Teen Program: Hot Pepper Escalation

So, unfortunately, this is my last week with the library I currently work with – which is sad, because I’ve been here for almost three years and deeply enjoyed everything I’ve learned and all the people I’ve worked with. But! The good news is that I’m leaving for a great, full-time opportunity at another library, and until then, I’m running some pretty cool stuff for my teens right up until my very last hour here.

Which is what I wanted to talk to you about today, because our most recent summer program was a complete winner that I intend to duplicate the absolute first chance I get – I call it the Hot Pepper Escalation, and truly it is a test of endurance among all others.

For $5 and access to a fabulous grocery store, I scored six varieties of hot peppers (I used poblano, jalapeno, banana, serrano, Thai and habanero) which I arranged in order of hotness from least to most (it’s the order they’re listed above, for reference). I put their Scoville units on labels, gave a short spiel on Scovilles, capscaicin oil, and started egging my audience on.

How did the teens feel about this?

It was a glorious chorus of “This is no big deal, I can do this easy” morphing into “OH NO WHERE ARE THE CHIPS” (I provided tortilla chips to take the burn out). Anyone who made it from bottom to the top without a chip or water break won a pass to the local movie theater.

A+, would plan again. You could also do this with hot sauces or salsas, or turn your leftovers into salsas.


My First SRP Promotional Visit


Today I did my very first “promotional” school visit – I have been to schools before to lead programs, and I’ve had meetings with school librarians and teachers, but this was the first time I went to a school, stood on a stage, and talked at a huge group of kids who really would rather have been eating pizza.

It was quite an experience. A good one! A little overwhelming, but good.

I was at the local middle school to promote our teen summer reading program. At FPPL, we call “teens” kids aged 12-18, so we hit middle school as well as high school. This was the first time we’d been able to coordinate with the middle school librarian to come in and pitch the summer program to this age group, so I was excited for the opportunity but also feeling a bit trepidation – due to scheduling limitations, my time to talk to them was going to have to happen over the lunch hour.

I planned my visit carefully: I would get the last ten minutes of the 7th grade lunch hour, and the first ten minutes of the 6th. I brought a prize wheel, labelled with the phobias we’re using as theme weeks (our program, The Beautiful Nightmare, is themed around conquering and defeating personal fears. We’re gonna be eating bugs AT LEAST once.) with the idea that kids could spin the wheel and guess the fear for a prize (a piece of candy). I had bookmarks with the kick-off party info and our weeks on the back. I had an ally (the school librarian) and a microphone.

Things went well! They could have gone better – but things went well. For my first outing like this, I’m giving myself the win.

The scene: an auditorium-esque arrangement of chairs. Kids sitting in them scattered all about, some turned around, some busy on Chromebooks, everyone making a dull roar. Myself and the school librarian on a stage in front of them, armed with microphones. It wasn’t enough, in the end – the biggest error I think I made was trying to command attention when lunch was halfway over. Even when I asked for volunteers to spin the wheel for the promise of candy, I had trouble keeping the attention of the kids.

The second presentation went much smoother, because at that point I was SUPER fresh off feeling hoarse from the 7th graders and knew what, immediately, I could smooth over. The biggest advantage I had was that the kids were corralled as soon as they entered the lunch room; they didn’t have a chance to settle into their social time before I started talking, so I didn’t need to yank them away from each other. Instead of calling for volunteers one at a time, I picked four kids out of the audience and had them go one right after another. I let them know that 11-year-olds who would be 12 in the fall could participate (this is new, and I’m very in favor of it; summer is such a liminal space for kids, it seemed cruel of me to deny some kids our program just because they’d turn 12 in, say, August.).

I was especially grateful for two things: one, to have the chance to introduce myself to this group of kids, because while we see many of them at the library on a regular basis you never see all of them. Now they’ve had a chance to see me, hear my name, and have a person to connect to the library, so hopefully coming to the library will be a little easier.

Two, that we’re able to be building this relationship with the middle school librarian. He was so gracious and helpful in setting up this visit with me, and the school is SO close to the library; we’ll be able to do some great stuff in partnership with him, now that we’ve gotten our foot in the door.

Tabletop Roleplaying 101


If you’re an Illinois librarian, you may have gone to the Illinois Youth Services Institute conference this past weekend. And if you went to the IYSI conference, you may have come and see me and Steven Torres-Roman (author of Dragons in the Stacks: A Teen Librarian’s Guide to Tabletop Role-Playing) give our presentation on tabletop role-playing in libraries (I hope you did! It was a great presentation!) For my first professional presentation, I feel really good about how it went (and if you were there, please, tell me how I did in the comments!); we had great questions, a good sized audience, and the demo we ran played out as well as I had hoped.

However, if you didn’t have the chance to attend IYSI, I thought I’d take a moment and give you the bullet points – why you should care about RPGs, why they belong in libraries, and how easy it is to incorporate RPGs into your collection and programming schedule.

1. Tabletop roleplaying encourages teamwork, socialization, and can bring kids together via a common interests

Tabletop roleplaying games are, by their nature, group activities – you succeed or fail together, solve puzzles and work through obstacles together. Socially awkward or shy kids united by common interest learn how to contribute to a conversation, take the lead or defer, and learn how to meet new people in a safe environment.

2. There’s a game for every genre

There’s a game for every genre – fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, historical fiction; if you can read a book about it someone has written a ruleset for it. Additionally, there are games based off of a ton of fandoms, including Dr. Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Lord of the Rings, Cthulhu, zombies, and more.

AND, if you CAN’T find a game that works for your kids’ interests, there are systems out there that are made for customization – to start you out, let me link you to Risus, the Anything RPG, a system specifically designed to let you create your own worlds and stories.

3. It opens the door to readers advisory opportunities

Related to the above, there are MANY tie-in opportunities to introduce read-a-likes to your audience based on game genres they enjoy. Running a successful Shadowrun (sci-fi cyberpunk) group? Time to break out the William Gibson recommendations. There are even whole series of books based on or related to some titles, such as Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, Cthulhu, and Star Wars.

4. You can get started at little to now cost

Yes, core books and supplementary rule books can be expensive. The cost of maps and minis can stack up. But many games make it easy to try before you buy – three big ones; Pathfinder, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Fantasy Flight Games line of Star Wars RPGs; all have something called a beginner’s box available. This is a kit with rules, pre-written and blank character sheets, dice and maps ready for you to run a low level adventure designed to teach you how to play the game. These are priced way below the complete rule books, and can be converted into kits or sets that you can circulate (I also learned how to gamemaster by running some teens through the adventure in the Pathfinder Beginner’s Box, so it’s a great learning opportunity for you, as well).

5. Programming is as easy as setting up a monthly session

Tabletop RPG programming for me looks like: two-hour campaign sessions every other Friday for the ongoing game, and a two-hour new player orientation and character creation on the last Saturday of the month. I run a game cobbled together from free modules I get from the Paizo, Inc. website and my own story ideas, and I use a random encounter generator quite liberally. The biweekly games are designed to be easy to rotate in and out of (because teens have busy schedules), but new players must come to an orientation meeting before they can jump into the weekly game – two hours simply isn’t enough time to teach people how to play and also get into the story.

The best part about all of this is that now my teens are starting to get into GM’ing themselves, so when something comes up for me they can still meet and play. In fact, one of my recent high school graduates is going to be running the games all summer because I’ll be tied up with summer reading.

If you have any questions about RPGs or gaming in your library, or just want to chat about gaming or share ideas, please leave me a comment!


Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

I pulled this post out of my drafts and gussied it up both because I think it’s important advice (especially for libraries with fewer resources) and also because I’ve been quite busy preparing for a presentation and haven’t had time to craft something new. Enjoy my words of wisdom!

The past couple of months have been a learning experience for me in several areas, but the one I’ve been working hardest at (and becoming the most improved in) is asking people for stuff.  Libraries don’t have infinite resources, but because we endeavor to use our powers for good, there are many amazing people and organizations out there that are not only willing to, but happy to lend aid or assistance to libraries for free. All you have to do is ask!

Asking for help can be hard. There’s an instinct to couch everything in apologetic terms (“I’m sorry to ask, but…” or “I hope I’m not be an inconvenience…”) that’s frankly unnecessary – I’m not saying be rude, but the fact is that A LOT of organizations provide support for libraries and educational institutions!  I have a couple of programs that I run which don’t DEPEND on the generosity of others, but donations and support are certainly going to make them better than I could on my own.  And that support means I have another cornerstone to advertise with, which means I might get more and a wider variety of attendees than I would otherwise.

It’s important to note that this doesn’t just apply to material goods – speakers and presenters don’t have to break your budget either, you just might have to explore different avenues than the most obvious ones.  Local talent is the best source for this, as they won’t have high (or any) transportation costs and are usually excited to help out and support their local library.

Some examples of things I’ve asked for:

  • Program support from Paizo, Inc. for starting up a Pathfinder roleplaying group: I was fortunate enough to be able to introduce myself in person to Paizo’s community manager, but her contact information is easily found by going to paizo.com and clicking on Contact Us. She was able to send us a Pathfinder Beginner’s Box, a core rule book, Gamemaster Guide, and Beastiary to get our group up and running. It is not crazy to imagine that other publishers might have similar support for libraries!
  • ARCs from different publishers: I’ve sent out the most requests and gotten the most negative responses, but it’s worth it for the publishers that do end up sending books. I’ve had success with Penguin Random House and Orca; cast this net wide and see what you pull up!
  • Free presenters/speakers: Local authors, cosplayers, comic artists, you name it: if they’re driving distance from me and responsive to e-mail, I’ve asked them to speak at the library. Our mini comic-con this past January was incredibly successful partially because our guest speakers were SO great; and all of them were more than happy to come for free. (I’m gonna go ahead and plug Paul Erickson, Casey Renee, Dean McQueen, C. Spike Trotman, and Brendan Detzner as being some of our amazing speakers.)

If You Feed Them, They Will Come…AND Do the Dishes

I have a more serious thinkpiece that’s in the process of being written, but first I have to tell you all about my absolute victory that happened yesterday.

“If you feed them, they will come” is a staple truism in teen services. Having trouble getting teens into your program? Bring snacks. Teenagers are A. always hungry and B. have no money, so bribery with food is a pretty popular tactic for teen librarians. Personally, I’d rather my kids come to something because they WANT to…which is why I really, really like putting on cooking programs.

Over the summer, we did a food-based program every Monday, and they were always very well attended. My spotlight program was the faux-campfire cooking, where we baked potatoes in the “fire” of my panini press, and the raw foods smoothie program, where we got teens to eat smoothies with kale in them. Recalling that success, I decided I wanted to do a mug cooking program that, if successful, could spawn a repeating Pop-Up Kitchen series of cooking events where we learn how to make easy, healthy snacks that use super common ingredients and don’t use more than a microwave (or maybe a toaster oven).

My friends, I fed them, and they came. We made mug omelets and mug cake (yes, the cake was not all that healthy, but the omelets were, and everyone ended up wanting to make one of each).

I regret I do not have photos – I was too busy refilling ingredient bowls and moderating the line for the microwave. Kids were requesting other recipes before we’d started cleaning up. AND THEN, the absolute cherry on top, were the teens (about half the group, even) who voluntarily helped me wash out all the mugs.

If you have a microwave in your library and a handful of microwave-safe mugs (heck, even if you don’t have mugs, you can pick some up at the dollar store or a resale shop), I cannot recommend this program enough. Pinterest has TONS of mug cooking recipes with different levels of complexity; I went with two that only used three or four ingredients to keep my costs down:

Farmers microwave omelets
Gooey chocolate mug cake

I had 12 teens and the whole thing cost me $20.

Next time for Pop-Up Kitchen I think we’re going to do English muffin pizzas (the request was for biscuit dough pizzas, but I think the recipes will work better when they only need to cook for a few minutes; one of the reasons things went as smoothly as they did was because no one needed the microwave for longer than 90 seconds).

Lessons Learned From Teen Read Week: 2015

Several months ago, my teen services manager asked if I wanted to handle Teen Read Week at our library this year.  My response was an enthusiastic YES, followed by many more anxious questions about what she’d done in the past, what she was expecting this year, so on and so forth.  Her response, across the board?

“Whatever you do will be awesome.”

This is both extraordinarily exciting and almost paralyzing to hear. I’d gotten started planning and implementing programs over the summer, but Teen Read Week is (duh) a whole week, and I wanted to do it right.  I started by coming up with a theme; the ALA theme this year was Get Away @ Your Library, which is lovely, but my library prides itself on developing its own original theme for events like this, and also my manager likes to connect TRW in some way with what we did over the summer, so as to keep the energy flowing from one big event to the next.

I settled on Teen Read Week Invades – a sci-fi/alien abduction theme, loosely based around our similarly sci-fi Terra Nova SRP.  I planned a whole week of alien literary activities, including a dramatic reading of War of the Worlds, Life-Sized Space Invaders, and specially themed book club meetings.  I made all the marketing materials and advertised the heck out of it, starting as early as the back-to-school nights in early September.  I was excited to be in charge of a whole week of programs.

No one came.

Poking around a bit on other librarian support and resource sites, you can find that this is not an uncommon problem with TRW – it’s at an awkward time, right around midterms and finals, and at least Illinois has a major annual conference that usually coincides with it.  But it was still extremely deflating to be so pumped up about something and have it fail so utterly.

(I have been told since that this isn’t a mark of failure, and further thought on my part leads me to think that my programs themselves were solid ideas; this was simply not the right time to put them on, as they could have felt too much like homework in the midst of a week already saturated with midterm exams and projects.  I’ve stashed all my prep materials to try at another time, and I’ll certainly report back if I have more success.)

I bookended the week with two programs that WERE successful, and one in particular I wanted to talk about – a Book Bingo Card with alien/sci-fi themed tropes and character types, and a book swap party to conclude the week.

Book Bingo: Fines are a huge problem with our teens.  The late fees on video games especially can be killer for them, since a dollar a day racks up really fast.  As a result, many of our teens come to the library to use our resources but never check things out; I’ve been having trouble inspiring interest in my book clubs because, in the words of a teen, “I can’t check the book out, so what’s the point?”  I’ve been looking into ways other than paying their fines off that teens could get out from under these prohibitive costs, and when I floated the idea of the prize for TRW Book Bingo being a partial fine reduction, I got a much more positive response from the business office than I anticipated.  Teens who scored a BINGO on their card and turned it in to me by the end of the week could get up to $10 in fines removed from their card, as long as they had a card from our library and the fines weren’t replacement fees.  Teens with no fines, no card, or a card from a different library could win a pass to the local movie theater.

This was really successful – I made sure every teen I saw that week got a bingo card, and of those I got back sixteen (which may not seem like a lot, but in terms of participation this is great for us).  I was a little disappointed that some teens with huge fines wanted to opt for the movie ticket instead, but I can’t say I’m surprised; if I do something like this in the future I may offer the alternate prize ONLY to teens who meet the above criteria.

I loved how this turned out as well, because I could hear the teens working on the cards, discussing answers, debating whether something fulfilled a trope or not and then presenting their finished cards as a group to me.  It’s so hard sometimes to get teens talking about what they’re reading, or interested in reading something new, that overhearing active literature discussions filled me with total librarian glee.

Abduct-A-Book Book Swap Party: If you feed them, they will come….and take your surplus books away.  We have a cabinet overflowing with extra books, many of which are duplicate graphic novels and ARCs from Penguin Random House, and just generally a great selection of books.  I brought pizza, soda, music and free books, and even though no one brought books to swap themselves (I had a couple kids look terrified by the prospect of giving away their beloved books through the week, so I’d done a lot of reassuring that they of course didn’t have to give away anything they didn’t want to), 3/4 of my pile was gone by the end of the day and I had the satisfaction of seeing the kids flipping through new books and comparing what they’d taken.


In the future, I’ll probably lean more towards these passive-type programs for TRW; things that are more pop-up in nature, that teens can drift in and out of at will, and more things that go up on Sunday and last all week (next year I’d like to try an interactive display that grows and changes through the course of the week).  And now I have a week’s worth of programs in my back pocket, for when I have a day that needs filling (I’m still certain our podcasting group would get a kick out of the War of the Worlds script, given half a chance).

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.