I moved a bunch when I was younger. I didn’t pack up my life every six months and shuffle around the country, but I had a lot of opportunity to clean out my desk drawers. As annoying as it was, I’m something of a pack rat, so moving was a good excuse to make a frank assessment of what I did and did not think would be useful in the future.
Throughout all the moves, there’s one thing that I’ve kept for a startlingly long time because I always figured I would find a way to use it. At first it was because it was neat, didn’t take up a lot of space, and stood a strong chance of me coming back to it (unlike, say, the Star Wars VHS* tapes I had for at least two moves), but once I got into DMing I saw it as a prop I could use in a game. For years the opportunity never arose, and I went through campaign after campaign sitting on it and waiting for the right moment.
That moment finally came in the dungeon I most recently ran, when I hit my players with this:
It’s not that big a deal as a puzzle, I’ll admit. But it hits all of the points I have for a good puzzle (since the players got pieces one by one, they were expected to solve it as a group rather than tossing everything at a player and waiting for a solution to occur), it fits with the storyline, and most relevantly it shows that you can find a use for anything if you hang onto it long enough. But the older I get the more I see that sometimes “long enough” is a milestone on the far side of “too long”.
I’ve said before that I never delete a file. By the time I started DMing, disk space was cheap enough that I could store my session maps as bitmaps* without blinking an eye. All the files for my first campaign, compressed, are less than 500K, and even the Great Tower of Oldechi with all its monster and location art is only 100M. As long as most of my notes are digital there’s no compelling reason to delete any of it, so I’ve never considered which files I might never need again.
Far trickier judgments lie around the physical paraphernalia I use for sessions. I have a poster map of a previous campaign’s capital city in my closet, but no record of the elaborate maps I’ve made with borrowed foam terrain. I kept another map with the layout of Floor 19 but none of the physical objects represented on that layout. I have some, but not all, of the books I’ve acquired with various logic and thinking puzzles. And I have a plastic miniatures collection whose size dwarfs everything else on this list combined. How can I, or any DM, decide what’s worth keeping and what’s just taking up space?
There’s no exact formula for how long to hold onto a real-world gaming tool, but when I consider whether to keep something or throw it away, I weigh it by these categories:
Size: The smaller something is, the easier it is to hang onto it until you need it. A hundred character sheets fit in a three-ring binder for the next time you want a paper copy of them, but the custom minis for those characters are somewhat more daunting. For the same reason copies of a puzzle or map on paper or in a file are easier to justify keeping than a to-scale minotaur maze.
Reusability: The more ways you can use something, the more likely you’ll find a way to fit it into a session (this advice may sound familiar). Part of this is because you can attach stories to the same item over time, but it’s mostly for practical reasons. Something’s a lot easier to throw away if its usefulness is very definitely over. A set of cardboard, wooden, or plastic pieces you can assemble into a map and disassemble for storage are a better idea than the same items glued together into a permanent arrangement.
Emotion: This is a lot of the reason there’s no exact formula. We can weigh size on a scale from “house” to “keychain”, but there’s too much variability between “I spent two years making this structure as the set piece for the culmination of my magnum opus campaign” and…well, “keychain”. The more I feel an emotional connection to a prop, whether it’s because of the time I put into it, the fun I had using it, or its role as a persistent spectacle, the more I try to preserve it.
There are a bunch of props I’ve used that have not stood the test of time. The tangram puzzles for Floor 19 were fairly small, but doing another tangram puzzle seemed derivative and they didn’t get anybody excited, so I didn’t see a need to keep them. The jigsaw puzzle for the same floor fails at all three metrics. I used to keep old video game player’s guides and magazines for monster, plot, and map ideas, but their size vastly outweighed their usability, so once I was far enough removed from acquiring them for the emotion to tick down from “I spent forever getting these” to “you know, I haven’t gone through them in a while”, they were gone.
The aforementioned puzzle stacks up fairly well. It and its companions fit in a 7” x 7” x 1” box, which isn’t a huge investment but is pushing my limit for a short-term feelie*. I can give the same puzzle to players in a different campaign and they won’t remember the solution, so it’s reusable (and again, it has companions). And I can remember the exact moment I first got the puzzle some twenty years ago and how I’ve kept it from move to move over the years to break it out every so often. All told this is probably the sort of thing I’m more likely to lose in a lightning strike than throw away.
In fact, I’ll probably find a way to leverage it again this campaign. I think my players didn’t know until this exact moment that the shapes can do this:
So, you know, spoilers.
* — If you don’t understand this word, ask your parents.