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Dungeons and Dragons and the Deaf:

Osborn McGuire

July 3rd 2022

 

I spend three nights of my week playing Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, which can be as flexible as the human mind. To name some examples, I have been a part of fighting epic battles with ferocious monsters, solving riddles and puzzles, and sneaking around a dragon's dungeon to avoid being roasted and eaten with or without ketchup. Then I watched an ASL video with a English transcript by Deaf youtuber named Rogan Shannon. He signed "I want to chat a little about Dungeons & Dragons, and the almost nonexistent relationship it has with the deaf community" (Shannon, 2021). I found this surprising. I wanted to know why Deaf people have a hard time playing the game. One reason seems to be there aren't enough signs to encompass it. Matt Chapman wrote the article "Behind the Screen: Sign Language and D&D." In it he states "Imagine heading out to play Dungeons & Dragons, finding your seat on the appropriate side of the DM screen, unpacking your dice, and waiting for the scene to be set - only to find you and your friends lack the language to describe that world!" (Chapman, 2019). There are over 300 or so monsters to throw onto the gaming table and color the game's usually medieval world. But there "ain't" 300 signs to describe 300 monsters. Even more so there are not very many signs available on other components of the game. With many of the monsters sharing traits with other monsters it can get pretty complicated trying to describe one monster with horns when there are quite a large number of monsters with horns. Some signs seem simple to figure out: stand an animal sign upright and you have an anthropomorphized character version. Others would take a long time to describe because they are not classic monsters and only exist in D&D, players would have to think of some new way of explaining it. Then there is layering. It can be difficult to pull this off because it might get confusing talking for your position as the DM, your position as one of your characters, any NPCs, and yourself.

 

    So before I get into what I think are some of the biggest problems Deaf people face, I should probably go over some equipment that a player would have to bring in order to play:

 

1) a very large amount of imagination

2) some graph paper, regular paper, and a pencil

3) a character sheet for each character you want to play

4) specific D&D dice

5) a copy of the D&D Player's Handbook

6) someone with the right qualifications to be a Dungeon Master or Game Master

 

     A Dungeon Master, or DM, does everything a player doesn't, from handing out treasure, and magical items, to playing everybody else in that world, the unicorns, the vampires, the trolls and the goblins. They also design the world, and write down a rough draft of the story and can adapt the original theme from a medieval time period to a setting with musketeers, pirates, or post apocalyptic adventures. Or even further, a campaign with no humans at all, just animals. Since the Handbook and any of the other D&D guides can't answer all questions, the DM has to make the final decision in some cases, like a judge. A word of advice for players: do your best to not offend a DM, because he could say "Oh look here comes a red dragon" and destroy your character. And a word of advice for DMs: if you kill or offend a player they are not coming back and you won't have anyone left to smash -- I mean uh -- play with. Hearing DMs are hard to find which means Deaf DMs are even harder to find. To quote Rogan Shannon, "It requires a group and someone willing to DM, which is already difficult for hearing people, so it's even more difficult for deaf people to accomplish this." But he goes on in hope for the future, "I really look forward to the day when there are a lot more deaf DMs out there and there's more visibility for D&D in the deaf community" (Shannon, 2021). 
 

     One of the most important things for Dungeons and Dragons is a character sheet. This houses all of your information about the character you are playing. The next question is, well, what is a character? A character is some abilities (strength, dexterity, intelligence), some equipment (implements of destruction, shiny razzy-dazzy armor, and insanely powerful magic items), with a bunch of chosen skills, and a bit of personality thrown into it. How do you store this data? For example, if your character is as strong as the Hulk, how would you describe that? Or as intelligent and wise as Sherlock Holmes? Well, the character sheet uses numbers with a scale that ranges from 1 to 20. Let's say we are talking about strength. The value of 1 would mean you are about as strong as a cricket. If it was 10 you are about as strong as an average human. If it was 20, you're as strong as Superman. Another example is your intelligence. A 20 would mean you are about as intelligent as Einstein. A 10 would be your average human. And a number 1 would be as intelligent as Ernest P. Worrell. Know what I mean? 

 

     There are seven types of modern dice used in D&D. Most of them are commonly used for damage. Now, why are there seven different types of dice to do this? Well, let me explain. All dice start with the number one and go up to the number equal to how many sides they have. The first die is four, the second is classic six, third is eight, fourth is 10, fifth is 12, sixth is the quintessential D&D 20 die, and seventh is another 10 sided. This last 10 is the weird one because it counts by tens up to 100. This allows you to roll this 10 (100) with the regular 10 to get any number between one and a 100. With D&D filled with many different types of weapons that should have a great range of damage capabilities, they use a great number of dice to simulate that range. With the smallest sided dice doing the smallest amounts of damage. With a dagger using a four sided die to a heavy humongous crossbow using a 12 sided die to one of my favorite spells "Fireball" which uses eight six sided dice. That would be referred to as "8d6" that causes a humongous amount of damage. The most iconic die in the whole game is the d20. The 20 sided dice is used to calculate for a whole bunch of things such as successfully hitting the monster, perceiving if there is a trap, or someone is lying, and initiative. Initiative is used to calculate when people do what, when they are fighting. In Matt Chapman's article, Isla van der Heiden, another BSL interpreter is quoted as saying, "An early proposed sign for "Roll for Initiative" was rolling the dice and then adding a shaking letter "I"" (Chapman, 2019). 

 

     So now you have the precontemplative state of mastery, the basics. If you compare the over 300 aspects of needed vocabulary that are part of the game, to the relatively small amount of available signs, it falls miserably short of the necessary number. Here are 19 signs that I have found:
 

Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Roll for Initiative

Roll for Initiative in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Dragon

DRAGON-[S-5-version]

Goblin

goblin [English (US)] - SpreadTheSign

Witch

WITCH

Warlock

Warlock in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Fire Wall

Wall of Fire in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Roll for Perception

Roll for Perception in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Mind Flayer

Mind Flayer in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Demogorgon

Demogorgon in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Beholder

Beholder in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Call Lightning

Beholder in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Burning Hands

Burning Hands in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG

Orc

The BSL sign for "Orc" from Somatic Component

Skeleton or Bones

SKELETON or BONES | ASL - American Sign Language

Vampire

Learn How to Sign Vampire

Cyclops

cyclops ASL

Devil

Learn How to Sign the Word Devil

Ghost

How to Sign Ghost

 

Mysty Vander has performed most of these in this chart because she is one of the only ones that I've seen that has that many signs that are specific to D&D. There are a limited number of accepted ASL dictionaries that have to do with role playing games. Some of the few are, Matt Chapman's Youtube channel with Mysty Vander and of course there is Lifeprint. (Though I'm not quite sure how I know about that site. Be sure to check it out.) People around the world from different sign languages are suffering similar problems to the point where in order to create signs for D&D, they have begun to borrow words from other languages to adapt them accordingly.  In Zachary Mirpuri's article, a Deaf artist makes a Filipino sign language guide for Dungeons & Dragons and discusses artist C.J. Reynaldo. "He researched how foreign sign languages like ASL and BSL interpret D&D classes and was eventually allowed to borrow a few words from those languages for his FSL guide" (Mirpuri, 2022). I found Somatic Component on Youtube also had the 12 classes in BSL. Kieron McMullan goes on to say in Chapman's article, "Sign language is a situationally relative lexicon, which can make it pretty sparse. When we tried to play D&D we found that the vocabulary simply wasn't there" (Chapman, 2019).  There are a very limited amount of signs that seem to be available and do not cover the whole monster manual. Even though McMullan said, "There's no sign for goblin or dragon because these things weren't established" (Chapman, 2019). We did find that a source suggested a sign for "goblin" (Spread the sign) and Dr Bill Vicars has a general sign for "dragon" (Lifeprint). 

 

     There are certain descriptor traits that would typically be obvious if I was talking to you in the real world. Some deaf gamers have experienced problems with describing the world, the things, and some of the monsters. When you are trying to describe that someone in the game has horns like a tiefling, (a "tiefling" is a playable character race that has sort of a lizard-ish tail, with horns like a devil, and sometimes purple skin), someone may confuse a tiefling with a devil if you are using their horns as a descriptor trait.  It would be quite difficult if you had to describe a tiefling player character watching a Pit Devil and a Balor fight each other along with a horde of demons and also devils. Keiron McMullan agreed, "And you can't describe the Blood War as the horned people fighting the horned people for 1,000 years, because they are completely different factions" (Chapman, 2019). Interpreter Thomas Malone, discussed a Sphinx in Chapman's article. "I had no idea how to interpret a sphinx", "A cat's lower body with a woman's upper body but nine feet tall- it was hard to convey that without explicitly spelling it out" (Chapman, 2019). However sometimes it is easier to sign it than to say it in English. For example there is something in the world of Dungeons and Dragons called a "tortle". A tortle is an anthropomorphized turtle. For those who know Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles this might seem familiar. Or if you like Kung Fu Panda from Dreamworks, think of Master Ugway. "To anthropomorphize the tortle we simply stand the sign for the tortoise erect. A tortle is essentially a tortoise on two feet which can use its hands, so why complicate that?" stated interpreter Keiron McMullan (Chapman, 2019).
 

     "In sign language you reach down to draw your sword, move your finger to indicate you're running up to the creature and actually have to swing the weapon." states Thomas Malone, (Chapman, 2019). When you are talking for your character, that is one level that you have. When we are communicating in several different layers at once, things can get difficult. For example when you are signing, you can be talking for yourself, your character if you have one, and if you are the DM, the environment and any non player characters. Thomas Malone is quoted in Matt Chapman's article as saying, "I'm one person and there can be five people talking at the same time. To tell the difference I'll say, "Now I'm the elf woman" or "Now I'm the dragon man" and sign that they're having a conversation and then she casts a spell. But it can be tricky to portray which layer they are now talking in. One second I'm the DM, then I'm the person the DM is talking to.   It's tricky to juggle all those balls in the air", "One player chose a bard as his character and brought out a guitar in the middle of the show and started singing. That's like a fourth layer! Interpreting a song mid-game is hard" (Chapman, 2019). 

 

     "I think our language is uniquely suited to this game." states Rogan Shannon. "First of all , it's obviously a visual language, and it is FANTASTIC for storytelling!" He adds, "Of course not everyone is a master storyteller-and you don't have to be to play D&D! - but the fact that it's already baked into the language gives us a boost" (Shannon, 2021). I know that there are some people who when speaking English use their hands, body language, and facial expressions to emphasize what they say, especially people who tell stories. But sign language has that ingrained because that is what it is based off of. I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to lack of signs you simply make more to fit the required number. But when traits are used too often to describe the same monster, hopefully a little clever ingenuity and borrowing expressions from other sign languages will solve the problem. And for there to be an easier way to share what they come up with. I suggest you don't miss out. Because it's a really fun way to play, and if you have an issue as long as you figure out how to, you can change it. I am a D&D player and a DM. D&D has been around long enough for my parents to be D&D players and DMs. D&D was almost forgotten until the TV show Stranger Things came along and rebooted it. It would be sad in this time period of rebooting it if the Deaf community could not be included in this highly adaptable game.

 

References:
 

Articles:

Mirpuri, Zachary. (2022, Jan. 4). Deaf artist makes Filipino sign language guide for Dungeons & Dragons. Retrieved: 1, Feb. 2022: https://pop.inquirer.net/117792/deaf-artist-makes-filipino-sign-language-guide-for-dungeons-dragons

 

Shannon, Rogan. (2021, Mar. 27). Dungeons & Dragons and the deaf. Retrieved: 11, Nov. 2021: community https://roganshannon.com/2021/03/27/dungeons-dragons-and-the-deaf-community/

 

Chapman, Matt. (2019, Aug. 28). Behind the Screen: Sign Language and D&D. Retrieved: 11, Nov. 2021: https://dnd.dragonmag.com/2019/08/28/behind-the-screen-sign-language-and-dd/content.html

 

Books:

Mearls, Mike, and Jeremy Crawford. 2014. Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast.

 

Youtube:

Matt Chapman. "Dungeons & Dragons in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-21fja5Vb4w&list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G&index=1

 

Matt Chapman. "Warlock  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmO6W1iaCjA&list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G&index=2

 

Matt Chapman. "Wall of Fire  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qT6nzIVcf7g&list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G&index=3

 

Matt Chapman. "Roll for Perception  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021, https://youtu.be/8LLoqJ6KQbM?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "Roll for Initiative  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/PuGRqiOGO5c?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "Mind Flayer  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/g2C2xwfMYdk?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "Demogorgon  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/n8xN3KhesPU?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "Beholder  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/-QK-Wr7BqTc?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "Call Lightning  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/M-bJkDUC5dU?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "Burning Hands  in American Sign Language by Mysty Vander of ASL for RPG" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/HAFBU4V7T1Y?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

Matt Chapman. "The BSL sign for "Orc" from Somatic Component" Youtube, Uploaded by Matt Chapman, 17 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/5o41e_PZVJ0?list=PLx7juCvhNy5rXsjXzVqxl8-KVxrSXDV-G

 

ASL Teaching Resources. "How to Sign Ghost" Youtube, Uploaded by ASL Teaching Resources, 8 Oct. 2021 https://youtu.be/61Ij6Lk8Ml0

 

ASL Teaching Resources. "How to Sign the Word Devil" Youtube, Uploaded by ASL Teaching Resources, 24 Aug. 2015 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz4UQ0aHbeg

 

ASL Teaching Resources. "Learn How to Sign Vampire" Youtube, Uploaded by ASL Teaching Resources, 22 Oct. 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DrJxB7nhmgM 

 

Spread the Sign. "goblin [English (United States)]" Youtube, Uploaded by Spread the Sign, date unknown https://www.spreadthesign.com/en.us/word/7455/goblin/

 

American Sign Language University. "DRAGON- [S -5-version]" Youtube, Uploaded by American Sign Language University, 15 Aug. 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fzbq2Nsuq5I

 

American Sign Language University. "WITCH" Youtube, Uploaded by American Sign Language University, 15 Aug. 2018 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXLCBCxqQ6E

 

ASL Dictionary. "Cyclops ASL" Youtube, Uploaded by ASL Dictionary, 24 May 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EuePBpzTaw0

 

ASL THAT. "SKELETON or BONES | ASL - American Sign Language" Youtube, Uploaded by ASL THAT, 18 Feb. 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZYEbykg6cA

 

Somatic Component. "BSL Fantasy Signs - Dungeons & Dragons Classes" Youtube, Uploaded by Somatic Component, 24 Aug. 2019 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lagkvYStdo
 


 

Notes and discussion:
 
On Thursday, January 25, 2024 at 09:14:30 PM PST, Deborah Miles wrote:

Heya! I came back around to your website (Life Print) to refresh my ASL knowledge and try to become more conversational.

I ran across this page:

https://www.lifeprint.com/asl101/topics/dungeons-dragons-deaf.htm

As a Hearing D&D player (fairly low-level, but getting some EXP under my belt), I thought I might lend some suggestions to make things easier.

TL;DR, there are a number of visual aids that could be experimented with.

The first and foremost I thought of was Virtual Tabletop (VTT) websites/software like DNDBeyond (officially owned by Wizards), or Roll20. Roll20 is probably the easiest to get into, and the most versatile, if a bit glitchy. It's also possible to use a combo: one of my group has our character sheets on DNDBeyond (because that's where the DM bought his digital source books), but pays the game in Roll20, with help from a browser addon that bridges the two.

Advantages include physical distance not being an issue (obviously), having the option to use video- or written-chat (lots of Hearing players use voice chat on Discord, though Roll20 has its own features for that), and of course, you can just show things on the screen. In fact, players can look up information on monsters, items, etc (often complete with pictures), or the DM could pull up a picture, item entry, etc. so it shows on the screens of all players. Players can also do things like click to indicate a certain part of the map (or creature), or draw simple shapes to indicate what area certain spells affect.

Some people also just pay in online chatrooms, or forums. There are Discord bots that can help with things like rolling dice, or taking damage.

If you prefer in-person games, there are options there, too, though they might be more time-consuming, and/or more expensive. (Though plenty of Hearing players are often willing to shell out.)

The first thing I thought of is miniatures. You can get packs of miniatures, often from official sources. Some players or DMs prefer 3D printing. For a budget option, Rich Berlew, author/artist of the D&D-based comic Order of the Stick (using edition 3.5 if the rules) has collections of printable stick-figure monsters in his Gumroad store, under "A Monster For Every Season." Summer 2 also has tokens for VTTs, with there being plans to add them to the earlier collections. https://richburlew.gumroad.com/

Anyway, my thought there is that players could, say, point at the miniatures to indicate "this goblin" or "that goblin" during roleplay, or combat.

Players often also like using props. One DM suggestion I liked is to print out copies of the spell descriptions, and rolling it up like a scroll, so you can give players a LITERAL "Scroll of Fireball."  It's also common to use cards - bought or printed, sometimes custom-made - to keep track of spells or items. (I've seen a lot of joke cards that players put their humor into.)

Even without so many props, one could, say, point to the item/monster in question on the source books. Or pull up the appropriate Wiki page on a computer or tablet.

Anyway, those are just a few suggestions I thought might be helpful to add to that pages on your site, or to post on the Facebook group.  I'm sure players (and/or potential players) could find, or think up a lot more ideas with some effort, but I thought this might help some Deafie friends get started.

Hope this helps!

-- Deborah Miles
 


 




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