Category Archives: Roleplaying

Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor reading information from off of her sonic screwdriver

Player Throws The Switch

I’m going to talk about It Takes You Away, so in principle, the article contains spoilers if, for some reason, you haven’t watched it yet.

So, the Doctor, halfway through, goes into a detailed discussion about the Solitract. She explains that one of her seven grandmas used to tell her stories about it and expands on the genesis of the entity and the situation forced upon it.

As a plotline for a show, this might seems a little strange—it feels like the Doctor makes a bit of a leap in reaching the conclusion that the Solitract could be the source of this problem. However, there have been stranger leaps of faith before… (the combined belief of a planet reversing the aging process of a Timelord, anyone?)

What I found interesting, from the perspective of a Gamemaster, was that this recollection and exposition about the Solitract felt like a “Hang on, I have an idea!” Story Point expenditure in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. A big spend. It’s the sort of spend where you make a leap and maybe the player creates something that explains everything and turns the plotline on its head. It feels like maybe even the Gamemaster didn’t have an answer—or if they did, they weren’t committed to it so strongly that they’re unwilling to let the players change it.

On that level, it feels really organic and rather nice.

Cookie Dough

So, you have this mixture. Sweet and tasty, with a generous scattering of chocolate chips. You’re not committed to making small cookies, big cookies, or maybe something else—you just know you have something tasty. And then someone rolls up and suggests cookie dough ice cream or, heck, freeze the dough for another time because they’re got doughnuts fresh from the bakery.

That’s what this feels like… (sort of)

It’s the sort of game where the GM has the start and finish in mind, but hasn’t nailed everything down. A tasty dessert in mind—cookies; and everyone should come away happy.

The start is a spooky house in the woods with a girl inside scared of a monster and certain that it took her father away. The end is the girl and her father being reunited—nothing more than that; that’s the end game here, the reunion. The existence of a specific threat probably has crossed the GM’s mind, but not necessarily the specifics beyond a rough outline.

It could be cookies, but it doesn’t have to be… It could be a crafty alien merchant stealing people out of other dimensions to rob them and feed them to his local predator… Couldn’t it?

Indeed, Ribbon and the interstitial void with the moths feel like they could have been the answer for the disappearances, but later—once the player characters pass through the cave, find the other side and the Solitracts makes an appearance—the GM redefines the role of the void and Ribbon; it almost becomes an afterthought.

(It sort of feels that way in the show, like the writer needed something to sit between the two houses but wasn’t really solid on the idea of what and why.)

Hook. Close. Improvise the Rest.

Sort of. That’s a lot to ask.

Certainly, it works that way with convention games for me. I have a hook, a way to start the game; I also have some actors and a couple of encounters in mind. The rest… Well, we shall see what happens and figure it out on the fly.

It’s why I recommend reading, viewing and listening to more Who, because how the variables arrive and work within the confines of the story can be educational if you break it down.

You have to be comfortable with it—letting the players come up with something totally new and off the wall is a big ask—but, part of the deal should be that everyone contributes to the success of the story. Perhaps, next time, you will need to haggle or bargain the players down because you have an idea that’s really cool and you don’t want to lose it. That’s OK—it should be fun for you too, and that means some of the prep should find a conclusion.

But, if you keep the prep light and fluffy, willing to improvise, it won’t hurt so much when the players derail it all.

The Many

These ravenous aliens are composite monstrosities of mutated insect spliced with the most dangerous features of predators from across a dozen worlds. Massive in scale compared to the common insects of Earth to which they appear most closely related—the common locust—they have the capacity to survive flight through the void of space and on reaching their destination do nothing to restrain their hunger.

They may have a connection to Sutekh, which could explain their first appearance on Earth in Egypt, around 1334 BC. That they exist at all—and what’s more persist—suggests some form of natural or regenerating source, for their defeat by Nefertiti and The Doctor in this first appearance, has not curtailed later reports. In many instances, whole colonies and small worlds have been laid waste, drowned beneath the voracious cloud of The Many.

The sheer numbers make their arrival all too obvious to those on the lookout; they extinguish the light of the sun in their multitude and fill the air with a disturbing murmur that sets teeth on edge and nerves on fire. When they strike, the tools of destruction at their disposal make light work of those ill-prepared to defend themselves—they possess iron-hard teeth and claws, energy-emitting spikes crown their heads, and they spit a highly potent contact poison.

However, as they draw strength in numbers, so too do they find challenge in it—for they swarm with a singular purpose and their base craving can excite near mania. A wily defender might find means to distract them this way or even rig some means to exploit their drive to act as one to expel or eradicate them.

The Many: Destructive Horns, Poisonous Drool, Relentless Hunger, Swarm Mentality

Based on: Details around the disappearance of Nefertiti from The Women Who Lived and referenced in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

Hiatus

The news that the Doctor Who wasn’t going to be returning 2019 put a downer on the conclusion of last year’s series. Then again, now it would appear that we might yet get a taster of more Who from Jodie Whittaker and friends toward the end of the year (if not an actual festive episode).

For those who roleplay the adventures of The Doctor (or, at least, a Timelord of some shape or form) that doesn’t mean there’s a lack of inspiration. For one, I always seem to have one book or another from the excellent Cubicle 7 game nearby, wherever I go in my house (there are a lot of books lying around).

On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be RPG reading material necessarily. The Doctor has regular new adventures in fiction, the monthly Doctor Who magazine, on Big Finish audio and in new releases on Blu-Ray or DVD (OK, the last adventures might not be new, but if you’re running games for anyone under of the age of 25, most of the Classic Doctor’s voyages in time and space might as well be considered new material).

Make the most of it—there are very few veins of fictional material so rich in potential background (beyond Star Trek and Star Wars, which themselves have hundreds—if not thousands—of media tie-ins across books, screen, comics, audio and computer games). Take notes—spend what time you can watch or listening to more Who.

Someone asked me how you write an adventure—and there’s probably some science to it if you want to get published. However, for a home campaign, you can be sketchy as heck. Watch a TV procedural drama and make notes of the clues and the scenes—and then make it a bit sci-fi… and throw in an unexpected twist. I mean, if you take the average detective series and replace the murderer with an alien, is it too far off what you need for an evening’s entertainment?

Tune in to any number of other series on TV or online, and you’re certain to find inspiration. I had an idea for an adventure in northern England that involved the Zygons after watching a historical programme about Roman occupation and rituals practiced in honour of their gods. A little reading on Wikipedia, a quick spin in StreetView and a spot of Image searching for ideas found a whole pile of additional twists and turns, including some handy derelict railway tunnels.

Never let the Doctor fade away when you have a glimmer of creative possibility to mine! You can fill the void with your own adventures and keep the flame of Gallifrey burning bright while we wait for 2020 to roll around and more new Who…

Renegade Returns

It feels like I should restart blogging about Doctor Who. I know that I’m never going to be on the cutting edge—I love the series, but it’s not like I’m out there on the streets of Cardiff or Sheffield snapping on-set piccies with my iPhone. I’m more a reactive fan with thoughts and stuff.

Deep, right?

What I would like to do is find a way to spin Renegade, my homage to time traveling adventure, into something more substantial. Possibly, when I have a moment—which is unlikely because I never do—I will rewrite it a bit. Or throw a version 2 out there.

It’s nice to have something I can use for a little ad hoc time travel adventure without needing to remember all the rules from one of the other great Doctor Who RPGs.

Mind you, I can do nothing but praise Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. If you don’t have at least a bit of it and you’re a fan of Who, you’re missing out. A nice simple system with a lot of built-in mechanical potential to simulate the beats and tropes of the series.

I also have a fondness for both FASA’s Doctor Who and Timelord.

The former, because FASA just had such a ride with their licenses, in their moment, and there’s a sort of fun to Who and Star Trek when they did it (even though some of it is so wrong). If you have a chance to read any of the adventures you’ll understand that there was a breakdown in understanding about just what Doctor Who was about. I mean, they’re not unusable, but they’re not easily played straight out of the book without a little consideration and tweaking.

The latter, because I spent ages seeking it out—I recall taking a train over from Huddersfield to Leeds, when I was at university, and managing to track it down in one of the cities many bookstores. There was a questing to it, spoiled somewhat by the fact that I have never got it to the table in any form.

Anyway—what I’m trying to say is that I know my limitations as a fan and I’ll be sticking to gaming as the core of this site, in some shape or form.

Rosa

In Rosa, the new Doctor Who series provided a solid and simple basis for explaining the business of alternate history. On a cultural level, the episode spoke volumes – that in a single small, but significant, act the course of history can be changed. The butterfly effect shows that the changes can be planetary in the act of altering one thing; the impact here isn’t wiping out the dinosaurs, but – as the Doctor said – the downstream effect would be universal.

Small Pebbles

In creating your own adventures for Renegade, or any other time travel game for that matter, you can leverage a similar concept – the impact of small changes. In some instances, the change will require the characters stop someone or something to allow events to proceed as history records (like the event in Rosa).

Others will involve removing someone from history altogether. That doesn’t necessarily mean killing them off; it could mean diverting their timeline along another path. Intervention might mean they choose another career, failed to get the exams they needed to attend university, or enrolled in the armed forces. Or perhaps the change happened to a significant figure’s father or mother, meaning that they move to some distant country, raise their children to believe something fundamentally different, or choose not to have a family at all.

The interaction between the player characters and the antagonist(s) will mean they have to find a way to keep the target on the intended path; usually, they will have complications to overcome to manage this. They have to find a way to maintain the current time-stream, which might mean tough choices and hard calls (again, like the events in Rosa, which clearly generated a lot of internal conflict and emotional distress).

Tough Choices

Akin to Rosa, the sort of scenarios that arise from nudges to the timeline can lead to decisions that necessitate inhumane (or even inhuman) acts. Against every reasonable principle, the Doctor and companions had to keep quiet and allow events to continue. A greater impact for the players can arise when they know someone has to die, especially if during the course of the adventure they get a chance to know and like them.

The other wrenching decision comes when the player characters have to allow someone to survive. Sometimes the awful antagonist at the heart of the event must continue to exist because the ripples they create generates a greater good; in the short term that might mean suffering, horrors and death. That can be a truly horrible realisation. A lot of people will die, with absolute certainty, but the outcome will be positive in the fullness of time.

The long game – the ripples finally hitting the shoreline – might seem like a cruel point upon which to set one’s sights, but that’s the weight that a time traveller must carry. Non-interventionist policies may arise for exactly this reason, because action taken with good intentions may have massive side effects.

Many Routes, One Destination

A further challenge for those attempting to resolve an alteration comes from the fact that the antagonists may have many choices to achieve their goal, whereas the player characters will have only a single option – to prevent history coming off the rails.

Rosa provided a view of this dilemma because it was easier to complicate the journey than to keep it on track. In addition, if the player characters face an opponent already in place, the antagonist has the upper hand in preparation.

The matter gets more complicated if you have time travel work with a free-form approach. A game like Timemaster, Continuum or Timewatch use time travel in the most fluid sense, where you can set traps, run rings, and loop back on yourself (and your enemy) to make things harder or try again with another pass. That makes matters ever more complex and runs the risk of generating knots in the time-stream impossible to unpick. Once you have run across your own path more than a couple of times, you begin to lose the angles for a simple solution.

As a Gamemaster, you should approach this kind of time travel activity with caution and very careful notes. It matters that you know where and when everyone is, because next loop around that will be a new wrinkle to smooth in an already challenging situation.

Lessons in Who

With Rosa, Chris Chibnall has completed the Doctor Who Time Travel 101, running through the basics of characters, universal truths and the heart-breaking complexity of time travel. I think that combined with introducing a new Doctor, these stories have worked really well – and I look forward to moving forward from here.

You can pick up a copy of the Renegade rules as part of the sci-fi event generator Brace for Impact on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG. You can also find the unformatted and complete rules on this website.