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Reviews - Doctor Who
 
by Demian Katz


Doctor Who RPG coverDoctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space
Published by Cubicle 7
Writer & Game Designer: David F. Chapman
Additional Writers (Player's Guide / Gamemaster's Guide): Andrew Peregrine, Jacqueline Rayner, Nathaniel Torson
[The Heart of the TARDIS - Robin Farndon, Derek Johnston, Charles Meigh]
Additional Writers (Adventures Book): Stuart Renton, Alasdair Stuart, Alex Guttridge, Alexandra Minns, James Whittington
Graphic Design: Lee Binding
Additional Design: Debra Chapman, Dominic McDowall-Thomas
Boxed Set (3 books plus dice, cards and tokens)
$59.99

There are few things in this world that I enjoy as much as Doctor Who, so the release of a new RPG based on the seemingly immortal franchise was an exciting event for me. While this is actually the third game based on the series, it's been well over a decade since the last one came out, and in that time, a lot has changed; most significantly, the TV series itself has been reinvented and restored to its proper place in British culture (and, of course, American geekdom). Past game releases had their problems – FASA's mid-eighties offering was well-supported with adventures and supplements, but its game system didn't feel quite right, and it took some liberties with series continuity that annoyed the hard-core fan base. The early nineties Time Lord had a much simpler system but almost no support; although a free online edition is still available, the only release beyond the core rulebook was a short adventure in Doctor Who Magazine. So is the third time the charm?

Cracking Open the Box
The new game's format got things off to a promising start for me: it's a boxed set. I love boxed sets. No matter how nice a hardcover rulebook may look, it just doesn't match the primal satisfaction of opening a box full of goodies. And Doctor Who comes in a really nice box. This isn't one of those two-piece deals that will have split corners and a dented top after a little bit of use. Instead, it's a single-piece, heavy-duty box that locks shut – more the sort of thing you get small electronic equipment in rather than a standard RPG box. The sturdy format doesn't get in the way of presentation, though – it's got full color printing all over it.

Inside the box, you'll find a set of six good quality six-sided dice, durable softcover Player's and Gamemaster's books, a saddle-stapled adventure booklet, a "read this first" sheet, a whole bunch of character sheets (some blank, some featuring generic half-built characters, some with stats for major characters from the revived series), punch-out "gadget" cards, some die-cut "story point" counters, and the inevitable advertisement for forthcoming supplements. Everything, and I do mean everything, is printed in full color. Rather disconcertingly, the "read this first" sheet is on the bottom. Apart from that incongruity, it's an all-around satisfying box-opening experience. So far, so good.

The System
Doctor Who is an obvious choice for a role-playing game, since its theme of travel in time and space means effectively limitless options and infinite variety. However, some aspects of the series make a game adaptation challenging. First of all, there's the power imbalance. The main character, the Doctor, is a centuries-old superintelligent alien with a time machine and other technological gizmos at his disposal. Most of his traveling companions (with some notable exceptions) have been ordinary people pulled into events largely beyond their understanding. How do you keep one player from dominating the game?

There's also the matter of continuity and consistency – Doctor Who as a series has almost always been more interested in telling a good story than in presenting flawless logic or maintaining long-term continuity for detail-oriented fans. It's hard to quantify most elements of the series in game terms because the evidence presented over the last close-to-forty years of adventures is full of inconsistencies. In a way, this can be liberating, but if you just have to know how many hit points a Dalek or Cyberman has, you're going to lose a lot of sleep if you try to reconcile all the ways they can or can't be destroyed.

Finally, there's the matter of tone. Doctor Who is essentially a pacifist show; while there has always been plenty of violence on display, the message has almost always been that force is a last resort and that other solutions need to be found. Role-players, on the other hand, have spent years being conditioned to kill things and take their stuff. Obviously a broad generalization, but game systems tend to center around fighting, and that really doesn't work well in the Doctor Who spirit.

Happily, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space does a good job of building a simple, familiar game system but tweaking it to work well with its chosen theme. Characters are built from a pool of points and have the usual Attributes, Skills and Traits (good or bad). The game's six Attributes and twelve Skills are pretty typical, and they're very broadly defined so you don't have to remember a long list. Traits are the most complex part of character creation, since they add special rules that cover most of the interesting stuff like being a Time Lord or having a dark secret. Even if you spend some time reading through Trait descriptions, though, character creation is pretty quick, and the pre-printed character sheets in the game offer a convenient shortcut if you don't have time even for that.

The game's core mechanic involves taking the relevant Attribute and Skill (plus possible Trait bonuses) and adding them to a dice roll. In contested actions, two rolls are compared; in uncontested actions, a single roll is compared to a target difficulty. In either case, the difference between rolls (or roll and target number) determines the degree of success (Success, Good, Fantastic) or failure (Failure, Bad, Disastrous). In an extended conflict, Attributes can get chipped away by damage. Note that conflict is defined very broadly here: while it may literally be a gunfight that chips away at your Strength until you are healed, it could also be a verbal argument that chips away at characters' Resolve scores until one side gives in. In very complex situations, a turn-based system kicks in; interestingly, the type of action you are performing determines when you get your turn – talkers go first, followed by movers, followed by "doers" performing miscellaneous non-combat actions. Fighters always go last, offering an opportunity to at least try to talk down every conflict in true Doctor Who fashion.

Turn order aside, the main detail of the rules that helps add the appropriate Doctor Who flavor is the Story Point system. Essentially, Story Points are used to cheat the game system. Story Points can be spent before a roll to add extra dice, after a roll to reduce the degree of failure, or at other times to get hints from the GM or introduce minor twists. Story Points are earned for good role-playing or achieving major story goals, and they can also be bought by reducing the degree of success after a die roll (at the GM's discretion). Story Points are meant to be used frequently, hence the inclusion of counters to track their flow. Every character has a Story Point pool which determines how many points they can carry from adventure to adventure, but buying certain powerful traits reduces the size of the pool. Some "gadgets" (like the Doctor's sonic screwdriver) also have their own Story Point pools that allow them to solve problems in unexpected ways. Thus, Story Points serve both as a character equalizer (less powerful characters have more opportunity to bend the plot in unexpected ways) and as an excuse for some of the series' inherent inconsistencies (why can the sonic screwdriver do things in one episode that it can't in another? Availability of Story Points, of course!). Story Points also act as a sort of karma pool to keep things in the right spirit. Want to solve a problem by killing someone in cold blood? Go ahead, but you can kiss your Story Points goodbye. Of course, the Story Point system is loose enough that it could be abused or become unbalancing in the wrong hands... but with a responsible GM, it serves its purpose quite well.

There are a few other clever touches that should appeal to followers of the series. In honor of the classic series' long tradition of shrieking companions, monsters have a Fear rating that can be used to reduce a character to helpless screaming (and there is a positive "Screamer!" trait that allows this screaming to temporarily stun adversaries). Important subjects relating to time travel (like resolving paradoxes) are covered in enough detail to help a GM through most situations. To help simulate the series' ever-changing cast, the game provides mechanisms for writing out characters. You can cheat death with Story Points, but characters can gain the negative "Unadventurous" trait which means that they are tired of being brutalized and want to settle down somewhere; if this trait isn't lost, it can lead to a PC turning into an NPC. There's also the Doctor's famous characteristic of regeneration: again, he can cheat death with Story Points, but he may end up having to reform his whole body and personality as a result, possibly by adjusting his attributes and switching his PC to a different player!

Although details like regeneration can make for interesting character development, the system's biggest weakness is the way it deals with experience and character growth, which is to say that it barely tries. The rules recommend that the GM reward players with new Traits (or even Attribute or Skill points), but there are no firm guidelines for when this should happen. "GM's discretion" really doesn't seem like a good enough rule, and this leaves the door open to overpowered characters and arguments over unequal rewards. Some kind of system of trading Story Points for character growth would probably have been a reasonable approach, and groups playing the game long-term may want to discuss house rules along these lines to help keep things balanced and fair.

The Setting
Not surprisingly, the game is devoted almost exclusively to the revived version of the series. This might disappoint fans of the classic series, but it's a reasonable move; given that the series has been adapted to RPG form twice before, focusing on the new series means using more material that hasn't previously been mined. Classic series fans shouldn't have too much trouble tracking down prior releases and adapting them to the new game system, and I wouldn't be surprised to see future expansions delving more deeply into the past. Of course, the biggest downside to the new series focus is that the Time War subplot has destroyed the Doctor's home planet of Gallifrey and written out nearly his entire race, limiting the possibilities for playing a Time Lord character other than the Doctor himself without bending current series continuity... but I'm sure a determined player can come up with a sufficient excuse.

Though it is very clear what section of Doctor Who continuity inspired the game, don't expect to have it laid out for you in much detail. The game assumes that you know what it is talking about. Only a couple of pages are wasted on general backstory, and only a few major alien races are detailed (more are coming in a future supplement). Examples illustrating various game concepts frequently refer to relatively obscure details of specific episodes of the series. Even though I understood almost all of these references, they often felt forced and began to get on my nerves after a while – for a non-fan, the situation would probably be even worse. Obnoxious examples aside, though, the decision to assume a certain amount of Who knowledge was a good one: there are lots of reference works dedicated to analyzing and cataloging the history of Doctor Who, so the space here is better spent explaining game concepts.

My biggest concern about the game's use of its setting is that it sometimes seems to take things too far in an effort to emulate the series. As is to be expected, there are chapters explaining how to run a game and develop a campaign. The problem is that a lot of the advice seems oriented more toward describing the formula of a contemporary season of Doctor Who than toward designing a balanced or smooth-running game. It's one thing to describe sound gaming practices and suggest how to adapt them to fit with the formula of a popular series; it's something else entirely to describe the formula of a popular series and call it sound gaming practices. It's a fine line, obviously, but the game falls on the wrong side of that line a little too often. Give the players different characters and force them to role-play a short incident to simulate the pre-credits sequence? An interesting idea. Give the players scripts and make them act out a fixed pre-credits sequence? I'm not so sure.

Style and Presentation
I've already devoted some space to the fact that I like the box holding the game. We've established that the game system works well for the setting, though the game's representation of how to play within the setting could be better. What about the other intangibles?

The organization of the rulebooks is interesting. The Player's Guide and the Gamemaster's Guide have parallel structures – the chapters on character creation and the basic game system are very similar, sharing much of the same text, though the player version has more examples and the GM version has more special rules. This is really convenient during play, since the GM doesn't need to take the Player's Guide away from the players to look anything up, but it's a bit of an obstacle if you're just reading through all the contents of the box in order – some kind of color coding to identify where the text differs between the books might have been helpful to aid the reader who doesn't want to re-read the same skill descriptions a second time but also doesn't want to miss any changed details.

Visually, the game is acceptable but unspectacular. The extensive use of color makes a good impression, the text is easily readable (even in color-coded sidebars), and the photographs are nicely reproduced. On the downside, there's a certain "style over substance" feel – the colorful borders on all the pages (including the character sheets) are a bit excessive, and the presence of the same large TARDIS image at the bottom left corner of every page spread in every book is a remarkable waste of space. Since the game is exclusively photo illustrated, it sometimes feels like images have been haphazardly shoved in place to fill space even though they have little or nothing to do with the text. I would happily have accepted a less flashy presentation if it would have shaved a few dollars off the price tag or allowed the inclusion of more real content.

As most gamers have probably come to expect from any published work, the game is also marred by editorial glitches. There are scattered typos and many references to refer to page [?], where apparently somebody forgot to backfill the page references after the books were typeset. None of these problems are fatal, of course, but it's annoying to see this lack of attention to detail in a product that otherwise seems to be trying very hard to look polished.

Finally, and most seriously, I found the writing style of the rulebooks to be rather lacking in charm. This is designed as an introductory game, and I was hoping it would be written to really capture the imagination of new gamers. Instead, I found the writing to be frustratingly flat and unimaginative – in addition to the aforementioned tendency to turn examples into gratuitous and pedantic series references, it also resorts to using adjectives like "cool" or "creative" in place of actually demonstrating things that are cool or creative. I would have loved to have seen this written as an enthusiastic conversation about role-playing aimed at somebody who already understands the possibilities of Doctor Who. Instead, it reads more like an explanation of how Doctor Who works, written by somebody who believes that the series was generated by playing a game. I'm sure this was not the intended effect, but it was how I ended up feeling more often than not while reading through the books. Given that the actual game system here is a really good adaptation of the series, it's disappointing that its presentation tends not to do it justice.

The Adventures
I have to admit that I tend to put a lot of weight on the quality of pre-written adventures included with role-playing products. The whole point of role-playing is to have adventures, and a well-written scenario can really bring a product together, giving purpose to the system and background and demonstrating how to use all the pieces together. Unfortunately, this is another area where Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space drops the ball. The game includes 32 pages worth of adventure material, but little of it is of much use.

The longest adventure in the book, "Arrowdown," involves time anomalies and alien invasion in a seaside town in England. Although the game modestly describes this adventure as a "cool story" that is "ready to run with very little work," I would describe it as a total mess in need of a rewrite. It's certainly not suitable for an inexperienced GM. A well-designed adventure has a clearly defined central premise that gives the GM guidance when things go in unexpected directions. As long as the GM knows what is going on, it is possible to improvise and create a satisfying story regardless of what the players do. "Arrowdown," however, has a completely muddled premise and consists mostly of inexplicable things happening at random. There isn't even a map provided to give coherence to the scattered locations described in the scenario. The GM is likely to be as confused as the players, and while it's certainly possible to run the adventure and reach a conclusion, it's going to take some significant pre-planning and tweaking if there is to be anything like a coherent plot in there. Admittedly, a fair number of Doctor Who episodes are themselves this kind of incoherent mess... but if I'm running a game, I want to aspire toward the best of the series, not the worst.

The remainder of the adventure book contains "Judoom!", a short and silly adventure that at least manages to be more playable than "Arrowdown," followed by more than a season worth of adventure seeds. None of the seeds made much more impression than the longer adventures, and at least one was rather suspiciously reminiscent of a Doctor Who spin-off novel I recently read (though I'm not accusing anyone of plagiarism – there are a finite number of plot ideas, after all). I would rather have seen a third full adventure and a more abbreviated adventure seed format, though I don't imagine the content would have been any better even if there had been another full story here. I hope Cubicle 7 can find some more creative adventure designers for future products; in the meantime, I'll probably convert some of the old FASA adventures when I get the opportunity to actually run the game.

Conclusions
The irony of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is that it succeeds at the hard part (designing an RPG to effectively capture the flavor of Doctor Who) and then fails at the comparatively easy part (making a good game design sound like fun on paper). Of course, if they had to get something wrong, it's better for gamers that they screwed up the presentation rather than the game itself: you only have to read the rules once, and then you can play the game as much as you want. There's plenty of room for improvement in future expansions, which I'm greatly looking forward to. In spite of my many negative comments about this particular product, I am very pleased with the game introduced here, and I fully expect to collect the whole line and run a campaign.

My biggest disappointment here is that this is not the spectacular introduction to role-playing that it could have been. In England, where Doctor Who is viewed more as a family show and lots of kids watch it, this has the potential to become a first RPG for a large number of people. Licensed property aside, the introductory RPG boxed set niche has been pretty empty for a long time, and I was hoping this would be the perfect product to fill it. Sadly, though, it's just not that compelling as a teaching tool, it doesn't do enough to establish good role-playing habits, and its introductory adventure is too hard for a beginner to run smoothly, so I really couldn't recommend it as a first game. I guess I'll just have to hold out and hope that the line is successful enough to justify an improved second edition!

So what's the bottom line? If you're looking for a gift to introduce a young friend or relative to role-playing, look elsewhere. If you're not a fan of the series already, do yourself a favor and go watch some episodes before you decide to buy this – you probably won't appreciate it on its own. If, like me, you're a fan of the show, definitely take the time to check this out – it's an unpolished gem, but it's a gem nonetheless.

 

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