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Guest Review: White Dwarf #6

Guest Writer: Matthew Stephen Sunrich


British game publisher Games Workshop has, for a few decades now, been known for its superb board games, such as Space Hulk and Blood Bowl, and miniatures games, such as Warhammer Fantasy Battle and The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game, but it got its start distributing Dungeons & Dragons rule books in the UK in 1975.

For founders Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, discovering D&D was a life-changing experience. As Livingstone would later remark in an interview for fightingfantasy.com, they both became “overnight converts to fantasy games.” As a result, they were determined to popularize the game across the pond. In addition to holding the exclusive rights to sell the game in Europe, they also organized conventions, churned out newsletters, and attempted to convince retail outlets to stock it. As their business flourished, they decided they needed to publish a professional-quality magazine. Thus, White Dwarf was born.

White Dwarf was the first British magazine devoted to role-playing games. Its inaugural issue, with an impressive print run of 4000 copies, dropped in June of 1977, around the same time as TSR’s The Dragon #7. Editor Livingstone remarked that the name was chosen because it was a clever mixture of words associated with fantasy and science fiction, the two genres to which the magazine was dedicated. It was “both a stellar phenomenon and a fantasy character” (Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Game Industry, the 1970s). Many illustrious writers cut their teeth writing for the magazine; professionals and readers alike made many valuable contributions to the game in its pages.

White Dwarf #6 cover © 1978

White Dwarf #6 cover © 1978

White Dwarf #6 (April/May 1978) represented the successful culmination of an entire year in print for the bimonthly publication, and it’s an impressive package. While relatively slim compared to the magazines that would come later, it packs a lot of valuable and engaging information into its 22 pages.

The issue opens with “Combat and Armour Class” by Roger Musson. He discusses how the lack of realism in the D&D combat system is problematic. As an example, he describes a scenario in which a first-level magician and an eighth-level fighter are both subjected to the full brunt of a red dragon’s breath weapon. The magician, with only a single hit point, is burnt to a crisp, whereas the fighter, with 45, suffers considerable damage but walks away. This, of course, has no basis whatsoever in reality. Neither man could possibly survive. He rejects that notion that the higher-level character would be less likely to die of shock. Dragon breath, after all, “is a lot more than a touch of heartburn.”

He goes on to address another issue that I myself have devoted a lot of thought to, as I’m sure many other gamers have: hit location. Characters, he says, “seem to receive wounds in the abstract rather than in a more immediate sense.” He’s referring to the idea that in an actual battle, when people are hit by a weapon, the part of the body that absorbs the damage is effectively rendered useless. You cannot, in other words, continue to swing a sword if your dominant arm receives a deep gash from an axe blade. A critical hit would likely cut a limb off completely. When a character has lost all but a few of his hit points, there is no way he would be able to continue fighting. He would, instead, be bleeding profusely and enduring incredible, debilitating pain. Musson admits, however, that this system makes the games much easier to run, as it doesn’t require the players to consult a bunch of tables. “If a party of ten attacks fifteen wolves,” he says, “the last thing I want as DM is to have to record, in the middle of melee, who has hurt his arm, and was it his right arm or left arm, and which wolf has lost a paw, and so one [sic], right round the whole battle. The question is: does anyone get killed, and do they get to the treasure?” With this taken into consideration, he concedes that the system is sufficient, if flawed, because it allows the story to move forward without getting bogged down by ponderous rules.

He goes on to discuss the problem related to armor. In most fantasy fiction, heroes do not wear much armor, yet D&D characters frequently walk around in full plate. The reason behind this is that a fighter wearing a silk shirt in the game, unlike one in a novel, would be cut to ribbons in a battle. The D&D character, rather than strategically moving around during the battle, merely stands there waiting to be hit. Musson argues that the value of dexterity has been mostly ignored and that a system should be put in place in which a character becomes harder to hit as he advances in levels. He then proposes several ways in which this could be accomplished. Of course, this issue has been thoroughly addressed since the article was written, but it’s interesting to see how early players dissected the game to identify its weaknesses.

The next section, “The Fiend Factory,” presents seven new monsters. This is arguably the most important aspect of the early issues of White Dwarf, as the monsters featured in these columns, many created by readers, were later compiled into the Fiend Folio, which was made available to players in the States, thus significantly expanding upon the creatures listed in the Monster Manual. The Needleman, the Throat Leech, the Mite, Bonesnapper, the Fiend, Disenchanter, and the Nilbog are listed here, along with stats, backgrounds, and a small illustration of each.

Next, John Norris reviews some of the miniature figures produced by the American company Archive Miniatures. From a modern perspective, this is certainly an obscure firm; it appears that it was overshadowed by such companies as Citadel, Grenadier, and Ral Partha. The miniatures pictured seem to be of good quality, and the really remarkable thing is that Archive produced a respectable Beholder a mere handful of years into fantasy role-playing’s history; this creature has, understandably, proven a difficult task for many companies due to its aberrant anatomy coupled with the fact that it flies. Archive even produced a line of figures based on Middle Earth, which is noteworthy because it represents a departure from the dominant D&D model (it’s no secret that Gary Gygax held Tolkien’s novels in contempt).

Lew Pulsipher offers a brief scenario based on Jack Vance’s The Dragon Masters in “A Place in the Wilderness.” It can, he says, be easily incorporated into any adventure, though he does not recommend that it be used in games with low-level characters (he remarks that it is a matter of the DM’s discretion how “low-level” is defined). It involves a strange lizard-like race who were the victors in an ancient war against a race of humans. The descendants of the human survivors have captured some of the lizards and bred them into creatures who will fight for them; likewise, the lizards have bred humans who will fight for them. It’s a pretty strange scenario (the primary treasure to be won is the lizard’s females), and it has a decidedly science-fiction feel to it, which effectively fulfills the magazine’s promise to provide material for both genres.

Don Turnbull writes an in-depth review of Traveller (published by Game Designers Workshop, unrelated to Games Workshop), perhaps the most famous and best-regarded science-fiction RPG of all time. He starts off by expressing concern that, in an industry that is quickly becoming saturated, the game may not attract enough players to keep it alive. The fact is, the market has been and continues to be dominated by fantasy RPGs. Even though many other genres are represented (horror most notably), players just tend to prefer fantasy. TSR produced both Metamorphosis Alpha and Star Frontiers, but they have both been relegated to niche status and are no longer supported.

The Traveller box set includes three booklets: Characters and Combat, Starships, and Worlds and Adventures. He discusses each in detail, outlining the pros and cons. The review is favorable overall, though he does indicate some aspects of the game that fell short of his expectations. Its greatest weakness, he argues, is that its designers don’t really tell you how to play it. They provide you with all of the necessary tools but fail to flesh out the setting, leaving the GM to populate the planets and to develop the pervasive philosophies and trends. A fourth book including some of these things would, in his estimation, have been welcome. Another issue, to his way of thinking, is that alien races do not exist in the game. One of the biggest draws of D&D, he says, is its monsters; people like that kind of thing. After all, how many sci-fi films can you name that don’t have aliens in them? The genre does not require them, of course, but people have come to expect them in some form.

The next feature is the comic strip Kalgar. It’s difficult to tell how long the strip has been running by this point, though it is likely that it has been around from the beginning. The most striking aspect is the art, which is probably the best I have ever seen in a game-magazine strip. The eponymous Kalgar is an ex-soldier who now wanders more-or-less aimlessly since the civil war in the land of Araquetta ended. In this installment, a young woman asks him to help save her grandfather’s house, which has been attacked by bandits who believe that he knows the location of some valuable books. As the house, ignited by flaming arrows, burns, they rush to the scene. I was left with a desire to find out what happens next, which, to me, is a clear indication of the strength of the narrative.

The issue wraps with “Treasure Chest,” a hodgepodge of short D&D-related articles by Duncan Campbell, Brian Asbury, and Martin Easterbrook. Topics include new magic items (The Millennium Blade, a golden sword made by the Cyclops; the Crystal Fount, a fountain with valuable crystals hidden inside; and the Staff of Demons, which summons gargoyles), experience points earned for casting spells, and hit location in melee (addressing, to some degree, one of the issues brought up in Musson’s article). In essence, they’re nice little “snacks” to accompany the Doritos and Mountain Dew and make a Saturday-evening session a bit more enjoyable.

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  1. Avatar
    John Enfield

    Interesting review! I’ve read a couple of White Dwarf magazines, but they were much later on in the run of the magazine. I haven’t had the chance to get my hands on one quite this old. The article on combat and armor class would especially be interesting to read though it looks like you summed it up nicely. I, too have had issues with how AC is figured and combat effects are noted in not only D&D, but many other RPGs. I realize that we have to keep things at least a little abstract and fantasy based to keep from getting bogged down in tables and math. However, my experience in strategy games often tempts me to house rule such systems to make them a little more realistic.

    I’ve tried all sorts of iterations. Some have resulted in math meltdowns that brought the game session to a grinding halt and had to be abandoned. They were fun to set up as DM, but were too detailed and specific to work practically for most players. They were better suited for computer RPGs which have an A.I. to crunch the numbers for you. Though, a couple of my fellow Warhammer fans at the table really liked them. I finally settled on a house rule system for D&D that kinda strikes a balance between realism and fantasy without requiring a lot of math.

    The system uses a sheet added to the character sheet or monster sheet with an outline of the creature on it. As combat effects are narrated, you mark them on the sheet rather lightly in pencil, marking the affected body areas with effects like numb, cut, crushed, severed, etc. There are also spaces on the sheet to draw the weapons, shields etc. being used and mark damage on them like cracked, bent, dulled, broken etc. This makes the effects of combat more visual and helps players and DM really appreciate what is happening to the creatures without getting lost in math as much.

    If a body part, weapon, armor, etc. receives enough damage to actually affect its usefulness, that is noted on the sheet as well in numbers like -5, -10, etc. Those numbers are then used to modify dice rolls for attacks or defenses. For example, if a nice new shield gave, say 20 to AC, now that it’s taken damage it might only give 10 to AC. Or, if the DM rules that a piercing attack by an enemy spear missed the shield and hit the creature’s shield carrying arm, the creature would not only lose HP from the injury, but his shield would also become useless and would not contribute to AC anymore. Now, the player may have his hero’s wounded arm strapped to his side after the battle is over so that the shield can still be at least held up and effective to protect one side of the torso in case the party is attacked again before he can be healed, but doing that would only restore part of the shield’s benefit to AC since he wouldn’t be able to move the shield around to block blows as well. A wound to a leg might reduce a creature’s speed by a few points and give a negative to his agility rolls, but that is all noted on this outline sheet.

    Some math still needs to be done, but at least with this sheet, it feels less abstract and more visceral. Even players I’ve had use it who hate math get the hang of it quickly and most enjoy the added challenge it brings to the game. To help balance against this added complexity, I usually rule that healing orisons, potions etc. heal more than just one injury at a time and keep healing rather abstract.

    The way it works on weapons, armor, etc. works especially well and encourages players to seek out new or different, and better gear, not just for the ‘crunch’ aspect of better rolls but for the roleplaying aspect of needing working stuff to replace the damaged stuff they can’t manage to repair well enough. It also encourages some players to get into crafting and make or repair stuff better than they might otherwise bother with in the basic rules. Some players really enjoy crafting. In video games, this system is somewhat similar to how it works in games like Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. In that game, I find that I’m more careful and thoughtful about how I have Link behave. I try to keep weapons, armor, shields etc. lasting as long as possible because I never know if I’ll find another one as good soon enough if it breaks. Keeps me from just charging into every knot of bad guys that I come across, to some degree even more so than watching Link’s heart meter since eating food replenishes that easier than it is to find replacement gear at times.

  2. Christopher Bishop
    Christopher Bishop

    I love the review. A nice break down of the issue and focus on the sensibilities of the time. What I find most interesting was the sort of Crystal Ball some of the game designers already had regarding the future of Roleplaying. It is nice to see that folks were paying attention to the obvious lack of Sci-Fi games at the time and why they have continued to struggle aside from the few IP’s like Star Wars that made it through.

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