Monday, February 27, 2012

D&D in Public Libraries seminar, February 2012

Last week I organised and presented at a workshop on getting Dungeons & Dragons into public libraries. I figured I'd reproduce my talk here just because apparently people liked it, and it seems sensible to share that sort of thing. I got a lovely compliment from one of the volunteers that I will share later when I stop blushing.
You may remember me from last year, when I presented at the R U Game symposium. Since then Ellen Forsyth and I have worked hard to bring you this workshop, showing you some of the cool things you can do with the nifty kit that HASBRO were kind enough to donate to public libraries in 2010.

Last year I explained a little about what D&D is and some of the ways you can make an in-depth program with little to no budget. Today I’m going to tell you about the things my library has done with little to no budget and about some of the things we’ve learned along the way. Hopefully by now your libraries have your own experiences to draw from as well.

There will be 3 basic questions that you’ll need answers to if you’re going to run a D&D program for your library. First of all, you’re going to need to know what this whole thing is if you’re going to be able to talk to your patrons about how much fun it is and convince new players to give it a shot.

Second of all you’re going to need to know exactly what to do to prepare for a role playing session. How many players, how to be a dungeon master (DM) or how to find someone willing to dungeon master for you, what snacks to provide, what equipment you’ll need, what kind of space to use, and all the other little things that you only realise you need when it becomes clear you don’t have them.

Thirdly, you’re going to need to know what on earth D&D has to do with libraries and literacy so that you can justify running these games to your library manager (and any crotchety busybody patrons who have set ideas about just what libraries are supposed to be about).

Will Chan from Wizards of the Coast will be able to tell you much more than I can about D&D specifically, and you’ll hear from him in a short while, so I won't bore you with the history of D&D or the mechanics of the game.

As librarians, we are panhandlers of stories, distributers of everyday fantasies that people read and get lost in. We give people books so that they can experience things through the authors' or the characters' eyes that would otherwise be outside their realm of experience. But the limitation with books is that you cannot change the outcome. You cannot decide that you don’t want to hero of the story to battle the main antagonist and perhaps what he’d rather do is join forces with the big bad guy and subjugate the peasant population in order to fulfil his life-long dream of building a giant statue of a dragon carved out of the bones and teeth of the innocent. It’s just not going to happen that way, whether you like it or not.

With a roleplaying game, you can do this.  By its nature, it situates the players within the story to act it out as participants rather than as observers. Players are required to figure out for themselves where the story should go, who they should talk to, how they will interact with each other and whether the giant dragon statue made of bones is really a good idea after all, or if perhaps they would be better served by making it out of stone instead.

The story can literally go anywhere. My lovely friend, Robert, who some of you will have the benefit of meeting later today, created a campaign in which a single cataclysmicly disappointing event defines the setting and simply lets his players wander around in it. They have, throughout the campaign, been married, set themselves up as saviours of the meta-races, begun to bring back the cruel dragon overlords who once ruled the lands, started a war with a small city of giants and murdered the local messiah (several times)...but apparently they've buried him in ice so if they need to they can resurrect him later. If another group of players was to enter the same campaign, there would be a vastly different story to tell. Through roleplaying games (RPG's) we give our patrons the power to make the stories instead of just reading them.

And unlike writing and publishing a book, D&D is dead cheap. You already have the rule books, so the biggest expense is already out of the way. Dice sets can be obtained from your local gaming shop for between $5 and $20 depending on just how sparkly and pretty you want your dice to be. Apart from that your main cost will be snacks, printing and promotion.

In order to play you will need a space with a table and some comfortable chairs. You’ll need tokens to push around your map so everyone can visualise where they are. You’ll need pencils and paper in order to jot down important clues, treasure or hit points lost and you’ll need snacks. Some players are surgically adhered to their laptops and won’t be able to play without a pdf of every rulebook open at the same time and an electronic dice-roller. It’s easier not to argue, so make sure there’s a powerpoint available for them.

Now, when I started running D&D in the library, it wasn’t the only thing I was new at. I’ve been gaming on and off for 10 years now but in that time I had never, ever been a DM. I was also new to libraries and library programming, so I modeled the roleplaying group on the other programs the library had on offer. Our book club, youth consultants meetings and our manga group all met on a monthly basis, so I decided that monthly would have to work. It fits in with the roster, it’s easy to plan around other activities and it’s a standard period that the teens should be used to from other activities. The only main difference between this and other teen activities was that this was held in the evening on a night the library opens late. Which means that I was on a night shift, but not available for a desk shift during that time.

Also, like other activities, it was librarian-led. I chose to DM a group of new players. This was partly because of how the other activities that the library offered were modeled and partly because none of the teens knew how to play. Later, when I had to stop DMing myself due to time constraints, I handed the mantle over to the teen who had picked up the rules the quickest so that they could keep playing without me.

Each month I sent a detailed story email to the group indicating who they had spoken to, what they had learned and done, who/what they’d killed and what experience and loot they had gained and the effect this had on the party. I included the failures and the botched rolls as well as the successes and triumphant moments.

I used these emails as a way of publishing content about the game and the players in a variety of ways in the library. I introduced the characters on the teen blog, pointing out their strengths and weaknesses and their personalities. I also introduced them using our printed teen newsletter. And I posted facebook notes to the group using material from the campaign to flesh out the story and hold their attention between games.

Now, I’ll remind you that this was not just my first time DMing, but also my first time developing a regular teen program from scratch. It’s not perfect, and there was some trouble along the way.

First off: once a month is not enough. After each game there was a collective whine from the group “But can’t we play next week?” and it was always a little sad when I had to answer “no”. Despite the emails and the facebook posts and the newsletter articles there was always a period of time at the beginning of each session where the teens tried to remember where they were up to, who they were and what on earth the main quest was all about. This means that time spent playing gets cut down dramatically as everyone reads through their character sheet again, asks questions and generally faffs about while they settle down.

They loved the story refreshers! It reminded them when the next game was on and they were written in a theatrical style so they got into the mood of the game in time to start playing. They were sent on the Friday before the Tuesday game so they had the weekend to check emails and remind their parents when they had to be picked up. If I sent it on the Monday, they didn’t read it or didn’t get it in time. If I sent it earlier, then it was too long before the game and they forgot.

They loved seeing their game, their characters and their stories in print. They’d come into the library with some friends, they’d see the article and they’d show their friends what they’d been doing. Suddenly a bunch of geeks sitting around a table rolling dice looks cool and other people want to join in.

Finally: teens can’t organise themselves. This is an unfortunate fact of life. After I let them take responsibility for their own character sheets and 3 of the 5 sheets were lost by the second session, I decided that I was going to have to lower my expectations. The one time I forgot to send out a reminder email only 2 of the 5 turned up and even then one of them was late. Because the sessions ran during the evening and tended to take me out of action for a few hours once a month I was asked if the teens would be able to run the sessions themselves so that I could have more time for the pressing concerns of day-to-day work. I put it to the teens and they said “Yes! This means we can play every second week!” and then remembered I was standing right there and said “but we’ll miss you, too!” And so I handed over the reigns of DM-ship to one of the teens and told him to let me know when he needed the books. And it was great. They all turned up, it was well-run, and everyone was happy. The first time. After that it just didn’t seem to be able to keep going. Without a regular time and someone stern to tell them what to do they floundered and it all fell apart.

We’re in the process of starting the games back up again, recruiting new players to replace the ones who can’t come, sorting out a time when they can all be there. I’m still not able to run the games personally, so we’re looking for an outside DM who can run the games and let me know what needs doing behind the scenes.

So, what tips can I give based on what I’ve learned?

First off, remind players where they’re up to in advance of the game. This should reduce the amount of time wasted at the beginning of a session playing catch up.

Keep players on track. A little joking around and being silly is fine. It is a game, after all. But don’t’ spend too much time making half-orc jokes when you should be saving the world.

Be flexible. If one of your players wants to do or craft something and you don’t’ know the rule for it. you have 2 options. First, you can rummage through the rule books, look up the tables and work out the best skill check to apply and what modifiers should be used and how much money it shoud cost, thoroughly disrupting the game and dedicating an unwarranted amount of time to a single player with an esoteric and ultimately pointless customisation. OR…you can wing it. Take a guess and it’ll probably all work out okay. Then get back to the game.

Provide food and drinks. Especially if the game goes for more than 2 hours. People are going to start getting hungry, and there’s been many an epic roleplaying session that’s been railroaded by everyone deciding to stop and get lunch. Things never quite get back on track after that. So provide some food, or order pizza if it’s a big one-day event. That way you can eat and keep playing and the world doesn’t have to stop just because the group gets the munchies. Careful with the caffeine, though, or pretty soon even the most mundane of failed rolls will devolve into gigglefits.

Be theatrical. You can tell the story like you’re calling roll in 'Ferris Beuller’s Day Off', or you can inject some life into it. Most of you will have done children’s storytime before, and you’re basically using the same skills. When there’s a bear that attacks in the middle of the night, don’t say “it roars”, actually roar and scare the bejesus out of the group. If a player is wounded, don’t just say “you take 5 points of damage”, say “he thrusts the point of his spear into your chest, but you turn at the last second and it’s deflected by your armour and scrapes under your shield arm. You’re hit, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been! Take 5 damage”

Which leads to the last point. Have fun. Yeah, I know it’s work, but who says work can’t be fun? If you’re DMing and you’re not having fun, chances are your players aren’t having fun either. They’re probably bored or distracted or confused about what’s going on. So laugh with them, make friends with your patrons and enjoy yourself.

Now…all this talk of “having fun” is probably making you think that D&D is not serious business. And in the back of our minds we’re all thinking “Our focus right now needs to be on the NYR2012. I don’t have time to do frivolous programming right now. Fun sounds all well and good, but what’s it got to do with libraries?”

The answer: D&D satisfies our literacy requirements more than you would think. Hands up who has tried to decipher the core rule books. Now keep your hand up if you can honestly say you know the rules. (at this point only the volunteer Dungeon Masters kept their hands up) These books are hard to read, and yet kids with comparatively low literacy levels will sit and pore over them for hours. You know what they’re doing? They’re making characters by combining information from several sources. They’re putting forward an argument about why their character should be able to shapeshift as a free action while referencing the rule books and citing their sources. They’re learning to skim read for relevant keywords. They’re learning how to use books.

And I’m not the only person who writes down the exploits of my party. I write comparatively little about my campaigns compared to some. A friend started a facebook blog about the exploits of his party from the perspective of his character, making sure to leave out the information that his character didn’t know, making certain to include his characters opinions of the situation and the other characters. Another friend has written literally thousands of pages of text from his 10 year campaign giving details of exactly who did what, where, how and to whom. People want to tell these stories. And as libraries, you should be there for it.


  1. Sounds like young adults may surprise themselves at their increased information retention and research prowess. The essential skills of any legal minded person. Well done all.

  2. It was a great presentation - you received and answered more questions than the WotC guy!

    And when do we get to find out what the compliment was?

  3. I'm also curious about the compliment. Also, I'd like to swipe this bit for later quotation (with citation, of course), if it's alright with you:

    "These books are hard to read, and yet kids with comparatively low literacy levels will sit and pore over them for hours. You know what they’re doing? They’re making characters by combining information from several sources. They’re putting forward an argument about why their character should be able to shapeshift as a free action while referencing the rule books and citing their sources. They’re learning to skim read for relevant keywords. They’re learning how to use books."

  4. Hi everyone, sorry I didn't reply earlier. There's some kind of setting I'm going to have to find and poke with my mouse to turn on comment notifications.

    Mike: Of course you can use it. Just link here, if that's okay. :)

    Fizban: Really glad you liked it. I think I had the benefit of going before Will Chan. There were loads of questions I answered that he would have been fully capable of answering as well. I just got there first.

    As for the compliment: I will post it when I have permission from the writer to publish it. Until then it's our little secret :)