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Saturday 11 November 2023

Best of... White Dwarf Scenarios

Before the advent of the internet, the magazine was the focus of the hobby’s attention, a platform in whose pages could be news, reviews, and content for the roleplaying game of each reader’s choice, as well as a classified section and a letters page where the issues of day—or at least month—could be raised and discussed in chronically lengthy manner. In this way, such magazines as White Dwarf, Imagine, Dragon, and many others since, came to be our community’s focal point and sounding board, especially a magazine that was long running. Yet depending upon when you entered the hobby and picked up your first issue of a roleplaying magazine, you could have missed a mere handful of issues or many. Which would have left you wondering what was in those prior issues. Today, tracking down back issues to find out and complete a magazine’s run is much easier than it was then, but many publishers offered another solution—the ‘Best of…’ magazine. This was a compilation of curated articles and support, containing the best content to have appeared in the magazine’s pages.

1980 got the format off to a good start with both The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios and The Best of White Dwarf Articles from Games Workshop as well as the Best of Dragon from TSR, Inc. Both publishers would release further volumes of all three series, and TSR, Inc. would also reprint its volumes. Other publishers have published similar volumes and in more recent times, creators in the Old School Renaissance have begun to collate and collect content despite the relative youth of that movement. This includes The Gongfarmer’s Almanac which has collected community content for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game since 2015 and Populated Hexes Monthly Year One which collected the content from the Populated Hexes Monthly fanzine. The ‘Best of…’ series of reviews will look at these and many of the curated and compiled titles from the last four decades of roleplaying.


The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios was published in 1980. Unlike its counterpart, The Best of White Dwarf Articles, it did not have the benefit of containing “Selected material from the first 3 years of White Dwarf”. Where The Best of White Dwarf Articles could draw from White Dwarf Issue No. 1 to White Dwarf Issue No. 20, the first scenario its pages only appeared in White Dwarf Issue No. 9 with ‘The Lichway’. Prior to that, the dungeon encounter, ‘Lair of the Demon Queen’ whish appeared in White Dwarf Issue No. 7 and ‘A Place in the Wilderness’ in White Dwarf Issue No. 11, and although both are included in this anthology, neither are scenarios in the strict roleplaying definition. However, within a few issues of ‘The Lichway’ being published, scenarios would become a regular feature of White Dwarf and grow in both detail and sophistication. Further, unlike The Best of White Dwarf Articles, the range of roleplaying games supported by The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios is not limited to just Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller. There are scenarios for RuneQuest, Gamma World, and Chivalry & Socerery, and like Ian Livingstone pointed out in his editorial, “Readers should also bear in mind that with a little thought, these adventures can be used in games systems other than the others for they were designed; the Pool of the Standing Stones, for example has been successfully converted to C&S.” Indeed, many of the scenarios in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios are not just playable to today, they can still be converted and updated to more modern roleplaying games or updated iterations of older roleplaying games. Consequently, the contents of The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios are far more applicable and useable today than the contents of The Best of White Dwarf Articles.

The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios opens with the magnificent ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, from White Dwarf Issue No. 18. Written by Albie Fiore, its title is inspired by Robert E. Howard’s ‘The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune’ and there are references too to other stories by Howard throughout the scenario. Yet, the Swords & Sorcery influences are trumped by the Vancian tone, this scenario feeling as if comes from the pages of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels. There are nods too, to other content from White Dwarf, such as the lamented Houri Class from White Dwarf Issue No. 13 (republished in The Best of White Dwarf Articles) and the Necromancer Class, which would not be published until White Dwarf Issue No. 35! The adventure itself sees a village in peril from strange shadowy figures that hunt and kill at night and the villagers are sure come from the nearby mansion of Tizun Thane, a wizard who lives with his two brothers. The mansion itself is located in the middle of a lake in the caldera of a volcano, a palace of exotic delights full of secret doors and mysteries alongside the mundane areas where his servants worked. However, the Player Characters will quickly learn that he is dead and consequently, the household has descended into rivalry and factionalism as the brothers feud with each other, whilst the murderer lurks, lamenting his actions. There are new monsters, like the chimpanzee-like Nandie-Bear, run riot over the mansion’s rooftops; Carbuncle, an armadillo-like creature which will foretell the future of the Player Characters again and again for the fun of it and the chaos it will cause; the death-worm-like Necrophidius; the brain-eating, Wendigo-like, Gu’en-deeko.

However, it is the map of the mansion that so clearly stands out, richly detailed and interesting. Combine it with the description and what the Dungeon Master has, is a building which before it began to go to seed, was lived and worked in, so lacks the artifice that a dungeon adventure would have by comparison. It is a tough adventure for First and Second Level Player Characters, especially given that the threat endangering the villagers are not ones that the Player Characters can really affect. Even if they do manage to find magic weapons capable of inflicting damage, they are incredibly tough. ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ is a great scenario, a superb mix of rich detail, lovely cartography, and roleplaying potential with its factionalism and decent NPCs. There is even scope to expand the scenario via the previous owner’s set of magic mirrors which the Player Characters could learn to use and travel back and forth on various adventures. They would, of course, have to claim the house and make it their own. To effectively run the scenario, the Dungeon Master will need to unpack it as part of her preparation, but ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ is almost worth the price of admission in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios.

Unfortunately, John Bethell’s ‘Lair of the White Wyrm’ is not. Originally published in White Dwarf Issue No. 14 for use with RuneQuest, it details a former two-level Dragonewt colony which is rumoured to have harboured a young Wyrm. The problem is that the dungeon is zoo-like in its design, with a mixture of traps and differing creatures present without making any real sense. There are Dwarves, Dark Trolls and Trollkin, Scorpionmen (oddly chained up in a five-foot wide corridor, whilst still leaving for the Player Characters to get past), Broo, and a Duck played for silliness. It is mishmash of elements which really do not fit the setting and really lack motivation.

First published in White Dwarf Issue No. 16, ‘Paths of the Lil’ is the sole entry for use with Gamma World. Written by James M. Ward, designer of Metamorphosis Alpha and co-designer of Gamma World, this details the lair of diminutive Lil, an almost fae-like species known for their beauty, the toughness of their wings, and their willingness to defend their lairs, which consist of dense thickets of brambles covered in surprisingly sharp thorns. Assaulting the ‘Paths of the Lil’ would be a tough challenge and the Player Characters would really need a good reason to do so. The encounter is decently detailed though and could easily be added to a Game Master’s Gamma World campaign, perhaps adding the ‘Paths of the Lil’ and its occupants as a faction rather than an enemy straight off.

The second of the scenarios in the anthology for RuneQuest is also the first of two scenarios taken from the pages of White Dwarf Issue No. 19. ‘Jorthan’s Rescue’ by John T. Sapienza Jr. and Stephen R. Marsh is a raid or rescue style scenario in which the Player Characters are hired by a merchant to rescue her noble husband, who has been kidnapped by a gang of Trollkin and is holding him to ransom. The Player Characters simply have to sneak up on the abandoned hunting lodge where the Trollkin are holding Jorthan and bust him out. The gang consists in the main of Trollkin, but they are led by a Dark Troll bruiser and secretly, his mate of choice. The emphasis is upon combat as the Player Characters fight their way through the lodge, and whilst the Trollkin are dangerous individually, there are quite a few of them. The scenario packs not just a lot of stats—this being a scenario for RuneQuest 2 and so every monster gets full stats—into its pages, but quite a bit of detail and humour too. For example, the Trollkin guarding the front door is called Sleepy and he will be woken up when the spear he has leaning against the door is knocked over. The scenario also comes with an alternative layout for a different set-up. Overall, the scenario feels slightly too compact for all of the information it has to present, but again, it is easy to use and easy to adapt, especially for the RuneQuest Game Master who wants to move it from the suggested location of between Boldhome and the Pavis Rubble. (Indeed, this is exactly what I did with the version updated for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha). Overall, a very playable and exciting little scenario.

Lew Pulsipher—a regular contributor to White Dwarf who already had articles published in The Best of White Dwarf Articles—contributes two scenarios to The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios. The first is ‘A Bar-Room Brawl: D&D Style’ from White Dwarf Issue No. 11. This opens with a nice bit of background to the scenario ion that it was originally run at DragonMeet 1 all the way back in August 1978, as a convention scenario. Combine the map with some miniatures for both the brawlers and the fixtures and fittings of the tavern, and this would, indeed, look like quite impressive on the table at a convention. 
Stated for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, it packs everything that the Dungeon Master needs into three pages. This includes—in the centrespread of The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios—the open floorplan of the tavern, furniture and fixtures to cut out and use on the floorplan, and details and tokens for some fifteen would-be brawlers. This includes a wererat, a Female Assassin, Gnoll bouncer, Anticleric, and Bar-Keeper, as well as a mix of adventurer types, plus the rest of the NPC staff. All of the Player Characters have motivations, such as the Wererat wanting to kill all clerics, the Ranger on the track of a Wererat, a Female Fighter with a hatred of non-humans, the Gnoll is a bouncer—only armed with a two-handed sword, and so on. The scenario also incudes some play results, but unfortunately it is also let down by the motivation for the Anticleric. This is, “You want a woman, either voluntarily or by rape. (Time required for the act is at least two rounds, not including time necessary to remove your armour.)” This reprehensibly unpleasant, more so than the inclusion of the Houri Class in The Best of White Dwarf Articles. These days such a thing would not be allowed and rightly so, but its inclusion here and in White Dwarf Issue No. 11 was a sign that the editors did not get everything right at the time.

Fortunately, the second entry from Lew Pulsipher is not as unpleasant, but is not really a scenario. ‘A Place in the Wilderness’ appeared in White Dwarf Issue No. 6 and what it details are the species of Dragons from the Jack Vance novel, The Dragon Masters, and a very little of the setting. It does not include the full Science Fiction elements of the setting, such as spaceships or beam or pellet weapons, but just the Dragons. Even at a page long, it feels out of place in the anthology, more article than scenario.

There is a certain sense of loss to Don Turnbull’s contribution to The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios, of what would be, had we had had access to his Greenlands dungeon. ‘Lair of the Demon Queen’ from White Dwarf Issue No. 7 details a single encounter for use with Dungeons & Dragons and Player Characters of roughly Seventh Level—a rare occurrence of a scenario not designed for low-level Player Characters. It is a puzzle encounter with the Player Characters trapped in a room with a number of puzzles the clues to which are given out by a series of magic mouths in verse form. It only does this three times, so that players had better pay attention. By deciphering the verse, the Player Characters can solve the puzzle, or at least set off the various traps without suffering any damage, revealing a number of hidden areas as they progress. Most of these contain a mix of treasure and undead—often quite nasty undead, ultimately leading to the release of the ‘Demon Queen’ herself. Turnbull does give as so much suggest monsters and populate the encounter, and for the ‘Demon Queen’ he suggests a Banshee and a much nastier one than would appear in Dungeons & Dragons. This one cannot die unless someone dies first, that is, one of the Player Characters. The rewards he suggests are rich indeed, but are they worth the loss of a Player Character (or if the players are amoral, of a hireling)? The encounter is written in an engaging and chatty style and provides a big challenge for both characters and players.

The only scenario for Traveller in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios is ‘The Sable Rose Affair’. Bob McWilliams’ scenario originally appeared in White Dwarf Issue No. 17 and primarily takes place on the Alell, a high-law world in the Regina subsector of the Spinward Marches. There has been an outbreak of piracy across the subsector and the Imperial Galactic Survey’s Planetary Rescue Systems Inspectorate (or PRSI) have identified a man on Alell who is a front for the local government, which is a communist-style impersonal bureaucracy, which is ultimately behind the piracy. He owns a club, the Sable Rose, in the Journeyman’s Quarter of the planetary capital, Naness. The Player Characters, as members of a PRSI Task Force—several pre-generated Player Characters, all ex-army or ex-marine, are given—are tasked with infiltrating the club, locating the target, and extracting him from both club and off-world without arousing local suspicion. Besides the pre-generated Player Characters, the scenario includes a good set of maps and floorplans, and is notably, broken up into a series of short modules, graphically presented as a series of files strewn over a table. These are literally designed to be modular, so that there are some for the players’ eyes and some only for the Game Master. There are suggestions on how the scenario can be played out with two sets of Player Characters, one the PRSI Task Force and one the staff and head of the club. Either way, this a very nicely detailed one-shot, but also easy to fit into a more-military-focused campaign, a type which Traveller readily supported with Book 4: Mercenary.

‘Grakt’s Crag’ by Will Stephenson appeared in appeared in White Dwarf Issue No. 20 and is a scenario for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition for Third Level Player Characters. It details the tomb of a long dead king and his queen, and until recently, no one had managed to break into it. The Player Characters will discover as they explore the tomb, either through the original entrance or the entrances dug by the intruder. He has also hired guards to keep others, like the Player Characters, out. As a tomb, the scenario is linear and filled with traps—many of which are deadly—and puzzles, including a series weighted and unweighted elevator plates, different each time, that the Player Characters must overcome. Overall, it is a serviceable enough dungeon that will test the players and their characters.

‘Ogre Hunt’ by Tom Keenes is the single scenario for Chivalry & Sorcery. The second scenario to appear in White Dwarf Issue No. 19, this is designed for four to seven low-level Player Characters and is set in the forest and valley near of the quiet village of Harlow, on the southern border of Arden in the Southmarch region. Conflict between the Empire of Archaeron and Arden means that the local lord and his men are away, leaving the village defenceless and open to the predations of an ogre. The Player Characters are hired to track the threat down and deal with it. ‘Ogre Hunt’ is short and simple, a one-session affair that essentially points the Player Characters in the right direction after encounters with a couple of NPCs. Here there are opportunities for roleplaying before the confrontation with the ogre, but the overall simplicity, along with the scenario being just two pages, makes it easy to run and easy to adapt to the setting or system of the Game Master’s choice. The only issue is that the maps are too dark in places to be able to find certain locations, but otherwise, ‘Ogre Hunt’ is still very playable and very adaptable.

If ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ is almost worth the price of admission in The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios, then ‘The Lichway’ caps that and together, both are worth the price of admission alone. Originally appearing in White Dwarf Issue No. 9, this is another scenario by Albie Fiore and again it is another classic. Designed for a party of First level Player Characters for Dungeons & Dragons, it describes a large burial complex where an ancient people entombed their dead. The complex has long since been abandoned and its builders long since disappeared, but it contains promise of treasure and bounty on a wizard of ill repute. At its heart is one big trap. Set the trap off and the Player Characters will unleash a problem not just for themselves, but the surrounding area, much like Death Frost Doom did for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying in 2009. Surrounding this central trap, which the Player Characters really have to be proactive in order to set off, are the halls of the Lichway and its surrounding rooms. Here the Player Characters will find a variety of dangers, including several NPCs, all simply and easily presented and very easy for the Dungeon Master to bring into play. A favourite NPC is a would-be wizard who is absolutely useless at everything, but still under the effects of a Charm spell. So, he will be incredibly helpful, just not any good at it! However, there is the strong inference that one of the NPCs has been raping another whom he is holding prisoner. Now this is not quite as bad having to roleplay a character who is prepared to commit rape as in the earlier ‘A Bar-Room Brawl: D&D Style’, but that in no way makes it any good as a story element. Again, it is proof that times and attitudes have changed, ‘The Lichway’ originally having been published forty-five years ago, and that the editors of White Dwarf did not always get it right. That said, adjust or change this aspect of the interaction between the NPCs, and ‘The Lichway’ is still a very good adventure. In fact, like ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’, it is a great adventure with an eerie feel to it as sound whistles around the halls of the complex and NPCs plot and plan from its side rooms.

Lastly, ‘Pool of the Standing Stones’ is an adventure for Dungeons & Dragons for Player Characters of Fifth and Sixth Level. Written by Bill Howard and published in White Dwarf Issue No. 12., it begins in odd fashion, with the Player Characters coming to the aid of a law-abiding village who had several of its young women abducted by a druid. This is because he believed the village to be too Lawful, so introduced some balancing Chaos with the abduction. Deal with him and potentially, they will find something else, a complex dedicated to evil. The resulting dungeon is a nicely detailed complex, home to some vile characters and elements. However, one of the NPCs does wear armour adapted for the molestation of women. Again, not as bad having to roleplay a character who is prepared to commit rape as in the earlier ‘A Bar-Room Brawl: D&D Style’, but that in no way makes it any good as a story element, even though in this case, it is not quite as explicit.

As with The Best of White Dwarf Articles, there is one last aspect of The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios to enjoy and that is the adverts. There is a sense of nostalgia and wonder in examining these adverts from the past, for shops that have long since closed down such as Dungeons & Starships or Forever People and for products long out of print, Ral Patha’s board games—Witch’s Cauldron, Final Frontier, Galactic Grenadiers, and Caverns Deep, and then Metagaming’s The Fantasy Trip.

Physically, The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios is cleanly, tidily presented. The Conan-esque, Frazetta-style cover by Steve Brown is great and whilst there is less artwork in the anthology than in The Best of White Dwarf Articles, there is more cartography and this is almost all uniformly great.

The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios is undoubtedly a great anthology of scenarios. It is not perfect, some entries are not really scenarios and some are merely fine, but the best, ‘The Halls of Tizun Thane’ and ‘The Lichway’ standout as great pieces of both scenario and adventure design. Together, they are worth the price of a copy of The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios—both in 1980 at time of publication and now. What spoils the adventures slightly are the prurient, unfortunate, and unnecessary references to the poor treatment of women in even some of the great scenarios in the anthology. And only ‘slightly’ because such references can be removed and something else placed in their stead with only minor adjustments when it comes to updating the scenarios, and because times and attitudes do change. Of course, there is also the element of nostalgia in returning to these scenarios and reading and playing through them again, but in so many cases, that nostalgia is warranted. The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios was an excellent anthology of scenarios in 1980, showcasing how quickly White Dwarf had matured and developed in terms of adventure design and sophistication within just fifteen issues, and even putting nostalgia aside, it is still a great anthology of scenarios. For the British roleplayer of a certain age, there can be no doubt that 
The Best of White Dwarf Scenarios was and remains the definitive anthology of the best content from either White Dwarf or any roleplaying magazine compilation. 

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