Guest Writer: Bryan Parke
I should start this article with a brief confession; writing a review of IMAGINE #6 feels really weird because I’ve had this magazine in my collection for years. And I loved IMAGINE magazine when it first came out. This means I’m emotionally invested in the product, and that’s hardly a good starting point for an objective review.
Published way back in the autumn of 1983, IMAGINE #6 formed part of a critical set of inputs to my gaming hobby; the monthly periodicals. As a teenager with limited funds to splash on gaming products I used to look forward to both IMAGINE and White Dwarf as both provided a wide variety of material (especially Adventures!)) at pocket money prices.
So I’m going to try for something a little different here; ignore the waves of nostalgia, throw away the rose tinted glasses, and put the magazine under a modern day lens. What value does IMAGINE #6 hold for the modern fantasy gamer and fan?
Let’s find out.
The cover art is titled “Fair at Dragon Post”, has a pretty funky vibe about it and reminds me just a little of Rodney Matthews album art; I like it. Appreciative onlookers gaze at the gymnasts and jugglers, although one fellow definitely has a shifty look in his eye. As the article titles and the splash text indicate, there is definitely a thief about!
And lets jump (pun intended) into the main events of this Issue, the thief related articles. First up is the Thief-Acrobat by Gary Gygax himself. The Thief-Acrobat continues a series of articles in IMAGINE (and following on from Dragon magazine) which premiered the new Dungeons and Dragons character classes which would eventually appear in the Unearthed Arcana publication.
The Thief-Acrobat presents players of Thief characters with an interesting choice; once they gain 5th level that could choose to forego further development in the more traditional thief skills to develop a new set based around gymnastics and acrobatics; tumbling, pole vaulting and so on. Several of these abilities can prove very useful to an adventurer, allowing him to traverse difficult terrain by non-traditional means and even evading attacks directed at him. That said I don’t recall anyone ever playing a Thief-Acrobat for any great period of time, and I think that may be in part down to two reasons:
• A DM needs to provide an adventuring environment for these abilities to be useful (10’ wide corridors and square room after square room may not be the best place to practice pole vaulting!)
• These skills come at the expense of freezing other (more arguably valuable) Thief skills (open locks, find and remove traps for example).
What the article does show us though is the value of pre-releasing material (this got us excited for Unearthed Arcana and provided an opportunity for player feedback through the Letters pages). And it also opened our eyes to what else Thieves can do; there is more to the class than just skulking in shadows waiting to jump out with a dagger! And we can see this theme pulled through into more recent gaming material; 3rd edition rogues could choose to spend their valuable skill points in tumble, jump, balance, as well as open locks and disable devices. These ideas are now well and truly baked into to the Thief/Rogue archetype.
The Thief-Acrobat article is accompanied by some thematic art work by (I believe) Pete Young, who provided the illustrations for a number of TSR UK’s adventure modules (including UK2: The Sentinel). Whilst the style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find it memorable and distinctive.
The same style of art is used to illustrate an adventure entitled “Jack of All Trades”. This is a multi-system adventure for low level/inexperienced characters, providing supporting statistic blocks for D&D, AD&D and Dragonquest. Re-reading the adventure again has me convinced this is a hidden gem of a story and could easily be used today for any number of systems.
I won’t give any spoilers away with regard to the story (as the players not knowing the plot is critical to the successful running of this adventure) but here are some of the highlights for me:
• The story does not follow the traditional “go down a hole, whack some monsters and grab the loot” path, but instead offers plenty of opportunities for role playing with some well-motivated, clever and cunning non player characters
• There are a number of unusual encounter locations
• The adventure is well structured and uses a logical breakdown explaining, background, plot, NPCs, etc. that could easily be used as a template for a DM’s own adventures. It’s this structure that allows “Jack of All Trades” to easily be used with other systems today.
It’s not perfect however; the plot is fairly linear and assumes that the players will keep “on plan”. That said the adventure’s location and NPCs provide an interesting sandbox and a DM prepared to put some preparatory work in will be able to deal with unusual choices the players may make.
The final tick in the box for this adventure is how to utilise the Thief-Acrobat class for the main antagonist and turn the final encounter into a Douglas Fairbanks-esque extravaganza. In like Flynn!
There’s plenty of other material in IMAGINE #6 as well. The final cover article is a short story entitled “Dome of Whispers” by Ian Watson. Running to 5 pages with accompanying illustrations this is an enjoyable read, and certainly as entertaining today as it was back it was first published. (Other people seem to think so to, as a quick google search informs me the story has been reprinted a number of times).
From here we move into the regular columns and articles, and we can group some of these into categories.
First up “The Adventures of Nic Novice” and “Stirge Corner” provide advice for inexperienced players; here we learn how a Thief’s skills are used effectively, and Roger Musson provides some sagely advice (“have a plan, stick to the plan”) which still holds true for players today.
Then there are the regular columns such as the editorials, and letters pages. I particularly like:
• “Dispel Confusion” which provides rules Questions and Answers for D&D; all still valid if you play the older editions.
• The “D&D Players Association” section; in particular the little side bar noting half a dozen adventure modules I don’t think I’ve ever seen in “the print” as it were. I definitely need to research these.
There are also review pages for Games, Films, Miniatures, and so on. These are fascinating to look back on to see what was new at the time, and how well received they were (anyone remember an obscure little Sci Fi film called Return of the Jedi? I thought you might).
The articles on Play by Mail gaming and the Fanzine reviews are a real treat, as in our modern internet connected world, we really don’t hear too much about these aspects of fandom today. So that is research topic number two noted; can I find any online archives for some of the old fanzine gems?
In conclusion I feel IMAGINE #6 still holds a lot of value for modern games and fantasy/sci-fi fans, both as a little time capsule of early 80s geek culture but also for source material that can be used on today’s table top; get hold of a copy if you can.
I’ll finish up with a brief nod to the comics; “Rubic of Moggedon” and “The Sword of Alabron”. Both are utterly barmy, but pretty funny (this episode of Rubic could almost be describing Westeros and the succession of the Iron Throne!).
Now I’ve got some adventures and zines to go find!