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Wednesday 10 December 2014

RPGPundit Reviews: Doctor Who Adventures in Time And Space (Limited Edition Rulebook)

This is a review of the "Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space (Limited Edition Rulebook)", published by Cubicle 7, written by David Chapman. It is, in essence, an updated version of the original DWAITAS RPG, which was published a few years ago by C7 as a box set.  I should note for fairness sake that I was a significant playtester in that system, to the point that a few of the ideas and mechanics in that game originated from me; naturally, I think I can still be objective about this game (to the extent one can be objective about a game one contributed to that is also on the subject of his favorite sci-fi TV show), but the fact is worth noting. 

This edition is not a boxed set; instead it is a spectacular hardcover book (230 pages of rules, plus a bunch of reference stuff at the back), covered to the gills in Dr. Who images up to and including material from the 50th Anniversary Special.  The paper quality is awesome; it is full-color throughout.  The cover is a full-colour image (a promotional shot, I think) from the 50th anniversary special, featuring the Tennant and Smith Doctors as well as the "War Doctor" (John Hurt). Clearly, no expense has been spared with this book.

There is, I think, in the first place an important distinction to be made from the original game to this one.  The original boxed set was very clearly created with the idea of bringing in people who were fans of the show but beginners to RPGs.  It was at least intended to be highly user-friendly to the beginner, and had a lot of "game" parts (the story point chits, the cutouts for tech items, a 'quick start' guide, pre-made character sheets, dice, etc.).  This book is clearly a different creature in that sense; it is designed for collectors: either RPG gamers who are big fans of the show, or non-rpg-playing collectors who may never have an interest in actually running the game but want it as a kind of 'sourcebook' of the series.  But either way, it is clearly not directly marketed at the 12 year old British kid who's a big Doctor Who fan and has never roleplayed.  I don't know for sure if this means that C7's attempt/hope that the original DWAITAS would bring in a lot of new (mostly British) gamers turned out to be a failure, but I kind of suspect that this was the case.  Otherwise, we'd have heard more about this success.
If so, that's a pity.  But we can still appreciate this book for what it is, not as user-friendly or beginner-friendly, but definitely a work of art.

It should be noted that, if you already own the original box set, there are no huge radical changes in the rules that would make this book worthwhile to you on that basis alone.  There's some updated material, what with the old set having been released (with the wrong doctor on the cover) just as Smith was coming on, and this one having been released (with the wrong doctors on the cover) just as Capaldi was taking over.  Ah, C7, always just a bit more than fashionably late to the party..
In any case, if you do already own the box set, your main motivation to have this book would be for its prettiness, or to have a more standard RPG book (especially if your box has been well used and is kind of falling apart by now, and you've lost half of the little extras it had anyways); or its collectable value, I guess.

I really can't emphasize enough just how covered in images, all photographic, from the series.  With the high production value, it would certainly make a great acquisition (or gift) for anyone who's a Doctor Who fan.

As for the game system itself, its a fairly rules-light affair, though with structure; and it borders the line with some storygamey-type mechanics while still being firmly on the side of an RPG (I remember the battleground that was the original playtest/design process).  Anyways, the rule-set would be right up the alley of anyone who likes a FATE-type system, complete with "story points" being a mechanic that fulfills a similar role to FATE points.

Now, looking at this game from an RPG perspective, any Doctor Who game runs into a fairly major challenge when it comes to emulation.  There were three different attempts at a Doctor Who RPG: the FASA game from the 80s, which was ridiculously rules-heavy and not a good fit at all. The "Time Lord" RPG from the 90s, which was much closer, and this present game.  DWAITAS is set up, rules-wise, to try as much as possible to be emulative of the game. You see a lot of mechanics made to reflect this.  However, there's a few problems inherent in Doctor Who that are almost insurmountable.

First, the structure of Doctor Who is such that it is a small core-cast.  The doctor and one, two, or maybe (only rarely) three companions.  This isn't a huge problem; on the contrary it makes the game suitable for small groups, which can sometimes be a plus.  But if you have a group of five or more players, it will seem kind of anti-emulative.

But a bigger issue is just who will play the Doctor.  How do you play, as a PC, a character so protagonistic compared to everyone else in the room; a character who is tremendously smarter than anyone who would play him?  Even if you assume you will have a player familiar with Doctor Who, that won't just have his Doctor grab a machine rifle and start wasting Ice Warriors in a shoot-out, it's still likely that whatever accurate interpretation they attempt still won't be up to par compared to the actual character (at least, not with a tremendous amount of GM fudging).
You could, of course, run the Doctor as an NPC, but then you have a problem that most other RPG sessions desperately try to avoid: the main hero is then an NPC.  The other characters, the PCs, are then relegated to acting as assistants to the GM's character.

There's really no good answer to this, and in spite of having participated in the creation of this game (and feeling it was as close as it could get to emulative), I still don't feel like DWAITAS managed to find any effective answer.  The book suggests that the players should muddle through it as best they can, counting on the honor system to have the PC effectively portray the Doctor, and on the system's balance to make it so that the player with the Doctor doesn't overshadow everyone else.  It also suggests, as an option, the possibility that the players could take turn playing the Doctor (either on a per-session basis, or by switching players for the Doctor any time he regenerates); but I think this only accentuates how much of a problem the situation really is.
The book presents one other option as well: that its totally possible to run a DWAITAS game without the Doctor.  After all, the book reasons, UNIT and Sarah Jane (or Torchwood, for that matter) both demonstrate that you can have Doctor Who-style adventures without the Doctor actually being around. Out of all the possibilities, that one seems in some ways the most palatable to me; but of course, if you go that way, it still feels when it comes down to it like you're not actually playing Doctor Who.

In any case, I don't think the method has been designed, within the RPG fold at least, to handle this problem fully.  And DWAITAS at least does the best it can.  On to the rules, then!

Character creation is relatively uncomplicated, for a point-buy system. It would have been far less complicated if they had used a random generation system, but as it stands, its not too bad. Attributes are purchased on a one-for-one basis, which is good. There is no "dump stat", per se; the stats are Awareness, Co-ordination, Ingenuity, Presence, Resolve and Strength, and basically all of them are important (though if you're doing a Dr. Who style game, the typical character will likely want to have more awareness and co-ordination than they will strength).
Traits are a bit more complicated, with most traits (the minor ones) costing one point, while most of the rest (the "major" traits) cost two points. But there are some traits that are "special" traits, and those cost a variable amount of points AND they reduce your starting story point value. There are also "bad traits" (which only worsens the point-buy quagmire), which of course give you extra points if you cross-your-heart promise to roleplay certain things like being a coward, or argumentative or impulsive. Though to be fair to the author, the majority of bad traits do offer an actual mechanical penalty, even though its all too easy in pointbuy to minmax those away too (by taking "bad traits" about things you don't care about in the least and have no intention of ever using).

The traits, good and bad, are taken in most cases directly from some kind of example within the tv series. In many cases you can directly point out which companion, alien, doctor, or character is the cause for a given trait being present. For the most part this is good, because it adds flavour, though in a couple of cases I was asking myself "really? we really need to have that?" Likewise, there are one or two that don't really seem to connect to anything, and are there I think mostly because they're standard RPG "feat" fare (like "Animal Friendship").

The special traits are how you create alien characters, especially Time Lords, though not only them. The "Alien" trait is a special trait that simply designates you as an alien (and removes the normal attribute maximum limit of 6) and is required in order to purchase any of the further non-human traits. There is also a trait, "Experienced" that allows you to play characters with some more attribute and skill points in exchange for having less story points (and also an "inexperienced" trait if you want to play very young characters). There's two kinds of immortal there (both the "won't age and die naturally type" and the Captain Jack "comes back to life and is unkillable" type). The "Time Agent", "Time Lord" and "Time Lord -Experienced" traits round out the potential for creating special characters.
Those last two are special packages. If you take "Time Lord" you get a whole bunch of special traits included in the deal, which non-timelord alien characters can buy individually (Feel the Turn of the Universe, Vortex, Code of Conduct, and a Major Gadget, plus a +2 bonus to their Ingenuity and the power of regeneration). They do not automatically get a TARDIS, the "major gadget" is a personal gadget on the level of a Sonic Screwdriver (which frankly, I find kind of silly, I don't think every timelord will automatically be carrying around a gadget). In exchange for all this stuff, Time Lords must spend 2 character points and reduce their story points by 4. They must also have at least 2 bad traits (to simulate the eccentricity caused by viewing the Untempered Schism). An Experienced Time Lord is one who has already used up one of his regenerations, in exchange for 4 extra skill points and more familiarity with different time periods.

I remember the process by which this system came about, it was one of the last things discussed during the Playtest phase. The original rules were something of a mess. I had pointed out to the team that, in the original rules, a time lord on his sixth or seventh regeneration would be a cripple. Instead, the system that ended up coming out of the process turns out to be very well done, and allows for the creation of powerful time lords that at the same time do not overwhelm the rest of the party.

The skills section details the 12 skills of the doctor who game. That's right, there's only 12 skills. Athletics, convince, craft, fighting, knowledge, marksman, medicine, science, subterfuge, survival, technology and transport. That's all of them. There are optional rules to allow characters to have "areas of expertise" (which allow you to purchase a specialized +3 bonus for only one point, but only in skills already at 3 or above), essentially specializations, but in the default rules there's not even that. So yeah, "knowledge" is not a cascade skill like in D20, its just how much information your character knows in general.
The author had a good reason for wanting to keep skills to a minimum; we didn't want the Palladium system here. This was originally an introductory RPG, and its also emulating a setting which is vaguely pulp-like in that it seems characters are generally good at a great many things. A ton of Dr.Who scientists are, for example, "SCIENTISTS": they are as good at fixing electronics as they are at knowing about quantum physics. So making a "scientist" character have to spend his meager skill points on biology, chemistry, physics and electronics/repair skills would have been contrary to emulation of genre.

There are a few skills I would have liked to have seen (and said so in the playtest); I was a big advocate for there being a Perception and/or Investigation skill, but the author felt that perception, like "dodging" is not so much a learned skill as an instinct and that investigation is better covered within other skills.
So most actions in the game are rolled by adding an attribute plus a skill. Punching someone, for example, is done by Strength + Fighting. Something like Dodging can be done using Coordination + Fighting, or Awareness + Coordination. Yes, those are two attributes. So most of the time you're using attribute + skill, but sometimes you're using attribute+attribute. Perception checks can be Awareness + a relevant skill, or they can be Awareness + ingenuity. Its all a bit arbitrary. I don't think that the kids will have any problem with it; D&D basic was loads more arbitrary, and I never had a problem as a newbie running that, so I think the Doctor Who system will work out fine, but it's not exactly elegant.

This being a time-travel themed game, there is the question of just how to apply skills across different time periods. This is resolved with Tech Levels. Characters have a home time/space, and this has a tech level. If you are trying to make use of technology (or do a few other things) outside your tech level, you have a penalty, and the further away from your tech level the bigger the penalty. This is pretty elegant, on the other hand, but its not always logical. The penalty does apply more to higher tech than your own, then it does to lower tech than your own (its easier to use something you actually read about in the history books at least), but while I can certainly see a 20th century middle class girl having serious trouble managing a medieval loom, I have trouble thinking that the -2 penalty she would incur for trying to manage a goddamn loom should also apply to a 20th century girl trying to use a medieval sword. There's harder tech to master and easier tech to master, and so again here I foresee a lot of GM arbitration deciding exactly what things from the past or future incur a penalty for the PCs and which do not.

So I was saying, the basic mechanic for task resolution is attribute + skill (+miscellaneous) + 2d6. The result is compared to a difficulty level. Fun fact: in the earliest stages of playtesting, it was going to be 1d6, but I and a few others lobbied for the argument that 1d6 wasn't as fun, and 2d6 also provided a much better spread.
Unskilled rolls incur a penalty (unless the GM says so). A normal task (ie. driving, swimming) has a difficulty 12. A "tricky" task has difficulty 15 (examples are climbing a building or shooting at a moving target). A "very difficult" task would be difficulty 24 (example: recalling an entire speech from a Shakespearian play... huh, fancy that, I perform "very difficult" tasks on a regular basis!).
Results are not straight pass/fail; the amount you succeed or fail by determines whether you've had a basic result, or some kind of bad or disastrous failure or good or fantastic success.
In any situation of opposition, players roll the same way, but results are compared to the opposition roll instead of a static difficulty level.

The combat system is not much more difficult than that. It adds only a question of initiative and damage. The initiative method was one of my big contributions to the playtest process, and I was inspired in it by classic D&D (which also inspired the initiative method I used in Forward... to Adventure!). Instead of people acting solely on the basis of their personal speed, what they are choosing to do has an effect on who goes when. Talkers always go first, if you are making a speech, you get to act before anyone else. "Movers" are next, so if you're spending the round running somewhere, you go early. After that go the "Doers", people taking special actions that aren't simple attacks. Finally, the "Fighters" go last, those just shooting or punching. I think that this brilliantly emulates how these sorts of conflicts tend to go in the Doctor Who show, and encourages characters to consider actions other than just fighting.
Damage is based on strength for melee weapons (with bonuses for different types of weapons) and on a fixed value for other kinds of weapons. The value of damage is modified by the margin of success, so a mild success will only do partial damage, and a fantastic success does extra damage. Some weapons have, instead of a number value, an "S" result, or "L" result. The "S" stands for stun, and the "L" for Lethal. You can guess what these mean.
Damage is applied directly to attributes, in the same style as the Traveller RPG (unless the damage is "L" damage, then you're just disintegrated). Thus, injured characters become less able to do certain things until they recover.

The section on conflict resolution is pretty clearly written, and it's generally easy to wrap one's head around. There is quite a bit of preachiness in it, about how combat is bad and should be avoided (with a section heading literally entitled "guns are bad"). Some level of this is understandable, given the nature of the game. Doctor Who characters should not be Rambo, running around using guns to solve everything in front of them.
Three whole pages are dedicated to how players shouldn't fight if they have an alternative. Yes, fine, that's well and good, but I will note that Doctor Who is far from a Love-fest. The Doctor himself has, from time to time, used physical violence. And if you're playing a UNIT soldier, or a Torchwood operative, or any number of other potential characters, I don't see why you wouldn't look at violence as a perfectly logical option. There's nothing wrong with encouraging the emulation of genre by encouraging non-violent options (like the way the initiative order does, or the very clever idea to award a Story Point to any character who surrenders himself), just don't force it down the player's throats.

Speaking of clever ideas, and emulation of genre, the game keeps in mind that the average Companion doesn't leave the TARDIS in a coffin. You are as likely to have to make a new character from death in the game as you are from losing the will to travel. In game mechanic terms, this is resolved by having characters who are in a situation where their character ought to die be offered the option of survival in exchange for gaining the Unadventurous Trait. The second time this happens, they gain it as a major trait, giving them certain penalties. If it happens a third time, the character will choose to leave the TARDIS/group/retire to a life of peace & quiet at the end of the adventure. This is a very effective way of emulating the series, and the more normal way that companions in the series come and go. Time Lords, of course, have a different option: they regenerate.

I haven't talked about what Story Points do yet. You can use story points in a variety of ways. The most basic is that spending a story point before you roll allows you to get a +2d6 bonus to your result. After you roll, if you failed your roll, you can use a story point to modify the result by one level of margin of success (turning a terrible failure into only a bad one, a bad failure into a regular failure, or a regular failure into a regular success). You can also spend a story point at any time to gain some kind of clue during an investigation, or to heal some damage. It is also considered possible in the rules that characters might be able to spend multiple story points at once to do something totally outside the normal context of the mechanics of the rules (the example given is when the Doctor imprisons the Family of Blood). Gadgets also have their own story points, which can be tapped into to do things beyond the regular specifications of the gadget (ie. to make the sonic screwdriver, which is really just supposed to be a fancy kind of lockpick, do all the freaking insane stuff the 10th doctor used it for).
Interestingly, players can also choose to "donate" their story points, to use them to allow other players to do any of the aforementioned things. Given that in the system, humans have way more story points than Time Lords as a rule, this may be the real reason why the Doctor likes to hang out with human companions!

Characters can gain story points by a variety of actions: I already mentioned that surrendering themselves to an opponent gives them a story point. So does doing anything the GM considers generally heroic or cool roleplaying. In particular, playing out bad traits merits extra story points. Characters can gain more story points than their regular starting amount, but from one adventure to the next these points do not carry over.

In terms of advancement, the rules are fairly fast and loose: the GM can allow players to raise skills, change traits, increase total story points, or even raise attributes if the events of their character's events in game justify it.

Gadget rules contain rules for creating Doctor-Who-style gadgets, with the use of gadget-specific traits.  Various examples are given, including the famous Sonic Screwdriver, as well as the Psychic Paper and Vortex Manipulator.

Obviously, there is a chapter on Time-Travel and how all the timey-wimey stuff works in Doctor Who.  Likewise, a section on Time Lord physiology, and rules for regeneration (and how to change a Time Lord character after regeneration; one of the few areas where random rolls are used). There's also a very significant section on the TARDIS and its various features (some of which are fairly well known, like the console room or chameleon circuit; others less known like the Cloister Bell or Eye of Harmony, and a few details that had featured only in single episodes).  Stats are given for the Doctor's TARDIS as if it was a character.

One area that has been expanded from the old boxed set is the section on enemies. Mainly, this has been updated to include monsters and opponents from the Matt Smith era, which was not covered in the original box set. So we now have, for example, the Great Intelligence, Ice Warriors, Silurians, expanded material on the Autons (to cover Centurion-Rory, for example), and even the Zygons made it in after their inclusion in the 50th Anniversary special. Additional Alien Traits are provided.

There's the standard "how to roleplay" pap, though curiously (perhaps because of structural questions in how to remake the box set in book form) that doesn't actually show up at the front, but waits around until p.188 (chapter 6). Also there are GM guidelines as to how to create the feel of the Doctor Who world/adventures.  All of this would probably be highly useful to either newbie RPG-gamers or people who had no prior experience with Doctor Who.  Unfortunately, I seriously doubt anyone in either of those categories would ever end up owning the Limited Edition Rulebook version of this game.

Another addition to this book is the inclusion of 12 adventure seeds, each inspired by the style of (and some of the villains and adventures of) each of the 11 doctors plus the War Doctor. Each is only about a page long, but should prove enough to give a GM a foundation from which to handle an adventure.

At the back of the book you get stats for the 11th Doctor, the 10th Doctor, the War Doctor, Clara, Amy, Rory, River Song, Rose Tyler, Sarah Jane, K-9, the Brigadier (pre-cyberman, obviously), and Kate Stewart; as well as statblocks for a standard Unit Soldier, Scientist, Rock Star, and Adventurous Archeologist, all of which could be potential player characters, I suppose.  Finally, a blank character sheet.

So what to conclude about this Limited Edition version of the DWAITAS RPG?  First, if you want to have a truly, amazingly beautiful Doctor Who themed book to put on your coffee table, you would certainly be hard-pressed to find a better option than this.  As far as the game is concerned: if you already own the Doctor Who boxed set, the prior reason would really be the only one to get this edition, since other than a few brief updates (and a couple of things taken from the sourcebooks, if I'm not mistaken as to their origins), there's hardly anything new here aside from the look of the thing.  If you don't own the C7 Box Set, but you're a fan of Doctor Who, there's no question that what can be said about this game is that, while it is not perfect by any means, it's the best, most complete Doctor Who RPG available.  If you like the type of rules that I described above, and really for Doctor Who you don't want some kind of rules-heavy affair, you're not likely to be disappointed.


Currently Smoking: Castello Fiammata + Image Perique


  1. FASA Doctor Who is still the best. And it has the REAL doctor on the box, not these metrosexual boy-band-looking' youngsters.

  2. Great review, thank you very much!
    I've played in about 30 sessions of DW:AITAS so far and I admire the many strong points of the game you have mentioned above. We have also run into the inherent issues that you have briefly discussed in the beginning. But I think no game system could effectively solve them, for they are primarily concerned with the series itself. Role-playing aimed at emulation of other media is in itself rather problematic, and Doctor Who, much as I love it, is a doubly problematic choice for emulation (generally single episode story arcs, after which things mostly revert to status quo with no real risk for protagonists involved).
    Also, kudos for designing the Initiative system! That was a great idea.

  3. Good review. My understanding is that the box set of previous issues was a requirement because the BBC did not accept, at the time, that a game could be written in a book format and Cubicle 7 did not have a license to produce books (novels, etc). They managed to persuade the BBC that you could, in fact, have a game written as a nice hardback book and, presumably with fan feedback, switch to that format in the resultant edition.

    1. Interesting! I didn't know that was the reason.