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.

So you could argue both that the DWAITAS Fifth Doctor Sourcebook has a lot to live up to, and that it has rather a challenge to overcome. Fortunately, it does have one advantage on its side, which is that the Fifth Doctor only had twenty televised adventures. This is in the same ballpark as the Second and Third Doctors, and their sourcebooks showed how this is just about the perfect number of adventures that you want to cover in a 160 page game book.

One of the first things you notice about this book is that the strange habit of grouping televised stories into arbitrary sets of three seems to have gone for good - it wasn't just ditched to make space in volume #4. With each chapter having to have a splash page, cutting down on them gives us more space for real content. Indeed, there are only two chapters, one covering the themes of the era, and one covering the actual stories.

You'd expect, then, after looking at volumes #2 and #3, that the first chapter is going to be a whopper. But you'd be wrong. In fact, at just 12 pages, it's the shortest intro to a Doctor we've had since the unavoidably space-constrained first volume. The character sheets for the Doctor and companions are only half-page, although the descriptions of the characters themselves are pretty good - something that's important given the era's emphasis on character interaction within the TARDIS.

But those descriptions, together with the page describing the TARDIS itself, leave just two pages to cover everything else. The Fifth Doctor did face a number of recurring enemies, but there's no chapter for them this time, with them being moved into the adventures section instead. Well, one can't complain too much about that, so long as they're there. Except... well, I'll get to that.

There's also no rules chapter, where the expanded options would normally go. Apparently, the era was just too bland for the authors to come up with anything much beyond what already exists, although they do add some rules for "Black Guardian Points" that are basically bonus Story Points with a downside. And, to be fair, excessive rules creep just to pad out pages isn't, to my mind, a terribly good idea. If you don't really need something, why bother adding it?

But then, there's no real section on designing scenarios that fit the theme of the era, either, as was done so well in the Second and Third books. There are no general scenario hooks, and only a minimal idea of what the era was really about. One is left with the impression that the writers weren't really great fans of the Fifth Doctor's run, and couldn't actually think of anything interesting to say about it.

At any rate, this means that the vast bulk of the book is taken up by the information on the televised stories. And, here, we're returning to something more like the familiar formula. In addition to the usual stats and so on, some thought clearly went in to how to extrapolate more general features of the stories into new scenarios. A lot of it is pretty vague, but it is food for thought, and, obviously, rules for things like the Mara are bound to be useful.

In any book like this, of course, there are things you can point out that got missed. It's inevitable, given the amount of material one could potentially cover, and which parts of it different gamers might be interested in. But, even so, there are some odd omissions here, especially given how much space has been saved elsewhere. There are no stats for Mk VI Cybermen, for instance, which is surprising, considering that they're among the most distinctive versions. If anything, it's even more surprising that the entry on Earthshock doesn't include stats for the killer androids that are the main foe for half the story, either.  We can at least interpolate what Cybermen ought to be like from the versions in other books (if we have them), but the androids are an actual, unique, monster that just doesn't get described at all.

And that's merely the most extreme example of the book skimping on useful information when it didn't really have to.

All of this cutting things short does, of course, free up even more space. But there comes a point where one has to question what exactly it is that you're saving the space for. In this case, it turns out to be the plot descriptions. These are, of course, an essential part of the book, as I said right back in my review of the First Doctor's volume. But that showed, as did the volumes that followed, that all you really need is a page or two to cover the basics of a typical 4-part classic Who story. Here, unfortunately, we get page after page of tedious recounting of the events of each adventure.

And, believe me, while I've seen worse, this is pretty dull stuff to read. More to the point, it's completely without purpose. If I really wanted to know the plot in that much detail, I wouldn't be looking in an RPG book for it. I'd either watch the thing, or, if that were not an option, go to any of the places online that I can get a pretty thorough (and, by and large, equally boring to read) description of the story. But this is not useful for a game - in the unlikely event I wanted to run, say, Kinda, as an RPG adventure, it's of no use to me to know what Adric was doing in the original, since you can bet my players will do something different.

If this were the Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, I'd forgive this sort of thing. He only has eleven stories, and one has to fill the book with something. The same goes for volumes #7 to #9, which will have a similar problem. But here, one can't help but feel cheated, looking back at how well the Second and Third books did with the same amount of material, and how they were able to use space to give me stuff that was actually useful.

In a way, that's the tragedy: we know that the DWAITAS line can do better than this. There is a lot of good information here, and everything you need to throw Tereleptils, Urbankans, or God help me, Plasmatons, at your players. Had I not already seen the first four volumes I'd probably have been quite happy with this one. As it is, it still contains a lot that is useful, and some thoughtful advice on how to run DW games. If you're a fan of the Fifth Doctor era, I'd still recommend it. But with the caveat that, for all the times it gets things right, it's the weakest of the series so far.

Which one can't help but think is a metaphor for something...

1 comment:

Nick Davison said...

What a shame they put a load of info on that you can just Google anyway.