Backstage Library Works

Tabletop Roleplay in the Library Setting

Enjoy the first of three interest papers this month, this on a topic that’s near and dear to several of us at Backstage. D&D is an amazing modern outlet for creativity and problem solving. Players frequently walk away from a session with new friends. While there are different rules and settings available for tabletop gamers, this blog will focus on Dungeons and Dragons: Fifth Edition (D&D 5e).

Tabletop gaming, and Dungeons & Dragons specifically, has grown in popularity enough that I very likely need not touch on what it is, or what it entails. By now, most people have heard of the different live-play shows and podcasts, like Critical Role, that have helped to deliver D&D out of a geeky niche phenomenon from the 70s and 80s and into the modern, popular vogue with more and more people getting interested in trying out the game. As such, let’s instead run through a quick description of how it works:

  • A group of people, typically between 4 and 7 players, get together for a session of play
  • One player is the Dungeon Master (DM), or Game Master. The other players will create player characters (PCs) that will be their characters in the game.
  • The DM pilots the game by describing the setting, the non-player characters (NPCs) and their dialogue, and planning battles and other encounters the PCs will have along the way.
  • When players want their PCs to interact with the world, the DM may have that player roll a dice to determine how well the PC does what they want to do. If you’ve ever heard of “critical success” or “critical failure,” this refers to rolling a 20 – meaning the character has done the task to the best of their ability – or a 1, respectively. As you may imagine, a critical failure oftentimes results in hilarious or dangerous outcomes for the PC.
  • Why are there so many different types of dice for D&D? In combat, social and exploration encounters, a PC’s class abilities (fighter, wizard, rogue) will clearly outline what die a player should roll for various actions they take. The story evolves from the success and failures of those outcomes.

D&D is ultimately a cooperative story-telling game with an element of chance to help keep the game exciting and challenging. It focuses on decision making, team building, puzzle solving, creativity, and empathy as players learn more about each other and put themselves into the heads of their PCs. Best of all, in continuing anecdotal evidence, we’re finding that D&D can assist younger players (and older) in mathematics, in conflict management, and the experience tends to be an amazing developer of self-confidence.

For these reasons, incorporating D&D into your library’s programming could be an incredibly worthwhile investment. It can feel like a hefty undertaking, and there are some things to be aware of before starting but take it from a long-time player: it’s oftentimes well worth the effort.

There are a ton of books and dice – what do we even need?

That may depend on whether you decide to play digitally or in-person. Ultimately, the paragraphs that follow will outline what you need, but be aware that there is an online portal where you can purchase everything listed here for use in a digital setting. More on that later.

There are three types of books that Wizards of the Coast regularly release for D&D 5E: core and supplemental rulebooks; campaign guides; and adventures. You can find the full list of releases online, but if you choose to have a staff member learn and run sessions rather than reach out to an interested DM from the community, your library should visit Wizard of the Coast’s webpage to request a digital starter kit before starting in on their other releases. If you’re looking for something physical, then purchase the Starter Set box. This includes a starting adventure, an abridged rulebook for players, and five pre-generated PCs – out of the box, ready to go. A DM should read through their module completely before starting, so make sure to invest in that time beforehand.

Once you’ve played, and if you determine you’d like to keep doing sessions full-time, you’ll want to pick up a Player’s Handbook (or multiple that remain at the library for patron use during sessions) and a Dungeon Master’s Guide. These are the primary sourcebooks for D&D. From there, your staff member can decide if they’d like to use a prewritten adventure (I’d recommend the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist adventure module to start) or run something custom, called “homebrew” (in which case you should pick up a Monster Manual). The prewritten adventures are excellent and at the time I’m writing this blog, there are around 15 published modules – and that’s not counting adventures published by various third-party developers.

Running In-Person

You can get maps and minifigures to play with at your local game store, or you can play with a little bit of “theatre of the mind.” During combat, some rules will require the player to measure distance to enemies and companions, so a map will definitely make things easier for you. You can pick up square or hexagonal, plain patterned grid maps that can be written on with dry erase.

If you’d rather not spend the money on minifigures, you can get creative. Colored pawns for PCs will work just fine, or you can print out characters to stick into rectangular card stands. For monsters, buy Hershey kisses or other candies. The player that delivers the final blow on a monster gets to eat it. Rewarding and cost effective.

Miniatures for players and monsters are great for long campaigns, but printed meeples can be just as interesting.

Every player will need their own set of dice. While they may sometimes be instructed to roll more than one of a given die, any pack of D&D dice will come with one of every possible die they will need. You can ask players to bring their own or buy enough sets for all of your players. There are also bulk options available online. Just make sure that there is one of each of the following for everyone:

  • A 20 sided die (d20)
  • A 12 sided die (d12)
  • A 10 sided die (d10, and most sets will include a percentile die which is also 10 sided. The two in combination can roll up to 100 for certain tables you’ll find in the player’s handbook)
  • An 8 sided die (d8)
  • A 6 sided die (d6)
  • A 4 sided die (d4)
Rolling my favorite set of dice to slay a monster? The most fun I’ve had with math in a very long time.

Playing Online

Options to run online sessions include playing over a conferencing app such as Discord, Google Meet, or Zoom, or looking into a virtual table top (VTT) platform like Foundry or Roll20 to manage sessions. Be mindful of software that limits the duration of a conference call. You wouldn’t want the video to drop in the middle of an important moment of role-play between players. You may also supplement your conferencing software by getting a D&D Beyond account that includes battle maps, character sheets, and encounter building tools. Do a little research beforehand on their website to see if it’s the best fit for your library’s program.

What are some pitfalls to watch out for?

  • Conflict is a fact of life, and sometimes, in-game tensions can boil over to players. It happens! A good DM will be able to help everyone take a step back and remember that it’s just a game. Having a discussion before a game or session begins to discuss boundaries, rules for respecting other players, and having actionable solutions to deescalate an argument will help modulate tension.
  • Along the lines of the above, sometimes feelings get hurt by the words or actions of others. Make sure each of your players are being heard and be strict with players that are being mean or marginalizing others. It’s a cooperative game, and the party functions best as a team!
  • While not always necessary, creating age ranges for your D&D sessions may make things easier on your DM and make the material more relevant to your players.
  • Do your homework! It takes time to prepare for sessions. But putting in the work to make sure you’re prepared to run a session pays off!


Tabletop gaming can fit the niche you need it to; if you’d like to focus on role-playing to supplement lessons in creativity, storytelling, and empathy, you can create a storyline that minimizes combat and focuses on development. On the flipside, if you’d like to focus on math skills, lessons in logic, and strategy, then you might consider a storyline with frequent battles and puzzles; maybe your player characters join a guild that is hired to address monsters and trapped ruins each session. The level of customization is what makes it so versatile as game AND educational tool.

If you love the idea of incorporating tabletop roleplay games into your programming but want to branch out from the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genre, there are other systems and materials out there that have their own rules and settings. For example, Monster of the Week has become a very popular system and can easily be played in a modern-day setting. There’s also the Fate system – these all utilize different mechanics and dice systems than D&D 5E and you may find that their formats work better for your patrons.

Reach out to other libraries running D&D sessions to see how they’re doing it – what’s worked well for them, and how they might recommend your library begin its program. There are a wealth of resources online, the following just to name a few:

Have fun with it, and may your adventures be exciting!

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