by Jake Ciarapica
In 2017 I wrote an article for this blog called “Librarian’s Report: Dungeons and Dragons in the Library.” I have been amazed how this article, going on six years later, continues to get comments and views! I stand by the information in this original article, it gives a great overview of the basics, and how I used to run library D&D. My description of the benefits of D&D remains particularly true, “this game is perfect for library programming; it has social interaction, imaginative play, and reading comprehension.”
But, a lot can change in six years! While I think this first article reflects an accurate stance on D&D in the library, I have since changed my perspective a bit on what makes library D&D work well. Since 2017 I have switched library systems, and working has really helped open my eyes to new ways to balance D&D in the library.
This article will cover:
- Framing How We Think About Library D&D
- Library D&D is a Demo of D&D
- Learning How to Play
- Dungeons and Dragons in 2023
If you are looking for what D&D is, or why it is beneficial for libraries to run it, I recommend reading my first article.
Framing How We Think About Library D&D
One of my early mistakes when running library D&D was being too concerned to make it as close as possible to the style of D&D I play in my free time. Depending on your planning time, and the regularity you run the program, it can definitely feel close to a regular D&D session, but library D&D can never completely recreate the traditional D&D experience. This doesn’t mean library D&D isn’t fun or doesn’t have value, but there are a few unique traits D&D in the library has, that normal D&D players don’t face. Let’s talk about them.
Anyone Can Join, Often Attending and Missing Sessions on a Whim
Regular D&D has a set group of players, occasionally players may miss a session, or maybe one will leave, or a new person join, but usually, over the course of a D&D campaign, you will be playing with the same group of people. This consistency is essential to the long-form storytelling traditional D&D is built on. You can’t have a rewarding campaign spread over multiple sessions if your players are 50-60% different every other session.
But D&D in the library needs to be flexible. It needs to assume that players will come for one session, maybe miss the next two, and then come again. Another major component is maximizing the stats from your program attendance. In my personal life, I would never allow over 6 players at my D&D table, but in my professional D&D programs, I have run games for upwards of 20. This involved a LOT of tweaking how the game worked, but it meant that my stats to time investment looked great!
This model of constantly changing and swapping attendees doesn’t work in the traditional D&D campaign experience. In the library, an experienced DM might be able to fudge things and make them work, or you might luck out and be able to maintain many of the same players, but it shouldn’t be counted on.
Time spent playing D&D is another huge factor to consider. My traditional D&D sessions last from 5-8 hours. We also play every other week. But, library D&D will never be able to regularly allocate that amount of time.
Most library D&D programs run for 1.5 – 2 hours, a fraction of the time regular groups play, and maybe only once a month. This means library D&D can usually get through maybe 1 combat and maybe 1-2 social encounters. When we add in that library D&D attendees will regularly be changing, this means that librarian DMs have two major hurdles, shorter time to play and changing players, to provide anything resembling a traditional D&D experience. But, let’s talk about who attends library D&D.
Who Plays Library D&D
In my 8 years of running D&D in the library, 99% of my attendees have very little experience playing the game. They have been people who are looking for a group to join and have only a little familiarity with how it actually works. They are people who heard about the game and wanted to give it a try. Sometimes they are people who played years and years ago and want to re-experience the game.
The thing all of these players have in common is that they are not regular D&D players. They don’t know the rules well, and they don’t have a regular group of their own to play with. This is very important, because like anyone first trying a hobby, they are not looking for the full dive, with deep rules and a story spanning years and years. They want a taste, they want to see what all the fuss is about, and most of all they just want to have fun with a bunch of fellow nerds!
Library D&D is a Demo of D&D
Because of all the factors I have been listing, I am convinced that sustainable and efficient library D&D is merely a demo of D&D. As the person running the game you are not trying to recreate the D&D experience, but rather just give a sample. This condensed and shortened version of D&D doesn’t need really in-depth storylines. Just grab a cool situation or two from a premade adventure, or run the same adventure long term, but summarize and simplify so it fits your revolving audience. The key is just making things fun, and creating situations for your players to roll some dice and slay some monsters.
The good news is, if Library D&D is just a sample of D&D, then the pressure is off for those of you new to D&D to get everything figured out perfectly. Chances are the players attending won’t know the rules! As long as you are emphasizing fairness, fun, and logical choices, no one will care, even experienced players. Think of it like story time, the first time you mix up words to a song in front of the families it can be horrifying until you realize that they rarely notice, and the ones that do, don’t care as long as you roll with it and keep going.
For some players, this sample will be all they want. But players who really get excited will inevitably begin to start seeking out their own info on the game. Soon, these players will start trying to form groups of their own, and may even stop coming to library D&D. But that is ok! Library D&D opened their eyes to how much fun D&D is, and now they are seeking the full experience; the experience that we at the library cannot ever fully provide.
It can be a bit bittersweet, but it means you are doing a great job leading D&D because they liked it enough to try it on their own. I often remind these players that can always contact me with D&D or library-related questions (slipping them my business card), and try to help guide them to whatever library materials we have that can help support their exploration of the game. If like me, you are running a lot of teen-specific D&D, it can be very cool to see a few years later those same teens as adults still playing the game.
Some people may be wondering won’t this eventually mean there isn’t a demand for you to run the program? In my experience no. Any D&D player will tell you there is always a shortage of people willing to run games of D&D. Good DMs get established groups and tend to stick with them. This means it can be very hard for new players to find a game. But libraries are the perfect place to find it because we can guarantee that we will be welcoming, inclusive, and fun!
Learning How to Play
This seems a natural time to discuss learning how to play D&D. The easiest way is to try playing the game; however, I understand that is not always an option for librarians whose time is tight.
One of my favorite ways to learn is to try making a few characters. Character creation normally involves flipping through different sections of the rule book, figuring out how to generate stats, hit points, and abilities, and then looking up what all those things mean. Once you make 2-3 different characters, chances are you will have a pretty good grasp of the basics.
I’d also consider reading the rules in the rule book. Now, this might seem like an obvious answer, and a daunting suggestion, since the Player’s Handbook is massive. But, the majority of D&D books are not meant to be read front to cover, instead, they are used more as reference material to look things up when you need them. The rules on how the game actually plays are only a chapter or two, focused on how combat works and how things outside of combat, like exploring and talking with people works. These chapters are still a bit long, but far less intimidating. The most important section to read is on how combat works.
If you are someone who learns through videos or audio then there are a ton of options for you. Youtube has a plethora of videos, just search “How to Play Dungeons and Dragons for Beginners.” This video does a pretty decent job of giving a very basic breakdown in less than five minutes.
Dungeons and Dragons in 2023
D&D is constantly releasing new products, so picking what you need to get started can be tough. For librarians brand new to D&D, I recommend the D&D starter set, it is affordable coming in at $45-ish, and is available from many retailers. It has an adventure called “The Lost Mines of Phandelver” which is a lot of fun and written with new players in mind. It also has some premade characters in the box to get you started right away, and even a set of dice! So for $45 you literally have everything you need to play, and at the pace Library D&D goes, this will last you several months. Now, there are confusingly several starter sets out now, and each of them has different adventures in them. The only one I have personally played, and recommend, is the one pictured below, with the dragon on the front.
If you want to expand beyond this basic starter box, I would recommend purchasing the Players Handbook and a premade campaign that grabs your attention. I like Tales from Yawning portal as one of the best options for library D&D, its low-level adventures are a lot of fun, and varied enough to last you a long time! There are a number of other products you could consider, for shorter and more affordable adventures, consider checking out fan-made stuff on the website DMsGuild. These are adventures that fans of the game have written, and are published with D&D approval on their site for fan products. Just be sure to flip through the reviews and descriptions to see if it’s a good fit.
I need to also mention, that D&D has been embroiled in some recent controversy with them potentially changing the Open Game License that allows other companies to produce products using their rules. Without going too in-depth, basically smaller companies are beginning to move towards alternative rules sets, and many fans are mad. Whether this will create long-term changes in the tabletop RPG world remains to be seen. However, if you are looking for a D&D-like experience, but want to avoid buying products from a company that might begin trying to exploit some of the small companies creating materials for D&D, then there are some alternatives you could consider.
Pathfinder RPG 2nd Edition is the most well-known alternative fantasy RPG product. Their system is less beginner friendly, and much more rules-heavy, so I personally don’t recommend it for library D&D, but it could be worth looking at. There are a ton of other companies putting some cool games out there, including One Ring for Lord of the Rings, Arkham Horror for a Lovecraft-inspired game, or Mouse Guard for a more family-friendly experience playing as mice. The real problem is none of these games have the same brand recognition as D&D, so they won’t have the same draw. Personally, I will be sticking with D&D in the library, but maybe looking at alternative games for my personal time.
Thank you for joining me in this update I hope this follow-up was helpful in supporting and encouraging more D&D in the library. I wanted to end by saying if you have enjoyed this article and want to read more about what I have to say about D&D, check out my website nerdyreferencelibrarian.com. There I post articles about D&D, anime, and video games, as well as advertise various library training I offer for systems. Give it a look!
One thing to note about the Lost Mines of Phandelver adventure. Since Wizards has released the new starter kit, Lost Mines of Phandelver is available for free to anyone with a D&D Beyond account. The account is free, and provides you with the basic rules as well as a character builder.
For libraries interested in D&D and a Starter Set in particular, they should really sign up for their Afterschool Kit which is specifically intended for libraries and schools.
My library and several others not only were sent a free Starter Set, but were later sent terrain tiles and creature token sets.
More information under their Educator’s Resources page.
For libraries looking for RPGs they can’t get through Ingram, they should check out Indie Press Revolution who are happy to give librarians a retailer discount and has titles that you won’t find through Ingram or Alliance Distributors.
This is a wonderful and thorough article. Thank you for putting it together. I agree that Librarians should focus on the basics of D&D when running campaigns in a library setting itself. That is an important point to make.