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In the PHB, a book has a listed description and value (25pg), and in the scholars's pack a book of lore is listed while those with the cloistered scholar background (SCAG) start with a book on a subject of your current study. Nowhere is it listed what exactly these books are intended to provide players.

In our current campaign, there really isn't anyone churning out books on printing presses, so books are hand copied and not exactly plentiful. I want place books in loot for players to acquire and occasionally give them opportunities to get books from merchants or collectors. As they will be in loot and in shops, I want them to have some intrinsic value to a clever character other than just something to sell in town. For the most part, I'd like to stay away from using them just as a plot hook, as those sorts of books a player would have to go searching for, not fall into their lap via a treasure hoard. I know that I want the books to interact with skill checks in some way, however, I am not sure how useful I can make them without them becoming unbalancing.

What sorts of uses for such a book are appropriate, yet on balance for their value (25gp and up) and rarity (established above)?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There is always the possibility to tie in Candlekeep (or a similar institution of you don't play in the Forgotten Realms), not as a plot mind you, but as a possibility to discover more of the world they play in. \$\endgroup\$ – Eric Dec 29 '15 at 9:17
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There is no “should” or subjective judgement necessary here. This kind of thing is explicitly what advantage is for (PHB, p. 173):

The DM can also decide that circumstances influence a roll in one direction or the other and grant advantage or impose disadvantage as a result.

Having a book about the information you're making a skill check to recall or research is a textbook (heh) example.

One point of advantage, design-wise, is to avoid having to make a subjective judgement about what a “fair” bonus is for having an advantage (like your book example). Instead, every advantage is covered by the advantage mechanic, making it simple to use and decide during play. Given that you've already decided that an advantage is appropriate, how much is objectively determinable: the bonus is that the roll has advantage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I suppose I would just have to determine if the advantage could be found in the book that they have. Guess I'm just used to over complicating things from 3.5! \$\endgroup\$ – Nuds Dec 29 '15 at 17:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ If it's a topic they're otherwise familiar with, finding a specific passage in a specific book isn't required for the book to provide Advantage. On more than one occasion in real life, I've gone to look something up, and the act of digging into related information has triggered a memory or provided enough information to synthesize the specific answer I was looking for. Without the reference material, I would never have remembered. \$\endgroup\$ – T.J.L. Mar 25 '16 at 14:34
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The answer about advantage is helpful, and is probably what I would suggest doing in this case. If you decide that the books are more or less helpful than advantage would confer, here are some additional options available to you:

If a book is more of a pamphlet, or it covering the material suggested is a stretch (think "Sure, this book is about demons but it probably has a few pages talking about devils too, right?") then you could give a static bonus to the roll, or double the scholar's proficiency bonus when making the check. (Both of these are used in game for various other bonuses when advantage would be too much.)

If the book would almost certainly have the information needed ("This is a book titled 'The medical uses of wolfsbane', so it surely explains what those are inside, right?), consider not requiring a roll - if a book has the info you seek, you'll find it when you read it.

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