(This is the forty-sixth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)
I used to work as an archaeologist. People think that field is all about finding Stuff: graves, tools, buildings. But the truth is that most of the time, you don’t actually find the Stuff itself; you find its remnants, the little surviving fragments or even just the shapes of where the Stuff used to be. The chips of flint left behind where somebody made an arrowhead. A rusted mass that used to be a pile of tools. The stones that surrounded the base of a post, the post itself now long since rotted away. One site I worked at, we knew we’d found a grave because we found the stains in the dirt where the bones had been; the bones themselves had been dissolved by the acidity of the soil.
RPGs leave behind fragments of their own. I’ve already mentioned wikis (which tend to be the most factually detailed) and soundtracks (which tend to be the most emotionally true), but those are only two of the kinds of traces that can linger after a game is over, and probably not even the most common.
Remember when I said that people often talk about a campaign between sessions, or even run scenes of their own? The in-person conversations may fade away, but in this technological age you’re just as likely to be carrying out that exchange over chat or text message, which means you have a ready-made transcript. You may not recall any longer what your PCs were reacting to, but the reaction itself is there, and may help you re-create the outlines of the thing you forgot. The little fics people write, short stories that act as background or bridging material, act as anchors for the more ephemeral bits of story. All of the ongoing LARPs I’ve been in have had some IC explanation for their OOC email lists, which allow players to communicate publicly during downtime. (Maybe those messages are being carried by little winged cats instead of the internet, but they’re still getting to the characters.) The archives of those lists are a gold mine of detail, and not just about your own character. Like the game itself, they’re polyvocal; they preserve many different voices, many different views of the collective story.
If you were in a LARP with cool costuming or sets, there may be photos. I never bother to peruse my high school yearbook, but pictures from our high-costume LARPs? Sure — they’re a heck of a lot more interesting to look at. The costumes themselves are relics, too, whether it’s an article of clothing you wore to every game for three years straight or that thing you wore just once, for a one-shot or a special IC event. I try to make myself re-use things, and I succeed a decent amount of the time . . . but I can’t stop the part of my brain that says “that’s the bodice you wore as the Queen of Atlantis” or “you got all those fake piercings when you were playing that scary Balor redcap.” Some things I can’t re-use: after four years spent playing Ree Varekai, that is firmly her sash, her coat, her pouch that I spent ages making because I couldn’t find a fabric I liked so finally I took some thread and inkle-wove a long strip that I then cut into shorter strips and sewed edge-to-edge to make a piece of fabric I could sew into a pouch.
(. . . yes, I went a little overboard. In my defense, the thing the pouch got used for was important enough that I needed it to be very iconic, not just whatever not-really-right fabric I could find at Hobby Lobby.)
Players make relics for each other, too. I have the diamond snowflake pin someone gave me IC, the beaded necklace that was one of a set given to a group of PCs; there’s a bell hanging in the corner of my office that marked a reconciliation between my character and somebody she hadn’t really trusted earlier in the game. The breaker panel in our den is covered by a painting from my very first tabletop campaign; one of my players (the one who went on to become a professional artist) made a watercolor of the PCs and their major NPC ally, and the others got it framed to present to me on the day we finished the game. I call that going above and beyond the call of duty . . . but fan-art is a thing that happens, as are commissioned character portraits. Or even just image files saved to a computer, the actors and actresses we “cast” as our characters so we’ll have a visual reference.
And there are the relics, not just of the story, but of the game. I tend to keep my character sheets — often more than one per PC, as I’ll periodically recopy my sheet in a long-running campaign to keep it from getting too ratty and disorganized. They’re the stratigraphy of the character, the evidence for how they grew and changed over time, certain aspects lingering untouched while others take over to become a dominant feature of their stats. The binders on my shelves hold maps, riddles, even scribbled notations on my rolls if I was asked to make a bunch and needed to not forget the numbers. Basically, if I was playing in a game and it generated paper, that paper is probably in a binder. (Remember, I was studying RPGs while in grad school. At the time, I thought that stuff was going to be research material. Now . . . now it’s just habit.)
None of these things capture the game in its entirety, any more than an archaeological site captures the past in its entirety. But we can never hold onto the whole thing in all its detailed glory; we can only interpolate from the remnants we have, and the memories in our minds.
There are times when that makes me sad, because of the incredible creative energy that goes into these ephemeral tales. We don’t play RPGs to have a finished product, though; we play them for the experience of the moment. The strongest experiences will stay with us, one way or another.