News this week of a license for Cubicle 7 to produce an official Doctor Who role playing game (RPG) is a more than mildly interesting development. RPGs based on the series have been attempted twice before, almost at either end of the game format’s Eighties heyday.
US company FASA were first off the block with Doctor Who, based around existing rules (and artwork…) they’d developed for their Star Trek game. While not relying on the polyhedral dice of other contemporary RPGs, FASA’s game stuck to the basics with options for playing any either a Time Lord or Companion, and using the Deadly Assassin conceit of the Celestial Intervention Agency to set ‘missions’ for its players. Also, like many systems of its time there were lots of rules and tables and charts. Doctor Who the RPG was very much action oriented, earning it the amusing nickname on RPG.net of ‘The A Team in Space’. It had its fans – and still does, but the license was short-lived.
Post-Classic series the most recent attempt was Time Lord, a much-stripped down version offered in a novel-sized book of the same name written by Ian Marsh and Peter Darvill-Evans. Once again utilising old school six-sided dice and your actual pens and paper, Time Lord was self-contained and brought gaming the series up to date with the last of the original series – all seven Doctors, companions and a generous bevy of classic monsters. If simplicity was part of its appeal, then the rest would have had to have been the faithful way it used the series’ non-violent agenda – battles with aliens were often one-sided and deadly to the player characters, so clever thinking was the order of the day. Additionally, the skills of ‘Bench Thumping’, ‘Screaming’ and ‘Bottomless Pockets’ were a fine acknowledgement of the series’ quirks and strengths. If anything though, Time Lord probably failed by arriving late in the day for the RPG fad. Computer games were becoming more sophisticated for a start, and latching a game on to a programme that was assumed dead and buried probably did the rest.
Fast forward to today, and while role playing games remain, their format and mechanics have undergone a great deal of revival – the d20 system, a sort of open source gaming option based around a twenty-sided dice, is the most popular format, although it has its detractors as well. In aditon to this, the marketing of an RPG in this day and age is not without its challenges – a significant number of posters on the Doctor Who Forum thought that the game would be computer-based and were scratching their heads for a while. According to Cubicle 7 the game will be based on the new series first, with development to take in the classic series further down the track. D20 may not be used, but, cognisant of the awkward fit of FASA’s version the developers are keen to have a game which is not based on another franchise’s conventions and game mechanics. Playing the Doctor is a tricky ask, and even human companions are cut from different cloth than your typical skills-specialist RPG character, so it will be interesting indeed to follow their take on the character, the series and just how playing the Universe’s greatest smart-alec (new series version especially) can work.
[Doctor Who Adventures in Time and Space's developer Dave Chapman has a blog dedicated to the game's creation: Heart of the TARDIS]