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

Saturday 25 March 2023

Delving into Doctor Who

It is clear from the start that a lot of thought has gone into the design of Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. Open the box and underneath the dice is what appears to be a sheet of heavy paper with an image of the TARDIS on it. Pull it out of the box and it is that and more because the front shows the doors to the TARDIS, whilst the back, shows the other side of the TARDIS. Further, the front opens up almost like the doors of the TARDIS to reveal what is in the box. It is, of course, a classic ‘What’s in the box’ sheet, the first thing you should always see when opening a boxed roleplaying game for the first time, but here done as thematically as is possible. Combined with its ‘READ THIS FIRST’ section and what you have is an explanation of what is the box, what exactly the reader has in his hands, and what it is designed to do. It is great start to the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set, but then the publisher, Cubicle Seven Entertainment, has form here, having published the thoroughly excellent and playable Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition.

Cubicle Seven Entertainment has held the licence for a roleplaying game based on the adventures of the time-travelling Time Lord known as Doctor Who since 2009, being with the publication of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. It was intentionally designed to be played by Doctor Who fans new to roleplaying as well as veterans, and over the years has been supported by supplements covered both Classic Who—the first eight generations of the Doctor—and New Who—the later four generations. Only in 2022, did the roleplaying game come up to date to cover the adventures of the thirteenth Doctor with Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition, and by then, the Doctor had once again regenerated into the Fourteenth Doctor and will do so again with the Fifteenth. That though, is all to come. What Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space never received as its own starter set, a box containing basic rules, ready-to-play characters, advice for the Game Master, dice, and an adventure or two, all sufficient to provide a good feel for how the game plays and an idea of whether or not the players want to have further adventures. That though, changes for Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition, which has its own starter set. The Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set is designed to be played out of the box, its play discovered and revealed as the reader delves deeper into the box. So, delving deeper into the box…

Below the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder is a sheaf of five character sheets. These use the same gatefold sheet format as the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder. On the front is the name of the Player Character, what he does, a thumbnail portrait, some quotes that a player can bring into play, a quick explanation of who he is, what he is like, what he enjoys, and reasons to play that character. It is kept quick, simple, and clear, making the basics of the character easy to understand. On the back, there is an even larger portrait of the character, but just like the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder, open up a character sheet and there is much more information. The character and his stats, skills, experiences, equipment, focus, and more are presented in the middle. To the left, a column explains the character concept and various game terms, including Focus, which is the Player Character’s motivation, Tech Level, Short-Term and Long-Term Goals, Attributes, Skills, Distinctions which mean that the Player Character is an alien or has a special skill, and Conditions that the Player Character might suffer. To the right is given the Character Background, a description of what make the Player Character’s heart sing, family, friends, and rivals, elements which the Player Character is encouraged to describe, and an introduction. The sheets all feel complete, and the five include a twenty-first century IT worker who wants to be a baker, a nineteenth century stage performer who wants to be a double act, an augmented human investigator who wants to uncover a conspiracy, a hospitality android from the Luxury Station Phaeton who wants to make a friend, and a Silurian scientist who wants to make a big discovery. Like the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder, the characters are done on heavy stock paper, in full colour, and are attractive to look at.

Underneath the character sheets is the first of two books in Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. This is ‘The Timeless Library’ and it has pictures of the Thirteenth Doctor, some Daleks, and a library with flying books on the front. This is both the first adventure in the starter set and the explanation of the rules, and one of the first things it explains is why the Doctor is not an option as a Player Character, which is because she is missing and the Player Characters have to find her as part of the adventure. The adventures in Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set are designed to be played by three to five players and ‘The Timeless Library’ to teach the rules step-by-step. It starts with the Player Characters finding their way into the TARDIS, introducing themselves, having an opportunity to explore the TARDIS, and make a few skill rolls in determining quite where they are. Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition uses the Vortex System in which if a player wants his character to undertake an action, he rolls two six-sided dice and add the values of an appropriate attribute and skill to beat a Difficulty. A typical Difficulty is twelve. Rolls of one on either die indicate that an attempt has failed in some way, even partially, whilst rolls of six indicate that the attempt was not only successful, but a superior success too. Story Points—each Player Character starts with several—can be used to modify any result. If a Player Character has the Advantage, three dice are rolled and the lowest value discarded whilst the highest result is discarded if at a Disadvantage.

The scenario of ‘The Timeless Library’ takes place in a vast, fabled library, which when the Player Characters arrive, has been recently attacked and instituted security response. Which makes navigating the different sections of the library a challenge, but if the Player Characters can find the head librarian, a Judoon—which should be lots of fun for the Game Master to portray—they can make progress. As they proceed through the library, the players have the opportunity to learn how the Vortex System works, including the core mechanics, how gadgets work, how to get the best use out of Story Points, extended tasks and conflict, there are points where it is suggested that the Game Master can improvise, and there is occasional appearance of the Doctor to throw in, if only to give words of encouragement as a holographic message. When it comes to conflict, the initiative rules are notable in that who goes first depends not a die roll, but on Player Character 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. Meanwhile, the Player Characters can explore the library—or at least examine its shelves, overcome technological barriers, persuade recalcitrant NPCs, and survive an encounter with the Doctor’s greatest enemy—the Daleks, and in the final sequence, get chased up to the highest levels of the library in order to reach the scenario’s McGuffin before the Daleks do. In other words, get to do all of the things that the Doctor and her companions do in an episode.

However, that is not all there is to ‘The Timeless Library’ or indeed in Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. There is advice on how to use the scenario in ‘The Timeless Library’ as a one-shot, but there is trio of adventure hooks for each of the five pre-generated Player Characters as well as ideas for further scenarios once they have played through the events of the campaign in ‘The Echo Chamber’. The adventure in ‘The Timeless Library’ is fun, taking the Player Characters from their first steps into the TARDIS to running around, saving people, and winning the day in a place that is out of this world. Unfortunately, the step-by-step process of learning the rules to the Vortex System through play does not quite work. Initially, the rules are quick and easy to learn, but as the adventure progresses, they do get comparatively more complex. Certainly, when it comes to conflicts and chases, the Game Master will need to prepare those rather than learn on the go.

‘The Echo Chamber’, the second book, picks up where ‘The Timeless Library’ left off. It contains two scenarios, one which is a direct sequel, the eponymously titled ‘The Echo Chamber’. It begins with an investigation in modern London before taking the Player Characters into deep space and an even deeper mystery, until confronting the villain of the piece and rescuing the Doctor on a planet from Classic Who’s past. The middle section is something of a spaceship sandbox—if the spaceship sandbox is also a travelling theatre—which the Player Characters can explore, interact with the crew and the performers, and try and find out more about what is going on. The scenario also provides opportunities for each of the Player Characters to shine, whether that is baking or performing, as part of the investigation, and the Game Master also scenes and nods from Classic Who to portray. If there is an issue with the scenario it is that it could have done with some floorplans for the spaceship to help the Game Master visualise it for her players, and perhaps a few suggestions could have been provided to help the Game Master portray the scenario’s many NPCs. A more open affair, it assumes that by this time the Game Master and her players will have come to understand the rules, and the boxes of information for the Game Master focus on extra content for the scenario rather than Game Master tips. ‘The Echo Chamber’ is an entertaining adventure and brings the events of ‘The Timeless Library’ to a rousing collection.

The second scenario in ‘The Echo Chamber’ is ‘The Hermit’s Lantern’. It is designed to be run as a sequel with the same Player Characters, who if successful, end up with their time travel device, enabling them to continue on their adventures without the Doctor. Stats are provided for the Thirteenth Doctor, should the Game Master want to involve her in the scenario. ‘The Hermit’s Lantern’ is a race to obtain an artefact of the same name, its location a planet only accessible once every fifty years due to severe storms. Means are suggested as to how to get the Player Characters involved other than at the bequest of the Doctor, but once on the planet, they will have a hard journey ahead of them across rough terrain, often stalked by the local fauna. This is a shorter, straightforward, and linear affair, more physical in nature, which does not go out of its way to bring the various aspects of the pre-generated Player Characters into play. Consequently, it is not as interesting to play through ‘The Timeless Library’ and ‘The Echo Chamber’, but it is a decent enough scenario.

In addition to the ‘READ THIS FIRST’ folder, the five character sheets, ‘The Timeless Library’, and ‘The Echo Chamber’, the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set also includes a sheet of Story Point tokens in thick card, and two reference sheets. One has the ‘Attributes and Skills Reference Sheet’ on one side and the ‘Story Points Reference Sheet’ on the other, whilst the second reference sheet has the ‘‘Making a Roll’ Reference Sheet’ on one side and the ‘Success Reference Sheet’ on the other side. ‘Success Reference Sheet’ is also printed on the inside of the lid to the box.

Physically, the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set is very well put together, Everything is bright, breezy, in full colour, and easy to understand, with coloured sections in both books designed to highlight and explain rules, give advice for the Game Master, provide NPC details, and so on. They are only light illustrated, with images taken from the series. One issue however is that the books do need an edit in places as there are several incidences of references to other sections of a book or parts of the starter set are inaccurate, and the authors cannot quite decide what the names of the two books in the starter set are. Unlike ‘The Echo Chamber’, the second book, ‘The Timeless Library’ does not have a card cover, so is more like a magazine and less durable. Another issue is that not all of the NPCs detailed in the three adventures in the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set. Mainly due to a lack of ready photographic sources and the expense of producing full colour art, this however leave the Game Master with pictures for some NPCs and not for others. It feels inconsistent and perhaps something that the Game Master might like to source herself.

An experienced player or Game Master will have no problem opening up the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set and beginning play. If the Game Master has run Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the previous incarnation of the roleplaying game, she will have even less of a problem. The rules have changed only slightly, and then only to streamline them very slightly. The rules are far from difficult to play, but a little extra attention is needed to understand how conflicts and extended tasks are handled according to the rules, so that does slow down the learn-by-play, step-by-step process. Nevertheless, a lot of thought has gone into the process of learning the game by drawing both Game Master and her players deeper into the box and the game, and the resulting rules are easier to understand and the scenarios engaging and entertaining.

Of course, if the Game Master already has access to the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition, then the scenarios in the starter set can be run from those rules. However, both ‘The Echo Chamber’ and ‘The Timeless Library’ are designed to be played using the pre-generated Player Characters, so they will need some adjusting to suit other Player Characters.

The Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition – Starter Set is a great introduction to the Doctor Who: Roleplaying Game Second Edition. It eases the players and their Game Master into the rules and provides them with some exciting adventures to have in time and space!

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