Books & Libraries
|sometimes it's correct to judge a book by its cover :-)|
is a 40-page supplement written by RPGPapercrafts, available on the DM's Guild. It's written for 5e D&D, but relatively low on system-specific stats and mechanics. It also assumes a game set in the Forgotten Realms.
unlike my previous reviews of stuff I happened to buy, this one was solicited, and I received a free review copy.
I love this art style. Watercolour-and-pen illustrations, and a variety of watercolour wash backgrounds replacing the typical faux-parchment background. It gives the otherwise stock DM's Guild &/or Homebrewery layout a breath of fresh air.
There's a page of tables for generating a book's appearance and condition. There are some liberties taken here with book terminology, i.e. a "codex" here really refers to the category of magical book described on page 21, not the medieval innovation (replacing the scroll) of binding separate sheets to a spine, i.e. what we think of as a "book" these days. But for generating a "codex bound in dyed leather, ancient and falling apart, written in Deep Speech" it functions fine.
The random table for book contents is weighted towards the magical ones. Great for generating the stash of books on a wizard's shelf, not so good for a public library.
A catchall for all the non-magical books. A d100 table of Fairytale
names and subjects, another d100 table of Compendia
(i.e. nonfiction) names and subjects. For books of Verse
, a d8 table of music type, and some sample lyrics for five songs. The Compendia and lyrics are heavily tied to the Realms, if using for another setting I'd print it out and rewrite names & topics before play.
Overall, these tables are vanilla D&D fantasy. This isn't at all meant as a slight -- I quite like having tools for running a world of familiar fantasy tropes to then contrast against the "not in Kansas anymore" high weirdness of many dungeons.
The risk is that the tables end up saying nothing you couldn't have come up with on the spot. Here though, I think the author succeeds. I've run adventures where players have looted a wizard's shelf of (nonmagical) books, only had a super-terse table of broad subject matters on hand, and had to tell them "OK I'll come back next week with their names and topics".
Has a solid mechanic for rewarding regular study with minor bonuses to individual skill rolls. I personally like the lack of granularity in 5e's skill system and don't miss the days of minor +1 bonuses to various rolls, but if my players wanted their characters to learn and grow through finding an in-universe manual these rules will work just fine.
Has a lovely little mechanic for when a character studies religious prophecies
. Basically it's an Intelligence (Religion) check over the course of a day, with different levels of success. But each level of success is tied to something concrete, like "reveals an important name", or "foretells next move of an important figure", or "several doctrines speak of a foe's vulnerability". This gives a lot of tactility and is a better springboard for DM improvisation. It reminds me of some of the better Dungeon World moves.
I found the material on studying cosmological models relatively weak, but there's a great idea here of minor rewards for characters who apply established game world spiritual principles to the situation (e.g. the Rule of Threes, or the Unity of Rings). It's similar, but not quite the same as, campaign aspects in Fate. I want to write a bunch of these for an Ancient Greek setting, or a setting inspired by early medieval theological debate.
have minor mechanical benefits for people who pray to the corresponding deity. For example, if you regularly pray to Lolth with her manuscript, you get +5 temporary HP (maximum of 20) for every Good-aligned creature you kill or enslave. These rules are a good way of emphasising the gods' heavy, interventionist presence in the Realms in a way that isn't specific to clerics and paladins. However there is little insight about the nature of these devotional services, just a restatement of the god's basic tenets and goals.
Three stat-blocks (CR 1/2, 1, and 2) for monsters disguised as books. A d12 table of Subliminal Books. These implant a compulsion in their reader, e.g. to pick up any gold coins seen, or knock on every wooden door. A d12 table of Spell Snare books, which unleash a spell (or similar effect) when read, such as being sucked inside a Planar Novel, or showing a vision of a horrible future.
This section has six spellbooks
for characters to find, with notes about their owner's history and some custom spells (13 in total) custom spells said owner developed.
Three spellbooks let you attach a unique rider effect, called an Alteration
, to any spell cast from the book. This involves spending a bonus action and making an Intelligence (Arcana) check. The rider effects always offer a quite low DC 5 saving throw, so I think for my own game I'd omit the ability check. But I really like this mechanic, and think any game with a wizard PC would benefit from a unique rider per book, enforcing encumbrance for PCs who want to lug multiple tomes around, of course!
About half of the custom spells are non-combat and quite creative, I particularly like track treasure
, ward hoard
, and spider nest
. The wording is at times vague -- I'm not sure if spider nest
is supposed to last indefinitely, though as a 7th level spell, I would rule it that way. The damaging spells are fine, though 5e isn't exactly lacking for combat spells. Mutilation
's damage is quite low (especially given the name!). I think it could be safely quadrupled to 8d10 damage, given its other limitations (short range, single target, save negates all damage even though it's an atypical save).
Ten excellent scrolls
of unique, mostly utility magical effects. Since they're not specific spells, anyone can cast from them. My favourites are scroll of lies
(a reverse "zone of truth" effect), scroll of illusionary hole
(very Looney Tunes), scroll of snail invasion
(conjures 100 ravenous snails!), and scroll of radiant shield
(which I would rule makes you immune to all nonmagical damage (falling, lava, huge crushing trap) for a round, not just attacks.
Magical sheet music
requires you to be proficient with the specified instrument group, and to be a spellcaster (not necessarily bard). Much like the scrolls, these are excellent and encourage creative problem solving. Some are one-time-use, others have a number of uses that renew daily. I like Serenade of the Dead, which lets you move dead creature around (they don't rise as undead). I also like Ode to the Raven
, which magically mutates all participants for an hour. In particular, I love that there's no maximum number of participants, a needless balancing measure that plagues a lot of 5e design. You can totally use this to evacuate a whole city from an invading army by helping them safely jump off a sheer cliff or something. Great stuff.
|The Archivist, who judges your conduct,|
silent and unseen. Until you read a book describing
yourself, in the room you're standing in,
being watched by a fey creature...
These are a rather odd concept that took a couple of read-throughs to understand, but they've really grown on me. These are books that describe a location (often the location or room in which they're found). When you read one, you gain mystical awareness of a particular kind of secret at the location, such as a secret door, or a hidden enemy stalking you. They only work when within the location described. They can function as an incentive to travel somewhere, if found outside the keyed location. Or they could be quite effective for evoking wonder or dread if found and read within their keyed location.
The d12 table of rooms the secret doors may lead to is a good one for improvisational DMing. The d12 table of enemies I feel would benefit from some purple prose describing the enemy's appearance, even motivations (after all, it's a book, it can be an omniscient narrator) instead of just linking to a stat block and describing how the creature enters/manifests. The other three codices have no random tables, and are more like adventure set pieces: the hidden archivist, the hidden, orbiting sanctuary of Selune, and the hidden Ring of Power, cast into the void.
What self-respecting supplement on magic books would omit these? Unsurprisingly, they interact with the madness rules in the DMG, and optionally, the Sanity system. Four eldritch beings are described. Each has three volumes, which can be found and read out of order. The more volumes you read, the more abilities (and madnesses) you unlock. Once you've read one volume, if you encounter another, you must make a Wisdom save if you want to avoid reading it.
A straightforward approach. What I like about these is that the four beings specified are deliberately vague, each with a certain emotional/behavioural core to how they corrupt people. For example, the Volumes of Neg Hamaaar promise salvation through inner peace
, and teach its readers rituals of dissociation
, and finally, obedience
Generally the mechanical benefits are +2 to a couple of skills for reading one volume. Two volumes will teach you a ritual roughly equal to a low-level spell, with a minor roleplaying cost attached (vivisecting an animal, destroying someone else's property), three volumes teaches you the final sacrifice (crushing and eating twenty moths, cutting off an arm) with a more permanent boon attached.
The author notes that the books can be quite disruptive to a campaign, and not everyone is OK with their character being slowly corrupted, so one should check in with their players.
Except for maybe the spell scrolls and sheet music, this was my favourite part of the supplement. A lovely nod to the Linking Books of Myst, though the demiplanes they link to are less pocket-worlds and more "holodeck simulations". There's the entertaining suggestion of just describing white-space or unresponsive NPCs if the players act or move outside the novel parameters. One instance where railroading is actually a useful technique.
The two example mini-adventures (each one page) are an educational book that teaches apprentice mages about different cantrips, and an epic that tells of the downfall of a city.
If the book is destroyed, you are ejected from it, taking damage. If you "die" inside the book, you extit unharmed. But hey, holodeck safety protocols were far from infallible, so I'm sure some planar novel with damaged binding or a missing page is out there, just waiting to kill its readers.
Four animate books, two good & two evil, each with a backstory and statblock (including spells they can cast). Their spells tend toward utility and noncombat, so like Tom Riddle's diary, they're intended as mastermind adversaries or strange NPCs to encounter, not as powerful monsters. I kinda question the need for stat blocks at all here.
The Rest of the Book
Some notes about different kinds of library, e.g. bookshop, temple scriptorium, city archives. A page of tables to determine subject matter the library specialises in, the kinds of scholars it might have. With only a page here, it can't go into much detail.
More interesting is a page of sample fantastic library ideas, designed to fit within the Forgotten Realms but adaptable elsewhere. For example, the Spires of the Sun, white twisted stalagmite buildings, each dedicated to the local sun deity, but all working as part of a cooperative network. Or a Storm Giant's Observatory, full of 10-foot high books detailing giant prophecies. Amusingly, most books are locked shut, but the mechanisms are so huge a thief can simply reach inside the keyway and manipulate the insides.
Canonical Books and Libraries
A section of famous canonical books, with links to their Forgotten Realms wiki entries. I like this nod towards useability, and it's effective at freeing bits of Realmslore from their exhausing web of canon, making them actually gameable again. I would have preferred more pages of libraries & books inspired
by the Realms or by other things the author enjoys, but that kind of worldbuilding is obviously much harder, and I'm aware that cutting 4 pages of a PDF that summarise other material doesn't mean there's "space" for 4 pages of new ideas.
Finally some nice, handwritten examples of various Forgotten Realms scripts. Useful if you want a quick handout to give characters a feel for a race's or Outsider's script, I don't have the patience to see if they translate to anything.
The art-heavy PDF makes my old laptop struggle, but I've experienced a lot worse. Apart from that, the layout is generally excellent. I only counted two sections
that break onto the next page, let alone paragraphs or sentences -- there's more thought put here into page spreads than WotC puts into official hardcovers.
There are minor breaks from the WotC style guide, this isn't inherently bad (I'm no fan of it) but it does mean certain game rules don't always stand out from the rest of the body text. e.g. in some sections, calls for skill checks are bolded, in others, they are not.
Spells in creature stat blocks link to their dndbeyond.com entries. Many pieces of lore link to their fandom wiki entries. No internal hyperlinking or bookmarking though, e.g. from the table of book types on p.5 to the page detailing each type.
I unfortunately find it near-impossible to copy-paste the correct text the correct text, e.g. to send the effect of an illuminated manuscript's boon to a player. I'd probably resort to screenshots. The PDF also doesn't have separate layers for images/backgrounds and text, making it hard to print.
I think one thing that would have benefited this book is a bunch of book titles, one-line summaries, longer descriptions, and library descriptions, that deliberately flout
Forgotten Realms lore. This either lets DMs spice up their game by assuming these works' claims as true, or lets them seed the world with incorrect
information. Not every book is, or should be, reliable. Look at our world, where medieval bestiaries described bears as literally licking their cubs into shape. Or heretical traditions within various faiths.
There's unfortunately some parts of the book that have a lot less to say than other sections. The opening paragraph of each section is often pretty handwavy and can generally be skipped. Some sections (arcane publications, planar novels) are far more creative than others (trap books, illuminated manuscripts). Some sections needed a little more attention to detail or another editing pass.
Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have this, as-is, as a print-on-demand softcover. It breaks down Realmslore in a way that is focused and runnable at the table. If you're running a game in the Realms, this is great, 5 stars, you should buy ASAP.
If you're running a game with very different setting assumptions, e.g. noninterventionist gods, libraries are primarily in dungeons built by borderline-unintelligible civilisations? Its use will be more limited. You might get use out of the secret codices, eldritch volumes, or arcane pubs, but a lot of the other material will be unusable as-is.
If you're like me, someone who likes to mix a comfortable, familiar overworld to make excursions to the underworld feel strange and rule-breaking, then the majority of it will be useful as-is. The best of the material is pretty system-neutral, and can easily be applied to other editions of D&D or other fantasy tRPGs.
At the very least, many of the ideas in here have sparked my own imagination, and I want to write some supplementary tables for various book categories. You could also supplement the weird elements with something like The Stygian Library by Emmy ‘Cavegirl’ Allen.
I look forward to whatever the author puts out next.