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In the PHB a Spellbook is described as a

leather-bound tome with 100 blank vellum pages

The way PHB describes a Forgery Kit is:

This small box contains a variety of papers and parchments

The word "papers" implies the existence of paper in the world. Moreover, as it was pointed at in this answer, the Equipment section describes Paper as a valid commodity:

\begin{array}{l l|l|l} \text{Item} & & \text{Cost} & \text{Weight} \\ \hline \text{Paper} & \text{(one sheet)} & 2\text{ sp} & — \\ \end{array}

However a Spellbook has "vellum pages". Why? Is it somehow special for the magical nature of the Spellbook, or there is no paper books in the DnD setting? For example, as a GM, how should I describe books in a library?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I've removed the Forgotten Realms tag as this question currently does not ask about the Forgotten Realms. If this question is specific to Forgotten Realms it needs to be modified to include more than the tag. However, I will say that if the rules for D&D say that something exists, that thing exists in whatever setting you're playing until you as DM say it doesn't. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Nov 17 '16 at 16:08
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The traditional D&D Spellbook is far more costly than a simple codex-type book needs to be -- made that way to protect a wizard's most valuable resource. Vellum (a type of leather scraped thin, made specifically for writing and drawing) is much more durable than pulp-based paper, at least as good as papyrus and far less labor to produce, so is the obvious choice for the pages in a spell book. In a setting where the default book is a codex type (pages bound in a stack as opposed to a scroll as was the case in pre-Roman times in our world), I'd expect most such to be made of some kind of paper, simply as an economy measure. Further, loose sheets are likely to be mostly paper (either wet pressed paper, similar to what we used in the 19th century, or papyrus), with a few of parchment or vellum mixed in for more important records.

Simply based on cost, wet pressed paper should be the most common type by the time codex books are the default.

Books in a library, in a pre-press technology, will all be hand copied, so older ones might well be scroll type, while newer ones (less than a few centuries, for the typical D&D pseudo-medieval setting) will be codex type, with either soft covers (for those intended to be portable) or hard board covers (for durability and weight to keep the book from closing itself). You might, therefore, describe a library as something like "A rack of scrolls groans under an obvious overload, the standing volumes weighted down with additional pieces laid on top. Beside it, a shelf case accomodates a pitiful few bound codices -- each ornately decorated with gold leaf, however, and several heavy enough they might be a strain to lift from their overhead perch."

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I'll begin by saying that in 5th ed. there is no "default setting" outside of the Multiverse. Published adventures for 5e currently take place in Forgotten Realms (with the exception of Curse of Strahd, which is in Barovia, which lies within the Domains of Dread, a demiplane that can be dropped into any setting), but it has not been designated as the default.

That being said, yes, paper exists. Check the chapter on equipment and you will see in the table titled Adventuring Gear, amongst the many items:

\begin{array}{l l|l|l} \text{Item} & & \text{Cost} & \text{Weight} \\ \hline \text{Paper} & \text{(one sheet)} & 2\text{ sp} & — \\ \text{Parchment} & \text{(one sheet)} & 1\text{ sp} & — \\ \end{array}

There is also a "Book" item, separate from the "Spellbook" item, which is described thusly:

Book: A book might contain poetry, historical accounts, information pertaining to a particular field of lore, diagrams and notes on gnomish contraptions, or just about anything else that can be represented using text or pictures. A book of spells is a spellbook (described later in this section).

There is nothing here to indicate what materials a book might be made of, but it is probably safe to assume that books could be made with parchment, paper, or vellum pages.

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I have always taken it as a "quality" level. A spell book is the heart and soul of a wizard's knowledge and hard work. A simple cheap paper book wouldn't do. Only the strongest, most valuable paper (vellum) will do.

To make a simple book or map would require "normal" paper. There are many libraries in Forgotten Realms at least; Candlekeep has tomes and tomes of knowledge.

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Yes, there are books within the PHB, listed within the table and described on the next page. Since you asked why spellbooks are made out of vellum, it's important to know what it was and how it's used.

As the link describes, vellum is paper made from cow skin. Since it's made from a form of leather, it shares special properties that paper does not, such as increased durability in harsher conditions, fewer chances of bleeding, and a longer lifespan overall. More directly speaking, important documents and artworks that had to travel long distances utilized vellum to assure that the quality would last.

As a wizard relies on having a trustworthy spellbook with him during his travels, it would be wise for them to find the best option available. If they were to choose paper instead, the harsh conditions they are met with could ruin the book:

  • Being submerged will definitely make the ink run, ruining their spells at the least. At most, it will disintegrate.
  • Being engulfed in flames will dry out the paper and make them brittle, and easy to shatter.
  • The more the book is used, the more likely you'll end up severing the bonds that the page has to the binding, while vellum is less likely to tear.

    These are all advantages vellum has over paper. It has more of an ability to adapt without compromising its endurance or quality. The ink ends up tattooing the vellum more than riding it, and while the moisture might inflate the pages, they will regain the durability of leather, and dry out just as easily. (The same as rawhide can be moistened and dried multiple times without wearing out it's quality).

To address how you should describe the tomes in a library, that would all depend on what kind of tomes you're talking about. History shows us that important documents, such as religious records, were recorded on vellum, while less important documents were written on paper. The Library of Alexandria had mostly paper scrolls piled in cubicles, so adding everything together, though the majority of the books will be written on paper, you might find some vellum books and scrolls tucked away in sparse corners as well.

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You are the GM, it is your world. You decide, then enforce it.

Do you think magic should be on costly vellum? Does paper exist in your world? If you were a mage, would you trust paper or use something stronger? Does magic depend on the medium upon which it is written?

Answer those questions for yourself, then explain it to the players.

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