Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Imagine Magazine: Issue #1

Back in April 1983, I hadn't the slightest inkling that TSR UK had just released the "adventure gaming magazine," Imagine. Though I avidly read Dragon at the time, there was no mention of Imagine's premier anywhere in its pages. And while White Dwarf was readily available at many of the hobby shops and bookstores where I bought RPG products, Imagine never, so far as I know, crossed the Atlantic to land anywhere near my home. Consequently, I didn't even learn of its existence until long after it had ceased publication in late 1985, which is a shame, because it's a both a very interesting gaming periodical in its own right, as well as a window into what the UK gaming scene was like in the early to mid-80s.

Gary Gygax, in an interview he gave in 1999, talks a little about the genesis of Imagine and its ultimate fate. Like most things Gary said after his departure from TSR, you have to take much of it cum grana salis, but it's interesting nonetheless.
It was my plan for TSR UK to publish a UK version of "Dragon" magazine. This I meant to be named "Royal Dragon" and its content were to be about 50% that taken from "Dragon" the balance, and all ad space, coming from contributors and advertisers in the UK. Don Turnbull did not favour this plan and eventually he convinced the Board of Directors that his "Imagine" magazine was a superior idea. I was dubious, but I agreed. As a matter of fact, the magazine never showed any substantial profit, generally ran at a loss from a purely financial standpoint. Of course, the advertising and promotion of the TSR line and the goodwill the publication generated, justified its continuation for the time. Had the expense of half the content, general layout too, been absorbed by "Dragon" magazine, which was then generating a profit of something like a million dollars annually, and the name I urged been used so as to make it clear that it was tied to the D&D game, I believe the publication would have made a profit, been more effective and still satisfied the individual tastes of the British gaming audience. That is a moot question now, certainly.

As for lower echelon staffers believing that they were paid to be independent critics of TSR products, somehow being given free rein to exercise their budding critical talents, I can only shake my head in wonderment at such hubris. Biting the hand that feeds one has always been considered in bad taste. If such persons felt so overwhelming an urge to be independent, they should have sought employment elsewhere or struck out on their own. In short, I have absolutely no sympathy for such views. The very reason for their employment was to promote the TSR line and its success paid the wages for their livelihood.
I'll return to Gygax's comments periodically, as I discuss the thirty-one issues of Imagine in the months to come.

What's most immediately interesting about issue #1 is how much material it includes for complete neophytes. There's "The Beginner's Guide to Role Playing Games" by Jim Bambra and Paul Ruiz, which is accompanied by a comic strip called "The Adventures of Nic Novice," which focuses on explaining just what a RPG is. Then, there's Roger Musson's "Stirge Corner" column, where he reminisces about his first encounter with RPGs and how he had to wrap his mind around the concept of a game with "no restrictions." I find myself wondering if roleplaying games were still a largely alien concept in the UK in 1983 or if these articles were simply meant as a way to entice newcomers to the hobby into picking up a copy of the magazine.

"QB-161-01: Antares" by John E. Black is a fiction piece about virtual reality "cubes" and the consequences of one man's use of them. Dave Pringle offers up book reviews and the pseudonymous Gordius presents a mind-bender in the "Illusionary Script" feature. Michael Brunton and Graeme Morris co-author a D&D adventure called "The Beacon at Enon Tor," which is designed for use with the recently-released Frank Mentzer-edited Basic Set. Morris also provides "D&D Players Association News," as well as (again with Brunton) the "Dispel Confusion" column, which answers questions about AD&D and Star Frontiers game rules. "Turnbull Talking" is for TSR UK's head honcho, Don Turnbull, to talk about whatever is on his mind.

Peter Tamlyn's "Tavern Talk" is a column devoted to "the amateur side of the hobby," focusing on conventions, fanzines, and the like. Meanwhile, Jim Bambra reviews Star Frontiers and Paul Cockburn reviews Judge Dredd. Michael Brunton returns in a lengthy piece called "Figure Painting," where he talks about how to paint miniature figures for use with RPGs. Rounding out the issue is a brief "Letters" column (understandably so, since this is issue #1) and a comic by Ian Williamson called "The Sword of Alabron," which is notable for featuring an explicitly Scottish dwarf (he is identified as such and even wears a kilt). Is this the first instance of that now hoary gaming stereotype?

What's most notable looking at Imagine #1 is how much less polished it is than contemporary issues of Dragon. At the time, that probably would have put me off -- I felt similarly about White Dwarf -- but nowadays I find it not only charming but positively a point in its favor. There's also a lot more emphasis on the amateur side of the hobby, with lots of ads for fanzines, local cons, and the like. Though clearly a house organ for TSR UK, Imagine nevertheless feels a lot more "open" than did Dragon, which is precisely what Gygax was complaining about in the interview quoted above. Me, I like that and I suspect it's one of the defining characteristics of this magazine.

41 comments:

  1. Awesome. Looking forward to this retro-spective. I was planning to to this myself when I finished my run of White Dwarf, but this might be more enjoyable. I was just flipping through Imagine #25 on my lunch break.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ugh, that 1999 interview is *poisonous*. A useful illustration, though, of the inseparability of Gygax the lucky earnest hardworkin' nerd and Gygax the somewhat cynical corporate (self-)promoter. There's an interesting story between the lines, about TSR not knowing how to manage a game *line* over time (something that companies like White Wolf, SJGames, and the like have had plenty of time to learn, benefitting greatly from TSR's educational failings) -- and that's not about Williams or the Blumes, but about the company as a whole. But it's no discredit to Gygax that he couldn't figure that stuff out; it wasn't his forte.

    ReplyDelete
  3. In other words, they were giving honest reviews.

    ReplyDelete
  4. We certainly were aware of roleplaying games in 1983. White Dwarf had been out for five years by then and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain -- intended to capitalise on the popularity of the hobby as much as it was an introduction to it -- came out in 1982. While I was too young to really be aware of what the hobby was about in 1983, I do have clear memories of seeing adverts for the Mentzer red box on the back cover of my Marvel UK comics.

    All that said, I missed Imagine, so it's interesting for me to see all those Games Workshop names amongst the contributors!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wow, I had never heard of Imagine magazine. Sounds interesting, and thanks for the write-up.

    ReplyDelete
  6. The reason for the neophyte articles was that Imagine wasn't just designed to be a trade magazine distributed through games shops, but it was also intended to have a limited distribution through the normal UK magazine distribution channels to newsagents and the like. That's how it actually got out to Australia, btw, through the regular newsagent distribution channels.

    And yes, like early White Dwarf, it drew directly from the very vibrant fanzine community that had produced such fanzines as Underworld Oracle and Trollcrusher (although it wasn't a direct continuation of a fanzine like White Dwarf effectively was).

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think you're right with the pinch of salt. Either that, or Gygax really didn't know us Brits. Royal Dragon? How frakkin' patronising. That'd have gone down like a ton of lead. Turnbull 1, Gygax 0.
    I've got a pretty full run of Imagine (I'm missing Issue 2, which I think a friend "borrowed" for the Barbarian class, one of the Dragon reprints, and later to be in Unearthed Arcana, but highly desirable in those days). In all honesty, I'd pretty much fallen out with (A)D&D when it came out. I bought it initialliy because White Dwarf wasn't enough. I kept buying it because Imagine was a damn good read. The Beacon at Enon Tor I ran using Rolemaster.
    Musson was a luminary of the early days, and Stirge's Corner was a delight. I've been thinking about some of the early memes he wrote about - I experienced the LOM (Little Old Man) in my very first game of Holmes D&D, though I never met his LOLITS (Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes). That LOM, though, was a meme that crossed the Atlantic, long before the internet. He appeared, in our games, not to give cryptic advice, but to tell us what the dice told us: when we discovered a secret passage, the Little Old Man appeared to yell: "SECRET PASSAGE!"
    I hated Pulsipher's column in Imagine, though. Conversations with his Alter Ego. How pompous. I should re-read them to see if he had anything interesting to say, but I remember my feelings at the time - I dismissed him as an old fogey.
    Hmmm. If you're doing Imagine, I'll move away from that one for a while, and intersperse my White Dwarf anecdotes and reminiscences with Tortured Souls, Fantasy Chronicles (the only Irish prozine I know of) and others. It's only politeness - your blog's been a delight for years, and I only just started putting fingertip to keyboard again recently. :D

    ReplyDelete
  8. When I was writing some of the initial "Marienburg" articles for White Dwarf, my editor sent me photocopies of city articles from Imagine as examples of what they wanted. (I think the setting was called "Pellinore") I recall enjoying them -- it was fun, useful material. I've been collecting old WDs for a while now; I'd dearly love to get my hands on some issues of "Imagine."

    ReplyDelete
  9. I loved this mag! Dragon at the time was full of articles on the qualities of rope and whether female dwarves had beards or not. Imagine was concise and pretty bs free and (maybe due to the low page count) the quality of writing was always really good.

    ReplyDelete
  10. In Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, Hugi the dwarf speaks with a distinct Scottish dialect. (Here's someone at RPG.net wondering if that's the source of the stereotype.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/9/9434.phtml

    ReplyDelete
  12. My FLGS out here in the American Midwest (Cincinnati) started carrying the magazine about halfway through its run. No idea how they managed it. I loved the magazine, it had concise articles that had some great ideas and alternate rules. I also picked up the issue that had compiled a number of adventures from previous issues - I used several of these for my own campaign. I have those magazines in a box somewhere. I'll have to get them out and look them over.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Some store in Toronto must have carried at least part of Imagine's print run because I have ten to twenty issues packed away somewhere from "back-in-the-day." I'm tempted to say it was The Worldhouse but I'm not willing to bet much on that.
    I remember at the time enjoying how "different" Imagine was from the Dragon; though I was also a big fan of the Dragon too.

    ReplyDelete
  14. The Beacon at Enon Tor does not refer to Mentzer's D&D, but to Moldvay's; the text says "2nd edition [...] (red cover).")

    ReplyDelete
  15. The Recursion KingOctober 24, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    I actually agree with his point of view here. An independent critic has only got validity if they truly are independent. A critic on TSR's pay role who is pretending to be independent undermines the credibility of the whole company.

    ReplyDelete
  16. oh sure, gygax was right to be annoyed by any 'fuck gary gygax!' stuff coming from his paid employees. (even the english, who for a variety of nature/nurture reasons might not be able to control themselves at a very basic level.) but it sucks to read bitterness like that -- sucks more to feel it, of course.


    one thing to be said for WotC's vanilla-by-committee model, vs what seems to have been the wild/wooly tsr model: the fixed internal QA process means folks actually have to listen to criticism of their dreadful ideas. kid gloves didn't help EGG any.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This magazine got me into roleplaying, and I didn't buy it through a hobby store, but spotted it one month in my local newsagents shop in southern Scotland and was intrigued enough by the cover to lift it down, flick through and buy it. Got it every month after that, and bought the earlier ones more recently on eBay. It was a very good magazine for its time, and it did a good job of introducing me to the hobby. I was rather gutted when it ended.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Anthony, I loved those Marienburg articles.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Great to see Imagine getting the recognition it deserves, and thanks, James, for planning a series on it. Vivienne has pretty much said it; I too just picked it up from my local newsagent, and it was a very important influence on my formative role-playing years. I even consulted its club pages when I was picking a university, to make sure that wherever I ended up had a decent RPG society! A vital part of the early 80's UK gaming scene.

    ReplyDelete
  20. I too rushed to get this from the newsagents after seeing a
    copy on the proprietor’s desk in a secondhand bookshop (that my father had
    built!) and got every copy after. Where I received my issues of White Dwarf via
    subscription, Imagine was available locally and provided a very good
    counterpoint to White Dwarf. It was always slightly less polished as it kept
    touch with the fanzine routes.





    Imagine did contain American content – early issues
    reprinted character classes like the Barbarian, the Cavalier, and the
    Acrobat-Thief, but this became less and less as the magazine acquired its own character.
    Its focused issues were always a pleasure – Imagine #14 was a favourite – and the
    home grown material always held an edge and a grit that is absent in magazines
    such as Dragon. It is a pity that the house setting of Pelinore never saw
    publication beyond the pages of Imagine, as it can be as the genesis of the
    style that would come to the fore in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.





    Anyway, this retrospective series is going to be a genuine
    pleasure. Thank you, James.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I too rushed to get this from the newsagents after seeing a
    copy on the proprietor’s desk in a secondhand bookshop (that my father had designed and built!) and got every copy after. Where I received my issues of White Dwarf via
    subscription, Imagine was available locally and provided a very good
    counterpoint to White Dwarf. It was always slightly less polished as it kept
    touch with the fanzine routes.


    Imagine did contain American content – early issues
    reprinted character classes like the Barbarian, the Cavalier, and the
    Acrobat-Thief, but this became less and less as the magazine acquired its own character.
    Its focused issues were always a pleasure – Imagine #14 was a favourite – and the
    home grown material always held an edge and a grit that is absent in magazines
    such as Dragon. It is a pity that the house setting of Pelinore never saw
    publication beyond the pages of Imagine, as it can be as the genesis of the
    style that would come to the fore in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.


    Anyway, this retrospective series is going to be a genuine
    pleasure. Thank you, James.

    ReplyDelete
  22. The Recursion KingOctober 25, 2012 at 4:05 AM

    The english do not have issues of control or a variety of nature/nurture issues; you sound like a racist! If you were attempting to be funny, you just made yourself look like a fool.

    Back on point though, spinning what's there as being that Gary Gygax didn't want to listen to criticism isn't actually very accurate, by my reading of this. What he's saying is that the criticism should be coming from another source if in print form, which has merit to it. Would Apple let Apple employees openly criticise the new iPad in an Apple funded magazine? If you think so, you are kidding yourself. You just don't hear about it. On a wider point, time and again Gary wrote that people should spin their ideas off into their own games and thereby let the market test their validity. His were already proven by the fire of the marketplace and indeed have stood the test of time and indeed is what the OSR is often trying to return to. Yet it takes no effort to criticise, hence his point of view.

    ReplyDelete
  23. Andrew Staples:
    "I think you're right with the pinch of salt. Either that, or Gygax really didn't know us Brits. Royal Dragon? How frakkin' patronising. That'd have gone down like a ton of lead."


    I have to agree with that. Especially at the height of the Cold War in the '80s there was a lot of resentment of America and Americans, probably more than today. You see it in White Dwarf's hostile reviews of Twilight: 2000 and The Price of Freedom. And Brits are very ready to detect and despise the whiff of being patronised. I think in marketing terms, Turnbull probably did take the right approach for the British market.

    ReplyDelete
  24. re: the english: 'duh.'


    gygax says in the interview that he had a private fiefdom at TSR, where he could plug away at whatever little projects tickled his fancy. for a guy whose first hit game was in no small measure a written expansion of another guy's ideas, that sounds nonideal... one suspects that he'd've stayed more relevant post-AD&D had he been part of a wider conversation about what the rapidly-changing playerbase wanted from games.


    interest: exhausted. i'm out.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I think that's an interesting point, pookie, and highlights one of the differences between American fantasy and British fantasy I've been trying to put my finger on: grit. Perhaps even a bit of grime as well. As a borad generalisation, I think American fantasy tends to be more clean-cut, more idealised. Ours has - or had - dirt under its fingernails.

    ReplyDelete
  26. The reason for the neophyte articles was of course the newsstand distribution, and the new readership that they thought they would reach.

    White Dwarf did the very same when they became available at the newsstands. "The Name of the Game" (#52, April 1984) was an article series that ran for 4 issues and portrayed the different RPGs that were available back then.
    But even before that they had article series aimed at beginners, like "Introduction to D&D" (#23, February 1881, 5 issues) and "Introduction to Traveller" (#36, December 1982, 4 issues).

    Regarding critical reviews: What I really liked about the US Dragon Magazine during the late 80s and early 90s were reviews by Allan Varney, often grouped thematically ("horror games"), and the critical view they took of TSR's offerings when directly compared to the competition. More often than not the competing products would receive better grades than TSR's fare...

    So the US branch did basically the same, what was EGG ranting against?

    And finally, offering an English edition of the Dragon, comprised of 50% content from the US edition, would have been stupid beyond belief. With a foreign language edition this would have made sense but not in the same language.
    This would have split the readership who would not have wanted to buy 50% content twice, and not only in England, but internationally. In Germany I bought and read both Dragon and Imagine (and White Dwarf), I wouldn't have done so if they had had overlapping content.

    The English branch of TSR was allowed to do what they felt nessecary for their market. Other licensors were not given that free rein, and that was one of the reasons why D&D failed so miserably on the German market.

    ReplyDelete
  27. Having started gaming in '83 with a bunch of friends via the Mentzer Red Box set before quickly moving to AD&D, Imagine captured the spirit of gaming at that time, it also had the air of inclusiveness rather than requiring you to have extensive background knowledge.

    When I eventually discovered Dragon it seemed a dry and dense magazine, almost off-putting.

    As with a lot of items 'back in the day', the magazines were rolled up, thumbed, torn, drawn on and generally thrown away after a few months.

    So finding the complete set of 30 issues, in mint condition, nearly 14 years ago, is still one of the best gaming finds I've made.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Having read several issues of Imagine prior to ever seeing the above comments by Gygax, I was left feeling disappointed by the immaturity and amazed at the lack of professionalism. It was, and still is, idiotically self-indulgent, amateurish, and pretentious yet juvenile -- the dark side of some geeks' eternal childishness.

    ReplyDelete
  29. The Recursion KingOctober 26, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    There's probably some truth to that, but Gary Gygax has always been relevent, perhaps more so today than in the past few decades with the return of the old ways of gaming, the rise of the retro clones and so on. While Arneson had the idea with Blackmoor and no doubt was brilliant, it was Gygax that could take the unrefined ideas and turn them into real gems. Take a look at the Blackmoor supplement some time and you'll see that Arneson had some crazy, whacky and terrific ideas .. but the rules around them are not so good. His hit location charts spring to mind here. Whereas Gygax defended (in print form within Dragon) the decision to make combat more abstract than this... resisting critics who advocated just such systems becoming part of core D&D. Some of those critics did spin their ideas off into their own games and we are better off with them doing it as it gave us more choice in the marketplace. So Gygax wasn't really wrong about any of this.

    I mentioned Apple earlier because Steve Jobs also had a reputation for not tolerating the ideas of others and I suppose, staying true to his vision of things should be. He was another mega-success story. So there may be something in this approach, after all.

    ReplyDelete
  30. There is a way to exert independence or filter for your audience without willfully biting the hand that feeds you. It's called tact or finesse or diplomacy or persuasiveness. Things (mental) teenage rebels don't have. So, as a test, today go in and ridicule, in print, the work of your company's founder, to his face, and see how long you keep your job. Anyone that doesn't do this (everyone here that has a job) is positing disingenuous arguments about different markets, credibility, blah, blah, blah, if they're defending the blind and self-righteous STUPIDITY of those involved.

    ReplyDelete
  31. Strike "your company's founder", replace with "co-founder of the entire subject you are discussing and the only reason you have a job or an opinion on the subject".

    ReplyDelete
  32. I'm gonna exert my independence from Daddy by being obnoxiously contrary. I will define my own identity by publicly disagreeing and undermining him. Snugly wrapped in the blanket of economic freedom he provided with his original work, I monkey do -- imitating, trying to improve what I monkey saw him do. And I monkey do it better, because I am so very full of me.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I've often thought UK fantasy products had a better sense of "time and place" (for lack of a better phrase) when it came to pseudo-medieval fantasy. Most US products, while still fun, felt more like Midwestern towns with the serial numbers filed off.

    ReplyDelete
  34. That said, the quality of the creative aspects of Imagine was generally very high. It was only slightly marred by the regular presence of unprofessional and rather childish opinions.

    ReplyDelete
  35. That said, I love the Pelinore/UK D&D vibe. A few twits with bylines that confused happenstance with talent and grew baseless egos can't take away from its awesomeness.

    ReplyDelete
  36. Agreed. We are all wannabes. And so were they Imagine guys. Gygax did it. 30 issues is not success. Neither is five (looking at you GameMaster Pubs). What issue is Dragon on now?

    ReplyDelete
  37. Good spot. I just checked Mentzer and it says "First Printing - May 1983" - which is after this issue was published (April '83). Also, the move for Zombies (40'/round) matches Moldvay rather than Mentzer (30'/rd). So, it's definitely a B/X adventure.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Hi Reverance Pavane, i'm trying to contact you.

    please post a comment on mesmerizedbysirens.blogspot.com if you read this. thanks

    ReplyDelete
  39. Speaking as a UK gamer from the 80s, 'Imagine' was a delight from start to its untimely finish. Different but the equal of 'White Dwarf' in its heyday (before it became exclusively a Games Workshop inhouse mag- which was the death knell for the UK hobby IMO). Despite not having played RPGs in 20 years I still recall with sadness the day my local newsagent told me 'Imagine' had ceased trading.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.