Sunday, 10 March 2013

DWAITAS: 1st Doctor Sourcebook

A bit of a departure as far as my sparse and occasional reviews are concerned, I know. Not least because I haven't got round to reviewing the actual game. That's largely because I haven't yet had the chance to play it, and it's not really fair to review a game system you haven't actually used. I mean, it looks good, but how do you know until you get the dice out and give it a whirl?

But supplements are a different matter. I can't comment on how well the stats have been balanced, or whatever, but I can at least comment on what's provided. Also a bit odd, perhaps, that I'm starting with this one, given it's the fourth supplement to come out (although one of the others was a bestiary, where the utility of the stats is kind of crucial). But, hey, this is the way it is, so there!

Obviously, the reason for me buying this is that I'm hoping to get some use of it. I have some ideas for a DWAITAS game, and hope to put them into practice in the none-too-distant. Then I guess I'll know how well the rules work. The reason for me starting with this in particular, apart from the fact that it's hot off the presses, is that I have been going back through some First Doctor stuff of late, including reading volume one of TARDIS Eruditorum, which I reviewed here. As I was reading that - before this book was even announced publicly, I was pondering how DWAITAS would handle that era, and what material a (then hypothetical) sourcebook would cover. Now I know.

And, you know, the great thing is, this is almost exactly what I would have wanted. Pretty much everything that my random musings had thrown up along the lines of "they ought to do this" is here. It's a really excellent RPG sourcebook for this era of the show's history.

But let's look at that era. One of the problems with it is that, with the possible exception of Pertwee's first three seasons, it's less like the modern show than anything else that followed. That's not to say that the basic set up of the Hartnell years wouldn't make a great roleplaying game, because it would, but it would feel quite different to Doctor Who as we see it today. It's not just that the style of telling the stories was different - it was, but we're already changing the medium by moving from television to tabletop RPG. It's more that the stories were about different things.

The most obvious example, of course, is that of the historicals, but even the science fiction stories tended to be different. Daleks aside (and there are a lot of dalek stories in the Hartnell era), few stories really tended to be about monsters. There were frequently monsters in the stories, to be sure, but they were just obstacles to be overcome on the way to the real plot. Even the cybermen of this era weren't monsters, they were just weird people with objectives that happened to be bad news for Earth's version of humanity.

The first chapter of the book does a good job of covering exactly this sort of issue. In addition to the point I've just made above it covers, for example, the issue of how the Doctor related to his companions during this era. Today, the default assumption is that being whisked away by the Doctor is an exciting and thrilling thing, something you'd give your eye-teeth for. But none of Hartnell's companions were there (at least initially) for the thrill of it, and half them were actively trying to escape back home. That's a different dynamic for your PCs, and an important point to bear in mind if you really want to emulate this era in your game.

This section of the book covers five pages, and does an excellent job of explaining the themes of the era, and all the sorts of things you'd want to consider if gaming in its style. It's really very good advice, and, one suspects, more important in this volume than it will be in any other (except, perhaps, the third).

Most of the remainder of the book consists of a story-by-story guide to the first three-and-a-bit seasons of the show. The stories are rather oddly grouped together in sets of three, rather than by any more logical scheme (such as by season). Since each such 'chapter' has to have a splash page, this feels like padding, since it doesn't, to my mind, make it any easier to find the particular story you're looking for.

That aside, the entries of the individual stories are surely the main reason for buying the book. That's especially true if you aren't planning to run a Hartnell style story, but want to use some of it to expand the background and scope of a game in the style of the current series. The show itself, after all, makes occasional references back to this long-gone era, not just by making allusions to Susan, for example, but even by having the Drahvins, of all people, turn up in The Pandorica Opens (albeit off-screen).

A trap that it might have been easy to fall into would have been to spend ages re-iterating the plot of each story. Consider, for example, the way that Mongoose did the season guides for their Babylon 5 RPG. Those were, in my opinion, truly dreadful, but there's no such issues from Cubicle 7. Of course we need the summaries here, and we get them, but they serve to elucidate rather than get in the way. If you want more detailed plot summaries, there's plenty of places to get them online and in print, even assuming that you can't actually watch the episodes themselves - which, when we're talking about the Hartnell era, you often can't.

(One might, as an aside, make a few quibbles about some of the summaries, although these are largely due to the need to keep them short. For instance, in the section on The Massacre, Anna and Dodo Chaplet are described as looking 'identical'. Granted, they're similar enough to fool Steven, at least temporarily, but it's not as if they were played by the same actress, or anything).

No, what you want out of an RPG supplement isn't a detailed plot guide, but an explanation of how to use the ideas of any given stories in game. It's on this, perhaps more than anything else that, to my mind, a supplement like this stands or falls. And it stands admirably. Of course, we gets stats for all of the monsters and alien races, tangential to the plot though the former often are, but also for some of the key characters in the story, locations such as Marinus and the Dalek City, and for any gadgets or other technology that are important to the story. The latter being a particularly important point, given the way such things work in DWAITAS.

Sure, there are no maps or anything - if you want to know the layout of the Space Museum, you'll have to figure that out yourself. But that's fair enough, especially when you've got twenty eight stories to cover in 160 pages. Maps take up a lot of space, require a lot of work, and, in most cases, won't be terribly important to a game in the style of DWAITAS anyway. It's not like these are dungeon bashes. (Okay, so the plot of The Keys of Marinus does feel suspiciously like a video game to a modern audience, but how the different 'levels' relate to one another is hardly important).

There's also advice on how to run your own plots that use themes from the episodes. These might be explicit themes, such as in Planet of Giants, but also issues of atmosphere and mood, as, for example, in many of the historicals (consider, for instance, the completely different style of story in The Aztecs to that of The Romans). Some of this is great advice about how to run a game, using the way that things work in the TV story to guide how you might do things in an RPG. Any RPG, really - there's really some useful GMing advice in here.

The section on each story concludes with some suggestions as to how the things in the episodes could be used in new stories. These are, of course, short concepts, not anything fleshed out, but they're useful for sparking ideas, nonetheless (one of them looks suspiciously like the plot of the 2005 DW novel The Time Travellers, so there's obviously mileage in it). There are also three additional story ideas in the first chapter, not directly linked to anything on TV.

A great thing about much of this is that you don't even need DWAITAS to make use of it. Certainly, that will make the stats and so on a lot more useful, but if you want to run stories from this era, or just plunder its ideas to use in the style of a later era, and you happen to be using HeroQuest, Cortex, GURPS, or whatever the heck else, this book is still going to be useful. I can't imagine many people will actually want to run a game that has the exact plot of, say, The Sensorites, but here's all the ideas and info you need to build on and expand those stories to create your own.

The book concludes with character sheets for the First Doctor and all of his companions. He had quite a few, so most are only half page, but they'll blow up to full size without difficulty. I can't help but notice that none of these can be generated as PCs with the rules-as-written. Perhaps they've spent a few experience points (most are over-powered), but if the game can't generate characters that actually resemble those in the show - at least in this era - that doesn't bode too well. I would also have liked to see more information on the companions as possible PCs. How you would play them, more about their character backgrounds, and so on. Admittedly, that would be tough for some of them - Dodo being an obvious example, although she's possibly not a lot of use as a PC anyway.

The book is generously illustrated with stills from the TV series, which are often large and high quality. Cubicle 7's claim that the book is, aside from the cover, in black-and-white so as to promote the feeling of the era is, one can't help but think, making a virtue out of a necessity, but the fact remains that it does work. The book would have looked odd with colour page borders, stat boxes, or whatever, but mostly B&W stills!

One complaint I do have about the PDF version (at least, the one I have) is that it has no bookmarking. I've gone in and added all the bookmarks I need myself, but I don't feel that I should have had to do that. It's particularly surprising given that earlier DWAITAS supplements have had, if anything, more bookmarking than I actually needed (although such erring on the side of caution is something I'd encourage).

So, on the whole, very well done. If you want to know lots of detail about the individual stories, go to the TARDIS Data Core, or buy volume 1 of Running Through Corridors, or, I don't know... actually watch them on DVD, or something. But if you want to have the information that actually lets you game in this corner of the Whoniverse, or plunder its ideas for something else, this is highly recommended.

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