The Ephemeral Art

I work in a place like this
Reproduced under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License from Flickr user dolescum. Thanks!

As promised, this week I’m going to talk more about what I called The Ephemeral Art, a.k.a. role-playing.

Why did I call role-playing the ephemeral art? Well, once you play a game, for the most part, it’s gone. There are scant remnants in the form of notes, Cheetos crumbs, possibly doodles drawn, but mostly the playing of the game passes in and out of existence.

I think role-playing games are mostly analogous to stage plays. There are characters, scripts (campaigns or modules), costumes, props, sets (battle-maps?), and so on. You could run the same module or adventure a few times and get different interpretations (or wholly different adventures), and even if you did the same adventure with the same party, it would turn out differently.

Typically, I don’t run pre-packaged (read: commercial) modules, but I have run the same adventure for multiple parties before, and my experience bears this out. The second and third times through, the games are completely different. Part of that is due to my evolving understanding and tweaking of the adventure, but the actors, sets, and props are different every time as well.

Because of this ever-changing interpretation, role-playing, like the performance of music or acting, can be very difficult to capture and preserve.

Should we be preserving the legacy of our role-playing games?

Last week I mentioned that I like to write recaps for my games, as it is both fun and gives the games a bit of permanence. As gamers, I think we all like to reminisce about previous conquests and crazy characters. We also love to share our gaming experiences with the world; many of us record our sessions and send them out as podcasts (I don’t do this, but I have really wanted to for a long time).

In some way or another, we are already preserving our games. Whether its through oral history (storytelling), primary source recordings (audio and video), and physical artifacts (notes, figures, maps).

As a GM, I save everything. For every campaign and adventure I’ve ever run, I have kept my notes and have them currently filed away with my gaming materials. I keep my own personal story notes, NPC character sheets, maps, and even PC character sheets if they let me. I frequently run one-shot adventures, usually with pre-generated characters, so I usually keep those sheets as well. Why? Well, as I mentioned before, I like to run adventures multiple times. I’ve moved a few times, switched gaming groups a few times more, and have pretty consistently had new players to initiate into certain games. Thus, keeping old games around works well (especially when I need to run something in a pinch).

Furthermore, I appreciate that running an adventure a second and third time really helps to refine it. I close plot-holes that popped up the first time, make opaque clues clearer, make some encounters more challenging and some easier. I’m constantly refining my GMing technique, so I love having the opportunity to have the past right in front of me when I’m planning the future.

Finally, I use old games for story ideas. This is especially relevant for old campaigns; never has a group completed every side-quest or visited every dungeon of a particular campaign (and for the most part, I run sandbox style games anyway). So, I don’t let old creations go to waste; I’ll call them forward from the archives to serve as a challenge for whatever I’m currently running.

As a player, I think it’s important to contribute to the historical preservation of your game. I take notes; sometimes, admittedly, they are fairly sparse, but I tend to write down anything that I think will be important – NPCs, plot hooks and clues, details, detailed inventories. I find that having access to this information allows me to be a better gamer and role-player: having a conversation with the Duke can be a lot more powerful if you recall important details about the Duke’s life given to you by the Bard in the inn’s common room or the module introduction. Obviously, having access to more information allows you to solve mysteries more quickly, plan better, and generally just have a better time. Of course, your access to information as a player is limited by the GM, but you can and should always be joining in the creative process and adding creative character to the world.

I know it was pretty clear from the get-go where I stand. Yes, of course, you should save as much of your games as possible (within reason). At the very least, it’s the fruit of your creativity.  You don’t want your art to simply drift away, forever consigned to the realm of forgotten ephemera.

That’s all well and good, but what the heck do I do about it?

Record your sessions. Some people (including Fearless Leader) record it for posterity and for your enjoyment. Obviously, recording your sessions goes a long way to remembering the good times and helps create a permanent record of what happened. Also, podcasting is fun. Ben can talk a lot more about the recording/podcasting process.

Write notes and recaps. These form the core of your gaming archives. They detail the important stuff from your games, include the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and provide a quick plot summary.

Use permanent, accessible media. When planning games, I like to write the campaign in Google Documents. (I also really like to write things down by hand, so I do that sometimes as well, but I try to convert that to an electronic format if I have time.) Google docs or even just Word docs can be a lot easier to save and organize (and certainly take less space) than traditional pen-and-paper notes. Furthermore, having those materials at your fingertips makes referring to them a lot easier.

My only problem with this is that I don’t like to use a laptop while I’m gaming, so I usually print things out, take notes, and then add them to the electronic materials later.

Save things! I guess this is more of a philosophy, but I frequently see the remnants of games left behind or thrown out- notes, character sheets, maps. In the archival profession, we try to save things that have “enduring value”, which is just a fancy term for “will it be useful again”. Sometimes I wonder why I saved the character sheets from the very first Cthulhu campaign I ran, including those of my high school friends who I convinced to play and only sat in for a single session. However, I can still talk about those characters and still remember them (despite how not memorable some of them might have been), while I don’t recall anything about the characters whose sheets I don’t possess (for whatever reason).

It’s a very difficult process to look at something and say, “well, I’m not going to need this ever again” or “this has no future value” because ultimately everything can have future value. An item’s presence along conveys some information or meaning. Now, what you make out of that is yours. But, I do believe that we should be careful before simply discarding any role-playing materials. After all, you wouldn’t throw away a painting you created after 5 people looked at it, would you?

I’m interested to hear how you save your game materials. I know there are a few good programs (OneNote comes to mind as a versatile way to catalog your ideas). How do you keep track of things? And how much do you save?


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