Recently, I have become interested in the idea of artifacts of play, those things that are part of the game that persist after the game has been played. They act like souvenirs of the game played; touchstones of the game, linking memories of adventures taken, challenges faced, and treasures gained. While most RPG’s have some kind of artifacts of play, I found myself looking for something different, something both collaborative and informational. This article contains my current thoughts on this topic. I cannot promise a neat conclusion, but rather I hope this also sparks some thoughts and ideas of your own.
Artifacts of Play
In a simple definition, artifacts of play are the tangible things which are generated during the play of the game. As artifacts, they persist beyond the time the game is played, can be saved, and can be viewed at a later date. Using this definition, here are some things that are common artifacts which come up in most games.
- Character Sheets – These persist between games, and are updated by the outcomes of each game, often in the form of character improvement, new items, etc. They are often more static than dynamic, only changing during specific milestones in the game.
- GM Notes – These notes depict what was planned for during the game, but are often not a record of what happened in the game.
- Campaign Notes – These notes capture information about the campaign, and can contain more information than the players may be aware. For this reason, they are not often shared in their entirety.
- Scrap Paper – These are often generated during the game in the form of tracking hit points or other random notes. While they contain information, they are rarely useful, and often discarded at the end of the session.
- Player Notes – These are notes taken by one or more players during the game, but are not always shared with everyone else.
- Map – Sometimes drawn during play, or handed out, these depict a geographical region, but not necessary the events which occurred.
Looking for Something Different
While the above artifacts are useful for the continuation of the campaign, they are not what I am looking for. In most cases, these artifacts are either created by one person, lacking collaboration, or are not created during the play of the game, and thus lacking in capturing what happened at the table.
What I want Is something inspired by the game The Quiet Year, which is a story game about the survival of a community in a post-apocalyptic environment. During play a map is drawn on a piece of paper, and as events occur the map is updated with new symbols and drawings. The end result is that at the end of the game, there is a map which depicts what happened during the game. It can be saved and reference later, reminding people what happened during play.
This is what I am searching for, to be used in a regular role playing game. I want an artifact that is created during the course of play which captures the events of the game. After the game, the artifact could be kept, allowing people to remember the session, and could be used as a method of recap before the next session. It would need the following qualities:
- Collaborative – It would be something that all players, and ideally the GM, could develop during the game.
- Informational – The artifact would capture information about what happened during the session.
- Shareable – In some way the artifact needs to be able to be shared with others.
While thinking this through, I have come up with a few not fully formed ideas of things that could fulfill this role.
This would be a piece of paper which would be filled out by the group during play. The map would use a set of symbols to depict things like a conflict, chase, dialog, etc and a way to depict who was in the scene. Lines would connect scenes to show the overall flow of the session. The map would be updated as new scenes occurred.
When the game was over, the group could review the trajectory the game took, and before the next session they would be able to review the map and refresh themselves on what happened in the last session. A collection of these maps would depict the overall map of the campaign.
In my more recent Nights Black Agents game, the group used an online Cork Board to capture important clues that arose during the game. Everyone had access to the board, and could update the board with notes and pictures during play. Before the next session the clues could be reviewed, allowing the group to determine what lines of investigation were closed and which clues needed to be followed.
This system does not capture the flow of the story, and may be less suited for non-investigatory games.
Another idea would be to use a set of larger index cards which could be passed around to the players and the GM during the game. Each person could write down information, clues, funny quotes, etc. Everyone would take turns writing on the cards during the course of the game. After the game, the card(s) would have captured different facts about the session. The cards could also be reviewed between games to refresh the group about what had occurred.
The information on the card would not be well structured and may not accurately depict the overall flow of the story. It would have some temporal order, as things could only be written down as they occurred, so some order would be present
As I look these options over, the Story Map and Session Cards seem like interesting avenues to explore. I have done the information board and it works quite well for investigation games, but I am not sure how it would fare for other types of games.
Capture for Future Reference
Artifacts of play are a wonderful way to remember the game you played and help to recall the details of a game. Creating artifacts in games that do not include in-game artifact creation can be tricky. I am not done with this topic, and I hope to explore it more at my table, so that I can come back and talk more about this in the future.
What do you think about artifacts of play? Do you have any favorite ones that you have created? What games have you played that do a good job of creating artifacts? Which of the above ideas would you try at your table?
I still have, framed and much loved, my official PC death certificate. This was awarded to me in game (as his next of kin) by my keeper Steve for the well deserved – some would even say overdue – death of my character Guido DelVechio. This hard earned artifact, or treasure even, was awarded to him/me for our part in the Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.
Every time I see it I recall that game and that group with great fondness
I love the idea of a hand crafted certificate to give (unexpectedly) to a player! The GM could make up a few ahead of timed, rewarding memorable actions (including dying…).
How about a relationship map from a game of Hillfolk?
While not physical, several games had wikis that everyone–player and GM–were theoretically contributing to. They’re a fun skim even now.
They’re not collaborative, but character journals and campaign logs can do a good job reminding you about the twists and turns of games. Done well, they can be a lot of work to create, but they’re the best artifact I had for most of my gaming career.
A game that does a good job of creating artifacts of play is Microscope. You get a timeline and the key events of the game jotted down and marked up by everyone.
Ha! I have a 25mm scale model of Cthulhu I knocked out for the final session of Shadows of Yog Sothoth in order to quash the constant arguments I was getting from a player whose character had a massive disconnect from the milieu and a 45 he was entirely too proud of.
When Mr McShooty said “I shoot it with my gun” I said “wait a minute, this is you” (and placed small Grenadier figure from their 25mm Call of Cthulhu range on the table, then reached under my chair) “and this is It”.
I made Great Cthulhu from stuff I got from Michael’s craft store and used him recently in a game of Delta Green to great approval of all concerned. He’s a bit battered now, being made almost entirely of cellu-clay which goes brittle after a while and doesn’t take the casual knocks of being moved from shelf to shelf well (let alone the car ride to the LGFS for the DG game), but at about 15 inches high with an impressive wing display (coat hanger wire for the bones, plaster-soaked paper towels for the membranes) he still commands a room.
Perhaps the pipe-cleaner tentacles are a bit less-than-impressive but this was the mid eighties and I was a beginner in the Thynnge fabrication game. The pose is still better than any of the commercially available versions, and he’s bigger than them all too (and even so I reckon I made him only about half size).
I recently started playing in a weekly FATE campaign in a pulp 1920s setting. Each of the players is a member of a secret agency working for the Vatican to collect lost or threatened religious antiquities all over the world (think Indian Jones, only “It belongs in a church!”). This is my first FATE campaign and while I’m loving every minute of it there is one thing I found lacking from an aesthetic angle.
I like tangible artifacts in my gaming. Maybe it’s my education in history, but I love being able to handle the document that my character is trying to translate, or hold a pipe as my investigator character spins his theory of who killed Mr. Body. I want to be immersed in the game as much as possible.
To fill that void in my soul I have begun to make dossiers for each of the party members. I comb the internet and various archives for examples of drivers licenses, passports, arrest warrants (for one PC who is a member of the Chicago syndicate) and other artifacts from the 1920s. I modify the documents in photo shop to be personal items that belong to the players’ characters. As the campaign has progressed I’ve added newspaper clippings and the like to act as a tangible record of our adventures. Each dossier folder acts as a place for the players to store game notes and their character sheet. They love the attention to detail and I get to scratch my archivist itch. The process of creating these artifacts also allows us to collaborate about certain character details that don’t come up in the game (hair color, where the PCs went to school, favorite music, etc.). It adds a different level of immersion to the experience that I find very enjoyable.
For an Earthdawn game I was in rather than Gm’ing we shared a one note journal, the creation of a journal is part of of the game system, however we took it to a different level.
Our Breastmaster’s Journal was a Beastiary, complete with drawings he made. Two of the characters had alchemy and keep a potions and poisons journal. Our Navigator kept a Map scroll Journal and our Obsidiman Troubadour kept a book of Poems, mostly Haikus (Written in size 45 font).
Looking back at it now it really immediately brings back the environment of the game.
One of my favorite artifacts was presented to me by my GM during a solo Sorcerer (Ron Edwards) game we were playing. It consisted of a collage of pictures he had found on the web, and pasted together. They represented all the major NPCs in the game, as well as depictions of a few tribal masks (which were part of our narrative). It has turned out to be quite the awesome tool at the table, adding a nice shot of immersion each time one of the NPCs comes into play.