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.
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.”
The Red Box groups have a disproportionate number of game industry types, both tabletop (Eric Minton, aka Quendalon, who has written for Exalted and Paranoia) and computer (marketing managers for major game publishers as well as coders). Some of the same skills are involved in the solitary work of making games, planning for everything a player might later do, and in the immediate collaboration of responding to whatever Red Box players have their characters do. It’s as similar, and as different, as a musician writing sheet music versus playing live in a jam band.
“The strength of the original Red Box,” RBV founder cr0m says, “is that it consistently delivers discovery to everyone involved. The players are surprised as they explore the dungeons and overcome challenges. The DM is surprised when he randomly stocks the dungeon, rolls reactions to player activity, and otherwise determines ‘what happens’ through the application of dice and tables.”
dorje, who plays Basic D&D with NYRB and with his seven-year-old, says “It’s about improvising and stretching my imagination.” Part of the mandate for improvisation comes from the design of the original Red Box, which often requires the Dungeon Master (or DM) to creatively interpret the meaning of random dice rolls. The other requirement to make stuff up comes from all the things the Red Box rules don’t cover. RBV’s cr0m says, “We spend a fair amount of time negotiating the ‘reality’ of the game in the absence of hard-and-fast rules.”
The mind-blowing thing about D&D is that it opens a window into another reality; its fans grew up to become game designers because there weren’t job openings for gods. Tabletop games run on human intelligence so the imagined world can have unlimited interactivity, unlike games that rely on AI for their physics engine and NPC behavior. In Red Box D&D, you just have to make up the rules for it as you go along.
Red Box is an arcade game, not a videogame.
In Basic D&D, “You play your character like you play a game of Space Invaders,” according to RBV’s cr0m. “You know you’re going to die. It’s just a question of how much glory!”
Arcade games need to be immediately accessible to new players, unlike hardcore games for players eager to invest hours in a Prima guide or the Dungeon Master‘s Guide. “Teaching Red Box to noobs is quite easy,” PeteC of the RBV group says. “People really just need to know what hit points, armor class, and saving throws are, and they are good to go, so you can concentrate on the whole ‘you are a person in this world of my imagining’ concept of RPGs.”
One reason why so many casual games reuse concepts from classic arcade games like Bubble Bobble or Breakout is because you already know how to play. It’s easy to get started. D&D has been so influential that if you aren’t familiar with the concept of getting enough experience points to level up and improve your skills, you probably qualify for some kind of federal assistance. Casual games and Basic D&D are fertile environments for DIY creativity in game design because they facilitate adding twists to a successful formula and making new games quickly. You can watch pros like Warren Spector or Peter Molyneux push the boundaries of game design with AAA titles a couple of times a decade. You can see guys like Cactus doing it in weekend-long development cycles like the Indie Game Jam. Or you can sit down with a copy of the Red Box and your friends to explore your own wacky design ideas immediately.
Arcade games are played at arcades. It’s essential to the experience that anyone can walk by, watch over your shoulder, and then drop a quarter to join in. The Red Box groups similarly play in public spaces for an audience of passers-by enthralled or bemused by the strange dice, lurid art, and yellowing old books. Toren says “Something about Vancouver, despite the fact that we are a major capital of videogame production and generally the city is lousy with nerds, makes it a challenge to get gamers out of their basements and into a social context.” For the RBV gamers, Basic D&D does the trick.
Coin-op games are as easy to leave as they are to join. The focus is on progressive exploration of the environment, not on the individual experiences of any character. In Gauntlet, you’re trying to reach the next level, not a save point; it doesn’t matter if the Wizard is a different player than when you started. As modern tabletop RPGs have become more concerned with individual character’s stories, the experience has been increasingly confining for players – imagine if Dragon Age had no party AI, so that you couldn’t load a saved game without having everyone in your living room to play your teammates.
The Red Box gaming groups overcome this problem by using just-in-time scheduling inspired by Ben Robbins’ influential series of posts about his West Marches campaign. Whoever shows up for a gaming session is the adventuring party, and as a result, dorje says “I can play when I can play. I don’t feel obligated to clear out one night a week. I’d love to play more often, but I know that when I can, I’ll be welcome.” Like an improv comedy session, not being able to predict who will bring their ideas to the table keeps the game live-wire and hilarious for all involved.
The Box is Back
In a tribute to the abiding popularity of the original Basic D&D sets, Wizards of the Coast gave their new 4E Essentials starter set a cover design nearly identical to the 1983 Mentzer Red Box. Happily, the resemblance isn’t just skin deep. The Essentials design team managed to replicate and maybe even outdo the accessibility, clarity of rules and presentation that helped make the original Red Box a gateway drug for so many gamers. And it’s ideally designed for the arcade experience delivered by the associated D&D Encounters organized play program, hosted in game stores and billed as a “weekly game session you can join anytime.”
What’s missing from the latest Red Box is the unexpected. 4E was created by professional game designers who need to write mass-market adventures that can be reliably planned to end with a pre-scripted climax. For them, unpredictability and “swinginess” are bugs, while guidelines that help judge how many monsters the party will overcome and how much treasure they will gain each level are features.
Dungeons & Dragons was written by Gygax and Arneson back when they were hobbyist game designers, and they assumed that’s what you wanted to be too. The Velvet Underground’s first album and the original 1974 D&D inspired you to go out and do it yourself because they were gloriously and unapologetically full of noise, dissonance, and paradox. “We urge you to refrain from writing [letters to ask] for rule interpretations,” the original D&D‘s Afterward says. “The best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?”
The 1981 and 1983 editions of the Red Box still shipped with this do-it-yourself spirit, but it’s easy to add it to the 2010 version. Pick up an old copy of the Moldvay or Mentzer Basic D&D Red Box cheap on eBay, or download Labyrinth Lord, a “retro-clone” created using the Open Game License to bring the system back into print. Keep this in the same box as your Essentials set. Whenever a situation is covered by both, go with the 4E rules; a good reason to have Wizards of the Coast do your imagining for you is that they’re top-notch designers. But whenever you find stuff in Labyrinth Lord that’s not in the new box – reaction rolls, morale checks, wandering encounters, and treasure charts – steal it for your game. Soon you’ll be making up your own ways to use randomness to make the experience more surprising and improvisational. More like an arcade game.
If you’re in New York, Vancouver, or College Station, you’ll find a ready-made community of gamers invigorated by the greatest arcade game that you can imagine.
If not, why not start your own Red Box group?
Tavis Allison is the dungeon master for one of the New York Red Box’s ongoing campaigns, and also does freelance 4th Edition design for Wizards of the Coast.