A tiny piece of gaming history made itself available to me yesterday – this PDF of White Dwarf #1. I’d never seen a copy before but its instantly evocative.
Of what? Not my gaming past exactly – WD had brightened up its act by the time I got on board – but of the lost ferment of 70s nerd culture: letraset printed fanzines, heavily inked Conan-ripoff art, a thriving topsoil of micro-entrepreneurs. “Thane Tostig – a new fantasy game, 70p inc P&P”, “Godsfire – a three-dimensional war game”, “Includes 242 perforated counters”. You can see very similar adverts – and exactly the same art styles – in reprints of Cerebus #1, published in 1977, the same year as the first White Dwarf. In early computer fanzines you won’t see quite as many barbarians or spaceships but you will see the same single-minded, lawyerish dedication, and you might see the lame student humour (“New character class: The Pervert”).
From a gaming perspective White Dwarf#1 is illuminating – it’s a mini-culture desperate to organise itself (some level of organisation being the basic requirement for gaming to even exist) and trying to work out how to do it. It’s also emphatically not a role-playing culture, in the way it became in the 80s: there’s little of the “YOU are the hero”, self-actualising rhetoric that gave RPGs and gamebooks their brief burst of mass popularity. These things are boardless wargames, and the content reflects this.
The announcement of the D&D Society’s formation sets the tone, laying out the society’s aims: “(i) bring players in contact with one another (ii) clarify basic D&D rulebook problem areas“. The impression given throughout the magazine is of wargamers struggling to reconcile their need for unambiguous rules with the freeform play implicit in the very idea of RPGs: nobody involved seems to realise what they’ve got into. The longest article is the staggeringly complicated and boring “Monstermark” system, a way of grading monsters which the magazine doggedly stuck to for most of its early life. The second longest is Lewis Pulsipher’s more intriguing look at the “philosophy” of D&D – he sees no middle ground between strategic rules-based play and “silliness”, and comes down very hard on the latter.
During my gaming days these were the roots of fearful schisms in the community, schisms which I took, from a distance, passionate stands on. Back then I would have read White Dwarf #1 in disgust, embarassed at its limited, pedantic worldview. Now the magazine fills me with a painful fondness for a petty, enthusiastic, lost world.