In mythology, fantasy, and D&D, the allure of forbidden knowledge is rife with possibility. Tell someone they can’t look inside a box or push the mysterious red button, and you can see their hands start to itch. 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 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 in Hocus Pocus, the Tome of Hamunaptra in The Mummy, the Aim of the Sage, the Codex Gigas, The Book of Counted Shadows, etc, etc, etc.
Dark books of mystical power are so prevalent in storytelling they’ve become part of the background. I’ve played countless campaigns that introduce magical books as a concept– only to have them forgotten by the players minutes later, filed away in their endless equipment lists.
So why not bring one to the game?
Here, in anticipation of the campaign I’m about to embark on with a new party, is the Mad Grimoire, and a few tips on crafting your own.
(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.)
Have A Template
First off, you need a plan of action. What will your dark tome be about? More importantly, what’s the goal of the book? I don’t mean ‘What’s the in-game lore you’re trying to foist onto the players.’ I mean, really, what does the book want? Why was it written? Was this book designed to be read aloud to banish the Great Evil at the end of your campaign? Was it written to educate Gnomish scholars about the languages of rats? Start with a purpose for the grimoire and stick to it. If I don’t have a specific purpose when I start a tome, it becomes a rambling affair that scatters lore 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 scholar who found the final resting place of the gods and went mad.
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 an academic study of native dragon species. Or goblin culture. Whatever. You know, and I know, that by the end of this book your ‘author’ will be miles away from their original subject.
For this grimoire I chose a religious scholar, visiting various sites of worship. I also borrowed heavily from Lovecraft, 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 legit world lore, short, and easy to read. Quest clues (and madness) come later.
Add Pictures And Filler
You don’t have to be a good artist for this part. In fact, it helps if you get messy and rough. 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 The Dark Knight. Or the notebooks from Seven.
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.
Let The Design Of The Book Tell Its Own Story
As I mentioned in the 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 that 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.
My example, of course, is about an author going completely mad and engaging in blood rituals by the end.
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.
Give It To The Players IRL
Here’s the hard part. The painful part. You have to give up your tome.
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 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 find 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, and everyone comes back to your game with theories and questions. That’s what an actual, physical prop like this can do for your D&D campaign: you can make it real for your players.
“Portal made of giant’s teeth? I have a whole sack of NOPE for that.”