Monday, 8 December 2014

DWAITAS 6th Doctor Sourcebook

Okay, it's confession time: the Sixth Doctor's era is my least favourite in all of Doctor Who.

Nor am I alone in this. While the Sixth Doctor does have his fans, they aren't terribly numerous. His run of stories are generally reckoned to be amongst the weakest in the show's history, rising to the level of mediocrity once or twice, but more often falling short of such a target. Indeed, while I am sure there are those who will disagree, I'd argue that they're the only two seasons in the entire run that haven't included even one story I could honestly call 'good'. For that matter, by popular acclaim, the single worst Doctor Who story ever broadcast is the Sixth Doctor's debut, The Twin Dilemma.

I am, of course, compelled by the Sacred and Unwritten Rules of Fandom, on pain of being banished to the Planet of the Ming-Mongs, or some such, to follow that up with "...but he's a lot better in the audios." That caveat is, it seems, as mandatory as it is true, but, sadly it's not relevant here. Since, of course, Cubicle 7's license doesn't extend beyond the TV series itself, and the best they can do is make oblique references to the spin-off material. (Which they do, for example, on p.22)

At any rate, I wasn't exactly bursting with excitement to read this particular instalment of the DWAITAS Sourcebooks. Yet, when you think about it, this book does have two advantages that it's predecessors didn't. Perhaps the more obvious of these is that the Sixth Doctor only has eleven televised stories. With Cubicle 7 insisting that every book in the series has to have at least 160 pages, you should at least have space for a pretty detailed discussion of every one of them. The downside of this, though, is that you're in danger of resorting to spurious padding to try and fill the page count up.

The second potential advantage might not be so apparent at first sight. There is a theory in RPGs that if you're going to adapt a TV episode or a film into a game scenario, you're far better off with one that's rubbish than with one that's good. The two media are quite different, and the things that make a given TV episode great often just don't translate across. City of Death, for example, is so good because of the sparkling dialogue, Robots of Death benefits from great design, The Doctor's Wife because of the way the character interactions are played... but these are not things that will automatically carry across to a scenario based on them.

Whereas something like Vengeance on Varos, with it's obstacle-course game show, might actually work quite well when the faults of the era don't have to come across with it. There are limits to this, and The Twin Dilemma, for example, is unlikely to be salvageable by any method. And there are exceptions, the other way too; as one instance, I could imagine that Carnival of Monsters, from the Pertwee years, could be as effective a scenario as it is an episode. But, at the very least, it does mean that things aren't quite so automatically doomed as one might suppose.

So let's turn to see what it is that we're actually getting in this book. It starts with a pretty good summation of the Doctor and his era. Obviously, being licensed and vetted by the BBC, the book couldn't come out and say "these stories are mostly rubbish" even if it wanted to (which it presumably wouldn't), so the job here is to try and put a positive spin on things. Which it by and large succeeds at. Three story seeds are included, and they're far more detailed than those in the earlier volumes, occupying about half a page each, rather than just a paragraph or two.

Stats for the Doctor, Peri, Mel, and the TARDIS follow, as in previous books. Peri's stats are notably higher than they were in the Fifth Doctor Sourcebook, which possibly reflects experience, although, for some reason, her Convince skill has actually got lower. I have to say that I think the previous volume reflects the on-screen character rather better, but more on that when I return to "Companions as PCs". There are also a whole bunch of new Traits and new rules, although it's arguable how useful many of these are, and whether or not they're just particular examples of things that the existing rules can already do.

And so we move on to the analysis of the stories themselves. Here the greater ratio of page count to stories really reaps benefits. We do, as in the Fifth Doctor's volume, get lengthy and tedious recountings of the events of the televised stories. These things honestly aren't really possible to do well; you can't condense a 100-minute story into a couple of pages and make it sound good. You either need a briefer summary, as the earlier volumes did, or, better yet, write an entire novel... which is hardly an option here.

But, this time round it doesn't matter, because the book has space both for this and for the actual gaming content. And the gaming content here also benefits from being particularly good. The suggestions on how to run the episodes as stories (should you actually wish to do so), is rather better than in certain of the other volumes. More significantly, perhaps, there are good discussions on the various alien races, and stats for just about every character in the stories. One might argue that, if anything, this goes a little too far, with some really very minor characters getting written up. But at least it's hard to think what they could have possibly missed out and it's better to be thorough than to, say, forget to stat up or describe one of the main monsters in a story.

(I do, however, have to point out one minor glitch I spotted in the stats. We're told in the Revelation of the Daleks entry that the daleks in that story "still lack the ability to fly or hover." In fact, one of them does exactly that in the firefight at the end of the story - although a lot more is made of this in the Seventh Doctor story Remembrance of the Daleks a few seasons later).

In fact, there are even extra rules in here, for example, a "Failed Cyber Conversion" trait in the section on Attack of the Cybermen, and write-ups of various vehicles that appear, along with other gadgets. Plus, of course, descriptions of planets and settings, and how else they could be used in games. The "Further Adventures" that we've seen throughout the Sourcebook series are particular good here, with some really great ideas for games branching off from what we see on screen.

The Trial of a Time Lord comes in for special treatment. Each of its component parts gets a full entry, focussing on the story that we watch the Doctor watching. If you see what I mean. But the overall story arc - the bits in the courtroom - also get their own full entry. It's here, for instance, that we have stats and descriptions for the Inquisitor and the Valeyard, and there's an entire proposed campaign based around some of the ideas, with brief descriptions of the individual scenarios that might make it up.

The book concludes with an appendix, which fits all of the Sixth Doctor's adventures into the context of the Time War - a concept that, of course, didn't actually exist in the show until the new series. Each story is examined as if it were actually an early salvo in that conflict, and a one-paragraph adventure seed is provided for each based on that concept. It's an original idea, and yet another example of just how many adventure seeds this book manages to fit in.

In summary, the book does suffer from some of the problems I expected it might, due to fitting too few stories into too many pages. There is a sense of padding here and there, of trying to fit in anything just to fill the book up. But, on the whole, the space is being used to give us ideas to use in our games. It feels, more than it's immediate predecessor, at any rate, as if it's actually written for gamers. Perhaps there's a little too much detail in places, but that's easily enough ignored, and, crucially, there's not anything missing, so who cares?

I'm still no fan of the Sixth Doctor's television adventures, and I never will be. But I did like this book quite a bit more than I thought I would, and I have to say well done to the author for that.

Monday, 24 November 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Vislor Turlough

A new player joins the group in the twentieth season, briefly bringing the number of players up to four again. His initial character concept is, in many respects, similar to that of Adric: a high-tech rogue from an alien planet. But this player is older, and the character more complex, and less annoying.

Turlough is the last in the line of alien companions, and also the last male companion of the classic era. When we first meet him, he is a sixth form student at an expensive boarding school somewhere in the south of England, and so is presumably about eighteen years old. He is desperate to escape from Earth, but, while he admits to the other players that his character is alien, Turlough's player gives out no information at all about his background, or how he got to Earth in the first place. It's entirely possible that he's left this blank, with the intention of filling in a backstory later; it would explain why he sometimes mentions his homeworld, but never actually says what it's called.

Then again, it's possible that he's just being cagey. The "rogue" aspect of the character is only partly built on the obvious skills of lockpicking, devising traps, and so on, and is far more based in deception and similarly subtle methods. Turlough seems to be a master of Fast Talk, Bluff, or whatever else your system might call it. Right from his first story, we see him getting another student into trouble to divert attention from himself, and successfully tricking the headmaster into falling for the ruse. There are other instances in later stories where he uses the same skill again, albeit usually with less base motives.

Monday, 10 November 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Tegan Jovanka

Romana leaves towards the end of the eighteenth season. After so long playing her, albeit in two different forms, her player wants to try something different. Her last character was an intellectual aristocrat from a sophisticated and highly advanced civilisation, so the player comes up with the exact opposite of that.

She's going to play an Australian.

Joking aside, though, what is the character concept for Tegan Jovanka? When we look back through the previous companions on the series, most of them have actually turned out to be fairly identifiable character concepts that would fit in this sort of RPG. They haven't always been executed well, but the concept itself has usually been clear and perfectly viable. We have had a heroic space pilot, a number of soldiers and scientists, a secret agent, an investigative journalist, a barbarian warrior, and so on. With Tegan Jovanka, we have an air hostess.

Monday, 27 October 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Nyssa

Romana leaves towards the end of the eighteenth season. Her player is unable to attend the next session, but that's okay, because a new player is considering joining the group - bringing it back to its original size of GM plus four players. But the new player isn't quite sure she wants to become an ongoing member of the group, so she offers to play a one-off character for the next adventure, and see how it goes.

Probably she's heard of Romana (perhaps she's a friend of that player), and knows that she's left, so she sees an available niche, and designs a character that fills much the same function. Which brings us to Nyssa of Traken, who does, of course, become a regular PC from Logopolis onwards.

Nyssa, like Romana, comes from a technologically advanced culture. Quite how advanced is hard to say, because Doctor Who doesn't, if we're honest, have a terribly consistent view of what RPGs call "tech levels". With a few exceptions here and there, there doesn't appear to be functionally much difference between any of the futuristic societies we see. They may emphasise different bits, sure, but so long as they've got starships, ray guns, and any specific gadgets needed to drive the plot (the miniscope from Carnival of Monsters, say) they mostly look pretty much the same. Even the Time Lords don't seem that different, apart from the fact they have time machines.

Monday, 13 October 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Adric

The campaign has, for some time now, had only two player characters: the Doctor and a single female companion. Which isn't really enough for an RPG. So, when, part way through the eighteenth season, the annoying kid brother of one of the other players demands to be allowed to join in... well, what are you going to do?

The new player, of course, creates alien boy genius Adric.

Now, we just have to face reality here. You're never going to get a group as large and diverse as Doctor Who fandom to agree on anything as controversial as the identity of the "worst companion ever"... but, the fact remains, if you look at just about any list ranking companions by popularity, Adric is going to be somewhere in the bottom three. He might not always come last, but he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a popular character.

But let's take a step back from that for a minute, and just consider his character sheet. What, exactly, is the point of Adric, and how would he fit in an RPG campaign? On paper, at least, the answer is surprisingly well.

Monday, 6 October 2014

DWAITAS 5th Doctor Sourcebook

You're never going to get the whole of Doctor Who fandom to agree on when, or, for that matter, even if, classic Doctor Who "jumped the shark" and was irretrievably no-longer-as-good-as-it-used-to-be. But there seem to be at least three popular suggestions. Perhaps it was The Invisible Enemy, shortly after Philip Hinchcliffe was ditched as showrunner (or 'producer', as it was then). Or maybe The Leisure Hive, after Hinchcliffe's replacement left. Or perhaps The Twin Dilemma, a few more seasons down the line.

There are, of course, other possibilities, but the thing to notice about the three I've listed is that two of them doom the whole of Peter Davison's run to post-shark-jumping oblivion. A lot of people just aren't very keen on '80s Doctor Who, and how it sometimes seemed to be just treading water, and looking a bit naff.

But then again...

A lot of fans first came to Doctor Who in the '80s, and, numerically, there were more of them starting in Davison's era than in the two that followed. For many fans of the right age, Davison is "their Doctor", and fondly remembered. Astonishingly, on the fanfic site A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, there are actually more stories featuring the Fifth Doctor than any other of the classic era - even supposed fan favourite Tom Baker. (And most of them aren't pervy, in case you're wondering if that's the reason). Furthermore, the Fifth Doctor story The Caves of Androzani is frequently voted the single most popular story of the entire classic run, even managing to beat the likes of Genesis of the Daleks and The City of Death.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Companions That Weren't: The '70s

Classic Doctor Who changed many times over the years of its run, but two particularly seismic shifts in its production stand out. The first, and most obvious to the casual viewer, was the move in 1970 from black-and-white to colour, which also involved many other major changes in the way the show was made. The second, which is perhaps easier to see with hindsight than it might have been at the time, was the arrival of John Nathan-Turner as producer (or, as we'd say now, "showrunner").

This involved a significant shift in the show's direction and style, with a lot of changes behind the scenes as well. For the purposes of this blog, though, what matters is that, coincidentally, it happened in 1980. And that means that there are three well-defined periods of the show's history, which just happen to line up with chronological decades. I previously looked at four characters from the '60s era of the show who never became companions in reality, but who perhaps could in our own RPG campaigns. Now it's time to do the same for the '70s.

We begin with Hal the Archer from the Pertwee story The Time Warrior. One reason he's a choice is that he came quite close to becoming a companion in real life. The producers dropped the idea before the role was even cast, so it never really got anywhere, but it's easy to see him in the same mould as Jamie, and he's certainly quite heroic in his one story.