In the days of yore (e.g.: prior to my introduction to the Internet in 1994), I’d spend countless hours at the library doing world research for RPGs and game design and generally educating myself. Sure, there were some “crossover years” where I tried to do research on the Internet, but eventually found myself at the library again. This was in the nascent days of the Internet where search engines were rudimentary, Wikipedia didn’t exist, Encyclopedia Britannica wasn’t online yet, and the billions of resources at our modern fingertips had not been imagined yet, let alone created.

Even though we have those billions of resources ready for access from the comfort of our home, I’m going to encourage you to head off to your local library for a field trip. Make a day of it. Plan for hours and hours of wandering the stacks, making piles of books, and delving into the wonderful, musty smell of old tomes. If you happened to have a family or partner, take them with you and cut them loose in the library. Maybe even take your gaming group with you and see what they can discover.

Dewey Decimal System

Libraries organize their collections according to the Dewey Decimal Systems. Books are classified using numbers that range from 000 (Computer science, information, and general works) through 999 (History of other areas; extraterrestrial worlds). There are sub-categories in each of the 10 major classes of books, and even more sub-sub-categories below those.

It’s lots to take in and ingest. If you have a good library, there are going to be tens of thousands of volumes. If you have a great library, you might even get upwards of a million (or more!) books to crack open and learn from.

It’s also difficult to know where to start. That’s where the card catalog comes into play.

Card Catalog

In my heady days of almost living in the library, I knew the card catalog system inside and out. You could search by author, topic, or book title in the highly organized physical cards that lived in really long drawers. You had to write down the Dewey Decimal System classification number and sub-category information on these little slips of paper using pencils like you find at mini-golf locations. (Author note: I can smell the paper and wood/graphite in my memories as I describe this.)

At modern libraries, the bulky, hard-to-update, sometimes missing cards have been replaced by computerized terminals that allow more precise searching. They allow searching by all the different criteria books can be organized under, and a good system will even provide related material. This might allow you to find resources you’d never thought about searching for.

Focused Areas

Even with the computerized systems, it’s good to come in with a focus. If you type “history” into the search, you’re probably not going to find anything directly useful. Come into the library with a general world or setting concept. Let’s give it a try on my local library system.

Let’s say I’d like to emulate the culture, society, holidays, religions, and other aspects of ancient Korea. I hit my local library’s web site and enter “ancient korea” under the catalog search. Two books about modern events related to Korea show up. Fail.

I shift gears to search for “korea history.” This brings up lots of noise to the signal that I’m looking for. Quite a few items on the Korean War, North Korea, various battles of the Korean War, K-Pop, and so on.

Shifting again to the advanced search, I enter “korea history” in the “search for” field and then I enter “north” in the “exclude field.” Apparently there is a whole series of graphic novels fictionalizing Korean history for young children. This dominated my search results, so I used some filters to get down to a single book that is 256 pages long that covers the “entirety” of Korean history. Somehow, I think Korea has a deeper, richer history than what can be captured in a single tome.

This example has been, quite frankly, a failure, but this is where your local, friendly librarian can come into play.

Personal Assistance

I’m not a librarian, but I know a handful relatively well. They’ll take tall and proud about the stories where they helped a library patron find some strange, obscure, or downright hidden resource for the patron’s research efforts. They live for this. They love these moments.

Since my online searching failed to find any great resources for “ancient korean history,” I’d next turn to my flesh-and-blood librarian to help me out. I didn’t do it in this case, but every time I’ve approached a librarian for assistance, they’ve come through with amazing results.

Comfort of Home

Most library districts also expose their book search functionality over the Internet. This allows you to dig into concepts, ideas, books, and thoughts from the comfort of your own home. You can also leverage the “hold” system where a librarian will generously pull the book(s) you desire and hold them for you for pickup at a later time. Then you can take the books home and really delve in.

Gems in the Rough

Using the “similar books” references in the online catalog search can also expand your reading selections. I tried that with my above example for Korean history, but since the offerings from my local library district were so poor, the references were equally poor. However, if I do a search for “german history” the referrals to other books is glorious in nature.

You might also find resources and other materials (like DVDs, documentaries, CDs, audiobooks, ebooks, and more) that you might have never considered in your search for information.

Using the Books

Once you have the materials in hand, you’re going to be as overwhelmed as when you started looking for the books. That’s okay. Just take a breather. Make a list on your own of various things you’d like to learn about the part of the world or culture that you chose. Here’s a starter list for you:

  • Geography (including maps)
  • Social Hierarchies
  • Major Cities
  • Minor Cities
  • Important Locations
  • Food/Diet
  • Industries
  • Imports
  • Exports
  • Wars (either being invaded or invading others)
  • Rebellions
  • Other Important Events
  • Important Political Leaders
  • Important Influencers
  • Education
  • Religious Beliefs
  • Important Religious Leaders
  • Strange Laws
  • Money System
  • Clothing

Once you have your list, focus on one element at a time. Fictional stories are usually meant to be read from front to back without deviation. Non-Fiction books, however, are meant to be read scattershot. Read chapter 11, then 8, then 47, then 12, and so on.

As you’re doing a deep dive into the element of your choice, make notes. The notes are like your session prep for an RPG. Write down what you think you might not remember. Jot brief notes on ideas that are clear to you to remind of you of those ideas. There’s no need to transcribe the book. Just make sure you can ingest and recall what you’re going through.

Once you have your notes, ideas, thoughts, and concepts all together, then you can start playing with them. Change the historical events, change the industries, change the food, change the money system, and so on. Just be aware that every change you make will have a ripple effect that cascades into other areas. If you read that a region produces lots of beef, but you change the diet to vegetarian, then you’ll probably have to do something with all that beef, either as an export or eliminate it from the industry section.

Be Respectful

By using a real world basis for your fictional settings, you can provide a true “lived in” feel for your players. This is a great thing, but please be respectful of the source culture. You have two options here. You can “file the serial numbers off” and make your creation completely unrecognizable as being soured from a real world culture. If you’re going to this extreme, then you’re probably better off just making up things from whole cloth.

If you’re going to leave glimmers and aspects of the original culture intact for the players to recognize, do your best to not abuse or abscond with in a negative way something from the culture or region that you’ve researched. Plenty of harm has already been done to various peoples around the world via poorly worded RPG products. Even if you’re going to only use your efforts in a home game, I urge you to do your best to avoid abusing existing (or past) cultures for the sake of enjoyment.


Hit that library! Have fun! Do some research and take some notes. Make sure you take a good notebook (or a well-charged electronic note-taking device). Don’t forget to take at least two pens with you in case one gives out on you. I also recommend a small pencil bag that contains different colored pens/pencils and maybe some highlighters. Just don’t write in the books belonging to the library, please.

I hope you enjoy your journey into the wonderful world of researching topics in person instead of just online.