In mythology, fantasy, or D&D, the allure of forbidden knowledge is rife with possibility. Tell someone they can’t look inside the box or push the mysterious red button, and they’re on it like stink on rice. Well, here’s an easy way to port that nagging curiosity into your game while simultaneously tricking your players into absorbing some world lore: The Mad Grimoire
We’ve seen it done in all sorts of media. There’s the Book of the Dead from Army of Darkness, the Black Book (Hocus Pocus), the Tome of Hamunaptra (The Mummy), the Aim of the Sage, the Codex Gigas, The Book of Counted Shadows, etc, etc, etc. Dark books of mystical power and evil device are so prevalent in storytelling they’ve become a part of the background. I’ve played many, many campaigns that introduce this element to the game– only to have it forgotten later, filed away in some player’s equipment list.
So why not bring one to the game?
(Note: there are tutorials online for bookbinding recycled paper. I got lazy and bought this off a sale rack at Powells books. To each his own.)
1) Have A Template
First off, you need a plan of action. What will your tome be about? More importantly, what’s the goal of the book? I don’t mean ‘What’s the in-game goal you’re trying to foist onto the players.’ I mean, really, what does the book want? Was this book designed to be read aloud to banish the evil demon at the end of your campaign? Was it written to scare the players, adding gravity to the story? Start with a mission statement and stick with it, otherwise your tome will be a rambling affair that goes in multiple directions. You do not want the players to look at this as fluff content.
My grimoire’s goal: Tell the story of a planar traveler who found the final resting place of the gods and went mad. Then, by becoming an instrument of the dead gods, the traveler records how to summon new, dark gods to replace them. You’ll see what I mean as we go along.
2) Make It Boring (At First)
All serious tomes and texts have a mission statement or thesis. They will oftentimes, and in the most delightful way, get derailed by the end. Remember, you planned for this. You’re telling a story within a story. So start with an adventurer’s log about sailing. Or native dragon species. Or goblin culture. Whatever. You know, and I know, that the end of this book will be dark a creepy and miles away from the supposed author’s intent.
For this grimoire I chose a religious scholar, visiting various sites of worship. I also borrowed heavily from Lovecraft lore, and from ancient Greek poems for filler– the stuff in the finer print that makes up huge blocks of easily-skipped text. Whereas the journal entries are world lore, short and easy to read. Quest clues (and madness) come later.
3) Pictures And Filler
You don’t have to be a good artist for this part. In fact, it helps if you get messy and mean. Have a double espresso and put on some heavy metal, and start filling your book with strange images. The less comprehensible the better. Think Joker’s hand-written messages in Dark Knight.
You can also damage pages in a number of ways that will add character to your tome. Remember, this book has been through the wringer. Crack a red pen in half and give it bloodspatters. Tear pages out. Write notes on slips of paper and stuff them in. Add leaves or dried bits of local flora. This book should look like a real journal. Or, if your from the Millennial generation, it should look like someone’s vacation Facebook update with bits of random shit from whatever they found to take pictures of. Hell, sketch what you had for lunch if you’re so inclined, your narcissist you.
4) Let The Design Of The Book Tell Its Own Story
As we mentioned in your planning phase: this book has a story to tell. Make the script and the typeset change over time. Switch from casual cursive to a Gothic font, or elvish, or Google some made-up magic lettering. Let the players know that the author evolved over time, or his mind started to break, or the writer died and was replaced. You may not have time to fill every page (lord knows I didn’t) but a variety of typesets, images, and trinkets can really convey the book’s lengthy journey and changing state.
This example, of course, is about an author going completely mad and engaging in blood rituals by the end. This is also how the careers of CNN journalists progress.
5) Pack It Full Of World Lore
Don’t just use filler for filler’s sake. Anything you wrote for the game that’s too dense, too detailed, or too complicated to explain to the players at the table– add it to your book. Give the players who are actually interested a way into your world. Seventy-five percent of my players are murder-hobos who couldn’t be bothered, so I won’t force them into my world’s inner-workings. The odd player who actually wants to know the religious structure, calendar, and culture behind my storytelling can pick up bits and pieces from the tome.
Note: as my game progresses the players realize they were the subjects of these bizarre blood rituals, and are themselves budding replacements for the gods who died. So hide your plot twists behind madness and ambiguity.
6) Give It To The Players IRL
To absorb the information in the book, to make it available to the players, you must let them borrow it in real life. By the time you finish your grimoire it will be too dense, too sprawling, and too interesting for them to really absorb its full meaning at the table.
Let trustworthy, curious players take it home to look it over. By the time your next game rolls around you’ll learn not only did they appreciate the effort that went into your tome, they’ll also have a better understanding of how your world works. And the biggest reward is when they share that information with other players by text or email, and everyone comes back to the game with theories and questions and insights into your game. That’s what an actual, physical prop like this can do for your D&D campaign: you can make it real for your players.
Written for Statbonus.com