It’s About Time
For fifty minutes one cold November day, I was Sally Sparrow.
Perhaps an explanation is in order: this was 2009 and Cubicle 7 were in the process of releasing their Dr Who tabletop roleplaying game1. It wasn’t actually available for sale at that time due to shipping issues, but they were still running demos at Dragonmeet. It was so much fun that we put in a pre-order and eagerly awaited the day when it would drop through the letterbox and into our clammy little paws. We also won a Dalek standee the same day, but that’s another story…
There have been three Dr Who roleplaying games so far. The first was published by FASA2 in 1985 and has Tom Baker and Leela on the front cover, even though neither of them was still in the show by that point. The second was “Timelord” by Virgin3; unusually for the time, it was printed as a standard paperback and marketed as such to fit in with their line of novels. It includes the following classic piece of advice for novice roleplayers: “Role-playing is like acting: some people are good at it and others are appalling. There are some splendid examples of bad acting in the television series, so a player who cannot throw himself into a role is hardly setting a precedent – in fact he is making an accurate contribution to the adventure!” Er, right.
So why am I writing a review for a game that’s almost two years old now? Because it’s a good game and many people probably don’t know that it’s out there. Also, the new series of Doctor Who has just broadcast one of its best episodes ever. But also because at some point this year, Cubicle 7 will be releasing an updated version with all new artwork and some new monster material to bring it into the Eleventh Doctor’s reign. You can still get hold of the Tenth Doctor edition, which is what I’ll be reviewing here, an eye-poppingly gorgeous boxed set and well worth a look if you can’t wait patiently for the new stuff.
And, yes, I said boxed set. Many of the early RPGs came as multiple booklets in a box with a few dice. They then graduated onto A4-ish hard or soft-backs. Others, like Timelord, have been published in a smaller, more recognised format. Like its FASA predecessor, Cubicle 7’s game has gone for the traditional boxed set, but not for the same reasons. Licensing intellectual property is a very complex area these days; someone else already has the licence to produce Dr Who books, so the designers have been forced to be creative and return to gaming’s roots all at the same time. And yes, it has dice in it. They have TARDIS blue dots on them.
It also has a lot of other stuff in it: a Player’s guide, a Gamemaster’s guide, an adventures book, character sheets, pop-out gadget cards, story point counters and a four sided rules summary, all very similar to James Wallis’ favourite game of all time, the hugely influential Ghostbusters4. And that’s one of the game’s strengths: it has learnt from the best of the past and given the players a fast, simple way into the game that doesn’t necessarily require several days’ reading first. You can pick up the quick start guide (helpfully labelled “Read This First!”) and the pre-generated character sheets (Tennant’s Doctor, Rose, Mickey, Martha, Donna, the decent, non-Torchwood version of Captain Jack, Sarah Jane and the tin dog) and just get on with it. There’re not many games that you can say that about.
Obviously there are rules for creating your own characters; basically, you start with a set number of points that you assign to particular areas. In this game, that’s Attributes, Skills and Traits. There are six Attributes, which give your character a rough idea of their overall capabilities. Then there are your Skills, which make it all a bit more specific. I freely admit that this is the point at which I often give up on RPGs; the background might be amazing, but endless lists of abilities usually kill my enthusiasm stone dead. Fortunately this time, I survived.
Possibly the most interesting of these three areas are the Traits, which show a genuine knowledge and affection for the setting. The best examples of this are “Resourceful Pockets” (a Doctor staple) and “Screamer!” which made me laugh a great deal (even more so now after River’s comment to the Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut”). There are also bad Traits, which gain you extra points to spend elsewhere, a fairly common idea in gaming but again containing a nice nod to the show’s history, particularly in the form of “Unadventurous”. This Trait can be used to “retire” a character from the story by giving the companion a reason to leave when they are fed up of being cold and wet, hypnotised left, right and centre, shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters or not knowing whether they’re coming or going or been. There are also some fairly special Traits for aliens and Timelords, should you wish to play such high-powered characters.
What about the mechanics? Well, they’re fast, fun and very organic. It involves a little bit of maths (rolling two dice, adding them together then adding two more numbers to that, comparing it to a difficulty and seeing if you’d beaten it and by how much), but nothing too strenuous. That’s as far as it has to go, but there is a very nice touch in what could basically be described as the Vicki Pollard mechanic (“Yeah, but, no, but”). This allows you to have degrees of success and failure based on how far above/below the target number you were set and its great for getting some extra dramatics into the game if you don’t already do that sort of thing. You’ll also find quite a few tables and loads of examples to support game play, some from familiar episodes and some new.
A rather cool feature is the order in which events will happen during any given encounter: those who wish to talk go first (so they can do the whole tenth Doctor Shouty Man thing if they want), then those who wish to run, run (again, all very in-keeping with the show’s formula). Those who wish to do something (like build a gadget) go next and finally those wishing to resort to violence have to wait until the end. The anti-gun message is perhaps a little strident given the Doctor’s previous history regarding fire-arms (and UNIT), but it does fit with Tennant’s holier-than-thou attitude on the matter. I’d be very interested to see if this changes with the new edition, seeing as the Doctor has admitted finding River’s gunplay really rather enticing. There’s a whole load of stuff on damage and how to use the system’s story points to avoid getting moshed (and how to get more of them if you’re running a bit low), and an entire chapter of hints and tips for the new player. Needless to say, they’re rather more useful than the one from Timelord. And all this is just in the Player’s Guide!
The Gamemaster’s Guide is as sumptuously produced as its companion; my only real niggle with it (putting my lecturer’s hat on) is that there are some really odd grammatical choices in parts of the editing that felt really jarring (and that I’d mark my students down for). But then, I am incredibly old-fashioned that way, although I haven’t quite taken to wearing a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Yet. And then there’s that odd box on the top of page 53 about introducing characters in a game, slap bang in the middle of a section on healing and damage…
The rest of the GM’s book is good; straightforward to read, littered with examples from the series, only one of which I couldn’t place for the life of me (the SS Nakamura, anyone?) and some lovely humour harking back to the original series. Indeed, the Brig gets his infamous quote about aliens being resistant to bullets included in the description of potential alien immunities that will tickle long-standing fans without confusing new ones (à la the whole “Who the hell is Rassilon?” debacle at the end of the specials). Essentially for this type of book, it covers exactly what you’d need it to: story-telling advice, monster details and a more in-depth discussion of the rules. They’ve even duplicated some of the critical information from the Player’s Guide as well, so the GM doesn’t have to go borrowing the players’ book from them at a crucial moment.
All in all, this is a lovely shiny game with fun accessories, a well balanced rule system that can be pruned to suit your group’s playing style and sufficient support to get you going in the right direction. Cubicle 7 did say that they’d release the equivalent of a patch for people who already own the original version of the game when the new edition comes out, which suggests the changes will be mostly cosmetic. There is one other boxed set available (Monsters and Aliens) and a whole raft of others lined up for release in the summer. But then, they were also going to get released last year, which was somewhat scuppered by Tennant’s leaving and the whole re-branding issue. Never mind, I’m sure they’ll appear in time…
1 – Dr Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the Role Playing Game (2009) David F. Chapman et al; Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd
2 – The Dr Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time and Space (1985) FASA
3 – Timelord: Adventures Through Time and Space (1991) Ian Marsh & Peter Darvill-Evans; Virgin
4 – Ghostbusters, a Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game (1986) Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis & Greg Stafford;West EndGames