The Internet Archive is one of the great treasures of the internet, housing content in every media; texts, video, audio. It’s also the home of the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Internet from 1996. I thought I had explored the site pretty thoroughly—at least according to my own interests—but recently came across runs of some of the great gaming magazines of the 1970s and 80s; The Space Gamer, Ares, Polyhedron, The General, and—temporarily—Dragon Magazine. These magazines represent not only the golden age of gaming, but expose the thrill and excitement of gaming when it was still new, still on the margins. It was a time when gaming still felt a little, dare I say, punk.
Today, finding members of your particular community of interest is a Google search away, but in the 1970s the only way to be in contact with others who shared interests was through magazines. For many gamers, even finding the games could be difficult. Discovering the gaming magazines revealed an active gaming industry that still maintained a sense of being on the vanguard.
The earliest issues show off their newsletter origins. The Space Gamer and The Generalstarted off on plain paper in black and white. Even the first issues of Dragon look like a teenager’s fanzine, but the enthusiasm and energy are infectious. Who couldn’t love the introduction of new monsters for your campaign such as the Gem Var, a creature composed entirely of gemstone and that cannot take damage from bladed weapons. The artists, editors and letter writers were the best friends you had never met. Gaming in the 1970 and 80s felt a little like being into punk rock. You knew it was offbeat, knew that outsiders didn’t get it, but you also knew that this was cool. Even the advertisements and listings of conventions expanded the universe of gaming a thousandfold. Not unlike ordering 45s of unknown bands from punk zines, was sending away for microgames, miniatures and supplements from tiny game publishers.
Browsing through them now using Internet Archive’s terrific “read online” feature, it’s clear how important these magazines were to a fledgling hobby (and how wonderfully awful some of the artwork was). The amount of new gaming content these magazines offered is astonishing, and it was this very malleability of the rules that created a sense within the community of gamers that it was perpetually new, always reaching out towards the next idea. The first issue of Dragon Magazine from 1976 (then called The Dragon) admitted in its editor’s note that it was entering new territory, but managed to fill that pioneering issue with a story by Fritz Leiber, new spells, a discussion of science and magic in D&D, and introduced a regular section called “Mapping the Dungeons,” which was a list of the names and addresses of gamemasters looking for players (David Mumper of Henniker, New Hampshire, where are you now?).
Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) put out Ares Magazine, and each issue offered a complete game including a map and a rack of punch-out counters. The PDFs currently at Internet Archive include scans of these elements and it’s painful to not be able to press out those beautiful little counters. The Space Gamer focused mostly on publisher Metagaming’s own properties. By issue #27, the magazine came under the auspices of Steve Jackson Games (SJG) and offered a much greater variety of content, with material for AD&D, Call of Cthulhu and computer games.
The General , published by Avalon Hill (makers of PanzerBlitz and one of the great war games of all time, Starship Troopers, among others), was geared towards the historical with smatterings of science fiction, but later issues had quite a bit of fantasy fare as well. The Generalalso offered articles on strategy and tactics employed during actual wars and a classified section called “Opponents Wanted” where lonely gamers posted messages in the hopes of finding other players: “Adult player looking for opponents (female players welcomed) to play AH non-wargames, especially RB, KREM, DIP, CIV. RB fanatics. Write me!”
Having these magazines up at Internet Archive—or other easily-found online locations—corresponds perfectly with the old-school renaissance taking place in the world of role-playing games, as well as an overall nostalgia for ’70s gaming in general. The recent Kickstarter to republish Steve Jackson’s Ogre netted $923,680 (they were looking for $20,000). Wizards of the Coast recently made PDFs available the original rules and modules for AD&D, as well as a limited edition boxed set reprinting the impossibly rare “White Box.” And Gygax Magazine was just launched this January by Luke Gygax, Gary’s son.
Those of us who gamed in the ’70s and ’80s are hitting middle-age and have kids of our own who couldn’t draw a dungeon map if their life depended on it. We are looking back at our lives, remembering fondly the things we deeply loved.
When I was 12-years old, my older brother drove me down the mostly depressed Sterling Avenue in Hollywood, Florida to a nondescript storefront where there was a small variety store, a dry cleaner, and a shop called The Compleat Strategist. It was 1979 and I was just about done with my Legos and tragically losing interest in my Micronauts. We were there, of course, to check out Dungeons & Dragons. My brother chipped in and I walked out with the D&D Basic Set in the blue box, along with the Dungeon Geomorphs and the Monster and Treasure Assortment. I left with something else: a sense that I was about to be initiated into a secret order. Yet is was those magazines that created an idea of fraternity that would finally bring together so many aspects of my pre-adolescence: a love of fantasy and science fiction, an anxious imagination, and an almost righteous identity as an outsider.