Sunday, 29 June 2014

A piece of gaming history. Well, two.

I live in an area that has lots of charity shops, car boot sales and so on. Every now and again I find some cool piece of retro-gaming stuff at a good price. If it's something I want, then it goes in my collection, but if it isn't, then I try to resell it (at a low price; I'm not gouging) and add the profit to the little tin that houses my go-apeshit-at-Salute-or-failing-that-Fiasco fund. 

Over the last couple of weeks, I've had some great finds: a complete Rogue Trooper game that I sold almost immediately, and a complete (except for the plastic stands) 1st edition Blood Bowl. 

But that's not what I want to talk about. Yesterday, at a yard sale, I found a couple of 70s White Dwarfs -- issues 4 (the reprint version) and 6. And I found some of the articles very interesting, so I thought I would talk about them!

Look at that pretty-ass John Blanche cover.

So let's take a look at what's in here! We'll start with issue 4. Before the thing even gets going, there are some interesting ads!

Check out that ad in the top left corner. It's for game distributors "S.D. and V.M. Steel." The logo reminds me of distributor Esdevium, which of course could be another way of saying "SDVM." I never knew that!

The intro is by one of GW's founders, Ian Livingstone, and laments the lack of original British gaming products. Although we think of GW as the dominant force in British gaming, during the late 70s it was primarily a retailer, and the majority of gaming products were American. Livingstone, of course, went on to make crazy money off Fighting Fantasy, filling the need he identified in this piece. Anyway, onward. 

First up, "Alice in Dungeonland" by Don Turnbull. This is your usual whimsical D&D stuff. Manticores covered in wool disguising themselves as sheep, etc., etc. It's pretty crap dungeon design, in that it is, no lie, a straight path through an impassable hedge. Once you finish an encounter, the hedge closes behind you, so you can't do anything but just charge forward. It is pretty goofy. 

Then we have an article on D&D campaigns by Lewis Pulsipher. I sort of get the impression that there were a lot of these "how to make D&D work" articles going on in the early days of the game's history (well, relatively early -- it'd been out for a few years). A lot of them seem to share this article's insistence on trying to use a combination of alert GMing and mechanical strictures to make sure the game is played "right." Some of the remarks seem really weird -- like the idea that your PCs shouldn't venture out of the dungeon for the first couple of levels, which is logical given the way the rules work in early D&D (I guess) but seems absolutely bizarre to the modern ear. 

Tony Bath is next up with an article on Hyboria, the long-running sword and sorcery wargame campaign that was such an important part in the development of British fantasy gaming. Not too many surprises here if you know much about the game, but it is interesting to see how much role-playing and wargaming are intermingled; in fact, throughout the magazine, D&D is regularly referred to as a wargame. 

"Open Box" is yer review column. Famous items in this one include Nomad Gods, Dungeon! and Melee, which the review clearly treats as a combat supplement for D&D. Of course, together with Wizard, it would go on to become The Fantasy Trip which in turn would be GURPS

"Monsters Mild and Malign" is a little set of monsters, again from Turnbull. He makes a case here for the whimsical puzzle-monster. He also says (I think it's in this one) that he doesn't like new character classes because remembering the existing ones is hard enough. This will be ironic in a moment. It contains some goofy new monsters, none of whom really have the thematic oomph that would make them memorable antagonists. Of note here is the "Monstermark," basically an early attempt to codify how badass a monster is by creating a single value that takes into account its hit points, attacks, damage, and so on and so on. 

I continue to love the ads in this thing. There's one for occult paraphernalia!

The funny thing about the next column, "Treasure Chest," is that it contains a new class for D&D: The Barbarian! Yup, that was the new hotness in 1978, although this barbarian does not really resemble the one we know and love. There is a catching-arrows-out-of-the-air ability, which is a pretty neat concept and definitely exists in Viking sagas and so on. 

And then there's something called "The Loremaster of Avallon." Now this is part 4 of a series, so maybe I needed to read the other three for context, but just on a superficial analysis, this is the work of a disordered mind. 

It's another common feature of D&D house rules, which is an attempt to make Armour Class make any goddamn sense, but it does it in the form of an absolute crapload of tables and math. It's very hard to believe that this would be playable, but different groups are different. Perhaps reading the first three installments would make this feel less like something they find when they search the murderer's house. 

"Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings is the last few rooms of some patchwork dungeon with some tips on how to run competitive tournament scenarios. Eh. 

And then there's a letters column, some classifieds, all that kind of thing. 

So, overall impressions: I think there's a definite sense of punkity-rawk, but as done by nerds. A lot of the content is pretty blah, although I think the reviews are mainly on point. You can definitely see people struggling with the nature of the game, not quite sure what to do. There are a lot of gameable tidbits, although I don't think there's any of it I would incorporate into my game. 

It's mainly interesting, to me, as a snapshot of the British gaming scene developing. You can see only the dimmest shadow of the juggernaut that GW would become. Next time I will go over Issue 6. 

If you have questions, ask me and I'll take a look at the thing and see if I can answer it. 


  1. That SDVM is exactly where the name Esdevium came from, btw. :-)

  2. Even though the Alice in Dungeonland article doesn't present what we think of today as a complete module, it's still one of the earliest "you can run this (almost) as-is" scenarios available, especially for UK gamers of the time. At this point, there were 5-6 Dungeoneers out, which had usable dungeons; a small handful of third party stuff (like the Wee Warriors items); the example scenarios in the D&D books (Blackmoor, the Basic set dungeon); and the quasi-scenarios in TSR's geomorphic.

    That Barbarian class is a good one. It fits the game better than the Unearthed Arcana one. I like that it only gets certain class abilities if its stats are high enough. (This might be abhorrent to those with a more new-school mindset, but in a game where you roll stats in order, this technique works just fine.) The author updates this class in WD #12, in part to make it mesh better with AD&D, but really the adjustments are generally applicable, even if you still used the class with OD&D.

    If you can track down the other issues (there are pdfs out there if you search hard enough, and you can occasionally find the CD-ROM compilation on eBay), the Competitive D&D series is worthwhile. It connects with material in early Dungeoneer magazines (the relevant material is also in the Dungeoneer Compendium). Which brings me to another point: The letters often contain bits of gold, with notable individuals from that era discussing the same sort of contentious topics that we see on the interwebs today :-)

    GW occasionally puts easter eggs in the classifieds, btw, so keep your eyes peeled for those!

    I love most of the covers on the first six issues of WD, and Blanche's cover illo for #4 is particularly good. The back cover is quite nice also.

    Now get back out to the flea markets & boot sales, and find some Owl & Weasels!

  3. ...whereupon I realize my assessment of published modules by the time WD #4 was published completely failed to include some major (MAJOR!) releases by Judges Guild: Tegel Manor, City State of the Invincible Overlord, and probably a couple more. Sigh.

    1. Issue 6 contains a review of Wilderlands of High Fantasy that refers to them, in fact!

  4. I did work experience at Esdevium's actual shop in Aldershot back in the day, and was then mugged repeatedly by it due to the unfortunate temporal and geographical convergences of the Boots warehouse where I worked (and was paid in actual cash), the shop and the bus station where I caught the bus home.