Tuesday, July 4, 2023

White Dwarf: Issue #80

And so, with issue #80 (August 1986), we come to the end of my retrospective on Games Workshop's White Dwarf. Even so, I'll likely have some concluding thoughts on the entire series next week, since I feel, after so many months of posts on the magazine, there's still a lot to be said about it. This issue features a strong cover illustration that recalls the work of Frank Frazetta – no surprise there, since the artist, Ken Kelly, was the nephew of Frazetta's wife and had the chance to study Frank's works and technique up close and personal.

Paul Cockburn's editorial focuses on a new Reader's Poll included at the end of the issue. The poll is quite lengthy, lengthier than many previous ones, in part, I suspect, because Games Workshop was trying to understand its current readership as it charted its course into the future. After nearly ten calendar years of publication, White Dwarf had changed a great deal, as had Games Workshop itself. It, therefore, makes sense that the company would want to take stock of its readers in order to better serve them.

"Open Box" kicks off with a very positive review of Games Workshop's printing of the third edition of Call of Cthulhu. Normally, I'd have a critical word or two about WD's habit of advertisements dressed up as a reviews, but, in this case, I'll make an exception. The GW hardcover printing of CoC's third edition is indeed an excellent product, one of the best versions of the game ever, in fact. I only wish I still had my copy. Also reviewed are two adventures for FASA's Doctor Who RPG, The Hartlewick Horror and The Legions of Death. The former receives greater praise, primarily because it's less complex and more suitable to referees of all levels of experience. Palladium's The Mechanoids gets a negative review, with the reviewer (Marcus L. Rowland again) suggesting that it'd work better as a war game than as an RPG. Destiny of Kings for AD&D is favored over Swords of the Daimyo (also for AD&D). Realms of Magic for Marvel Super Heroes is treated positively for the most part, though the reviewer (Peter Tamlyn) expresses some dissatisfaction with the added complexity this supplement introduces. He also criticizes the excessive use of the trademark symbol throughout the text, necessitated, no doubt, by Marvel's lawyers. Finally, there's Avalon Hill boardgame, Dark Emperor, by Greg Costikyan, which merits only middling praise.

Nigel Cole's "Combat in Doctor Who" attempts to correct some errors and oversights in FASA's RPG. Meanwhile, "Something Special" by Hugh Tynan introduces ten new special abilities for use by characters in Judge Dredd the Role-Playing Game. "Clouding the Issue" by Chris Barlow takes a look at the various detection spells available in AD&D with an eye toward sorting out the inconsistencies. "Crime Inc." by Graeme Davis presents a system for creating organized crime groups for use with any 20th century RPG. The system takes into account a group's size to give the referee an idea of how many members of various ranks it possesses, along with the extent of its reach into illicit activities. It's nothing fancy, but it looks genuinely useful in fleshing out enemy groups for a wide variety of RPGs. 

Dave Langford's "Critical Mass" returns to form by providing capsule reviews of a plethora of books, most of which I've never read, the exception being The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. It's funny: I've rarely been a fan of Langford's columns, but, despite that, I think I'll miss reading them nonetheless. I suppose that's mostly a function of the fact that they've been a fixture of the magazine since issue #39, which grants them an almost-venerable status. On the other hand, I've always liked both "Thrud the Barbarian" and "Gobbledigook" (the latter reduced to half a page in this issue), so it makes sense that I might feel a pang of regret in saying goodbye to them.

"The Reliant" by Thomas M. Price presents an escape craft, complete with deck plans, "for SF role-playing games," though the titular spaceship is presented using terminology and concepts clearly derived from Traveller. "Roleplaying for Everyone" by Peter Tamlyn is a thoughtful essay on the development and expansion of the concept of roleplaying. Tamlyn looks at the evolution of RPG design and how it has facilitated (or impeded) the adoption of the hobby by a large segment of the public. He also examines the growth of solo gamebooks, like Fighting Fantasy, and ponders what impact they, along with the then-new How to Host a Murder games might have. It's a solid piece that's mostly interesting from a historical perspective, since it was written nearly forty years ago, but I found it a worthwhile read nonetheless.

The best thing in this issue, in my opinion, is Graham Staplehurst's adventure "Ancient & Modern." Described as "a scenario for schizophrenic roleplayers," it draws on work of author Brian Lumley, specifically his tales of the primal continent of Theem'hdra, a kind of Conan-meets-the-Cthulhu-Mythos sort of sword-and-sorcery setting. "Ancient & Modern" takes place in two times, the ancient past and the present day, with players portraying two sets of characters using two different game systems, most likely AD&D for the former and Call of Cthulhu for the latter, though the scenario is written to accommodate other possibilities. The outcome of events in Theem'hdra affect those in the 20th century, so there is a direct connection between the two halves of the scenario. I've long wanted to referee a scenario of this sort before, so I was very intrigued by "Ancient & Modern."

Closing out the issue is another installment of "'Eavy Metal," complete with many color photographs of beautifully painted miniature figures. As I'm certain I've said many times before, I genuinely appreciate articles like this, because I've never been very good at painting minis. Seeing what others more skilled than I have done with them is a treat and an education about a side of the hobby with which I have very little experience.

There you have, the final issue of White Dwarf that I'll be reading as part of a series of posts. I do wish that this had been a more remarkable issue than it was, so that it might have weakened my resolve to move on to something else. Alas, it was not and so I now must bid farewell to White Dwarf. For the most part, I enjoyed this trip down memory lane and am glad that I took the time to do it. After a final post next week, in which I attempt to sum up my various thoughts about WD and its place in the larger hobby, I'll move on to another topic. Polyhedron perhaps?


  1. Thanks for running this very entertaining and nostalgic series! Pete Tamlyn worked with Marc Gascoigne on the three books, Dungeoneer, Blacksand! and Allansia, that made up the first edition of Advanced Fighting Fantasy. He also gets name-checked in Bruce Galloway's infamous Fantasy Wargaming book.

  2. Congratulations on reaching issue 80 and the end (apart from your concluding remarks) of this project.

  3. An appropriate day to declare your independence from this series. Thank you, it was very enjoyable and informative.

  4. I've enjoyed this series, but I'm a bit sad that you didn't get to WD81, the first issue I bought (rather than read someone else's).

    Maybe you should do a couple of posts on your top 5 best articles and top favourite covers from the series?

  5. I mostly came for the covers. But never knew Ken Kelly and Frank Frazetta were relayed by marriage.

  6. "It, therefore, makes sense that the company would want to take stock of its readers in order to better serve them."

    The concept of White Dwarf serving its readers rather that milking and bilking them for GW's benefit has been alien territory for at least twenty years now. Different times indeed - and perhaps best to stop now while WD is still recognizable from its early days. There's at least 40 and maybe as much as 60 issues before it really gets bad, but they'll be starting on the path soon enough.

    "Finally, there's Avalon Hill boardgame, Dark Emperor, by Greg Costikyan, which merits only middling praise."

    That was an interesting concept for a game hampered by clunky mechanics and lackluster components and artwork. I can see where he was trying to create something like Dragon Pass or Swords & Sorcery or Divine Right, ie a flavorful board game in a unique setting. Just didn't come out quite right in the end.

    Still not dreadful but far from Costikyan's best work - the SPI games, Web & Starship, etc.

  7. It's a shame to see the series go, but you're right that by this point WD had become a very different magazine to what it started as, and what it would become.

    Ancient & Modern sounds wild, I love the idea. Dark Emperor is a fun one for the unique map, even if you don't play the game you could use it for a RPG campaign.

  8. Excellent series, James. Do you have any issues of Gateways magazine? They were, at least, not anyone's house organ and had articles by Gygax.

  9. Enjoyed the series! After White Dwarf's non-GW coverage was killed off, Dave Langford moved his column to another UK tabletop game magazine, Game Master International, which with flashier layouts kept the flame for a while. His complete set of reviews from the White Dwarf to GMI years are available in his collection The Complete Critical Assembly, which may still be in print (at least on his website); I found it entertaining to have the many years of columns in one place, and a good read.

  10. As a couple of points of interest, the last AD&D scenario published in White Dwarf was in issue 93. Thereafter scenarios were only for RPGs published/printed under licence by Games Workshop.

    The last RPG scenario of any kind was in issue 140 for WFRP. Thereafter White Dwarf was a purely wargaming magazine.

    Thank you for the journey down memory lane.

  11. There are one or two issues still to come that I'd consider "good" (at least by comparison to other contemporary issues) but you have to jump off somewhere, this is as good a place as any, and it is increasingly difficult to wade through the dross in order to get to the good stuff.

    I find it interesting that you called out 'Eavy Metal for praise, as I viewed this rebranding of Tabletop Heroes as a key part of the change. It is easier to say this from a perspective of looking back, of course.