Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Artifacts of Play

I had an interesting exchange with Ethan Skemp the other day[1] about the selfishness or generosity of the art of RPGs. One one hand, RPGs are very selfish: they create something ephemeral for a small group of people, usually with a lot of effort and creativity going into that creation. That much work for so few people seems inherently selfish. On the other hand, that ephemeral nature means putting in a lot of effort with neither reward nor recognition. When you are finished, there is no novel or painting to show, only an experience, and the act of putting so much effort into something without something concrete to walk away with an add to your CV is an exceedingly generous one[2].

I feel like these things are both true, and I don't see a lot of mileage in resolving the contradiction. Life is full of contradictions, and if you can coax one out into the light, it's wiser to leave it there so you know where it is.

But this did remind me of something that's been bugging me for a while. I have played in a great many games in my life. Most have been fun, and a handful have been really powerful, really amazing experiences. The problem is that unlike other powerful experiences in my life, from which I tend to have photos or other mementos, there are very few artifacts of these experiences.

There are exceptions. For Fred's magnificent "Born to be Kings" game (seriously: READ THE QUOTES), we commissioned an artist to do character portraits for the group and gave them out at Christmas. My wife and I also shelled out for our own characters to make a complete set. We still have them, framed and hung with pride of place in our home. I walk past them and the memories come back.

But for most other games, the best I can hope for is that I might find a folder full of old character sheet some day. That seems a lackluster fate for something that may actually be quite important to me, and i find myself wrestling with a question: how can the pursuit of this hobby create artifacts that celebrate it?

There are some obvious ones - art, for example, can work. However, it's a bit tricky to do remotely, and we're not all lucky enough to have Storn Cook at our table. More traditional trappings, like dice and books, are a bit less compelling because of their fungibility[3]. Those may be the dice I used for a particular great game, but I could have used them for any game, so there's no natural association with the game I want to remember.

If I want to shell out a little bit of money I can easily make mementos. Cafe Press or the many corporate branding sites make that relatively easy. And that's an option, certainly, but it's external to the game.

The web is a weird hybrid space for such things. One one hand I still love the flash movie for Second Stringers, but on the other hand it's not quite a physical thing.

What this all comes down to for me is the question of whether it is possible for the creation of artifacts to be part of play. Maybe as part of the rules, maybe as part of the social structure around it, I dunno.

In retrospect, I think I'm inspired by this in large part by my experience with the Amber DRPG, where player contributions were rewarded with points, and many of the contributions explicitly created artifact of play, whether they were short stories, character journals or (most prized) decks of trumps.[4] Maybe the success of the idea can be laid at the feet of player reward, but that got diluted by also rewarding efforts that leave no legacy (like bringing food) so that's muddied. But at the same time, that invitation to create is, I think, one of the reasons that the ADRPG fandom is such a robust one.

I'd love to see ways to make this work in other games, especially longer campaigns (though a memento of a good one shots would be both cool and a great thing for conventions) but almost every solution I can think of is a bit too ad hoc. Maybe that's how it has to be, but maybe not.

So let me ask, oh ye who have been patient enough to get this far, have you had any games create artifacts or mementos? How and what kind?

1 – Oh yeah, watch him namedrop like a MOFO

2 - While there's something to be said in comparing it to performance art - the performance is a fleeting thing - most performance has a degree of repeatability. Sure, two showings of Hamlet will never be identical, but you an still do it again, or at least try to. You can't really do that with a game session. There's probably some overlap with improv performance in that regard, but that also usually has a bit more of an audience, so it's less muddy.

3 - This is one of the roughest parts about using cards for play. They're so interchangeable that it's hard to build strong associations with them the way you can with a character sheet. if I ever figure out a good card-based ruleset, one step is going to involve marking cards with a sharpie so they can't even be used for anyone else.

4 - Cards with images of characters and places. In the setting they are artifacts used for transportation and communication.


  1. I think this is part of the drive I have to do write-ups for Alarums & Excursions of our games. They make some sort of a permanent record.

    We too have some hand-painted Trumps from a much-loved Amber game we played back in the 90's, and I have maps and poetry from a long running Pendragon campaign that made many memories. Physical artifacts are powerful things.

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  3. we're not all lucky enough to have Storn Cook at our table.

    AvatarArt.com made me a character portrait last year. I also painted a mini of him at GenCon's paint & take. And I have a recap or two that I wrote up when he had a good adventure.

    Hmm... creating artifacts in play. I had a character that drew on things with chalk and I kept the scraps of paper from that. I had people find enchanted gems in treasure chests (ten-siders with no numbers on them, in envelopes), so those could serve as mementoes.

  4. My 2 year skype game still has an entire history intact. I revisit certain scenes from that occasionally.

    A friend of mine runs a WFRP game that he commissioned custom miniatures from his brother (a golden Demon caliber painter and modeler) for the long-surviving PC's. I think miniature lines do this sort of thing to a degree, though it does require quite a bit of skill to build nice bits.

    I recall when WizKids had Shadowrun they were doing an action-figure sized line of character models that had customizable gear that could be mounted on the miniature base. Ultimately it didn't go as far as heroclix, but the idea jives with yours.

  5. That was really the brilliance of Amber DRPG's "contributions" method. Artifacts of play were created, and those artifacts turned into advancement for the characters.

    Strikes me that Weapons of the Gods could achieve that too if it was on the players' heads to manufacture the Lore Sheets relevant to their characters.

  6. But this is not that different from performance art in general. True, in performance art, sometimes you get an audience, but there is no artifact created when four musicians get together and play string quartets, or do some jazz jamming, solely because they like to do it. Excepting professionals, I would guess that most musicians are doing it primarily for themselves, and an audience is secondary. (Maybe that's my own biases talking but I doubt it.)

    So while I agree that it is selfish (or maybe cliqueish is a better way of saying it), I don't think that the lack of physical artifacts is at all a problem. I still get reminded of my long-running Ars Magica saga, which ended 10 years ago now, anytime I look at a map of Greece, or anything about the Byzantine Empire. Sure, if people are inspired to do it, more power to them, but I don't feel any need to force it.

  7. I want Fred to do Flash trailers for all my games.

  8. Don't forget the soundtrack CDs from Born to Be Kings, either. Another great physical artifact.

    I like George H's thought. Even when pros get together for chamber music, it's largely for themselves, and for a random quartet reading, you actually don't want an artifact left over, IMHO.

    My Ars Magica saga from college has magnificent session summaries, and there's character art commissioned for T-shirts for the group's once-a-year get-together.

  9. Ben Robbins' forthcoming game Microscope (for which I've had the opportunity to playtest several times) requires that when creating events, scenes, and the periods of history that contain them you have to write everything down on an index card and insert it into the history (of index cards) already on the table.

    After playing a game of Microscope and picking up the history cards in the right order you have a stack that represents the history that play created. The only things missing are the table chatter and the contents of scenes. It's a pretty good artefact for remembering those more transient parts, though.

  10. I have few artifacts from play, other than notes, maps, and the like.

    However, there was a SotC game I ran where one of the players recorded my reading the scene intro and turned it into a pulp radio play-like audio snippet.

  11. Interesting stuff.

    My best experience with artifacts of play would be playing Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game back in the day. It was our main game for seven years of very regular play, and we ended up with quite a few artifacts that I still look on fondly (and that often act as memory cues for remembering these long past games).

    One set of artifacts is our tournament charts -- whenever the adventure involved a tournament (as it very often did), we would draw up a tournament chart to go with it. I'd do this either before the game to be filled out as we played or during play. These charts track every professional fight for every character (PC and NPC) in each campaign. No events are missing because we often created them as we went. They're often good reminders of something of what happened during the game session -- a lot of "out of tournament" stuff impacted the tournaments and vice versa, so even the other parts of the adventure might be reflected in the tournament charts.

    Another artifact would be the maps. The game uses hex maps, and early on I started printing out pages and pages of blank hex grids on 8.5 x 11' paper. I'd then take colored pencils and draw up maps ahead of time or (just as often) quickly sketch out the lay of the land while setting up for play. I'm no artist, but often the sketchy maps thrown down in play are some of the most memorable or interesting. Many an adventure is partially "frozen in time" in those maps.

    When the player characters became "World Warriors" (i.e., roughly as experienced/skilled as the characters from the video games), each player also drew up his own map of his home stage, the stage that the character would fight at if it were the video game.

    To go along with this, we had theme music. One of my players is a musician, and he wrote, played, recorded, and mixed a theme song for each PC. We still have those as well.

  12. This is a somewhat intangible case, but one of my favorite (and most memorable to my gaming buddies) characters has a pretty decent legend erected around him, both by me, and the others from his gaming existance. His name was Hart Thorn, and was my first major foray into playing a character that was, personality wise, incredibly divergent from my own. Thru that campaign I regularly became the center of attention for my chars antics, both funny, aggravating, and astounding. After that campaign went belly up, I resurrected him (with a couple more levels) into another campaign. Then I created his son for another. In another campaign that I was DMing, a player (my GF) had gone the (somewhat cheap) "I never knew my parents" history route. Guess who turned out to be her Father? He is still brought up from time to time, and has been included in games I never even played in. Along with a handful of others, he now occupies this sort of legendary league of heroes. Due to gamings latent cerebral/ephemeral nature, I think this sort of "folklore" legacy is the most fitting and meaningful way to keep our most important or beloved stories and characters alive.

  13. I've been maintaining wikis for both of the face-to-face games I'm currently playing. The most relevant content is the character journal, which is probably an idea I stole from ADRPG but also helps just to remember what happened later on. One of the games also has a "memorable quotes" section (with both "in character" and "out of character" categories).

  14. The act of writing your own dictionary entries into Dictionary of Mu during play makes the book an artifact of sorts, I suppose. You could definitely look through it at a later date and recall things that were memorable.

    Jeff Lower had an ashcan game called Giants where part of play setup involved collaborative drawing of the map for the setting. That'd be cool to keep as a memento. I still have the one my group made.

    I can't think of other ways to hard-wire this kind of stuff explicitly into the rules, but I imagine there must be ways to do it. I love the notion, in any case.

    I've mentioned before that I enjoy having a miniature or some sort of tactile representation of character, even when it isn't used as a tactical token in the game. They can be very potent anchors for memory, at least for me.

    You've inspired me to want to start up the habit of doing this sort of thing again. I've played in some really good games recently, but they were over Skype and I neglected to make sure I had something tactile to take away as a memento. Now I feel bad for missing those opportunities.


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