Bookshelves are one of my favorite pieces of set dressing for dungeons, as my website’s background attests to. They can come in many shapes and sizes, hide secret doors, contain hidden treasure, don’t take up much floor space, and can go just about anywhere without being out of place. Bedrooms can have bookshelves, dining rooms can have bookshelves, dens, and parlors, and even kitchens can have bookshelves. But in game terms, bookshelves have always presented me with one major problem:
What’s on them?
Players often want to search bookshelves thoroughly, looking for something valuable, and I frequently don’t have anything to give them. More than once I’ve had shelves filled with burned or waterlogged or shredded books, just to avoid the player’s inevitable questions about what the books say. Even the most dedicated game master can’t detail the contents of every bookshelf. Even coming up with titles would be a foolish waste of time.
But what, aside from spellbooks, are players really looking for on bookshelves? Useful information. Information such as:
- Quest Hooks
- Locations of treasure
- Hints about defeating monsters
- Hints at how magic items they might discover work.
- Hints about how to bypass traps.
- Clues to help them understand information gained elsewhere.
- Secrets they can exploit.
- Context for the current area, which may or may not be useful to them.
Each bookshelf should be associated with a small table. The table ought to be sized to the number of books on the bookshelf. So a small row of books atop a fireplace mantle might have only a 4 entry table, while a wall-spanning bookshelf would have a table of 12 entries or greater. I, personally, would use a linear probability table (rolling a single die, resulting in equal probability for all possible results) to keep things simpler on the GM side. However, someone willing to put in a little more work could use a bell curve probability table (rolling multiple dice, so results in the middle are more likely; and high or low results are less likely) to represent that some information would be featured more predominantly in multiple books, while other information would be hard to find.
For every 3 exploration turns (30 minutes) that a single player spends perusing the books, roll on the table and tell them the piece of interesting information which caught their eye. The player may repeat this process as many times as they like, receiving a new roll for each 3 turns spent. But the longer they peruse, the more difficult it is to find new information. Any time the GM rolls a result which has occurred already, the player finds nothing new.
If the player wishes, they can read the entire bookshelf all the way through, gaining all of the information it holds. This requires a number of turns equal to the maximum die result, times 100. So for a 1d12 book shelf, it would take 1200 turns, or roughly 8 and 1/3rd days. A generously short amount of time, if you consider how many books are typically contained on a bookshelf, and how long it takes to read a book.
Additional players working together can shorten the reading time proportionally. While it takes 1 reader 3 turns to get a roll on the table, 3 players could get a roll in 1 turn, etc. And of course, random encounter checks should be rolled normally during any period of reading. Otherwise, the choice to sit still and read is one without risk, and you may as well just hand over a list of rumors for every bookshelf encountered.
As an example, here’s a table for a standing bookshelf in an ancient alchemy lab.
- The crushed roots of the White Tulily plant, when added to water, create an effective healing potion. [An unlabeled white flower is growing in the neighboring greenhouse.]
- A living stalk of Orcish Ivy, which grows only in the nearby Hills of Doom, is more valuable than a fistfull of diamonds.
- While the gemstones growing from its branches are quite tempting, the Demonsprout is a deadly, poisonous plant. To be handled with caution. [A sketch here matches a plant sitting on a nearby table.]
- The wizard who formerly owned this lab makes mention of a stash of scrolls kept in a hollow board on one of the benches, “just in case.”
- While Essence of Squirrel is generally quite useless, those bathed in it will not be attacked by dire squirrels. Several jars of it are kept handy, as this monster is somewhat common in the area.
- “The pit trap installed on the other side of the western door has proven quite useful, having caught 3 thieves in the space of two months!”
- The lake outside was once called “Lake Elenekish” [While not terribly useful on its own, the players might learn elsewhere that there is a great treasure at the bottom of Lake Elenekish, with no reference to where that lake might be found.]
- Journal Entry detailing how the Alchemist’s ungrateful apprentice stole 3 of his most valuable potions, and fled. The alchemist’s only satisfaction is that she appears to have fled into the den of the deadly Oliniphus. While he dares not try to retrieve the potions, at least his apprentice got what she deserved.