Written by Nick Monitto
Anyone familiar with old-school RPGs will know a little (or likely a lot!) about the classic Dragon Magazine. Evolving from the wargames-heavy The Strategic Review in 1976, it quickly became the premiere magazine for TSR’s US gaming audience. But what about our friends across the pond?
In 1983, TSR Hobbies UK Limited launched their own magazine called Imagine. For its two-and-a-half year run, it was a similar gaming resource for the UK market. Writers like Neil Gaiman were among its participants, contributing both commentary and original fiction. I had not known about this magazine in its day, but now I get to experience it at its origins. Overall, I found it to be a strong debut, with a fascinating blend to appeal to a wider audience.
The first issue came in April (1983,) starting with a note from E. Gary Gygax himself, welcoming readers to this new creation. With his touch for the grand and humorous, he declared his pleasure to be there at the start, for the future when “this issue, and the other early ones, become collectors’ items!” He also teased a bit of his own involvement; the second issue would include his piece on the Barbarian class (which would also appear in Dragon and later be included in Unearthed Arcana.) Gygax laid out the goals of the magazine’s staff, noting they would not only cover RPGs but also books, video, and films. From the start, they had ambitious plans.
As great of a publication as Dragon was, it was not a novice magazine. At times it could be “inside baseball,” so to speak, and perhaps tough for a new gamer to dive into. Keith Thomson, in his first editorial note for Imagine, explained that in addition to giving existing gamers the kind of content they would enjoy, the magazine would also strive to serve a wider audience, to bring in potential gamers and help the newest ones. I don’t want to come across as attacking Dragon and what it accomplished, since it was one of my favorite magazines of all time. But I do admire the goals of Imagine; gaming is a better hobby when it is welcoming of new fans.
At the same time, I don’t want to make Imagine seem simplistic. They did want to be a strong supplement for existing gamers. In addition to its content for novices, each issue of Imagine was intended to include several reviews, a complete game insert, and a section for Players Association News. This was not a lightweight by any means!
Getting down to it, what do we find in these 48 pages? For one thing, more than a few ads! When it comes to a vintage product like this, it’s enjoyable. Seeing ads in old magazines is even more of a look back sometimes than the articles themselves. It can be frustrating to think about pricing of the old days, or the products & companies that I never knew about at the time. Overall though, it’s a fun part of the reading experience.
The first two columns give us an idea of how they would handle the introductory/novice side of things. For the brand new player, there is “The Beginner’s Guide to RPGs”, a two-page piece that starts like reading a fantasy novel, describing a group heading into combat. It is even printed with a background like an open book, so you get the theme clearly! After that, it jumps back to reality to explain how these games give us the fun & excitement we see in our favorite novels. It lists the people who are playing these characters and the corresponding Dungeon Master. It then goes into the “game transcript” format we have seen as examples in many Dungeons & Dragons books.
The novice player is the audience for the next one, “Stirge Corner” by Roger Musson. It’s a bit wobbly at first, taking the reader through some notions of ‘How do you learn it’ and ‘What is an RPG, really’. By the later part, he reaches a conclusion that many old-schoolers would agree with, that the rules are largely guidelines and one does not need to read and know every single one in order to play and enjoy the game. He summarizes the distinction of an RPG to say that if you try “…to do something in a non-RPG for which there is no rule, [you] simply can’t. In an RPG, unless the action is obviously impossible, [you] can…”
“Illuminations” is a sort of ‘What’s happening in the industry?’ section. Various new and coming-soon products are outlined. Similarly to the early days of “Dragon”, they go outside of the TSR nest, to talk about products from companies like Fantasy Games Unlimited, SPI, and Steve Jackson Games. The “Book Review” page has short comments on some new fiction, and also mentions a couple of non-fiction books considered essential to the RPG fan (both of which happen to be on my own bookshelf!)
“Illusionary Script” was an unusual inclusion: what seems at first glance to be a story of gaming is, in fact, a page of word & graphic puzzles for the reader. More challenging than just a themed crossword or the like, it’s like playing your way through the solving of a problem.
In the center is what drew me in right from the cover: “The Beacon at Enon Tor” is written by Michael Brunton and Graeme Morris (a huge part of TSR Hobbies UK’s product contributions) for the Basic D&D game. This 7-page module is a great inclusion, and a solid introductory adventure to give 1st level characters a bit of a challenge. If this is indicative of what was included in future issues, I definitely want to see more of them!
Next comes a good-sized section devoted to the “D&D Players Association”. From the context here, I would say that this was comparable to what we knew as the RPGA. An editorial by Morris explains how the Players Association had its own magazine for a time, but decided to join up with Imagine when they heard about its debut, rather than try to compete with it. This monthly section was to include the features “Dispel Confusion” (a Q&A column), “Turnbull Talking” (editorial by TSR UK’s Don Turnbull), and the “Rubic of Moggedon” comic. As with most magazine debuts, the pieces are introductory in nature, but it looks like this would be go on to become a delightful editorial section, and a promotion for the group itself.
Back into the wider topics, Pete Tamlyn’s “Tavern Talk” is a sort of talk of the town piece. Intended by and for hobbyists, Pete wanted to use it for the sharing of stories from gaming conventions, give publicity to the amateur side of gaming, and perhaps provide readers with a bit of insight into the luminaries of the game. “Game Reviews” for the month feature TSR’s “Star Frontiers” and Games Workshop’s “Judge Dredd”. A 4-page article on “Figure Painting” by UK expert Mike Brunton would be a great reference for most every minifig fan and collector.
The last stretch finds the kinds of things you expect from a game industry magazine of the time. A “Letters” column would be there. In this issue, it was just 2 responses to a dummy issue that was sent out for a teaser. Other sections would cover Forthcoming Events, Fanzines, and Club News on events all around the UK. The magazine concludes with the first installment of “The Sword of Alabron” comic.
Overall, I found this to be a excellent magazine. Grading on the curve of a debut issue (where you have to allow for introductory pieces and lack of previous content,) it was a strong read, but even without that allowance, it was fun and informative. In many ways, it felt a lot like early Dragon, and I suspect it grew even better when the columns really got going. I will be looking for more issues of this, for sure.