All the World's a Stage, and all the orcs and humans merely players. They have their stories and their characters; and one player in his time plays many roles.
Some time ago, I had my first look at Warhammer Online, and wondered if that game treated roleplaying any differently from World of Warcraft. I wrote at some length about the significance of a written warning whenever someone signs up for a roleplaying realm for the first time, but I also noticed that Warhammer actually had another very special feature that could be beneficial for WoW roleplayers, namely the "Tome of Knowledge." Playing around with this a little bit made me think about how Blizzard could make something similar, which would go a long way toward enriching the experience of the game, not only for roleplayers, but for all players. Warhammer's Tome of Knowledge is not without it's flaws, of course -- I can surely imagine a better one for WoW to adopt, but at the moment WoW has nothing at all like it, which is unfortunate.
But what is the Tome of Knowledge? Basically, it's is an in-game database full of all kinds of information you might be interested in. This includes gamey things like achievements, titles, and quests, but also contains a lot of info about the story and lore of the game, such as some history for each major region, descriptions of noteworthy persons, and a bestiary of all the enemies in the game. When you visit an important location, encounter an important questgiver, or defeat a new enemy in battle, information about that entity will appear in your Tome of Knowledge. A little popup will even let you click through to it right away.
How the Tome aids RP immersion
For some of these entries, you get to read very short little stories (i.e. one or two paragraphs) about the place which add a kind of depth that words cannot convey. The starting area for Chaos characters, for instance, is right outside a place called the "Chaos Portal." The story for this section portrays a sorcerer gazing admiringly into the depths of the portal, remarking on how beautiful it is, while at the same time, the marauder next to him has just witnessed unimaginable terror within the same portal, and has fallen to the ground and clawed his own eyes out. It takes just less than a minute to read the whole thing, and yet it also gives you a visceral sense of the importance this place has in the setting. Without the story, the Chaos Portal is just another swirly magic gate with some ghostly imagery floating around inside -- the like of which we see all the time in World of Warcraft, where characters hardly seem to notice they exist. But with an evocative story like this at hand, the Chaos Portal suddenly becomes a place you remember, and helps set it meaningfully in the mind of your character.
These short stories associated with landmarks are definitely the strongest point of the Tome of Knowledge in Warhammer, in my opinion, but there are a number of other stories littered about here and there. The longest ones seem to be the ones associated with the "public quests" that you can do in each local region of the game. With such short stories right there in the game, it feels more immersive than the quest text you normally read. Quest text often feels a bit dry, as if its attempts to give depth and purpose to questgivers feel too transparent to be taken seriously, but these flash-fiction stories presented in the Tome of Knowledge are far enough removed from the actual game that one can take them a bit more seriously. They actually create images and characterizations in your mind where quest text just fails to sizzle.
The descriptions of enemies you encounter are another little treasure of the Tome system. Usually in a game like WoW and Warhammer Online you just fight a little demon-boar and defeat it quickly, without getting a real sense of why the thing was dangerous to begin with. But with a bestiary built right into the game, you can just open a page and read about the way a demon-boar might first try to carve you up with its tusks and horns, then try to stomp you to death under "several hundred pounds of porcine flesh." Suddenly the demon-boar takes on a new meaning: It's not just another monster I have to kill for XP -- it's a charging menace that might gut me and then sit on me or something. The drawing and extra description add a special something that the in-character 3D model cannot convey.
Importing to WoW
Now of course, as a roleplayer, I would very much like to see all these elements brought over to World of Warcraft. In a way, the way you can unlock new parts of the Tome as you wander about encountering new things in the world is like the way those tour-guide recordings for museums tell you more about things you see as you walk around and look at different pieces of art; but the difference is that in a game you are free to explore wherever you like. What if every time you got an achievement for exploring a certain area in WoW, you also got a short story that added some depth to that place? As it is, just getting some points and a nice happy sound doesn't feel the same. It makes WoW feel more like a game, and less like a setting where stories take place, which can be yet another barrier to good roleplaying.
However, while I would be happy if the Tome were more or less imported wholesale into WoW from Warhammer, I would be even happier if WoW fixed some of Warhammer's Tome's mistakes while they were at it. First of all, I would want WoW's Tome to include lots of specific information, like an annotated timeline, and fact sheets about important characters, races, and nations within the setting. I want not only flavor text and stories that help us feel more immersed in the game setting, but also factual information about how long a draenei's life span is, or when exactly Orgrimmar was built. There should be an article about each important thing in the game that tells us more information about it for the curious among us.
There are surprising amounts of "lore nerds" out there in the WoW population, and something like a Tome of Knowledge could only help make even more of them. At the same time, it would give roleplayers a sure-fire reference material right there in the game, any time they wanted to know how to roleplay something, the lore information in the Tome would give them a lot of good guidance, either through facts, or through short stories that help illustrate character and context better than anything else in the game.