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!”
The maps present an interesting artistic subversion in themselves. Viewing them, it struck me how they use the concrete scientific medium of graph paper to create imaginative spaces filled with mythical creatures. A lot of the graph paper, in fact, still bears the watermarks of the company offices they were pilfered from. Hutching’s personal maps often have “UNION ELECTRIC COMPANY” printed in the corner. When I point this out, he laughs. “Graph paper was valuable,” he recalls, “you couldn’t easily get graph paper in the early ’80s.” His father worked at Union Electric, and used to bring the paper home as a gift.
The character sheets are a scavenger hunt of the bizarre. Whenever you look at them, you get the sense of looking through a window onto their creator.
The character sheets are a scavenger hunt of the bizarre. Whenever you look at them, you get the sense of looking through a window onto their creator. Sometimes you see the player’s idealized self, a six-foot blonde warrior weighing a trim 185 pounds. At other times, you find characters like Ariskbane the Halfling thief, a quiet lad with shackle scars on his wrists and ankles and a hatred of Gnolls. Does his history of captivity have something to do with this animosity, or was Ariskbane just a common, if rather stubby, convict? Sheets like this cry out for the viewer to place a narrative on them. Some entries even have a sense of surreal comedy – one sheet nonchalantly lists “Attack Bear” in its equipment roster.
Indeed, artistic interest in PlaGMaDA is beginning to grow. Hutchings is himself an artist who has worked in the crossover of art and games, and whose work has been featured in galleries around the world. In 2006 he built The World’s Largest Wargaming Table for a gallery exhibition. Through his art contacts, word about PlaGMaDA is beginning to take the collection across the globe. Pieces are currently being shown at museums and universities in both the U.S. and Europe, including The University of Wisconsin-Stout and the Nikolaj Kunsthal Contemporary Art Museum in Copenhagen. Hutchings will also present the Archive at the upcoming I-Con 31.
Recently, Hutchings called on these fine art contacts to create the newest wing of PlaGMaDA: a series of Kickstarter-funded books called Hutchingsonian Presents that aims to publish RPG art books of old homebrew rules illustrated by both gallery artists and folk artists. The results are totally unique. Their first book, Everything is Dolphins is so batshit bonkers that its author should’ve been shot up with Thorazine and tossed in a padded room. All the players are dolphins. No, not anthropomorphized people-dolphin hybrids, actual damn dolphins, the kind with fins and blowholes that communicate via sonar. Except they also wield broadswords and wear armor. The game came to Hutchings from a donated notebook by Ray Weiss, who wrote and playtested the game years earlier. When Hutchins saw it, he knew it was the project he had been looking for, both because he wanted to print the game’s mechanics side-by-side with the original notes that inspired it, and because he wanted to shanghai a bunch of gallery artists into drawing dolphins. Those artists came from all around the world, and include Charles Loving, who illustrated the original printing of Bunnies and Burrows. The book is fascinating as a concept-notes-to-finished-product academic exercise, but the art is what makes it sing. In one particularly memorable piece, a dolphin dressed like a 1950s greaser smiles a toothy cetacean grin at the viewer – with a switchblade tied to his right flipper.
That image isn’t going away. I see it when I close my eyes at night.
PlaGMaDA is growing fast. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database at Texas A&M has offered to house the collection in the future, and Hutchings is in talks with a publisher to print a second run of Everything is Dolphins after the Kickstarter printing occurs later this month. However, PlaGMaDA’s primary mission is still to find and preserve gaming’s past: “I want to find the ones that are in a closet and someone’s going to throw them away as soon as they need room for their ping-pong table, or more room for their kids. Those are the ones that are in danger and those are the ones that I want to find.” To Hutchings, the next sheaf of papers, or notebook, or legal pad, could contain the next Everything is Dolphins.
When you look at the Archive, it’s impossible not to turn your thoughts inward. Within two hours of seeing it for the first time, I was pulling boxes from underneath my bed and sorting through character sheets and scenarios the way people sort through old yearbooks. Each page I turned brought back memories of artifacts stolen, friends lost, and cities burned. Memories of fortress sieges and botched black ops floated back. I saw the faces of characters I’d long forgotten: Thrassh, the half-Orc Bard who played death metal on his axe; and Benny Sinn, the grenade-lobbing, ratings-obsessed televangelist who occasionally had psychotic episodes where he thought he was God.
With reverence, I said goodbye, and slid them into an envelope.
Robert Rath is a novelist and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. Born and raised in Hawaii, he volunteers his time as a counselor for at-risk Spinner Dolphins in danger of falling into youth gangs. Follow him on Twitter: @RobWritesPulp