Generating Books

       by Garry Stahl

       This article first appeared in Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #314. Check out this site and weekly newsletter for great RPG tips.


       Books are the life blood of an RPG game in that we need the books that explain the rules to play the game. One can also encounter books in the game as treasure or even plot points.
       The problem for the Game Master is to determine what books are found and enough about them that the players can get a handle on the concept of what the book, which does not really exist, is.


       Let's start with the basic concepts. What is a book? Man has written on every surface one can think of from stone and beaten brass, to ivory and human skin still on the human. One 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. I will touch on the materials books are made if and how they are bound. Ink and color are subjects unto themselves and I will not touch on them here.

Clay Tablet       The first portable writings we are aware of are clay tablets made in ancient Sumeria. Dried clay has obvious problems as you cannot bind a bunch of them together. Drop it 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 fact that 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.

Papyrus       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 surface to write on. 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 the layers into a single sheet. The sheet is then dried under pressure. After drying, the sheet of papyrus is polished with some hard rounded object. The resulting surface is not as smooth as paper.
       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. (See Wikipedia for further detail on Papyrus)

Book of Kells        Animal hide was also used as a writing surface. It was first used in the Ancient period as a replacement for papyrus, which was getting rare. It was commonly use in the Medieval period as about the only writing surface. Parchment as it is commonly called is a difficult to prepare and use medium. 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 it's history can again be found on Wikipedia.)
       We can also blame parchment for the common sizes of books we have today.  The various sizes of the final sheets depended on how many times you folded the resulting rectangle of tanned hide you got from the sheep.  So the size of the final book was governed by the size of sheep.  When the idea of paper was imported (see below) the sizes commonly used were retained.

       Lastly we come to paper. Paper was invented in China and made its way to the west through Arabia via traders in 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 an easily automated process. 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.
Old Book       The lasting qualities or 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 1784, other than the cover damage, and obvious heavy use, it is in good condition. (Further information on paper can be found on Wikipedia).

       Other materials have been used as I have 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.

Vindolanda Letter
A Roman Letter


       Once you have your written page there is the matter of how to keep them together. Several solutions have been used throughout the ages. The Chinese tied the bamboo strips into scrolls. Ancient Tibetan monks would tie the loose pages between two wood covers, but the sheets are loose between them.

Tibetian book
Above: A Tibetian Prayer Book

On the Right: A chinese bamboo scroll with a poem.


scroll       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.

codex       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 The Haggadah in this format. Very beautifully illustrated. It is a modren copy. However it shows the form. The term is also used for any bound book of antiquity. I prefer this usage to differentiate the bound scroll from 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.
old binding       There are two ways to do this that are primarily used. One is to bind single sheets with either thread or glue inside a cover. This is the method commonly used for paperback books with glue, or older manuscripts written on single pages, with thread. The other is to print the book on sheets twice the size of the page desired. Fold the pages into sections or gathers, 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. Looks closely at the binding. You can see that 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. The image to the right is of a 200 year old music book that has been hard used. Yes, it has all its pages, heavy wear and tear aside.
       The sizes of books as mentioned under the parchment paragraphs is of interest here.  Below is a table explaining how the various sizes were arrived at.  Keep in mind that folding sheep was hard work.  Those old monks were hard core.
       The links in the table will take you to more complete and confusing information on the sizes of parchment and paper via wilikpeda that have been used throughout the history of Occidental paper making.  If you have time to waste the minutia will certainly waste your time.  
Name Abbreviations Leaves Pages Book size [h x w] in inches (approx.) Size in cm
Folio -- One fold of the sheep 2° or Fo 2 4 15 x 12 38.2 x 30.5
Quarto -- Two folds of the sheep 4° or 4to 4 8 12 x 9.5 30.5 x 24.15
Octavo -- Three folds of the sheep 8° or 8vo 8 16 9 x 6 22.8 x 15.25
Duodecimo or Twelvemo - Four folds 12° or 12mo 12 24 7 3/8 x 5 18.7 x 12.7
Sextodecimo or Sixteenmo -- and so forth. 16° or 16mo 16 32 6.75 x 4 17.15 x 10.15
Octodecimo or Eighteenmo 18° or 18mo 18 36 6.5 x 4 16.5 x 10.15
Vincesimo-quarto or Twenty-fourmo 24° or 24mo 24 48 --
Trigesimo-secundo or Thirty-twomo 32° or 32mo 32 64 5.5 x 3.5 14 x 9
Sexagesimo-quarto or Sixty-fourmo 64° or 64mo 64 128 3 x 2 7.6 x 5


       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 you game world is pre-printing press. Books will be rare treasures and treasures indeed when found.
Bodleian Library, Oxford University, England       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, or the books inside the 13 "boxed sets", or the books on the shelf above me and computer documentation. I can reasonably estimate that 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.
       To conclude a short history of the book I have a few tables for randomly creating books in your game world. A few charts of my own creation and access to the best subject chart of all, the Dewey Decimal System.

Generation Charts

Type of book: If you do a modern game skip this part and assume that all books are paper and either cloth over cardboard or paper bindings. Really high quality books will be leather bound. You can use the chart for ancient or unique books.

What is it printed or written on?
d20 Material
1-7 Paper
1-3 Rice
4-9 Linen
10-14 wood pulp
14-17 cotton
18-19 mix of the above
20 something different
8-13 Parchment
1-8 lamb
9-16 calf
17-19 goat
20 other animal
1-6 cervine (deer type)
7-12 equine (horse type)
13-18 bovine (other cow type)
19 human/humanoid
20 get inventive
14-15 Papyrus
16-17 Wood panels
1-4 Linden
5-7 Rowan
8-10 Oak
11-13 Ash
14-16 Walnut
17-19 Cherry
20 other
18-19 Metal sheets
1-9 Brass
10-14 Copper
15-17 Silver
18-19 Gold
20 Platinum/mithral
And are:
1-5 painted
6-10 embossed (one side only)
11-15 engraved (both sides)
16-20 Etched (both sides)
20 something else
1-6 Bamboo
7-11 Ivory
12-18 Slate
19-20 unusual or magical stuff

The sheets are bound:
d20 Method
1-2 Scroll (obviously does not work with stiff materials.)
3-4 loose
5-12 separate sheets sewn
13-18 gathers sewn
19-20 codex

The book is bound in:
d20 materials
1-5 Wood (see above for type)
1-6 Bare
7-11 carved
12-15 carved and gilded
16 carved gilded and jeweled
17-20 covered in
1-4 cloth
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)
1-8 plain
9-16 leather tooled
17-20 leather tooled and gilded
11-15 Cloth
1-5 unstiffened
6-20 stiffened with
1-10 leather
11-20 wood
16 Ivory (wood backing)
17 stone
18 amber (wood backing)
19-20 Metal with or without wood backing.
1-9 Brass
10-14 Copper
15-17 Silver
18-19 Gold
20 Platinum/mithral

Condition:       How physically readable is the book?
3D6 Condition 3D6 Condition
3-4 Scraps 11-12 Good
5-6 Very poor 13-14 Very good
7-8 Poor 15-16 Excellent
9-10 Fair 17-18 Mint

Scraps -- Unreadable, in small pieces, 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, it will be missing parts. This book will have pages missing or 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 may intrude into the text. The pages may be stained with any sort of matter. The book will be 81% to 100% complete (d20).
Poor -- Intact but in bad condition, may be missing the cover, have bad stains on the pages, tattered pages etc..
Fair -- The book has it's 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 may 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 may have small wear signs.
Mint -- Just written/printed or looks that way.

Contents:        Is the information contained on the book accurate? If fiction is it readable and enjoyable?
3D6 Quality Comments nf=non-fiction f=fiction
3-4 Dangerous nf -- This book will impart dangerously wrong information
f -- Rip your eyes out BAD work.
5-6 Worthless 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.

Subject: 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 treasue. 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 it's 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. It is presented here as is for your customization.
       The Game Master can be as complicated, using the whole of the system, or as simple, using only the d10 roll for the general categories, as they see fit. My method is to roll 3d10. The first for the general category the other two for the number in the general category.

000 -- Generalities
100 -- Philosophy & psychology
200 -- Religion
300 -- Social sciences
400 -- Language
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 here. The complete system is much longer than I wish to present on my site.


       The obvious thrust of this is to use books in your games. We are all familiar with the Necromonicon 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 books that the GM can hang plots on.

The Dolmendian Manuscript       Unique        Author: unknown.
       The Dolmendian Manuscript is bound between plain wood plaques with red cord.
       This parchment manuscript of fourteen pages is a highly stylized book of seven poems each on two pages. 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 that 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       Unique        Author: The Enlightened Prophet.
       This papyrus roll is the greatest treasure of the majority religion. The text of the sect's holy book 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 it has been stolen. The thieves are threating to open the roll and to 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.

The Ch'alom       Nearly Unique       Author: unknown
       Two copies of this strange work are know to exist. One 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 system. The books are to any scan identical. They 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. They are 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       rare        Author: Sho Ten Zee
       Sho Ten Zee was a philosopher who is famous for seldom being understood. Many copies of this book 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 original manuscript is written on paper bound loose between wooden covers and tied with a red silk cord.
       The book is a rambling near unreadable morass. A casual look will convince the reader that 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 indicate that it is never the same 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       unique       Author: Lucy VonTropenstien.
       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 the 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 and any such attempt. Clues do exist within the book to indicate the proper path to the meaning.
       Lucy has been dead for 5 years now. It is said she died of a fever, or was in murder, but 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?

The Great Bestiary       unique       Author:  Abba Eecreeana
   This massive book is three foot wide and four feet high. It is nearly a foot and a half thick.  The covers are made from black dragonhide set with gold, a most striking appearance.  It also has a clasp and lock.  It sits on a stone book stand. When found it will be closed. This is a Book of Creation, an always up to date bestiary. Within can be found an accurate description of every beast on the planet natural or created.  If for some reason a new type of creature comes into the world, the book will reflect that at once.
       However the book is trapped. Without the correct command word and the right key in the great lock, the book will spew forth beasts to attack those that attempt to use the book. The lock DC is 12, but the right key is required to disable the trap as well as the command word.  --Excerpt from the key to Abba Sanctuary.

       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 they will be easier to create and and detail sufficiently to be of use to you.

Garry Stahl --June 2006, updated September 2010


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