Greetings from the edge of the Medusa Cascade.
Gamers and games draw inspiration from many places, including novels, movies and TV shows. Sometimes that media is adapted into an actual role-playing game. For example, the TV program Smallville actually got an RPG adaptation at one point.
This is the first time I’ve done a review of an RPG adapted from other media…
Right, this week we are reviewing the RPG adaptation of popular British science fiction program, Doctor Who. Specially, Cubicle Seven’s Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space.
Before diving into the game, it is worth diving into the show.
Doctor Who is a long running British program. It follows a human looking alien, called the Doctor, who travels across time and space in a mostly indestructible vehicle that it larger on the inside than the out – the vehicle is called a TARDIS. In most of his adventures, the Doctor takes along human companions, allies and friends from contemporary Earth.
Although supposedly able to change their appearance to match their environment, the Doctor’s TARDIS is stuck in the form an English Police Call box, or a blue phone booth just for calling the police in the event of an emergency, such as thieves, aliens, or thieving aliens.
A feature of the Doctor’s alien race is if they (he is a Galifreyan) have suffered catastrophic, or otherwise fatal, injuries, their bodies literally regenerated into a new actor and new production crew responsible for presenting the show.
It first aired in the early 1960s and ran, with a few interruptions, from then until the late 1980s, when it seemingly went off the air permanently, aside from a mediocre TV movie in the late 1990s. Fortunately, the BBC – or the British broadcasting Company – brought the program back in a revised format in 2005.
A proverbial line was drawn between the original run of the show, with its piles of backstory and canon, and the new show. At some point between the story depicted in the TV movie and the new series, there was a terrible war across space and time itself, between the Time Lords of Gallifrey and… the Dalak.
-there was a war, we lost-
A result of the war is the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords (aside from his archenemy who periodically appears and is also a Time Lord), and the Doctor’s TARDIS is the last one known to exist. Gallifrey is gone and the Dalak are no longer posed in a position to conquer and exterminate the universe itself.
Or at least the Dalak are mostly no longer posed in a position to conquer and exterminate the universe itself. The Dalak, slightly silly and utterly hateful, are one of the Doctors oldest foes. Newer enemies include the not-all-silly and mysterious Silence, with their eye-patch wearing servants.
Now, the somewhat manic and lonesome Doctor occupies his time on adventures with his friends, as they travel to exotic places, race up and down long hallways and inevitable battle forces of evil. As has been put in the show, he is a madman with a magic box.
Though nominally science fiction it falls into the science fantasy end of the scale – science, time and causality are all treated in a rather wibbly wobbly manner. The program may have started with the intent of it being an education program, it has grown into a show have a merry romp, and highly entertaining style rather than a careful presentation of historical and scientific fact.
For that matter, it is barely a time travel program. Bear with me here for a moment – time travel is as much a vehicle for adventures as the Doctor’s Type 40 TARDIS. It uses time travel to having romping adventures rock and lava monsters in Pompeii and it uses time travel to have romping adventures with cat-nuns in far future New New York. It does not worry about time travel paradoxes any more than it has too.
Doctor Who, as a program carries a distinct aesthetic and tone – if you are a fan of the show, you will presumably seek such things in an RPG adaptation of the same. Honestly, the game does an excellent job of adapting the unique tone and aesthetic of the show.
However, it is not for everyone. Those unfamiliar with the program should watch one of the better episodes from the new run. These include Dalek, The Empty Child, The Girl in the Fireplace, Doomsday and Human Nature. If these episodes are not your thing, then the game will not be your thing. For that matter, watch the opening or pre-credit sequence to the episode When a Good Man Goes to War. If that sequences does not leave you wanting more, then this is not the game for you because the show is not for you.
Adventures in Time and Space is a boxed set – something rare and handled well here. Included in the set are a player’s guide, a game master guide, handouts and character sheets. The handout for gadgets and story point can be cut up. The table of contents for the player’s guide and the game master guide are printed on the back of the books. All the material is full color and features images captured from the current version of the TV show. In terms of composition, it features two columns surrounded by lots of designs and patterns which are busy, but not distractingly so. One problem is that the original character sheets and handouts are bright and pretty, meaning unless you opt for full color copies, they will be muddy looking in the more economical black and white.
The writing is jocular, informal and energetic – again, not distractingly so, though at times is comes close to being a problem or irritating.
Moving on to the mechanics. This is a game where the mechanics and the story suit each other. There is a difference between action, combat and violence. Doctor Who, new and old, features a lot of action relativity little combat or violence. By comparison, Dungeons and Dragons is in close orbit of violence and combat. Rules systems reflect this, where D&D provides a grabs bag of rules with a focus on killing everything killable. The rule set provided by Cubical Seven in this boxed set is focused on fast-talking social situations, fiddling with gadgets, sneaking around and running up and down corridors. Combat is possible, but close to expressly discouraged. In the show itself, the big action sequences appear at the end of a season, rather than at the end of every episode.
There are six attributes, including Awareness, Coordination, Ingenuity, Presence, Resolve, and Strength. Their value ranges from 1 to 6. Traits helps define the attributes and thus the character. Traits come in good and bad and can be thought of as merits or flaws from White Wolf or edges and hindrances from Savage Worlds.
When a roll is called for, the mechanic is simple. The relevant attribute the relevant skill relevant trait 2D6 = result and the result is compared to the target difficulty. If the results matches or exceeds the difficulty, then the task succeeds. (Attribute Skill Trait 2D6 = Result v. Difficulty) This is true for all the roles in the game, the mechanic does not change. So while it requires a little math, it does not require a dice pool, a pair of d6 passed around the table will suffice.
Characters neither possess health levels nor hit points – damage comes off attributes, impacting the characters ability to make successful roles in the future. In D&D, by comparison, a character who lost 99% of their hit points is still fully functional. In Adventures in Space and time, a character that damaged probably could not so much as crawl.
Adventures in Time and Space also features storypoints, or chitties the players can collect and spend to allow themselves to fiddle with scenes, sequences and dice rolls to get a better outcome.
The quick start guide is well executed and handy for giving to all the players at the table, providing a solid starting place for the game.
Enough aliens, menaces and dangerous situations are provided in the set to cover most situations in a game.
An understandable weakness is the game is too devoted to the current version of the show. If you want to run in a different situation, such as before the Great Time War or with a different Time Lord than the Doctor, you will have to hack the contents.
Probably the worst problem for the boxed set is the price – the $60 is understandably a turn off.
However, as presented here, Adventures in Time and Space would serve as a good introduction to role playing games, letting new gamers get used to the ideas in the hobby before moving on to games which are more mechanically challenging. It will still be fun for long time gamers if they also enjoy Doctor Who.
In the end I give Doctor Who, Adventures in Time and Space a 20 on a d20 roll, though I feel that is me rounding things up a bit. Aside from the hardcopy being expensive, the flaws in sound churlish to list – the design of the character sheets will not reproduce well and it is too focused on the current version of the show. However, the strengths vastly out match the flaws, it features a quick system and does a good job of matching the aesthetic and tone of the show.
[5 of 5 Stars!]