I had an interesting exchange with Ethan Skemp the other day 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.
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. 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. 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.