The other day I threw some book titles I made up for a D&D session onto Twitter and someone asked me about how I use books in my games. I did my best to answer them, but Twitter isn't the best place to describe a lengthy process. Thus I'm rambling about it more in depth here.
So, how do I use books?
Honestly, I don't typically do anything that special with non-magical books. Mechanically speaking at least. They don't influence a PCs stats, give them any temporary bonuses, or grant them new abilities. Which might be boring, but in my opinion not everything in D&D needs to be gamified. Instead I use books for two different—often connected—purposes.
The main and most obvious reason is simply set dressing. Which is a pretty universally standard thing for GMs to use books for. If your players are exploring an abandoned wizard's lab, there's bound to be a bookshelf with books on it somewhere and a desk nearby with a couple books stacked on it; else the room would be pretty boring. And... that's it. You've set the scene. I think it's fairly common and reasonable for a GM to stop here and not think much else about it. However, what books are here an important thing to know! Afterall, some NPC owned this lab and these books, so the players should be able to glean an insight into their life from the books they kept around. Were they religious? What were they studying? Did they have a hobby? These are all little things that can be easily picked up by what books are laying around.
Secondly I use books for foreshadowing. This often relates to the previous reason, but doesn't always have to. For example, if while searching our aforementioned wizard’s lab the players find a couple books about summoning elementals, they won't be surprised when they encounter one guarding the wizard’s treasure in the next room. However, you can also foreshadow things that won't happen until much later in the campaign. Maybe the wizard had a book that talks about a powerful creature you know the players will eventually encounter, let’s say a sandstone dragon. Now this seemingly benign set piece has enlightened the players to a creature they may not have known existed before.
Ok so books are cool. But how do you put them in a game?
Well to start you don't need to have a list of all the different books scattered around the room, that'd be ridiculous. But, if while setting the scene you single out some books from the rest, your players will likely only care about those ones and won't start browsing all of the books on the shelf. In our wizard's lab we can put two books on a desk and another book that's tumbled down to the floor in front of the bookshelf. Now you just need to prepare those three books, and an extra incase they do decide to check out the bookshelf.
When preparing a book I first decide its purpose. Is it just a set piece or is it foreshadowing something? Once that’s decided you can then choose a subject for the book to cover, making sure to keep it very specific. Once you have a subject you can create a title for the book. Ideally the title should easily explain what the book is about, and if the book is just a set piece it should be a bit boring so players aren’t too interested in actually reading it.
Here are our wizard's four books:
- "Saint Yara's Teachings of Compassion" (set piece)
- "Butterflies of the Spring Isle" (set piece)
- "Controlling Elementals" (foreshadowing)
- "The Slaying of Ildrax" (foreshadowing)
The first two are simply letting the players gleam some information about the wizard that used to live here. He was interested in Saint Yara and butterflies. They don't offer much more to the players beyond that. The last two are the more important books; as they relate to things the players will encounter later. An elemental and a dragon.
Now we write four books! Well, kinda. What I do is simply create a short summary of the material, just one or two sentences with some key bits of information that may be important later. You can skip this step if the book is self explanatory enough that you can improvise something later if you need to. In this case, our compassion, elemental, and butterfly books are pretty simple, so I won’t worry about them. That just leaves us with our dragon book.
“‘The Slaying of Ildrax’ tells the classic story of how the wizard Bael the Wise slew the great sandstone dragon, Ildrax, by luring the beast to the Valley of Fallen Kings which Bael then flooded with the Rod of Ymir; drowning Ildrax.”
So how do we actually use this summary? Well, if the book is about lore that's potentially known by the character checking it out, but not the player, I have them roll a history/religion check to determine how much they remember about the subject in question. The higher the roll the more proper nouns and details they can recall without having to read the book itself. In this case, an 18+ roll would result in them receiving the full summary. A lower roll however would result in something like this:
“‘The Slaying of Ildrax’ tells the classic story of how the wizard Bael slew the sandstone dragon, Ildrax, by luring the beast to a valley which Bael then flooded with a magical artifact; drowning Ildrax.”
The player still gets the gist of the story, however they no longer learn about the Rod of Ymir or the Valley of Fallen Kings. But since we mainly care about exposing the players to the fact sandstone dragons exist, we still keep our foreshadowing element.
Now, if the character doesn’t know about the subject at all they can spend a second flipping through the book to try to glean something from it. Likely just the core plot or subject:
“It seems to be a story about a wizard who killed a sandstone dragon”
We still manage to get our foreshadowing in, but basically all other details are lost.
If the character wants to get more information from the book, they can spend some downtime to read it. At this point you can give them the full summary. Of course, if you wanted you could expand the act of reading the book into another set of challenges, but personally I think that’s unnecessary.
That’s it! Now you know how I use and make books to use in my games. Hopefully this inspires you to think of some creative ways to bring foreshadowing into your own games and give NPCs some more personality.