In 2013 I was getting divorced. I’d hurt someone I loved very much, and it blew up a lot of ideas I had about myself. One night in the middle of that emotional car wreck, I called my friend Tavis for advice. He was the only divorced guy I knew well enough to talk to about this stuff, and also a Dungeon Master.
As usual, Tavis resorted to a D&D-ism. “Marriage is when you party up with someone and try to take on the world, right? You’re trying to get loot, carve out your own territory, maybe do some good. And you’ll exorcise ghosts or overcome traps. People you trust turn out to be doppelgängers. Sometimes the doppelgänger is you.”
That’s super dark and has nothing to do with what follows, but it’s how I remember my friend Tavis sometimes. We usually have very good times together, which is what this post is about! But still: damn!
This is a story of a very good time that came to an end, but is still worth remembering. It’s a very particular moment in time (2010 give or take) and a particular age (mid-30’s, give or take), a particular place (New York) and a very tiny culture (the early days of the OSR). It’s the story of a very successful fellowship.
I met Tavis in August 2008, outside the stench-cursed bathroom at Cafe 28 in Manhattan. A few months prior Gary Gygax had died, spurring a wave of childhood nostalgia among Gen X’ers. I grabbed a pirated copy of the rules (Mentzer Basic Set), recruited some friends (Scott, Adrian, Eric, and E.T.) and we played a few sessions of Dungeons & Dragons in his memory. Tavis wasn’t part of the earliest sessions but joined soon after.
We had a good enough time that I created a little gaming club, the New York Red Box, that lasted for six years and had maybe fifty or sixty players during that time. Most of those were drop-ins, who would play for a handful of sessions; there was a core group of about twenty. Because I lost interest in GM’ing after about six sessions, Eric and Tavis each stepped up to run their own games.
The overwhelming majority of play was early Dungeons & Dragons, split into two camps with a lot of crossover among personnel. At an estimate, we probably played a total of around 375 sessions of early D&D, split between several campaigns.
All of this was occurring during the dawn of the so-called “Old School Renaissance,” which started out as a Talmudic interrogation of forgotten early texts, grew into a manifesto for a brief time, calcified into online status-seeking, and eventually became an amorphous marketing thing.
Nearly all of that stuff was online only–blogs, Google Plus communities when that was a thing, Tumblr posts. But were playing the everloving shit out of this game at scale, and reviewing the old books and reading the commentary and talking to ourselves about it. This is perhaps the saddest nerd flex of all time, but that was probably the largest, longest-running, stable play community of Dungeons & Dragons outside of Lake Geneva.
The Game of Four Erics
Eric’s game used the Moldvay/Cook version of the rules from 1980-81. Nominally set in the Known World described in Cook’s Expert Set and X1: The Isle of Dread, it was mostly a very grim take on a medieval land ruled by vain, feuding magicians, set around a homemade mega dungeon. (The campaign took its name because there was Eric-the-DM and like three other Erics. Officially it was the “Glantri Campaign”)
The Game of Four Erics lasted for 300 (!) weekly sessions. I attended most of the first 20, and then would stop by every 10 sessions or so, falling off somewhere around session 200. Some of the long-term players took their characters from Level 1 to Level 8. The transgender Halfling got her own domain and retired; one of the Magic-Users was getting ready to manufacture magic items.
Eric’s game was notorious for high risk and low reward. After a giant spider ravaged our party with instantly deadly poison, my character limped back to town with the only treasure from that voyage: a slightly corroded silver spoon worth 4 gold pieces. “GOOD MEN DIED FOR THIS SPOON” was our slogan for several sessions. At one point, Eric felt it was too easy to retrieve stuff from your backpack during combat, so even your own inventory became a source of adversity. It was very much a “step-on-up and bring your best” game played on hard mode.
The White Sandbox
Tavis’s game used the “Three Little Brown Books” from 1974 (sixth printing I think) plus a grab bag of other texts—Judge’s Guild stuff, a bunch of Jacquays material from The Dungeoneer magazine, possibly some Arduin stuff at the margins.
This campaign ran monthly for about 50 sessions. I attended the first 30 or so quite regularly, and then gradually fell off. We’d started at Level 3, and were probably level 7 or so when we finished, but Tavis (and the early material he was riffing on) had a pretty generous hand with the magical gear.
The setting was a hodge-podge of 1960’s and 70’s sword-and-sorcery material and general gonzo acid fantasy. We hired an army of Frankensteins at one point, and got drunk with a bunch of teenage were-tigers from space. We had a long-running feud with the Type V demon (the six-armed snake-bodied chick with the bare breasts in the Monster Manual) involving trying to harvest the souls of wizards who tried to become liches but failed; this involved us creating couterfeit souls to sell in the afterlife.
While Eric’s game demanded meticulous planning and gutsy bravado in equal measure, Tavis’s game stressed figuring out creative solutions to unearthly problems. The trick was figuring out these utterly bewildering modes of existence all collapsed down to the same petty jealousies and vices that drive us; very Jack Vance. The running joke in the community was that Tavis’s players were trying to solve the problem, “Where can I store my five artifacts that they won’t be stolen by a demigod” while Eric’s players were feverishly brainstorming how to undo a witch’s curse that tied their bootlaces together (and the boots were no good to begin with).
We did play a variety of other games, mostly skewing toward 1980’s games. There was a 20-session Pendragon game, roughly the same amount of Marvel Super Heroes through in different campaigns. Traveller, Gamma World, RuneQuest, all maybe 3-6 sessions each. A few Forge-type games: five sessions of Sorcerer, a couple runs of With Great Power…, a Primetime Adventures oneshot, a few sessions of Apocalypse World, a little bit of Spirit of the Century. We played a few sessions of D&D 4e once in a long while and some 2e and Oriental Adventures.
My role in all this was gadfly, welcoming committee, site admin, and instigator. All of our play was facilitated by a Wiki which contained, along with session details, a very active forum now long defunct. We inspired several sister groups in Canada. We had a blog no one read, and we had an unofficial afterschool outreach program.
We also benefitted from a close association with the sadly defunct NerdNYC, which was a much larger but less focused gaming & geek culture scene.
This Too Shall Pass
Somewhere in the Library of Babel there is a novel of a gaming group where, despite all of their fictional heroics, the real players decide to split the party and get clobbered by life. A few names have been changed.
- I got divorced, spent many years in total chaos
- Tavis got divorced, spent many years in total chaos
- Eric 1 married his boyfriend, but I heard they split up
- One player moved to Texas to complete a college degree, got hit by a drunk driver, and spent many years recovering
- One player had serious drug and alcohol problems, went to rehab, got sober, and is now doing extremely well
- Big Chris moved away and had a kid
- Adrian moved away and got a new girlfriend and a new job
- Thaddeus changed careers a couple times and moved
- Pete bought a house, has three kids, seems to be in good spirits
- Dan’s kids went off to college
- Eric 2 got married, had a neuro-atypical kid, and was doing the stay-at-home dad thing while he worked on his novel, but I don’t know where that went
- Dave got married and worked on his novel and then several more novels; he’s doing well
- Josh adopted a kid, got a degree in machine learning, and moved to Sweden
- Ben and his wife moved deep, deep into Queens and vanished
- Paul moved back to Florida cause he couldn’t get a job
- Jon Hastings went to New England for med school and now posts here
- Scott moved to Boston to start a new career.
The few of us left in New York meet up every year or so; it’s not the same. My life is good now in many ways, perhaps better than it’s ever been. But I miss that time in my life when I felt young and inspired and could play silly games with such good friends. It was a very good party while it lasted.
10 responses to “Long Live the New York Red Box!”
Post Prophet Shenanigans
Adhering to the religious angle of the "Finding D&D" series, this post highlights something I have only recently put together, which is the fact that the OSR seems to have really gotten started in earnest after Gygax's death.
In particular, the Primer for old school play did not see the light of day in time for the Prophet to read it and say "this is the way!" or, most likely in my humble opinion, for the Prophet to read it and say "what the fuck? No! Absolutely not!"
Bringing it back to your post, it does seem like the game of the Four Erics (I'd call it "4E", but that would be confusing) predated The White Sandbox, and I wonder if it would be possible to map their differences at least partially to the GM-ing advice and theory of how the Old School was supposed to play that started to spread through blogs and G+.
Even if they started around the same time, I would assume someone GMing off Moldvay would feel less of a need to turn elsewhere for the "missing instructions" than someone GMing off of the notoriously vague 3 little books.
Is there something to my wild speculation or am I way off? Would you say one of the campaigns was more influenced by the OSR as a movement than the other?
“the OSR seems to have really
"the OSR seems to have really gotten started in earnest after Gygax's death."
Oh definitely. I don't recall seeing the phrase "Old School Renaissance" until 6-12 months afterward.
In terms of the history of the thing…
In 2000, Wizards of the Coast published Dungeons & Dragons (Third Edition) with a very unusual copyright gimmick: the Open Game License ("OGL"), which allowed third-party publishers to release material for D&D as long as certain conditions were met.
Whether the OGL was legally necessary, or whether it was altruistic or machiavellian, and whether it ended up biting WOTC in the ass are all good topics, but beyond my personal knowledge. But for the purposes of this discussion, some people figured out that the OGL would allow them to release material not for Third Edition, but for First.
A couple people in the world always kept playing AD&D 1e, or 2e, or Moldvay or Holmes or Mentzer or what-have-you. And when the internet really got started, those people found each other in specialized communities like Dragonsfoot. For these communities, the OGL + print on demand services + the rise of merchant sites like DriveThru RPG meant that they could publish brand-new adventures and material for First Edition (or whatever) and not only sell it to their fellow dead-enders but market it to new people as well. All 100% legally!
The problem with that strategy, however, was that the rules to play those adventures had been out of print for 20 years or more. So, using the OGL once again, these same people lightly edited the original rule books and released them as "retro-clones." If you want to play The Spire of Iron and Crystal, which was written for the 1974 version of Dungeons & Dragons, but didn't have a copy of the original rule books, you could snag Swords & Wizardry and use it as an emulator of that old system.
There were a couple of these retro-clones–OSRIC (1st Edition) and Labyrinth Lord (B/X) came first, Swords & Wizardry (0e) was approximately the time of Gygax's death. Note that these books were not meant to showcase clever design–quite the opposite. The less independent design the better, because you were looking for backwards compatibility and trying to avoid forks in the user base.
You also had a couple of blogs out there–James Malizewski's Grognardia, Jeff Rients's Jeff's Game Blog, and Jim Raggi's site, the name of which I don't recall right now.
Then Gygax died and suddenly half the Gen X men in the world were reminiscing about 20-sided dice.
Then a few months later, Wizards of the Coast released Dungeons & Dragons (Fourth Edition). 4e deserves more compliments than it receives…. but….. it was a huge departure from how the game had been played for 34 years. It was different in play, it was different in aesthetics & source material, it was different in philosophy. And if that wasn't reason enough for the reactionaries to hate it, Wizards crippled the OGL for this version. (The prior license for Third Edition still existed.)
So by the summer of 2008, you've got a bunch of nerds buoyed by a wave of nostalgia, crashing into a very different "official" game that wasn't what they remembered, with a cross current of feisty self-published weirdos singing the praises of games that hadn't had a critical appraisal in several decades, which was styled as a rebellion against this corporate 'monstrosity.'
This led to a proliferation of blogs and self-publication. Eventually people got sufficiently self-conscious that they were doing A Thing together, and began calling it the "OSR." Around this time you began to see retro-clones that weren't really clones anymore–Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess, for example, and Scarlet Heroes and Into the Odd. (Come to think of it, Tavis himself was a co-author of Adventurer Conqueror King.) You also began to see much better production values, material that was genuinely useful at the table, and stuff that was wildly trippy and creative. Some of this stuff occasionally resembled coffee table art books rather than game aids, but hey, it was still well done.
From Wizard's stand point, they'd probably made a huge blunder. Paizo Publishing used the OGL to release Pathfinder to appeal to Third-Edition loyalists who didn't want to throw out all of their zillion rule books; meanwhile these grassroots nerds were rejecting the truly innovative design elements of 4e. That launch couldn't have been cheap, but it arrived at the worst possible time.
I stopped paying close attention around 2013-2014 when my group drifted apart, but as I gather, the OGL is still around but is not really tightly tied to Dungeons & Dragons in any meaningful sense. There's a strong family resemblance between Troika! and Ultraviolet Grasslands and Mork Borg, but you couldn't use them to play The Lost Shrine of Tamoachan very easily.
That’s a Fine Spoon You Have there
Trying to find the best way to ask this, but what was the DM's reasoning for low rewards, if they had one at all? I can see controlling how much gold is given out, because gold is XP in that edition. It is a great way to meter out the characters' growth, grinding for every GP. Its one reason I fell in love with the electrum pieces or handed chests full of copper pieces. But over time it can create frustration for the players as well. Wsa it just gleeful sadism or did the DM just love that fantasy meat grinder? Or both?
Part of it was simply, the
Part of it was simply, the rules are fucking brutal.
If you've got a copy of Moldvay handy, check out the motherfucking Killer Bee. It's got 1/2 hit dice, but a single hit can cause instant death. They're aggressive (so no parley), they're faster than you (so you can't run away), and they attack in groups up to 30. This is in the rules for the low-level players. If you somehow manage to survive what would be an absolutely nightmarish encounter, your reward is…. honey equivalent to a single healing potion (but half strength).
What the absolute fuck.
The whole game is like that. The XP awards for combat are pitiful, but also, the amount of treasure you're getting by the book is pathetic. There's a reason why everyone threw away the treasure tables: they're not fun.
But! In those early days, we didn't know that. We were a bit like people testing out grandma's old recipe–before you start tweaking it, let's see how it works as-written.
I have no idea what the game looked like in later phases. Treasure didn't seem quite so awful, so I suspect Eric relented.
As for PC death… I remember the landmark 100th session. We'd all gotten together in the conference room at Pete's job. And in the very first encounter, Pete's 5th level character–who he'd literally been playing for like 90 sessions–got bitten by a Phase Spider, which strikes from almost unbeatable surprise, and can cause instant death unless you save versus poison at a -2 penalty. Dude was our host, and first thing out of the gate, the dice said he lost his character and there was almost nothing anyone could have done.
Well before that point, however, we'd all developed a stable of "B Team" characters, to gradually develop alongside our mains. Pete folded up his character sheet without a word and grabbed his Gnome, and we found some logistical hand-waving to make that possible.
There were tons of PC deaths at low levels, but it was much rarer at high-level play. But I suspect a few others must have perished. My fifth level Magic-User died twice in two weeks (triggered a trap; got raised and healed; triggered a different trap.) But in both cases I was being deliberately careless. How common this was for the others, I'm not sure–I tend to be reckless.
If you’ve got a copy of
The crazy danger is one of the reasons I love the basic sets. And you cannot find the Thoul anywhere else.
Just wanted to make a separate comment to thank you for the post. This hobby of ours lends itself to beautiful human connections, and your story really captured that feeling.
Cheers to that! Valhala is a healthy gaming community.
I remember that blog
I have certainly read some posts in that blog, no question. It was indeed from the golden age of OSR when it analyzed the games and there were blog posts with content and observations.
The play community sounds really healthy and productive.
The Eric game, with 300 weekly sessions and some characters upto level eight, is interesting and sounds credible for a focused community to achieve. For comparison, Coup games have been running on the order of 200 sessions and we might have some characters at around level five. We are still struggling to get new characters reliably to level three or so in case of character loss or a new player.
If you remember things about character stables (did people play one or alternate between several characters) and how often high level characters died, and whether there was resurrection or such involved, that would be interesting, too.
The white sandbox, given a high starting level and generous treasures, sounds less comparable to my experiences. The low level grind tends to be brutal and high treasures limited in our tradition.
Tommi, thank you for reading
Tommi, thank you for reading our terrible blog! The other guys worked really hard on it.
I got some of the questions mixed up, so the answer to your question about character stables and the instances of death is in response to Sean. But the brief version is: yeah, we all had an alt-character or two, in case the main was disabled or killed. Between levels 1-3, death could come if you blinked wrong, but by level 3 you were mostly in the clear if you were cautious–notwithstanding some really nasty monsters or save-or-die effects. And both of those were, alas, not uncommon.
The White Sandbox crew had occasional access to Raise Dead magic by running quests for the Patriarch of Law. The Four Eric crew must have had some access to resurrection, but I don't know if there were any high level clerics in the party. (The Cleric was not an especially popular class in either campaign.) I seem to recall a quest to find some kind of …. Shrimp God of the Sea Storm?… to raise one of those PC's, but (switcheroo) it turned out to be a reincarnation spell instead and they came back as a Shrimp Person.
The Mule Abides
Hey, I read all of The Mule Abides and it was one of my favorite old school blogs! I found it more useful than Grognardia (another favorite, though for different reasons). I remember posts about spotting distances inspired by a hiking trip and much more!
Ben Robbins' West Marches, Philotomy's Musings, discussions with Eero Tuovinen at the defunct Story-Games and The Mule Abides enabled me to radically and successfully change my approach to playing D&D without ever playing with an old-school DM (i.e. without being taught at the table).
Eero has recently condensed his teachings into the wonderful book Muster: Advice for Playing D&D in the Wargaming Way, but I guess most of you already know this. I'm mostly including all the links because I just love 'em!
Hey! That’s amazing! All
Hey! That's amazing! All these years later, and I'm on a blog with the only reader who wasn't in the gaming group! What are the odds?
But seriously, thank you. And yes, some of those blogs were great. I remember Philotomy's, and the West Marches thing was seminal.
And you're right–one of the functions of that community was to aid the Transmission of the Dharma to a new generation. In part we were training ourselves.
When I first encountered D&D, I was probably 9 or 10 years old, and simply didn't have the patience or interest to apply the rules as written.
One of the core functions of the early OSR was actually playing the games as-written, and trying to reverse-engineer whatever design principles went into them. (For example, my theory is that the original Thief class is hilariously bad as a kludge to get around non-human level caps.) Turns out that "go into a dangerous place looking for loot…. but loot slows you down, exposing you to more danger" loop is super good, and people all had fun.
I've been meaning to give Eero's book a look for a while; I suspect I'd agree with most of it, but it's worth paying for validation sometimes!