Creating Good Trivia



Perhaps the greatest difference of opinion amongst the leagues operating in Toronto is in their definition of good trivia. The most critical part of your job as party host or league organizer is setting the questions, or selecting from someone else's questions. I have a simple rule that I give to anyone who wants to try their hand at writing trivia rounds for us:

It's very easy to make up rounds that are too hard;
it's almost impossible to create rounds that are too easy.

The toughest local league calls itself "The Inquisition," which gives you a pretty good idea of what these folks are about. They are very serious about their trivia. Each season, one team sits out of their league play, and is responsible for generating all the questions and acting as Quizmasters. Unfortunately, this sometimes creates an attitude of "Okay! Now I'll show you guys!" and the questions are too difficult. It requires a seasoned question-setter to ensure that the better players in the league generally get seven out of ten questions right, on a consistent basis. It's not a lot of fun for a player to be constantly getting only two's and three's throughout a season.

Another good rule is never to let someone create a set of questions in a subject on which they are an expert. What they think is ridiculously easy will probably mystify the rest of the world. As someone once remarked to me, there is a world of difference between trivia and minutiae. Trivia, which is what this game is all about, is the kind of thing that anyone with a good general knowledge has some chance of knowing or guessing; minutiae is material that only an expert or someone who needs to get a life has much chance on. Again, an example will illustrate the point. In the movie "The Godfather", there is a famous scene where the Don wishes to persuade a movie producer to cast a certain actor in an upcoming major project. The trivia question that pops out easily from this might be: "What does the producer find in his bed one morning that convinces him to cooperate?" (the severed head of his prize racehorse). The question-setter who strays into minutiae might ask: "What was the name of the horse whose head was found in the producer's bed?" (Khartoum, if you're interested). And yes, this really did crop up as a question in one of the other leagues.


Using My Book (Pub Trivia Night Book)

The questions included in my book have all been used in our league, and selected from the thousands that we have used over the years. They are well tested, therefore, and we know that good trivia players will average seven or so deuces on them. They could make a good starting point for you.

If you are going to follow our model exactly, and create an audio round, a current events round, and a miscellaneous round, you'll need to select seven more rounds each night from the ones in the book to make a complete game. You'll notice that they have been loosely sorted into categories, which are identified at the bottom right of each right-hand page. Be careful, though -- some rounds only approximately fit. However, the categories will give you a rough guide as to what the round is mostly about. For the most part, try to select a mixed bag for each game. Obviously, if you're inviting the gang over for a movie trivia night, that won't apply, but mostly people will find it fairer and more interesting if there's some variation in the topics through the evening. Each match should have a good balance of rounds; I find in my league that there are not that many real sports fans, so I only do two or three rounds of it each season. TV, movies and word games are always popular. However, you should tailor your selections to your players, and try to give them what they want.

It's often fun to select rounds that are topical, and that relate to a particular holiday, time of year, or anniversary. Use a ghost round near Halloween, or an Irish round near St. Patrick's Day, for example. Movie rounds are good around Oscar time, or TV rounds when the Emmys are given out. Use the Nobel Peace Prize round sometime close to when the prizes are announced for the year.


Audio Rounds

Our games always include an audio round, which is usually, but not always, music-based. The format of this round is a little different. A USB flash drive is supplied, pre-recorded with sound bites that are approximately thirty seconds long. Our rules make this thirty seconds audio playtime part of the answering time, so that the player and team only have thirty seconds left after the audio track is finished.

Each week the USB flash drive is prepared with ten selections on it, separated by five-second gaps. This allows the Quizmaster to pause the tape comfortably between questions, while not starting into the next sound bite by mistake.

The two most common types of audio round are "Name that Tune" and "Name that Artist". The first of these can require some tricky work with the recording, as very often the name of the song will appear somewhere in the thirty-second extract you want to use. I get around this with a technique I call "seamless editing", which the players love to hate. Using this strategy, the final file that has the offending passage edited out of the song. It sounds funny at first, but the players quickly get used to it, and it is usually pretty obvious where editing has occurred.


Use Themes

Like the standard rounds, I recommend that you try to use themes for your audio rounds; ones that I have used are:

  • Best of (a particular singer or band)
  • Folk singers (or Country singers, or whatever strikes your fancy)
  • Broadway Musicals (name the show the song comes from)
  • The other side of love -- unhappy love songs for Valentine's Day

Classical music can be used for these rounds, too, but again be careful of your audience. If your game or league is full of classical music lovers, you'll be fine; otherwise, stick to popular music. There are lots of other ideas for audio rounds. Some others that we have used with success are:

  • Animal noises (identify the animal)
  • Sing the next line of... (extra marks for tunefulness)
  • Elevator music (quiet orchestral versions of standards)
  • Covers (other people performing hit tunes; I have an album featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Muhammed Ali, and others. It's awful!)
  • Bridges (instrumental passages from hit tunes)
  • TV show themes>


Current Events

This is another area where there is great scope for the question setter. Even within the "good players should be able to score seven out of ten" limitation, there are a number of ways to go. You can, of course, be very straightforward and serious, and concentrate on the big events of the world's headlines for that week. Disasters, awards, ceremonies, heads of state, election results, notable deaths, sports news, celebrity marriages and divorces, lawsuits, crimes, and so forth are all grist for the mill. As well, this is a great area to bring in some local colour, by using events and news items from your own city or community. And there's nothing wrong with that approach at all; in fact it's a lot easier to find your questions than the one I usually take. As I mentioned earlier, I like to look for weird and unusual pieces of news; things that are funny, and will amuse the players when they hear the answer. But they have to have been mentioned in a major newspaper or TV or radio newscast, so that everyone has some chance of having heard of them. You can bring in local material nicely here, too. Here are a couple of typical examples:

  • Question: A Brampton man, witness to a robbery, was asked by police if he had got the license number from the getaway car: He was able to give them much more than that; what did he give them?
    Answer: He gave them the actual license plate, which had fallen off the thief's car.
  • Question: Two residents of a Manitoba community were arraigned on assault charges last week after being involved in a brawl following a heated argument between them. What was the vocation of the two men that made this remarkable?
    Answer: They were both Trappist monks.


Rolling Your Own

Whether or not you run out of rounds from my book, you'll want to start creating your own. It's especially good to create extremely local or topical rounds, which are always a big hit, but for obvious reasons, aren't included in my book. Here are some examples of ones we've done in the past that may give you some ideas of your own:

  • Cryptic subway stations
    Question: A musical station
    Answer: Broadway
  • Local pubs
    Question:What pub is located at the intersection of Queen and Woodbine?
    Answer: I went looking and couldn't find one
  • Theatres
    Question:What theatre is located at 1200 Lakeshore Blvd. West?
    Answer: There isn't one
  • Golf Courses
    Question:Which golf course can be found at Highway 7 and 14th Line?
    Answer: Can't even find that intersection