Category Archives: Adventures

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.

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…

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.

The Ghost Monument

The Ghost Monument had a lot to say about the way you play time-travelling adventures, about not setting barriers but, at the same time, creating alien environments from the familiar. It wasn’t necessarily subtle, but programmes like Star Trek and Doctor Who have been doing that since the 60s. When you play adventures in sci-fi, don’t make the challenge understanding the small stuff – make it grand and strange, weird and disconcerting.

We’re (Not) All Human

In truth, humanity costs less than alien. When you have an alien, you need effects – cosmetic or CGI. When you do human – perhaps with a little tweak to the nose or a daub of paint on the temples – you can still be alien bit without needing the audience – or the players – to make a leap in their understanding.

The Ghost Monument did that brilliantly here because Ryan, Yasmin and Graham desperately want to find an anchor, a solid foundation in the world of Desolation. If they can find something familiar they can work outward from their in quantifying the strange and the alien. Neither Epzo nor Angstrom offer that – they don’t know what Earth is or humans for that matter. The sense of connection that the companions seek refuses to manifest, like the Ghost Monument itself.

When you run a game of Renegade or Doctor Who  don’t attempt to create aliens that stretch the imagination or demand lengthy description. When you opt for human-like aliens, you can achieve the sense of the alien by robbing the player characters of any common ground. Even in an alternate history adventure, you can achieve the same result when no one recognises Kennedy or Shakespeare, despite every certainty they should be known to everyone.

Universal Translator

For a very long time the TARDIS has been the essential element that made the whole business of alien languages make sense. The telepathic link with the TARDIS meant that everything made sense – spoken or written. In The Ghost Monument, without a TARDIS to fall back on, we have medi-units that achieve the same result, injecting a sub-dermal universal translator chip on detecting the lack of one.

While it might be interesting to occasionally find the travellers unable to understand the world around them, it makes for a simpler game all together if you skip language and move on. In a game with many skills, even spending a few points on a language means not picking something cool. In Renegade, you only have a couple of Specials to start with, so why would you spend them on something like Linguistics or whatever.

The challenge of the adventures should be more than the simple barriers of language. If you want the incomprehensible, they consider a puzzle instead, a riddle or hidden cypher than can challenge the player to solve it. Language confounds the characters and makes the game harder to run, never mind play.

Oh… I Forgot I Put Stuff in these Pockets

“I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” If you offer the player characters the basics, they can work out the rest and use their ingenuity and background to fill in the gaps. A spark of imagination and a half-abandoned warehouse full of tools sounds like an A-Team montage scene to me – and the same should apply when the player characters need to create a missing sonic multi-tool or cobble together a means to temporarily immobilise an enemy.

Give them string, sunglasses, a cricket ball, a transistor radio and a packet of jelly babies – because with that lot they have a world of potential. The path ahead shouldn’t be plain sailing, by any means, but dumping the characters in an alien jail every time they get captured with nothing to work with will just get tiresome. Make that jail a tool shed. Make that cell someone’s stationery cabinet. Or at least give the characters a tool they can chisel a message into a stone pillar with and discover it by chance three adventures earlier so they can organise an escape.

Don’t You See… I Got It Mostly Right

Human but alien. Comprehensible but puzzling. Most of the answers but without all the facts about the problem or the tools to get it resolved. Playing a game of Renegade or Doctor Who should be challenging for all the right reasons – filled with people, clues, puzzles, mystery, abandoned ruins, odd remnants and more than a scattering of ghosts and memories. In the midst of all that lies fun without frustration – and the promise of adventures yet to come.

Brace for Impact

As a continued expansion of the simple Renegade system, I’m happy to expand the PocketMod core with the revision and release of Brace for Impact, a broadly system-free supplement for creating sci-fi encounters which now includes a brand new Infinity Table.

The Infinity Table adds an essential temporal twist to your adventures, from sleeping menaces and lurking Lovecraftian horrors, to uncontrolled science experiments or utterly innocent actions that accidentally subvert the timeline.

And, to round the book off, an up-sized version of the Renegade rules – in glorious A5, with extra antagonists and a brief guide to both Structure and Motivation when running adventures.

Available now as a PDF through RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

Also available as a Chibnall-esque bundle with From Unformed Realms, to step up the behind-the-sofa quotient of your monsters!