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The PCs don't have much time: they have to find certain mission critical bits of knowledge in a few ancient tomes on magic. It's not a matter of minutes, but they definitely can't read all the books from cover to cover.

What skill should the players roll to see if the PCs find the information? Spot? Search? Knowledge (Arcana)? A combination of these, or something we've completely overlooked so far?

(Were we playing Call of Cthulhu, I'd have them roll Library Use... :))

Clarification: It's not the books they have to locate. They have them, on their desk, and know that what they're looking for is in them. The better they roll (and the more detailed and imaginative ideas they come up with in describing their in-game research :)), the more they'll learn.

Example (not the actual case, that would be too long to describe): Imagine something like trying to find out, from a very detailed book on history, what consequences a King's laws had on the economy... four hundred years after he lived.

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If it's mission critical, why not just give it to them? Or are you checking to see how much information they get/how fast it takes? – LitheOhm Jan 14 '13 at 0:49
@LitheOhm: Yes, I'm granularizing the information... and the consequences. (They do have other options to acquire the info, mind you. But their time's running out.) – OpaCitiZen Jan 14 '13 at 8:35
Why not just let them roleplay, then decide what proportion of data they've accessed and roll to see if they were lucky? – Dakeyras Jan 14 '13 at 15:58
@Dakeyras I'm not sure I understand your recommendation. Roleplay looking up (in a day's time) and finding (via deduction) the lingering effects of the trade laws of Richard III on 19th century commerce in a thousand pages long history book written in the 1990s? (To stick with my example.) :) – OpaCitiZen Jan 14 '13 at 16:25
@OpaCitiZen I mean more like PC:"Rob sorts the books into piles by date, then looks at those from 1950 first." DM:"He finds a very useful book on how the wool trade and industrialisation was affected by the ease of access to foreign markets" (I don't know if that's correct, it's just an example). So the roleplaying is more an interaction with the world than being, specifically, your character. – Dakeyras Jan 14 '13 at 16:32

Considering they have the books in front of them, I think Search and Spot are entirely out of the question unless there’s a secret page or something going on. Understanding the information within, figuring out which books are most likely to have the right information, etc. etc., that’s all Knowledge.

I’d actually treat the books more like a perfect tool, giving a sizeable Circumstance bonus to the Knowledge (Arcana) check required to know the information they’re looking for. You do have a DC for that, right?

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Straight up Knowledge (arcana). Definitely not Search—the books are just lying around, not hidden, right? Definitely not Spot—that's for finding individuals who are hidden or disguised.

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This. If they know the info's in the books, you're looking at checking if they can recognize the info in the book for what it means. – Nigralbus Jan 14 '13 at 11:15

Based on what you have said, it seems like they already have they books in which the information is contained.

A Search check is at least part of it, as well as a Knowledge Arcana check (these being separate). There is a difference between being able to read a book and knowing where the information is located. I personally am against most forms of synergy, as a DM I would rather have a separate check with a lower DC for whether or not you get synergy.

If the books are in a library, I might say you could use a Gather Information check to ask any clerks there, but besides that the checks are the same, maybe a different DC.

Spot is usually used for reactions, and that is how I play it- even flipping through a book would only give you an idea of where things are.

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So it is like finding a needle in a haystack, except you don't necessarily know what the needle looks like, right?

This depends on whether PCs could possibly know the information in question without the books.

If yes, I'd ask for a Knowledge(arcana) check, modified by the results of the search check - like, if they beat search dc 30 or so, they have found the needed bits of info and receive such a bonus that Knowledge check is auto-success, and if they fail miserably, they have to rely on their own knowledge only.

If no, it would be the other way around - knowledge check to follow the book and to be able to search for requisite info more efficiently.

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Skill with books is important in this task, so literacy is important. You might model this as the sum of all knowledge skills regardless of field.

But making sense of the text and seeing the significance of various pieces of information for the problem is going to involve topic-specific knowledge. The case of figuring out the consequences a King's laws had on the economy is going to test hardest knowledge skills in the fields of geography, history, and perhaps nobility.

If you want this to be a focal episode in the adventure of the campaign, you will need more than a simple skill check. I suggest starting off with some literacy checks and give out little bits of information. Once the players start asking the right-sounding questions (which you can guide with your stream of observations from the literacy checks), then ask for checks against the relevant knowledge fields. You might allow communication skill checks to be used to allow players to more efficiently combine their separate knowledge skills. You can make the inquiry into a trail of breadcrumbs that can be lead to a satisfactory account of what happened.

If you want this to be straightforward, I suggest a literacy check followed by a check of the most relevant knowledge field. The degree of success in these rolls can shape how satisfactory the picture is the players arrive at of what happened.

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