How to Use Books at Your RPG Table

At my table, information is power.

The world that I create and the games I run are grounded in information as a resource. Secrets abound – everybody has them, everyone wants to keep them, and everyone wants to know each other’s. For players, finding information can be just as empowering as gaining a level.

Learning that Cold Iron does double damage against corporeal undead is a big deal. Learning where Cold Iron is mined is a big deal. Learning who led the zombified Duerger company that now guard the mine can be a big deal, since the ghosts will obey any request to parlay with that leader if given his name.

But how to dispense this information? I value verisimilitude and play-acting enough that NPCs don’t often stroll up just to disgorge my lovingly crafted stories onto the party – normally, learning is work. One of the best ways to learn is to read, and books serve many useful proposes.

They’re great loot. They’re great set dressing anywhere that I want to show the players things, but don’t have an NPC available – essentially, they’re a way to practice Show Don’t Tell, while kinda still getting to tell. Most valuably, a book is a way to tie information into the texture of the setting.

I have a lightweight system that I created for running Books at the table. Here, a Book is any recorded information – letter, loose sheets of parchment, a cart full of carved tablets, or even weirder things, like a cassette or webpage. Anything that is a discrete package of knowledge could use this system.

My numbers are for 5e (Fifth Edition D&D) but they’re super easy to tailor to your system. If you want something even easier, use a Vornheim-esque method – each book you find can answer 1d6 questions.

  1. The player determines the subject of their search. You determine what book(s) is(are) available. They select how long they’re spending, which sets the Difficulty Class (DC) range. It is up to the GM’s inclination as to how difficult the information is to find in the book:
    • 8 hours reading = 5-9 DC.
    • 1 hour browsing = 8-15 DC.
    • 1 minute skimming = 14-30 DC.
  2. Player makes a skill check using the relevant INT skill (determined by the book, not the subject). In 5e, the INT skills are Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, and Religion – if none apply, I’ll ask for raw INT and reduce the DC by ~half Proficiency  (1-3).
  3. If they fail the check, they’re not aware of the information they seek. I’ll normally give a brief overview of the topic for world building and to reward their time investment even in failure, but I won’t allow them to ask any further questions.
  4. If they succeed, they roll a number of d6 equal to their margin of success – this can be quite a few. This represents their pool of Knowledge Points on that subject.
  5. Knowledge Points are used to ask questions. Questions vary in costs, but in general ~5 points is an easy or extremely topical question, and ~10 points is a more tangential or bizarre choice. To simplify things, I have in the past forced these 5 and 10 point numbers and rounded the player’s points to the nearest 5. So far I’m neutral on this change, so feel free to try both.
  6. Books have “statblocks” as follows: (Subject)(Skill)(DC)(Max points). So a journal they find in a necromancer’s library might be (Necromancy, forbidden magics, undead)(Arcane)(Low)(40). A stack of tax documents might be (Production, shipping, enterprise)(INT)(High)(55).
  7. Re-reading gives you disadvantage (roll twice and take the lower) on the skill check unless you’re spending longer than you did before.

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