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. 


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. 


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


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…”.


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. 


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. 


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 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 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 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.


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. 


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 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. 

3 thoughts on “The GMDK Guide to PDF Accessibility

  1. Excellent timing, since I’m putting together my first oneshot setting this mouth. Don’t suppose you’ve done anything for generating epubs?


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