May 27, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Creative Tabletop Gaming: ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ and Libraries (Oh My!)

Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has been available for 37 years in a variety of editions, and it still remains the standard for tabletop role-playing games (RPGs). Like similar games, play largely exists in the imaginations of its participants. Play is aided by limited visual aids such as maps and tokens, and dice are used to determine the outcome of certain events.

The Dungeon Master (DM) plans, organizes, and describes the action, and each player (between 4 and 6 in a party) controls a character, determining its actions in the face of the challenges presented by the DM. Adventures are only limited by the imagination and narrative skills of the DM, and the players’ responses can be incredibly creative.

D&D encourages socialization, the development of camaraderie among players, literacy, inventiveness, and storytelling. The game has inspired many authors to write books set in its worlds, most notably R. A. Salvadore (Neverwinter Saga) and Margaret Weis (Dragonlance Chronicles, both Wizards of the Coast). Their novels have a devoted following among many D&D players.

For over a year, D&D has been incorporated into Perris Library’s programming. I serve as DM, using adventures found online (see below) and inviting the public to attend. While the program started slowly, some participants returned week after week for months. Eventually, word of mouth caused the program to grow to the point where we expanded to two weekly sessions, and several players started their own games—an encouraging indicator of the program’s popularity.

In an effort to spread the word about the easy, fun, and inexpensive programming potential tabletop gaming has to offer, here’s a basic overview of how to set up a D&D campaign at your own library.

At the very least, you’ll need…

The Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set (also known as the “Red Box,” which retails for $19.99) includes dice, basic rules, tokens, a few maps, and character sheets—basically everything you need to get started with a simple game. If you plan to have more than a few sessions, or go into any depth in the game, you’ll want to invest in the full rule books.

A more robust setup

  • The core rulebooks (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual) are available as a boxed set for $104.95 (retail), but can be found online for as low as $65.
  • A set of dice, easily available at hobby stores or on Amazon for less than $10.
  • Pencils and paper.
  • Maps: map grids are reproducible from the back of the Player’s Handbook, or 1-inch graph paper works as well (see Links).
  • Tokens for characters and monsters: the best method for creating tokens is to use pictures from Google Images, shrink them to the appropriate size, print, and cut them out.
  • Character sheets: these are reproducible from the back of the Player’s Handbook, and PDFs are free online (see Links).

Additional resources

  • Additional books help fill out the world and give players more options.
  • The Monster Vault: An Essential Dungeons & Dragons Kit ($29.99 retail) includes a wide range of pre-made die-cut tokens, if you don’t want to create your own. Detailed figurines are available in lieu of tokens as well, but they are expensive, and you have to buy a lot of them if you want to have variety in your adventure.
  • Easel pad of 1-inch graph paper: available from office supply stores for about $19.99, these large pads make drawing maps a breeze.
  • Camera: taking a picture of the layout at the end of each session makes it much easier to set things up the way they were the next time game play resumes.
  • Insider subscription: Wizards of the Coast has a subscription service on their website that makes the planning process easier. Cost depends on the length of the subscription, ranging from $5.95 to $9.95 per month. The tools provided include a character builder, a monster generator, and many pre-generated adventures for all characters. This resource is not essential, but it can be very helpful for busy librarians.

Strategies and tips

First and foremost, read the books. While the rules for D&D can seem overwhelming at first, the more you read, the more excited you’ll become about the cool scenarios you can create for your players. Don’t forget that the Dungeon Master is in charge and can interpret the rules however he or she sees fit. If you aren’t comfortable acting as the DM yourself, ask another staff member or library page.

D&D is set up to accommodate a party of 4-6 players. Success won’t be measured by large attendance figures—large parties actually become more of a problem than a boon. If you have fewer than four players, you may need to role-play characters yourself to fill out the party to the point where they can handle the adventure. With more than six or seven in a party, players will steamroll through most encounters. If and when patron interest causes the party to become unwieldy, consider splitting the group and adding another program. Set aside three hours per session. Combat, particularly, can be time-consuming, and the current edition of D&D is very combat intensive.

Ensure that the adventures are episodic. A continuous campaign is fun, but you can’t expect everyone to show up every single week indefinitely. Individual adventures with a clear beginning and end let you add and remove players when needed without having to invent reasons for a new player to join mid-adventure (although be prepared for that to happen as well).

Creating new characters is very time-consuming. To get things going quickly, create a wide variety of blank characters ahead of time and have your players pick one they like. They can then add names, personalities, quirks, and backgrounds, and you’ll still have a stock of characters ready for people who want to jump in to the campaign later.

Finally, add the books to the circulating collection and keep a reference set on hand for patrons to run their own games at the library.

Other tabletop gaming options

Pathfinder (Paizo Pub.,, 2009, ages 12+): Dungeons & Dragons is currently in its 4th edition, and when it was published the rules changed fairly radically. The backlash from the fan base against the changes resulted in the creation of Pathfinder. Essentially an alternate version of D&D, using an updated version of its 3.5 edition rules, it provides an alternative for players who are disenchanted with the combat-heavy new edition.

Call of Cthuhlu, 6th ed. (Chaosium,, 2005, ages 12+): set in the 19th and 20th centuries, this RPG offers an interesting alternative to D&D based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Combat is downplayed since the eldritch horrors that players (or “investigators”) research frequently can’t be killed, ruin can only be forestalled, and insanity and death are the usual fate of even the best players. This game is fairly grim, much like Lovecraft’s works (and players may be inspired to pick those up!), but much more scholarly—and one extremely useful in-game skill is “Library Use.”

Rifts (Palladium Books,, 2005, ages 12+): a flexible, if unbalanced, RPG set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, amid a mishmash of magic, technology, aliens, ninjas, gods, vampires, cowboys, alternate dimensions, and more. The game is ridiculous a lot of the time, but incredibly engaging and completely awesome.


Ian McKinney, Allen County Public Library: a pioneer in the use of tabletop gaming in libraries, he was incredibly helpful to me when setting up programs at my library. Learn more about his programs and the resources he has found at He can be contacted at
Random Encounter Generator for D&D:
Downloadable Character Sheets:
83 free self-contained adventures:

Tabletop RPG news and resources:

Critical Hits:
The Escapist:
Dungeon’s Master:

Thomas Vose ( is branch manager, Perris Library, CA