Marginalia and Other Oddities

I love introducing libraries of books in my campaigns. It’s the sort of treasure I’d love to find if I were an adventurer, after all. Cracking open a door no one has opened in centuries, only to discover shelf upon shelf of dusty manuscripts…oh yeah, you can keep your gold and gems (okay, maybe not all the gold and gems).

The problem with dropping large numbers of books into your campaign is keeping them interesting. Sure, you’ll come up with cool descriptions for the special books, magical tomes or the books which advance the plot. But in a big library a lot of those books are going to look exactly the same, at least on the outside. That’s where marginalia can spice things up for you.

Turns out, cats have been jerks to books for centuries.

The term “marginalia” simply refers to anything added to the margins of a book or manuscript. The earliest examples of this were the scholia, or notes, written in the margins of ancient manuscripts by Medieval and Renaissance scholars. Such scholia continue to this day, the most famous modern example being Fermat’s Last Theorem. But it also includes drawings found in the margins of illuminated manuscripts, as well as (less accurately) notes found among the lines of a manuscript’s text. The term can also refer to anything that one might consider a mistake in the manuscript, thought that usage is less common. My favourite example of this is pictured to the left, where we see that cats haven’t changed one bit.

You might ask yourself why someone would hold onto, or even buy a book that came with errors or marginalia. Unlike today where the cost of printing a book is relatively cheap, any form of the printed word was a time-intensive, and therefore costly, enterprise. If you were half-way through copying out a book by hand and the cat walked across the page with inky paws, or you noticed you made a spelling or grammatical error, you fixed it as best you could and soldiered on. Besides time, the materials used for copying manuscripts were often expensive. Even a simple book copied out in a single colour of ink was still an investment.

Often the marginalia was done quite on purpose. As already noted, scholia were written in by scholars as notations for other students of that particular text. ┬áBut artistic illumination was often added to the margins to make the book more impressive, and didn’t always relate to the subject matter. It was not uncommon to find cartoonish and sometimes even vulgar images drawn in the margins, and at the top and bottom of pages. Occasionally these would tell a simple tale over

Hmmm…how do I tell these penises are ripe?

several pages, similar to our relatively modern flip-books. And just sometimes, the artist wanted to draw fruit being picked from a penis tree.

Marginalia in your trove of campaign books can have a wide range of forms and uses. Intentional or in error, marginalia can be used to tease your players with riddles or clues, or waste their time with a literary red-herring. But they’re the perfect addition to any of your campaign manuscripts, instantly making your books more interesting. I’ve provided a list of twenty examples below. You can either pick one you like or roll randomly when a character thumbs through that book they just found.

  1. Tiny clawed footprints, burned on the surface of several pages as if something had walked or stood upon them. (Left by an imp; could be random, or done deliberately to obscure text)
  2. A series of small drawings in the margins of each page, depicting the comic (and sometimes lewd) misadventures of a flaxen-haired elf and a red-bearded dwarf.
  3. In the bottom right corner of each page, a series of pictures depicting an “untoward” unicorn. (You pick how “untoward” to fit your group)
  4. A carefully written recipe for potato soup, with some odd ingredients (DM’s choice). If tried, the soup is delicious but otherwise unremarkable. (Should ideally be found in a book having nothing to do with cooking)
  5. Next to a passage with information vital to the characters, a note in the margin reading, “Annotation needed, incomplete passage. Original should be kept by [fill in group from your campaign here].”
  6. Someone has underlined several lines on every page throughout the book, often with comments like “Yes! Yes!!” and “Finally, someone gets it!” They don’t seem to bear any relation to each other, and the hand-writing in the comments is different in several places.
  7. On an otherwise beautifully illuminated manuscript, a quite visible green-inked thumbprint can be seen obscuring a portion of the title page.
  8. Starting in the bottom left corner of the last page, and spiraling clockwise and inward on each page, another shorter book has been written in the margins. The subject of the marginalia text should bear no relation to the book’s original subject.
  9. Several pages have been cut out and re-glued back into the book in different places, some upside down or backwards.
  10. Someone has meticulously cut the letter “e” out of every word in the manuscript. Tucked in the back of the book is a small pouch containing the resulting confetti.
  11. Characters will notice the lyrics and musical notation for a bawdy song about naiads hidden in the illuminations of a manuscript. If sung aloud near any body of water the song summons a water elemental which immediately attacks the singer.
  12. A character notices an image of a thin man with glasses, wearing a striped tunic, in the marginalia of one page. That same character now can’t help but notice that same image in the marginalia of every book in this library.
  13. The illuminations in the manuscript look slightly off. But if the page is angled properly under the correct light, characters will note the illuminations appear to be three-dimensional.
  14. Scattered through the margins are a series of truly terrible and nonsensical riddles. Examples: “Why is a gelatinous cube like a sandwich? Because they both like carp!” “Knock, knock. Who’s there? Penchant. Penchant who? Bless you!”
  15. Beautifully drawn and illuminated marginalia, except every figure has a very obviously bare bottom showing.
  16. Starting with the first page and repeating until the end of the book, the first letter of each page spells out a character’s name. Coincidence?
  17. The beautiful but faded artwork and illuminations in this book were restored badly, almost cartoonishly. If properly restored, the book’s value would double, possible even triple.
  18. Someone has worked the phrase, “Gwen and Slaughterjaw forever!” into the marginalia of every page. (Or pick two names which better suit your campaign world)
  19. An unfinished thaumaturgical formula. It seems to make perfect sense but is obviously missing some vital section. (DM can determine how difficult it is to solve, and what it leads to)
  20. The margins are filled with carefully written but indecipherable script (pick a language none of the characters have or make one up). If translated, the writing appears to be scholia, correcting the original text in several places and filling in some missing information.

What sort of oddities have you put in your books? Share below!

Campaign Inspiration

I was asked the other day about where to find ideas for tabletop campaigns. The person I was talking to seemed concerned that they weren’t coming up with enough interesting ideas for their campaign setting, a concern shared by most gamemasters, I think. They were also lamenting not having the resources to buy the latest campaign and setting books. Luckily I was able to offer some suggestions for inexpensive, non-game book alternatives, borne out of my own search for inspiration. Since it was fresh in my mind I thought I’d share a few of my go-to sources here.

National Geographic Magazine – Ever since my mother gifted me a subscription to this magazine back in high school (yes, I was the kid who thought this was a cool gift. Still do!) National Geographic Magazine has been a constant source of inspiration to my tabletop campaigns. Gorgeous photos and excellent articles cover a range of topics: ecology, oceanography, archaeology, anthropology, history, and more. Almost every article, map, or photo is an adventure seed or campaign inspiration waiting to happen. I once based an entire orc tribe off an article on the mongols, and a special issue on deep sea fauna inspired a host of monsters for my gaming table. Plus it’s just a fascinating read. Subscription cost is pretty cheap, but if you can’t afford cheap then head to your local library. Chances are they have copies for you to read.

YouTube – I’ve definitely talked about the gaming-related YouTube channels I follow, and those are a great resource. But there are plenty of channels, not directly related to gaming, which can be just as helpful and inspiring. Crash Course, for instance, is a fantastic resource if you want to learn the basics of a topic relatively fast, and can give you some great jumping-off points for campaign inspiration. History Buffs is another great channel, comparing the history we see in movies to actual recorded history. The rather uninspiring name Lindybeige hides a plethora of videos on a truly eclectic range of topics, from steampunk comedy to how a torch actually works. These are just three examples. Type in your subject and you’ll almost always find some sort of video to help you out.

Antique Shops and Flea Markets – Depending on where you are, you may have anywhere from a few to a seeming infestation of antique shops, flea markets, and other types of second-hand shops. Wandering through them can be a great way to inspire yourself, especially if you are looking for odd or clever objects to add to your campaign world. In addition, take a moment to imagine what sort of person would own the objects you come across. Now you’ve got GM character inspiration as well. You may also find a few cool little in-game props and visual aids for your next session. Plus it’s just a cool way to spend a few hours.

Online Libraries – Different from wikis, online libraries collect a variety of texts on an almost unlimited number of topics. Best of all, may of these texts are available free of charge, or for a nominal yearly subscription. While you can certainly just scroll through Wikipedia, I sometimes like to hit up an online library to get the full text of a book, rather than the bare bones a wiki provides. Plus many real-world libraries have sources available online, again either free or for a small fee. These resources can include scans of old and even ancient texts, old maps and charts, and copies of historical documents. Use any or all of these for inspiration or as handouts for your players.

Those are a few of my favourite non-rpg GM resources. What are yours? Comment below and let me know!