My home is largely behind the game master’s screen.
In my eight-ish years of playing tabletop RPGs, my home has largely been behind the game master’s screen. My initial introduction to Dungeons & Dragons – not counting the time I got the 3.5 PHB for Christmas and never found anyone to play with – was as a player, and my first character was a pretty vanilla cleric named Cade who died before the end of the first session. I had a ton of fun, but the campaign didn’t last – the group was short lived and the DM moved away not long after we started. Dying to continue playing in some capacity, I took the leap into running games, and before long I was the de facto dungeon master for my group of friends. I got to work drawing maps, writing lore, and planning sessions, but the part I always enjoyed the most was creating characters: coming up with unique, interesting NPCs that had their own stories, their own triumphs and failures, families, enemies, and allies. More than anything I wanted my characters to feel alive – like genuine inhabitants of this fantastical world.
I would often write multiple paragraphs of backstory for unimportant NPCs and get deeply invested in them. This unquestionably led to some bad DMing, wherein I was more interested in my own minor characters and their stories than those of my players, but I did the best I could given my lack of experience running the game. I loved the worldbuilding side, but there was a big part of me that was dying to play a character I could really dig into – rather than one my players would interact with for a few moments before moving on.
I was more interested in my own characters than those of my players.
A few years back, after concluding a 4th edition campaign that took my party from level 1 to 8, one of the other players in the group got the itch and we agreed that he would take over temporarily and run a campaign in my homebrew setting. I leapt into action with the fervor of a manic novelist. I created my first real character: Argus Mossfall, the human monk who was less of a martial artist and more of a street brawler, with an unconscious magical faculty substituting for ki. I wrote more than 5,000 words about him before we ever rolled a d20. I was going to roleplay the hell out of this guy. By the gods, he was going to be a hero for the ages.
When it came time to actually roll our stats and fill out our character sheets, my enthusiasm hit the wall of text, numbers, and stats that was 4th edition D&D. Even as a heroic tier character, I had something like ten different abilities I could use, all of which had specific rules and restrictions. I had this big character sheet covered in numbers that was difficult to read at a glance. I had all this backstory on my character that I wanted to keep handy at the table. I had a stack of loose index cards for notes and tracking things like hit points and abilities so that I wouldn’t mess up my character sheet. I bought myself a Moleskine notebook and tried to jam everything inside so I wouldn’t lose important details; I stretched out the elastic from stuffing things in between the pages. Everything was printed out at half size and I tried to organize it all on the table in front of me, but it took up way too much space.
Sitting in front of this impenetrable wall of information, I thought to myself, there must be a better way to do this.
Sitting in front of this impenetrable wall of information, I thought to myself, there has to be a better way to do this.
Although some of this can be pinned on 4th edition and its penchant for inflated numbers and vibrant, descriptive powers, the reality was that there were not really any good tools for managing all of this information as a player. As a dungeon master, having a ton of notes and stuff all over the place is helpful and unavoidable, but as a player, I felt like it was getting in the way of roleplaying my character. I tried several laptop and smartphone companion apps, but none of them were quite what I wanted, and I was opening myself up to distractions by being connected to the internet where I might be tempted to check my email or respond to text messages during the game.
I tweaked my table setup throughout the campaign and enjoyed playing my character despite the disorganization, but it wasn’t until the next campaign rolled around that I decided to try and do something about it. Although I was once again back behind the DM screen, I decided to use my players as guinea pigs for a player character notebook.
So off to Staples I went, picking up a pile of what were essentially book report covers or portfolio covers with glossy plastic letter-size sleeves. I printed out my group’s character sheets and slid them inside, and equipped them with wet-erase markers so they could write and erase their modifiers, hit points, and other important details. I added a rules section for the nuts and bolts of combat and exploration, so they would always have the most-referenced rules on hand – no need to whip out big hardcover books or the internet to find rulings. I loaded them up with info about my world so they’d have info on important locations, people, and events. These little books were a like a player character’s best friend.
These little books were like a player character’s best friend.
To dress them up a little, I made custom covers and spines and stuck them in, but at the end of the day, they were still cheap plastic folios from an office supply store, full of faded black-and-white photocopied pages. They were useful, but they were far from elegant, and they were certainly not tomes of legend fit for the chronicles of a realm-hopping hero. I wasn’t totally happy with them, but I felt like I was on to something.
There is something about a well-used notebook that tells an oddly compelling story. It’s the same feeling you get from a worn passport overflowing with stamps, or a banged-up suitcase plastered with stickers from far-off places. As my players used their books, taking out pages and adding new ones, scribbling all over them, sketching idly, and generally stuffing everything about their imaginary heroes inside of them, they became these charming windows into this character’s life and adventures. In simply collecting the myriad details about their experiences, they had created these artifacts that would still exist long after the game was over.
Maybe that is an overly romantic way to describe a bunch of notes about a game, but I have always been a sucker for a good story, and in my opinion one of the most wholly enrapturing ways to experience a story is across the tabletop with your friends and some polyhedral dice. I loved the idea that you could bring a little bit of this extraordinary fantasy adventure into the physical world and hold it in your hands.
My first attempt with plastic report covers and photocopies was a few years ago, but something about the idea stuck with me, and over the next few years I had always kept the idea in my mind. In the fall of 2017 with an excess of both free time and inspiration, I began putting together ideas for what (hopefully) will become the HeroBook. My hope is that others like you will find this little idea as profound as I do, and that together, we can make these things a reality.
My hope is that others like you will find this little idea as profound as I do, and that together, we can make these things a reality.
The “real” HeroBooks, so to speak, will be beautiful Smyth-sewn A5 paper notebooks, and they’ll look as great during the game as they do on your shelf. They’ll be custom-designed to be as useful as possible at the gaming table, with all of the most important reference material for 5th edition presented in an easily digestible format. Your character sheet at the front of the book will be completely erasable and reusable thanks to a coated gloss finish, eliminating the paper wasted in reprinting your character sheet every time you level up. The unique note paper design gives you lines for writing notes, grids and isometric dots for maps, and blank areas for sketching. Sprinkle a healthy dose of gorgeous original art throughout, and I think you might agree: It really is a player character’s best friend.
I’m so excited about this project, you guys, but I can’t do it alone – I need the support of tabletop gamers like you. If the HeroBook sounds like something you or someone in your party would love, I implore you to subscribe to our mailing list, and you’ll be the first one to know when the campaign goes live. If you’re the social media type, I would love to talk to you on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Discord about what you want to see in your HeroBook. And hey, if you are as psyched as I am to have one of these things, tell a friend!