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Monday, 30 June 2014

Pieces of British gaming history, continued.

OK! Yesterday I talked about my recent yard sale acquisition of White Dwarf issue #4 and issue #6. There was good commentary in the, er, comments, placing these magazines in their historical context -- it's worth remembering that a lot of what seems like "oh, not this again," was actually pretty fresh and new in the late 70s, when D&D hadn't been out that long (and was even younger in the UK).

Without further ado, then, White Dwarf 6, for April/May 1978, six months before I was born.

What's interesting to me is that while I don't think this cover is as good as the last one, it is much more inspirational to me, gaming-wise. I like the weird, creature-like balloons, the caravan of weird animals, the ornate armour. It looks like a fun fight, set in a fun setting. 

As with the previous issue, we open with an editorial, this time announcing new refinements to the magazine -- justified text, new in this issue, and starting in #7, a colour cover. Oooh ... the big time!

Next up we have "Combat and Armour Class," by Roger Musson, another entry in the evergreen Armour Class Doesn't Make Any Goddamn Sense genre which attempts to create different types of armour class that apply to different types of attacks, not in a weapon vs armour type way but in a situational way. There are two really interesting things about this article to me: 
  • AC continues to be a huge visualisation problem for players. They want to translate the rule into something that they can imagine happening, and similarly to express what they can imagine happening via the rules. Everyone understands that AC is an abstraction, but it's just too abstract for this dude -- and many other players, judging from the number of articles relating to this issue one runs into. I think Armour Class Doesn't Make Any Goddamn Sense is probably the second-most-common D&D rules fix/complaint, right after Spell Memorisation WTF
  • The additional types of AC Musson proposes, "Target" and "Prone," are basically "Touch" and "Flatfooted."
"The Fiend Factory": Monsters! Many of them by Livingstone! The illustration for the Fiend is quite neat; the illustration for the Disenchanter is ... unconvincing. Ooh! Nilbogs!

"Archive Miniatures": A review of the imported American range, with particular attention to monsters suitable for D&D, including quite a nice umber hulk. I think it's interesting that the review refers to "Dragon Pass" figures suitable for "the world of White Bear and Red Moon," suggesting that the term "Glorantha" wasn't yet common currency. 

"A place in the wilderness" by Lewis Pulsipher is basically a chunk of wilderness setting that you can drop into your game, largely inspired by Jack Vance's The Dragon Masters. Let's Get Some Laser Guns Up Ins may be the third most common post-D&D article type, now that I think about it, and this definitely qualifies, with ultralethal future-tech weapons and some big-ass monsters to use them on. The art for this piece, by Polly Wilson, is choice.

It's got "murderer" in its name, for Pete's sake. 
Also, there is a monster in here called the Blue Horror. 

Reviews, reviews, reviews: Elric (the wargame) some miniatures, ooh! Wilderlands of High Fantasy. But the prize piece of the reviews is Don Turnbull's feature review of Traveller. And it is very interesting. 

Now, I've just mentioned the Let's Get Some Laser Guns Up Ins thread in writing about D&D, and I think it's indicative of the fact that many gamers wanted some SF in their games, and that, up to this point, there wasn't a whole lot of it about. Not none -- there was already Metamorphosis Alpha, obviously, as Turnbull points out, but I think this might be stretching the point. So Traveller is really the first big SF RPG, the first one to have a lot of traction. And this, to Turnbull's eye, is both a good thing and a problem. 

He's super complimentary about the books in the boxed set, but at the same time he expresses doubts about whether anyone will actually play it -- Turnbull thinks the game might be a shelf queen, praised by critics but not actually played. And why is that? There are a couple of points worth exploring here: 

  • Turnbull thinks that there are not actually a lot of RPGs being played. People buy games -- EPT, T&T, what have you -- but they don't actually play them as games in themselves. Instead, they mine them for ideas or roll them wholesale into their D&D games. He suspects that very few non-D&D games get a lot of play other than as part of a D&D game. I wonder if he was right -- there wasn't yet a game to take the "thinking man's D&D" mantle like RuneQuest would, and there wasn't yet a lot of game presence in other genres. Indeed, Playing at the World suggests that the distinction between "D&D" and "roleplaying games as a genre" was very, very fuzzy in the game's early history. 
  • Turnbull thinks that the game may just be too complex and time-consuming to play -- not because the system is difficult but because the setting is so large that generating it will be a right royal pain in the ass. Let me find the money quote. Here we are: 
Like MA [Metamorphosis Alpha], its scope is so vast that to play it thoroughly must approach a lifetime's experience. The referee's task is crucial here, for in both games it is virtually limitless ... the referee must populate a universe! Granted, the referee does not need to complete the entire ... universe before play can begin, but if the players are to have anything like reasonable freedom of action and choice [emphasis mine] the Traveller referee must do a good deal more pre-preparation than the D&D dungeonmaster, who can get by initially by creating two or three 'levels.'
Fascinating! What are we to make of it? I think it's very interesting to note that, like Pulsipher in No 4, Turnbull thinks that there are a lot of D&D games going in that don't have much of a setting -- just some scoundrels in a maze. And secondly, I think there's that emphasis on sandbox play. Since the players could hypothetically go anywhere and do anything, the ref has to be ready with at least a reasonable simulacrum of anything, whereas in D&D he or she has a reasonably good guess as to what the players' range of options are.

It made me wonder if increasing mechanical and setting complexity didn't go hand in hand with the decline of sandbox play as a concept? I'm not sure; I haven't really played Traveller, but I do think that games from the 80s tended to have settings that were much harder to just improvise. I don't know.

Anyway, it's fascinating, and of course Turnbull's dire predictions (which he goes back to in the last paragraph) were proven completely wrong. I should mention that I think this is a really good review. For me, the contextual discussion, wrong though it turned out to be, elevates it to much more than just your usual "here's what's in the box" piece.

There's a comic strip. Generic fantasy stuff needs an arresting visual presentation or else who cares? But perhaps people may not have felt this way 35 years ago.

"Treasure Chest" is full of crunchy bits: some new, complicated, magic items. One of them has four lines of doggerel on it. Then there's a system for giving XP for successful spellcasting. I'm sure someone can tell me why this is desirable. Then there's another hit location subsystem. I wonder how many hit location subsystems there are for D&D? I bet it's more than spell point systems, but on the other hand hit location subsystems are way easier to write.

The Classifieds are characteristically adorable. There's an ad for membership in the British Science Fiction Association ("Chairman: Arthur C. Clarke." Blimey!). 

I missed it from last issue, so check out this ad for Games Day.

Not what you'd get from GW marketing in this day and age, I'm sure you'll agree. 

Anyway, there you have it! I was really struck by just how stuffy and formal the language can sometimes sound. I would say it was an earlier era, but Dragon magazine was like this in 1991; like eating a great big bowl of sawdust. I wonder if perhaps most of the people writing for the magazine weren't really experienced writers? It's definitely a stylistic quirk that you get when people aren't really comfortable writing for publication -- they tend to go a bit serious as a way to compensate.

Again, I'm not sure there's anything in here I would really incorporate into a game (except maybe that mad-eyed Termagant), but it's all pretty fascinating. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm late to the party on this one, sorry.

    Musson's "Combat and Armour Class" article sets off a series of responses throughout the next several issues, including one from Gygax in WD #7 (a forebear of a saving throw explanation that will later show up in the DMG), and a moratorium on the subject in WD #9. The discussion got noticed, and talked about in Different Worlds #2 ('A Letter from Gigi'), and was echoed by Gygax in the contemporaneous The Dragon #16 ('From The Sorcerer's Scroll').

    Much later, in 1985 (Imagine #30, 'Stirge Corner'), Musson has largely adopted Gygax's viewpoint! Although that could just be toeing the party line, since Imagine is beholden to TSR.

    On the stuffy language: It might be author dependent. Livingstone's editorials (and other articles) were usually pretty relaxed; ditto for Albie Fiore once he started contributing. I chalk up the stuffy feeling to Turnbull, Musson and Pulsipher's writing style. I guess they wrote a good amount the early issue content, so no wonder it comes across as stuffy!

    Some art trivia for issue #6: The little filler illustrations on pages 5 (treasure on a desk) and 10 (two adventurers and purple worm) were also used a short time prior in the Games Workshop-produced (under-license) D&D Basic booklet.