By Haley Moore, August 13th, 2010

At ARGFest 2010, Michelle Senderhauf and I ran a workshop on game artifacts – how to use them to tell a story, deliver puzzles, and reward players.  We invited our workshoppers to create artifacts to continue an ARG scenario I cooked up, and lead the players to the next part of the game using physical objects.

The facts were these:

The players had been asked to help a hot brunette recover his grandfather from mysterious kidnappers who have also stolen his uncrackable safe and hidden it in an unknown location.  After remotely blowing up a courier car sent to retrieve the safe, and getting the coordinates of its destination from an apparently indestructible GPS unit, the players find themselves in the woods, unearthing the safe.  It’s contents may reveal a secret about the hot brunette’s grandfather that he never would have guessed, or they may raise even more questions.

We brought in the tools and materials for a little ARG propmaking jamboree, and what the ARGFesters came up with was truly remarkable.  As you can see, we left the prompt wide open for participants of the workshop to create as much or as little content as they desired, and to take the story in any direction they chose.

I never expected that at the end of a frantic hour and a half of crafting, we would have a complete puzzle trail, leading players to the next “live event” in our game.

Let’s rifle through this box of treasures.  What you’re about to see is written, conceived, and assembled by the workshoppers.  Michelle and I just facilitated.

First, we have a postcard that looks like it was shot in the 1960’s, but the caption on the back says it’s from the 1919 Indy 500 race.  Curious.

Michelle found these postcards (front and back) in an antiques store in her native Chesterton, IN, on an artifact shopping trip.  Michelle gave herself a $20 budget and was able to procure a good stock of old photographs and other things to modify to tell our story.

Next, we have a compass with no directions on it.  Also curious.

I found these toy compasses in the party supply aisle of my local dollar store, with the pirate hats and paper eyepatches.  I think they were six to a pack.  They did have a direction sticker on the bottom, which was removed for the purposes of the game.

A letter about secret government research into…time travel?

“Dear Adrian,

You were not yet born when it all started, so I do not expect you to predict what will happen should the UNRC’s predictions be incorrect.  But despite the agreement I signed and the importance of the information, I feel morally obliged to tell you what our last hope is.  If the speculation of our scientists – my coworkers – is correct, we will be able to change history.  Time can be changed, and if it cannot then it is already too late for us.  I am writing to tell you that despite my distracted behavior recently, your father loves you.  Tomorrow I move to the facility constructed in the late Piedmont Park in Atlanta.  There everyone is gathering to complete the Algorythm.  I only hope we are correct.

God help us.

~ Stefan”

It has a mysterious glyph at the bottom – is it a map?

This letter was hand written at the workshop on some paper that I enoldenated en masse a few months ago.  I bought a cheap writing pad from the dollar store and steeped it in tea and coffee at near-boiling temperature.

The scroll unrolls into a nearly unreadable map.

I drew this as a “bonus” at the end of the workshop.  The “scroll” is a roll of thermal paper I saved from an old thermal fax machine.  Thermal paper is cool in that it “antiques” itself when it is exposed to heat.  It is also translucent, like vellum.

There’s also this strange device – is it from the future, or the past?  It has a blue monocle on a reel, and a UV LED on the side.

This is cobbled together from a dollar store intrusion detector toy, a UV keychain light from an invisible ink kit, and a real antique monocle that Michelle had picked up (along with a pair of glasses) on her shopping excursion.

And here we have the easiest puzzle of the bunch.  Look through the monocle, and you’ll see a US map denoting some ominous and bizarre landmarks.

However, the most interesting thing in the safe is this framed photo – is this the hot brunette’s grandfather as a younger man?

The back of the frame has scuff marks where the backing is held in place.  That’s odd.  It’s not like you open and close picture frames a whole lot.  Or do you?

The image is a real old photo -another of Michelle’s finds.  According to her, photos like this usually run a few dollars at antiques stores.  The frame is from the dollar store, and was roughed up with a pair of scissors.

Oh-ho!  Secrets!

There is a page with letters and holes, and clock drawn on the back of the photo – but it has no hands!  However, the shape in the middle looks familiar…

This is the real back of that photo.  I love it – its so pretty, and its even more gorgeous with the hand-drawn clock face on it.  The letter page was done with stamps for the letters, and hand written numbers.  More antiqued paper.

The compass has a notch in it – and it turns out that we can use that to line it up perfectly with the “map” on the letter.  We point the compass to the arrow on the letter…

And when we line it up with a similar mark on the clock, we get a time.  6:30.  Perhaps this is the time of Stefan’s meeting in Piedmont Park (two blocks from the convention.)  But Stefan is a time traveler?  What day are we supposed to meet him on?

At this point, we know we’re missing a piece in the puzzle.  We have that piece of paper with the holes in it, but the holes don’t line up with anything on the letter, or the clock piece.  Where could the missing key to this puzzle be?


Found it!  The glue holding the two cards together separates without damaging either, and now we can see that there is a secret star chart inside.

When we stack them, we can see that some of the letters are marked with red dots.  From left to right and top to bottom – J, 2, Y, 8, 0, 0, U, 1, L, 1.

I’ll leave that one little puzzle for you to solve.  If anyone has spotted time travelers at Piedmont Park, please drop us a line.

The ARGFest workshop was attended by @Ancalime, @DavFlamerock, @egotist, @JimBabb, @TheBruce0, and many others, who made these awesome things.  Michelle and I mostly just watched.

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Posted in ARG community crowdsourcing design event events experimental gaming transmedia

Haley Moore is a newspaper reporter, artist, and playwright based in north Texas. She has worked on several indie, fan and commercial Alternate Reality Games.

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  • Haley, this is nice stuff, and thanks for including the budgets. It's great to know how far you can get on creativity and very very little money. Really bummed I missed this.

    Thinking outloud, be fun to send these items all over the county, with maybe a QR code or something to link to a site where the recipients can find other recipients and share clues, team up, etc.

    LOVE LOVE LOVE the use of the compass/clock!!!!

    Nice work, thanks for sharing.

  • Man, that WOULD have been cool. Me and Michelle want to do another one of these, methinks. The next one might have some kind of online component.

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