Updated July 6, 2008
by Michael A.Ventrella
You have probably heard about the split between NERO and the NERO Alliance, now called simply "Alliance LARP." There are many reasons this happened, and unfortunately NERO is continuing to spread lies about the entire situation.
This article, then, is to give the true history of NERO and discuss how we ended up as the Alliance.
Ford Ivey had been running module-like adventures he called "Weekend Warriors" for about three years as a way to have fun and promote his store, The Gamemaster, located in Boston, Massachusetts. The last event in 1988 was attended by me, my wife Heidi Hooper, and our Dungeons & Dragons crew which included Scott Gillespie and Craig and Debbie Walton.
There were about 12 PCs and the rest of the attendees (around 25!) played NPCs. The rules were simple and meant for a marshal accompaniment.
For those NPCing (which included those mentioned above), there were quite a few lulls in the action. Craig, Debbie, Heidi and I decided to keep playing even when the PCs weren’t around. We gathered the other NPCs and starting running our own plots, following up on the character histories that were provided. When Ford and the PCs arrived in the "town" they discovered many more plots going on than was planned. This made the game much more real and everyone had a great time.
After the event, we spoke to Ford about writing a game system where everyone could play instead of just a small group being followed by a marshal. Ford was doubtful that it could be done -- after all, he had been running these games for years -- but we convinced him to give it a try.
Craig became the General Manager and came up with the name NERO. He designed a logo that featured a dragon playing a fiddle (get it?) which was used on the first Rule Book/Player's Guide, which I edited and wrote much of. Heidi worked on props to give the game its fantasy/medieval feel. I was in charge of the plot, and I wrote up character concepts for each of the 75 or so players we ended up with the first weekend. (The concepts were very basic: two long lost brothers looking for each other; a town butcher who was really a werewolf; people with pieces of a magic item that needed to find each other, and so on.) At the time, we were unaware of any other live action roleplaying groups out there so we were making it all up as we went along.
Here's what Ford recently said about that first game in a recent interview: "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." (As you will read later, Joe Valenti, current owner of NERO International, removed Heidi and my name as "founders" from his edition of the Rule Book in an attempt to rewrite history more to his liking, but it's nice to see that Ford acknowledges the truth.)
We had meetings at Ford’s store and the game grew tremendously. I remained in charge of plot and wrote and edited all of the newsletters and promotional materials and helped to define NERO’s image with the public.
In the next year, I wrote an article for Dragon magazine that greatly increased NERO membership. Soon we had people wanting to start NERO chapters all over the United States and Canada.
In 1992, Heidi and I moved away to start our own NERO chapter in New York city (the "Ashbury" campaign). We did so without a contract with Ford, and we paid him no money. Since we were co-creators, Ford could not stop us from running NERO and he was aware of that. There were arguments and disagreements, but eventually the problems were worked out for the better of the game.
When I began work on the 7th edition Rule Book in 1996, I told Ford that I did not want to work on a book that would have the copyright of "Legends Unlimited" (Ford’s business) because that would, in essence, give Ford the right to claim in the future that I had signed away my claim to own a part of NERO. I refused to turn over the completed book to him until I had a contract stating in clear language that no one could take away my right to run NERO games.
Eventually, we talked it over and I sat down at Ford's computer and typed up a contract stating exactly what I wanted. This was done at one of NERO's staff symposiums where all of the chapters from around the country get together to discuss policy, rules and plots. Many people were witness to this new contract.
The contract was written in clear language that cannot be misinterpreted. It states in part "Legends Unlimited, Inc. agrees to allow the use of the name NERO, New England Roleplaying Organization, and the rules and trademark logo associated with it, to Michael A. Ventrella. . .These rights cannot be revoked or removed, either by Legends Unlimited, Inc. or any successor." (Legends Unlimited Inc. has since been succeeded by NERO International -- although I have contacted a number of states and none claim that there is any such organization. If anyone has any proof of its existence, I would appreciate seeing it and will immediately remove this sentence.)
Simply put, there is nothing anyone can do to stop me from running a NERO chapter. Ford agreed with this and signed the contract. And we began working together again to make NERO the best possible game it could be. And for a while, everything was fine.
The contract, like all NERO chapter contracts at the time, guaranteed Ashbury a 100 mile radius of operation, preventing any other chapter from locating within the same area. Further, it states that if Ford ever wished to sell his part of NERO, I would have the right of first refusal.
Most importantly, it says that I am allowed to use the NERO name, rules, and trademark and that these rights cannot be revoked or removed by anyone. Ever.
Here's where the problems began: After four years of successful operation in the New York city area, Heidi and I made a deal to buy a permanent site in upstate New York, far from any other chapter.
We moved from the New York city are and Ford signed a contract for our old area with Joe Valenti. Joe opened the "Tri State" chapter of NERO, moving into Ashbury's old territory and even using the same camp for his game.
Anyway, to quickly summarize, I was misled by the owner of the upstate New York camp, who lied about a number of things, and we knew we had to get out of there. We spoke to the National Campground Association and told them we were looking for a camp where we could set our props up and leave them up, at least during the off season. I told the Association that we could not be near New York City since that area was already given to another NERO chapter.
The Campground Association recommended Camp Lindenmere in the Poconos, which was more than 100 miles from Joe’s headquarters and about 200 miles from his camp. Ashbury would not be infringing on Joe’s territory at all.
However, there was a situation that we were completely unaware of (and even Joe admits this): Joe had a unique contract with Ford.
Joe’s contract gave him an area that includes over 10% of the population of the United States, giving him over three times as much area as any other NERO chapter -- an area larger than the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined -- and including the metropolitan areas of Albany, Trenton, New Haven, Atlantic City, and of course the New York city metropolitan area which has over 10 million people. This huge area also contained a very small strip of eastern Pennsylvania which includes the Poconos. I am only pointing this out not to say that to give such a large area is wrong, but only to show that it was so unprecedented that there was no way we could have predicted it.
We had no idea that Joe had a contract so vast. There was no reason for us to believe that we were in any way infringing on his area, especially since we were not located in any of the "tri-states" for which he named his chapter. (As an aside, Avendale’s official web page and National’s official web page specifically stated that Avendale served the "tri-states" and then listed New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Pennsylvania was not mentioned anywhere on any of Avendale’s promotional materials. Since the beginning of 1999 though, because we pointed this out, Joe has begun listing Pennsylvania as well -- does that make it the Quad-states chapter?)
Joe tried to hold us responsible for information that we had no knowledge of and had no reason to suspect even existed. The claim that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" only applies if that "law" is publicly available for all to view. The burden was on them to inform us of this contract that had been filed away somewhere. We cannot legally be held responsible for violating provisions of a contract that we had no reason to realistically assume existed.
Even if we had known that chapters were no longer being granted 100 mile radii and were now being given specific areas, there was no reason for us to assume that Joe’s area would be so large as to encompass much of the Northeast. One would assume that Joe would have an area roughly the same size as every other chapter, and even using Camp Cedarcrest (our old camp in Connecticut that he is now using) as the easternmost point, there is no way that area would come close to Pennsylvania.
The opportunity to inform us about these new circumstances in NERO contracts existed all along, but such information was never provided. I sent email to Ford in September of 1997, letting him know that we were planning on moving to the Poconos and commenting that he certainly knew how we felt, having had to move the Massachusetts chapter many times in its existence. I did not receive a response. I did not learn of the unusual aspect of Joe’s contract until after we had already moved and had run two events at the new location.
Joe approached us in November of 1997, after he had attended one of our events, and notified us "officially" that we were in "his" territory. He stated he would allow Ashbury to stay within the territory if we agreed to move out of the area if we lost our camp. I of course pointed out all that I have already related here, but Joe refused to budge.
A week later, a member of the Ashbury staff approached Joe in an effort to work out our problems, and Joe submitted a completely insulting "offer" to settle our difficulties: We would turn over 20% of the proceeds of our chapter, immediately appoint him as General Manager, place NERO Ashbury under Tri-State LARP’s control to be a sub campaign, and give eight of his staff members free passes to all Ashbury events. In return, he offered us four passes to his chapter. (And our requests were unreasonable?)
Despite this "offer," we continued to try to press with negotiations hoping to come to a compromise.
At any time did Joe say "Ah, well, I understand how these sort of mistakes and misunderstandings can happen. Let’s work together to cooperate and make NERO a better game"? No, Joe continually demanded that we move out of "his" territory.
Joe’s staff eventually convinced him to sit down with the Ashbury staff and work out a compromise. At that meeting, held in the later part of last year, an agreement was reached in which Ashbury would be able to remain in the Poconos but would give up much of lower Pennsylvania, including Allentown and Philadelphia. I have a description of the territory, written in Joe’s own hand, describing the new border. Everyone shook hands on it and agreed that, as long as National was willing to accept it, we would abide by it. We left the meeting thinking that everything was settled.
However, a month later I received a certified letter from Ford stating that Joe went to Ford and told him that no agreement existed. Ford’s letter demanded that we move by January 31st or be denied the right to use NERO’s name or game system at all.
I wrote back and explained the situation, stating Ashbury's willingness to abide by the agreement made or continue to compromise, but it did no good. I got no response. Joe was unwilling to renegotiate his contract or make any concessions whatsoever.
According to my contract, Ford does have the right to revoke Ashbury's right to be part of the Tyrran campaign. However, this cannot be done unilaterally. "If Michael Ventrella’s right to run a Tyrran campaign is revoked, he has the right to an appeal to an unbiased arbiter(s) agreed upon by both parties."
This contract was ignored as if it didn’t exist.
It should be pointed out that even without this contract, Ford had acknowledged my right to run NERO for over five years through his acceptance of the New York chapter of NERO I ran. During this time we paid Ford no money and made no acknowledgement that his rights to use NERO were greater than ours. Legally, the time to challenge our right to use NERO had expired. For years, NERO International acknowledged our chapter through their web page, newsletter listings and other promotional materials. Under the legal principle of estoppel, they could not make a claim that we do not legally exist when for years they had done nothing to stop us, and had in fact promoted us.
As stated before, a very clear provision of my contract gaive me a 100 mile radius for operation of the Ashbury NERO chapter and prohibited Ford or Legends Unlimited or its successor (in this case, NERO International) from granting anyone else the right to operate within that 100 mile radius. Ford’s contract with Joe, signed when we were located in the upstate New York area, granted Joe an area which included Albany, located less than an hour away and certainly less than 100 miles from our site. Since Ashbury's contract preceded Joe’s, and since Ashbury's contract clearly granted a specific area, any contract that followed that granted the same area would be invalid. Joe violated our territory first.
We remained willing to renegotiate our contract, to give and take and compromise, and to change our contract to give Ashbury a specified area so long as Joe did the same. Unlike Joe, we were willing to work out a reasonable solution to this conflict. Our bottom line, however, was that we were unwilling to allow Joe to bite into the Poconos. However, his clear and unequivicol statement was that he wished to put us out of business (and we have the email to prove it). We made it clear that we would not compromise on this.
Given what we were willing to forego to keep this small area of land, Joe’s demand that he have it all seems unreasonable by any standard.
In late February 1998, we sent Ford a certified letter stating that we could not allow our chapter to hang in limbo. We said that if we did not hear from him within ten days we would have to take further action.
We did not hear from him.
Given that our contract had been broken and there was no good faith intention to negotiate, we officially declared in mid March of 1998 that we were no longer part of the NERO International organization, which in essence is what Ford had declared months earlier. We announced our independence and invited all other NERO chapters, and anyone interested in starting a new NERO campaign, to join us. (Joe, in a Metagame magazine article about the split, said "I highly doubt that any existing or new NERO chapters would associate themselves with Ashbury." Obviously, that prediction was very poor.)
Joe immediately began a campaign of harassment. Here is a list of just some of the actions he and his staff have done over the last few years:
- They posted messages on internet newsgroups stating that we were an illegal organization
- They handed out flyers to their players accusing us of being the instigators in this and telling their players to blame us for not being able to transfer any more
- They had their members come into our internet chat rooms and disrupt them, forcing us to move to new chat rooms
- Their members trolled our internet mailing lists and posted anonymous accusations
- They contacted webmasters and demanded that they remove any reference or links to the NERO Alliance from their pages. (This has backfired on them, as many websites are now refusing to list their pages instead)
- They had people call our office pretending to want to start campaigns under us in order to "spy" on our progress
- They harrassed my Alliance campaigns and has even forced one to withdraw from the Alliance. They said "it's not worth it" and have gone on to develop their own non-NERO game called “Ogre”; Three years later, Joe then opened an International game near them and is calling his NERO chapter, of course “NERO Ogre” in order to mislead local players into playing his game instead.
- They refused to accept experience players earned from our game yet still accepted our coins and props these players brought in, which they then kept or destroyed
- When they heard we were accepting their characters in as transfers, they sent in characters with inflated levels which they had never earned. We no longer accept transfers from International because of this type of fraud -- It's just not fair to our own players
- In an attempt to mislead players trying to locate our game, they have listed a fake "NERO Pennsylvania" on their web page, which they claim is located in our small village of Tannersville but in fact runs in another town in Pennsylvania and which has as its contact number a New York address
- This "Tannersville" chapter has run only one event three years ago, on the same weekend we ran an event, and they plastered signs along the route to our event, pointing people to their game instead
- Some (if not all) of the NERO International chapters have policies that if any of their players ever attend an Alliance game, they will be deleted from the International database and not allowed to play International games any more
- When people call their office or email them mistakenly trying to contact us, they are told that we don't exist or that we have gone out of business
- Despite letters warning them, they continue to use supplementary materials I have written for NERO to which I own the copyright (which is even acknowledged in their own Rule Book, edition 7)
- They have posted notes on their web page saying that since they officially own the tradmark we will soon be out of business (see below), thus trying to keep new campaigns (and players) from joining us
- As recently as the winter of 2003, Joe Valenti was still removing our flyers from tables at conventions and otherwise trying to disrupt our promotional pushes
- In 2004, Joe opened a “NERO Ashbury” chapter which has led players to give him money thinking they are signing up for our game. (We have had a number of emails saying things like “Where is the Rule Book I paid you for from your web page?” only to find they had signed up through Joe’s page instead.) The web page for this chapter makes absolutely no reference to the fact that they are associated with NERO International, and otherwise is misleading and fraudulent.
- Joe has called our campaigns pretending to be potential players and asking about how the game was doing. (He forgets that people have caller ID.) He then sends threatening letters to these campaigns saying they are illegal and will soon be shut down, but he is willing to take them in as part of International. Needless to say, the campaigns ignore him completely.
- In 2005, Joe has begun calling the campsites we rent from and threatening to sue them for renting to us. This interference with our contractual relationships with others is, you must admit, pretty low even for him.
Many of these harassing actions continue to this day, and other than try to inform people of the truth of the situation through pages like this, we have done nothing in return.
Just to respond to one of the Joe's statements, allow me to point out that despite Joe's claims, there was nothing illegal about the NERO Alliance. "Illegal" means that a law is being broken and that a person can possibly go to jail for violating the law. Lawsuits over copyrights have to do with civil law, not criminal law. If Joe were getting adequate legal advice, he would know this. Or maybe he just keeps saying we are an "illegal" organization because he thinks it will convince people who don't know any better.
In July of 1998, Joe announced that he had purchased NERO International from Ford, once more ignoring my contract. He acknowledged that I have the right to purchase NERO from Ford according to the contract, but claimed that the contract had been voided by my actions. When asked to explain what breaches were done by me, he refused to elaborate; obviously, this is because there were no contract breaches. Even if there were, a contract cannot be unilaterally cancelled by one party at its own whim, especially where, as here, provisions exist in the contract for mediation and adjudication.
Joe also made other unfounded claims. He states that he owns the copyright to the NERO Rule Books -- however, a few minutes of research will show that the only NERO Rule Books that have ever been officially copyrighted with the Library of Congress have been the Ashbury Rule Book (copyrighted by me in 1994), the Alliance 8th edition book (copyrighted by me in 1998), the Ashbury Player's Guide (copyrighted by me in 2000), and the three Alliance Rule Books (copyrighted by me in 2001, 2003, and 2005). These claims are easily checked, yet he continues to make them. (You can read about our books here and can order one through Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and a number of other online sources as well as through your local bookseller – they’re listed in "Books in Print." Or do a search for “Ventrella” in Amazon.com.)
As I mentioned earlier, when I signed the contract with Ford Ivey, I was assured that Ford had already registered the trademark for NERO. (Turns out of course that this wasn’t true.) When I discovered this, I filed, but apparently Joe, also discovering this, applied for it a few weeks before I did! I filed a challenge to it with the government but decided to drop the fight because (a) it would be costly and (b) it wouldn't matter.
You see, the original contract I signed with Ford was done with the understanding that he already had the trademark -- that's why my contract says I have the right to use NERO's copyright and trademark no matter who owns it. My right to use the trademark pre-dates Joe’s by years.
Finally, in January of 2006, Joe's harassment went too far. He was calling campsites we used and was threatening to sue the campsites for allowing my campaigns to rent from them. At that point, I finally said enough was enough, and I filed suit against him.
The suit moved slowly, as lawsuits do, and we both agreed to mediation, which involves us sitting down with our lawyers and trying to work out a deal. The negotiations went poorly because, of course, Joe wanted everything. Even his own attorney seemed quite frustrated by him.
After our session, I began thinking about the whole situation. I discussed it with some of the people who had helped me start the Alliance (especially Scott Kondrk and the late great John Finnegan) and we asked ourselves if all of this was worth it. We discussed how Joe had diluted the NERO name so much that it no longer had the reputation we desired; how he allows anyone with money to open a chapter and thus some are quite below our standards, and how this hurts us too when we use the name NERO.
I was not as young as I used to be, my wife Heidi had been fighting cancer for years, my first novel was about to be releasedI was doing well in my private law practice and did not intend to make NERO my business, and I had spent years with headaches and arguments over something that, in the scheme of things, was not all that important. Maybe age and experience and maturity makes you not want to fight battles that, even if you win, are not worth the fight.
So I came back to Joe with the offer that we would change our name to the Alliance and in exchange he would stop using my copyrighted material. I thought that was more than generous. We had a phone conference with the two of us and our lawyers, and Joe laughed at me and said that I couldn't be "Alliance LARP" because he had already registered the web address in anticipation of that (being the complete asshole that he is). "No," I replied. "I have had it registered for months." Joe got all upset, checked online, and discovered that he had spelled "Alliance" wrong when he registered it. Even his own lawyer laughed at him for that.
In any event, Joe kept making all sorts of unreasonable offers, apparently figuring he had me on the run. I refused them all, but kept pressing for him to agree to my offer. Joe would go for long periods without responding.
Eventually, the time for mediation expired without Joe agreeing to anything.
He then proclaimed to everyone that he had "won" the trial. This, of course, is another lie -- all that happened was that it died, and we are in the exact same position we were in before the trial was ever started. I could refile the case today and we'd be right back at square one.
Instead, I have ignored him and continued to run my game. Whatever Joe has to say now has no effect on me, and I am a much happier person, as I can concentrate on running the best LARP there is.
The campaigns with us are working together to make the best game they possibly can, with an emphasis on customer service, exciting plot, and a standard game without variations. We are running a roleplaying game with battles, not a battle game with roleplaying, and we are emphasizing good sportsmanship, cooperation, and the rewarding of heroic actions in our games. I have turned down International chapters that wanted to join us but not abide by our demands for a quality game without rules variations or ridiculous power trips for the owners, and am not at all interested in having to deal with the headaches that would come from trying to assimilate a bunch of International campaigns into the Alliance who don't care about the kind of game I want to run.
And to make things even more exciting for me, I am part of a group that has purchased land in northeast Pennsylvania where we are building our own medieval town! We are running the Ashbury games there and are renting the site to other LARPs! We call the business "Faire Play". My novel (taking place in the world of Ashbury) has been published and the sequel is on the way. And a major headache in my life has been removed.
I hope you will join the Alliance and be a part of that future. If you think you might want to start an Alliance chapter in your area, click here.
Michael A. Ventrella, Esq.
Comments or questions? Send me email!
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