This Gaming Life: Grey Dragon and White Dwarf

By on January 7, 2013
Baz King

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 Best of White Dwarf Articles #1The 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 Best of White Dwarf Scenarios #1The 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.

About Baz King

Baz was introduced to RPGs in 1979, due to a misunderstanding on his part of what Wargaming actually meant. More than 30 years on, and he's coming round to the idea that he might well have been right first time after all. Baz has been GMing for almost all that time, and has never tired of telling people that they are facing 6 goblins, scattered around a 30' chamber. Not afraid to move with the times, he has been known to not use a screen on occasion. Baz looks forward to levelling up so he can get that next feat and spend it on the rest of his name. Until then, lets face it, it's great being king. Baz lives the high life in darkest Essex, surrounded by things he doesn't really need and couldn't really afford. Still, game on eh? He blogs at rpgtreehouse.wordpress.com.

10 Comments

  1. Andy Smith

    7 Jan 13 at 11:51 am

    You brought a tear to my eye Baz, I was lucky enough to live in Derby which meant Nottingham and the 1st “Games workshop” store was only a £1.20 return bus fare away. This was in the days when Games Workshop carried other RPG’s and was a flagship store for the hobby. When I couldn’t get to Nottingham the Derby Co Op superstore had a section devoted to roleplaying games and figures and much like yourself a disapproving set of store staff, who could not fathom why teenage boys wanted to spend so long pouring over the figures and magazines…??

  2. Evilgaz

    7 Jan 13 at 12:12 pm

    Yes Baz! Correct.

    Knowing a White Dwarf editor really takes the magic away. However, back in the day I’d pore over the magazines and save up my pocket money to buy random lead dollies*, get my Dad to write a cheque for that amount, suffer the “what are you spending your money on this tripe for, are you sure?” type argument for five minutes and eagerly await the arrival of gaming goodness. Roleplaying stuff was much the same as you described, except without the Shakespearean witches. I slightly suspect the vendor was hoping someone would steal the RPG stuff then he could claim on insurance.

    I bet all manner of D&D stuff because the shop keeper had no idea what he was ordering, and neither did I, so I bought whatever they had – White Dwarf featuring among this. I got a letter published in an RPG magazine once, which at the time I thought was the height of cool. That’s when you used to write handwritten notes on real paper and post them and wait a month to see if there was a reply. People seemed to put more effort into what they wrote back then and flame wars have trouble igniting when there’s a 30-day turnaround on witty come-backs.

    * the thought that someone might actually play a proper game with me was beyond the realistic, so I just picked up stuff I liked and wanted to paint.

  3. Baz King

    7 Jan 13 at 2:19 pm

    @Gaz. Cheers!

    @ Andy. No no my friend! The first GW was in Dalling Road, Hammersmith. It’s now the Boznia-Herzegovinia drop in centre. Really.
    I know the Hammersmith one because I ended up being the manager for a while. But that’s another column…

  4. Sundog

    9 Jan 13 at 7:53 am

    Golly; swap a few names around and remove the witches, and you have a fair approximation of my early experiences. For me it was the Arcade Toy Shop in Dudley, known these days by the affectionate nickname of “Toys am We”. Back then there were two branches in the arcade, one with small child’s toys, marbles and joke shop fare, the other with hobbies, bikes and the like. Together with Ace Models in the same little stretch of shops, and the Fountain was a little gamer’s mini-mecca, where you could get almost anything you needed.

    The proprietor was reasonably well-versed, and was willing to spend a few minutes during the lunch break chatting with a greasy little sprog like me. His son now runs the shop, though the RPG stuff is gone, and it’s still got the little blue rocket-ride outside that I used to ride in when I was five!

  5. Rod Batten

    9 Jan 13 at 5:10 pm

    God I loved the old White Dwarf. I used to buy it back in th ’80s and I still read the articles, adventures and reviews. So much value for money! And who can forget the Travellers or Thrud the Barbarian?

    Maybe it’s because of my advancing years, but I don’t get the same feeling from the newer, more focused RPG magazines that I did from the old WD. It was RPG polymath heaven!

  6. Henk Langeveld

    10 Jan 13 at 7:27 am

    I’ve got some parallel experience. I was introduced to AD&D in ’79 and just then encountered another guy who played it and was attending the same school as myself. We played frequently until he left a lot of his AD&D stuff to me. On my second visit to London I made sure I found that tiny shop in Hammersmith. I then started collecting Gloranthan stuff and went on to visit the UK more frequently – and met Ian Livingstone at Games Day (’85). I spent a lot on money orders for subscriptions, roughly until the editors said farewell in the contents of the magazine when the office was moved to Notthingham.

  7. Richard

    10 Jan 13 at 12:08 pm

    Walk down my road to the bottom of the hill. Wait at the bus stop. Jump on the 220, hand over 10p. Get off at the Hammy Odeon. 15 minute stroll full of expectation. Walk through the door of Games Workshop. Peruse……..everything. Buy…….something. Read on way back on 220, sometimes hiding purchase to avoid looking like a freak. Repeat two weeks later.

    Until…….”Hey, where did all the cool stuff go? What’s with all the figs?”

    Halls Of Tizun Thane. My, oh my. Players looking across the screen and pondering how on earth they’d offended me so much that I’d sic an Iron Golem on them at first level.

  8. Lewis Pulsipher

    15 Jan 13 at 3:36 pm

    Baz, I think I know the feelings you’re talking about, though in some respects I was on the other side of the fence, and likely rather older than you, at the time.

    It was a pity when White Dwarf became Warhammer Dwarf.

    Lew Pulsipher

  9. Ed

    23 Feb 13 at 3:32 pm

    I got involved in the early eighties – magical times.

    I distinctly remember the letters page of my first WD had a heated debate about a certain Lew Pulsipher :)

    For me the greatest scenario that WD ever published was in that era and as called Terror at Trollmarsh.

  10. rjschwarz

    17 Apr 13 at 5:24 am

    I always thought White Dwarf had more usable content than Dragon. Even articles for games I never played (or even heard of) had great creative stuff. Heck, even the ads for miniatures had character. The Dragon didn’t even seem to be trying.

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