From Garry Stahl
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #314
Books are the lifeblood of an RPG game, whether as the source of the game rules, in-game treasure, or plot points.
The problem for the game master with books as treasure is to determine what books are found, how to describe them, and how to make each important one interesting enough so players
will take an interest. Use the following information and tips to re-think books and craft ones that serve your game well.
What Are Books?
Let’s start with the basic concepts. What is a book? Man has written on every surface one can think of, from stone to beaten brass to ivory to human skin still on the human. One Last Will was famously written on the only thing the dying man could find, the shell of a chicken egg. What we are concerned with here are the portable writings–what we call books. In this issue I will touch on the materials books are made of and how they are bound. Ink and color are subjects unto themselves and I will not touch on them here.
The first portable writings we are aware of are clay tablets made in ancient Sumeria. Dried clay tablets have obvious problems because you cannot bind a bunch of them together. Drop one and you have dirt. Get it wet and you have mud. The only reason for the survival of many of the clay tablets is the archives they were in burned, and the clay was semi- fired making it more durable. Cuneiform, Linear A, and Linear B were written on clay tablets.
The second common writing material seen in the West was papyrus. This wetlands plant, once common in Egypt, was used for many things from woven mats and wall hangings to a writing surface. A sheet of papyrus is made from the stem of the plant. The outer rind is first stripped off and the sticky fibrous inner pith is cut lengthwise into thin strips. The strips are then placed on a hard surface, with their edges slightly overlapping, and a second layer of strips is laid on top at a right angle.
While still moist, the two layers are hammered together, compressing them into a single sheet. The sheet is then dried under pressure and then polished with a hard, rounded object. The resulting surface is not as smooth as paper, but good enough to write upon.
Papyrus several thousand years of age has been found in Egypt. The material is easy to preserve in a dry climate. In wetter climates mold quickly attacks the plant fibers and breaks it down.
More details on Papyrus.
Animal hide was first used as a writing surface in the ancient period as a replacement for papyrus, which was getting rare. It was commonly used in the Medieval period almost exclusively. Parchment, as it is commonly called, is difficult to prepare and use. Under the right conditions it can last for centuries, but it is highly affected by its environment.
I have personally handled a deed written in the Reign of Henry VII. The parchment was stiff, and you could tell that trying to make it do anything but roll in the direction it had long been rolled would cause it to crack. The document was still readable however, if you knew the English of the period.
Parchment is made from the skins of animals, sheep and calves being the most common. Calfskin parchment is where the word vellum comes from, “vitulis” being the Latin word for calf. It is also the root of the word veal. I will not go into the methods of preparation here except to note they are tedious and involved (not to mention messy). While still made today, few things are written on parchment.
More on Parchment and its history.
Lastly we come to paper. Paper was invented in China and made its way to the west via traders during the Renaissance. Paper is made from fibers suspended in solution. What fiber you use can vary. Wood pulp, rice, and cloth–both cotton and linen–have been used for paper. US currency is currently made solely from new cotton.
Paper is made by passing a fine screen through a vat of the suspended pulp fibers. Depending on the skill of the paper maker, or the quality of the machine that is used, the paper can be thick or thin, smooth or rough.
The latter is the one of the main advantages of paper in that the maker has control of the process. With parchment you get what the animal grows. With paper you decide.
The second advantage is that paper making is easily automated. Once you have the paper making machine you can crank out all you need. A machine that could make paper with the turn of a crank was made prior to the industrial revolution.
Paper is the most durable of the three materials discussed. It can withstand wet conditions and attack by mold. Only prolonged soaking in water or fire will destroy it, externally. Otherwise, the lasting qualities of paper depend on the method used to process the pulp. Sadly, the wood pulp papers of the early 20th century are high in acid content, and the books made with it are crumbling to dust. Earlier linen pulp papers last. Books hundreds of years old are still with us and readable. I have in my library a book of music dated 1787, and other than the cover damage, and obvious heavy use, it is in good condition.
Further information on Paper.
Other materials have been used, as noted. Before they invented paper the Chinese wrote on bamboo strips. Egyptians often wrote notes on broken pottery or even chips of stone. The Romans used everything from imported papyrus, wax tablets, and thin wood sheets of which hundreds have been found in Vindolanda at the foot of Hadrian’s Wall.
Once you have your written pages there is the matter of how to keep them together. Several solutions have been used throughout the ages. The Chinese tied bamboo strips into scrolls. Ancient Tibetan monks would tie the loose pages between two wood covers, but the sheets are loose between them.
The first binding commonly used in Western history is the roll or scroll. Sheets of papyrus or parchment would be sewn end to end to create a long roll. This was either rolled loose or wound around a wooden rod for storage. The only common use of this form today is the Tora scroll used in Jewish Synagogues.
Sometime along the way someone got the idea that folding the scroll would make it easier to handle. So you fold the pages “W” style, sew the inner folds together and place the whole into a cover. This is the codex. I have a Passover book in this format. Very beautifully illustrated. The term is also used for any bound book of antiquity. I prefer the former usage to differentiate the bound scroll form the book.
The problem with the codex is you only use half the sides to write on. The book is twice as thick as the number of pages. The solution to this was to take the scroll apart, write on both sides of the sheet and bind the whole together in what we familiarly call a book. This kind of binding has been used with papyrus, parchment, and paper.
There are two ways to do this that are used. One is to bind single sheets with either thread or glue inside a cover. This method with glue is commonly used for paperback books, and with thread for older manuscripts written on single pages.
The other binding way is to print the book on sheets twice the size of the page desired. Fold the pages into sections, sew those together, and then sew the sections into the complete book. The cover is then added. Anyone with old copies of the First Edition AD&D core books has an example of this method. Look closely at the binding. You can see the book is made of sections of folded sheets sewn together. Books made this way are sturdy and will take a great deal of abuse. Pages do not fall out of them.
Book Contents And Collections
Now that we have touched on the history and method of the book, we will discuss libraries. Everyone knows of the famous Library of Alexandra, said to have contained all the wisdom of the ancients. That was a rare example. In the days before the printing press, books were made by hand and tended to be short.
An ancient book of some fame, “The Art of Horsemanship,” is about 16 standard pages. A mere pamphlet by modern standards. An extensive private library could contain as many as a dozen or twenty books. Keep this in mind if your game world is pre-printing press. Books will be rare treasures and treasures indeed when found.
Gutenberg began the production of his famous Bible in 1452, the year Leonardo da Vinci was born. He finished that first run in 1455 as the War of the Roses was heating up in England. Incidentally, while trying to make a profit (he failed) he revolutionized the world. By the mid-1500s a man could have all the knowledge of the world on his library shelves. It was, for the first and the last time in history, possible to know everything. A rich man might have a hundred books, in several languages, and be able to read them all.
Today I am looking at more books on the one subject of role- playing here in my computer room than the Medieval monk would have had on everything. I own more books on more subjects than the rich man of the Renaissance would have owned, or could have owned. (There are 247 book on the RPG shelves in my Sanctum. This does not include the 10 collections of loose “plan” sheets, the two CD-ROM PDF collections, the books inside the 13 boxed sets, the books on the shelf above me, or computer documentation. I can reasonably estimate there are 400 plus books in this room, and well over 1000 volumes in my house, and I am a light collector among fans.) Perhaps amid the plenty, we have forgotten their value.
Here are a few tables for randomly creating books in your game world. Also included are a few charts of my own creation and access to the best subject chart of all: the Dewey Decimal System.[Johnn: the plain text formatting below to make reading the charts easy might be lost in translation. Feel free to grab the RTF version: RPTW Issue314 Book Generation Tables.
What is the book printed or written on?
10-14 Wood pulp
18-19 Mix of the above
20 Something different
20 Other animal
1-6 Cervine (deer type)
7-12 Equine (horse type)
13-18 Bovine (other cow type)
20 Get inventive
16-17 Wood panels
18-19 Metal sheets
Metal sheets are
6-10 Embossed (one side only)
11-15 Engraved (both sides)
16-20 Etched (both sides)
20 Something else
19-20 Unusual or magical stuff
Book Binding Type
The sheets are bound
1-2 Scroll (does not work with stiff materials)
5-12 Separate sheets sewn
13-18 Sections sewn
Book Binding Material
The book is bound in
1-5 Wood (see above for type)
12-15 Carved and gilded
16 Carved, gilded, and jeweled
17-20 Covered in
5-6 Leather plain (see “parchment” for type)
7-8 Leather tooled
9-10 Leather tooled and gilded
6-10 Leather (see “Parchment” for type)
9-16 Leather tooled
17-20 Leather tooled and gilded
6-20 Stiffened with
16 Ivory (wood backing)
18 Amber (wood backing)
19-20 Metal with or without wood backing
How physically readable is the book?
5-6 Very poor
13-14 Very good
Scraps: Unreadable and likely in small pieces. i.e. The condition of many of the Dead Sea scrolls. Little information can be gleaned from this work without a great deal of effort, and at that it is only 10% to 80% (d8) complete.
Very poor: Nearly unreadable and missing parts. This book will have pages missing or be in fragments, but the majority of the work is intact. The ink will be faded, and perhaps flaked off in places. Margins will be worn/torn/burned and might intrude into the text. The pages might be stained with any sort of matter. The book will be 81% to 100% complete (d20).
Poor: Intact but in bad condition. It might be missing the cover, have bad stains on the pages, have tattered pages, etc.
Fair: The book has its cover and all pages. It can be care- worn, have loose pages, a broken spine, dog ears, etc., but the book is whole and readable.
Good: The book might show sign of wear and heavy use, but is unbroken or stained.
Very good: Some signs of shelf wear.
Excellent: The book is as new, but might have small wear signs.
Mint: It has just been written or printed, or at least it looks that way.
Is the information contained in the book accurate? If fiction, is it readable and enjoyable?
3d6 Quality / Comments (nf=non-fiction f=fiction)
nf – This book will impart dangerously wrong information.
f – Rip your eyes out. _Bad_ work.
nf – The book is dead wrong, but not in a way that will hurt you.
f – You would sooner face 100 orcs than read this book.
7-8 Error prone
nf – This book has just enough right information to hold up the wrong parts.
f – Well, it’s read this or bang your head on the wall.
9-10 Poorly researched
nf – No patently bad data, but it is not well presented.
f – “It was a dark and stormy night.”
11-12 Fair resource
nf – Covers the subject well enough for the idly curious.
f – A decent, light read.
13-14 Good resource
nf – Covers the subject well enough for the dilettante.
f – Engaging.
15-16 Excellent resource
nf – Covers the subject well enough for the serious.
f – Rip-the-covers-off page-turner.
17-18 Definitive resource
nf – No better work on the subject.
f – Classic for the ages.
Book Subject Matter
The Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, devised by library pioneer Melvil Dewey in the 1870s, is one of the best methods ever for organizing a library. It can also be used to randomly create the general subject of books found in treasure. That is our use here. Keep in mind that this is a dynamic system and is updated monthly. This is not a concern unless you plan to run a real library.
Unless one is running a modern era game, the system is not applicable in its current form except in the most general categories. This should be considered a starting off point for the game master’s own classification efforts customized to their own world. I have my version of this. The basic Dewey Decimal System is presented here “as is” for your customization.
The game master can use the whole, complex system, or simply roll a d10 to get a general category. My general method is to roll 3d10. The first for the general category, the other two for the number in the general category.
100 Philosophy & psychology
300 Social sciences
500 Natural sciences & mathematics
600 Technology (Applied sciences)
700 The arts
800 Literature & rhetoric
900 Geography & history
The rest of the Dewey Decimal System can be found at:
For Your Consideration – Book Examples
The obvious thrust of this is to use books in your games. We are all familiar with the “Necronomicon” of Lovecraft or the Egyptian “Book of the Dead”, a book of spells to get you safely to the afterlife. Likewise, the trope of a map or letter laid within or hidden in a book are common enough. Herein are a few book sons which the GM can hang plots.
“The Dolmendian Manuscript”
Binding: Plain wood plaques with red cord
This parchment manuscript of 14 leaves is a highly stylized book of 26 poems, two to a page, plus the tail piece and the title page. The calligraphic style of the ancient lettering is nearly impossible to read, and few scholars have puzzled out the verses in Ancient (your language here). What few realize is the elongated and intertwined words form a visual scene when viewed from an oblique angle. (The top of the book looking down.) Each page is a different landmark. Taken with the text of the poems it is a map to great treasure. This is usable in any campaign, magical, modern, heroic, etc. There is nothing “mystic” about the book unless the GM inserts it.
“The Passages of Enlightenment”
Author: The Enlightened Prophet
Binding: Papyrus scroll
This papyrus roll is the greatest treasure of a major religion. The text of the sect’s holy book is said to be penned in the hand of the Enlightened Prophet himself. The roll is never read. It is only removed from the richly decorated reliquary once a year on the high holy day and displayed.
Holy day is only a month away and The Passages of Enlightenment have been stolen. The thieves are threatening to open the roll and read from it. The holy men of the temple are appalled at the sacrilege. The PCs have been hired to retrieve the scroll at any cost. It must not be harmed and it must not be opened!
What do the priests fear? Is the scroll a fake that contains nothing? Has the sect deviated from the teaching of the Enlightened Prophet and the powers that be fear a reading of the Prophets words? Is the scroll simply so old that any mishandling will destroy this irreplaceable artifact? That is for the GM to decide.
Frequency: Extremely rare
Binding: Beaten gold plates inset with gems
Two copies of this strange work are known to exist. One was found in the slowly freezing ruins of an alien city beneath a white dwarf star. The second, located 30 years later, was floating in the Kupler belt of that self same star system. The books are, to any scan, identical, and are equally puzzling. Each is 31 pages of beaten gold inset in gems. The gems form 89 different characters and there are 179 characters on each page. It is believed that the Ch’alom is the key to some great treasure. Scientist have studied the characters for years without coming to any conclusions on the meaning.
There isn’t one. The books do have meaning, but the characters themselves do not being semi-random. Locked within the mathematics evident in the book is the key to unlocking the secrets within the molecular structure of the book itself. The prize? The collected knowledge of this long lost race. (For the math challenged, 31 is the eleventh prime number, 11 also being prime. 89 is the 13th prime number after 31, and 179 is the 17th prime number after 89. All these numbers being prime numbers. There is a code in the structure of the pages if this pattern is followed. The GM is invited to create the details of the quest.)
“The Garden of Forking Paths”
Author: Sho Ten Zee
Binding: Bamboo sheets sewn together by tough snakeskin-woven cords
Sho Ten Zee was a philosopher who is famous for seldom being understood. His only surviving book is no exception. Many copies exist. Most are manuscripts written by madmen, or rather, men that became mad copying it. If your world has the printing press as common, it may be set to type, the typesetter having gone mad. The covers and condition vary from copy to copy.
There is no common theme. The book is a rambling, near unreadable morass. A casual look will convince the reader it is worthless. A more in-depth study will reveal that the same tale is told again and again with endless variations, often as minor as a character either swatting or not swatting a fly. Deep study of the work indicates it is never the same read twice. That way lies madness.
The Garden of Forking Paths is not a book intended for mortal men. It is tied directly into the planes of time and chaos. It represents the mutability of the future. The tales are different with each reading because one cannot know the future before it happens. If one has a grasp of the necessary magics it can be used as a focus for time travel into the past, but never the future. Many partial copies also exist. They are rambling useless works where utter madness overtook the copier before they finished. It is estimated that only 1d6 complete books exist.
“The Diary of Lucy VonTropenstien”
Author: Lucy VonTropenstien
Binding: Red leather covers, paper pages
This book bound in red leather and written in the hand of a fine lady is obviously the work of a bored noblewoman detailing the trivial matters of her daily life.
It is nothing of the sort. The book is an entire work of fiction intended to hide the true meaning. If the book is read from back to front, reading only sixth sentence of each entry, a different tale is told. A tale, that if revealed, could bring to ruin the fortunes and honor of an old and powerful family–a family that would strike back at any such attempt. Lucy has been dead for 5 years now. It is said she died of a fever. Or was it murder? A murder done too late to prevent her telling the tale?
A package containing the book has just arrived in the hands of a PC. What trail of horror and profane deeds will they find?
I hope the reader will find inspiration for their own creations within this short missive. Use more books in your game no matter the genre. I hope that with these charts books will be easier to create and detail sufficiently to be of use to your game.
A Brief Word From Johnn
War Tips Request
I’ve received a couple of war-themed requests that you might have some tips or ideas about:
Have you ever done an issue on military orders? (Requirements, rituals, ranks, organization, hierarchy, etc.?)
I’m running a campaign in David Weber’s Oath of Swords world. (Oath of swords/the War God’s Own/Windriders Oath) and my players want to join the order of Tomanak.
I’m currently GMing a campaign where a civil war is about to break out between rival factions.
I was wondering if you could do an article on large scale battles in campaigns and having PCs involved in the fighting. I’m not sure what type of encounters to do, how to level out the playing field between PCs and the ordinary soldier, etc. It would be awesome if you could provide advice on the subject.
If you have any experience with either of these topics, I’d love to hear from you. Thanks!
Chat at 7pm MDT Friday June 16
7pm-8pm MDT (6pm PDT, 8pm CDT, and 9pm EDT) is the time of the chat I’ll be hosting in a couple of Fridays. Use this link to see what time that is in your time zone:
Hope to see you there!
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Getting Sessions Started
From Alex Santos
Re: Immersive Session Starts from: Dave McKay
Dave’s tips are mostly focused on gaming issues, but I find that moving directly from socializing to roleplaying is a bit harsh. To ease transition, I usually go through these two steps before getting to the recap:
First, every player, GM, or spectator has the obligation to punch (lightly!) a single time the last player to arrive. This is a funny, friendly way of punishing him for delaying everyone else’s game.
Note: This is supposed to sound funny and to draw smiles, even on the one being punched. If at any time it begins to feel more as an actual punishment, better quit using it.
Second, we make an homage, explaining why the person deserves it. I ask if somebody wants to do it, and if no one takes the role, I do it myself. Who is to be homaged is of little importance, but having someone that’s in some way related to the game is usually better. Examples:
Gaming-related: Writers of the game/adventure to be played in the session, an NPC or PC for an important act on the last session(s), a player for coming to the session despite an important obligation, a former member of the gaming group, a spectator.
Non-related: A friend of the group, an excellent movie/book/anything (or better, its directors, actors, writers), a public person that deserves it, or anybody that will make for a funny homage.
As you can see, not much of a big deal, but I find that establishing this routine, aside from being very enjoyable in itself, helps people feel like a session is going to start. This, even if only subconsciously, helps people focus better when the gaming session actually starts – usually with the recap made directly afterwards.
Tip For Reducing Table Chatter
From Mark S Hoffman
I have two different groups. One plays by the rules set down about waiting your turn. In the other I have some who blast in with their own comments. So, I built a talking stick out of an old blind rod and added some old shoelaces and beads. At first it was a success, then they realized it could be used as a weapon on each other. So, I built a new one explaining it was just to be used to speak when it was their turn. It seems to work and I thought your readers might want to build their own to help reduce table chatter.
Have Your Minis Ready
From Ken Jelinek
When running an adventure where the PCs can choose multiple forks in the road, having quick access to the miniatures necessary for a given encounter can save a lot of time and momentum.
Here’s a trick. Before the session, put the miniatures for a given encounter into the cheapest clear plastic sandwich bags you can find. You can then add a sticker with the encounter number or room description to the bag. That way, you just withdraw the bag from your collection and you’re ready to play! No more fumbling through your collection while your players wait.
From Joe Kelly
Wall banners are great as long as you have a laser or color printer. You can show NPCs, banners of the town’s leading houses or guilds, and it shows who comes and goes. I also use the wall in our playing area to show current ships in Port if need be, or wanted ads and other stuff. Added to this, I do a newsletter that briefs the players in general about what is going on in town and abroad.
Does it impact the game?
My group called a timeout so the GM (me) could take time to set up “The Wall.” They felt it was important and it didn’t feel like “home” otherwise.
Getting players with this level of comfort with the wall takes time, but in the end it is informative to what colors someone (NPC) might have been wearing or a burned emblem on a forgotten battlefield.
We put our banners, one page per symbol, in plastic sheet protectors and then place them on the wall. This allows for individual banners to be removed or replaced.
Hope this has been some help.
Here are a couple pics: