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Posts Tagged ‘Cubicle 7’

Having recently come to terms with the fact that I am now more likely than not an ex-Games Workshop wargamer, I find my attention sliding back to the pen-and-paper role-playing games which were really the source of this particular interest. Truth be told, my active career as an active roleplayer didn’t last much more than a decade, but I have spent a significant chunk of time since then buying, comparing, and mulling over different games and systems. As I mentioned recently, I have picked up PDFs of Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space game. To say I am rather impressed is possibly an understatement: certainly, all the things that are good about it have made me reconsider the strengths and weaknesses of the games I’ve played in the past.

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(Pictured above: the 50th anniversary release of the rules. One of the problems with this game is that Cubicle 7 have to keep re-skinning it every time the Doctor regenerates, which is why it doesn’t seem to be available as a physical product at the time of writing.)

Doctor Who hasn’t been quite the natural fit for storygaming that you might expect, given the imaginative, adventurous basis of the series. AITAS is the third attempt at an official RPG. The last one was Time Lord, written by Ian Marsh and released over 20 years ago by Virgin. The system was simple enough, if a bit bland, but the game had the misfortune of coming out just as the TV show got cancelled, so interest was minimal and it received scant published support (although it does hold the distinction of having had an adventure published for it in DWM).

Rather more significant, if divisive, is the game published by the American company FASA in the mid 1980s. This was a proper game line, consisting of the basic rules set, half a dozen or so somewhat variable adventures, and some pretty solid sourcebook sets for the Master, the Daleks, and the Cybermen. I played this game a lot in the late 80s and early 90s and had some good times doing so, but on reflection this was probably more in spite of the actual rules than because of them.

The FASA rules, like a lot of RPG systems from the 70s and 80s, really betray roleplaying’s origins as an offshoot from more traditional wargaming. Most of these really left the actual roleplaying up to the players, to the point where it was an optional extra: rules systems were almost exclusively concerned with tactical combat and (sometimes) skills use. More than a few early-ish games were not much more than skirmish wargames with advancement and reward systems bolted on. Some of these games were also very narrative-neutral: ‘classic’-style D&D, after all, basically concerns a team of violent specialists exploring a maze, (probably) killing every creature they meet, and nicking all their stuff.

The FASA game at least emphasised the importance of narrative, but the rules also included a bizarrely complex tactical action system and numerous pages of weapon statistics and critical hit and miss tables. The system was authentic to the TV series up to a point, in that combat was unusually lethal by most RPG standards: most player characters could take 20-30 points of damage before dying, but energy weapons could easily deliver double that from a single hit. But it always seemed to me that the system presupposed violent solutions to adventure challenges (indeed, one section giving tips on designing scenarios featuring the Cybermen stressed the importance of including a source of gold in every adventure, so the player group could beat them in combat). Coupled to a hugely detailed and somewhat unwieldy skill system, the result was a game which played well enough but didn’t exactly encourage a style much in keeping with the TV series: more for roleplaying gamers than Who fans.

On the other hand, one of the first things you sense about Adventures in Time and Space – yes, we have reached it at last – is that it seems to have been made in the hope it will be purchased by at least as many young Who fans as grizzled old rolegamers, for a familiarity with the Doctor Who mythos is taken for granted, while a willingness to spend hours learning rules is not. While there are subtle nods to the FASA game in the text, the rules set is much simpler and more accessible. Characters are defined by six basic attributes (things like Strength, Presence, Co-ordination), which are rated from 1 to 6 (usually; aliens can go higher), twelve skills (very broadly defined – they have names like Technology, Knowledge, though you can specialise if you choose), and a selection of Traits which modify your abilities – such as Attractive, which gives you a bonus when being persuasive, or Boffin, which allows you to create new gadgets on the fly. Characters also get something called Story Points, to which I shall return presently.

The basic system is dead simple: the storyteller assigns any challenge a difficulty (the default is 12) and the player rolls two dice, adding the appropriate attributes, skills, and trait modifiers. (For example – trying to work out which Roman Emperor you’ve just been dragged in front of? That’d be Awareness + Knowledge, probably. Trying to fly your TARDIS through an asteroid field at high velocity? Co-ordination + Vehicles. Shooting at a box of gelignite to sabotage a missile some robots are constructing? Co-ordination + Marksman, and so on.) There are a few more wrinkles but that’s basically it.

The result is a system you can teach a newbie player in well under five minutes. I suspect that even the best-prepared FASA GM would struggle to lead a small group of players through character generation in much less than hour; a well-prepared storyteller could take players through the same process for AITAS in fifteen to twenty minutes. I think the importance of this is easy to underestimate: it’s hard for players to get invested in a game where they don’t really feel that they understand the rules, and didn’t shape their character themselves.

It’s a fast-playing, almost free-form system, which seems to me to be very far from the wargamey origins of mainstream RPGs. This is only consolidated by the game’s approach to combat, which is to strongly discourage it. Emulating the spirit and style of Doctor Who is built into the system itself, which is novel: the rules actually include a section entitled Guns are Bad, containing a number of suggestions on how to actively avoid combat. Even if you wanted to run a combat-heavy game – everyone as UNIT or Torchwood operatives, perhaps – you might need to mod the rules quite considerably: Initiative is organised so aggressive combat actions almost always happen last (trigger-happy types like K9 or the Brigadier have traits allowing them to ‘jump the queue’, so to speak), usually giving characters a chance to do something clever and non-violent (or just run away) first, while the systems for recording damage are vague and quite subjective, though also occasionally innovative: you can resolve arguments by damaging an opponent’s Resolve until they give up and concede to you (at which point their Resolve resets). Many weapons have a damage characteristic of ‘L’, meaning they are instantly lethal, no questions asked.

Does this mean bad luck or poor judgement could result in the dreaded Total Party Kill for your first session? Not at all, for this is where your Story Points come in. This sort of mechanic seems to be almost obligatory in modern RPGs: they allow you to either tweak your dice results, or indeed even the game world, in your favour. Two or three SPs will permit you to downgrade that potentially-lethal Dalek zap into a clean miss. Their use extends beyond combat, into general narrative utility: you can use them to affect general skill-use, to get hints if the party are stuck, and on. One of the inherent problems in a Doctor Who-themed game is balancing omni-competent Time Lord characters with mere human mortals, and one of AITAS‘ responses is to reduce the number of SPs Time Lords and other more powerful characters possess. Characters gain SPs by staying in character (playing their negative traits), being appropriately heroic, respecting genre tropes (letting yourself get captured, etc), and so on. (On the other hand, unnecessary violence loses you SPs, which has led some reviewers to call AITAS ‘preachy’ for its non-violent ethos.)

Confession time: I haven’t actually sat down and played this game with other people yet. But I suspect that when I do (and I hope it is ‘when’ rather than ‘if’), it will feel much more like telling a collaborative story and a lot less like something which is second-cousin to a wargame. To this extent I think it is remarkably faithful to the show it is trying to emulate and evoke.

That said, whether you’re dealing with veteran rolegamers or newbie Who-fans, human nature remains the same, and the basic set as written may throw up a few problems. While the game does offer suggestions for scenario set-ups with everyone playing humans (Torchwood teams, spaceship crews, UNIT, etc), the default assumption is that players will be taking on the roles of the Doctor and other TV companions (stats from the 21st century series are provided with the PDF currently available). This seems fair enough, as Doctor Who without Time Lords and TARDISes isn’t really Doctor Who. To its credit, the game offers suggestions on how to deal with the inevitable resulting squabble over who gets to play who (or indeed Who), but my instinct is to avoid letting people play TV characters anyway. In any case, other products in the game line have come up with expanded rules for creating player character Time Lords, which solves this problem to some extent: the main problem is one of the current mythos, in which Time Lords are notably thin on the ground. I think using different levels of SPs partly solves the problem of differing power-levels; the rest of it can probably be dealt with by careful character design (ensuring a degree of ‘niche protection’, where everyone has a ring-fenced area of expertise), and setting your game pre-Time War or in an alternative timeline, or coming up with some other creative solution (Gallifrey finally gets out of that frozen dimension – or at least one TARDIS and its occupant does).

I’m slightly dubious about the adventures included in the version of the game I acquired, as they don’t feel especially Who-ish to me, but on the whole this is seems like a fun, easy-to-grasp gateway RPG, written in an engaging style and with some lovely touches that reflect the style of the series. So many peripheral Doctor Who-related items just take themselves very seriously indeed, but parts of AITAS are much more laid back. You can give your character the rather politically-incorrect Screamer! trait (perfect for those old-school companions), giving you the option of temporarily stunning an oncoming monster with the sound of your shrieks, provided you use your next action to run like hell. (Other traits which old-school fans might especially appreciate include Five Rounds Rapid! and Reverse the Polarity of the Neutron Flow.) Equally, rather than having your character mown down in combat when you run out of SPs, you can ‘borrow’ SPs from the storyteller to save yourself, as long as you also take the Unadventurous trait – the catch being that if you take it three times, your character gets so fed up of the perils of time travel they leave the TARDIS at the end of the current story.

The ethos and style of Doctor Who – freewheeling, combat-averse, story-friendly – are deeply woven into the system here, and I was rather surprised to learn this same game engine has been used as the basis of a couple of other product lines: a RPG based on Primeval (released just about the time the TV show was expiring, hey ho) and a pulp SF game called Rocket Age (which I’m rather tempted to buy just on the strength of the premise). Personally, games which are more about story and less about crunchy combat rather appeal to me, but I’m aware others might feel differently. Certainly some play-styles would not be supported by this game: if you want to play combat-heavy dungeon-crawls in Who-world, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a licensed RPG which really works hard to encourage players to emulate the tone and style of its source material, and of course you want to tell your own Doctor Who stories with your friends and family, you could do very much worse than this.

 

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As promised/threatened, a more in-depth look at Cubicle 7’s Fourth Doctor Sourcebook. This is a game aid for their Doctor Who-themed Adventures in Time and Space storytelling game (or RPG, if you prefer). It does occur to me that if I’m going to start looking at this particular line of products, I should probably start with the core rules themselves, but to be honest, as I write I’m still assimilating them.

The core rules started off by assuming a – for want of a better word – ‘present day’ setting for the game, with David Tennant’s incarnation the default Doctor (the game was released in 2008). This is part of a line of books covering more of the series’ history.

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The approach they’ve taken is interesting, to say the least. There are all the things you might expect from a fourth Doctor themed-book, starting with detailed stats for the man himself and his significant companions. Some amusing new era-specific traits are included – I particularly enjoyed ‘Sesquipedalian‘, reflecting a character’s tendency to use overly recondite and convoluted language, though I suspect the natural home for this is really the yet-to-be-announced Pip and Jane Baker Sourcebook. One notable omission is stats for the Brigadier and Benton, both of whom do appear in this era, but then I suppose they are both available in a number of other products. The inclusion of two sets of stats for K9 Mk 1 and 2 strikes me as taking completism a bit too far, however, and one wonders why Tegan and Nyssa have been included, given their extremely limited presence in fourth Doctor stories.

On the other hand, this does tie in with the meat of the book, which is essentially a guide to Seasons 12 through to 18, complete with synopses, notes on continuity, stat blocks for key characters, monsters, and gadgets, and advice on running the TV stories as game scenarios.

I’ve done a considerable amount of Doctor Who-themed storygaming over the years (although not in a long while, admittedly) and the idea of directly reproducing TV stories for the tabletop is not something I have ever really given any headspace. This is partly because I always tend to shy away from using characters off the telly as player roles, and also because, a lot of the time, I was playing with people who knew the TV series as well as I did. Recreating a story you already know as a RPG player is awkward, to say the least: do you simply replicate what happened on TV? Do you try to rewrite the story? (To say nothing of the potential for metagaming.)

To be fair, the writer seems aware of this issue and frequently come up with suggestions as to how a story can be tweaked to make it work better for the table: the notes on City of Death, for instance, suggest that the theft of the Mona Lisa is essentially a red herring and go on to offer the idea of making Scaroth a dodgy stockbroker rather than an art thief – or even reversing gender roles and making the Countess the alien. (As you can see, not all of these serving suggestions are of equal quality.)

If nothing else, the fact that RPG stories are still fundamentally stories means that these notes comprise a somewhat off-the-wall commentary on the stories as pieces of TV. One has to admire the delicate phrasing in observations like ‘The Doctor’s experiences during Warriors’ Gate make for a somewhat unengaging adventure… Concerns about player character agency aside, Warriors’ Gate is beautifully strange and surreal.’

Cubicle 7 seem to be pitching this series of products to both storygamers and more general Doctor Who fans, but I think it’s more likely to find an audience amongst the former. I’m not yet quite familiar enough with the AITAS rules to judge the accuracy of the stat blocks, but simply as a fan of the show there are a few obvious peculiarities here: no mention of the Zygons’ sting power in their write-up, for instance, while – bizarrely – the Robots of Death statblock repeatedly insists that Vocs are gold-coloured (especially baffling, given that on the same page is a photo of the green-hued robots actually appearing in the story). Easy enough for a competent GM to fix, though.

Coming up with authentic ‘new’ fourth Doctor-style adventures is another issue. There is a lot of fairly useful material on story design shotgunned through the book, but it’s not organised in any systematic way. Most stories have a section on possible further adventures based on the TV story in question, but – somewhat predictably – many of them don’t immediately sound especially Doctor Who-ish, let alone fourth Doctor-esque – ‘what if Minyans using their regeneration technology set up an immortality shop on Earth?’ comes from the section on Underworld, for instance. (Perhaps I should say that they do sound quite Doctor Who-ish, assuming you include dubious fanfic in your definition of Doctor Who.)

Sort of tying in to this is more stuff which may be of interest to the wider fan community, specifically some enthusiastic – maybe even boisterous – continuity copping. Some of the issues the book addresses seem quite reasonable – just what exactly were the Time Lords doing during the universal near-apocalypse in Logopolis? – whereas some of the others veer off towards the realm of the bonkers. The possibility is offered that the Morbius rebellion may be why every other space-faring civilisation has heard of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, which is not actively nuts (though it sounds like the writer has got non-interventionism mixed up with seclusion), but then the book goes on to posit that the Zygons and the Chameleons are members of the same race, and that the similarity between the Anti-Man (from Planet of Evil) and the Primord mutants (from Inferno) might mean that the Earth’s crust, perhaps even its core, is made of anti-matter (which is why the Daleks tried to steal it). Please, please, enough.

Elsewhere I have suggested the limit of the book’s analysis of the fourth Doctor style boils down to ‘be knowingly derivative’ but this is, on reflection, a bit unfair. The tendency for stories to avoid recurring enemies is identified, which is fair enough, along with the observation that the fourth Doctor’s companions were unusually competent, capable individuals (which had never occurred to me before). The real issue that the sourcebook fails to address is that there isn’t a single fourth Doctor style, there are three quite different ones, more-or-less dependent on who the producer was at the time: gothic horror pastiche for seasons 12 to 14, literary space-opera for seasons 15 to 17, and entropic hard SF for season 18. These differences are barely addressed at all.

Is this book worth purchasing if you’re not an AITAS storyteller? I don’t know: Lord knows there are enough series guides for Doctor Who available elsewhere, many of them more detailed and consistent, not to mention less bonkers. I’m still very dubious about the conceit of recreating TV stories around the tabletop, but there is enough food for the imagination here to make it of some value, and the numerous stat blocks will probably also appeal to a certain class of gamer (if you ever wondered who would win a fistfight between Captain Rigg from Nightmare of Eden and Solon from Brain of Morbius, or a Toho-style monster battle between the K1 robot and a full-grown Krynoid, this book will give you the tools you need to find out.)

This is quite a flawed product in many ways, and yet I did enjoy reading it a lot, and will probably be checking out some of the other books from Cubicle 7 over the coming months. It bubbles over with an enthusiasm for its subject matter – both Doctor Who and gaming – which is utterly charming, and when a book opens its section on Pyramids of Mars with a heartfelt cry of ‘Oh, what joy!’ you would have to be a considerably harder man than me to be very beastly to it. Probably only really of value to role-playing Doctor Who fans, nevertheless – but then I’ve never really understood why there isn’t more crossover between storygaming and fandom. Maybe this game will help.

 

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