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.

It rarely matters, in other words, who's better than whom, at least when we're comparing different human(oid) cultures with one another. (It does, to be fair, sometimes matter that futuristic humans are less advanced than whichever aliens happen to be invading them this week - see Earthshock, for example). But, basically, we can say that Nyssa's native culture do, indeed, have starships, ray guns, and One Cool Gadget, which in this case is The Source, and anything else is largely a matter of opinion.

At any rate, Nyssa is a scientist, and the thing she's supposed to specialise in is biotechnology. This implies high skills in Biology and in Biological Engineering, which are the Science and Technology versions of the same general field, in DWAITAS terms. Of course, just as DWAITAS, like many modern systems, doesn't insist that you specialise that precisely, the show didn't really stick to the narrower scope, either. Nyssa is a scientist and engineer from an advanced culture, therefore she can build pretty much anything that the plot requires. And, while, yes, she can explain what photosynthesis is to Adric in Four to Doomsday, she's got a good understanding of other sciences, too.

In fact, she's pretty good at the whole science and tech thing. She builds a machine to vibrate a robot to bits in The Visitation, after the Doctor has done no more than point out it's technically possible, and she works out how to short-circuit the mind-control units in Four to Doomsday using a sonic pulse and a pencil. She even has some understanding of how the TARDIS controls work, although she can't quite pilot the thing.

She has, however, other skills and abilities on her character sheet besides the intellectual. For a start, she's surprisingly good with a gun, something she first demonstrates with a futuristic soldering iron that she's re-jigged to work as a stun pistol. We also see in Black Orchid that she's good at dancing, being able to do the Charleston after just a few moments attention - although more complex, formal dances are apparently her preference. Okay, so that's not the handiest skill ever in roleplaying terms, but it does suggest a broader skill at things like social etiquette, as does her background. And it does tend to imply, as does the shooting, that she's got a reasonable DEX as well as a high INT.

Speaking of social abilities, though, it is possible that she's the first female companion in quite a long while not to have the Attractive advantage. This may seem a rather odd thing to say, given that I suspect most people would probably agree that actress Sarah Sutton did have the advantage. But one can make the argument that at no point does anyone in the show seem to notice this fact. Except possibly Adric, who's a hormonal teenager, and not really the best example. And, if an advantage is never really used, does it even count? Is she, perhaps, "TV average", glamorous because young TV actresses generally are, rather than because it's supposed to be a key element of the actual character?

Okay, so I probably wouldn't make that argument. Because, you know, visual evidence. But it's not unreasonable.

Nyssa is the third in a line of alien companions... or the fourth if you count the robot. She's a native of the planet Traken, but her species seems indistinguishable from humans without the aid of genetic or biochemical tests of some kind. Unlike Adric, she doesn't seem to get even the most trivial of superpowers from this fact, so it's really just background colour. (Arguably, she does demonstrate some psychic sensitivity in Time-Flight, but it's never even hinted at again).

The thing that is significant about Trakenites, however, is that they live in a Utopian society based on the principle of "everyone being really nice to one another". As a result, and given that she comes from a sheltered aristocratic background within that culture, Nyssa is initially quite naive, although that fades with her time on the TARDIS. While it's been argued that she's more of a girly swot than a stereotypical aristocrat, she does generally act in quite a formal manner, something that could give either positive or negative reaction modifiers from NPCs, depending on exactly what milieu she finds herself in.
An example of her formality is that, in common with the other companions in the nineteenth season, she effectively wears a 'uniform'. Initially, this is a tight burgundy bodice with puffed, Tudor-style, sleeves, and a wide skirt over dark leggings. She sensibly ditches the skirt in favour of a more practical set of trousers as soon as she's off-world for any length of time, but otherwise she won't even change the colour of her clothing, let alone the style. She finally develops an interest in fashion in Snakedance, changing into a new outfit, and inexplicably wearing less and less as the following stories unfold. Indeed, she spends much of her last story dressed only in her underwear. Granted, it's not very revealing as underwear goes, but if the trend was likely to continue, it's as well that she left when she did.

On the girly swot front, perhaps the main evidence here is that, aside from biotechnology, her main hobby seems to be reading. Indeed, she's rarely seen on board the TARDIS without her nose in a book... although, to be fair, on one occasion, she appears to be reading a women's style magazine, so she does at least have some wider interests beyond science. Plus, let's not forget, this is a nerd who's willing to get out a gun and start shooting people when the Doctor's life is threatened in Arc of Infinity. Which has got to be a good basis for a player character, surely?

There are several indications that she's quite young - too young for alcohol, according to the Doctor in Black Orchid. (And it's not any sort of more general reservation on his part; while he goes for lemonade himself in that scene, he has no problem with Tegan drinking a screwdriver). Going by the age of her actress, we'd assume she's just nineteen when she meets the Doctor.

But that assumes Trakenites age at the same rate we do. Which was probably intended by the writers, given that they had no reason to do otherwise, but has been treated differently in the licensed spin-off media, allowing them to add several years to her adventures between Time-Flight and Arc of Infinity without contradicting anything seen on screen.

Traken itself, and all of its colony worlds, is destroyed in the story Logopolis. It's implied that this leaves Nyssa as the last of her kind, although, given that Trakenites were space-faring, this doesn't have to be literally true - even without considering the obvious advantages of time travel. On the whole, stiff-upper-lip type that she is, Nyssa seems to take this remarkably well, despite an understandable initial horror at what has happened.

Nyssa leaves the Doctor to stay on the space station Terminus and develop a cure for the deadly Lazar's Disease. She isn't mentioned again in the series, but, as so often, the spin-off media do develop her future life somewhat. It should come as no surprise that she does, indeed, come up with a cure for the disease, and she becomes an academic and researcher, often travelling from planet to planet. There's no indication whatever of when Terminus is supposed to be set, although it's obviously the very far future, but none of that is an obstacle to using her as a PC during this period of her life. If, as the audio plays suggest, she ages very slowly compared with humans, there's presumably a lot of room to fit in new adventures with her still relatively young.

Indeed, the audio plays themselves do this, having Nyssa rejoin the Fifth Doctor for a number of adventures set between (from the Doctor's point of view) the televised stories Enlightenment and The King's Demons. By this point in her personal timeline, Nyssa is middle-aged, and has a couple of children, which leaves absolutely masses of time to fit in our own stories, should we wish to do so.

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.

Monday, 30 June 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Romana

Leela leaves at the end of the fifteenth season. The campaign has been a fairly odd one for some time now, with only two players for the last three seasons, and for some extended periods before that. Perhaps more significantly, there has been something of an imbalance between the two characters. Sarah Jane and Leela were certainly competent characters, but even they were clearly sidekicks to the Doctor, the character who has been there, in one form or another, for, well... fifteen seasons now.

So, perhaps inspired by an NPC in The Invasion of Time - the first time we'd ever seen an adult female member of the Doctor's species - the other player decides to create a character who can truly be the Doctor's equal. She creates the Time Lady Romanadvoratrelundar, better known as Romana.

Romana is a recent graduate of the Time Lord Academy, and there's some indication that she is even more intelligent than the Doctor. Certainly, she passed the Academy's final exams with much higher marks than he did, although, to be fair, the Doctor may have been the sort of person who was too busy messing about to actually study. Be that as it may, Romana is, for obvious reasons, vastly less experienced than her co-traveller. This, as it turns out, affects both the skills on her character sheet and, more generally, her personality.

Monday, 16 June 2014

DW Companions as PCs: K9

Early in the fifteenth season, a new player joins the group, and comes up with an unusual idea for a PC. Basically, he's going to...

No, wait, that's not right, let's try that again. Here's what actually happened in our imaginary RPG campaign:

Ever since Harry's player left, the group has been down to just two players plus the GM. It's been there before, of course, but with the UNIT players away for good, there's no sign of it changing on the horizon. The GM is finding this a bit limiting, with the players often needing a bit of back-up to get things done. So, when they take a shine to a robot character he's just introduced, he decides to make the tin dog into a "Party NPC": a GM-controlled character that nonetheless travels with, and helps out the PCs on their adventures.

Yes, I'm arguing that K9 is actually an NPC. But the title of this little series is "Companions as PCs", and K9 is usually regarded as a companion, so what on Earth am I up to?

Monday, 2 June 2014

DW Companions as PCs: Leela

Sarah Jane leaves part way through the fourteenth season after what is (at the time) the longest run of any companion on the series. Her player is ready for something new, and comes up with a concept that's quite different from anything seen so far: her new character is going to be a Victorian street urchin.


Bear with me.

As it turns out, the GM is already planning a scenario set in set in Victorian London, so this will be perfect. He'll be able to work the character in seamlessly, and have her back-story relevant to the plot. There's only one problem: he hasn't got very far with planning the scenario yet, which he wants to make really authentic. The Doctor's player has badgered him into running a solo game while the other is away on holiday, but, even so, the GM has two more scenarios more or less ready to go before he feels ready to run the Victorian spectacular.

So he's got a suggestion: why not run a temporary PC for those two sessions? That way the arrival of the 'real' PC can be something of a surprise to the Doctor's player, and it will enhance the plot even more. He can even work in a short story arc for the temporary PC to his existing plots, and everything will be great.