Thursday, 11 February 2016

Blast From The Past: White Dwarf 82

This historical event was used as inspiration by Raj in our Star Trek game for his character, Doctor Brô'c'ĥn the Gorn.
Our next Blast from the Past is dedicated to a very special issue of White Dwarf which has significance for both the roleplayers and wargamers amongst you.  Plus some Discworld for those of you who aren't quite as into elfgames as I am but might still want to see some vintage nerdity!

Set your time machines for October 1986 and make sure you've eaten plenty of riboflavin: time travel is known to deplete your reserves of that.

A cover image that will be very familiar to nerds of a certain vintage

Yes, as the issue cover proudly announces, we’re at the release of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.  As will become sort of traditional the cover art for White Dwarf is a reproduction of the cover to the latest big released.  Although GW had released RPG books before this it tended to be reprints of American material or supplements for American games – whole new RPG systems designed in-house were an oddity.

The impact for roleplayers is fairly obvious.  Finally we have a British made game and one with a distinctive feel - admittedly, we did have Dragonroar and it’s War Hedgehogs, but this is clearly a far bigger deal with a lot more unique mechanics and flavour.  We have not D&D style classes but a career system where moving between jobs is easy; not D&D style medieval pastiche but a world in the start of the renaissance, with muskets and printing presses; not D&D style dungeon crawls as the default adventure style but an emphasis on running escapades set in towns & cities.  The game was popular enough to survive years of limbo through small press supplements and fan produced support like Warpstone; the second edition released in 2005 was a big enough deal to not only be very popular but kick-start the Warhammer 40,000 RPG line.

For wargamers, however, there’s still a big debt to acknowledge.  There had been two editions of Warhammer Fantasy Battles by this stage but they had pretty minimal background and was designed just to plug in with the existing Citadel Miniatures model range which at the time had been released with RPGs, not wargames, in mind.  There was a few things scattered about core books and supplementary materials – Lustria was already name checked by this point IIRC, partly because it was the setting of a campaign run by one of the staff – but this is the first time we get the Warhammer World proper.  For someone who played in the 90s or 00s it’s still pretty clearly recognizable, even if some parts are going to be substantially changed in just an edition or two’s times.

Anyway: let's crack open this issue and see if anything catches our eye, shall we?


There's the several page article All The Nice Dwarves Love A Sailor,which years before dedicated Warhammer themed naval wargame Man'O'War offers us a sort of bolt-on system for playing naval battles in Warhammer rules.  I'd seen this circulate as a scanned PDF in some Oldhammer circles, in particular the section on assembling your own boat from mounting board/dowel.

What's interesting is that while most naval wargames I've seen operate at a scale amounting to ships being a few centimeters long - just a little larger than a normal 28mm figure in an infantry game - this is suggesting you play much larger boats on which your 28mm figures can stand.  The suggestion seems to be less Trafalgar-esque large fleet actions with ships of the line and more a small number of boats on each side, getting close enough for their crew to board or shoot each other with crossbows. That's a very different focus and one I was initially unsure about but I can see the appeal, especially at a time when Warhammer was used for more skirmish-y games as well as mass battles.

And unlike another Immortals Handbook, this actually exists in a complete form.  Not that I'm bitter...

When I first started picking up older edition rulebooks - not even from eBay but from the second hand bin at my local games store - this was one of my first purchases.  The D&D Immortals Rules are the last in the family of five boxsets usually called Basic D&D or BECMI (That's an acronym of the five box sets in the game.Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortal).  People my age may know of them from their next incarnation, the one-book Rules Cyclopedia, though that excised the Immortals Rules so even this will be knew to you.

This is a strange book which goes squarely into "playing as gods" territory, albeit using the word "Immortal" to avoid seeming blasphemous.  High level D&D is already kinda it's own thing of course - I ran sessions of my 3.X Phratil game up until level 24 or so and frankly it had a lot more in common with a superhero comic than it did with Lord of the Rings, Conan or A Game of Thrones.  This definitely enters into Chronicles of Amber or New God territory though in that it almost completely departs the material realm and becomes a game about immortals scheming and battling against other immortals in immortal politics.

Reading this for the first time back around 2002/3 it still felt quite unique - there's a thousand games for playing Krognar The Barbarian Who Has Huge Muscles And A Magic Axe And Always Gets Picked First For Football but very few games for playing this sort of weird, almost transhuman fantasy.  All the Immortals were mortals who were great in life - essentially they all hit level 36 D&D characters, did an amazing thing and then ascended to the next phase of life.  Immortals have a whole host of powers and weakness, still split into four vague categories with a connection to D&D classes - and within each category there is a chain of command, so ascending mostly involves taking a previously vacated space.  Klingon Promotions ahoy!

Two books in and already a big deal
A fairly large chunk of the magazine is set aside to The Light Fantastic, the second Discworld novel.  As well as the book itself seeing review in White Dwarf, a several page excerpt from the start of the book and a competition to win a copy there's also a fairly long article on playing D&D with a Discworld bent.

It's a surprise to me to find that the Discworld, only two books into its existence, has clearly made a splash - plenty of fictional universes I'd have thought would be a bigger deal have been and gone.  This may just be that Discworld is both a British creation and has a lot of D&D tropes to work with - by later books it'll become somethign quite different but book 1 and 2 definitely feel like the story of someone's crazy RPG campaign, complete with Vancian-style spell memorization and The Luggage very much feeling like a half cursed item/half sidekick that you picked up on one adventure and never got rid of.

Some of the content is very AD&D specific of course but some stuff, like the idea that spells trying to escape a dying person so all memorised spells might cast themselves in your last seconds, would be fairly portable to other D&D editions.  The world building stuff only really works for the early books - the Wizards are less bumbling professors, more sleekit assassins - but that might appeal more to some people.

If only we'd gotten Pratchett to write some of the early Warhammer novels, as was apparently considered!  (He certainly was contacted and showed vague interest in the rates, but I imagine the low money involved plus the lack of creative control meant that focusing on the nascent Discworld was more worthwhile.)  Even if he'd operated under a pen-name it could have gone a long way to giving us some prose that matches the black comedy that was a strong part of early Warhammer.

The great Mr Blanche explodes his colours over a two page spread
Not exactly a new arrival to the team - he'd provided artwork before this, including White Dwarf covers - but this two page spread writes itself as though it's the first big feature on Mr John Blanche.   He would go on to define Games Workshop's house style, both as artist and artistic director, and even now it's difficult for me not to look at one of his pieces and be immediately transported back to a certain sort of nostalgic haze.

As a teenager his miniature painting style struck me as somewhat muddy & messy compared to the 'Eavy Metal style which, at least in the 90s, tended to be quite bright and crisp.  However that style has it's detractors, who often look back on said 90s as the uninteresting "red period" and long for the people like Blanche who used a more natural pallete.

What's really interesting about John Blanche is how much conversion work he does - check out that female sci-fi warrior made out of a fantasy figure, something which he's going to show off a lot in future pictures.  (His conversion for 2nd Ed Codex Chaos of a Blood Angel into a Chaos Lord sticks in my head.)  That's definitely a big inspiration for me to mix and match figures together and see what I can make.

The special edition figures painting include the awesome Kinky Chaosette based on Blanche's Amazonia Gothique artwork.  I have gone looking for this figure before on eBay... needless to say, it's not one of the easiest to find and when one does it tends to be at a bonkers price!

Notable in it's absence up until now

This advert for the Star Trek board games of West End Games got my attention because Star Trek has appeared to little up until now.  Yes, we have had a fair bit of Traveler, but Star Trek has been a nerd staple since it's first release - and by this point we've had a couple of Star Trek films, with Next Gen already in the pipeline!  Why are we talking to much about Runequest but not about Captain Kirk?

I have no knowledge of these games, except to say that West End Games probably made these because they couldn't get the rights to the RPG.  Those were owned by FASA who made Trek RPG products between 1982 and 1989.  You can tell that FASA used to make Traveller products because there's some common ground between their Trek game and Traveller - the way characters are made by terms and some of the harder sci-fi assumptions.  Remember these games all game out with just the TV series, animated series and movies - plus the first few novels - to go on.  As such they include some assumptions that make no sense to a modern Trek fan raised on TNG/DS9 but aren't insane for the time.

I've written a little about FASA's game before on my old blog - my thoughts on the core game and Federation supplement and on the two TNG supplements can be found there, including a little bit of talk about using it to run Star Trek: Phase 2 as though the movies never happened.  I have no desire to replace Primetime Adventures as my Star Trek system of choice but there is part of me which is occasionally drawn to a crunchier starship combat system, all "I don't have enough power for shields and phasers!" and "I cannae change the laws of physics, captain!".

"I want to say one word to you. Just one word.  Are you listening?  Plastics."
Ah, the Skeleton Warriors!  An early multi-part plastic kit, these were still in circulation when I got into Warhammer - a pack of these came with the Advanced Heroquest Paint Set and were amongst the first painted figures I ever own.  When one is only used to mono-post plastics where the only change you can make is what gun the person has, the ability to move arms/head as well is a bit of a mind-blowing experience!

I remember a weekend with my dad, painting up the Advanced Heroquest Warrior and a few of the skeletons - they seemed a fairly easy proposition to start, and true enough when I tried to get back into figure painting as an adult skeletons were one of my first attempts since I could just base coat, drybrush and then more or less call it a day.


  1. Marvellous article, thanks for the trip back to the glory days. I can't believe WD reviewed a Discworld novel.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Rusty! Yeah, the old White Dwarf's regular book review section did the first few Discworld books, all of which it seemed to enjoy. For someone like me raised on 90s White Dwarf it's a bit of a surprise!