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.