Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

FASA’s Doctor Who Role Playing Game: On the Table

FASA’s Doctor Who Role Playing Game always struck me as being really, really neat… but it took me decades before I could actually get it onto the game table. When I mention the number of hours that I spent combing over the rules trying to get the hang of them, some long time gamer mastering types might think, “hey… the game isn’t that complicated. What’s the big deal?!” But as a kid that had very little experience running game sessions, I simply had no basis on which to discern which rules were crucial and which could be ignored or hand-waved. And back then, I only had a couple of Target novelizations and I’d only seen a handful of episodes. late at night on Public Television…. The entire milieu was a bit daunting.

Revisiting the rule books as an adult– and having run several GURPS sessions– it was much easier to wrap my head around the rules: the see what was there and what was not there… to see what rules were run-of-the-mill and which ones were wonky. One of the things that made it harder to parse through the was that the Player’s Manual is (as far as possible) written without any direct reference to the actual rules. And yet… occasionally there are crunchy, essential rules laid out there that are so important that you cannot understand the Game Operations Manual without them. This is hard to believe today that rules could be organized like that, but it must be understood that at the time of the development of the game, Gary Gygax’s AD&D hardbacks were pretty much state of the art for most people.

So next I needed a scenario. The cost for some of the old supplements for the game are just plain crazy anymore– there was nothing for it but to roll my own. I picked an old Classic Doctor Who episode off of Netflix and watched it. Then I watched it again while furiously taking notes. Then I worried and fretted for days. When the convention finally rolled around, I still had gaps in my outline. The night before my game, I could not sleep due to the traffic on the highway outside my window. In an exasperated state, I sketched out sort of a dungeon area for the final climatic scene. All of it was built around an elaborate puzzle that I felt would be the perfect homage to the the writer of the episode. I honestly don’t think I have ever spent so much time prepping for a role playing game session.

So what do you think happened when my game’s slot finally rolled around at the convention? Obviously, the need for 80% of the stuff I had sweated over and prepared promptly evaporated. I’m sure that you, dear reader, being an experienced and competent game master yourself, could easily see that coming a mile off. Looking back on it, the thing that struck me about the session overall is that I really didn’t have the burden of carrying it all off. Sure, I was serving as a facilitator and a judge… but the game almost entirely belonged to the players. So what the heck happened, then…? And why did it work?

  1. In an attempt to give the players the full FASA Doctor Who experience, I let them make their own characters instead of giving them pre-gens. The system is maybe a bit hard to explain, but at the end it’s mostly a point-buy system for attributes and skills. Even though the players were fans of different incarnations of the Whovian franchise, they all got to play exactly the type of Doctor Who character that they wanted. The character design process immediately engaged the players. They were cooperating from the start because individual characters could not get every single skill. It took an hour– which is an eternity in convention time– but at the end of the process, they collectively had a pitch for what amounted to an all new spin-off series.
  2. The payoff of having the players make their own characters continued throughout the game. If my scenario design or game mastering ability was ever mediocre, the players were still playing their characters. No matter what else was happening, the players just seemed to take satisfaction from this. And in the course of the game, the characters continued to develop and come into focus. And because it was their character, they would often come up with an additional flourish when taking an action that I don’t think they’d have done had they been running a stock pre-gen.
  3. Players were intimately familiar with the new series, but not experts on all the classic episodes. I lucked out in that no one had seen the episode I was using as the basis of the game. One interesting thing was that I would often throw something out to the player, the would often interpret everything through their conception of the Doctor Who oeuvre. When they first came out of the TARDIS, I mentioned that no one seemed to take notice of their outlandish appearance. I was actually poking fun at one of the conventions of the show, but one of the players immediately explained to the rest that this was a side effect of the TARDIS’s translation circuits! The players seemed to overlook any mediocrity on my part by looking at our shared experience through “Doctor Who” colored glasses– and at the same time contributed to the shared imagining.
  4. Nobody played any characters from the TV show. Our game was set before the new series, so there were any number of Time Lords running amok. This meant there was no burden to recapitulate somebody else’s story– we had complete freedom to blaze a new trail and see where things lead. FASA Doctor Who’s use of the Celestial Intervention Agency by default seems kind of weird to modern Doctor Who fans, but at the game table it is a positively brilliant premise. It really is carte blanche to be anybody, go anywhere, and do anything.
  5. A lot of people decry the complex combat system in the game, but at the convention table with the pressure of having to entertain new players all that seemed to survive of it was the initiative system, AP costs for movement, and attack rolls. The players’ combat monster could usually go first and usually hit. Players in this system are immediately competent, unlike a lot of other role playing games from the mid eighties. (Star Frontiers, I’m looking at you…!) Interestingly enough (and in keeping with the source material), the non-combat oriented characters found plenty to do in combat situations besides combat actions. Skills got checked… and sonic screwdrivers got used.
  6. Finally, the strangeness and the epic sweep of the classic episode that I used for the adventure was so mind blowing… the players seemed content just to gradually figure out what was going on and why. Once they had accomplished that, they had their own ideas about how the story should conclude. All of my elaborate game design ideas stayed safely in my notebook– the players designed their own adventure.

So the game seemed to succeed due to four things. FASA’s designers did make some really good decisions– enough that Steve Jackson’s earliest drafts of GURPS looked an awful lot like what FASA put together here. The shared knowledge of the past half dozen TV seasons really helped us all be on the same page. Somehow, the players were able to contribute to the shared reality at least as much as the game master. Finally, those old episodes from the seventies seem to be a really good fit for gaming. This was all surprising to me. Hopefully this information will be useful in helping you plan your own Doctor Who game. Or even better… maybe it can help you not plan for your Doctor Who game!

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8 responses to “FASA’s Doctor Who Role Playing Game: On the Table

  1. callin February 26, 2013 at 10:47 am

    wait…which episode did you adapt?

    And it’s cool that everyone had such a good time. I have both versions of Doctor Who (FASA and Cubicle 7). Maybe I’ll pull one out for the next campaign.

    • jeffro February 26, 2013 at 11:04 am

      My standards are probably pretty low for declaring that folks had a good time at a con rpg. Nobody flipped the table, over anyway…! But seriously… it was pretty gratifying to see a guy clutching his character sheet and talking about running him again next year.

      As to the exact episode I adapted for the game… that piece of information will be revealed in issue 20 of the Diary of the Doctor Who Role-Playing Games fanzine. I know, I know… the suspense will kill you…! Hopefully the back issues there will tide you over for a while….

  2. RogerBW February 27, 2013 at 6:55 am

    I must admit than an hour out of what’s usually a four-hour slot seems a lot to put into character generation. Is it at least possible to keep it running in parallel, so people aren’t sitting around waiting for the books?

    Reaction in the UK when it came out was mixed, though Paul Mason liked the game (White Dwarf #72). It was pretty expensive as an import, though, and I don’t think I ever saw an open copy.

    • jeffro February 27, 2013 at 8:25 am

      If character generation can be completed in half an hour, then the benefits are worth it. FASA’s point-buy system here is far harder to explain under pressure than GURPS would be; it’s relatively straight-forward, I guess, but fiddly.

      • Jason Packer February 27, 2013 at 9:18 pm

        Does it suffer, like so many point-buy systems, from “sweet spots” that if not exploited can lead to disgruntled players?

      • jeffro February 27, 2013 at 10:02 pm

        I don’t think so. The real tough choice is whether to be pretty good at several things or awesome at a few. It’s mostly just skills and attributes only… and being so light weight, you sketch out your character in broad strokes. The main problem with it is that, for instance, there’s not a lot of Charisma skills… and there’s maybe not a lot to choose from in the Strength skills. Depending on how the players allocate their attributes, those limitations can cause their characters to end up a bit “samey.”

  3. Charlie Warren March 2, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    I can completely relate to this post. I was intimidated by these rules as a teenager. I sort of “got it” at times but it wasn’t like D&D or AD&D back in the day. If you had a question with one of those or were unsure of something it seemed like there were plenty of people to turn to for assistance. I did wind up taking the Dr. Who books along with me when I was in the Army. I read through them as an adult and made up some characters – never did get a chance to play – but I remember wondering why I thought it was so hard.

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