I’m currently trying to get through the TTRPG tome Blackbirds. I can’t say I’ve made much headway. I’m 20 pages in in this heavy, unwieldy and somewhat morose volume and already there are two things that strike me as Gatekeep-y.

The first is the opaque language, that I assume is intended to bring with it a sense of doom and destruction. We’re talking Grimdark fantasy here. In other words, everything is depressing and nothing is really fun or bright, it’s just rot and misery no matter where you turn.

But the language is dense. As in “I’m trying to be Ingemar Bergman” dense. Or any of the really depressing playwrights that just make you feel like there’s nothing to live for. It’s also difficult to parse as in it uses heavy and complicated words, probably to convey that said mood that it’s trying to set. So that’s the first ten pages in a 600 page book. Dense, heavy, opaque.

The reason I’m calling this a gatekeeping mechanism is that even someone interested in the book – like me – might find it really heavy to get through. Is it needed? Honestly I don’t know yet, but I’m starting to see where games that are much more lightweight have an advantage.

The second hurdle comes just after the first ten pages, because that’s when the rules kick in. It’s like reading a VCR manual. A badly written VCR manual. For those of you not old enough to ever have read a VCR manual… well. This is dense in another fashion. It’s dense in “you need to be an academic to even try to understand this” language.

I’m making the assumption that because I haven’t read further that I might, in future, understand what this is all about. But also consider this. I have been in contact with and reviewed TTRPGs for most of my life. I started playing when I was in my early teens.

For me to say “this language is difficult to understand” should mean something.

The reason I’m using Blackbirds as an example is not because I am vindictive of Blackbirds in particular. As I said, it’s a book I want to read, so I read it. But it is symptomatic of how many TTRPGs are structured and the language used in them.

If you add to this the tendency to do completely useless layouts that make reading even more difficult, how many people are you in effect shutting out of the hobby?

My feeling is that it’s quite a few.

I think we need to talk about this. I think we need to dissect the format of TTRPGs as artifacts and see if there are ways to make them more accessible to everyone, not just voracious readers of academic texts and people who enjoy reading the dictionary AND the thesaurus side by side.

Just as we are discussing accessibility in digital games, we should discuss it in analogue games. We do, after all, pride ourselves on being so open minded and letting everyone into the hobby. Except we all know this is really a lie. Though that is a topic for another conversation.