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Graveyard of the RPGs

Robert Rath | 26 Apr 2012 09:00
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The contact requested to remain anonymous, only to be referred to as "Scribe of New York City." Timothy Hutchings had met Scribe on a forum that catered to high end game collectors, enthusiasts who search out and purchase rare RPG modules and original artwork. Hutchings was looking for donations to his new venture, the Play Generated Map and Document Archive, a publicly available database hoping to preserve the history of pen and paper gaming. Scribe had invited Hutchings to view his collection.

"So many aspects of computer games come out of role-playing games. At some point these are important documents for a lot of the different aspects of entertainment and play."

Something immediately caught Hutchings' eye on a table full of old gaming modules - it was an original manuscript banged out on typewriter paper. Its cover was hand-drawn and colored in various shades of blue. Shaky block lettering proclaimed the module's title as "Habitition of the Stone Giant Lord." Hutchings thought it was magnificent.

"This is meaningless to me," said Scribe, "but it makes great sense for your archive. You immediately saw it so I know it's meant for you."

Hutchings took the module home, enthralled by the illustrations, the graph paper maps fastened in by yellowed tape, but most of all he marveled at the sense of loving craftsmanship that surrounded it.

Hutchings decided that he had to find the author. His only clues were the name on the cover, "G.J. Caesar," an address in Bethesda, Maryland, and a print date. G.J. Caesar did not live at that address. No one named Caesar had ever lived at that address - it was a pen name. That didn't stop Hutchings. "I actually ended up digging through the land transfer deeds from that county, and other tricks, to find who actually lived at that address at certain times and then tracked him down and talked to him." Mr. Caesar, fittingly enough, had grown up to be a professor of Roman history at Berkeley. Caesar had no idea how "Habitition" wound up in a private collection - he thought that his mother had thrown away his D&D papers ages ago.

It's interesting that Caesar would jump to that conclusion, since that situation is exactly what the Play Generated Map and Document Archive, or PlaGMaDA, hopes to prevent. "The reason I started it is that people were throwing things away," recalls Hutchings. After years of being part of New York City's gaming scene, he had heard dozens of stories of character sheets, maps, and campaigns - some thirty years old - tossed out by attic-clearing mothers, wives, or children trying to sell a house after their parent's death. To Hutchings, it was tantamount to destroying the historical record of gaming itself. "So many aspects of computer games come out of role-playing games. At some point these are important documents for a lot of the different aspects of entertainment and play." Added to that, he knew that the burgeoning academic study of games would one day need this data. "Someone should step in and say, 'Hey, these things have value.'"

But Hutchings is a curator rather than a collector - his aim isn't to save the documents of gaming history and keep them for himself, but to share them with enthusiasts and academics. The entire collection can be viewed online and his goal is to settle the collection at an interested collecting institution, such as a museum, school, or library where the "play-generated cultural artifacts" can be studied and used in exhibitions. "The real point is preservation," says Hutchings. "I want the ones that are in danger of being destroyed." The archive consists of both physical and digital holdings, and includes material that Hutchings has tracked down through contacts as well as donations from interested gamers. In fact, donors often find that they enjoy their papers much more easily in the convenience of the archive rather than digging them out of a closet.

But to Hutchings, the Archive isn't merely a research resource, but also a gallery of aesthetic objects. Hutchings sees the documents in the context of Outsider Art and Folk Art, an interpretation that becomes more intriguing the longer you dig into the Archive. The maps are the most visually striking objects - intricately detailed layouts of castles stormed and dungeons crawled, filled with handwritten notes and illustrations of doorways and items. One map, obviously held by a campaign villain, contains a reminder to "feed prisoners to Turgarum" along with the exuberant notation, "More Gold and Slaves!"

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