Sunday, April 4, 2010

Adventures in Time and Space

For fifty minutes one cold November day, I was Sally Sparrow.


Perhaps an explanation is in order: I’ve been a roleplayer for a very long time now. To be frank, most of us have. And I don’t mean the corporate team-building type of stuff (or, ahem, anything else). Anyone who’s ever daydreamed or told stories, placing themselves in the hero’s shoes, has roleplayed, just a little bit. All those games you played as a child, tearing round the school playground pretending to be someone else? That was roleplaying, too. But when you say roleplaying to a lot of people, the first thing they think of (okay, maybe the second thing) is Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D, by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, is recognised as the first codified roleplaying game (or RPG). Down the years since its first appearance (1974, a fine year, seeing as it was also the year that Tom Baker took over as the Doctor), there have been many descendants, some good, some bad, some original, some taking well-known licences and attempting to adapt them to the roleplaying format.

There have been three Dr Who roleplaying games. The first was published by FASA (1) in 1985 and has Tom Baker and Leela on the front cover, even though neither of them was still in the show. The second was “Timelord” by Virgin (2); 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!”

The latest is by Cubicle 7 (3). I’ve known one of the people behind this for almost 17 years and was thrilled to bits when I heard his company had the licence, because I knew that he was a safe pair of hands. I also knew that the BBC were being incredibly co-operative, giving the writers virtually unlimited access to materials to make sure that everything was right in the finished game. We pre-ordered our copy the same day I got to play Sally Sparrow (and won a Dalek standee, but that’s another story) because the display boxed set was eye-poppingly gorgeous.


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 the game’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 Ghostbusters (4). And that’s one of the new 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-Touchwood 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.

Let us return briefly to the look of the thing, rather than the feel of it. It is beautifully produced. Everything is in glorious colour, with great production stills scattered liberally throughout the book (everything up to the end of the fourth New Who series). Interestingly, there are as many pictures of Sally Sparrow as there are of Mascara Girl, who had two whole series compared to Sally’s one episode. This leads me to suspect that, like many of us, the writers had a real soft spot for Mr Moffat’s heroine. It’s as visually stunning as a game needs to be in these days of attention grabbing high competition and roleplayers like shiny things as much as the next man. Well, probably more so, actually.

I’ll go over the crunchy stuff in Part II, but here’s a few first impressions. The short demonstration game I played at Dragonmeet last year was fast, fun and very organic. It involved 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 there are far more complex rules systems out there and it didn’t get in the way of the most important part of the game – the storytelling. Yes, I might not have enjoyed it quite so much if I wasn’t playing Sally, but overall I went away with the conviction that I’d done the right thing in ordering the game.

As an aside, the next day, sitting in the pub at a post convention get-together, we decided (rather cynically) that the only thing that could make the game better was the inclusion of RTD points to counter balance the story point mechanic (story points allow you to influence the game in a positive direction if the dice decide they hate you). These RTD points would be traded in to make sure that you could end the story in the most unsatisfying way possible, or drag it off into the realms of domesticity just as it was getting interesting. To be fair, we had all just seen “Waters of Mars” and were justifiably peeved at the way you-know-who was frittering away all of the good will he had accrued during series four. Having seen Matt Smith’s first outing, I’m not sure we’ll need them anymore.

The Prof played in a much longer game a few weeks ago in Edinburgh. He ended up being the Doctor because everyone else was a little bit daunted about playing him (not the Prof, he’s done this sort of thing before, in full Colin Baker costume, for his sins). He thoroughly enjoyed himself and whilst attempting not to be too much of a geek, tried to make sure that he got in as many RTDisms and canonical nods as possible. He too thoroughly enjoyed himself and came away with a big daft grin on his face, spending a large amount of the train journey home telling me just how much fun he’d had.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at just what’s in all of the other books in a bit more detail. But I can tell you already that a Regeneration set is due in the Autumn to allow people to play as Matt Smith’s Doctor and companions and that at around the same time, original series Doctor boxed sets will start to be released, beginning with William Hartnell’s. There is also a UNIT source-pack on the way earlier in the year that covers all of the TV material, for fans of the Brigadier and the most useless bunch of soldiers in the known universe. There is no word yet as to whether it contains a UNIT timeline…

1 – The Dr Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time and Space (1985) FASA
2 – Timelord: Adventures Through Time and Space (1991) Ian Marsh & Peter Darvill-Evans; Virgin
3 – Dr Who: Adventures in Time and Space, the Role Playing Game (2009) David F. Chapman et al; Cubicle 7 Entertainment Ltd
4 – Ghostbusters, a Frightfully Cheerful Roleplaying Game (1986) Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis & Greg Stafford; West End Games

2 comments:

Mechagliel April 7, 2010 at 8:52 AM  

Had both the FASA and the Virgin Games, Time lord I personally found to be less cumbersome. That, and there's something nice about a rulebook that fits on your coat pocket.

Mechagliel May 19, 2011 at 2:47 AM  

Had both the FASA and the Virgin Games, Time lord I personally found to be less cumbersome. That, and there's something nice about a rulebook that fits on your coat pocket.

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