Guest Writer: Matthew Stephen Sunrich
It’s hard to deny that we live in a wonderful age. Thanks to the Internet, we can access vast amounts of information on just about any topic with a few simple keystrokes. We can find out about upcoming books and games directly from publishers, as well as revisit classic ones, on websites and myriad social-media platforms. It can be hard to believe now, after so many years of becoming accustomed to this, that there was a time not too long ago when a worldwide, digital network indexing humankind’s collective knowledge was something of which we could barely conceive. Instead, fans of games, comics, films, et cetera, relied on print magazines to get the lowdown on their hobbies. Some of these were general-interest publications, covering a variety of things, while others were “house organs” put out by the publishers themselves, providing readers with insider information and supplemental material straight from the horse’s mouth.
During the 1980s, there were several American magazines devoted to role-playing games. The most well-known of these is probably Dragon, one of the two mags (the other being Dungeon) published by TSR to provide support for Dungeons & Dragons, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Star Frontiers, and its other games. It also devoted a few column inches of each issue to reviews of tabletop games by other publishers, as well as computer games, particularly RPGs, which were in their infancy at the time. Ares, the house organ of Simulations Publications (the short-lived but excellent publisher behind such superlative games as Deathmaze and Citadel of Blood), which included a game, complete with map and punch-out counters, in every issue, was later picked up by TSR and then absorbed into Dragon for a short time.
The role-playing phenomenon had gathered momentum overseas, as well, and the British in particular were eager to contribute to the hobby. Gary Gygax originally granted rights to a young Games Workshop to distribute TSR materials in the United Kingdom, but negotiations ultimately broke down, and the company decided instead to simply establish a subsidiary, TSR Hobbies UK, Ltd., and distribute the games itself. From 1983-1985, it published the monthly Imagine Adventure Games Magazine, which was devoted mostly to D&D and AD&D. Some of the innovative material from the magazine, heretofore unknown in the United States, was reprinted in the original edition of Unearthed Arcana.
Imagine #5, published in August 1983, is a veritable treasure trove of engaging RPG material, as well as a window into another time, which will prove immensely satisfying for old-school game enthusiasts. In addition, while there is intrinsically little difference between American and British magazines of the time, it’s hard not to get the feeling that you are experiencing another culture. There is something mystical in simply seeing the price of the magazine, as well as the things offered for sale inside, expressed in pounds rather than dollars, and the phone numbers and addresses are even drastically different from those to which were are accustomed. Moreover, the issue’s Celtic theme drives this point home.
All of that aside, there is much to enjoy here. The issue opens with “The Beginner’s Guide to Role-Playing Games,” which gives new players some non-technical insight into how RPGs are played. The dialog, apparently taken from an actual gaming session, paints an excellent picture of a group of adventurers raiding a dragon’s hoard. Each player uses his or her character’s unique abilities to bring the encounter to a successful conclusion.
“Stirge Corner” focuses on the difference between what author Roger Musson argues are the two types of dungeons: “adventure” dungeons and “main” dungeons. Adventure dungeons are relatively small and are occupied by an evil wizard or some other sort of powerful entity that has to be defeated (a “boss” character, if you will). These are the bread and butter of many RPG campaigns and are generally what players expect. The main dungeon, on the other hand, is a huge dungeon with multiple levels that can, depending upon player mandate, comprise many sessions. There is typically no ultimate objective involved, impelling some players to engage in what Musson calls “dungeon-bashing,” i.e., exploiting the dungeon over and over again as a source of treasure and experience points (what electronic-game players would term “grinding”). He further points out that it’s very difficult “to sustain one’s inventive powers” for upwards of two-thousand rooms. In other words, it’s challenging for a Dungeon Master to come up with consistently interesting things to populate the dungeon’s numerous chambers with. Dungeons have a tendency to become monotonous and boring if not carefully and inventively planned out, which is why extended crawls are abhorrent to some players. There must be a good mixture of unique traps, puzzles, and monsters to keep players engaged. Musson suggests that adventure dungeons are preferable to their main counterparts not only because the latter are not “role-playing at its best” but also because the former better represent what one encounters in mainstream fantasy fiction, though this is arguably off the point.
I propose that there is, in fact, a third type: the “campaign” dungeon. Good examples of this would include the ones included in Tomb of Horrors and The Temple of Elemental Evil. This type of dungeon comprises the adventure itself. As far as the players are concerned, there is nothing else in their world, unless they manage to survive and get out, but the odds of that happening are usually unnervingly remote (a friend of mine once cogently remarked that these modules were designed with the sole purpose of killing characters in mind). From what I can tell, this was Gary Gygax’s favorite type of dungeon, as it provided plenty of excitement, promised new dangers around every corner, and required a minimum of actual role-playing (he was, after all, a gamer, not an actor). Of course, the campaign dungeon could be considered a logical extension of the adventure dungeon, as there is ultimately a goal to be achieved and likely a boss monster to be slain. It is, of course, true that campaigns can run for years, so the word “campaign” in this context should be understood in an at-least-somewhat metaphorical sense.
Chris Black explores the historical background of druids and how it relates to the RPG in practical terms in “In a Class of Their Own.” A druid enthusiast, he uses the article to defend the class, which he maintains is unfairly maligned. He indicates that it is the only class with a “thorough cultural background” and provides an overview of the Celtic priesthood, explaining how historical writings and archaeological finds have helped us to assemble a picture of what their culture was like (though he concedes that interpretations can vary wildly). He also reveals that many ludicrous theories about them emerged during the 1600s, such as the notion that they used Stonehenge as a temple for human sacrifice and that they were descendants of the biblical Noah. He discusses their famous affinity for trees and explains that the word druid is likely derived from the Greek for “knowledge of the oak.” These are merely the high points, as the article is rather extensive; it’s clear that Black has done his research. Gary Gygax follows this with a list of new druid spells, including Detect Poison, Flame Blade, Cloudburst, Spike Stones, and Changestaff, the latter of which transforms a stave into an enormous treant, which is about as cool as it gets.
Following some reviews and a brief discussion about the importance of conventions to gaming culture, Graeme Davis gives readers “The Taking of Siandabhair,” an AD&D mini-module for four to seven characters levels 4-6. In consonance with the theme of the issue, it’s steeped in Celtic lore. The characters have been tasked by the monarch Cornall mac Eogan with rescuing his daughter, the eponymous Siandabhair, and slaying the Hags who kidnapped her. The adventure comprises three parts: the expedition to Siandabhair’s prison (which proves empty), the exploration of a Sea Hag’s lair, and the final confrontation with the dreaded Old Woman of the Mountains. The adventure has a maritime theme, which sees the party braving a treacherous reef and an undersea cave, wherein they face mermen, strangle weed, nixies, grimlocks, and deadly sea lions. The Mountain Hag herself is new creature (or was at the time), and is so hideous that the mere act of seeing her requires any character under fifth level to make a saving throw. She wields a jagged, disease-laden dagger, and can fly, paralyze, call down curses, and cause darkness. It appears to be in all ways a thrilling adventure.
Next, Don Turnbull gives a Reader’s Digest version of the history of role-playing fandom in the UK, highlighting the importance of “postal games” in the development of the hobby. Most of us are familiar with the way in which RPGs evolved from war games, such as those published by Avalon Hill, but Turnbull also discusses the importance of Diplomacy, which is sometimes undervalued or ignored altogether. (It must be said that Diplomacy has its own rabid following; unlike D&D, however, which tends to bring people together, it has destroyed countless friendships and, if you can believe the stories, even broken up marriages.) He also mentions the impact of several games that are virtually unknown in the States, which gives readers a better understanding of how gaming developed on the global stage.
Mike Costello discusses the advantages of purchasing a home computer in “The Imagination Machine,” which is, of course, hilariously dated. Terms like BASIC and RAM are defined for the reader as he discusses software, peripherals, memory, and other related concerns. “Will the machine you buy,” he remarks, “become significantly cheaper, just after you have paid for it? Yes, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Bummer, guys.
In “Lore, Lay & Legend,” Carole Morris delves into Celtic mythology. She argues that “Celtic” is more accurately defined as a language rather than a people, which is an interesting idea. She goes on to effectively defend this thesis by illustrating how its mythological tapestry was woven by several groups that were spread out over the British Isles and even throughout continental Europe. She focuses on providing background information about Lugh, Cuchulain, Nuada, Mananan, and Arawn, five Celtic gods or heroes included in the Deities & Demigods Cyclopaedia; the myths differ significantly from the AD&D depiction of these beings, and Morris believes players will find the contrasts interesting. A number of years ago, Wizard magazine ran a feature outlining the differences between the characters in Marvel’s Thor comic and their mythological counterparts. Reading Morris’ article reminded me of that feature, though hers is far more detailed.
The issue wraps up with the latest installment of the ongoing comic “The Sword of Alabron,” by Ian Williamson. It becomes obvious just a couple of panels in that it’s satirical in nature, teeming, as it does, with in-jokes and metafictional references. (To wit, one of the characters estimates the hit points of the dragon they are facing, and the dragon itself remarks that it dislikes “wasting breath weapons on anything below 10th level.”) To be honest, it’s a bit of an unwieldy affair, with art only marginally better than that found in the D&D ads that TSR ran in comic books around the same time. I can certainly appreciate what Williamson was going for, but it kind of falls flat.
In addition to the entertaining and informative articles and features, one of the most enthralling aspects of these classic magazines, as alluded to earlier, is the adverts (I feel it appropriate to use a British term, considering the context). A reader willing to stuff an envelope with banknotes and bung it in the post could be the proud recipient of books, miniatures, and dice of every variety imaginable from more sellers than you could shake a stick at. Most of these ads are merely price lists of available products, making them inscrutable to a certain degree. You really had no way of knowing what you would actually get; your imagination did all the work, which, as we all know, can prove a dangerous thing (particularly in the case of RPG players, who are, by definition, an imaginative lot). In 2011, Kirk Demarais published a book called Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!, which is filled with photos revealing the often-terrible truth about the cheap products available in vintage comic-book advertisements. It’s not exactly the same thing, but there is definitely a parallel.
To sum up, a very enjoyable read.