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This Gaming Life: Grey Dragon and White Dwarf
In my town in the early 80s, there was really only one place you could get anything RPG related. Pope & Smith had two stores, one devoted to sports-wear and school uniforms, the other to toys and games. The RPG section was tiny, and utterly random. Imagine a small desk top, covered with magazines, the occasional box, and a spinning stand with little polythene packets hanging precariously from it. That was it.
Positioning wise, as it still is today in most toy and game stores, the hobby stuff was kept right next to the till area, presumably to dissuade thievery. In Pope& Smith they went one better. Behind the counter there stood three old ladies, all looking like a Les Dawson sketch, with Edna Everage glasses and blue rinses. They were fearsome. More than two minutes browsing that section and the glare would be turned upon you. Quite why me and my mates came in for such scrutiny I don’t know. We were nice boys. It was the lads at school armed with flick knives I was more concerned with. Still, they were too busy making shurikens in metalwork to worry about whether or not the latest White Dwarf had joined the pile.
Ah, White Dwarf.
The first copy I bought was The Best of White Dwarf Articles. Or was it Scenarios? Either way they were the first two. My operating capital was pocket money only so I had to take care with purchases. These seemed like a good deal. Plus, I’d already managed to read them virtually cover to cover in snatched moments when the dragons behind the counter were busy discussing ‘youth today and their shortcomings’.
WD was the mother lode of the hobby in the UK at the time. Heck, it was the only lode. I devoured every part of those two mags. They reside in a box not 20 feet from me today (along with the first 100 issues) yet I don’t need to go get them to refresh my memory. I didn’t just pore over the content, I memorised the adverts. This was important, because on the off chance my parents ever passed through a town somewhere in the UK, say on the way to a holiday, or a relative, I needed to know where I could get my hobby fix. To this day I keep my hobby store radar fully primed.
There was an advert that took the form of a half page comic strip. Crudely drawn, depicting an alien race of lizards, with lasers and stuff. Crucially, it was a story in two parts, spread of the two Best Ofs I’d bought. Two parts! Now that’s marketing.
I read, and copied out in long hand, the credits. I had plenty of heroes back then, rock stars, footballers and Felicity Kendal out of The Good Life, but none of them compared to the ultimate, unknowable, untouchable super deity, the White Dwarf editor. I simply couldn’t have imagined a better job. What a score! Writing all day, gaming all night, reading fan mail, books and boxes available on tap… a dream! My first editor was Ian Livingstone, who has turned out to have an incredible amount of influence on my life (we met once, nice man).
The content was something else. To be honest, I didn’t understand all of it (I spent ages trying to figure out the Monstermark stuff, longer than I ever did on Maths homework) but that was part of the mystique. I wanted to be part of this esoteric and impossibly learned community, which seemed to be made up of Cambridge gentlemen. Phil Masters. Marcus Rowland. David Langford. Don Turnbull. Andy Slack. Lew Pulsipher. Albie Fiore. To me, these guys were something special. It wasn’t what they were writing, it was that they had been published, and in the hallowed pages of White Dwarf at that. That’s a pretty special thing in my book, then and now.
Actually, the content was important in one particular way. I couldn’t afford modules. I also was so in awe of D&D that I didn’t want to get it wrong by writing my own stuff (“Me? A writer? Don’t be ridiculous, I’m nowhere near ready for all that…”). So I needed scenarios and Albie Fiore had provided two for the Best Of, The Halls of Tizun Thane, and The Lichway. I don’t know how many times I ran these scenarios, but it must have been dozens each. They put me off writing for decades, because they were just so well done. And the maps! Oh, they were glorious.
I never bought that much from Pope & Smith really, to be fair, they never had much in. I got my games from swaps with the guys at Wargames Club, very occasionally mail order (with postal orders kids!) and rare trips up to London to Orc’s Nest and the Virgin Megastore. On one solitary occasion I shared a lift to a party in Hampshire just so I could go to Esdevium. Now that was like the end scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark! Magical. In any case, I got by, and you didn’t need much then. Once you had your dice, you were off.
Pope & Smith have moved now, and have long since dropped the toy and game branch. Eventually I was to see gaming retail from the other side of the counter. I promised myself then that I would treat my customers with less suspicion, and a lot more respect than I’d garnered from the three hags. How naive that would turn out to be.