Netflix’s Stranger Things is undoubtedly responsible for introducing the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) to a substantial number of viewers. And it’s entirely possible that this story is now doing the same for several readers.
D&D is a collaborative game where you “sit around a table and pretend to be heroes going on an epic adventure,” according to a Vox explainer video. The gameplay is led by a “dungeon master” (DM), who is effectively a storyteller; everyone else—collectively a “party”—is a real-time character in their story, referred to as a “campaign.” The party’s decisions and the rolling of a 20-sided die determine how a campaign unfolds. (That’s the gist. Anyone who wants more details should click the video link above.)
Last year, a D&D-based River Campus Libraries (RCL) event at the University of Rochester provided the spark for an ongoing gaming experience.
Towers & Tabletops (T&T) is a new series of game-playing events open to all Rochester students, faculty, and staff. Participating libraries include Art & Music Library, Carlson Science & Engineering Library (including Studio X), Physics-Optics-Astronomy Library (POA), the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation (RBSCP), and Rossell Hope Robbins Library & Koller-Collins Center for English Studies. The next T&T event will be held on September 23 in the Art & Music Library, where the play will be led by a series partner, the University of Rochester Simulation Gaming Association (URSGA). Two more events will be held in October: a role-playing game session in Robbins Library and a board game session in RBSCP. (Check the University calendar for dates and times.)
But don’t go to these events expecting only to see mainstream games like Catan, Monopoly, or Risk. In its first T&T event, RBSCP held a social activism-themed event featuring games like Freedom: The Underground Railroad, Rise Up: The Game of People & Power, and Strike!: The Game of Worker Rebellion.
To provide the full context for T&T’s inspiration, RCL staff members Jeffery Jones, section supervisor for POA, Alex Kurland, course reserves specialist for the RCL, and Anna Siebach-Larsen, director of Robbins Library and Koller-Collins, are here to provide an oral history of T&T’s origin.
Siebach-Larsen: Soon after I arrived at RCL [August 2017], Jeff Jones and I started talking about possible collaborations between POA and Robbins.
Jones: When she first toured POA and saw our History of Optics Collection, she mentioned that she had a keen interest in medieval optics. We then mentioned the possibility of a future collaboration opportunity.
Siebach-Larsen: We have similar libraries. We’re both small with specific collections and loyal communities. But we weren’t able to get any kind of collaboration off the ground. Then, last year, we started talking seriously about doing something.
Jones: Anna, Katie Papas [section supervisor, Robbins Library], and I sat down for our first brainstorming meeting. We left with two specific ideas: to collaborate on an exhibit about the history of the telescope (coming this fall to both libraries) and to run a joint game night, which we felt would appeal to both communities and connect students who might not normally cross paths, bridging the gap that tends to exist between the humanities and the sciences.
Siebach-Larsen: This was right around the time The Green Knight came out in theaters, and we had just sponsored a viewing of it at The Little Theatre. So, we decided to create a Dungeons & Dragons campaign based on the story of the Green Knight, tying it to our collections. We figured it would also be a great way to introduce people to Robbins.
Jones: At that point, I suggested we bring in Alex Kurland, who is well-versed in and excited about games and gaming.
Kurland: I proposed a way to borrow some of The Green Knight’s beats and themes so that anyone could participate, regardless of their D&D experience.
Anna: Eventually, we also brought in Allegra Tennis [former RCL librarian]. She, Alex, and Jeff designed an incredible campaign.
Kurland: We spent two-ish months, on and off, choosing a system of rules—in our case, the 5th edition of D&D—designing characters, plotting story beats, and ordering dice and snacks.
Siebach-Larsen: It was the first in-person event to be held in Robbins since the spring of 2019, and this was still very much in the heyday of COVID, so we thought carefully about how to handle snacks, how to space people, and so on.
Jones: The event brought together Robbins, POA, and other Rochester students to play in three small groups, each running a variation of the campaign.
Kurland: We ended up with a game where all people had to do was show up to Robbins, choose a character, and pick a name. They would then be dropped into a story where they had the Green Knight’s axe and were tasked with returning it to him.
How players adapted to situations and approached problems made every instance of this game slightly different, which meant no two tables walked away with the same experience.
Siebach-Larsen: We had faculty, staff, students, and postdocs register, and most of them had never been to Robbins. It was wonderful to feel the energy of people coming together and enjoying their time together. It is easily one of the best events we’ve had.
Since it was so successful, we decided to expand the event into a series that would highlight other small libraries.
Kurland: We decided a good follow-up would be a more freeform game event with less of a time commitment—the Green Knight event took around 3 hours.
Siebach-Larsen: So, we started purchasing tabletop games, and Jeff reached out to URSGA for the next event.
Jones: In the spring, we ran a space-themed game night in POA, and after this, RCL staff members started taking notice, wanting to get involved, and seeing it as a fun way to bring people into their library spaces.
Siebach-Larsen: I’m not actually much of a gamer, but it’s been great collaborating with coworkers with whom I don’t normally work closely. I love this as a way to meet students, faculty, and staff and enhance their knowledge of our collections and spaces. And it’s been really fun to expand my knowledge of board games. It’s an incredible low-stakes way to bring the University community together to just enjoy themselves.∎
For more information on Towers & Tabletops, you can contact Jeffery Jones at email@example.com, Alex Kurland at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Anna Siebach-Larsen at email@example.com. Towers & Tabletops graphic created by Marc Bollmann, senior library assistant at the Art & Music Library.
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