Friday 19 August 2011

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space

As a fan of both roleplaying games and Doctor Who, I am naturally attracted to any attempt to blend the two together. Over the years, there have been a few attempts to make a roleplaying game based on the world's longest-running science fiction television series. In the mid-1980s, FASA produced the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game. Then in the 90s, Virgin Books (which published Doctor Who novels at the time) came out with Time Lord, their version of a Doctor Who rpg. The latest attempt is Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space from Cubicle 7 Entertainment. And without a doubt, it’s the best one so far.

The biggest obstacle to surpass when putting together a Doctor Who game is the apparent gulf in ability between Time Lords, such as the Doctor, and humans (and other species). In television, books, or movies there is no problem with having one character considerably more capable than the other characters; however, in a roleplaying game, there needs to be a certain level of balance to avoid one player gaining the spotlight at the expense of the other players. Previous Doctor Who games never really addressed this problem. The mechanics for FASA’s game pretty much ignored that there was any distinction at all. Time Lords got the ability to regenerate, but otherwise, they were identical to humans mechanically. The game had no rules at all to deal with various other Time Lord abilities (like telepathy and respiratory bypass), which led to them being handled primarily by GM fiat. When I used to run Doctor Who Roleplaying Game campaigns, I constantly had the problem of every player wanting to play a Time Lord and no one wanting to be human. Virgin’s Time Lord lacked character creation rules of any kind. It simply came with premade statistics for each of the first seven Doctors and all his companions. Of course, the Doctor had more skills than anyone else (and no mention was made of other Time Lord abilities), which led to everyone wanting to play the Doctor and no one wanting to play the companions.

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space finally addresses the problem. Time Lords are distinctly Time Lords, and they get the abilities they are known to have in the television series. But the game also gives reasons to play humans and other species. Character creation is handled through the use of character points, and just being a Time Lord requires the expenditure of a significant amount of those points. On top of that, Time Lords have a lower number of “story points” (points that can be used during the game to alter the outcomes of actions) available to them. Time Lords are still special characters, but humans finally have something to make them worthwhile in a game context.

The great thing about Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is that the mechanics have been tailored to fit the style of the television programme. The FASA Doctor Who Roleplaying Game used a system based on FASA’s Star Trek Roleplaying Game with a few tweaks here and there. It was fairly detailed and covered a broad range of possibilities, but conflict resolution was rather clunky and really didn’t feel like Doctor Who at all. Time Lord was based around a single, very simple mechanic that was used for everything. While easy to learn (which was good for its target audience of non-roleplayers), it lacked versatility, which could lead to arguments at the table as there wasn’t always a clear way to resolve things. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space provides the best of both worlds: reasonably detailed rules that are robust and easy to learn, and actually feel like Doctor Who when used in play.

One of my favourite parts of the rules is the combat sequence. In the television show, combat is something that is generally avoided. The Doctor is a pacifist and doesn’t use weapons, even though his enemies often do. In a roleplaying game, this is a bit unusual. Many games have long, extensive rules for combat, and when PCs meet an enemy with weapons, the result is usually combat. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space melds the two beautifully with a system for resolving combat in a way that both discourages combat from taking place and also makes it fun and dramatic to avoid combat. All roleplaying games have a system for determining who goes first in combat. In this Doctor Who game, the sequence is very simple: People who want to talk go first. Anyone who wants to run away goes second. Those who actually want to fight go last. Realistic? Not at all, but it perfectly emulates the tv show. After all, the Daleks forever screech, “Exterminate!” but the Doctor starts to talk and the Daleks sit there and wait for him to finish before opening fire. The system allows for the Daleks to have deadly weapons, but for the PCs to still get away safely without having to carry deadly weapons themselves.

The game also allows for a broad range of campaign and story styles. The FASA game made the default assumption that players would play a single Time Lord (who was not the Doctor) accompanied by a group of human companions. Time Lord made the assumption that the players would play one of the seven Doctors and his companions, and indeed (as I mentioned previously) didn’t even have a system for creating other characters. At least the FASA game provided statistics for the six (at the time) Doctors and his companions, even if it assumed you wouldn’t be playing them. Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space allows for both options and more. You can play the Doctor and his television companions, the Doctor and original companions of your own creation, original Time Lords of your own creation (with their companions), or you can leave Time Lords (including the Doctor) out of it all together by playing a UNIT- or Torchwood-based campaign. You can play a campaign based on the Sarah Jane Adventures. There really is no limit.

The game is not entirely without flaws. The layout of the books is a bit odd to say the least. The Gamemaster’s Guide repeats large portions of the Player’s Guide word for word. I understand that they wanted certain rules (like character creation) to be readily available to both players and the gamemaster without the gamemaster having to switch between books; however, it seems a terrible waste of space that could have been used in a better way. The sample adventures provided are also rather lacklustre and commit a few horrendous faux pas (such as one which is designed with the assumption that players are playing the Doctor and companions, and then proceeds to dictate what the Doctor does instead of leaving it up to the player). However, the book layout doesn’t impede play much and the adventures are easily modified or just completely ignored in favour of adventures of the GM’s own design, so these flaws are minor in the end.

In short, it’s great to see a Doctor Who roleplaying game that finally encompasses the spirit and fun of the television show while still being a fun and playable game.

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