Tuesday, December 14, 2021

White Dwarf: Issue #20

Issue #20 of White Dwarf (August/September 1980) features another science fiction-inspired cover by Angus McKie, which pleases me. As I said previously, I appreciate seeing SF ideas and themes like this, since I've always been more of a sci-fi fan than a fantasy one. White Dwarf – and UK gaming products in general – seemed quite comfortable with genre bending to a greater degree than contemporaneous US RPG publications. I'm not sure why that should be; I may even be mistaken in this impression, but that's certainly how it appears in hindsight.

The issue begins with an interesting editorial by Ian Livingstone, in which he opines about the ever-contentious topic of alignment. Livingstone begins by musing that alignment ought to be "taken tongue-in-cheek." He then humorously asks, "Do they [i.e. players] stop to consider whether they are lawful good, neutral good, or lawful neutral before rushing into the tavern to decimate the dwarfs having lunch?" His point, it seems, is that, because roleplaying is, by definition, a fantasy, "why obey the codes of the real world?" "Why not," he wonders, "have a little fun while you're at it?," "fun" in this context being "hack and slay" without concern for the consequences. Unless Livingstone's point is simply that RPGs shouldn't be taken too seriously – a point I largely share – I'm not quite sure what to make of his editorial. 

"Dungeons & … Dragoons?" by Phil Masters is the first article of the issue. Masters offers up capsule descriptions and game statistics for a variety of troop types associated with historical cultures, such as Greek hoplites, Persian immortals, and Carolingian Franks. It's an odd little article, whose purpose is supposedly to expand the scope of D&D opponents beyond those grounded in medieval feudalism. Fan as I am in broadening the understanding of "fantasy," I'm not sure that this particular article offers much to achieve that end. On the other hand, Andy Slack's "Star Patrol" is quite successful in its goal of providing an advanced character generation system for the Scout service in Traveller. It's a very solid piece of work and does a much better job of it than does the official advanced Scout rules found in GDW's own Book 6. 

"The Alchemist" by Tony Chamberlain is a new character class for use with Dungeons & Dragons. I must say I was disappointed, when I saw that Chamberlain intended it only as a class for NPCs, specifically the expert hirelings mentioned in the Dungeon Masters Guide. As presented, the class is basically a pared down version of the magic-user, with a limited spell selection and the ability to aid proper MUs in the creation of magic items. I've longed for a playable alchemist class to my liking since I was a kid, so I was quite disappointed to find this one brings me no closer to achieving that goal.

"Open Box" reviews multiple GDW products, starting with the SF wargame, Dark Nebula (9 out of 10). Dark Nebula is something of a white whale for me. I've never seen, let alone owned it, and hope one day to do so, if I can find a good copy at a reasonable price. Also reviewed are High Guard (8 out of 10), The Spinward Marches (9 out of 10), and Citizens of the Imperium (8 out of 10). Good to see lots of Traveller material represented here. The final reviews of this issue are TSR's The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (7 out of 10) and Philmar's The Mystic Wood (9 out of 10). I think this might be the first issue of White Dwarf where all the reviews are quite positive, with 7 out of 10 being the lowest score assigned to any product.

Will Stephenson's "Grakt's Crag" is an AD&D mini-module for 3rd-level characters. The adventure features the tomb of King Grakt, which has been built into the side of a mountain and reputed to be filled with many treasures. I remain impressed with the density of text in White Dwarf's various "mini-modules." They fit more material into three pages than many other magazines could in twice as much space. "The Fiend Factory" presents six new monsters for use with D&D, including the evil frog-folk and zombie-like cauldron-born. 

Bob McWilliams gives us more Traveller material with the first installment of a new column called "Starbase." In this inaugural column, McWilliams briefly discusses how to start up a new Traveller campaign, with a focus on practical matters, such as the PCs' very first encounter. Meanwhile, "Treasure Chest" presents thirteen "Odd Items" – peculiar magic items like the whistle of pig calling and antacid. Rounding out the issue is Roger Musson's "Conversion," which looks postulates a new clerical ability, the aforesaid conversion. Musson lays out a simple system (akin to combat) by which a cleric can, through a combination of logic and casuistry, attempt to convert someone to his own faith. It's not a bad idea and it's one I've considered before myself, so naturally it was of interest. Musson's system has the benefit of being easy to use, if not necessarily "realistic," which is why I might actually consider making use of it.

With this issue, it's becoming more clear that White Dwarf, as I remember it, has nearly come into full existence by the second half of 1980. It will be fascinating to see if the recent trend in excellent content continues without interruption. 


  1. I owned a copy of Dark Nebula back in the day. It's essentially a smaller version of Imperium that uses a different (modular) map, sharing almost all the same mechanics and covering early clashes between the Aslan and the Solomani Confederation. Much as I like GDW, it's not a stellar game in and of itself, and lacks the game balance Imperium had. OTOH it does have a bit more replay value due to the map being different from game to game, although a bad setup can leave one side at a sever disadvantage. TL;DR You're not really missing much by not owning a copy, which is something I hate to say about a GDW product.

    1. It's also sort of easy to own a copy... Dark Nebula is on the Classic Traveller CD-ROM...

    2. True! But I am one of those Luddites who prefers physical copies of games.

  2. It's interesting to see so much GDW coverage here. GW was already selling their stuff in the UK at this point but we're still three years from GW casting 15mm figs for Traveller to go with the stuff they distributing already. Rafm Miniatures in Canada still has that old line in production, albeit with all mention of Traveller removed.

  3. This was the first issue of White Dwarf I owned, and I found a lot of use for the expanded Scout article up until the official version was published.

    I found out in an interview that this was Phil Masters' first published gaming article. I suppose its utility is limited, but it's nice to have stats for the main warrior types of different culture groups. It might do to adjust the troop types showing up when looking for mercenaries. Uh, in a D&D game where the players actually do that sort of thing. I like miniatures battles, or even abstracted mass combat like the BECMI/RC War Machine rules, so it's up my alley I suppose.

  4. Perhaps worth mentioning that the cover art was originally commissioned for the novel The Fenris Device, book five of Brian Stableford's Hooded Swan series. Might be better known to folks for its re-use in the Terran Trade Authority books, where the Swan ship shows up repeatedly as an Interstellar Queen-class passenger liner.