Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Who Take III

Forget Star Wars, and forget Star Trek. Both might be considered the really big licenses to get when it comes to roleplaying, but here in the United Kingdom, there is only license that matters: Doctor Who. With over seven hundred and fifty episodes to its name; a central role that has been officially portrayed by eleven actors – unofficially it is a lot more, including Joanna Lumley; innumerable novels and audio adventures; and an incredible array of iconic monsters, it is no wonder that the series has been a fan favourite for almost five decades. And that was all before its relaunch in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor and then David Tennant as the Tenth, which has turned a series previously ill regarded by the BBC into a worldwide phenomenon, let alone almost mandatory Saturday teatime viewing. Given the popularity of the new version of the television series, it is no surprise that it got its own RPG in the form of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game from Cubicle Seven Entertainment.

Of course, we have been here before, because Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is the third RPG to bring the adventures of the Time Lord and his many Companions to your gaming table. The Doctor Who Roleplaying Game was published by FASA in 1986 and is probably best known for its flexibility with regard to series canon and its decent adventures, while Virgin Publishing’s 1991 Time Lord — Adventures through Time and Space was more faithful, but it lacked rules for character generation and never received the support it deserved. (Unlike the FASA version, Time Lord is available online, but please take a look at this review and then Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space first). In comparison to the new and third RPG to be based on Doctor Who, both The Doctor Who Roleplaying Game and Time Lord were fairly atypical traditional RPGs, for while Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is quite traditional and straightforward in terms of its mechanics, its approach marks it as anything but a traditional RPG.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is designed to be understood and played by someone who is new to roleplaying – specifically the Doctor Who fan of course – and so can even be more easily understood by the experienced gamer, making it easy to run, at least in terms of the game’s rules. Also, the game specifically covers the adventures of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors only, and even then, more the Tenth than the Ninth Doctor, being designed to appeal to those who enjoyed the most recent television series. Thus anyone wanting information pertaining to Classic Doctor Who and the adventures of the First through Eighth Doctors (oh the poor misbegotten Eighth Doctor!) will have to wait for the appropriate sourcebooks or make up the stuff that he wants. Plus and unlike most contemporary and traditional RPGs, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space comes as a boxed set. And what a boxed set it is!

Inside the box you will find two books: “The Player’s Guide” (eighty-six pages) and “The Gamemaster’s Guide” (one hundred and forty pages); one booklet, the “Adventures Book” (thirty-two pages); a sheaf of character sheets and several gadget sheets; a set of six six-sided dice; and a sheet of Story Tokens. All sitting under a four-page “Quickstart Guide” that explains what is in the box and what a player needs to know to begin playing. Each of the books is profusely illustrated with photographs from the series and laid out using lots of colour, although in places the layout and style pallet does get a bit too busy upon the eye. The character sheets are easy to read and include write-ups for the Tenth Doctor and every one of his Companions – from Rose and Micky to Sarah Jane Smith and K-9 via Captain Jack Harkness and Donna Noble, plus archetype templates such as medical doctor, student, Torchwood Operative, or UNIT soldier that are ready to play bar the personal details. There are blank character sheets as well for the player who wants to create his character from scratch. Even the dice are nice, being clear six-sided dice with pips the same shade of blue as the TARDIS.

So the first question that anyone is going to ask is, “Can I play the Doctor?” Well, yes you can, with the other players taking the roles of his Companions. Essentially, this is the default set up for the game, the one that will appeal to fans of the series who are coming to roleplaying for the first time. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game does limit its options to just that. It can be played with the Doctor and new Companions, with a new Time Lord and Companions old or new, with just new Time Lords, or with just new Companions. The latter option lends itself to various set ups, such as the players taking the roles of member of a UNIT team or an independent team of alien or monster hunters out to protect the Earth. While these options will probably appeal to experienced roleplayers, they also highlight one area that a Doctor Who fan coming to the game will wonder about: “How can I play a Time Lord when the Doctor is the last of his kind?” The simple answer to that question is that the game is not intended to be played as a exact simulation of the television series, but rather be played in the style of the series with the Game Master and his players creating their stories. Thus it is possible for there to be more than one Time Lord having survived the Time War, more than seven Time Agents at large, and so on.

As expected, the Doctor is a very powerful and very capable character, but a degree of balance is built into the game because most Companions – most of whom will be Humans – will possess more Story Points than a Time Lord, or indeed a Time Agent (a la Captain Jack), an alien, or a robot. Even so, a Time Lord is generally more capable than most Companions, especially if he is an Experienced Time Lord and so to avoid arguments, the easiest options are the all-Companion or the all-Time Lord games, if a GM wants there to be a Time Lord involved, that he remain as an NPC. If using the latter set up, then the Doctor or the Time Lord can easily be best kept busy while his Companions explore the details of the adventure.

The next question is likely to be, “How do I create a character?” Once a player has an idea for his character, the process is relatively simple. Twenty-four Character Points are divided between six attributes (Strength, Coordination, Awareness, Ingenuity, Resolve, and Presence) and any good Traits (or advantages) that a player wants his character to have. The attributes are rated between one and six, with three being the Human average. Attributes can be higher, but not without selecting a Trait such as Alien or Time Lord. In addition to good Traits such as Boffin, Run for your Life, and Screamer!, a character can have bad Traits, like Dark Secret, Impulsive, or Outcast. Another eighteen Skill Points are divided between twelve skills – Athletics, Convince, Craft, Fighting, Knowledge, Marksman, Medicine, Science, Subterfuge, Survival, Technology, and Transport – that are each very broad in scope, although it is possible for a character to have a speciality for any skill. Lastly, a character receives twelve Story Points and needs to have his Tech Level and his Motivation – why he journeys through time and space. A sample character looks like this:

Mrs. “Nanny” Merriweather
Awareness 4 Coordination 2 Ingenuity 3
Presence 4 Resolve 4 Strength 2
Athletics 2 Convince 4 Craft 2 Fighting 0
Knowledge 3 Marksman 0 Medicine 2 Science 2
 Subterfuge 2 Survival 0 Technology 0 Transport 2
Traits: Charming (Good Minor Trait), Empathic (Good Minor Trait), Face in the Crowed (Good Minor Trait), Indomitable (Good Major Trait), Resourceful Pockets (Handbag) (Good Minor Trait), Voice of Authority (Good Minor Trait); By the Book (Bad Minor Trait), Technically Inept (Bad Minor Trait)
Home Tech Level: 4 Story Points: 12
Motivation: To protect her ward

Creating a Time Lord, a Time Agent, an Alien, or a Robot character is slightly more complex. To create any one of these takes not only Character Points but also Story Points to purchase the appropriate Traits, and this cost in Story Points is permanent! These Traits grant powerful advantages though. For example, the Time Lord Trait costs two Character Points and reduces the character’s Story Points by four, but grants him two levels of the Ingenuity Attribute, “Feel the Turn of the Universe” Trait (lets him feel the ebb and flow of time), the Vortex Trait (necessary if he is to “control” the TARDIS), and a free Major Gadget like the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.  It should be noted that this is all for a young Time Lord, and that the Doctor has the “Experienced” trait several times, representing a greater number of Regenerations used. Anyway, this is what a young Time Lord looks like:

Jeremy
Awareness 3 Coordination 3 Ingenuity 6
Presence 3 Resolve 3 Strength 2
Athletics 1 Convince 2 Craft 2 Fighting 0
Knowledge 3 Marksman 0 Medicine 1 Science 4
 Subterfuge 1 Survival 0 Technology 4 Transport 0
Traits: Feel the Turn of the Universe (Special Good Trait), Psychic (Special Good Trait), Time Lord (Special Good Trait), Vortex (Special Good Trait); Brave (Good Minor Trait), Photographic Memory (Good Major Trait); Amnesia (Bad Minor Trait), Argumentative (Bad Minor Trait), Insatiable Curiosity (Bad Minor Trait), Obsession (Discovering his heritage) (Bad Minor Trait)
Home Tech Level: 10 Story Points: 8
Motivation: To discover his origins
Galifreyan Survival Knife (Major Gadget)
Traits: Open/Close, Scan, Weld; Restriction (Complex controls); Story Points: 2

So once you have your character, how do you do anything? The task resolution system in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is straightforward enough. Two six-sided dice are rolled and added to an appropriate attribute and an appropriate skill to beat a given difficulty. A normal difficulty is twelve, which means that a character with average values of three in both attribute and skill will be successful on a roll of six or more, but a difficulty can be as low as three or as high as thirty! Sometimes it will be not just a matter of succeeding or failing, but of how well you succeed or how badly you fail. There are three degrees of success: Fantastic (“Yes – and” ...you succeed and something else happens dramatically), Good (“Yes” ...you succeed as planned), and Success (“Yes, but” ...not quite as well as you hoped and something else has gone wrong). Matching these are the degrees of failure: Disastrous (“No – and” ...not only do you fail, but something else goes wrong), Bad (“No” ...you fail, but it could have been worse), and Failure (“No, but” ...it could have been worse, and something happened slightly in your favour). These six degrees do not need to be used every time, but when brought into play they capture the flavour of the series very nicely.

The same set of mechanics is used for combat, but here is where the game veers away from being a traditional RPG. There are any number of RPGs available that possess deadly combat rules, but not only is combat in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space lethal, it is also actively discouraged! This deadliness is represented by having any damage suffered reduce not a character’s Hit Points as it might in other RPGs, but his attributes directly. Which when you consider that three is the average attribute value for a human, you quickly realise just how deadly this game is, and that is before you take into account the fact that you might be facing a fearsome Dalek Ray or the Cyberman Particle Gun which will kill you with a single blast!

Lethality aside, the author’s attempt to persuade the player characters from engaging in fights does not actually start with said lethality, but with the initiative system. Who goes first depends not a die roll, but on your actions. Talkers go first (or Screamers if a Companion possesses both a set of lungs on her and the Screamer Trait), followed by Doers, then Runners, and last of all Fighters. Not only is this elegantly in keeping with the series – how often have you seen the Doctor engage in a brawl as opposed to talking, doing something, or running away? – it also gives the players a chance to run away, or to talk or think their way out of a situation and so avoid getting badly hurt. The point is, if you happen to see a Dalek or a Cyberman, run away until you can come up with a plan to defeat them.

Of course, this being Doctor Who, a character can cheat death, or in the case of the Doctor himself, regenerate. Cheating death requires the expenditure of Story Points, but if a Companion is badly hurt too often he will acquire the Unadventurous Trait and eventually lose the desire to travel with the Doctor or Time Lord, preferring to return home and settle down. This is again, another means of modelling what we have seen throughout the series, especially more recently with the Companions such as Rose Tyler and Martha Jones.

Cheating death though, is not the only way in which to expend Story Points, which in the game come as chunky little hex shaped tokens. Their most basic use is to buy more dice when attempting a task – though only the two highest dice will count towards the task outcome, but only before the dice roll is made. After it has been made, Story Points can only be spent to gain a Success result. Other uses include buying a clue from the GM, temporarily gaining a skill that you do not have, to build or alter devices – usually in conjunction with a device like the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver, to do something remarkable or heroic, or to have something amazing happen. They can be gained for being really heroic, for getting captured rather than resist such apprehension with violence, and for playing up your bad Traits at the appropriate time.

The rules encourage the use of Story Points. This is not just because the average Companion is not just as capable as the Doctor with every skill – or at all in the case of someone like Donna Noble, though she actually has extra Story Points, but because the game has no other use for them. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space has no Experience Point system, and the only way to gain or raise attributes, skills, or traits is when the GM considers it be appropriate. That aside, the Story Points are there to both enforce the heroic and often times dramatic nature of the television series and to give the characters – especially the human Companions who begin the game with more Story Points – a chance to shine. Used within the spirit of the game, and there should be a flow of Story Points back and forth between the GM and his players, and sometimes when necessary, between the players too.

As expected, Gadgets play a prominent role in the game, just as they do on screen. They can be bought during the character creation process, with players allowed to design their own or take one of the examples given, which of course, includes the Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver and Psychic Paper. Interestingly, each Gadget possess its own small pool of Story Points (and added to from a character’s own Story Points) which can spent to pull off small but astounding technical feats. Rather neatly, each Gadget has its own little card upon which its details are noted and its Story Points can be kept. This combination of Story Points and Gadgets is again in keeping with the series because it allows each device to be used at a dramatic moment, for it to play a role without it dominating the story.

Once you raise the question of Gadgets, the next topic of conversation has to be about the TARDIS and time travel. In one sense, the TARDIS is a Gadget all by itself, a very big Gadget, but it is much more than that. It is a means by which the Doctor and his Companions can get to an adventure and sometimes even out of it, playing a much bigger role in both the series and in the game than any other Gadget, so it is actually written up as a character all its very own, complete with attributes, traits, skills, and Story Points. A large part of the chapter amusingly titled – and quoted from the Doctor, “A Big Ball of Time-Wimey Stuff,” is devoted to describing the TARDIS and its abilities. The rest explores the nature of Time Travel and its dangers in the Who universe, including detailing the Reapers and what happens when someone really, really tries to create a paradox. The chapter is well written and keeps everything fairly simple, the aim being to a GM from getting caught up in its potential complexities. The chapter also details how to handle Time Lord Regeneration including not just its dramatic import, but also its accompanying attribute, trait, and appearance changes, suggesting lastly that to reflect a change in character, the newly Regenerated Time Lord should be played by another player.

One disappointing aspect of the game is the lack of monsters for the characters to face. Detailed are iconic classics such as the Cybermen, the Daleks, and the Sontarans, which are joined by the Autons, the Clockwork Robots, the Judoon, the Ood, and the Slitheen amongst others. Inclusion of foes such as the Toclafane and the Krillitane seem less useful, and it would have been nice if the Master had been included. Of course, the lack of space in this boxed set and the wealth of creatures to choose from, and the limited selection listed is more understandable. Then again, the rules for Alien creation enable the GM to create his own just as they allow a player to create a member of an Alien species that he can play.

The Adventures Book contains two full scenarios. The first is “Arrowdown,” is set on Earth, specifically on the Yorkshire coast in a very strange seaside town. It is very English in feel that mixes a heavy dose of the parochial quirkiness that Doctor Who does so well with a shot of pathos that comes in the motivations of the classic monster that is cast as the adventure’s villain. It should provide two or three sessions of play, unlike the second scenario, “Judoom!,” which should only provide just the one session. “Judoom!” is also different in that it is not set on Earth – and so unlike “Arrowdown” cannot be run for a Torchwood game – taking place as it does aboard an out of control Judoon cruiser. Who ever comes to its rescue discovers something strange going on and even though they have come to their rescue, not all of the Judoon crew will be pleased to see the Doctor and his Companions. “Judoom!” contains less of the parochial quirkiness to be found in “Arrowdown,” but the references that it does make are very English, and likely to missed by anyone who is neither English nor of a certain age. The Adventures Booklet is rounded out with almost twenty episode seeds, including a three-part story line. It should be noted that both the scenarios and the scenario seeds are written with the Doctor and his Companions in mind, but references to both can easily be replaced with the player characters. If there is an issue with these story seeds, it is that turning any one of them into a full episode will probably prove to be something of a challenge for the Doctor Who fan who is new to being a GM.

In terms of organisation, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is well done. With a prepared GM, a game can got running once the players have read the “Quickstart Guide” and chosen one of the readymade characters. If a player wants to create his own character, then the “The Player’s Guide” is all that he will need. As you would expect, it explains the basics of the game, tells you how to create a character, and how the rules and the Story Points work. It also tells how to be both a good player and a good roleplayer, useful advice even if you have plenty of roleplaying under your belt. “The Gamemaster’s Guide” contains similar advice, but for the Gamemaster rather than the player, but while it repeats much of the material from the “The Player’s Guide” it only does so to expand upon and explain each element. “The Gamemaster’s Guide” also contains the chapter on time travel and the monsters. The writing style is light and easy, with lots of references to the Doctor and his Companions and how they get things done, plus little asides as to how this game is anything but Torchwood, particularly in tone.

A GM who is experienced both in terms of roleplaying and the television series will not be limited by the contents of this boxed set though. To begin with, he need not limit himself to Doctor Who, because with just a simple change in tone and emphasis, he could run a game based on Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures. The signature characters from both series are included amongst the given ready-to-play player characters, and creating new characters for a game based on either series is far from difficult. Of the two series, Torchwood will probably be easier to run and will appeal to an older audience, plus creating monsters and other threats will be painless, since they are invariably Earthbound. If a GM is short on ideas, there are any number of sourcebooks available that will provide inspiration. Similarly, even more experienced and doubtless older GMs may well have access to the two RPGs based on Doctor Who that came before this one. Together they include details of the First to Seventh Doctors, the numerous foes that the Doctor faced, more background on Classic Doctor Who, plus scenarios. All of this material can be adapted to Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, and it should be pointed out that some of the scenarios published for FASA’s version are excellent. Of course, there are also plenty of good reference books available for Doctor Who, both for the new series and the Classic series, some of which this game is nice enough to suggest. In way, these books will be necessary given that the game does not come with a huge amount of background about the television series.

Just on its own and given what comes in the box, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is an impressive, though not a cheap package. Once you get inside the box and the contents of the books, what you will find is a fine meld of simple and easy to understand rules with the successful attempt to model the series in style rather than absolute terms. (If it were absolute terms, then the only thing that you could play would be the Doctor and his Companions.) Traits such as Screamer, Run for your Life, and Last One of Your Kind, the initiative system, the lethality of the combat system, and the use of the Story Points all serve to enforce the feel of the series and encourage the players to get into the style of Doctor Who. For the roleplaying Doctor Who fan, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is a terrific package; for the Doctor Who fan new to roleplaying, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is a fine introduction to roleplaying; together making Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game an impressive adaptation and modelling of the Doctor Who licence.