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Blast from the Past
An evening with Ford Ivey
By Seth Peck 9/1/2001

Older players recognize the name, but for those of you just joining us, Ford Ivey is often attributed with being the grandfather of NERO. Not twelve hours after releasing the first issue of back in July, Ford offered me an interview in the future. Like I was going to say no.
Seth Peck, How are ya?
Ford Ivey: [laugh] I'm fine--and in much better health than the old days. I have lost 256 pounds. I'm weighing in at 244, and don't have diabetes nor high blood pressure any more, and the heart is a LOT healthier.
SP: Wow--that's quite a change. Any secrets you wish to divulge?
FI:! [grins] Seriously. I had a gastric bypass. I was gonna die if I didn't lose weight. That was a year ago on July 5th.
SP: Well, it's good to hear that you are in good health.
FI: Well, it's good to be in good health.
SP: As NERO gets larger and more and more newbies join the game, I hear more and more people asking about the origins of the game and "stories from olden days". Being a relatively new player myself, compared to the life-span of NERO, I find myself wondering also. How did NERO get its start?
FI: Wow...big question. It started way back in 1986. I heard about a game in New Hampshire called "Midrealms Adventures". I heard about it about six months before I could get up to play it...and imagined what it would be like when I did play it. When I finally did, it was not a lot like what I imagined. It was a module based game--a few hours and it was over, and a marshal had to be with you all the time. I wanted a game where the players could be free to do what they wanted.
SP: So what did you do?
FI: I ran my own. At the time, I had just started a group for Friday night table-top gaming at a Boy Scout explorer Post in Newton, Massachussets, and we had available to us a Boy Scout Camp--Nobscot by name--and we decided to run a game of our own there. I had a group of 7 or so guys helping me. We wrote it, cast it, and ran it. We invited a group of 6 or so friends of one of the guys to PC it.
SP: Did this game have a name yet?
FI: Nope, no name. We called it "Weekend Warriors" for the first year or so. I ran a bunch of different variations on the game. I wrote the plots, bought the props, paid for everything, and ran them myself.
SP: So how did it go?
FI: The first game was pretty bad, to be honest.
SP: [laughs] Care to elaborate?
FI: Yeah--it was bad because we had very few costumes or props, we basicly told the PCs where to go. We had some major problems with the PCs not picking up on things. It was amazing to us how much stuff gets missed when you are doing it for real rather than around a table. We had one point [where] we had gone to great lengths to make sure they knew that the "Ranger" character they met on the trail was a good guy and they could trust him. Well, he had been captured and was going to be sacrificed. We drug him out, proceeded to sacrifice him, knowing the PCs were watching, expecting them to save the guy--they didn't. They just watched. Poor guy had to steal a dagger, and save himself. They got to him as he was breathing his last--one guy got to him, and he said: "Beware the Dark Lord! Seek the Man of the Mountain!" When the other players got there, they asked him what he had said. He replied, "He said something about a man and a rock."
SP: [laughing]
FI: But we kept trying things, getting closer to the vision I had. Then, in November of 1988, we ran a game called "Shandlin's Ferry". It was the immediate ancestor of NERO.
SP: how long did first several events last?
FI: We did set up on Saturday and started mid afternoon on Saturday. Then we ran until Sunday afternoon. The Shandlin's Ferry game started at noon on Saturday and ran 24 hours. It was notable for several reasons: first, it's the game where we figured out how to do the NERO style play--players running around with no marshals. It was also notable because the founders of the game came together for the first time--Craig and Debbie Walton, Mike Ventrella, Heidi Hooper, me, Bob King--all of us were there. We decided after the success of that game to try and run what turned into NERO. Craig Walton came up with the name. Shandlin's Ferry remained on the NERO map, and what happened at that game became part of the NERO world. We even had a Shandlin's Ferry campaign in the Massachussets chapter a few yeards later. That gave me a lot of satisfaction.
SP: Speaking of the creators: I did some checking on the other LARP games (Amtgard, Dragoncrest, Camarilla) that are still being played today, and with the exception of the SCA, none of them have been around longer (although IFGS was starting the same time you were). Did you consider yourselves innovators in RPGs?
FI: Did we consider ourselves innovators? Not at the time, I don't think, though we finally started to realize what we had done a year or so later. In retrospect, it was quite an innovation. It was a break from the old-style module based game, which was started at Treasure Trap in England--that's what Middle Realms was based on. The IFGS is a module-based game. Treasure Trap and a bunch of English games have been running longer than us or IFGS. Also, the ILF (Interactive Fiction Society) has been around quite a while.
SP: What was your experience with RPGs prior to all this?
FI: Wow. I started playing Dungeons & Dragons way back in the 70's with my brother. I owned everything they put out, all the way back to the three little book set. I made a huge jump into role-playing when I started a store--The Gamemaster. It's really the home of NERO. We got everything started there after NERO was set up.
SP: Tell me about your store.
FI: It was a great store--we had everything. It was upstairs at 444 Massachussets Ave in Arlington, MA. We had six or so tables for gaming in the store in the front. They were well-used. We had everything that had to do with roleplaying, and most stuff that had to do with miniatures. I used to have mini-conventions there every month. A guy named Brian Reddington-Wilde helped me run them. He's a game designer of some renown nowadays in miniatures rules--runs a business called "Goblin Tooth Enterprises"
SP: I've heard of them. Do you no longer run the store?
FI: Nope--NERO took over the store. We moved it twice, and the store part of it got smaller every time. Finally, we just dropped the store part and got an office. That was after Mike Ventrella wrote the article about NERO that made it into Dragon Magazine. After that article, we suddenly had, like, 5,000 members. There was no WAY we were ready to handle that many people. I'm afraid that customer service suffered a lot then. We used to have huge games. In 1992, we ran what is now known as the "Brood" weekend--the first game run by Rob Ciccolini. We had over 700 players there, including something like 150 NPCs. That was at Camp Wing, a really cool place with an old stockade and everything.
SP: How many chapters were there when that happened?
FI: Chapters? None. We were trying to get a couple started. The first was a New Jersey chapter, which later broke away from us and became LAIRE. Then Georgia--they later broke away and became SOLAR. The first chapter that remained was PRO, in Pennsylvania. Another Georgia chapter formed about then, too. All of this was about late 1992 and early 1993. We didn't have ANYTHING ready to support other chapters, though we got REAL anal about them conforming to our standards. A big mistake, in my opinion.
SP: I've read the 3rd edition rulebook and know how much different the rules are today--and I've heard a few stories about some of the different classes and races and spells. Can you try to convince me that Stone Elves aren't Vulcans? [grinning]
FI: Naw, I wouldn't even try to convince you of that. [laugh] Have you read about Metamorph and Obliterate It's true: Obliterate used to be a spell like any other.
SP: What was Metamorph?
FI: It was a spell that took a small representation of something--say a mouse--and allowed you to turn someone into one of them. It got, as you can imagine, severely abused. We even had a Truth spell--you'd be amazed how people remember the same event in very different ways. We had folks who sincerely thought they were telling the truth, and whose accounts of things just didn't match other people just as sincerely telling us about the same event. [It] makes you sympathize with the court system. Did you know I hate modules?
SP: [laughing] What do you prefer?
FI: Need them for the game, but I hate 'em. I've only been on maybe 3 in my entire career. I prefer the characters playing themselves, and getting into whatever because that's who they are. I don't know--I love the social aspect of the game, and the big problems that land in your lap, and having to deal with those. Modules are good because we have a chance to do special effects and marshalled calls that we can't do anywhere else, but--I don't know--it's the most artificial part of the game.
SP: So do you like massive combat encounters at the edge of town?
FI: Lord, no. I prefer hanging out in the Tavern, telling jokes with bad accents, being with friends, and being a hero when something visits. Combat encounters? I like them sometimes, but I'm not out there for the combat. But then, I'm not typical. I love the ceremonial stuff, the Tourneys, the Pomp and Circumstance, the armor, the look of the thing, the chance to make myself a part of a great movie moment. That's what I like, and that's what I tried to give to other players. Though I found over the years that those things are not as valuable for many of the other players as they are to me.
SP: Some of the other races, while not unseen elsewhere in other forms, pique the interests of many new players. Where did Biata come from?
FI: They were based on griffins. In the early days, we were still feeling our way as to what we could and could not do in a Live game. Heidi had a cool concept for them that included some mind powers that, so it turns out, just can't be included in this type of game. They became a group of Northmen/barbarians sort of Shaman-type people. Their mind powers got severely cut back. You live and learn.
SP: I also heard an interesting story about the first formal component ever placed in a treasure count.
FI: What first component was that?
SP: I don't know what it was, but something about how no one else knew either and it got passed around for awhile until someone became formal-capable.
FI: Oh, yes. We put out components for several events before people knew what they did. The early ones were tags taped to tongue depressers and then covered with platic tape to help protectthem from the weather. When they got used, the sticks were supposed to get broken. BOY, did I get sick of buying tongue depressers.
SP: No matter how much things change--some things remain the same.
FI: Yeah, that's true. The Formal Magic system was a fairly late addition to the game--probably in our third year or so. It was a good idea, but took years before it became even close to balanced. [grinning]
SP: How come Sarr can't purchase Waylay?
FI: Oh, Lord...well, that's a touchy one. Sarr were supposed to be all blood-lusty and like that--when they did damage, they wanted to see BLOOD, dammit! So, they were restricted to using weapons that were bladed, no blunts. And you [since] can't waylay someone with a blade...
SP: Wow, was that ever an emotional reaction!
FI: It was a silly thing. The designer of the race (Jade LeBlanc, I think) had one concept, and they guy who was in charge of approving it had another. Guess who won. Like I said--both touchy and silly.
SP: Tell me about the Mystic Wood Elves.
FI: Lorne Lehrer created them. Cool race, roleplaying intensive. I actually was sort of not paying attention to them as they were created--I came to an event and this guy showed up with these horns and ears. I had no idea who or what they were. I love Mystics--it took me a few years before I finally got a fair idea of their culture and stuff.
SP: I guess the "bigness" of the game caught you up in that, especially with the increasing number of members and eventually chapters. How did you deal with that?
FI: Slowly. It took us a while to get the game together enought to really be able to run a multi-chapter game. We really started to get it together in about 1994, by which time we had maybe 5 or six chapters. When we got our permanent site in Ware, Massachussets in 1994, we really started to pull it together. The most useful thing was the annual symposium in September every year. Everyone got together for a weekend there, and we got a bunch of stuff done--not as much on the rules and stuff as we hoped we would, but mostly it was good to realize that we were all one game, and needed to work together.
SP: When you were still in the development stages, did anything get left out that you wished could get in?
FI: I guess you could say that. In retrospect, there were a lot of things that I wish we had done differently, or better. I wish there was a true economy, for instance, trading and getting the stuff to make the things you need to adventure. It gives so many more dimensions to a character--the closest NERO comes is the Formal Magic System and the components it takes to do the spells. But in general, no--we changed the bloody game ALL the time in the first few years. Heck, the first xp/bp ratio was: first level: 1 = 1; second level: 2 = 1, and so on. We made it a lot steeper, then had to make it steeper yet the next year. I think we needed to make it even steeper than that. The power scale is too steep, too--as in, the power of older players as compared to the power of a new, entering character. But now we're getting into game design, which would take forever.
SP: (The current formula is (n^2 +5n)/2 xp/bp where n is your level.) Like Roddenberry and Gygax you've gone off to do other things. tell me briefly about your new project.
FI: The Isles? Well, it's taking all the things I learned over the years and applying them to a new game. It's an attempt to solve the problems. I think it succeeds very well. Quiet combat, a real economy, and a bunch of skills that are very useful to the characters that are not combat related.
SP: Do you have any other stories you wish to share?
FI: A million or so. [grinning] I have been doing this a long time. I couldn't begin to cover the stories that it would take to do this justice.
SP: I guessed. How about just one favorite?
FI: How about, instead, I tell you why I do this? What "moment" do I do it for? It's those times--when I'm sitting in the Tavern, all the check-ins done, the cabin assignments finished, all of that stuff--the game is well underway, people involved in doing what their characters want to do, involved in the plot of the weekend, or on-going stuff with their group. All of them, standing around, weapons glinting dully in the candle light, talking low, in character, people gambling for gold in the back, gypsies bellowing and laughing--all of it seems real. For a while, you're there. In that spot, in that reality, and it's those times I feel like what I did--what we did--really meant something.
SP: Thank you for a most magical discussion!
FI: Magical? [laugh] Well, you're welcome.