Monday, 15 July 2013

Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook

The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (or Unified Intelligence Taskforce as it’s been renamed in recent years*) has long been an iconic element of Doctor Who. In fact, apart from the TARDIS and the Doctor himself, UNIT is perhaps the most enduring element of a show that is all about change. Companions come and go. Even the Doctor changes his form and personality. But UNIT keeps reappearing. It was most prominent in the Jon Pertwee years, of course, but has nonetheless appeared in some form with the vast majority of Doctors at some point or another.

With UNIT playing such a major role in the history of the television show, it only makes sense that any game based on Doctor Who should need to address and describe the organization so that it can be used in the game, too. This is where Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, a supplement for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, comes in. The book gives an in-depth look at UNIT and how to use it in Doctor Who roleplaying games that feature UNIT in any way, from games completely about UNIT where there is no Time Lord character and all the PCs are members of, or affiliated with, UNIT to games where UNIT only appears on rare occasions, to everything in between. The book contains material, too, that is applicable beyond just UNIT, such as some of the new traits and gadgets, as well as the expanded firearm rules. Defending the Earth continues the trend of high-quality, well-thought-out books for the Adventures in Time and Space game.

Similarly to The Time Traveller’s Companion, Defending the Earth does have to take a couple of liberties in order to reconcile contradictions in the television programme. In the case of UNIT, there are far fewer of these needed than the myriad number of contradictions regarding time travel and the Time Lords. However, one glaring problem comes with UNIT dating. Exactly when do the UNIT stories take place? Throughout the Jon Pertwee years, when UNIT was most prominent, the assumption was always that the stories took place a few years in the future, maybe five years or so, although an exact date was never stated. It’s also possible to work out dates for the Pertwee years by going back to the Patrick Troughton years and the story “The Web of Fear”, in which Victoria says that she, the Doctor, and Jamie first met Professor Travers in 1935 (in “The Abominable Snowmen”) which was forty years earlier, placing “The Web of Fear” in 1975 (or thereabouts). In “The Invasion”, the Brigadier says that he last met the Doctor four years earlier, placing it around 1979. Since all Jon Pertwee UNIT stories take place after “The Invasion”, the earliest they could therefore take place is 1979. In the Tom Baker story, “Pyramids of Mars” (broadcast in 1975), Sarah Jane states that she comes from 1980, which fits with the dating thus far. Alas, the fifth Doctor story “Mawdryn Undead” categorically states that the Brigadier retired in 1976 and took up teaching. Much of that story takes place in 1977. Not only does “Mawdryn Undead” state specific years, in the 1977 segments, the Brigadier’s school is preparing for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, which cements the story pretty strongly in that year. There are many other small things that complicate UNIT dating, but this is by far the largest.

In order to reconcile UNIT dating, you have to either accept the dates given in “Mawdryn Undead” and retrofit everything else earlier in time, or ignore “Mawdryn Undead”. Defending the Earth goes the route of accepting the “Mawdryn Undead” dates. On the whole, the chapter on the history of UNIT avoids mentioning many dates (much like the tv series); however, it does state that the Brigadier retired in 1976. This is not my preferred option, but I can understand the choice. The Queen’s Silver Jubilee is hard to ignore, whereas most other dates are vague enough that they can be ignored. I am a little surprised, however, that there is no sidebar mentioning the UNIT dating problem so that gamemasters could choose a different option if they decide to. Instead, the book simply presents UNIT’s history as if there was no contradiction at all. This is a minor thing, though, and certainly not something that ruins the book for me.

Following the history of UNIT, Defending the Earth goes on to discuss modern UNIT, with the focus being on using UNIT in a game set in modern times. It should be noted that, even though this book was published after “The Power of Three” aired last fall, it does not cover the events of this story and so the reformed UNIT presented in that story is not the UNIT presented in this book. A significant portion of this chapter is on designing a UNIT base, complete with a selection of good and bad traits you can select for your characters’ base. This section is very much geared towards campaign in which all the characters are part of UNIT, and it will be of much less use to campaigns that only feature UNIT infrequently. There are also stats for a selection of UNIT vehicles, as well as a description of the different levels of security clearance and what each level allows access to. Rounding off the chapter is a selection of new gadget traits for creating gadgets back-engineered from alien technology.

The next couple of chapters are very game mechanics focused, providing stats for generic UNIT troops and officers, as well as stats for specific characters such as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (both during his days of active duty and after retirement), the third Doctor, and Sergeant Benton. The expanded firearm rules modify the existing rules only slightly by adding range increments to weapons and penalties for firing multiple times in a single round. Although the chapter adds this level of extra detail, it still stresses in a sidebar that “Guns are bad!”, thus maintaining the game (and show)’s general philosophy that fighting is not the best solution to most problems. However, UNIT can be somewhat trigger-happy, and the expanded rules add a useful extra layer to combat without over-complicating things. Combat in the game remains deadly, and this is a good thing. It encourages characters to look for other solutions.

Of course, with UNIT involved, characters could find themselves in the middle of a pitched battle between many combatants. Even with Adventures in Time and Space’s simple combat system, such a battle could get incredibly tedious. As such Defending the Earth also offers two options for how to handle mass battles: the simple mass battle rules and the advanced mass battle rules. The simple rules treat each side of the battle as a single unit (regardless of the different kinds of combatants that might be present on a single side). Players and gamemasters then track the battle by simple rolls that determine whether one side is gaining and the other losing. The advanced rules work the same way, except that they break each side down into multiple units. The advanced rules allow for slightly more tactical planning on the part of the players and gamemaster, but on the whole, I can’t see them being needed very often. The simple rules should adequately cover most situations. On top of that, the fact that the book actually recommends using a flow chart to track battles using the advance rules might just be a bit intimidating to all but the most tactically minded players. I suspect most players will prefer the ease of the simple rules.

Following this is a chapter on “Covering Up”, which talks about how UNIT hides its activities from the general public. It includes a system for determining whether the public learns of the characters’ activities. Events are worth various numbers of “Exposure Points” which the gamemaster or players keep track of. The characters’ attempts at cover-ups can lower these Exposure Points. It’s an interesting system, but one that is ultimately kind of pointless. Since the amount of Exposure Points any particular event is worth pretty much comes down to the gamemaster’s discretion and how well the characters cover events up is also down to GM discretion (either by pure fiat or the setting of a target difficulty for rolls), the entire system becomes rather arbitrary, which kind of negates the point of tracking Exposure Points in the first place. That said, the use of Exposure Points could add an interesting level of tension for the players, and so they might be useful for some games.

The gamemaster section of the book covers designing UNIT adventures and campaigns. It contains some handy advice on the kinds of things UNIT tends to get involved with (basically extrapolating from the tv stories involving UNIT), and talks about the different styles and tones of adventures and campaigns that are possible. There’s even a random crisis generator—a series of tables gamemasters can roll on to create random short adventures! Of particular importance is a look at how to deal with the UNIT hierarchy amongst the player characters. While it’s not unusual for many gaming groups to have a party “leader”, few groups follow a strict military hierarchy, and placing one character in charge of all the others can lead to potential problems. The chapter does a good job looking at the pros and cons of the different ways this can be addressed (from having an NPC officer to making all the PCs equal ranking officers and more).

Defending the Earth concludes with a pair of adventures and a bunch of adventure seeds. The first of the adventures is the better of the two. Entitled “Prison of the Slavers”, it involves a group of Tharils (from the Tom Baker story “Warrior’s Gate”) coming to Earth with a plan to conquer the planet. The adventure is laid out well and provides a good supply of options for the PCs. It doesn’t make the mistake (as some adventures in previous books have done) of assuming the adventure will play out in any one particular way, and instead allows for a number of possibilities based on the PCs’ actions. It’s probably the best-written adventure I’ve seen for Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.

The second adventure, “Mind the Gap”, is a shorter adventure involving the Cybermen. It’s more straight-forward and linear than “Prison of the Slavers”, but is a decent adventure nonetheless. The adventure seeds offer a wide variety of adventure stories and styles; however, I do wish fewer used recurring elements or villains from a television story. As it is, both full adventures and the majority of the adventure seeds are in some way based on a television story (Tharils, Cybermen, Krynoids, Slitheen, Christina de Souza, etc.) and only a couple use completely new elements or villains. A little more originality would have been good.

As a whole, the book has an interesting layout with the borders of each page made to look like the edges of file folders. Pictures from the tv series are made to look like photographs attached to the files. I really like the visual style this gives the book. It brings readers right into the whole flavour of UNIT.

All things considered, Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook is a very good book. It’s not quite as good as The Time Traveller’s Companion (which is probably more universally usable in people’s campaigns), but it handles its niche admirably. The background on UNIT and the stats for UNIT officers and soldiers are very useful, and the new traits, gadgets, and expanded firearms rules can be used even in games and adventures not featuring UNIT. Defending the Earth is a fine addition to the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space catalogue.

* According to Russell T Davies, the UNIT name change occurred because the United Nations did not wish to be associated with the fictional organization and the show could no longer use the UN’s full name. However, the abbreviations could still be used as long as their meaning was never specified. The last use of “United Nations Intelligence Taskforce” on-screen was in the 2005 episode “Aliens of London”. The new name, “Unified Intelligence Taskforce” was first mentioned in the 2008 episode, “The Sontaran Strategem”. Between these two stories, the meaning of the name, UNIT, was never mentioned on-screen.

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