I buy cheap books of trivia all the time.
The quality of them as reading material varies from excellent to abysmal, but they can be an excellent source of ideas.
Did You Know… The spruce trees in the forest of the Canadian Lakes district is so densely populated that winter snow stays on top of the trees like a blanket, and the forest floor stays bare.
My procedure for reading these is always the same. I read a page and attach a small yellow post-it note to anything that leaps off the page as “something I can do something with.”
It helps that most of these anecdote-style books are easy to pick up and put down; you can read a page or two at a time and always find a convenient place to pause.
Did You Know… An artificial hand was designed in 1551 by Ambroise Paré of France. It used cogwheels and gears to enable the fingers to move and enabled a handless cavalryman to grip the reigns of his horse.
The post-it notes serve as a “permanent” bookmark that can be removed when I actually use an idea.
Did You Know… Vigilantes on the Barbary Coast (near San Francisco) committed an average of 1 murder a night in a reign of terror between 1860 and 1880. More than 7,300 people murdered by them in this twenty-year period.
Usually I won’t write anything on the Post-it, but sometimes the possible use of an idea is so obvious that I will jot down a two- or three-word summary of that proposed use – because it might not be obvious 12 years later, when you actually get around to developing that idea.
Did You Know… The Babylonians reportedly had few doctors because they left the treatment of the sick to the public “wisdom”. The ill were placed in the city square, where passersby who had suffered from the same ailment, or seen it treated, could offer advice on treatment. Pedestrians were forbidden from passing by without inquiring about the complaint and “prescribing” for it if they could.
Once I have finished reading the book in this fashion, I’ll read it again, selecting only the “bookmarked” items.
Did You Know… The means of breaking codes is a relatively recent development in comparison with the development of codes themselves. One of the earliest cryptanalysts was a French Mathematician, Franciscus Vieta, who deciphered the code that Philip II of Spain was using, Spain then being at war with France. Philip couldn’t understand how his secrets were leaking to the enemy, and accused the French of Sorcery – and even took this accusation to the Pope.
Sometimes one of these will “click” mentally with another that I have just read – in which case I will go back to that bookmark and note the page number of the related item on each post-it note. If there happen to be two “noteworthy” ideas on the same page, I’ll follow the page number with a reference count such as “p169 #1″.
Did You Know… The original Bill Of Rights, as proposed by Congress, had twelve amendments, not ten. The two which were not ratified by the states were an amendment to set the size of the House Of Representatives and an amendment that would have prevented Congressmen and Senators from increasing their own salaries.
I’ve used these as source ideas for adventures, for enemies, and for NPCs.
Did You Know… Returning to his home in Minneapolis in 1947, Mayor Hubert Humphrey was shot at three times. The would-be assassin has never been identified.
Did You Know… Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is heated by underground hot springs. The entire city.
Take the item above. Think hot springs, think steam. Imagine underground caverns with tropical temperatures all year round, steamy and humid. All you need is a substitute for sunlight and you have the perfect location for an underground “land that time forgot,” where dinosaurs still roam. You could use this “as is” for a pulp or superhero campaign, or could simply transplant the entire concept to a snow-capped mountain city in any fantasy game.
Did You Know… In the early 17th century, more than 1,000 children were kidnapped in Europe and shipped to America as “indentured” servants.
What if they kidnapped the wrong child? Someone important? Or perhaps some alien only masquerading as a human child? Either would make a great Dr Who adventure – or anywhere else where time travel or parallel worlds can found, for that matter.
Did You Know… Trinervitermes (Tri-nerv-it-erm-ees) is a species of termite native to the African Savannah. They build mounds that are only about 12 inches (30.5cm) tall but bore shafts more than 130 feet (40m) into the ground for access to water.
Scale it up. Some quick research on the net suggests that Trinervitermes average about 6mm in length (0.06m or 0.236″). Estimates of the thickness of the earth’s crust vary from <5-10 km thick (oceanic) through to values of 8-16 km. Since we’re interested in the crust under land, let’s pick a nice, convenient 10km. So the tunnels bored by these termites are more than 40/0.06=666 times their body length. Take that 10km crust, divide it by 666, and we get a superbug 15m in length. There are sharks and whales that size, so it’s not too far-fetched as an SF premise. The visible mounds are 0.305/0.06=5.08 times their body length – at 15m, that’s 76.25m tall (just over 250 feet).
Picture a space-going superbug that likes to burrow down through the crust of the planet in pursuit of liquid mantle perhaps they need it for some key stage in their life cycles. They are as big as a house, and the surface mounds are ten or twelve stories high. Basic ecology tells us that they will be relatively few in number because of their size, but the concept of insect swarming & nesting suggests they will travel in large groups. If they burrow through the crust to the mantle, digging a burrow into an asteroid would be no big deal – “kicking” the extracted material out serves as thrust, enabling the orbital path to be changed.
So, a swarm of these reach the breeding point in their life cycle. They pick a whole bunch of asteroids and hollow them out to serve as reentry vehicles – ablative heat-shields if you will – which rain down on a planet over a period of weeks or months. Not all the creatures survive this part of the journey – if the asteroid breaks up too soon, they’re in trouble. They are too big to fly, so let them use their wings as “parachutes” when they get low enough into the atmosphere – so they make a “soft” landing while their “reentry vehicle” makes a hard one. They begin to merrily build colonies wherever they land. In some places, the crust is too deep for them; in others, it is not. They lay their eggs (and they would need to lay a LOT of eggs) at the edge of the mantle, making them out of a natural carbon fiber that can resist the intense heat. After a few years/decades of this, the eggs are ready to hatch, and the land masses are full of holes & beginning to break up; it’s time to return to the stars and set out on a multi-millennium sojourn to another solar system, or a long elliptical solar orbit.
A sufficiently violent eruption can fire debris into low orbit. When we’re talking terrestrial volcanoes, that’s dust and ash – but these creatures can engineer their own supervolcanoes to order, something ten or a hundred or a thousand times as violent (I don’t know enough vulcanology to determine the right number). But it’s big enough to launch their eggs (size and mass also unknown, but I’m thinking maybe a kilogram) – doing a final devastating blow to the planet in the process. The cold of space after the heat of the magma completes cracking open the eggs – again, most don’t make it – and the new generation of insects are free to use their wings as solar sails and go into hibernation until proximity to another star raises their internal temperatures enough to wake them up. I’m thinking one generation every 100,000 years or so.
Of course, maybe 20,000 years after they leave, the world they came from is ready to go again, or maybe 50,000 – I don’t know how long it would take the crust to recover from all this – so they always have a safe haven. But it’s bad news for anything else living on the planet when they arrive.
You could drop these creatures into any sci-fi/superhero campaign with no trouble at all.
Did You Know… Nevada became a State because of Slavery. Lincoln rammed through its admission to the Union to give himself an extra “Yea” vote ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed the practice.
Did You Know… Thomas Jefferson was so upset with the editing of his original Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress that for years afterward he sent copies of both original and final versions to friends and asked their opinion on which version they preferred.
No writer likes editorial heavy-handedness when it is applied to his or her work. It’s not hard to imagine a modern author whose work has been so substantially rewritten by the editor that he would make the original text available online, free to anyone who bought the published book, as a way of protesting the “hatchet-job” he perceived. That singular act tells you a lot about the personality of the writer – stubborn, proud, and egotistic are three words that come to mind – which makes this a great NPC to drop into a campaign.
Did You Know… More than 10% of the world’s annual salt production is used to de-ice American Highways.
Did You Know… In 1978, more than a thousand deer were accidentally killed in Connecticut by automobile drivers. Only 948 were killed by hunters.
As this selection of examples shows, there are fascinating insights and ideas that can be applied to create interesting situations, histories, events, and locations for any campaign.
Did You Know… Prize fights prior to the turn of the century lasted up to more than 100 rounds (a round often being determined by knockdowns) with the fighters using bare knuckles (no gloves).
Astonishingly, of the eight other GMs with whom I discussed this article (some years ago, now – it’s been on my backburner for a while), not one had ever thought of the notion. The average book of trivia “snippets” yields one great idea every two or three pages. It’s amazing to me how many people neglect such a wonderful font of ideas. Truth is stranger than fiction…