More Capsules Please

Doctor-Who-coverNot so long ago, Cubicle 7 released several short and punchy PDF only adventures for Doctor Who. While they have since spent their time concentrating on the Sourcebooks for the individual Doctors – with some excellent content – I’m hankering after more of the snappy capsule adventures.

With the promise that they’ll soon be filling the current core rules void with a swanky new edition featuring Peter Capaldi, would there be a better time to support that release with more PDFs. When a newcomer tries the game for the first time, they will have already spent almost £40 – so, they’re unlikely to go all in and spend another £25 or more on a Sourcebook. However, having finished the introductory adventures, why not draw them in with something a tad more accessible and cheap?

Doctor-Who-Ravens-of-Despair-DWAITASCat’s Eye, Medicine Man and The Ravens of Despair are all less than £2 a pop in PDF, which seems a lot more practical and less of a gamble. I think The Ravens would probably be the best bet for a Capaldi-centred game while, thematically, Medicine Man suits Matt Smith and Cat’s Eye feels more David Tennant. Admittedly, it’s the Doctor and should be pretty interchangeable – and if you run a game for a player-created Time Lord and crew, it doesn’t much matter.

That aside, I thought these little adventures were great fun and great value – you can read individual reviews of Cat’s Eye, Medicine Man and Ravens over on Geeknative. I’d just like to see more – and the opening of the new series mid-September seems a prime time to launch them.

Wing It for Adventure

winter_for_the_adept_wallpaper_by_hisi79-d5zdo7xI ran the third and final session of the adventure Ice from the Eighth Doctor Sourcebook at the weekend. I think I could have finished this in two four-hour sessions, but we had more of a social thing going on and the focus wasn’t quite there. At a pinch, I think you could throttle this up to run in a single session or at a convention, but you would need to keep all the action tight.

On top of that, you would need to be really sharp in hitting the beats associated with building the threat. The ultimate secret of the icebound alien colony doesn’t work so well unless you have done ground work on the back story. I think, despite having three sessions to run it over, I failed to do enough of that very ground work. Ah well – lessons learned.

Overall, I enjoyed running the adventure – though I found myself increasingly improvising and casting the system to one side. I have to say that has everything to do with me and nothing to do with the Vortex system. When I want to get a game to a conclusion, the system goes out the window. Yes, the players still roll dice – because many of them enjoy that part of the process – but the nitty-gritty mechanics don’t trouble me.

I liked the way the characters starting to do their own improvisation around the situation. When they realised that they didn’t have an easy escape route, they used some fast talking and deception to find an alternative. The adventure has a traditional aspect of putting the TARDIS off-limits early on, so Tegan and Nyssa found a way to get it back – and then I threw the big threat in their way. Panic ensued, followed by the sonorous tones of the Cloister Bell. Yes, you have the TARDIS back; no, it won’t budge because the time rotor is making all the wrong sounds.

I enjoyed running the game and all the players go involved for the final session (after some patchy player participation in earlier sessions). The final showdown had just the right level of cricket involved (it was the Fifth Doctor!) and a final-final scene with a touch of Flash Gordon about it. Did the villian die or did he simply slip away to return another day?

Bigger Hair

There’s one thing I like about the second series of each new Doctor – and that’s the business of making the character their own. Somehow, the first appearance isn’t enough.

From the scant pictures we’ve had of Peter Capaldi so far, it seems like he has more of a personalised image. I especially like what I’ve seen of his hair. It seems to be growing, bigger and wilder. That works for me. The mop of hair thing worked big time for Tom Baker – but that isn’t exactly what we’re doing here. This is all Capaldi’s own thing.

I also like the continued sense of channelling Pertwee’s red-lined jacket. I really like that. Maybe there’s a touch of the Third Doctor in the hair. Maybe.

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Bow Ties are Cool

We all know that. However, unless you have been rooting through the backlog of crowdfunding on Kickstarter, you might not have realised just how cool and, frankly, hi-tech they can be.

Check out the funded Kickstarter for DAMICO Aluminium Bow Ties: Kickstarter

DAMICO-aluminium-bow-ties

Kit for Adventure

So, I ran the second session of the adventure Ice from the Eighth Doctor Sourcebook.

Running Doctor Who

The key to the game seemed to be having the right equipment at the table to facilitate the fun. I’m familiar with the rules – so, there’s no need to have my Limited Edition War Doctor-sporting rulebook on display. The core book sits on the floor or a chair nearby normally, as I only really need it if the players ask me a tough question and they really want an answer (rather than enthusiastic hand-waving).

Instead of the rule book, I use the Gamemaster’s Screen [A] (which would appear to be out of print, so if you want one you’ll need to try the secondary market). I find this screen a lot more useful than many other examples of the same (you know who you are D&D 5e), as it includes a plethora of immediately useful tables and information.

For the adventure, I just have the whole text available as a PDF on my 7 inch Tablet [B], although I also have occasion to do the same with a smartphone or laptop. Depends on the table space available. I keep notes in a TXT file or similar and any additional images or information in a folder on the desktop.

If I want to make real world notes, draw notes, scribble maps or present clues/riddles, I use my hand Dry Wipe pens [C] on my equally handy Super-sized Dry Wipe Cards [D]. Why use up all that paper and sticky notes of old, or roll an enormous battle mat across the table? If I’d had a battle mat it wouldn’t have fitted it on this table without getting in the way.

I keep notes on the cards and, as here, create a reference map of locations the characters have been or can visit [E]. Later in the game, I also drew a picto-glyph clue for them to refer to.

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Yeah – not overly subtle. However, it did have them wondering just what the alien’s had going relationship-wise. All at each other’s throats or not?

I have recently got hold of some Clear Plastic Stands [F] that work with my dry wipe cards. Took a bit of trial and error to finds ones that fitted – some clearly had some sort of thin card in mind and wouldn’t take a plastic card at all. Others would take half of one or the card simply slipped out and fell over.

In this instance I used the cards in stands for a map; in others I have used them for game aspects, key information or even quick character sketches. I experimented with create a dungeon – though I suspect I would have to be really keen to get all the work done for that.

I use a combination of standard dry wipe pens and Staedtler Correctable [C] – which you can rub accidentally with a finger or hand without loss. To remove, you use either a slightly abrasive tissue or cloth or they include a felt eraser on the other end. Combining both pens means you can have elements easily removed – like the difficulty to access a location in this adventure – and more permanent elements – like the location name – that need to stick around as long as you have a need.

My othered preferred point of reference in a game with locations (or a map) are miniatures for each playing; mind you, I’m not looking for tactical placement or accuracy. Here I use the Doctor Who figures from Character Building [G] with only a light regard for accuracy. I have the Fifth Doctor right, but for Nyssa I used Amy and Tegan got River. They’re both female – I got that bit right!

I have mentioned before the benefits of a stab of sound here and there – and for that I need my HMDX Jam Bluetooth Speaker [H]. I used it with both my phone and tablet – using the little cable that comes with it. Bluetooth is great, but in this situation it makes sense just to use the cable and conserve power! After the summary of Part 1, we had the theme tune. Later, I had some spooky atmospheric music as the team explored. Then, upon outlining the worrisome cliffhanger, a rousing turn of the closing theme followed. Perfect to frame a proper session of Doctor Who.

Finally, a nice Cup of Tea [T]. The Doctor would approve.

Call to Adventure

winter_for_the_adept_wallpaper_by_hisi79-d5zdo7xI recently played the first session of the Ice adventure from the Eighth Doctor Sourcebook.

I’m not running this as a campaign, per the intentions of the supplement, but as a standalone. I felt that the adventure would work quite nicely that way.

I also used the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa as the characters at the centre of the adventure. The adventure slots into the continuity between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity in the series (between Season 19 and 20), where several New Adventure novels and Big Finish audio dramas probably all dwell.

As it happens, this choice came down to the players. One loved the Nyssa character and wanted to play her, so it seemed to be just right. Ice involves rooting around in caves beneath a frozen planet and somehow that seemed perfectly Fifth Doctor as well.

All this isn’t really the point of this post. What I wanted to mention was the fact that I punctuated the session with music.

At the start of the adventure the TARDIS arrivals unexpectedly on a cold planet. Unexpectedly arrivals are not unusual in Who. In this case, the cold is the unusual part. The TARDIS feels cold. So, the Doctor’s curiosity gets the better of him, as how could a planet penetrate the TARDIS like that?

After finding suitable clothes in the Wardrobe, the two character ventured out and I described the desolate, glacial scenery. And the cold. They trudged a bit and casting around they realised that something lay beneath the ice, some relic of an alien city.

At that point, a snowmobile appeared in the distance. Nyssa hid while The Doctor bid a cheery hello to the newcomer. While conversation ensued, Nyssa became aware of an odd vibration in the ice. Or was it more of a tremor?

A moment later, mid-conversation, the guy on the snowmobile wheeled it around as the ice creaked, shuddered and then cracked. Sheets of grey-blue ice jabbed skyward while others dropped into the abyss. Both characters made a leap for safety, The Doctor fell, only for his fingers to catch an edge.

As The Doctor struggled to get up, aided by the stranger, Nyssa looked across the ice field. Jagged streaks patterned the surface, now covered with pits and holes. In the distance the TARDIS…

And then it dropped out of sight.

Queue the stab of the Who theme. POW.

If they hadn’t got in the mood up to that point, the theme made all the difference. We’re all suddenly bobbing about and squeal wee-woo.

It set the mood and also served as a way to cut to the next scene, as the snowmobile ground into the waiting camp beyond the mountains. No need to worry about the journey between or the uneasy silence from the stranger. The Doctor and Nyssa could worry about the TARDIS later – they had new people to meet and a mysterious city to uncover.

The theme worked really well. I can’t say that music works for everyone, and as a background noise it will be Marmite for some groups. But in that moment, the stab of the Theme worked wonderfully well, just as the outro version of the theme worked well at the end of the session, just as I revealed the cliffhanger revelation.

I recommend giving it a try, whatever the game. If you can find a theme tune, go for it. I can see it providing a valuable and rather entertaining framing motif. If you follow the TV serial approach to games, it doesn’t always have to happen at the same time. Some shows you can go five, ten, even fifteen minutes before they kick in the theme tune and the opening credits. In a longer drama or serial, they have a degree of leeway – as do you in running a gaming session.

Find a tune. Set the tone of the session. Hit the danger or reveal the cliffhanger from last session – and then play the theme.

Original art (cropped for this post) by deviantart contributor hisi79

Saving Santa

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OK – I can see Christmas Who remaining as divisive as ever. Since the Sycarax, murderous Christmas trees and oompah Santa-masked mercenaries took to the screen in the Tennent-period, has anything divided Who fans more? OK – Catherine Tate, perhaps. And Clara.

Indeed, I sense Clara will have much to do with the division this time. Some, like my wife, expected something of this Christmas episode that Moffat didn’t deliver. They expected Clara to leave, to walk away from the TARDIS once and for all. She had, at the end of the final episode of the series, spun a tale to the Doctor that she was happy with Danny Pink and he had nothing to worry about. He did the same in the respect of finding the location of Gallifrey. Christmas could have been the final final farewell.

That didn’t happen.

You should have heard my wife’s words of exasperation, like she had taken Moffat’s solemn promise and he had broken his vow. I don’t recall said words exchanged. I remember Canada acting all coy when he appeared on The One Show.

Perhaps Moffat also didn’t help his cause when he named this episode Last Christmas and provided the Act 3 twist that he did. Naughty man.

For my part, I would have missed Clara and I’m happy she will continue the journey. For all we know, she might pull a Bonnie Langford and only linger for a short while before handing over to someone else. It doesn’t make sense to spoil Christmas with something as wrenching as a departure. Christmas almost needs to be the episode you could miss altogether and not spoil the continuity of the show. Almost. Indeed, after the Tennent-period that pretty much has become the case.

I liked the episode. I liked Nick Frost as Santa, and those cheeky elves. I enjoyed the plot and the threat. A lot of the knowing humour hit spot on for me, making me chuckle – like Santa explaining he can carry all the presents for the children of the world because his sleigh is bigger on the inside.

In all likelihood I will give the episode further consideration and come back to it. For me, I found a lot to enjoy here and felt far more satisfied than I have with some Christmas episodes. It felt like a good episode with a dose of Christmas, rather than a dose of Christmas with a hint of Who.

Kill The Moon – with Spiders

Kill_the_moonTo my mind, ‘Kill The Moon’ turned out to be another good episode. If I could compare it to a past Doctor – and it feels like the series currently demands that of you – it would probably be the Fourth Doctor, dear old Tom Baker. When the Doctor disappears into the crack in the Moon seeking out the source of the spiders, that reminded me of Tom for some reason. Not quite sure why. I’m happy to go with the gut instinct on this one.

So, in ‘Kill The Moon’ we have a humanity-changing situation at hand in a point of temporal flux of which The Doctor has no notion of the outcome. What happens now hasn’t happened yet – despite the fact that what has come after apparently already has. Clara has seen the Moon in the future, so how could it possibly be destroyed in the past?

Flux.

Anyway – we have had these temporal nexus points before. Going back to Tom, ‘Genesis of the Daleks‘ was a nexus in some measure. The Time Lords sent him to destroy the Daleks – and the point of their creation by Davros represented a malleable event open to change.

We seem to have two phenomenon that have cropped up many times like this – the nexus, where events could be changed despite the certainty they can’t be open to alteration; and, the forgotten past, where something happens – like a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a gigantic Cyberman – and people somehow paper over the incident like it never did happen. Who remembers it – um… no one, because it would hurt to give it credance, and it was probably just the fog or a minor outbreak of hysteria.

Here, The Doctor takes the stance he has worked against for so very long. The Time Lords claimed they held to values about non-intervention, and only the Doctor and a few others – like the Celestial Intervention Agency – worked against the grain. Here, The Doctor steps back and states he can have nothing to do with the decision. The only people able to make this decision has to be those affected by the outcome, the people of Earth.

(more…)

Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories

eleven-doctors-eleven-storiesReading Eleven Doctors, Eleven Stories has been an interesting experience.

Over the course of last year, these short stories got released as e-books, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Doctor Who series. Here, they’re collected in a chunky volume, wrapped in a silvery cover.

Physically, it represents an imposing read. I have read more imposing books – books with 1,000+ pages that threaten to break your wrist while reading. Worse yet, they have the potential to break your nose if you read them in bed. I imagine some slimming might have been achieved with a slightly smaller typeface.

Anyway… content. I had intended to ruminate on the reading rather than the carrying.

It has been a mixed experience. It’s hard to tell whether the best stories come down to writers capable of capturing a character in print so effortlessly, or if some Doctors just had more distinctive personalities.

Take the Ninth Doctor, for example. Charlie Higson‘s “The Beast of Babylon” benefits no end from his getting the style, manner and speech patterns of the Doctor down pat.

While Derek Landy’s “The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage” could have done with more time and space to expand into a satisfying story, he manages a similar feat to Higson and David Tennant’s performance comes through, staccato-style and peppered with brilliant.

Less successful is Eoin Colfer‘s “A Big Hand For The Doctor“, a story of an injured first Doctor up against a gang of child-stealing pirate-aliens. Not only does he not get the feel of the Time Lord right, but he seems to struggle against the way we have come to perceive the Doctor.

Because the TV series has developed and the passage of time means that Who in the 60s or 70s comes across as very much of its time, it’s something you have to suspend disbelief for. The First Doctor doesn’t reference Harry Potter much in the original TV series because, well, he didn’t exist. Yes, The Doctor travels in time and so making reference to actual stuff of the present day makes perfect sense… but, reading it, little things like this just jar slightly. They feel wrong.

On top of that, the first story has a twist in the tale that just didn’t sit well with me. I saw it coming far too early and didn’t enjoy it much when confirmation struck home at the end.

To be fair – and so as not to warn you off – the good stories in this volume easily outweigh the less good. The Sixth Doctor’s story stands out as another one to avoid, but that’s just two out of eleven that made me wish I’d spent my time more wisely. We follow the Sixth Doctor’s adventure from Peri’s perspective – and it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel very Peri, for a start – and something about the egotistical Sixth Doctor means a story told from another character’s perspective doesn’t sit well.

For anyone running Doctor Who roleplaying sessions, I can see several stories providing a basis for adventures. The Third Doctor’s “The Spear of Destiny” has all the potential for a rip-roaring gaming session, with frozen woods, rampaging Scandinavians, and warring almost gods. The Fourth Doctor’s “The Roots of Evil” takes place in the fascinating setting of a living tree space station… which sounds like a great place for a game – and warrant further consideration, as the story identifies the example herein as an unusual example of what would otherwise be an enormous terraforming construct.

Definitely worth reading, even if you just grab copies of the individual e-books. I’m almost finished with the final story – by Neil Gaiman – and then I’m off to find something new to read.

You Ham-Fisted Bun Vendor!

the-caretakerDays of delicate hard work and now look at it… The whole plan up in smoke because you messed with my careful (and entirely suspicious) preparations.

So, The Doctor gets a job as the caretaker at Coal Hill School, on the trail of the relentless and terrifying Skovox Blitzer (it’s a sort of crab/spider/robot thing that probably would have suited an appearance in the Sarah Jane Adventures – and that isn’t a bad thing). Left unchecked the deadly robot could destroy all humanity. However, the fate of the robot has a secondary role in the episode, which has a great deal more to do with the triangle of The Doctor, Clara and Danny Pink.

I can see how some people might really dislike this episode. My wife didn’t like it much, and the fleeting glance I gave to the odd review here and there didn’t rate it.

In a series giving a lot of nods to classic Doctors, this one had Jon Pertwee‘s Third Doctor layered on thick. From the Doctor’s introduction as the new caretaker, John Smith, through gadgetry and martial arts (or was that an earlier episode) – this was classic Who. I can almost see Pertwee dressed in the classic brown coat of the working caretaker, with screwdriver in hand and pencil lodged behind one ear.

Courage isn’t just a matter of not being frightened, you know. It’s being afraid and doing what you have to do anyway.

This was a good episode. I loved the fact The Doctor got the wrong end of the stick about Adrian (pictured), the other teacher with a vague resemblance to a certain dashing bow-tie wearing Time Lord. It gave us the chance to see a little more of Clara and Capaldi and a bumbling Doctor up to something that isn’t clear to everyone else. He’s trying to be inconspicuous and achieving exactly the opposite.

Yes, it is a bit obvious in places. It is trying to show the difference between Pink and the Doctor, the two ex-soldiers who seem to handle their issues in the same way and yet so differently. Clara loves them both , though one love grows increasingly strained, and the other love suffers from her wrestling heart.

The threat wasn’t a big one. It did remind me of Sarah Jane. I’m sure it’s something to do with the special effects. I love a real, physical robot more than something rendered in CGI, but you need just the right film, director, atmosphere, etc. for a genuine sense of threat. This is tea time action adventure, so you’re never going to get that.

More Missy at the close and an assistant, Seb, ‘because she’s a bit busy at the moment’. The Nethersphere – Paradise – seems to be a busy place. Whatever is she up to? I guess it grows increasingly unlikely to be River Song, as I previously supposed. Also, I doubt it’s The Rani, unless she’s swayed from her interest in the purely biological-side of experimentation. She was all about weird experiments – and Paradise seems to have more sinister undertones.

I really do like the way the current series has played with facets of the old Doctor, echoes of incarnations past in story and characterisation. I have no idea whether that will factor into the last double episode or not – or whether it just all ties back into the aftermath of the 50th anniversary story arc.