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Licensed role-playing games have been good to me. The very first RPG I ever bought and played was the 80’s Marvel Superheroes game from TSR. Palladium’s quirky Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by the brilliant Erik Wujcik and thorough Robotech were my favorite games in middle school, which might explain my fetish for Rifts. The West End Games Star Wars 2nd Edition occupied my time for a whole summer. Even the R. Talsorian Bubblegum Crisis RPG was a blast, though it only had one sourcebook.
I am not entirely sure how pen and paper games have avoided the licensing curse that afflicts so many video games, but I am glad they have. Well, mostly. Even now, I am attracted to the Solomon Kane version of Savage Worlds and I hate to think what would happen if I ever find a mint copy of Stormbringer. Hell, I hear positive things about Leverage, a game based on the least RPG style TV show I have ever seen.
Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space from Cubicle 7 is not the first RPG based on the exploits of a certain Time Lord. The FASA Doctor Who game was notoriously heretical and clunky, though I never played it. I know even less about Timelord, except that it is usually described as ‘weird.’ As a longtime Whovian, I looked forward to reviewing this game quite a bit.
The first thing that crossed my mind upon unzipping the files, since this is the PDF version of the boxed set, was the mass of it. The Player’s Guide, Gamemaster’s Guide, and Adventures Book are much as you would expect. There are character sheets for the 10th Doctor and his companions, plus character sheets for archetypical characters and blank ones, too. There is a sheet of Story Point counters and Gadget cards to be cut out and used in game. Honestly, even in PDF format, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space feels huge. I can only imagine how heavy the boxed set is.
The second thing I noticed, once I opened the Player’s Guide, is how bright everything. The orange and blue color scheme of the modern Doctor Who series really pops off the screen in book form. Each page is bordered in appropriately cosmic graphics, with a single column of text. Photographs from the show constitute the whole of the art work throughout the books, but they look good and are appropriate for a product like this. There is nothing ugly in the box and you would really have to be looking for flaws to point out.
The Player’s Guide opens with a chapter that introduces the Doctor and the concept of role-playing. This is pretty standard issue stuff, but David F. Chapman has done a very good job of making a chapter most gamers skip worth reading. The single page example of play is one of the best I have encountered. The example players are portrayed as rank amateurs, and they actually behave the way amateurs are wont to do.
It is the little touches that make a game feel like the designers care. The callout to units of measure is just such a touch. Not something I would have ever thought about, being an American, using the metric system is a great way to wed a campaign to the Britishness of Doctor Who. It does help that I can Google conversion rates, though.
For me, the elephant in the room is the fact that a Doctor Who game will involve the adventures of a character with godlike powers and knowledge. The second chapter dives right into this conundrum. The first option is to run a game with the players taking the role of the Doctor and his companions from the show, the stats for which have been conveniently included. Option two is to have a player play the Doctor, as in option one, but to create new companions. Option three is to ignore Doctor and play without him, like on the Sarah Jane Adventures or Torchwood. I will throw out two more options that I would consider. One is the GM playing the Doctor. The other is having a player play as the Doctor, but make them a deputy GM with a bit of foreknowledge, so that the companion players get an equal amount of spotlight time.
The character creation system is simple and light. Point based, instead of the more grognard approved random dice rolls of my youth, character creation is pretty simple. After putting some points in Attributes, the player can take some negative traits to gain extra points to drop on positive traits. A separate pool is used for paying for Skills. It really is that simple. If you are feeling lazy, the included Archetype character sheets make it a snap to generate a character.
The list of Traits deserves a special mention. The negative Traits list reads like a who’s who of great Doctor Who characters. Insatiable Curiosity? That sounds a lot like Sarah Jane. Argumentative? If that isn’t my beloved Donna Noble, I don’t know who it is. That the negative traits of a character are more important to character creation than the exact encumbrance of their gear is reason enough to champion this game. That the traits not directly evocative of Doctor Who characters are as interesting as the ones that are makes me want to sing this game’s praises from a rooftop.
After picking Skills, which is as bog-standard as you might expect, the Player’s Guide has a few extra steps. The most interesting of these steps is picking your character’s original time period and technology level. While not a subject explored on the show, the Doctor traveling with companions from a more primitive time is very evocative. Imagine sending a group of Napoleonic soldiers to the depths of space and having them encounter the Daleks.
The core mechanic of Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is based around a simple mathematical formula: Attribute + Skill (+Trait) + 2 Six Sided Dice= Result. If the Result is equal to or greater than the Difficulty, then the Action is successful. I like this mechanic for a couple reasons. First of all, using only d6s makes the game much more accessible. Secondly, I much prefer rolling two dice at a time to dice pool based games, which can be ridiculous. Thirdly, the formula is easy enough to remember that the players and GM will not be flipping through the game books during play.
The lack of Hit Points, at least the traditional sort, will be a bit jarring to more experienced players. That said, the mechanism for damage is much more keeping in the spirit of Doctor Who. Damage lowers Attributes instead of an arbitrary Hit Point pool, which reflects difficulty moving and thinking when hurt. This seems less abstract and more natural for new players.
My favorite game mechanic, and the one that ultimately reflects the Doctor’s adventures the best, is the way lethal levels of damage are treated. When a character is deeply injured and out of Story Points, the player can choose between two harsh options. Option one is the outright death of your character. Option two is that the character can survive, but burdened with the Unadventurous Trait. This negative Trait makes it more likely that the character will leave the Doctor’s company.
The remainder of the Player’s Guide is dedicated to advice. This might seem old hat to experienced players but, even after a quarter century of RPG playing, I found a lot of worthwhile tidbits. I think this sort of advice is especially important for this product. Doctor Who is such a specific setting and tone that any guidance for players and the GM are appreciated.
The Gamemaster’s Guide starts with the same character creation and action resolution rules as the Player’s Guide. If these were sold individually, I would object to this. In a boxed set, though, repeating the content makes sense. After all, with new players, they will likely be referencing the rules more often than a veteran group. Having the rules in two places is a great bit of convenience for the GM, even one who has been around the block.
The chapter explaining the nature of time in the Doctor Who and the rules, or what can loosely be described as rules, for the TARDIS is a mixed bag. The content isn’t the issue. In fact, the writing is quite good and does a great job spelling out the way timey-wimey stuff works in Doctor Who. What makes it a mixed bag is the fact that Doctor Who is as much about breaking the rules as they are known as it is following them. Honestly, no book can get across the spirit of time and space in the Doctor Who universe better than watching a bunch of episodes can.
Chapter five is a guide to some of the more commonly encountered aliens from modern Doctor Who. A campaign can easily revolve around two or three of these creatures, particularly the Daleks, Cybermen, and Slitheen. Between the well chosen aliens and the creation rules for new ones, there are enough enemies and allies for a fairly long campaign.
The chapter of gamemastering advice is as well-constructed as the similar chapter in the Player’s Guide. It is obvious the advice chapters were put together by knowledgeable players and GMs, not just keyboard warriors. There is a two paragraph sidebar, for example, that gives the best advice I have ever heard for dealing with that most dreaded of player species, the Rules Lawyer. Once again, even if you have been around the block, there is much to admire about the advice chapters in these books.
The final chapter of the Gamemaster’s Guide is a fantastic guide to the art and science of writing adventures. I know I have mentioned it before, but it bears repeating, the feel of Doctor Who is the whole point of playing a Doctor Who RPG. Writing scenarios that capture this feel is difficult, but I think the Gamemaster’s Guide does the best possible job of capturing that spirit.
The third and final book is the Adventures Book. With two fully-formed adventures and a handful of briefs for further adventures, the Adventures Book accomplishes two important functions. First, it gives novices a starting point for running games. With rules as simple as those in this game and a ton of pre-created characters, it would be easy to run this as a one-off right out of the box. Secondly, these adventures provide a good template to start from for GMs aiming to create their own.
In the end, the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space boxed set has a massive amount of content, all of which is well produced and as slick as can be. For the experienced gamer, Doctor Who is a good starting point for one-offs or campaigns. For a reskinner, the content here could easily be welded onto a more robust ruleset. For a group of new RPG gamers, this box is a boon. Easy rules, an evocative setting, and all the tools a novice needs to become a well-rounded gamer are right there in the books. If you are a Doctor Who fan and want to bring timey-wimey adventures to the tabletop, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space is a great buy.
[4 of 5 Stars!]