Monday, November 14, 2022


I've mentioned in several posts the idea of using books as random generators. This is an idea that has long appealed to me outside of gaming. I first encountered it when I learned about the conversion of Saint Augustine, how he heard a child sing "take up and read" and he opened a bible reading the first passage he saw, which was Romans 13:13-14. It was explained to me that randomly selecting a passage and reading it was a way people sought guidance and meaning at the time, and it was also explained that people generally read out loud as well (the latter isn't that relevant to this post, but something I found interesting as I always read things out loud in my head). I found myself doing this with a variety of books over the years, mostly to amuse myself or stumble on random thoughts and ideas. But eventually it became something I incorporated into my gaming. In this post I will describe the approach I take, which I call the random book method. 

The Random Book Method 

This is really a very simple way to generate random results and ideas in an RPG. You can use it the same way you use random tables. When a moment arises in the game where you want to introduce something or see if and how something occurs, you simply pick up a book, turn to a random page, find the first passage that catches your eye and use that as inspiration for what happens in the game. If for some reason the passage seems to have no relevance, you can either treat that as nothing happening or go to the next passage you find that is relevant. 

This does take a little practice to get comfortable with but it opens up a lot of doors because every type of book can be used and which books you choose to incorporate will shape the style and tone of the results. 


You will want to practice with this approach just like you probably played around with random tables before using them live in your first game. It is one thing to roll on a table and get a result and another thing to make that result come alive. And this method requires reading a paragraph each time. With books what you are looking for is inspiration and for something to help guide your decision making process. The result might be literal (i.e. you turn to a page that describes a sea serpent so you decide to have the party encounter a sea serpent), or it could be more of a starting point (i.e. you encounter a passage that describes the innovation of the gazetteer genre in 12th century Song China, so have them encounter an official gathering information for a gazetteer he is working on, or a group of bandits attacking such a person or carrying a cart of stolen gazetteers). You can take things even further if you like, the important thing is to see the passage, get a few thoughts but also an immediate sense of where to go (because the idea is you are still trying to make this random, and not just use it to put something down you were going to do anyways). 

For practice, because it can be a little tricky at first, I suggest using the random book approach between sessions while doing prep, before introducing it into a live game. This way you will see if it suits you (like any method, this isn't going to be something that resonates with everyone) and it will get you accustomed to working with random book passages (which span a huge spectrum of being directly relevant to being something you have to think about a bit to make relevant). 


For the random book method any book can be used, a novel, a history book, the bible, another religious text, philosophy books, etc. However you should have some idea of how you are going to use the book before incorporating it into your game. And you probably should be familiar with the book or the genre it belongs to so it makes sense to you and so you can have a sense of what sections might be best to randomly turn to (you don't need to target sections but there are times when this will be helpful to you). 

You should also have more than one book. You can even use a whole shelf if you want, but personally I recommend selecting about three books that cover a variety of topics so you can choose something likely to yield a gameable result. 

I like history, and I am probably most comfortable with history books, so I usually have a mix of different types of history books on hand. As an example, I might have a book on trade, a book that is just an overall history book of a given period, and a book on daily life. I may also include a primary source that could be handy (in a wuxia campaign, the Analects for example) and sometimes use short story anthologies, books about folklore, and the bible. 

But you can use whatever books you want. 


This can be used for everything from encounters to adventure ideas to NPCs personalities and histories. Most often I use it for random encounters but I also use it to see what players find when they go somewhere I didn't expect. 

Here is an example of how I might use it in a session. My characters are a group of martial heroes in the city of Yu Zhing, a place I haven't used in a long time, and have rough notes and a sketch of in one of my old binders. There is also a short entry on the city in the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate rule book on page 255. So there is enough detail but also a lot of open space to be explored. The city is under the grip of the cruel General Dee and the players want to form an alliance with local heroes to wage a rebellion against him. One of the players asks if there are any notable heroes in the area. 

This is a good opportunity to try the random book method. 

I am using one of my favorite books, The Song Transformation of China, and randomly choose a page and passage. The first thing I read is "Trade guilds flourished in Hangzhou...." and it goes on to describe the role of guilds, the basic structure and the naming conventions. I see a list of the kinds of guilds and "....dried salt fish trader's guild at Turbid Water Gate" catches my eye. These guilds had headman who served as middlemen between them and the government, and helped regulate prices. So I decide one of these headman is sympathetic to the plight of the workers in Hu Qin (there are many exploited workers in this city) and leads an informal group of heroes drawn from the salt fish trader's guild merchants and through a network of fisherman and transport ships. I need a name and don't see any on this page so I flip until I find a surname, and see Zhai on the next page. 

So I take all this and tell the players after they do some investigation that "You learn about a man named Zhai, who is the headman of the dried salt fish traders guild at Immaculate Water Gate." 

I then want to flesh out Zhai a bit so I turn to another random page and the first passage I see is a verse of poetry, and I also see one of the lines mentions hair turning grey. So I decide Zhai is also a talented lyric writer with a good command of music, but that he is quite old, and despite being a skilled master has kept his abilities hidden from the general. 

This is just a starting point but it gives me a sense of the kind of person they may be dealing with, as well as the sorts of people he has supporting him, what other kinds of martial heroes are likely to be in his ranks, and some of the risks he is exposed to. I can also complicate the situation further using this approach to develop rivals and allies in the city. 


Normally at this point I pin down details in my note pad. So I would write "Zhai, headman of the dried salt fish traders guild. Old. Talented poet, martial hero and musician.Sympathetic to workers and against General Dee." I may also assign a Qi rank and then randomly generate his stats (or flesh them out quickly on the fly). But I also know from experience when players go to meet with an NPC, especially one they want a working relationship with, it's important to know what that character wants, both generally and specifically. These kinds of interactions are likely to involve negotiations and there is nothing more dull than an NPC negotiating who has no motivation. I may have enough from what I've already pinned down, to extrapolate some wants. I know he likes music and I could elaborate on that (perhaps he is hoping to recruit skilled musicians, find antique musical instruments, etc). And I know he is in opposition to General Dee, but he so far has been doing so with secrecy and tact. A group of bold new martial heroes might make him nervous unless he trusts their skills. 

So one option is to do another random passage to check for any wants he might have that could be important during the player's dealings with him. I have a book called Commerce and Society in the Sung China (which I talk about a lot because it has so much gameable material). It has much that could be immediately relevant to Zhai, so I open up a random page and the first passage is about paper manufacturing. At first I consider the possibility of a dispute between the guilds, but decide instead to make it more personal because I already know that Zhai has an interest in music and poetry. So I decide he has a personal grudge with the head of the paper manufacturers guild over something very petty like a rival love interest or a perceived slight in one of Zhai's poems (I go with the perceived slight). As a consequence, rival headman has made it clear that no one who sells paper or prints books in the city is to give Zhai access to top grade paper (something Zhai resents because he likes printing fine copies of his poetry to gift to people, so any books he prints locally have to be with inferior quality grades). 

I like this kind of motive because its more involved, a fun motive and more social than something like wanting an item in a particular location (not that that can't be viable too). But this leads to further exploration of the city, its power groups and its politics. Which not only is helpful for the players but helps me as a GM to create more and more of the city. 


This is something you can try in your own campaign. Hopefully I have expressed clearly how I make use of it, as I do find it a very effective random tool (and a fun one to use). Feel free to test it, see if it works for you. Or perhaps you devise a modified approach that works even better. 

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