One of tabletop gaming’s most prestigious awards has gone missing

The Diana Jones Award trophy, one of tabletop gaming’s most prized objects, has gone missing and is feared lost.

After changing hands for more than 20 years, the trophy, whose name is a derivation of the adventuring archeologist Indiana Jones, has disappeared for a rather mundane reason: It got lost in the mail.

A member of the Diana Jones Award committee announced the trophy’s disappearance on the organization’s official website. “It is unlikely that it will ever be recovered,” they said. “Perhaps it now sits in a box inside a warehouse somewhere, as forgotten and unappreciated as the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

The Diana Jones Award was the invention of game designer and publisher James Wallis. It’s been given every year at Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in the United States, since 2001. Recipients are often individuals, but also games and even concepts. Designer Eric M. Lang was given the award in 2016 to celebrate his contributions to the art and craft of board gaming. In 2018, the award was given to the actual play movement — that is the collection of podcasts and livestreams that have contributed to the resurgence in popularity of tabletop RPGs over the last decade. It is effectively the hobby games industry’s version of an Academy Award or a Tony Award, and its origins stretch back to the 1980s.

The object itself — a transparent chunk of plastic mounted on a rough wooden plinth — dates to 1985 and the British affiliate of TSR, the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons.

Image: DEIGames via Etsy

At the time, TSR’s arm in the United Kingdom imported D&D content, sometimes reinterpreting it for a European audience. But it also produced content, including a well-regarded adventure called The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and the first ever audio dungeon, a two-disc vinyl LP called First Quest. The remnants of that bold group of designers would go on to become the foundation of Games Workshop, and help bring the universes of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 to life.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

In the early 1980s, TSR had a licensing agreement with Lucasfilm. When that agreement came to an end in 1985, it no longer had the rights to continue selling The Adventures of Indiana Jones Role-playing Game. The TRPG was widely regarded as one of the worst of all time. Why was it so bad? Well, there was no character creation system for one. Instead, players took on the role of the characters from films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom and just sort of recreated the events of those movies. Also, Indiana Jones couldn’t die.

The Adventures of Indiana Jones is also home to an infamous papercraft miniature labeled “Nazi TM.” When the game was released, many thought that Lucasfilm was trying to trademark the concept of Nazism. In reality, TSR was just following the rules and allowing Lucasfilm to annotate a representation of a costumed character from its own movie. Suffice it to say that few mourned the game’s passing.

When the call came to destroy all remaining unsold copies, TSR U.K. decided to get creative. Instead of burying copies of the game in a landfill, a la Atari’s ET game cartridges, they had a bonfire. A massive stack of The Adventures of Indiana Jones were set alight, while a single copy was reserved for special attention. It was artfully singed along its edges and then captured, like a mosquito in amber, within a transparent Lucite pyramid. Clearly visible from two sides was a new name: Diana Jones.

“It’s very clear they had no idea really what to do with it,” Wallis told Polygon. Eventually, the plastic pyramid was given away at Games Fair, a multi-day convention hosted by TSR at Reading University in the U.K. “It went to a group of small press and fanzine editors and games writers, which I was on. But the leader of the team was a chap called Ian Marsh, who would go on to become the editor of White Dwarf.”

White Dwarf continues to this day as the premiere print publication for Games Workshop, and remains one of the longest continuously published hobby games magazines in the world. When Marsh got married some years later, it was time to give up childish things. He passed the Diana Jones to Wallis, and it sat on a shelf in his house for the better part of a decade. When he was dreaming up a new award for the hobby games industry, he could think of no better name — and no better trophy — than The Diana Jones Award.

Photo: Matt Forbeck

“I recruited a bunch of friends within the games industry at various levels,” Wallis said, “a mix of designers and publishers and people of influence, some of whom had sort of retired. I think there were about 15 of us to start with.” That committee was, and still remains, anonymous, an effort Wallis says to work against favoritism, undue influence, and personal bias.

Since 2001, the Diana Jones Award trophy has been passed hand-to-hand, winner-to-winner like a knock-off version of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup. But, unlike that silver chalice, there’s no white-glove treatment to speak of. The trophy itself became yellowed, with massive dings and scrapes clouding its surface. It’s that tradition of carelessness that ultimately led to its loss.

The last person to hold the Diana Jones trophy in their hands was Alex Roberts, designer of the relationship-based RPG Star Crossed, which won the award in 2019. In September 2020, she mailed it from Canada to Indianapolis, where it was expected to arrive with another awardee, author Maurice Broaddus. But it never showed up. With no tracking number to speak of, neither Canada Post nor the United States Postal Service has been able to help.

The loss of the object itself is a tragedy, but Wallis also sees it as an opportunity.

“I am deeply saddened that this thing has passed out of my life,” Wallis said, “though, if it now passes into the realms of myth, this trophy that now no one in gaming will ever hold again, it’s a fitting fate.

“I’ve had people come up to me and say that even being nominated for the Diana Jones award has changed their professional life for the better,” Wallis continued. “It’s an extraordinary thing to be able to do that for someone’s career. But perhaps this 35-year-old block of Lucite is no longer an appropriate representation for what the Diana Jones award has become.”

The Diana Jones Committee, now managed and maintained by author and game designer Matt Forbeck, is expanding its purview going forward. In addition to highlighting an individual, game, or concept with the Diana Jones Award itself, it is also recognizing bright stars that it hopes will help shape the industry’s future. This year it launched the Diana Jones Emerging Designer Program. The first awardee is Jeeyon Shim, a second generation Korean American game designer, multimedia artist, and outdoor educator based in California. Wallis said that the organization will continue to support artists like Shim going forward, and part of that support will mean finding more appropriate physical awards.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=42eMi3Ous8Y%3Frel%3D0%26%253Bstart%3D649%26start%3D649

“Are the singed remains of the Indiana Jones role-playing game really what we want to symbolize us going forward?” Wallis said. “I would never have suggested junking the existing trophy and getting something else, but now that the old trophy has gone, it is perhaps the right moment to be looking for something else.”

Even still, the Diana Jones Award committee said, in its announcement of the trophy’s loss, “If anyone discovers the trophy, please contact the Diana Jones Award committee immediately. We would be grateful for its return.”

Polygon reached out to Alex Roberts to share Wallis’ perspective on the loss of the award. She ultimately feels responsible, but is glad that the incident is helping to chart a new course for the committee going forward.

“It’s unfortunate it had to happen this way,” Roberts told Polygon. “but I really do feel that whatever they replace it with will be a better representation of the award, of the tabletop role-playing industry, and of the gaming scene in general.”

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