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. ¬†But 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!