Tuesday, 21 September 2010

White Dwarf 74

Yeah, I know I'd only got up to WD5 (and that all of nine months ago) and going ahead to WD74 is a bit of a leap but basically I couldn't find a lot to say about WD after the first couple of issues. Also, WD that early doesn't really speak to me as I wasn't around then. So instead lets just start with a few semi-random issues that are a bit more of my era or are perhaps more interesting to me even when they aren't.

Right then, lets look at the first one I ever bought. White Dwarf 74 bought by the 11-year old Boy Coop in February 1986 from WHSmiths in Dudley.

There was a magazine dedicated to this Basic D&D stuff I was into? I'm there, clutching my 95 pence...

So I'm in at the end of the Ian Livingstone era who hands over editorial duties to Ian Marsh who will only edit the thing for three issues before it all goes a bit tits up thanks to Mr Ansell. No wonder he was to express his unhappiness in such wonderful and eternal fashion on the contents page of WD77.

It's strange but with a lot of my early RPG purchases I remember quite clearly the circumstances in which I brought them, where I was, where I read them etc. and WD74 is no different. I'd gone to Dudley on the bus with two friends Jon and Ian, we went to McDonalds, they bought some computer games, we had a argument with some Dudley kids then we went back to Jon's house where his elder brother showed us how to turn a CFC-infested aerosol deodorant into an improvised flamethrower which we promptly fired through the keyhole of Jon's sister's bedroom door and blistered the paint on the inside. Then I went home and my Grandparents came around for tea. It's weird but I remember all this clearly and WD77 was part of this but these days I have no idea what I was doing last Sunday.

Back to Dwarf - right then, welcome to White Dwarf and GW's business practises young Coop Padawan. There's a strong body of grognard opinion that states that once upon a time WD was a wonderfully independent magazine that dealt with all games equally fairly but sadly this is bullshit. Dealing with this particular fallacy could and probably should provide a good blog post but in short - even when WD covered games that weren't GW games, they were often games that GW had exclusive UK printing and/or distribution rights for or it was AD&D which they sold huge quantities of and weren't able to really slag off until later years when they got a bit more cocky because Warhammer was starting to entrench itself in the Britscene. (And of course once upon a time they'd been exclusive European distributors for D&D, printed their own version of Holmes Basic and produced UK-printed softback versions of the AD&D books).


Page 1 - Cover.
Page 2 - Full-page colour ad for Judge Dredd RPG from Games Workshop.
Page 3 - Self-congratulatory editorial from Games Workshop.
Page 4 & 5 - Advertorial for new board Superpower from Games Workshop.
Page 6 -Full-page mono ad for Games Workshop Mail Order from Games Workshop.
Page 7 - Full-page mono ad for Talisman Citadel Miniatures from Games Workshop.

We then get a bit of a break from THE GAMES WORKSHOP HOBBY and then get

Page 12 - Full-page colour ad for Paranoia from West End Games.

Except that it then states "Available from Games Workshop Ltd., Chewton Street, Hilltop, Nottingham, England".

See? Always been a house mag.

And on the subject of being a house mag, the first article is Open Box. Actually no overt GW products this time around so my first exposure to Open Box wasn't quite as farcical as it normally was. AD&D Oriental Adventures and Dragon Warriors are raved about, also mentioned are Runequest Vikings, Nightmare In Norway for CoC, The Pendragon Campaign and two Star Trek scenarios.

I still haven't heard of any of the books that Dave Langford reviews in Critical Mass and I remember the 11 year old me being baffled by his chuckling reference to Jack Vance's infamously-renamed-for-the-UK Servants of the Wankh. I can't imagine modern GW doing that. (Well I unfortunately can but that's entirely a different matter...)

As ever the letters page is full of aspies who take everything fair too bloody seriously with letters grumbling about sexism and feminism, Marcus L. Rowland's earlier slagging of Twilight 2000, whether the usual cheesecake fantasy art is pornographic blah blah blah. Honestly did people not have anything better to get worked up about in the 1980s? I mean there were race riots and Greenham Common and CND and the miners strike etc. etc.

Moving swiftly on... hobby news. Some Belgian AD&D players have set a new world record for D&D marathon play at 61 hours 39 minutes and it looks like, typically for period, they had to get dressed up in LARP gear for the press photos. The Fighting Fantasy books (you know, by the editor of the magazine, that guy Livingstone from Games Workshop) have now sold over 4,000,000 million with the Japanese translation of Warlock of Firetop Mountain selling over 250,000 on it's own. (So why isn't Japan huge on pen-and-paper RPGs?). GW are printing Cosmic Encounter which I seem to recall getting lots of coverage in later issues of White Dwarf from Games Workshop for some strange reason.

There's also a bit of a strange slagging off aimed at L Ron Hubbard's publicity machine for Battlefield Earth. It's an odd thing for a gaming magazine to cover...

Could this be the first "shot across the bows" of $cientology that the gaming community made in print? It's from Dwarf's often-renamed industry-news-cum-gossip-column feature which always seemed to be hint at knowing much more than it wanted to risk putting in print and being sued for.

So that, nearly, was WD74 my first exposure to the magazine. And I was well chuffed as there was plenty to get my teeth into and in those days even the myriad of quarter-page mono adverts were inspirational with their artwork and lists of obscure gaming publications that suggested that outside of Red Box D&D and Fighting Fantasy there was a huge gaming world waiting to be explored - or ignored because it wasn't being sold in the Games Workshop above New Street Station in Brum and was therefore forged in solid unobtanium.

Except there was a cloud in WD74. The scenarios.

Normally the scenarios in WD were really good and as I've mentioned before where the US played modules and now reminisces about them, we played WD scenarios. But these two - these two just scared the crap out of me and made me doubt I was up to the job of being a DM.

First and worst offender is Terror at Trollmarsh by Janet and Peter Vialls, an AD&D scenario for levels 4-5. In this scenario the PCs are hired to go to the manor house at Trollmarsh to slay an unknown monster that is roaming the tunnels beneath the house and has slain a few servants. When they get there a peasant strands them there by demolishing the bridge and then nobody admits to hiring the monster slayers.

So what's so bad here?

This. Terror at Trollmarsh is open-ended to the point of being ridiculous. The manor house map has 86 rooms on two levels. There are 25 fully-detailed NPCs (not counting a load of 0-level guards, unnamed servants and the monster which turns out to be an Owlbear). There is a succession crisis, radical politics, unrequited love, a bastard son of the lord of the manor whom the lady of the house doesn't want around, somebody is secretly a penanggalen, a vampire is about to get resurrected, the stablehand is on the run from the thieves guild and there's an evil cult active who are using the Owlbear rampage to disguise their murder and kidnap of sacrificial victims. There's a plan of who will do what and to whom over the next week but no ideas given as to how this should be run other than a brief mention that it should be like Hammer crossed with Agatha Christie.

I didn't know what to do with all this mess in 1986 and I still don't know what to do with it over 25 years later. The problem was that although I now recognise it as an unplayable mess that effectively has it's head up it's own arse, back then I didn't, I was used to maps with keys and expected something that told me who was in what room and let the PCs wander through opening doors. In all honesty this was such an intimidating sight that it nearly put me off the idea of RPGs altogether. If it was this unmanageable disaster I didn't want to know. It was more of a mess than the paint on the inside of Claire's bedroom door after the flamethrower incident.

Not quite as bad but also off putting was The Hide of The Ancestor for Runequest II by Chris Watson. It's noteworthy for having what must be the most brilliantly pointlessly beautiful map ever illustrated for an RPG scenario.

A thing of beauty by Leo Hartas but yes, that is the entire scenario map hiding in the bottom corner. A map of nine tents which isn't even needed because the scenario could say "there are nine tents in a clearing" and be done with.

This is a simple scenario in which the PCs meet up with some Ithilien-Fane (Lionmen-centaurs to you and I) and join them in raiding a Troll camp. And again this was a scenario that made me baulk at the requirements of being a GM as it was being suggested in WD74. The PCs basically get stoned with the Ithilien-Fane, have weird dreams rolled up on a random dream table and then the GM is just expected to be able to give the PCs a dream interpretation spiel off the top of his head. Just like that.

Honestly, that nice man Mentzer never mentioned anything like that.

So, according to WD74, GMs should be able to juggle 25 NPCs at once (with about 25 sub-plots) and do dream interpretation at the drop of a hat.

I've laboured the point here but that's because it was important to understanding my frame of mind at the time. I was eleven years old, hugely into D&D and FF and the ZX Spectrum and these two scenarios knocked my confidence for six. It was bad luck in a way because nearly every other scenario the Dwarf published was conventional in structure (a dungeon or a village plus dungeon or a journey via numbered encounter locations) and had my first issue been just about any other I'd have been OK.

Suffice to say, I've never run either scenario nor I envisage doing so. These days I could probably go a quick Google and bluff the dream interpretation but as for Terror at Trollmarsh - I doubt anybody ever ran this and neither I suspect did the authors. It bears all the signs of being written to a formula of "this looks adult and grown up because it's massively intricate" and written to be sold for publication rather than for play. It's dreadful.

I wonder how many others were put off by the demands of these two scenarios.


  1. I'm of a slightly later generation, in that I didn't read these as they were coming out, but a couple of years afterwards, when my mate's older brother moved out, and we descended on his gaming stuff like vultures. Even so, I remember thinking exactly the same things as yourself regarding these scenarios.

    Still, you've got to give them credit for trying something a bit different. Much as people go on about stuff like "The Licheway", it's a bog-standard dungeon crawl at the end of the day.

  2. I was only 10 at the time this came out and wasn't to buy my first dwarf for another 3 years (No local GW). Little did I know I was missing the tail end of best years of the mag.

    I did get a bunch of these from a friend in the early 90's but they were eventually taken back and I've bought them off ebay since. And your right WD and FF is Brit gaming, such a shame WHFR is now a US franchise and produced as such. Such a shame WH has had all it's claws drawn too. Still 3rd ed is where its at cluncky rules and all.

    On the moaning about females in fantasy art. I think this was actually more to do with getting laid. I'm assured by older friends all the college girls were strident Feminists. Proving to them that you didn't see women as objects was the only way to get laid. Hey look at this letter I wrote moaning about the patriarchal system, can I touch you up now?

    Oh and don't knock us Aspies, there wouldn't be a hobby without us.

  3. Oh, and months later, but I think Nightmare in Norway was a Games Workshop product.

  4. I ran Trollmarsh - apart from the lack of tunnel maps, it works fine. You just throw everything at the players and see what sticks.

    Mind you I wasn't 11, more like 16 at the time.

  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkw2TDSbT7M&feature=uploademail

    a terrain builder mentioning issue # 077 WD
    thought you mite like it.