Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: Doctor Who

When I first opened the box, I was impressed by the presentation. Here, in vivid (almost lurid) color, the publisher (Cubicle 7) introduced its labor of love, dedicated to the recent version of the television series.

Finding the game in the box took a little bit more searching.

Premise

Once upon a time, there was this television network called the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC to its friends), which created a whole lot of television series, including this little quirky one called Doctor Who about a man, his time machine, his companions, and the wacky hijinx that ensued as he gallivanted around history.

The history of the series would be a boring litany, but suffice it to say it started as a children's show, had a growing following despite a shrinking budget, developed into more of a cerebral action series befitting general science-fiction fandom, went off the air for a while, and within the past decade made a roaring comeback.

All the while, the formula has remained the same. Doctor. TARDIS. Companions (sometimes multiple). And wacky hijinx which, admittedly, seem to blow up bigger and more spectacularly around Christmas when they release their specials.

Tone

Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space goes for what I call "slice of life," a sweet spot somewhere between nail-biting tension and slapstick, and for the most part, it nails it. It can be bumbling and comedic, but given how many different aliens appear in it with their bewildering variety of weapons, it could also take itself far too seriously. It does neither consistently, it could go full-tilt either way at the drop of a hat, and I regard this as A Good Thing.

Particulars

There are numerous credits inside the front cover. The first that stands out is David F. Chapman, the writer and game designer. Below him is numerous credits for additional writing, graphics, etc. This is a game not afraid to drop names. And I couldn't tell you at the moment what else they've worked on.

Cubicle 7 has produced numerous other games, including Victoriana (steampunk with magical elements) and Starblazer Adventures ("rock and roll space opera").

Materials

The quality of the materials is what will stand out when you first open the box. If anything, in places they're too nice. Really.

The game sells in a box which contains a "Read This First" sheet which you really should read because it contains a good synopsis of the rules you'll find, a full-color and picture-laden player's book, a full-color and picture-laden GM's book, a book of quick adventures and outlines, a sheet of "Story Point" tokens (so players can literally feel their luck slipping through their fingers), a few sheets of gadget cards (both filled in and blank), several character sheets (both filled in and blank), and six six-sided dice.

The character sheets are primarily where they seriously overdid it. They are a lightweight, double-sided, glossy, full-color stock, the kind of thing that doesn't take pencil all that well without either tearing or textural degradation, and would quickly get ugly if marked on and erased. In other words, they're lovely to look at, but to be any less useful as character sheets they'd have to be printed on waxed paper.

The player's and GM's books are, like I said, full-color and printed on the same material the character sheets were printed on, so they're lovely too. They are almost littered with photographs and stills from the TV series, so you have no worries of picking it up and mistaking which game it goes with.

The dice are clear with blue pips that you can see all the way through, effectively camoflaging whatever number you just rolled. In their own way they're lovely as well, just a little overdone and maddeningly hard to read.

Please note that between the inclusion of dice and the "Read This First—How to Play" sheet (which starts with the question "Where's the Board?"), it's evident that this was an RPG targeted to people who don't normally buy RPGs. This, incidentally, is why experienced players may skip or throw out the "Read This First" sheet.

Mechanics

Mechanically, it's a very simple system. This doesn't necessarily mean simplistic, but it is very easy to pick up and has a skosh of nuance to it. Any given roll consists of an attribute, a skill, and two dice to beat a target number, either set by the GM based on the difficulty of the task or the attribute, skill, and two dice total of the one you're contesting with.

Part of the nuance is that it could be any combination of attribute and skill. Combinations like Ingenuity+Fighting, Strength+Technology, or Coordination+Medicine may be rare, but are certainly possible.

Interestingly, in keeping with the underlying anti-violence theme of Doctor Who, the combat system does its part to try to dissuade against combat. Seriously. Rather than an initiative system, in any turn everyone gets one action. When they act depends on what they're trying to do. People just talking or communicating go first, followed by people who are moving from place to place, then by people actually performing non-combat actions, and finally by people doing actual combat. Unfortunately, there's a shortfall in the rules: If two people try to carry out the same action, it's not made clear anywhere who gets to act first. This is an invitation to house rules.

Story Points can be spent to wangle several possible effects during play, including boosting your rolls, boosting your results after you roll, blowing off damage, getting hints which way to proceed next, building things, and generally bending the facts within the game into vortex-salted pretzels. Powerful things, those story points are, and if the regular system doesn't allow for the utterly impossible things that NSTTW stories are made of, Story Points open the way. They can also be gained or lost during play, which means that playing to the genre is rewarded.

Characters

In an earlier IPTD, I voiced the concern that Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space was perhaps so enamored of its setting that it discourages other forms of play. That may have been an exaggeration, however slight. The rules for building characters from scratch are pretty straightforward: spend points on attributes and traits, spend points on skills, use any points you didn't spend on attributes and traits to buy more skills. Fill in details, voila. And this includes varying types of alien, timelord, and other types of character, lead or companion.

So the character system is there. Its use isn't exactly encouraged, since there's a whole bunch of characters written up on those achingly beautiful character sheets already, and you might not want to get your blank character sheets all smudgy either. There is room to play different kinds of characters, but I still get the feeling that the game doesn't encourage it. Maybe that's just me.

Variations?

In one little corner of the player's book, all possible combinations are proposed: Doctor and companions (provided on those character sheets), Doctor and new companions (allot your own and go to town), no Doctor (either an earthbound Torchwood-style campaign or "who's flying this thing?"), and completely new characters. Yes, it does allow for new combinations of characters to play this game, but the fact remains that this game has a veritable litany of stock adversaries and ways of doing things which are thoroughly ingrained.

Play This Game If...

  • You're new to RPGs
  • You like cooperative, non-violent play—the game system expressly rewards that
  • You want to do something memorably epic in a game—just add enough Story Points, and voom!
  • You like the TV series
  • You like the setting behind the TV series
  • You like looking at stills from the TV series
  • You don't want to spend a lot of time creating characters
  • You don't want to spend a lot of time learning a game system
  • You don't mind printing your own character sheets

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