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.

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