Libraries are a common trope in fantasy art, literature, etc. The old wizard hunched over books amid a sea of books. In fantasy games, though, they leave something to be desired. They can always be used as a backdrop, of course – just window dressing – but I think it’s more satisfying to make them worth their while.
In the past, I’ve tried to detail specific books found in a library. You come up with some cute, old-fashioned title, and maybe decide what important tidbits of knowledge are to found within it, but again – mostly unsatisfying. Not an extreme amount of utility, and often they turn out not to be that useful. The book is written on an equipment list where it is forgotten.
With this system, you can get a general idea of the utility of a library with a small bit of identifying text – less than a monster’s stat block. You might still want to get fancy with book titles, and of course you will still want to describe the sights, sounds and smells of the thing to the adventurers, but at least the utility of the library will be concise and easy to remember.
This is the first element of a library – the size. Based on the size of the library, adventurers can get a bonus to answering questions in various subjects. The size of the library also determines how long it takes to find those answers.
Here are the library sizes:
|Tiny||Travel size||+5||1d6 minutes|
|Medium||Room of books – a sage’s library||+15||1d6 hours|
|Large||Several rooms – a wizard’s library||+20||1d6 days|
|Huge||Library at Alexandria||+25||2d6 days|
There the basic library set up. All the reference text required when you write a dungeon chamber or a city or whatever is “Small Library”.
Note that bonus here is given as a bonus on a d20 roll (and I know, it looks huge at the moment, but read on). For percentile systems, multiply by 5 (+1 = +5%). If you normally roll d6 for skill checks you’ll have to be creative.
Tiny libraries only give you one chance to find information to help answer a question. Larger libraries grant people multiple chances: 2 chances for a small library, 3 for medium, 4 for large and 5 for huge. Each time, one must roll for how long the research takes. One could, therefore, spend up to 60 days researching in a huge library and still not find the answer to their question.
While there are many subjects a real library could cover, fantasy adventurers usually have questions that we can bundle into five subjects. For a general library, divide the library’s bonus evenly among the five subjects. A tiny library, then, would grant a +1 bonus to answering questions in each of the five subjects, where a huge library would grant a +5 bonus.
Libraries can also specialize, dividing their total bonus up between the different subjects as you see fit. To do this, you add a parenthetical to the library’s size thus: Medium library (A5, H1, L5, N3, T1). The letter corresponds to a subject and the number corresponds to the bonus.
|Arcana (A)||Spell components, correspondences and general effects of spells and magic items||Actual spell research, activation words for magic items, true names of demons|
|Healing (H)||Non-magic diseases and poisons||Magic diseases and poisons, other magical effects like petrification|
|Lore (L)||Recorded history of the “material plane”, legends and folklore of the same||Lore from primordial times, lore from other planes of existence|
|Nature (N)||Abilities and vulnerabilities of creatures from the material plane (e.g. wolves, owlbears, halflings)||Abilities and vulnerabilities of creatures from other planes of existence (e.g. demons, devils, elementals)|
|Travel (T)||Geography of the material plane – how to get from point A to point B and what to expect along the way||Same, but for other planes of existence and time travel; also existence of magic portals and how to use them|
Subjects are divided into basic and advanced categories. For a basic category, use the library’s full bonus for that subject. For advanced, use half that bonus (rounding down).
Fleshing It Out
This scheme gives you a basic “stat block” for a library. There is, of course, so much more you can do with these things:
1) Describe the thing – the leather of the books, the smell of the paper, the dust, the disorder (if the library is really disordered, double or triple the time it takes to answer questions), the wood of the shelves, the tile floor, the librarian giving you the stink eye when you walk into his library in bloody platemail, etc.
2) Definitely describe the librarian if there is one. If the library is large enough, the librarian should be fleshed out as a full NPC since one might interact with them more than once. A good librarian might become an ally or enemy, or at least an adventure hook.
3) The library could present particular dangers or challenges. Maybe it is so old that each time you use it the overall bonus (or a specific bonus) is reduced by one, or is reduced by one if you fail a save or dexterity check. Maybe there are traps and thus a % chance of stumbling into them (‘15% chance of book avalanche when studying nature’ or ‘rot grubs infest the arcana books’). Maybe the library consists of engraved basalt tablets in a cave at the base of a volcano, with seams of lava between them – the bonuses are tripled, but the research involves jumping over red hot lava that can kill you.