Most fantasy settings take it as a given that books exist and are accessible to the denizens of the setting.  Wizards, for example, often use spell books.  Characters may augment their research abilities with access to a library.  Basic education is available to many characters, or so most games and literature seem to assume.  In a steampunk setting, for example, the printing press has (usually) been invented and propagated.  Sword and Sorcerory-style settings occasionally have scribes or calligraphers.  But by and large, the topic of printing and literature rarely comes up in fantasy settings.

Of course, not many characters care much about where they learned to add (if they learned to add) or whether or not they read the classics.  From a character standpoint, literature and education are often the same and mostly irrelevant.  The availability of books is, generally, a world building item.  Come to think of it, it’s a pretty boring topic for game masters and authors, too.  Nonetheless, it can be a nice depth-factor to consider.  It can also provide extra hooks and options for any campaign.

Steampunk settings are automatically geared up to explain the availability of printing and literature.  Education, too, for that matter.  The literature of the steampunk genre is often vastly more descriptive about both literature and education than that of fantasy genres.  Steampunk technology is also advanced enough for printing presses, and so the spread of the printed word is easily explained.  The latest issue of Steampunk Magazine includes a section on tramp printers, which make a nice option for adventurers.

Fantasy settings are less easy to explain away.  Because they (generally) don’t have printing presses, books and other literature must be copied by hand.  Scribes are very important for the dissemination of knowledge and information.  In Europe, Christian monasteries provided scribes who recorded history and copied the Bible into local languages.  Many other societies with which I am less familiar used scribes to serve the same purpose.  Some fantasy literature, like Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, does mention the presence of scribes.  Literature rarely exists in great quantities in historically accurate fantasy settings.

It is interesting, then, to consider how literature and the written word are spread through a fantasy setting.  Eberron has a dragonmarked House, that of House Sivis, that handles scribing and communications.  I tend to assume that things just get scribed.  I intend to add a primitive printing press (perhaps magically augmented?) and a Printer’s Guild to my world of Thelenia right away.  It will add depth and some new factions in the world.  In addition, it will slightly advance the technology and education available.  Thus, higher education and institutions, as in Eberron, become practical.

What solutions have you come up with?  How do your settings handle printing and literature?