Saturday, February 2, 2008

White Dwarf: Remembering a great old magazine

The recent demise of Dragon and Dungeon magazine (in paper form-- both have since gone electronic) has gotten me a bit nostalgic for the old days of print-supported role-playing game magazines. With a few small print run exceptions, including Kobold Quarterly and the bi-monthly The Crusader, the days of widely circulated, glossy, print RPG publications are gone.

While I miss to some degree Dragon and Dungeon, both fine magazines in their own right, these days I find myself remembering and looking back most fondly at the Games Workshop (GW)-published White Dwarf magazine, "the voice of British adventure gamers."

Eh, you role-players say? Doesn't GW still publish White Dwarf every month? For the record, they do. But for me, the magazine died roughly around issue #100, when it became a mouthpiece for GW's profitable miniatures wargames line.

Pre-issue 100, White Dwarf was a fantastic magazine. Whereas Dragon very quickly evolved into a house organ for TSR and later Wizards of the Coast, and eventually covered strictly D&D, White Dwarf was a rarity in that it covered all role-playing games. Within its pages you could find articles on Dungeons and Dragons sandwiched in between Runequest columns, Call of Cthulhu adventures, Champions role-playing advice, and Traveler comics.

This model has its problems, since you're much less likely to find value in an article about a game that you don't own. Nevertheless, I derived great enjoyment as a youth examining Champions or Traveler articles and trying to puzzle out their rules based on stat blocks or descriptions. And more than any real gaming value, the pleasure in reading these articles alone made it worth the purchase. The best example I can think of is issue #53 (the cover of which I've included above), which contained Minas Tirith, a scenario about the battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings. The game system was Warhammer, which I didn't (and still don't) own, but I loved reading about the background, the turns and what events would occur in each, the behavior of the Mumakil if they recieved an eye wound, the Gondor and Witch-King of Angmar army lists, and more.

White Dwarf had columns on minatures painting, scenarios and mini-campaigns, system-free articles on incorporating undead into your games or designing logical campaigns/fantasy worlds, reviews of RPGs popular and obscure, and much more. Here were some of my favorites:

The Castle of Lost Souls. Between issues 52-55, White Dwarf published a four-part choose your own adventure story that drew inspiration from the old Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Remember those? Like Lone Wolf, The Castle of Lost Souls required you to create your own character, resolve combats with dice, etc. It was a great little romp that kept me busy in between games.

Tabletop Heroes: A regular column devoted to minatures painting. It contained lots of great advice not only on how to paint, but also caring for figures, building terrain, castles, and dungeons out of household products, and more. The color illustrations of finished figures were great, although I was left with an inferiority complex when comparing these to my own.

Treasure Chest: A great column of odds and ends, neat little ideas for treasure and devices, alternative rules, and more that you could pick up and drop into your game. Examples: The dungeon cart (a practically-designed, easily-transportable cart specifically designed for underground adventures), drowning rules, the sword of thunder (a +2 intelligent sword that allowed the user to deflect lighting bolts and absorb their charges into the blade; the clear pommel would glow blue when so charged), dragon shields (magic shields made of dragon scales/hide that confer complete protection from that dragon type's particular breath weapon), hints for creative spell uses, halfling-specific magic items, nunchucks in Runequest, and much more.

British style and humor. The letters and reviews in White Dwarf were full of that particular brand of British wit that I find endearing. Example: Issue #63 reviewed XL1: Quest for the Heartstone, a notoriously bad D&D module, with the following: Quest for the Heartstone was at first reading no more than a sales exercise for AD&D Action Toys, and is very reminiscent of everyone's first dungeon: a collection of randomly placed monsters with a random selection of Good Guys going off after some magic item and having to hack through favorite is 'You may use the five-headed Hydra Bendable Monster for this encounter.'

Fun comics. My favorites were Groo, a little three or four-panel strip about the sick adventures of a thick-skulled goblin, and Thrud, which followed the adventures of a massive-bodied, small-headed barbarian that invoked all the worst Conan cliches.

Crunch-less articles. One of the reasons I stopped buying Dragon was that it seemed in the latter days too preoccupied with "crunch," aka. new prestige classes, feats, magic items, etc. This stuff gets real old, real fast. White Dwarf had its share of crunch, but devoted lots of page space to thoughtful columns and features about topics like roleplaying characters after death, discussions on how fast or slow to level, how to colorfully roleplay clerics in D&D, how to create campaigns and worlds with depth and versimilitude, etc.

Sure, White Dwarf wasn't perfect. In particular, my eyes glazed over at "Microview," a bi-monthly computer column about how to write computer programs to aid your tabletop RPGs (issue #50, for example, contained the code for creating a Taurus III striker vehicle, using BASIC language on a TRS-80. Yuck.). But nevertheless, White Dwarf was an invaluable resource from the heyday of RPGs and a vanished member of a species of magazine that, sadly, is all but extinct.


Anonymous said...

That Goblin's name was not Groo, it was Gobbledigook.
Groo is another fantastic comic, by Sergio Aragones.

I miss the White Dwarf of old as well.

Anonymous said...

I too miss the style of White Dwarf, they would never had let the new style of D&D figures with enormous swords designed for players who just want maximum damage, go without some sort of gentle ridicule.

Also on the off chance does anyone have a pdf scan of the bar room brawl adventure in issue 11 or the original one in dragon (I don't know the issue).