Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space’

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.

aitas

(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.

 

Read Full Post »