Pathfinder Adventurers Society in the Library

About a month and a half ago, I started a Pathfinder RPG group for teens (ostensibly) at the library.  We’ve met three times now, and it’s been going GREAT: I have a player group of five, which is a decent table size, and a couple more interested kids who are planning to come to my next new player intro session on Halloween.  I thought I’d do a write-up on how to start a gaming group in your library, because I think there’s a lot of value in tabletop RPGs that might not be immediately obvious to people who don’t have experience playing themselves, and because it’s been super fun for me and I think it would be for you, too.

1. Pick What Game You’ll Be Playing

There are a lot of role-playing games out there, and most of them are great.  The upside is that this means there’s lots to choose from and you can pick a system based on things you know your teens are already into – the downside is you really do have to make a choice.  Running a role-playing group is time consuming (as I’ll talk more about below), and unless you have multiple librarians running different kinds of games, I think the best way to run a quality group is to focus on one system and really, really get familiar with its ins and outs.

I’m running Pathfinder for my teens, because I play a lot of it myself so I didn’t have to get to know new rules before I started teaching them to my players.  (For those who don’t know, Pathfinder is a fantasy adventure game that shares roots with Dungeons & Dragons.  It’s published by Paizo, Inc., and their website has tons of resources – some of them are free! – for players and gamemasters).  But that’s certainly not your only option!  Here are a couple more titles and the genres they cover, if you’re interested in reading more about them:

  • Call of Cthulhu: A horror/mystery/investigation game.  This one can be tricky, since players don’t usually “win” like they would in a typical game, but the stories are twisty, fascinating mysteries that lead to horrifying, sanity-destroying monsters.
  • Mutants & Masterminds: A system totally designed for making your own superheroes.
  • Shadowrun: another sci-fi game, but this one is futuristic cyberpunk and frequently involves heist scenarios.  It has a combination of computer-based cyber stuff and nature-based magic. Players can be any of the usual fantasy races (elves, orcs, etc.), while hijacking computer security systems with their brains.
  • Star Wars: Edge of the Empire: Because who DOESN’T want to play a smuggler, rebel pilot, Jedi, or Twilek bounty hunter?
  • Vampire: The Requiem: A game for players who aren’t so focused on combat. The World of Darkness suite of games (which also includes a Werewolf-based game) can be very role-playing heavy, focusing more on political intrigue and plots than outright killing bad guys. Plus you get to be a vampire.

2. Get the Core Books

Make sure that whatever game you decide to run, you have the core rule books available either to be checked out or as reference materials.  Your players will want access to the books to learn more about the rules, develop their characters, and to read more about the world the game inhabits.  We have the Pathfinder Core book, Game Mastery Guide, and Bestiary available as both reference and circulating materials (we received a very generous donation of a set of those books which allowed us to put them in both places).  You’ll also need at LEAST the core book while you’re gamemastering, especially if this is your first time running the game!

3. Make Sure You Know at Least the Basics

You can certainly do some learning as you go (I definitely have!), but as the gamemaster you need to make sure you’re at the VERY least familiar with the rules you’ll be using in your first session.  Many tabletop games have some sort of beginner’s box-type product (like, say, the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box) that comes with a streamlined version of the rules to make them more immediately accessible.  Your players will have questions and you don’t want to be stopping play too frequently to answer them.

4. Decide What Your Target Age Is

This…this is really important, and the biggest mistake I think I made when I set my game up for the first time.  At my library, “teen” means 12-19.  I had an 11-year-old ask if he could come to the game, and because I was anxious about how many people I would be getting, I told him he could join us.  Unfortunately, the rest of my audience ended up being more on the “new adult” end of the age spectrum, and even though the 11-year-old is a good kid, it’s not a great age range for a game table.  The older guys want to be playing a different kind of game than the tween does.

I think I’ve solved it, though – our tween librarian is going to work with him to start a group specifically targeted towards him and his friends (and age group).  But it does reinforce the idea that you need to be clear on who your target audience is, and stick to it.  Different maturity levels will affect the dynamics of your players, and you want everyone to be having fun while you play.

5. Expect to Spend Time Preparing for Your Sessions

My Pathfinder group is, without a doubt, the most time-consuming program I’m currently running.  My regular campaign group meets every other Friday, and I’m hosting new player orientation and special events on the last Saturday of every month.  This will sound like A LOT to people who roleplay on the regular, but my sessions are also only about two hours long (the longest I can hold a program for during the week).  Still, I need to have stories and encounters prepared for each session, and that takes a lot of prep work.  What exactly that entails will be different depending on what your GMing preferences are (I know people who are much more comfortable improvising than I am, for example), but it will always take advance preparation.  Here’s how I’ve been doing it:

I started by gathering as many pre-written adventures from the Paizo forums as I could find.  I read through all of them, organized them into “quest chains” (because they’re typically not very long or end up not containing enough encounters for the size of my table), and pulled out the names of all the “quest givers” in them.  Then, for the first session after the Beginner’s Box that we ran, I roleplayed a big celebratory banquet where the players had a chance to meet these characters and decide what avenues they wanted to pursue.

My sessions end up being a mix of pre-written materials and the original story I’m building by stringing those adventures together – many of them are too easy for the size table I have, so I usually need to add encounters or add monsters to encounters.  I’ve also been writing my own chunks of story so that the different adventures fit together better.  I have to know what monsters show up (or what I’m planning to add) so I can have their stats and models handy.

As of yesterday, I now know I need to have some pregenerated townsfolk prepared for when my group unexpectedly decides to go investigating, instead of doing the break-in and fight that I anticipated they would do.  Which leads me to the next bit…

6. Be Ready to Improvise and Never Say No

You may think you know what your players will do, and frequently you will be right.  But you don’t want to railroad them into an adventure or task they don’t care about (“railroading” is a term that describes a GM maneuvering players into a specific story or action, regardless of what the players want), so be ready to turn on a dime and improvise when they decide to check out a shop you haven’t thought about, or question a character you didn’t have a name for until three seconds ago.

Additionally, and sometimes an even harder thing, is that it’s not good GMing to tell a player no.  It stops play and yanks everyone out of the story.  Instead, strive for saying “Yes, and…?”  If a player is dead set on doing something you really don’t want them to (assassinating the mayor of their home town and stealing all of their gold, for example), think about what that would realistically mean for their character.  Have them roll checks to see the guards standing by, or knowledge checks to remember how the town punishes murderers.  If you absolutely can’t get them to try something else, don’t be afraid of in-game consequence.  Alignment changes, the rest of the party choosing to leave them in jail, or a player decision getting their character killed are all things that can and should happen when a player is dedicated to making potentially self-destructing choices – and sometimes being the GM means letting those things happen, helping the player write up a new character, and hoping they’ve learned from the experience.

I will probably update this as we play more, but that’s what I’ve come up with so far.  If you start an RPG group at your library, tell me about it!  I’d love to hear from other people starting this kind of program for their own kids.