Tuesday, March 21, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #68

Issue #68 of White Dwarf (August 1985) features a cover by Brian Williams, who's probably best known for his work on the Lone Wolf series (though he also produced covers for both Games Workshop and TSR UK). For me, the issue marks the first one in several years when I was not a subscriber. I still picked up copies from time to time, but I was inconsistent in doing so. Consequently, many of the issues that I'll look at in the coming weeks are ones I didn't see at the time of their original publication or that, in some cases, I never read at all.

In his editorial, Ian Livingstone theorizes, based on reader feedback, that the readership of White Dwarf is in the vicinity of 100,000. That seems implausibly high to me, especially for mid-1985, but I must confess I've never had a good sense of the actual size of the hobby. Livingstone states that "our hobby is growing fast" and I can only presume he had better information on this than I ever have. Regardless, I always find it fascinating to ponder the size and growth of the hobby over the decades and this is yet another data point to consider.

"The Artificer" by David Marsh is a new character class for use with AD&D. As its name suggests, the class focuses on the construction and use of mechanisms of various sorts. Unfortunately, as presented, the class is simply a spellcaster with a unique (and very focused) spell list and some thief abilities thrown in. While I can understand why this approach was taken, it's disappointing to me. I've long wanted an artificer (and alchemist) class that was genuinely different in its presentation and not simply a magic-user or cleric with some unusual spells. Oh well.

"Open Box" very favorably reviews Blood Bath at Orcs Drift (9 out of 10), a scenario for use with Warhammer Fantasy Battle. Also reviewed are Dragon Roar (5 out of 10), the computer game Chaos (7 out of 10), Legacy of Eagles (7 out of 10), an adventure for Golden Heroes; and The Worlds of Boris Vallejo boardgame (3 out of 10). From my perspective, though, the most notable review is Marcus Rowland's harsh one of Twilight: 2000 (5 out of 10). Rowland's many criticisms are not for the rules themselves but for the game's basic set-up and "moral stance and attitudes," which he calls "fairly loathsome." By and large, he seems to find the idea of the aftermath of a limited-nuclear World War III an unfit subject for a roleplaying game, "one written for and by Americans, with little or no understanding of European attitudes or desires." 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" continues to do what it always does: briefly – and snarkily – review science fiction and fantasy novels from the '80s that I either never read or don't remember, with a handful of exceptions here and there. He also continues to take potshots at L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth, which I can't really criticize but neither can I applaud it, since it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Meanwhile, "Free the Spirit" presents two new additions for use with Call of Cthulhu, both of which are add-ons to the excellent "Haunters of the Dark" article from last issue: the clergyman profession and the hypnotism skill. Sadly, neither of these expansions are as good (or useful) as the original article.

"Beneath the Waves" by Peter Blanchard is the promising start of a series dedicated to aquatic adventures in AD&D. Blanchard begins by looking at the nature of the underwater environment, including how it affects one's movement and senses, as well as the need for some means of breathing. I give the article bonus points for referencing the 1960s anime, Marine Boy, which I strangely loved as a young child. I definitely look forward to future installments in the series, since underwater adventures have long held my imagination, even though (because?) I've largely never managed to make them work as well as I would have liked.

"Solo Series" by Simon Burley looks at the ins and outs solo adventuring in a superhero RPG. It's a very good overview of this topic, one made all the better in my opinion due to the prevalence of lone heroes in the superhero genre. "Lone Dragon" by Phil Masters is a lengthy but well-done scenario for Traveller that makes use of both Mercenary and Striker. The characters are hired by a mysterious "nobleman" from a nearby world that has fallen into political and civil unrest for what he presents as a quick smash-and-grab mission in search of wealth. Naturally, things are quite as simple as that. 

Speaking of Traveller, "The Travellers" comic begins a series of presenting its characters in game terms, starting with Captain Horatio Flinn and his sometime love interest Syrena Medussa. I'm a sucker for things like this, especially when, as in this case, the author understands the RPG system in question and uses it to humorous effect. The issue also includes further installments of "Thrud the Barbarian" and "Gobbledigook." In the former, writer/artist Carl Critchlow once again appears, this time as the narrator delivering useful exposition. 

I mentioned above how disappointed I was with the artificer class, right? Interestingly, the issue includes a very clever adventure by the same author, intended to highlight the utility of the class and its role in AD&D. Entitled "Star of Darkness" the scenario tackles the old trope of technology vs magic but does so in an intriguing and flavorful setting, complete with lots of maps, NPCs, and challenges. I did not expect to like this as much as I did, but it's an imaginative and fun little adventure for characters of levels 3–4.

"Words of Wonder" is a collection of new AD&D spells of varying utility, which is the usual pattern with articles of this type. "The Magic Frame" by Joe Dever continues to explore the question of photographing miniatures, with lots of thoughts on approaches and techniques. Dever's columns in White Dwarf continue to be my favorites, in spite of my own relative inexperience with miniatures. He clearly has a passion for the subject, not to mention remarkable skills, and he manages to convey both through his words and photos. As ever, I find myself wishing I'd devoted myself to this aspect of the hobby when I was younger and in a better position to acquire some skills of my own.


  1. Regarding Twilight: 2000 and Roland's critique, "one written for and by Americans, with little or no understanding of European attitudes or desires." That is just fascinating to me (a Gen X guy from the US). I wonder how prevalent that attitude was in both the UK and Europe in general in 1985?

    Clearly Free League Publishing had no problem with the idea in the 2020s.

    1. If I were to guess, I suspect the difference between 1985 and 2020 is time and distance. I can't say for certain, but I imagine many Europeans in the mid-80s were understandably a bit more twitchy about the prospects of a nuclear war with the USSR, even a limited one, than were many Americans of the same era. That's just a guess, though.

    2. I concur that Twighlight:2000 wasn't that attractive to my group in 1985. As much as we had an interest in Commando, Victor & Warlord comics, the idea of a game based around WW3 in Europe was a bit too close to the bone for us. At the time of the review there was a sizeable mass of voters who wanted US nuclear weapons (cruise missiles) out of the UK, membership of CND was high and there were regular protests outside US airbases, with many women being arrested.

      So that context contributes to a 5/10 review.

    3. Thanks, Jacob72; that's very helpful information.

    4. I will reproduce it here (very slightly abbreviated), because I think it explains itself quite cogently:

      "While the system is playable, the moral stance and attitudes it exemplifies are fairly loathsome. The rules favour the style of behaviour found in 'fun' war films; player characters will occasionally get killed (but not terribly often)... There are rules for infection and radiation poisoning, but they aren't nearly harsh enough.

      The setting, two years after the last nuclear weapon was used, has evidently been designed to avoid showing the worst effects of the bomb; the random encounters don't include civilians suffering from third degree radiation burns, blind children, and the hideously dead and dying victims of blast and heat. Starvation and plague are occasionally mentioned, with the implication that characters can always use their weapons to get food and medicines.

      The war described is the favourite American scenario, slow escalation with most of the damage confined to [not the US]. [...] America is in the sort of anarchic state loved by survivalists. The environment left after this holocaust doesn't seem much harsher than Vietnam or the Congo. The 'Nuclear Winter' predicted by many scientists either didn't occur, or just made the normal winter slightly harsher than usual. In the year 2000, Europe is split into tiny cantonments ruled by rival warlords, some Russian and some American. No centralised governments remain.

      Against this background, the players are supposed to choose goals; survival is the obvious priority, but further objectives are left to the discretion of the referee and players. The suggested theme (which beautifully explains the attitude of this game) is to 'return home' to America: Europe evidently isn't worth anyone's time or effort. The rules never say anything about the possibility of rebuilding settlements, negotiating local peace treaties, or doing anything else to start civilization working again.

      The box blurb says 'They were sent to save Europe. . . Now they're fighting to save themselves', and it's evident that this game has been written by and for Americans, with little or no understanding of European attitudes or desires to sustain interest."

      I must admit when I read Twilight 2000 a few years ago I had perilously close to zero interest in it, and I'm only Canadian rather than European. American fantasies don't necessarily sell well to non-Americans.

    5. A realistic game of nuclear war as the reviewer wants would mean few survivors and those wracked by radiation sickness to the point of near death. That game would be lame to play. I think the review is coming from a political place rather than judging the game play.

      If you want to complain about Twilight 2000 start with how complicated it was. Not as bad as Aftermath but pretty close if I remember correctly.

    6. I was about to comment on the anti-American/militarism sentiment of the 1980s in the UK, but Jacob72 has covered most of it.

      The "fantasy" of a devastated Europe is less attractive when Europe is on one's doorstep.

  2. As we'll see in the upcoming Price of Freedom review, European reviewers had very different views at the time about what was acceptable in an RPG.

  3. I can't hazard a guess how accurate the estimate of 100K readers is nor do I see a circulation count online (the two are often very different numbers, espcially when using feedback surveys as a guide for reader count), but Dragon magazine has a listed circulation of 107,200 copies in 1985, down from the all-time high of 118,021 in 1984 - assuming EN World can be trusted.


  4. Rowland's pan of Twilight: 2000 may seem strident and preachy from a modern POV, but this was 1985. Reagan's brinkmanship over the "Star Wars" SDI and military adventurism in general had a large chunk of the world (not just Europe and definitely including the US) looking at the specter of nuclear war more seriously than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was an alarming amount of talk about "winnable" nuclear war coming from pedants and the Pentagon alike, and Reagan was hell-bent on destroying the USSR. As it turned out he accomplished it (slightly delayed from his presidency, but still his doing) through economic rather than military means, but I don't doubt for a moment he'd have taken any decent excuse to fight a war with them consequences be damned. The Soviets were terrified of US maneuverings in a way they hadn't been since Nixon and his "drunken madman strategy" on the hotline. And here we are decades later with Putin playing on those old, half-remembered fears to keep his deathgrip on power with the older parts of his population.

    I found Twilight:2000 deeply unappealing as a teenager, and I don't like it any better now with Putin becoming more of a trapped rat with every day. Absolutely understand where Rowland was coming from.

    1. It's strange. I think the closer we edge toward the end of the world, the more popular apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic entertainment becomes at mass. In the '80s alone we had Road Warrior, Terminator, The Day After, and for the kiddies, Thundarr the Barbarian where "man's civilization in cast in ruin."

      It only makes sense that RPGs would follow with Aftermath, Car Wars, Twilight: 2000, et. al.

  5. "I give the article bonus points for referencing the 1960s anime, Marine Boy, which I strangely loved as a young child."

    Interesting. I was completely unaware of it in my childhood, and only managed to see some episodes for the first time two years ago on youtube. It's certainly an interesting artifact of its time, and stunningly violent by US cartoon standards, rivaled only by Jonny Quest.

    "'Solo Series' by Simon Burley looks at the ins and outs solo adventuring in a superhero RPG. It's a very good overview of this topic, one made all the better in my opinion due to the prevalence of lone heroes in the superhero genre."

    There's always been a disconnect between supers comics (where solo titles dominate) and supers RPGs (where team play is the norm). Some of the bigger games (V&V, Champions, Marvel FASERIP) have done some solo adventures but there's rarely any design work dedicated to running one-player or truly solo games in the core rules. Some systems work better for that type of play than others, but I can't think of any that aren't written with teams of 3+ players in mind.

    "Lone Dragon" by Phil Masters"

    Terrific adventure if your players are the military-minded types. Not so good if they prefer exploration, commerce, diplomacy or espionage - although there is a little room for the latter with some work.

    1. I agree with you on the supers rpg. We always played Marvel with seven or eight and it was Avengers End Game thirty years early. I'd have preferred to play two players with a GM, maybe even one playing the supervillain and mooks.