Saturday, 30 January 2016

Blast From The Past: White Dwarf 68 and 74

"Bruce Springsteen, Madonna / Way Before Nirvana / There Was U2 And Blondie / And Music Still On MTV"

The summary post about last year's blogging revealed to me that one of the most popular topics with you guys is my White Dwarf retro-reviews.  As interesting as you might find me wittering on about playing wargames and roleplaying games now, you are apparently far more interested in me wittering on about how people were playing wargames and roleplaying games back in the day.

Well, hold onto your butts, True Believers, because a trip to my friendly local games store a few weeks ago turned up some fun things in the bargain bin.

From Left To Right; White Dwarfs 68, 74, 82, 83 and 92.

These are earlier than some of the White Dwarfs I have owned before - we're in 1985 for the first one, at a point when Warhammer Fantasy Battles exists but wargames are still a minority pursuit amongst GW's products.  Instead they are principally a seller of role-playing games, board games and metal figures - many of which are aimed more at roleplayers than wargamers.

Even then, though, some grognards would call this "past the golden age".  Unearthed Arcana, a supplement full of additional rules for 1st Ed AD&D including the first serious collection of new PC races and classes had been released: and with it some believe power creep entered the system for the first time.

Anyway, let's bust open the first two issues and see what catches our eye.

That "giant sized poster" is nowhere near as big as you think it's gonna be.

Reading through these old issues of White Dwarf can be a bit weird for someone like me who mostly read it in the 90s.  I'm used to what was essentially a Warhammer & Warhammer 40,000 magazine with a little bit of coverage of side releases - by the time I came along roleplaying was long since expunged from the magazine.  But here it's the primary focus of the magazine, even though some familiar game designers have turned up.

Adventures for major game systems of the time can be found herein: AD&D seems to be represented most issues, and Traveller and Runequest get a fair bit of love.  These mostly don't interest me a huge amount and are hard for me to reproduce without swarming this blog post in scanned pages.  Instead we'll focus on one or two page long articles.  For example...
The same art on two adjacent pages.  It was a different time!
...This guide to playing D&D in aquatic environments, apparently the first in a series.  This addresses not only mechanical issues like "what spells do a group need" but also physics issues like "how will you talk to each other in water" and "how deep can you go before a snorkel is no use".  I've dabbled a little with water in D&D games - an entire boat-based campaign that was modelled on Greek islands and Wind Waker, and my Phratil game featured a large dungeon which became submerged the deeper in they went

This feels a very different sort of article to me than the kind that I was reading in 2000s era Dragon, even though it's supporting that era's version of the same game.  More so than the 1st ed mechanics, there's a focus on real world logistics and physics issues.  Game designers of the 2000s and 2010s are much more likely to accept that things in their game might not make scientifc sense but they do suit the genre of play so you go with them.  Mutants and Masterminds does not try to explain how super-strength lets you lift up a car without the weight sinking a normal human into the ground - it just says "that's how comics work" and goes with it.

This sort of focus on making gaming realistic can still be found but it feels a slightly more.... I don't want to say "immature" exactly, but certainly a more early phase in the hobby's evolution.  "Realism" inevitably proves an elusive target for your game as the big draws are often things like Dragons, Werewolves, Vampires, Fireballs and Raise Dead which don't make a huge amount of real world sense.  It might be more realistic to make players use hand actions because underwater they can't hear each other talk, but it's unlikely to be fun to play for a lot of people.
Yes, that's a giant angry Hedgehog Person and a Killer Penguin Figure.
This issue includes a few mentions of Dragonroar, both a review in Open Box and also a couple of adverts.  There's a fairly big deal made about it as a British-designed RPG in what was otherwise an American hobby at this point.  (GW might be making their own supplements for games like D&D and Traveller, but they haven't really made a whole new roleplaying game at this point.)

I found it interesting because this clearly feels like it's important at the time but it basically sank without trace and I've never heard about it up until now.  It seems to have reviewed very poorly - it's mentioned in White Dwarf as being a good beginner game but having little to offer people who have played any other game.  In particular it focuses very heavily on combat and comes with a bestiary of a mighty seventeen monsters - that's pretty minimal and most beginner D&D sets eclipse that by several times.

The bestiary includes several unique monsters which are, um, not hugely popular in some quarters.  Manelephants, War Hedgehogs and Killer Penguins are at least an attempt to add something unique to the game - and in a way they feel very British inventions, the Hedgehog being a distinctly Old World animal - but the Killer Penguin in particular feels a bit hard to take seriously as a threat.  Shades of Runequest's Ducks here, I think.
Seeing this will make some old grognards happy

Traveller pops up a lot in this era of White Dwarf, sometimes coming across as the second or third biggest game of the time.  That's perhaps because it's one of the first sci-fi games and it feels very mechanically different to D&D - though by the time I got properly into RPGing it had sort of fizzled out in a mishmash of metaplot and buyouts, staying off the radar until Mongoose rebooted the game line.

This article provides game stats for two characters of Travellers, one of the comics that ran in White Dwarf at the time.  While it had a comedic element it had more of a story than Thrud the Barbarian or Gobbledegook did and feels very much like someone telling you about their campaign in comic form.

Still years before this company gets raided by the feds
Here's an advert for a game which will become a fairly big fixture in RPG land: GURPS, a point-buy generic game which is considered to have an excellent catalogue of supplement books for different periods and genres even by people who aren't that fond of the game itself.  Steve Jackson Games will initially get big making this game and dabble in others but keep their big focus on RPGs... only to eventually turn into Those People Who Make Munchkin in the early 2000s and move GURPS into something of a PDF only endeavour.

I'm a little mixed on GURPS.  I've used it several times for Discworld, and as noted last time it's not a bad system but it's not interesting.  I can't thi8nk of any reason I'd use it over any other system because it's just so, well, generic - I use it for Discworld because I have a bunch of stuff already statted out for it but in almost every case I'd rather use a game system designed for the setting than a generic one.
A big name arrives in small print

This collection of small news stories has one which will be a big deal in the long term.  Original founders of Games Workshop, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, are stepping away from day to day running of the company.  (They've got their Fighting Fantasy money, after all!)  Instead, the team who will take over include a certain Bryan Ansell who has already done some Warhammer design work and runs related company Citadel Miniatures.

Bryan is a very divisive figure in the hobby - not quite as universally hated as Lorraine Dille Williams but still held in somewhat mixed regard.  He does speak with the Oldhammer community and still runs a company in the miniatures hobby but there are chunks of people both at the time and now who consider him to have "ruined" the company.  He gets considered the architect of Games Workshop transitioning from "a company with bunch of different games under their belt" to "the Warhammer shop".  He's going to make the company huge... but at the cost of narrowing it's focus immensely.

Without some of his business decisions, though, I'd possibly never have found Games Workshop and thusly never found my way into the hobby at all.  Who knows?

A very different sort of Warhammer supplement.
"Orcs, sir!  Fasends of 'em!"  This is one for the first ever Warhammer supplements and it feels very different to the 90s era in which army books and new stats to encourage you to buy new metal figures were how the game was advanced.  Instead the first few supplements speak of the scenario-and-GM style of wargaming that was prevalent at the time, and comes with counters so you can play the whole battle with just this box.

It will surprise no-one to know that Blood Bath At Orc's Drift is a joke on Rorke's Drift - that early, punky streak of humour is still very much here.  The box even comes with a badge you can wear proclaiming you survived the blood bath as a weird sort of victory reward - even comparable products like Circle of Blood in the 90s treat the whole thing with a lot more po-faced seriousness.

Note that the advertising speak is entirely about RPG material
We're leaping forward six months for the next issue, again a principally RPG issue with some limited wargame coverage.  There's still a lot for a game historian to pour over, though...

Folded Flags And Pipes And Drums

Superpower is the big Games Workshop release of the month so it gets a fair bit of coverage, including this two page designers notes section.  I had never heard of this game: It makes me think of Balance of Power, a PC game with a similar concept of "get influence in the world without starting World War III".  It's a game I've been unable to advance in without causing nuclear Armageddon within a year of taking power.  Never put me in charge of a country, guys, I suck at this realpolitik stuff and can't think like the old days leadersI should try some more, though.

A board game with some similar concepts, Twilight Struggle, came out about two decades later.  It's been on my to-buy list for a while, though people who own it say play time is VERY swingy and it can either end quickly or drag on for hours depending on luck.

Anyway, what really caught my eye in this piece is the talk about how hard it was to get the game published because every company was looking for another Trivial Pursuit.  In the era of Tabletop we perhaps take it for granted that board games for adults, while perceived as a bit nerdy, are a fairly strong genre - but Trivial Pursuit was a major fad at the time because normal people were finally given a board game that wasn't for kids but for dinner parties.  We see similar fads even in modern nerdity - in the 90s everyone desperately wanted to make everything into a CCG, in the early 2000s everyone wanted to make everything into a D20 supplement and then recently non-randomised pre-painted miniature games are a thing. 

A veritable cornucopia of old nerdity

...Wait, where?
I like to think I know a fair bit about Glasgow, having lived here my entire life and all, but Ihave never heard of "The Gamesmaster" before I found this advert.  In particular this isn't an obscure part of Glasgow but a major road in a part of town I know fairly well. 

A quick search turns up that 536 Great Western Road is just a short walk from grab-a-granny pub Viper.  The opposite corner of that block - what is now Choco-Latte - was once a nerdy shop called The Neutral Zone which I visited on opening day around 1992 and got myself a signed picture from David Prowse and a Ripley action figure from the 90s Aliens toy line.  I wonder if Gamesmaster used to be there?  Can any older Glasgow nerds help me out?
A Blast From The Past Tradition
The inevitable advert of Leisure Games makes its appearance!  So do adverts for play by post games.  These are still a thing, of course - Dragon magazine was still advertising them in its last few print issues - but such games are more likely to be email or web based these days.  Here it's an advert for sending money and geeky notes in a letter and getting geeky notes back a week or two later.

Growing up next to a large conurbation and with access to the internet I have perhaps no grasp on what it would be like for some people who, living in the mid-80s in a small town, had no easy way to find gamers unless they converted them.  Playing by mail with strangers might be your only option.

Aside: talking about old days RPGing which seems a bit naff now has reminded me of the time I used to spend on MUSHes, which are essentially an MMORPG crossed with a text-based adventure game.

What Ho, Lords Of The Abyss!

This article shows that even in the mid-80s, playing in RPGs written mostly in America sometimes made a problem in that porting "real world" settings from the USA to elsewhere in the world could be awkward.  Something as mundane as Vampire, a major game, doesn't really spend much time on the concept that getting access to pistols and rifles as a player character is going to be very different in York than in New York, or in Paris, France rather than Paris, Texas.  Similarly, the demographics of Vampires to mortals are fine with cities of over a million people but the UK has exactly one of those...

This article suggests how to port Call of Cthulhu over to a British setting, albeit to a historical one rather than present day.  The game will thus still be set in the same period as the classic stories that inspired the game but just on the opposite side of the Atlantic from their author.  The idea of a Jeeves and Wooster or Agatha Christie esque inter war setting for evil cults very much pleases me - I'm thinking Hammer Horror, shades of The Devil Rides Out

The Three Gs - Geeks, Goths and Gays - Showing Their Crossover Even In The Mid-Eighties
Finally, let's close out on this non-game but still nerdy advert for a bunch of jewellery which I could still imagine the typical RPGer wearing.  Apparently even back then, D&Ders were all a bunch of metal-heads.  I never went through an awkward jewellry phase, at least, though I did wear a lot of baggy black nerdy T-Shirts., wait, I wore a set of Warhammer 40,000 dog tags as a fashion accessory.  I retract my previous statement from the record.

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