Monday, 21 April 2014

DWAITAS: 4th Doctor Sourcebook

The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook was always going to be the most challenging for Cubicle 7 to pull off, at least among the first seven of the series. There are a number of reasons for this, starting with the simple observation that there are far more televised stories for this era than for any other. Each of the first three books spent an average of about four and a half pages per story, filling out the remainder of the 160 pages available with a broader overview and rules.

The 4th Doctor has 41 televised stories: you can immediately see why the arithmetic there is going to pose a problem.

Many multi-volume guidebooks of Doctor Who history have addressed this issue by splitting the era between two volumes. Cubicle 7, however, have taken the approach of just giving us more. This volume is a full 256 pages, over half again the length of the others. It's also noticeably jam-packed with content to an even greater extent than in the three we've already seen. 

However, sheer length alone is not the only problem with bringing the 4th Doctor era to life. The audience is likely to be demanding, since this era is widely acknowledged as the best and most popular of the entire classic run. In polls to determine people's "favourite Doctor", only the 10th regularly offers up any challenge (and which of the two comes out on top largely depends on the demographics of your poll respondents). Looking specifically at the classic era, polls of "favourite DW stories" are dominated by Tom Baker, with over half of the entries in any top ten typically coming from this period.

So there's a lot to live up to, but there's also a considerable variety. The Pertwee era has a cohesion because, the very first story aside, there was a single show-runner (Barry Letts) for its entire duration. Although it's not quite so clear cut during the '60s, Verity Lambert had a similar influence on the Hartnell era, and one can at least make the case that Innes Lloyd had more of a lasting effect on Troughton's stories than others managed. But with the much longer Baker era, there are two show-runners who had an equally big influence, and they really weren't trying to do the same thing. (For completeness, I should add that Letts was still around for Robot, which is probably why it feels like a Pertwee story, and there's also somebody else in charge right at the end).

In short, we have the "Gothic horror" of the first three seasons, under Philip Hinchcliffe, and then the much lighter, more humorous tone of Graham Williams in the second half of the run. It's a contrast that means that, for example, City of Death is really quite a different thing from Genesis of the Daleks. Not only that, but the Baker era relies less on recurring foes than its fore-runners did, so that a higher proportion of stories bring in something entirely new - and often never seen again.

So how does the Fourth Doctor Sourcebook handle all of this? One of the most obvious effects is that, even with the extra 96 pages, there are signs of saving space everywhere. The previous two volumes filled up four chapters before they got round to discussing the stories: one each for characters, rules, recurring villains, and general themes. Here, that's condensed down to two, with only the characters retaining their own chapter. It's not quite as condensed as the First Doctor Sourcebook, but it's less than we got in the previous two books.

Similarly, the section on the themes of the Baker era concentrates primarily on the first three seasons - Hinchcliffe's time as show-runner, rather than Williams'. It makes sense, not least because these are regarded by many as the absolute pinnacle of the classic show's run, but also because, to be honest, it's easier to identify the Gothic aesthetic of seasons twelve to fourteen than it is to nail down Williams' approach.

Most of the character sheets for the companions are back to being a half page again, as they were in the First Doctor Sourcebook, and there's only one or two paragraphs describing each. Sarah and Harry don't even get that much, with the reader referred to other books in the range if they want more than the character sheet. Ah, well, it'll give me more to say when I restart my "Companions as PCs" series.

Speaking of which, I received some mild criticism for pointing out in my 3rd Doctor Sourcebook review that, Jo aside, the companions there are rather more effective than PCs would be. This isn't the place to defend that, and it wasn't intended as a major criticism anyway. But I will nonetheless note that the same is true again here (and, no, Sarah's stats haven't improved, so it's probably not spent experience points). More importantly, though, I feel it's worth mentioning that K9, and even more so Romana, are absolutely miles ahead of any PC generated using the rules.

Of course, they should be: it's how they're portrayed in the show. If anything, it's a bonus, since having Romana, in particular, be so effective reduces the potential problem of the Doctor's player simply over-shadowing everyone else. But if you are using both of them in a game, it's probably wise to think carefully about how you'll handle the game balance before adding in some additional character.

But after these two introductory chapters, we're into the discussion of the stories, which, as always, forms the meat of the book. Again, the need to squeeze everything in becomes apparent here. Gone is, thank goodness, the full-page splash art that had to appear once every three stories, regardless of reason or logic. This is all one chapter, with no wasted space, and everything used to give just as thorough a description of the stories as we had in all the previous sourcebooks. Nothing is sacrificed that you actually need.

And it's here, in fact, that it also become clear that the shorter introductory section wasn't short-changing us at all. Precisely because of all that variety that I mentioned up above, the best place to describe each story is with that story. We don't need a chapter on recurring villains, for instance, because there are only three (Daleks, the Master, and the Sontarans) and there's plenty of time to describe what you need to know about those in the stories in question. And there's also room to discuss the unique monsters, of which there are many.

This section is well done, avoiding falling into the trap of overly literal "how you'd run this story as a game" advice. Because, let's face it, most of us wouldn't, and, if we did, we'd probably need more than a book like this could provide us with, anyway. Of course, the story descriptions need to be here - we need to know which one we're talking about, if nothing else - but far more interesting is discussion of how the particular themes in the stories can be used in your own adventures. How you can do something similar, not something the same. And that's the vibe I get from this. (It was noticeable in the First Doctor Sourcebook, too).

Of course, there's always something more that could have been added. Given their popularity, for instance, Jago and Litefoot are noticeable by their absence from the stat blocks. But there's only so much one can fit in, and I'd argue that all the material you really need - stats for things that are genuinely alien, for instance - is in here. Even important NPCs are easy enough to reconstruct if they're basically just human.

Some further points to mention. There's a two-page discussion on the Key to Time season, as an overview of that story arc, in addition to the material on the individual components of it. There's three scenario suggestions for entirely new stories, which are really rather good. On the down side, there's a surprising amount of black-and-white stills in the book. They're probably publicity shots from the Radio Times, or something of the sort, but they do rather stand out from all the colour.

And there's one other thing I wasn't expecting: an appendix.

See, there are, as I mentioned, 41 televised Tom Baker Doctor Who stories. But, as every fan knows, there was a 42nd story, too. No, I don't mean Doctor Who and the Pescatons, for which you can all be jolly thankful. I'm referring instead, of course, to the un-broadcast and never completed seventeenth season finale, Shada. It gets exactly the same treatment as the episodes that did air, and it's very welcome to see that it hasn't been left out, as one might have thought.

I started out this review by saying that the 4th Doctor Sourcebook was always going to be particularly challenging. I must admit, I was apprehensive that, this time, they wouldn't be able to do the era justice. But, you know what, I think they have. This is actually a great sourcebook, and they've really squeezed in everything that you're likely to need.

Monday, 16 December 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Jo Grant

Liz Shaw leaves the show after the end of the seventh season. In game terms, her player has realised that there isn't much point in playing a scientist character when the Doctor is already so much better at it. Looking around, and seeing two new military types joining the campaign, along with the Brigadier already there, she sees that there is an empty niche. A 'rogue' type character doesn't directly work in the setting, but the skills such characters normally possess are certainly still useful, and nobody else has focussed on them.

Fitting in with the campaign premise, the player decides to generate a spy as her character. But - and here's the twist - she's going to play a crap one.

The result is wannabe secret agent and full-time ditz Jo Grant.

Jo has, we're told, undergone a course in spycraft and all its attendant skills. She does not, on the other hand, actually appear to have passed it. A great example of her approach to sneaky rogue-type activities can be seen in her very first story, Terror of the Autons, not just in her failure to spy on the Master, but in how she reacts once she's discovered. On the whole, while she's clearly a very nice person, she really doesn't seem cut out for... well, anything much.

Monday, 2 December 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Sgt Benton and Mike Yates

Around the end of the seventh season and the beginning of the eighth, two new players join our imaginary group, bringing it to the largest it well ever be: five players plus the GM. They're only occasional players, absent for many of the adventures, which the GM begins filling in with off-world science fiction, rather than the military-guarding-the-world that formed the basis of this new campaign. Nonetheless, both decide to play characters that mesh perfectly with the campaign concept, by designing members of UNIT.

The first, like the Brigadier's player, picks up a former NPC already associated with the campaign. Sergeant Benton first appeared (as a corporal) in The Invasion, back in the sixth season, and now returns as a semi-regular PC. As a sergeant, rather than an officer, he has the perfect opportunity to play the tough guy role previously filled by the likes of Ben and Steven. He doesn't really do much with the character beyond this, but it's a solid base.

Monday, 18 November 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Liz Shaw

The third player in the new, quasi-military campaign is the only one to create an entirely new character. Instead of a soldier, she creates a scientist, Liz Shaw, leaving a bunch of NPCs to wreak action-filled havoc backing up the Brigadier. In some respects, the character is a more down-to-earth version of Zoe, and while lacking the same level of genius, she is, if anything, even more of a pure Science Geek.

In the real world, scientists are only highly knowledgeable about specific, narrow, fields - or at least they have been since about the early twentieth century. In the world of TV, however, being a scientist tends to mean you're skilled at pretty well anything science related, unless the show itself is focussed on some particular field. DWAITAS, and many other RPGs, tend to follow this approach, so we can say that, yes, Liz was very good at science, and leave it at that.

For some other systems, however, we might need to clarify just what she's good at. Even in DWAITAS, there's a valid question as to whether she has a speciality, and, if so, what it might be.

Monday, 4 November 2013

DW Companions as PCs: Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart

Some time after ending his time travel campaign with The War Games, the GM proposes a new one. This will be about a semi-secret military organisation dedicated to protecting the Earth from alien invasion and investigating the downright weird. He initially gets three players for this new campaign, and they set out about creating suitable characters.

One brings back the Doctor, from the previous campaign, but now suitably changed with the addition of some nifty combat skills and, of course, no time machine. (Maybe the last episode of The War Games is actually a flashback worked out to explain this, or maybe it was planned all along, when the GM got bored of running games about time travel and future worlds).

The second player also brings back a character from the previous campaign, but this time, it's a former NPC. This, of course, is the head of the British branch of UNIT, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart. (The middle name 'Gordon' isn't added until quite a bit later).

That the Brigadier was originally an NPC seems fairly evident. He first appears (as a colonel) in The Web of Fear, in which he is one of the main suspects in the whodunnit sub-plot. Crucially, he is treated as such by the regular characters pretty much all the way through, and they don't start to trust him until the true villain is unmasked, right at the end. Therefore, I would argue, the players are treating him as they would any NPC suspect. Yes, he's a red herring, but they don't know that, and they aren't treating him like a fellow PC.

Monday, 21 October 2013

DWAITAS: 3rd Doctor Sourcebook

With the third in the series of past Doctor sourcebooks, we reach an era that is, perhaps, one of the most distinctive, quite different in many ways from those that preceded and followed it. It's also, and for much the same reason, rather controversial. For many fans, especially those who were watching in the early '70s, the Third Doctor is their favourite, yet, for many others, the nature of the stories in this era is just too different to really enjoy in the same way as those that came later.

From the point of view of a sourcebook, this is actually something of an advantage. Because the era is unique, there's quite a lot to say about it. It may also help that much of what makes the Third Doctor's tenure different also makes it closer to traditional roleplaying games. It's perhaps easier, for instance, to see how Spearhead from Space could be made into a straightforward roleplaying adventure than more character-driven tales such as The Girl Who Waited.

The most obvious thing that stands out about the era is that over half of the stories are set primarily in the present day, perhaps with a brief excursion elsewhere for a couple of episodes. But there's more to it than that. The Doctor is, in most of these present day stories, backed up by UNIT, a military organisation, and - while he argues with them frequently - he is broadly content to work alongside them. It's hard to imagine the Doctor of Power of Three remaining on Earth for quite so long without going stir crazy.

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Companions That Weren't: the '60s

In Doctor Who stories, it's not unusual for there to be a character who takes on a companion-like role, but who does not, in the end, join the TARDIS crew. Granted, this is often at least partly because they've just died, and many wouldn't make great player characters anyway. But there are some exceptions, who can, if nothing else, give us inspiration for character ideas that fit with the setting.

I'm going to start on the Third Doctor's era shortly after the relevant sourcebook comes out, but that leaves me with a slight gap. So today I'm going to look at four characters from the show's first six seasons who either came close to being actual companions, or are particularly suited for it.

First up, and my only choice from the Hartnell era, is Jenny, from The Dalek Invasion of Earth. She's a resistance fighter against the Daleks and their robomen, and, from the dates given on screen, therefore hails from the 2170s, or thereabouts. She appears on my list because the character was seriously considered as an ongoing companion, replacing Susan, who left in that story. In the event, the writers decided they wanted somebody younger, and introduced Vicki in The Rescue, but it could have been otherwise.

She isn't given a surname, nor do we know how, exactly, she joined the resistance. Unlike the menfolk, she doesn't really do any fighting, although it's hard to imagine that she can't if it comes to it. Her main roles in the resistance are organisational, including such things as manning the communications system. But, given that she's been living in a post-apocalyptic world for ten years, it's also a fair assumption that she has good survival and stealth skills.