December, 1985. I was eight years old, and found myself in a little toy and hobby shop in the Orchards in Haywards Heath with my mother.
They had some gaming materials and a display of the three level glass boards of the Taliesin Master Game (which, selling a deluxe limited edition at Harrods for £1,849 each, occupied the precise intersection between the 1980s fantasy craze and the 1980s theme of conspicuous consumption. Though, for me it was simply another mysterious artifact adding to the heady wizard’s cave feeling of the fantasy section.) Amid all of this was a rack bearing the December issue of White Dwarf.
A year later when I got into computer games I’d start buying computer magazines despite not owning a computer, and I felt sort of silly doing so, like they were not for me. I had the same feeling buying this first issue – I wasn’t sure if it was really supposed to.
Everything was so arcane; my mother assumed it had something to do with computers, and seeing article entitled “Origin of the PCs”, said “see? Personal Computers.”
RPGs, miniatures, and wargames were intriguing because of how they were clearly intertwined, but the relationships weren’t always clear. Things didn’t always come in a box together, you had to buy rules and figures and modules separately, as part of this arcane interconnected system that involved a lot of assembly, painting, and imagination. The fact that it didn’t hold your hand and required active engagement made it more fascinating than most of the other toys available.
That summer for my birthday, having turned 8 and arbitrarily now being old enough not to be expected to try and eat lead figures, (which I’d previously encountered only on the playground) I received the D&D red box set and Warhammer 2nd Edition.
This was the best birthday ever, and opened the door for me to these worlds of fantasy, but I still wasn’t quite sure of the details. The most interesting feature in the magazine was an AD&D scenario, The Necklace of Brisingamen, where the PCs venture into a dungeon beneath a town overshadowed by the conflict between Freya and Loki for her eponymous necklace. It’s norse mythology viewed through the lens of 1980s satanic panic, so the followers of Loki are literally just devil worshippers with all the tropes thereof.
As a level 7-10 AD&D scenario it was far beyond the scope of the Basic Set; I realised I would have a lot more books to buy before I really had a handle on this D&D thing. The AD&D hardcovers were expensive on my allowance, so it took some years to collect them. On vacation to the Isle of Wight the following summer I found, in a tiny gift store named Old World, a copy of the Fiend Folio discounted to £3.50, and urgently tried to convey the importance of this discovery to my parents in order to get an advance.
The issue was full of other mysteries to explore. The cover depicted a party of Call of Cthulhu investigators in a museum, being menaced by some looming mound of flesh; I wouldn’t get into Cthulhu and Lovecraft for perhaps another 10 years, but these magazines introduced me to the language – Shantaks, Yig, Tsathoggua, the Great Race of Yith. There was a particular chill in knowing the words, but not knowing what they signified – only that they were things so terrible that knowing their meanings would drive men mad.
One article provided cards for a Talisman expansion, while another consisted of a festive board game, Sleigh Wars (now for Tabletop Simulator!) full of 80s jokes about Yuppies, the YTS, Pac-Man & the impending nuclear holocaust. A piece on Dioramas introduced me to the work of Nick Bibby and John Blanche’s love-lorn multi-headed minotaur conversion. There was a Travellers comic strip, with crowded lineart, febrile lettering and Hitchiker’s Guide references.
Adverts for miniatures, most of them still lists of models without any pictures, gaming conventions, shops, PBM games like Saturnalia; Dragonroar, with its Killer Penguins and Warhedgehogs; MERP; Kaleb Daark in the Citadel Compendium; a full page ad for Unearthed Arcana summed up my feelings about the magazine as a whole. The ad for Dragon Warriors deserves an article of its own. The Captain Britain ad on the back page lead me in 1991 to the TSR Marvel game and through that to comic collecting (and, eventually, editing.)
The classifieds are peak aww bless, with such entries as –
“Desperate Male AD&D/Runequester (15) seeks female companion in London area with similar interests. Contact Dave McConnell, Read School, Drax, Selby.”
– alongside Womble death threats –
Tomsk. Why did you betray Great Uncle Bulgaria? May your innards be strewn all over the common. Tobermory.
– there are actually quite a lot of threats of death and disembowelment, suggesting that the White Dwarf classified ads were in some sense a forerunner of modern Twitter.
More classifieds are hawking tiny PBMs and fanzines, including Controversial Repertoires of an Alcoholic Prat and one named simply ‘BORIS‘ – that’s not going to be easy to google these days.
My overall impression on re-reading this issue is much as it was when I first picked it up – it’s incredibly busy, in between the actual articles it’s teeming with all these people running little miniature companies, PBMs, gleefully sharing in-jokes about their campaigns – there’s a vibrant enthusiasm to the whole thing that makes me wish I could visit the UK gaming scene of the mid-1980s.
But then, that’s one of the reasons we have Oldhammer.