Books and Other Sources of Knowledge

I’ve recently touched on some ideas about spell books as rewards in Seekers of Lore, but didn’t explore the topic thoroughly.

Seekers of Lore
Seekers of Lore

First, there are other sources of knowledge. Books are perhaps one of the most convenient overall ever — generally portable, fairly durable, human-readable, and with decent data density for the technology level. There are other possibilities, even if you move beyond other written works such as scrolls, and carved works such as cuneiform tables and runes carved into cave walls. A cavern echoing with the words of a god, a crystal glowing with vis, a wise elemental spirit, a clever device to be disassembled and studied… there are many possibilities.

Second, spells are not the only sort of knowledge that has value in this campaign. Spells are a useful sort of knowledge in the right hands, they provide options and power to those capable of using them, and they deliver content in conveniently-sized pieces. Other possibilities are specific techniques (D&D 3.5 PHB II offered ‘skill tricks’, minor abilities you could learn by spending skill points on them instead of buying ranks in skills; these might be similar), specialized areas of knowledge (bonuses to skill checks under certain specific circumstances), specific knowledge (such as treasure maps or command words, or rituals or magic item formulae).

Third, knowledge tends to build on itself. Learning is often hard, knowledge often has prerequisites before it can be learned, and learning can quite often be considered ‘risky’ in that the amount of time needed to learn something can be unpredictable, if the knowledge can be learned at all.

What I Want

I aim to treat knowledge sources more or less abstractly, using a single set of rules. “Books” are only a single form, nicely portable and with good density, but otherwise work much the same as any other.

In the absence of other rules, any source of knowledge can hold any type of knowledge — you can learn master smithing from the voice of the earth itself, you can learn spells from the wind, you can learn the location of fabulous treasure from a book.

You may need to be qualified in order to learn particular knowledge or from a particular source. This might mean having sufficient background, knowing related material needed to understand the new material. This might mean having a certain number of ranks in a skill, being fluent in a dead language, having prerequisite feats, or knowing other specific information. The definition can vary by type of knowledge and the source of knowledge.

The difficulty of learning can be measured a couple of ways. One is based on the prerequisites; if knowledge has difficult prerequisites it can be considered ‘difficult to learn’, but since in many cases even after the prerequisites are met it can be a variable amount of time I think I would go with some sort of check, possibly with the ability to retry on failure.

What Does This Mean Mechanically?

As described the other day, I see there being three stages of mastery for a source of knowledge.

  1. Reviewed. The character has become familiar with the knowledge source. If the character does not meet the prerequisites for the source, the character gets a general sense of the content (‘spells’, ‘treasure map and instructions’, ‘potion formulae’) without specifics, and a sense of what the prerequisites are (what languages need to be known, the skills needed to make use of the content, and so on). If the character does meet the prerequisites for the source, the characters knows specifically what is present (the list of spells, what treasure is supposedly at the destination of the map, what potions can be made) but cannot yet actually use the knowledge.
  2. Studied. The character satisfies the prerequisites and has spent more time with the knowledge source. Individual elements of the content can actually be used, but the source may need to be present (that is, the character can prepare spells from the source, or could follow the treasure map. Depending on the nature of the source, it may be possible to make a copy (even an ignorant scribe can copy a book just by drawing the text… though mistakes are possible and an ignorant scribe might not catch them in time). Other sources may not be copied (how do you ‘copy’ the Heart of the Earth or the Voice of the Wind?).
  3. Mastered. The character satisfies the prerequisites, and possible a second set of prerequisites necessary for mastery, and has internalized the knowledge. The character no longer needs the source and can use the knowledge more or less freely, and can even create a new source (‘write a book!’) with the knowledge.

I’m still roughing this out, but so far I can see the following elements for a knowledge source:

  • All elements of my entity template can be appropriate – name, role, relationships, description, and mechanics. The first three are much as usual, the mechanics need to be expanded on.
  • Mechanically, a knowledge source includes:
    • the prerequisites needed in order to review the source (this might be as simple as language fluency, or require specific knowledge or the like) and the checks needed to review the source;
    • if the source can be studied piece-wise, the prerequisites and checks needed to learn each piece of knowledge (for instance, in the rules as written a spell can only be learned by someone high enough level to cast it) and the effects of that knowledge;
    • if the source can be mastered piece-wise, the prerequisites and checks needed to learn each piece of knowledge and the effects of that knowledge;
    • if the source has effects for having studied the entire source, the prerequisites and checks needed after having studied all knowledge in the source and the effects of having studied the entire source;
    • if the source has effects for having mastered the entire source, the prerequisites and checks needed after having mastered all knowledge in the source (and having studied the entire source) and the effects of having mastered the entire source.


The Pathfinder Book of Harms is a specialized spell book (Evoker school, Divination and Transmutation opposed). It is locked with an average lock (DC 25 to open) and for the sake of the example let’s pretend it’s written in Altaelfen, a more or less dead language for a race believed to be no more. It contains the following spells:

  1. fireball, lightning bolt
  2. acid arrow, darkness, ghoul touch, gust of wind
  3. burning hands, color spray, corrosive touch, hydraulic push, hypnotism, magic missile, ray of enfeeblement, shocking grasp

It also has a preparation ritual: Harmful Surge, that lets the caster maximize a spell but causes the caster damage (1d4 per level of the spell being maximized). The preparation ritual can only be used if the caster prepares at least three spells from the book and can be used only once before being expended.

It is clear that literacy in Altaelven is a prerequisite for review. This book is well-written in the Altaelven style, verbose but complete, so it requires three hours to review but no check is needed to identify the book and what the content is.

Studying the spells requires more. While the Altaelven language is very pleasant to read for some purposes and falls into standard patterns, it is very verbose and requires significant effort to learn from (imagine what algebra looked like written in natural language before standardized mathematical representations were developed — “nine increased by a an arbitrary number” versus “9+x”) and is not very effective at defining spells for their use. Each spell requires a language check (DC equal to 15 + twice the spell level) to understand the allusion and symbolism, and a caster level check (DC 10 + twice the spell level) in order to successfully ‘study’ the spell, at the cost of a number of days equal to the spell’s level. This check may be retried as needed. After successfully studying a spell, the character may prepare it normally from this book if the character has an appropriate caster level.

Studying the preparation ritual might require an Intelligence check (DC 25, say) with the number of spells studied from this book as a modifier. There are fourteen spells in this book, studying them all gives a total of +14 on the check (50% success right there, before Intelligence modifier).

Mastering each spell requires a caster level sufficient to prepare the spell and having cast it using the Harmful Surge preparation ritual. No checks are required, but the preparation ritual is usable only once per day and causes 1d4 points of damage per spell level. As each spell is mastered, it is no longer necessary to have the book in order to prepare the spell.

Mastering the preparation ritual similarly requires no checks, but that the caster master all the spells in the book. By this time the caster will have used Harmful Surge at least fourteen times with different spells and no longer needs to have the Book of Harm present to prepare the spells or use this preparation ritual. The character now counts as a source equal to the Book of Harm and can recreate it if needed… possibly in a more modern language in order to make it easier for others to study from.

Closing Comments

This is much more fiddly than I would normally consider in most campaigns. I am usually satisfied with “you copy the spells to your spell book”, but since the campaign is about discovery and recovery of information I think it reasonable in this case to require more work. The checks are not show stoppers, they merely determine how long it takes to study and master the information; if a character satisfies the prerequisites the material can be learned.

Overall, I think I have a good start here. I will want to refine this further. I have several other books covering similar topics that I can look to for ideas for further development. I’ll also want to work out some more examples; look for them in the coming weeks.


  1. David Lamb

    I’m delighted there’s a campaign about recovering old knowledge rather than killing things and taking their stuff, although I suppose that could be one means of acquiring sources.

    What’s the effect of failing the various checks you mention? Try again after a suitable passage of time? Unable to retry until you gain experience (eg a level if this is a level-based system)?

    In this campaign is passage of time significant? If not, and if the only effect of a failed check is costing more time, then are the checks worth doing?

    • ‘Discover and recover’ certainly can involve killing (easiest way to bring back a specimen is usually to kill it and carry it home), but that’s not the focus. In AD&D and earlier much, if not most, of your experience points came from the treasure you bring home. Actually fighting is often best avoided, except inasmuch as it makes it safer to carry the treasure home.

      Here, killing monsters and taking stuff is itself worth nothing as far as advancement is concerned. ‘Pacifying’ an area makes it quite a bit safer, usually, so it might be worth considering, but it doesn’t need to be done violently. In fact, you can get more effect (more experience points, that is) if you instead use diplomatic means to pacify the area rather than violence because you stand to learn more, and while “kill everything and take their land” is a viable approach for demesne acquisition, getting the locals to sign up to support you can be rather better.

      Similarly, carting treasure home is useful, but doesn’t lead to advancement directly. Special items (discover or recover) can be worth something that way, but raw coin and other valuables are only useful.

      You raise an interesting point. Given that in many cases the rolls are there only to determine how long it takes, because if you meet the prerequisites and can possibly succeed on the checks you eventually will, it may well not be worth rolling. I need to think about it, perhaps in some cases there should be expenses or other considerations besides simply time relating to study and research. Time could be significant if it is long enough, if it means that a character doing study or research is not available for another adventure, but it’s not that hard to wait a few more days if it means having someone more capable along.

      Need to ponder.

      • This part seemed relevant:

        The character […] can recreate [the book] if needed… possibly in a more modern language in order to make it easier for others to study from.

        Perhaps I’m not able to understand the book, or I could but it would take an extremely long time (the check result could be used to give a scale of learning times?). Instead I hire a team of experts to break it down and produce a more digestible version.

        In general I am quite interested in the idea of characters having reason to write their own books on various subjects (with apologies to Cicero). It’s not necessarily limited to the wizard; the fighter can produce Weapons and Tactics of the Ildrassil River Civilisation, the rogue can write a treatise on I Dismantled A Forcespear Trap And So Can You!, and the barbarian can er hire somebody else to write I Squashed Lots Of Giant Bugs And Some Of Them Were Good Eatin’.

        • I’m not certain about the ‘hire a team of experts’ part, given that the premise of the campaign is that for many of these things there are no experts to hire. If there were, you wouldn’t be trying to figure this out at all, you’d just go to standard references.

          Though I do see an argument for ‘acquisition’ being distinctly separate from ‘examination’. You might have expert ‘mystery finders’ and ‘mystery solvers’. I think I’d rather see the ‘mystery solvers’ have to go into the field to do their jobs, though.

          • I might have overstated it. For the particular example given above, you would need someone well-versed in Altaelfen and someone with a good grasp of magical theory. The party wizard could provide the latter part of the collaboration, but if nobody in the group is good enough at the language, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to get in a language expert or two. If I were running it I’d allow for any PCs involved walking away with a slightly better grasp of Altaelfen too.

            If I’m completely off-track and the language itself is a mystery to uncover then that is a different matter though.

            • Ah, I see.

              Nah, that’d be fine by me. Getting help for specific skills or knowledge not held personally should be allowed. Often parts of it won’t be available, and it might be of limited applicability. For instance, if you have to get someone in to help with the Altaelven, it might still prove difficult to prepare the spells or the preparation ritual from the book without such help. Once you’ve mastered the material it’s another matter, you’ve internalized it enough the original language is irrelevant.

  2. Pingback: A-Z April Challenge 2013 | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  3. Pingback: Demense-Level Gaming | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  4. Pingback: Exploration, Seeing What There Is To See | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  5. Pingback: A-Z Challenge Forfeit | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top