Perhaps the best gift I received for my recent birthday was from my friend Kevin -- he seems to have a lot of good ideas, doesn't he? -- who gave me something I didn't even know existed: White Dwarf Back Issues 1977-1987, a DVD-ROM of PDFs of issues 1-90 of the famed British gaming magazine. The product was produced by an Australian company under license from Games Workshop, but, like the Dragon Magazine Archive before it, ran into legal troubles of some sort or other (possibly regarding electronic rights, though I've heard other explanations) and was eventually pulled from sale. You can still get copies through eBay and other online sellers and that's presumably how Kevin snagged a copy for me, for which I am very grateful.
White Dwarf and I have a strange relationship. I knew of the existence of the magazine quite early in my gaming career, having seen Gary Gygax's mention of it in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Likewise, some of the older guys I hung around with the early days, including my friend Mike's metalhead brother, owned copies of various issues and sometimes used variants or adventures from its pages. For the longest time, I in fact associated WD with metal, a feeling I never quite shook even after I actually started to read the thing for myself. I suspect it had something to do with the style of artwork favored in the magazine, as well as the somewhat more "shocking" content it often featured.
The first issue of WD I ever actually owned was issue 32 from August 1982, which I bought while on vacation somewhere in the southern US, possibly North or South Carolina. It was that magazine that I suspect forever cemented my opinion of both WD and the UK game scene generally: weird but often quite cool. What I liked about the magazine was that it included a goodly dose of D&D, Traveller, and Call of Cthulhu each month, the three RPGs I love most in the world. There was also a strangely high amount of RuneQuest material as well, something that baffled me, given how rarely I ever encountered anyone in the US who played the game. It was years before I realized that it was a huge hit across the Pond, rivalling (and perhaps surpassing) D&D in popularity.
I subscribed to White Dwarf for a period of two years from 1983-1985. It was at that point that Games Workshop started making an effort to infiltrate North America and there was a GW distribution center in Maryland. GW offered a variety of subscription deals that made the magazine very attractive in terms of cost, so I figured I should give it a try. Prior to that point, I'd only ever bought an issue here or an issue there or read old copies from the collections of people I knew. I also subscribed to Dragon at the same time and I know that, comparing the two, I always found WD to be much more uneven in quality than Dragon: its low points were very low but its high points were very often superior to those of its American counterpart.
My lasting impression of White Dwarf, based on the issues I read as a younger man, is that it remained a much more vibrant, amateurish periodical far longer than did Dragon -- and that's a good thing. I'm not one of those people who worships at the altar of WD, because the simple reality is that a lot of its content, indeed most of it, was pretty mediocre. At the same time, it's mediocre in a very genuine way, being the product of fans who simply loved certain games and then decided to submit their crazy ideas to share with the wider community. It's hard to fault a magazine for providing an outlet for that, particularly when some of those crazy ideas simply blew my mind and forever influenced the way I play various games to this day. It makes what WD eventually became -- a house organ for a soulless proto-WotC -- all the more tragic.
I think the hobby could use another White Dwarf right about now. Of course, I think it could probably use a Dragon as well, so what do I know?