which you can get on itch.io right now if you like. It contains an introductory adventure with all the rules and playbooks needed to run a game. It’s 15 pages long, and each one was designed line-by-line with a deliberate eye for the principles above. It’s an RPG book by way of IKEA manual: unornamented, functional, meant to be scanned out of the corner of your eye for relevant information while you focus on the task at hand.

Libreté returns to Kickstarter January 7, 2020. In the meantime, consider downloading the FREE Quick-Start Guide and Demokit, available at gmdk.itch.io.

Exploring Libreté: Lost (and Found) in Translation

As anyone following the project likely knows, Libreté was originally written in French. Vivien Féasson is a gifted translator, but RPGs often make use of made-up words in their systems and story that can be hard to find approximations for. Similarly, Vivien’s clever wordplay in French did not always translate directly into English.

This left us with some options as to how to continue. In translating and editing Libreté for an English-speaking audience, we could:

  • Use the original French terms, untranslated. Unique and evocative, but hard to remember for non-French speakers.
  • Directly translate the French terms into English. Simple. Quick. Boring.
  • Find an English term that preserves the intent of the French term. Takes more time than either of the above, but provides the benefits of both: evocative but understandable.

Clearly, no one solution would fit every problem. So, we went through each of the main gameplay terms and decided which approach we would take, one-by-one. Here’s what we came up with:


French: Aversité (averse+adversité=downpour+adversity)

English: Advercity (city+adversity). Instead of emphasizing the rain, we emphasized the weight of the City itself— a bitter adversary of its own.


French: Sirènes de L’averse (sirens of the downpour)

English: Sirains (siren+rain). Easy enough, and different enough to stand out from the rest of the text. A triumph.


French: Enfantillages (a French term for “actions of children.” Something that adults should not/would not do)

English: Childities (children+naiveties). For this, we wanted to go with something that alluded to the fact that the actions of children are not always logical or well-considered. “Child’s Play” was considered but ultimately rejected for lacking weight—fighting back against vicious monsters or attempting to rally friends for a gang war is hardly playtime. And yet, they are things that children cannot—should not—be experienced with. Childities are the only response to the harsh world of Libreté.


French: Pourriture (rot, decay)

English: Mildew. Another clever approximation, with stronger ties to the themes of water and darkness.


French: Bile Noir (black bile: one of the four proposed bodily humors, associated with melancholy)

English: Bile. Ultimately, the term “Black Bile” was dropped after a conversation on Twitter with @CDGuanzon. Historical context or no, we didn’t want to inadvertently reinforce colorism. “Bile” works just as well, because it already has an association with stress and anger.


Trnaslation is a tough gig. We were lucky that Vivien, being bilingual, was able to translate his own work for us. Our brilliant editor Fiona Geist also put in a tremendous amount of work to ensure the book was eminently readable and suitable to an English-speaking audience.

RPGs occupy a weird middleground between creative and technical writing, where clarity and vision hold equal weight. That’s difficult enough in one language, but it takes a particular kind of genius to make it work in two. GMDK is lucky to have such geniuses at hand.

Libreté returns to Kickstarter January 7, 2020. In the meantime, consider downloading the FREE Quick-Start Guide and Demokit, available at gmdk.itch.io.

Exploring Libreté: What’s Bile?

Anyone familiar with the Apocalypse World series of games will have no trouble picking up the basic mechanics of Libreté: PCs attempting to affect the world roll 2d6 and add relevant bonuses, trying to score above or within a range of numbers. This is a simple, elegant system suited for games that emphasize narration–a natural choice for Libreté. However, the game has been modified slightly to allow for new mechanics that expand and alter this main system, such as Bile. As Vivien writes:

…Bile symbolizes stress and malaise, a representation of the void that inhabits all lost children. It’s secreted by unhappy, suffering kids giving them the strength to triumph over obstacles while pushing them toward antagonism. Those failing to sublimate it through violence eventually corrupt and become withdrawn.

Reflecting this, each time their character is confronted with a stressful situation, a player has the opportunity to draw 1-3 Bile tokens from the reserve—it’s that simple. It may happen in the middle of a conversation, in response to some hurtful remark, responding to another PC’s or the Advercity’s childity, experiencing pure loneliness and even in retrospect, because a player forgot to take a token at the time. Taking Bile isn’t always accompanied by visible effects—it’s primarily a manifestation of an internal phenomenon.

Example: after lashing out at a sirain, Louve sees horror in the eyes of someone she loves. The player takes two Bile tokens from the reserve reflecting her character’s emotional state.

Advercity, your role here is regularly reminding everyone of this central rule and sometimes questioning players about their characters’ feelings but not to judge their decisions. Each player alone decides whether their character “gains” Bile. If they can explain their choices, they’re not obligated to do so and you mustn’t criticize them. Some players take handfuls of tokens, others are more circumspect, this is their choice and doesn’t “break” the game.

Accumulating Bile has a positive purpose: PCs can choose to apply Bile to a task roll (called “childities” here), adding the number to the result. When you’re really trying to hit that 7+, getting +3 to your 2d6 is a tempting offer.

Some things became apparent to me as I read this. The tradition of “failing forward” has been moved up in the pecking order–now, children run the risk of succeeding too much. For most childities, the ideal roll is somewhere between 8 and 10: anything less is a flat failure, but anything more means that you get what you want at the expense of you or another’s safety and well-being. You get to gamble on this by using your accumulated stress to push yourself beyond what’s healthy–consider the similar stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon.

As well, Bile forces characters in Libreté to recognize trauma as an actual force of play. As Bile builds up, PCs must either expend it in healthy ways–relaxation, entertainment, or other forms of self-actualization–or harness it for childities in times of trouble. A child who gains Bile but never expends it has a chance of EXPLODING and doing something truly foolish or dangerous. It is not enough for your players to be comfortable with their actions and the world around them. They must ensure their children are too.

Libreté returns to Kickstarter January 7, 2020. In the meantime, consider downloading the FREE Quick-Start Guide and Demokit, available at gmdk.itch.io.

Introducing Libreté: Round Two!

A few months ago, GMDK launched our most ambitious project to date: a full-English translation of Vivien Féasson’s Libreté.

A week later, realizing we weren’t going to hit our funding goal, we cancelled it.

Where had we gone wrong? In hindsight, quite a few places.

  • Our Quick-Start Guide wasn’t fully edited and laid out, and we made the baffling decision to put it as a stretch goal instead of using it to entice potential backers.
  • Our books were expensive, because we wanted to do a4 hardcovers. Our shipping costs were subsequently pricey as well.
  • While Libreté has gotten many good reviews from players and gaming publications, most of them are in French and we expected backers to go through the trouble of translating them.
  • We launched on the same day as Root and Heart, two excellent games by popular creators with established settings and fan bases.

What a lot of this says: we tried to crowdfund a game without having anything to show for it. We expected our passion for the project to support a $15,000 investment by the community. Thus dejectedly we cancelled the project halfway through, and focused our attention on making the inevitable relaunch as good as possible.

Beloved readers, we believe we’ve done just that. Introducing the new and improved Libreté: going LIVE January 7th, 2020 at 10AM Eastern!

What makes this relaunch different?

  • Better form factor. After our most recent editing pass, we realized that the a5 book size fitted the game much better. It also cuts down on both the print cost and shipping cost, as we’ll be going with softcover instead of hardcover.
  • Less expensive books. Thanks to the savings mentioned above, we’re able to offer the base game book for $25, nearly half what we were charging before. We’ve decided to include the Quick Start Guide in the main book as well, instead of as a separate zine. This means everyone—print and PDF backers—can go straight from the introductory session to the main game without flipping back and forth between multiple files.
  • Smaller funding goal. Less expensive books+a better production timeline means we need far less money to make this successful.
  • We’re releasing the Quick Start Guide ahead of time, completely free. Want to try before you buy? The Libreté Quick Start Guide is a 15-page PDF that includes everything you need to run: rules, character playbooks, and an adventure designed to gradually and easily introduce the concepts of the game to all players. If you like what you see, consider backing the full game—or hack the Quick Start Guide and keep the story going with your own homebrew ideas.

Click here to get the Libreté Quick Start Guide and begin your adventure!

  • We’ve translated reviews of the original game. We’ll be posting those one-by-one in the weeks before the campaign commences so you can get an idea of the sort of RPG innovations Libreté brings to the table.

To catch every bit of news regarding the re-launch, follow GMDK on Twitter and keep an eye on this blog where we’ll be posting information every few days.

As always, thank you all for your love and support. GMDK could not exist without its fans, and we hope we can repay that kindness by putting out great games you can’t find anywhere else.

The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 Posters Now Available!

At long last, you can snag some of the beautiful alternate cover designs for each of the adventures in The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 as 18″x24″ posters! Each of Lauren’s amazing full-page illustrations has been re-imagined as a classic theme, trope, or artistic medium–from 80’s horror paperbacks to DOS-based first person shooters–and are printed on both sides of the paper so you can secretly flip them over to gaslight your friends whenever they go to the bathroom!

These are super limited run (150 of each) and are being sold for $5 apiece, or both for $9. This is the first piece of GMDK merch we’ve ever made, so we hope you like it!

Click here to purchase directly from Exalted Funeral.

Introducing the Humble Mabel Bundle

Beloved friend/partner/creator and GMDK contributor Mabel Harper needed some help this week, and the whole community banded together to contribute.

In less than a week, we raised over $8,000 for her GoFundMe and all but ensured that she’ll be able to come home safely. My gratitude is immeasurable. Mabel’s an amazing person, and knowing that the RPG community recognizes that and was kind enough to donate warms my heart.

As thanks, myself and a bunch of other designers have created a bundle of games that will be given to anyone who donates $5 or more before midnight on Tuesday. If you’ve already donated, a download key will be sent to you as a thanks through GoFundMe.

Click here to access the Humble Mabel Bundle.

There’s over $300 worth of material here, in 42 separate products, and it can all be yours for the cost of a sandwich. Included are both the games GMDK has released to date—The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 and LaMía—because we’re ride or die here at Demon’s Inc. So snag it while you can, either by donating to the GoFundMe or purchasing directly through Itch.io (all sales made through Itch will be sent directly to Mabel).

Once again, thank you all for your support. This has been a trying time for Mabel, her partner, and I, but your love and generosity has been literally life-saving. We love you all.

The GMDK Guide to PDF Accessibility

I mentioned a while ago about writing a series of blog posts about making your PDFs conform to accessibility standards. This was a mistake, because while I enjoy blogging I hate having deadlines and self-imposed deadlines are the worst of all. Regardless, there’s been more than a few people asking me how to do this, and as tempting as it may be to make GMDK books unique in this manner I think it’s better for everyone if PDF accessibility became the rule, not the exception. So, let’s boogie. 

What does it mean to make a PDF accessible? 

Books, and by extension PDFs, are an inherently visual medium. In western Europe, the first printed book predates the first tactile language by four centuries. Graphical user interfaces predated the software necessary to read their contents aloud. Optimizing a PDF for the sightless or vision-impaired means working against a lot of common design choices made by RPG creators. 

For one, the use of color as a signifier of importance is out. As are things like bold or italicized fonts (though some text-to-speech (TTS) programs can parse these properly). Illustrations that serve a descriptive purpose, like maps, have to be accompanied by read-aloud text that carefully and exactly describes their visual content. Illustrations that don’t serve a descriptive purpose—this includes monster art, page decoration and numbers, and even the lines separating table rows—need to be properly tagged so that the machine doesn’t read them: imagine how annoying it would be if your audio book kept pausing the story to sound out every flourish and line break! 

Though people may have various levels of visual acuity, to conform to the highest standards (and therefore be accessible to the largest number of people) you will need to design your book so as to be entirely readable by the fully blind. Though the obvious and easiest way to do this would be to provide a raw text document of your game, that is still an inferior product to a properly tagged and optimized PDF—when seeking inclusivity, it is not enough to have an option for everyone, but to have options that are as similar as possible in their experience and function. I assure you that full PDF accessibility is possible without compromising your artistic vision. 

What are the PDF accessibility standards? 

For this guide, we’ll be using “PDF/UA”, which stands for “Universal Accessibility.” It’s currently the most widespread and rigorous standards for PDF documents, equivalent to WCAG 2.0 for web files. It is extremely thorough, but what it mainly looks for is: 

  1. Is your file set up in a logical reading order? Do section headers flow from most to least important? Do your pages link to one another? Can a TTS program read your text the same way human eyes would? 
  2. Are your fonts embedded and readable? This one’s a gimme. You gotta embed your fonts, every time. If you don’t, the program has to try and guess what the letters are from their shape, currently an unreasonable task for a program that can be stopped, started, and moved around in real-time. 
  3. Does everything in your file have an appropriate tag? We’ll go into more detail about this further in, but for now you can think of tags as little instructions that tell the TTS program how something should be read. Everything in your file needs to be tagged, even if that tag means “ignore this.”
  4. Are the embedded files in your PDF also PDF/UA compliant? This doesn’t come up often in RPG books, as I’ve never seen a dungeon with an embedded gif. If you’re sticking to text and images, you’ll pass this. 
  5. Does your text map onto a language the TTS program can parse? This is also probably a gimme. TTS programs have been made for nearly every spoken language on earth. If your book is nothing but made-up fantasy words and symbols you might have trouble, but that’s beyond the purview of this guide. 
  6. Are important illustrations tagged with read-aloud alternate text? This will mainly apply to maps, graphs, and other figures. Because the TTS can’t describe an image itself, you’ll have to write out exactly what you want it to say in place of the picture.
  7. Does your PDF have the appropriate metadata? Metadata is all the behind-the-scenes stuff that most people never worry about: the document title, author, search engine tags, etc. PDF/UA has specific metadata requirements that we’ll go into in detail, but they are often the easiest part of the document to make compliant (as they don’t affect the visual presentation at all). 

That’s basically all, and you can automate a lot of it if your document is simple enough. However, as a self-taught designer I’ve never taken the quick and easy road when the long and difficult one was available, so lets go into detail on these and learn how you can apply them to your PDF. 

Note: some of these steps can be skipped by applying things like tags and chapters directly into the file in your layout program. To my knowledge, the only program that can do this is Indesign, and I would be remiss to talk about accessibility only in terms of the program that costs $30 a month to use. Instead, we’ll be applying everything in post, after the PDF has been created (and regardless of the program used to make it).

Note 2: regrettably, I haven’t found a free PDF program that can make tags and alter metadata in the ways required for PDF/UA compliance, so this guide will depend on you having access to Acrobat Pro. If you’re a student or work for a sizable business, you probably get it for free. If not, it’s by far the easiest CC program to borrow or steal. 

How to optimize your PDF for PDF/UA accessibility

Note 3: throughout this guide, the term “optimize” will be used in lieu of the industry term “remediate.” I just like it better, but if you’re searching for this stuff online, most people will probably call it “PDF remediation”.

First things first, download the PAC 3 (PDF Accessibility Checker 3) program here. It’s free, easy to use, and will tell you exactly what is wrong with your document (likely tens of thousands of things at first). Here’s what The Demon Collective, Volume. 1 looked like before optimization:

Designer’s Tip: there’s no better way to catch last-minute errors than to name your file “PDF_Final”

And after: 

9 revisions later, the process is complete.

If you click on the “Results in Detail” button, it’ll go through every one of the 180,000 problems, but nobody has time to do that so let’s get the major problem out of the way first: it’s not tagged! Remember, tagging a PDF tells the TTS program how it should read the document. So, open your file in Acrobat Pro and navigate over to the “Tools” panel. What we’re here for is the “Accessibility” option (though the “Print Production” tool will also get some use). Clicking on this will swing out the left-side panel, where we’ll be doing the lions share of our work. 

Bookmarks

Though not explicitly required for some documents to be PDF/UA, giving your game digital bookmarks does wonders for its accessibility. I’m a big proponent of taking advantage of the medium, and being able to click directly to a topic, chapter, or even table is a major help when you’re desperately trying to remember something during a game session. 

Attachments

As said before regarding embedding, you probably won’t have to deal with this. 

Layers

Like bookmarks, this is not essential but is just good practice: set your art on a separate layer than your text. This allows you to consolidate the layers afterwards and gives your reader a handy “hide art” button so they can print it out without wasting all their expensive toner. You can do more interesting things with this too: I’ve toyed with a bilingual PDF that has English and Spanish text on different layers, so they can be switched on the fly within the same file. 

If you’ve gone and put your images on a special “Art” layer, it may still show up as a bunch of different layers with the same name. Affinity does this for each page, but you can merge them by clicking the drop down menu and going to “Merge Layers…”.

Content

This is the important stuff. This tab lists every single bit of information in your document: every line, letter and image. Before you tag things, it’ll be an absolute mess. Afterwards, you’ll be able to go to each page and see how everything is organized. As a rule, it will show headers, paragraphs, images, and tables as seperate entities. 

Order

Once you have everything tagged, you’ll come here to make sure it reads everything in proper order. In an English document, it will default to a logical progression of scrolling right from the upper left corner in rows, just as if you were reading it. Large images, display text, and other layout choices can mess with this, however, so it’s good to give it a once over at the end. 

Remember, Adobe doesn’t know how your document is supposed to be read. You could create a fully accessible PDF that is still impossible to understand because the text isn’t ordered properly. If you have the time, you can use Adobe’s built in Read Out Loud feature (View/Read Out Loud/Activate Read Out Loud) to get an idea of how a TTS program will parse your document. 

Tags

As stated before, tagging is absolutely the most important thing when optimizing a PDF for screen readers. This panel shows the tags that you’ve applied to the document, page by page. It will be empty at first. If you have a fairly simple document and trust Adobe to block everything correctly, you can use the “Autotag Document” function on the right-side panel. It’s not perfect, and you’ll likely have to go through and fix some things, but it does a decent job of dealing with text. 

Your other option is to tag things manually. This is time consuming, but gives you absolute control and ensures no gremlins sneak in while you aren’t looking. To do this, click the “Reading Order” option on the right-side panel. A new window will open up that looks like this: 

Now, you can just click and drag boxes around items that you want to tag (tip: you can subtract selections by holding down CTRL, and add to selections with SHIFT). You’re going to do this for everything in your document. 

Display Text and Headers

These needed to be tagged in descending order, line-by-line. If you have a Heading 2, it has to be preceeded by a Heading 1. No exceptions. If you have a decent grasp of information hierarchies, you likely haven’t used more than two or three styles of headings in your book. Regardless, I’d recommend doing this page by page. Don’t try to jump around and do all of one kind of heading at once or you’ll find you’ve missed something somewhere and have to search to find it. 

As well, put yourself in the mindset of a blind person and you’ll realize that you can consolidate different types of headings under the same style of tag. There isn’t a “Title” tag for your front page, because that can just be Heading 1. Your author credit can be Heading 2, even if it looks nothing like the subheading you use in the body of the book. We’re thinking logically, not visually; all the computer cares about is that important information is labelled as such. 

Body Text

These will be tagged “Paragraph” and you’ll be pleased to know you can do whole paragraphs at once instead of going line-by-line. Theoretically you could do whole columns, but that seems error-prone so I’ve always stuck with single paragraphs. 

Lists

Lists can be annoying, because there’s not way to tag them naturally. You have to go entry-by-entry, tagging each one as a Paragraph, then individually changing them to List Items by right-clicking the tag and manipulating the Type drop down menu. As well, you need to tag itemization/enumeration seperately, but also as List Items, and you have to move the whole thing into a “List” tag (which you can create by right-clicking anywhere in the Tag panel and selecting “New Tag”. 

Images

Images will be split into two categories: important and decorative. Important images like maps, diagrams, and charts will be tagged as Figures, and need to be labelled with alternative text, like this map from She’s Not Dead, She’s Asleep

Writiing alternate text for maps is a weirdly difficult skill, and I imagine the sort of GM’s who make a point of having their players’ map dungeons would have an easier time with it. The goal is to be able to close your eyes and make a mental picture of the map, which means giving as much detail as possible without getting mired in description. RPG design often comes down to a mixture of creative and technical writing, but you’ll want to leave the purple prose out of this. To set alternate text, right click on the image in the “Tags” panel, scroll down to “Properties” and place your alternate text in the “Alternate Text” box. 

Decorative images are treated oppositely, in that we need to tag them so as not to be read. To do this, instead of tagging them as Figures you’ll want to tag them as Background/Artifact. This basically tells the TTS program to ignore them. It is not enough to leave them untagged! For PDF/UA compliance, you need to tag everything, even if it’s just to say that something doesn’t need to be considered. Think like a computer.

Tables

Tables are a major pain in the ass, and if ever there was a reason to forego manual tagging, this would be it. They can also screw up the formatting of your document in a way I don’t quite understand, so I would recommend saving a copy of the file before you start. Much like lists, you have to go line-by-line; in fact, you need to go cell-by-cell, left to right, top to bottom. Then you have to put all the cells of a single row onto a Table Row, which needs to have a header (as do columns!). Then you have to put all the table rows into a Table tag, which has its own master header. Also, if you used any strokes or fills in your table, they need to be tagged as decorative figures. Here’s what a simple 2×6 table looks like when it’s tagged:

So yeah, it’s rough. The important thing to remember is to work logically: Cells go in rows go in tables. When tagging a PDF, you will never do wrong by starting with the smallest possible increment and working up. The worst that can happen is you waste a little time, but you will end up with a much better product.

Standards

This panel shows if you’ve achieved PDF/UA or not. We’ve got PAC3 for that, which is far more thorough, so don’t trust this. 

A Word on Metadata

Because there are different accessibility standards, each with their own protocols and means of interpretation, it’s necessary to assign your entire document the profile of PDF/UA. This requires a bit of behind-the-scenes work. To begin, open up the metadata window by going to File/Properties/General/Additional Metadata. Here, you can put stuff like your title, authors and contributors, a short descriptions, and any search engine tags you want. Those last two are pretty important if you want your PDF to show up when people search for similar terms, so feel free to be pretty specific. 

Once you’ve done that, switch over from Accessibility to the Print Production tab and click on the Preflight option on the right panel. This is used for a lot of different things, namely color checking and bleed management, but it can also be used to assign profiles to your PDF. To do this, make sure the topmost option in the window is set to “PDF Standards” and then click on the little wrench icon. Scroll down to “Document info and Metadata”, click “Set PDF/UA-1 entry”, and then click “Fix.” This assigns the PDF/UA profile, even if you haven’t fulfilled the requirements. If you’ve done everything in order, this should be the last step before running it through PAC3 and troubleshooting. 

Working With Color

One of the aspects of PDF/UA compatibility is color contrast: if your text disappears into your background, it’s not accessible. While The Demon Collective, Vol. 1 is 100% black and white and therefore doesn’t have any contrast problems, this can get trickier if you’re working in full color. An excellent free tool for this is the Color Contrast Analyzer, which lets you use an eyedropper tool to select foreground and background color and instantly measures if the contrast is sufficient. While it’s tuned to WCAG 2.1 (the latest accessible guidelines for web-based content) if your text passes, it’s PDF/UA compliant as well. 

PAC3

I can say this with confidence: it’s unlikely that you’ll catch everything your first time around. Luckily, PAC3 is more than happy to show you exactly what you’ve done wrong in detail, and is supported by an entire website devoted to providing details and fixes for each of its error codes. As an example, let’s take a common problem with a confusing name but easy fix: “‘DisplayDocTitle’ entry is not set”. Now you probably have no idea what that means, but just search for it in taggedpdf.com and you’ll find the solution is to enable a single option in the Document Properties. 

Once you get more comfortable with doing this, you’ll find it easier to suss out where you missed a tag or forgot to nest a list properly. Save often, and don’t be afraid to make multiple copies: as you can see in the above screenshot, by the time I finished with PAC3 I was on the 10th version of the book! 

So ends our shortish guide on how you can make your books a whole lot friendlier for people who use assistive technology. While daunting at first, there are many resources online written by smarter folk than I that can teach you every single aspect of the craft. I learned through a video course, plus a lot of time spent browsing forums and reading guides like the one I’ve just written. RPGs, with their focus on imagination and storytelling, are able to be enjoyed by nearly everyone regardless of physical ability–if they are able to access the resources needed to play. In this regard, a little bit of time and work on the designer’s part can save a lot on the part of the reader. 

Step by Step Guide

  1. Open your PDF in Acrobat Pro and navigate to the Accessibility tool. 
  2. Using the Reading Order tool under the Tags panel, tag everything in the document. 
  3. Organize tags, putting List Items into Lists and Table Cells and Rows into Tables. Create a Document tag and place every other tag inside it. I don’t know why you need to do that last one, but you do. 
  4. Using the Content panel, verify that every important bit of information is tagged properly. 
  5. Using the Order panel, verify that the text flows properly and things like tables and images are inserted at the right place in the reading order. 
  6. Adjust the Metadata of the book to properly reflect the title, author, tags, and PDF/UA status. 
  7. Run through PAC3 to see if it passes. If not, fix listed problems and repeat until finished. 

Writer Spotlight: David Shugars

Like Robyn, I’m here dancing on my own with David Shugars of The Demon Collective, Vol. 1, to talk about his adventure Hush, RPGs in general, and the future of GMDK.


DAVID: This is weird. Introduce yourself.

DAVID: I’m David Shugars. I’m a 27-year old nonbinary writer, graphic designer, and the legal founder of GMDK.

That’s an interesting name. What’s the meaning behind it?

Well, David is biblical, there was this guy…

You know what I mean.

Yeah, yeah. So, ages ago (like July 2018) Mabel Harper organized a discord server for collaborators on her big vampire book. We had talked via G+ before, but that was our first real collaboration. It’s also where I met Comrade, Camilla, Fiona, and the magnanimous Sean McCoy, who was a real guiding force in my decision to get into publishing.

Anyways, the name. So, the discord was called “A Server Full of Demons” because Mabel’s blog was called A Blog Full of Demons. As we were the only ones in the server, that made us demons. As the channel grew and talk began branching out beyond the vampire project, “Good morning, demonkind” became a sort of regular greeting: you wake up, say good morning, and chat about gay RPG things in between working on whatever else you had going on. “Good morning, demonkind” eventually got shortened to GMDK, because we can’t read, and also it’s phonetically “GM Decay” which is sort of what we’re going with in this whole endeavor: breaking down the standard RPG tropes and conventions to make newer, cooler stuff.

Brilliant. What are you doing for this project?

Well, my adventure is called “Hush.” It’s a dungeon-crawl through an ancient dwarven library filled with ghosts, awful bugs, and a very hungry caterp-er, basilisk. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while–one of the very first adventures I ever wrote, I had planned it for an old campaign, but we never got around to playing it at the time.

It started with wanting to make a module that was more “survival horror” than what was on the market. Problem was, it’s really hard to do horror when PCs have limitless resources and prep time, and I didn’t want to have them all beaten up and thrown into a pit without their weapons either.

Reasonable; that seems like a very lazy way to start an adventure, much less a campaign spanning levels 1-15.

I don’t understand that last point, but it doesn’t matter. So, if you can’t take away the PCs time, you can’t take away their agency, and you can’t take away their equipment, what do you do? You take away their senses. Hush is about crawling through a dark maze, deaf and nearly blind, while being hunted by a creature that you cannot and must not look at. It’s a classic negadungeon: the winning move is not to play. Good luck convincing PCs of that, though.

You’re also doing the layout and design for the book, right? What’s the plan with that?

Zines are cool in that you can break every rule of design and still be on-brand. I won’t be doing that, though, because I like my books to be readable. Instead, I’m working closely with Lauren Bryce (our terrific artist) to coordinate the art and design in ways that looks good and scans better. The book is black and white, in the most literal sense: Laurens’ work is heavy and relies on stippling to provide shading, so there’s no actual gray anywhere. It’s gonna be breathtaking.

The Pale Grubs infest every corner of the library, and now they’re in your browser! oooooh~

The Kickstarter has been a great success, and it’s looking like you’ll hit 600% by the end of the funding period. This gives me hope for the future of GMDK, do you feel the same way?

I do, David.

Is there anything you can tell us about upcoming projects that lovers of The Demon Collective might be interested in?

Our editor, Fiona Geist, is working on two of her own adventures right now, illustrated by Joan-Rose Gordon and Evlyn Moreau, respectively. I’ll be publishing an English translation of Vivien Feasson’s post-apocalyptic story game, Liberté, likely sometime in July. Scrap Princess and I have been working on PlaneScrap for nearly two years now, so if you’re looking for dimension-hopping weirdness, stay tuned for more of that.

Oh, and Vol. 2 of the Demon Collective is all but assured. Maybe we’ll do a single megadungeon this time, with each person designing a floor. Or perhaps a big hexmap with each person designing factions that control certain areas. Either way, there’s clearly a market for collaborative content, and I’m happy to corner it until someone better decides to muscle me out.

I’m sorry

David Shugars is on twitter. You can read his blog posts here, where you’re already at.