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Basic Information

Parchment is a writing medium and alternative to paper made from cleaned and dried animal skins. Unlike leather it is not tanned, but is instead scraped and treated with lime and/or pumice to create a smooth writing surface. Parchment can be made from the skin of any animal, although the finest is made from the skins of calves (in some cases unborn calves) and is known as vellum.

The animal skin origins of parchment meant that it is unacceptable to a variety of users - or at least must be prepared in accordance with suitable criteria. A prime example would be the parchment used to prepare Jewish scriptures such as the Torah: in order to be considered kosher for this purpose, it must come from a "clean" species of animal, from an individual without significant flaws and be prepared under the supervision of a qualified rabbi.

Although still somewhat vulnerable to environmental damage, parchment is far longer lived than paper and, especially when written on with caustic inks, can retain information for thousands of years. Against this, it is far more expensive to produce (being reliant on the supply of high quality animal skins) and has historically been re-used in a process called palimpsest, which broadly consists of scraping off the top layer of the sheet and re-whitening with chalk or lime. Books with parchment pages will typically have thick covers and compression straps or catches fitted to prevent the pages from warping out of shape when damp. Parchment scrolls are generally preserved by keeping them tightly wound instead.

Parchment can also be used as a medium for artwork or to create various items of furnishing such as lampshades.

"Parchment Paper" is paper, not parchment and is significantly different stuff.


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Game and Story Use

  • One of the many distasteful products of the Shoah was a number of parchment lampshades made from human skin … often displaying decorative tattoos. This can be recycled as a suitably unpleasant villain's idea of home decor.
    • Or, combined with what a measure is a non-human, played for values dissonance.
    • A deal with the devil may well be contracted on human parchment.
    • Increase the horror by making the parchment from something that regenerates.
    • If the PCs mislay a dependant or leave their wounded behind the BBEG may find it amusing to send them letters recorded on parchment made from the person in question.
  • A wizard may require rare or exotic parchments for making magic scrolls.
    • Or just need ordinary parchment prepared in a suitable way.
  • Cheap, palimpsest parchment may turn out to have recoverable information on it, ideally of the sort that provides useful adventure hooks.
  • RPG systems rarely reflect the price differential between this stuff and paper … always assuming that the creators realise that there's a difference in the first place: some sources use the two terms interchangably.
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