Tuesday, July 20, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #1

I've talked about my experiences with White Dwarf before. It's a RPG magazine that I only read intermittently back in the day and so my memories of it are not as vivid as those of Dragon. Likewise, when I did read it more regularly, it wasn't until late 1982, long after White Dwarf was well established and had settled into a comfortable run. Consequently, I have no direct knowledge of the magazine's early days, which I imagine were pretty wild and woolly. That's why, after the cessation of my examination of Different Worlds, I knew that my next series would be dedicated to White Dwarf.

Issue #1 is listed as June/July 1977, which is one year after the first issue of TSR's Dragon appeared. I think that's significant, because it's a useful reminder of just how early it appeared in the history of the hobby. Remember, too, that the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide explicitly references White Dwarf in a section entitled "Aids to Playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," mentioned by side by side with Dragon. The only other third party publications mentioned in that section are those by Judges Guild. This is telling and should be borne in mind as this series goes forward.

The very first article to appear is entitled "Metamorphosis Alpha," written by Ian Livingstone, the magazine's editor and co-founder of Games Workshop. For the most part, the article is simply an overview of the TSR RPG of the same name. However, the article is more than that, offering new rules for gravitation, as well as discussions of stories like Robert Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky and Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss that influenced the game's creation. More interestingly, Livingstone offers some criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

Back to the rules themselves and criticisms. There are not many but just enough to irritate. The initial task of designing the starship and its contents is lengthy – unless your players want to play for the next four years solid, I suggest a smaller starship (same number of decks). 
Don Turnbull's "Monstermark System" presents a complex mathematical system for assessing the relative challenge of a D&D monsters relative to others (and to the level of player characters). Honestly, I have little basis for evaluating the the utility of the system, since I've never used it. Truth be told, I've never seen much use for this kind of evaluation, but I readily concede that I'm probably unusual in not caring about such matters. I know that the Monstermark System has a solid reputation among fans of D&D, so I have little doubt that Turnbull had come up something worthy of consideration.

"Open Box" is a collection of reviews, focusing on two wargames: SPI's Sorcerer and Avalon Hill's Starship Troopers. Meanwhile, "Competitive D&D" by Fred Hemmings tells the tale of one referee's desire to "score" a dungeon expedition, as two competing parties attempt to make their way through it. I've long been curious about this sort of set-up, so I read the article with some interest. "D&D Campaigns" by Lewis Pulsipher is the first part of a series dedicated to exploring how to establish a D&D campaign and adapt the game's rules to particular styles of play. The article is fine as far as it goes, very similar to other articles Pulsipher was publishing in other magazine's at the time. 

"The Warlord" by Steve Jackson – co-founder of Games Workshop, not (confusingly) Steve Jackson Games – is a discussion of the self-published boardgame The Warlord by Mike Hayes. I'd never heard of the game before, which is apparently quite similar to Risk but with nuclear missiles. "What's Wrong with D&D" by Andrew D. Holt offers complaints and suggestions for "fixing" the game's combat and magic systems. Ho-hum. Alan Youde's "Poison" adopts the poison rules in Metamorphosis Alpha for use with D&D. Shrug. There's also a new magic item (helm of vision) by Steven Littlechild.

All in all, the first issue of White Dwarf feels very amateurish – as it should. It's an uneven mix of material, none of which is bad, but very little of which stands out as noteworthy, with the possible exception of "Monstermark System." Nevertheless, it shows clear promise and I know from personal experience that it does improve with time. Much like Different Worlds (or Dragon, for that matter), it takes a while before a roleplaying magazine finds its footing and I have little doubt the same will be true of White Dwarf.  


  1. I will be following this series of posts with interest. Personally I never came across any issues of White Dwarf until well after it had become the house organ for GW miniature wargames that it is today.
    Looking forward to seeing the early history of the hobby from the UK's vantage point.

  2. Currently on issue number 466, by far the longest continuous run for a physical magazine in the gaming industry, and now utterly unrelated to its humble origins. This issue might have been amateurish and uneven but it still offered more of interest than the slick, polished, and entirely soulless corporate house organ sold today.

    For $9 an issue, I might add. Save that for four months and you could almost afford an average character figure from them instead. Almost.

  3. You mention Judges Guild and Games Workshop are third parties directly mentioned in the DMG. It might be significant that in 1977 Judges Guild and Games Workshop had business agreements with TSR - GW as British importer (and publisher of GW versions of Holmes, etc.).

  4. I got started on White Dwarf when reprints of the first 3 issues showed up at my FLGS. I've got a mostly complete run up into the 60s (I managed to lose a few issues and maybe missed a few).

    I actually don't use much (other than adventures - WD had some great ones) these days, but back in the day I used various bits and always love re-reading articles pertinent to whatever I'm currently running.

  5. I loved White Dwarf. Even articles about games I didn't play (Fantasy Battles or 40K) were dripping with usable ideas.

  6. White Dwarf was a great magazine in its day.

    Interestingly, the first issue of the magazine that I read also had a review of Warlord -- in its second, renamed, Games Workshop issue.

    It would have been 1981, I suppose, so we'll get to it in due course.

  7. The Warlord is this board game:


    Games Workshop would published it as Apocalypse.

  8. My parents went to the UK around 79 and I asked my mom to get me WD if she saw any. Unfortunately she did not come across any in her travels. She ended up getting me some UK comic books (don't recall what)

    I only was able to find a few issues of WD in my area in the early 1980s, but did enjoy the multi-game coverage and the UK "vibe".

  9. I did a series on the first 100 issues of White Dwarf (and Owl & Weasel) some years back.
    Very enjoyable experience as my memories of White Dwarf are generally quite fond.
    For me the voices Ian Livingstone, Steve Jackson (the other one), and Lewis Pulsipher really showed through in these early editions and reading through them all in quick series made those voices seem more apparent than anything I can recall in say Dragon. The feeling was closer in nature to The Dungeoneer to be honest.

    While another retrospective on White Dwarf is certainly welcome, I am far more interested in what you see vs. what I did given we came up through the ranks as it were around the same time.

  10. In those early issues, there are a couple of good essays on how to play (A)D&D, which are also referenced in The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson. It shows that the new hobby of roleplaying was still trying to define itself and carve a niche for itself.