The Red Box Diaries

The Red Box Diaries
Imagine Your Perfect Arcade Game

Tavis Allison | 14 Sep 2010 12:32
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Brian Eno famously said, "Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band." This is that story, except that instead of making their own music, the Red Box inspired a generation to make their own games, video or otherwise, through its emphasis on imagination and the necessity of making up houserules on the spot. More than that, the lethality of characters in old school D&D, the ability to drop in and out without letting the group down, and its public nature, makes playing it more akin to Space Invaders than the forced storytelling of Wizardry or Ultima.

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In the early 1980s, perhaps a million people bought a "Red Box" Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. The game was at its all-time peak of popularity, assisted by advertisements on TV and in comic books. Even then, D&D wasn't all that popular; its publisher TSR had annual sales of $29 million in 1983, when coin-op arcade games were estimated to be doing $8 billion. Every one of the kids who cut their teeth on the D&D Basic Set didn't go on to make their own games, but you couldn't prove it by flashing a copy backstage at E3 and watching videogame designers geek out.

Much later, in the late '00s, people all over the world joined gaming groups to play Basic D&D like they did in the '80s. Old-school approaches to tabletop RPGs were increasingly popular for many reasons, including the one the founder of the seminal New York Red Box group, James_Nostack, gave when he asked himself "Why are we doing this?":

Gary Gygax, who with Dave Arneson invented Dungeons & Dragons in the early 1970s, passed away in March, 2008. We wanted to pay our respects by breaking out the ol' Red Box we loved so well when we were children. Turns out, though, that the reason we loved the old game is because it's incredibly fun.

Soon Vancouver, Calgary, and College Station, Texas followed suit with their own forums devoted to organizing Red Box D&D games.

This game is fun. It helps you imagine.

Understanding why Red Box D&D inspired a generation of game designers in the 80s is the same as figuring out why people are still playing it today. Fortunately, the members of the New York Red Box (NYRB) and Red Box Vancouver (RBV) are a chatty bunch, as fond of introspection as they are of their online handles. RBV's Toren Atkinson writes "As the co-designer of Spaceship Zero the roleplaying game, I really appreciate Basic D&D's 'lay down the basics of the system and let the players fill in the rest' approach to game design." cr0m, founder of the RBV group, concurs: "I've also got a newfound appreciation for the design of Basic D&D. It's got a nice balance of abstraction and detail, and mechanics like gaining experience points by finding treasure are brilliant examples of how the design enforces a certain type of play."

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