Designing a library

Does anyone know of any good articles or materials for designing an Hermetic library?

I'm starting a campaign (run on line and still with some vacancies BTW) in which the PCs have discovered an abandoned but reclaimable covenant. I've had to design the library they discovered and I've been told that I've done a terrible job.

Now, I'm ready to believe this but I know of no means to create, either randomly or by design, the sort of stuff you would find in a Hermetic Library: the Summa and Tractatus, the lab texts and the odd stuff about non-magical subjects. How many books on Spell Mastery would a Summer tribunal be likely to have acquired? Would there be much stuff useful to just-out-of-gauntlet types in a Winter library?

How does anyone, for goodness sakes, even start?

I suspect my player means (at least in part): 'All this stuff won't be much use to me and my colleagues.' But I want to be able to say: This is there because of this, this, this and this.

I'd say to any Atlas Games bods reading that this might make a useful small supplement, perhaps released as a pdf.

You can raid/milk the play by post subforums in this site. There are LOADS of great stuff to be stolen from there. :slight_smile: I have done it myself :wink:


I don't know of any good material on this. There is some guidance in the Covenants supplement, but not as extensive as you apparently desire. I agree this is a topic that needs more addressing.

My usual recommendation here is not to design the library. Instead, note down the number of Build Points in it. Then when they are looking for something in the library, roll some dice to see if there is something suitable in it. If there is, create a book (or a few) and add it to the library, marking its Build Points off the missing extent. If there is nothing reasonable there, create something related they found instead (again subtracting it from the "unknown" extent).

However, your method of creating a library is fine too, of course, and more realistic. Here are some of my own thoughts on the content:

  • A lot of value is invested in "Fine" books, high-quality valuable books by good writers famous throughout the Order.
  • Much of the rest, perhaps a third of the library's value, is invested in "Vain" books, that were written by the local covenant members (which aren't such stellar authors), most of which on niche topics that you can't find (otherwise, they wouldn't have bothered).
  • Make sure to include books on useful Abilities that the magi of the past wanted to learn or to teach to their apprentices and sodales. This can include Intrigue, Area Lores, and even esoteric topics like Survival or a dead language. Of course, books on Arcane Abilities are a must - including probably some books on Parma.
  • Make sure to include books on Mastering some of the spells that the covenant members of old created. The lab texts of the corresponding texts may or may not still exist in the library.
  • Include some half-ruined books: missing parts in a series, books with lowered Quality or Level, books that no longer meaningfully cover their subject, books where key information (like the True Name of a certain figure) can no longer be discerned...

If you're going for consistency, start by considering how the covenant started and what those magi wrote, and then proceed towards the future with newer generations. I prefer to keep the number of apprentices small and generation time large, so that won't be that many magi. Even Durenmar, with 450 years on it, arguably saw only some 5 generations or so. Most magi may very well not write anything to the library at all, at least nothing that remains there for long. Assume that stuff gets burned/decays/lost if not copied, at least occasionally, so you don't really need to create everything these guys wrote - only what survived to the present (in the library).

As a storyguide myself who's trying to avoid the old-school "I control the world" philosophy, let me suggest: why not ask the players what they want to be in the library? If they want to make it the Munchkins' Wet Dream Bibliotech, well then that's the kind of game setting they're interested in. Probably though they'll be happy to put some thought (with your guidance) into what is likely to be there, what is likely to be lacking, and what decisions will make the challenge level right for them. One benefit: it doesn't matter whether the end result is a "terrible job" if all the players including you are happy with it! Plus, less work for you if they do it....

The ungrateful little brats! I'd just as happily have given them no books at all, "trade for all that you want!"

That said.

Low-level summae (preferbly with high-ish to high quality) is a common priority in order to get magi to the point where they can teach apprentices.

High-level summae are the products of powerful and experienced magi.

Tractatii are plentiful, but i stagnating covenant might well have traded away most (or even all) of their tractatii for either new tractatii or other resources.

Comming from a university enviroment, I tend to think of summae as the books used in (especially college and early uni) courses. The ones written to explain some subject, and to which you can return time and again.
Tractatii then, are articles, which can be collected in large numbers indeed and quality is much less important - we all want good articles, but if they are relevant even poor articles are read (trust me on this!).

I personally like including the works of Elaine of Flambeau (societates p. 9)

All that said, gerg has a good point. You don't have to create it all yourself.
Atleast once I've seen the creation points simply divided out among the players, who could then design a bit of the library.
Or more commonly, an alpha SG wrote a library core, and then gave each player N points to spend.

Well, I can't just improvise as I go: the very first thing they are going to do (after disarming the defences and finding where the laboratories and lavatories are) is to search and catalogue the library. I can do the 'hidden resources' trick but not more than once, I reckon.

I wont just give them what they want. If they were founding a new convenant then, yes, that would make sense. They would buy what they needed within budget and have to wait for the rest. But here to get any sense of realism they have to make use of what they find. And to get a sense of realism I need to find or make up some guidelines.

And the covenant didn't fade away. It was decapitated by a really vicious strike from a rival who then couldn't penetrate the still active defences. It is in fact Rosalba in the Yorkshire Dales from HEIRS OF MERLIN.

Last time I had to set up a library like that I made sure to design it before the players started making their characters.
No favoritism.

Which reminds me, I should probably start preparing the next one soon.

Remember that the suggestion is to ask the players to make up the library, not their characters.

I would delegate this job to the players myself. Explicitly tell them that the point is to make up a realistic library. But it is not the library for their characters. So it is not meant to be library that would be the most convenient to their characters. It should have some areas that are helpful to their characters, and some areas that are useless.

Then once they've got their list together, have a read through and swap out anything you think is just a bit too mad or convenient.

The other advantage of getting the players to do this, is that they will think about the books that their characters would like. So, even though not all those books will be in the discovered library, the players now have a good idea of the sorts of books that their characters want to go find/trade for. Suddenly, a whole lot of adventure motivations/ideas have written themselves.

If I were to design such a library, these are the points I'd follow:

  • The concept of the covenant and their magi needs to be set, because the library reflects this (e.g. they had a necromancer, so Co, Me books and lab texts for relevant spells, or the covenant was political so Organization Lore OoH and Code of Hermes is relevant as are mundane texts about Folk ken, Intrigie and so on)
  • A summer covenant would have primers in all Arts, so most likely Summae up to level 5, with some specialities going a little or a lot higher. Some Arts can be weak and perhaps only have some Tractati.
  • Focus areas of the magi, especially if two or more like the same arts, should feature the most Tractati.
  • Lab texts, decide whether the magi would share their spells, or if the library only features the most basic and well known spells.
  • Arcane texts about abilities; Magic theory is a must, various Realm Lores are also popular. Perhaps Concentration, Finesse and Penetration
  • Academic texts, Artes liberales, Philisophiae (especially if there was once a Verditius) and Medicine
  • Mundane texts, depending on the interests as mentioned above. Church lore? Craft manuals? Mundane Organization Lores?
  • Something odd and amusing, like a high level Art SUmma with low Quality. Sure it sucks to read, but you can go a long way with it, and it might be the only way. I never do the opposite with low level high quality stuff, because is it soo easy, too fast for everyone to have maxed out and thus be the same.
  • Beware of the PC magi's specialities, don't undermine it. If there is a mentem specialist with a score of 12 don't give then a level 10 Summa with good quality. Everyone else can quickly catch (almost) up, and even if there are a lot of Tractati, the increase rate of the specialist stagnates and his speciality is less special. In a current saga the old ASG did this and I mentioned it. It was brushed off as needless whining, but now my 22 years post gauntlet Magus has an apprentice with an affinity in Mentem, and she is after 4-5 years closing in on my score.
    *Lab texts for devices. They can be a pain to design, but they can also be fun.
  • Use Covenants for pointers to Level/Quality and sum up the build points.
  • Have some stuff look powerful and inteesting but it is damaged, so they need to spend some time restoring it. I like that kind of stuff. If the library was abandoned it need not be in pristine condition.

The late covenant, presumably, not the PCs.

I'd say summae no less than level 5, but yeah.

again, the late magi, not the PCs.

not sure I agree on this, but good point..

and people coughIcough always forget these

Yesyes, of course I meant the former magi of the covenant being looted. Naturally.

The point about not undermining a specialist is a thing I unfortunately did back in my first saga, and have tried to avoid since. And I've recently had it done to me, not very fun. Ok, the problem isn't great since no other magus has even the slightest interest in Mentem, because my magus always took care of these things, and because he has many relevant spells. It would take forever for another to really encroach on his domain. He has made sure to read all the available Tractati in the library to stay ahead, and also puts all available Exposure in Mentem when adding to his spell repetoire. But the problem lies with the darned apprentice. She has not only an affinity in mentem, she also has Book Learner, which my magus does not. So she is still limited by the level of the summa, but she reaches it fast. And thus has more time left over for Tractati, which she gains more by reading than I did. Of cource I cna always make sure she studies something else, after all I own her. But I also want her to be powerful since this reflects well on me. I'll stop now before going (too much) off topic, just thought I'd mention what could happen if you don't beware.

To tell the truth I might design the library to eb apporpriate to the deceased magi who owned it. But I might design the former owner to fit my idea of good swag. This I always include some things the PCs want (sometimes they don't know it until later) and to make up for some shortcoming I see in their library. After all, if a covenant is to progress to the next season thet need IMHO to have a good, well-rounded library. Or a highly specialised one, but it sort of needs to reflect the magi owning it. That is why I tend to supply such loot with the missing primers. As long as it demands a story to get, I'm generous.

Well, how much time are they willing to invest in that? Some groups fiat the ability to just look at a book and be able to tell the quality and level of it. I've never been comfortable with that. They can get the title and the author, and make an Int + OoH Lore check to see what they know about it. Since I use the optional rules from Covenants, they can determine the quality of the binding, illumination, and scribing on a simple inspection, and maybe obvious resonant materials. If the Int + OoH roll beats 15, they get the Level and Quality. At 12, they get the approximate values. Short of that, they'd have to spent time reading the book to get a feel for it. My house rule is that someone can analyze a number of books (summae, tractatii, or lab texts) a season equal to their Latin.

When I peruse a book in the local book store I can tell you more or less if it is good or bad on a fast skim of less than 5 minutes. I guess magi can do the same, so I would not put many problems determining the level and subject of books.


I think you are blurring the players and characters here. THe players and the SG are meant to co-operatively develop all elements of the covenant as a way of creating a play contract, and this includes the library. I think your players are probably mature enough that if you say "Let's design a library that suits the old dead guys" they won't go "By sheer chance they happen to have the perfect stuff for us!" and even if they do this, then that opens a discussion about how you want advancement to work in your saga.

Basically I think your SG giving stuff to players vibe is using the rules in a more monodirectional way than they were intended.

I depends on what assessment method they are using. Shelf-scanning (skimming the books) for example is really rather quicker than some non-librarians imagine, but I personally assume that magi use a list-checking system (that is, hey have a list of the renowned works in each Art and just tick off their presence, like libraries used to do with canonical literature.)

Well, you see I'm cynical enough to think that they will do the selfish thing.... But I think I can see a way around this which is the very good suggestion that we look at the people who were there before them and base building the library around them.

I split the task up among my players. I say "Player A, you have so many points. I'd like you to provide me with the contributions made to the library by a Merinita Mentem specialist. Player B I'd like you to provide me with stuff left behind by an Ex Misc with an interest in Cabalism..." (Just examples I haven't decided who the previous inhabitants were yet with a few exceptions.) "Oh, and player C you get the task of outlining the stuff got in to help in the education of apprentices..."

Yes, that might work....

Let them decide 1/4 of the books, then you add 1/4 to 1/2 based on the previous magi, then you add the rest by random, just redoing any random that is really bad somehow.

I absolutely hope that they do the selfish thing! The players, that is. What's selfish for the players is to design a game world that presents exactly the right amount of challenge, in exactly the right ways, for them to have fun overcoming them. As storyguide, you are perfectly capable (and perhaps morally obligated?) to say "Hey everyone, I know it's tempting to make choices that are selfish for your charcacters; but don't forget that you'll have more fun overall if you leave challenges for yourself. Now go decide what's in the library."

Not to bash on Michael specifically, but thinking that giving our characters everything they'd ever desire is "selfish" means that we've already missed the point.

Games aren't supposed to be easy; otherwise we'd spend all our time juggling Kleenex.

have you ever tried juggling kleenex? Indiviaually I mean, not in the plastic baggie?