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Posts Tagged ‘Fourth Doctor Sourcebook’

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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