Friday, 28 March 2014

"The Paradox Cannon": Doctor Who RPG Part 2

Wednesday night saw the second part of Doctor Who.  As well as the players from last time - Raj, Molly, Matthew and of course my missus Ailsa - we were also joined by Charles who had to be incorporated into the story mid-flow.  We had a Sontaran fleet, a captured TARDIS, a Paradox Cannon and an accidentally alive president to fix - all in three and a bit hours.  Oh, and I had to make it not suck to play.

No pressure, huh?

The Minister of Chance, Time Lord extraordinaire.  (Or so he claims)
Story wise, our Time Lord the Minister of Chance and his chums Frobisher and Miranda were captured by the Sontarans at the start of the night and locked along with Charles' character - Erimem, an Egyptian noble taken out of time.  Only the robotic Antimony escaped this because he was not affected by the knockout gas deployed - he was able to break the group out of jail and get them back to the TARDIS where they could plan their next step.

Cue a few action scenes, some running around getting shot at by Sontarans and many skill rolls to wear down their Story Point.  In the end the captured TARDIS turned into the Paradox Cannon was destroyed as it's energy was vented; the enemy ship was collapsed by the spacial rift that formed in the carnage.  All parties got to dash about and be heroic, while also taking a punch or a shot off a Sontaran.  In the end the universe was saved; John Wilkes Booth was returned to 1835; Erimem was invited to joint he Minister in exploring time and space.

Lives to assassinate another day.

The ending left an ominous question hanging in the air as a sequel hook, though: not only did the Sontarans somehow have a TARDIS, they also had instructions on how to work it which are not normally translated out of Gallifreyan.  So who gave them those instructions?  How did they manage to fashion the Paradox Cannon?  What's lurking in the background here?...

The experience worked out much better than my last game with the group and part of that was running over two sessions.  The amount of Story Point shanded out for characters doesn't really work over single sessions - especially if there isn't much combat to necessitate the spending of Story Points to protect yourself.  The difference between 12, 7 and 15 story points did not come up enough in the single session game I ran which meant there wasn't a balancing factor between Time Lord & Companions - there was essentially no mechanical reason not to play shape-changing Frobisher or immortal Captain Jack over the more mundane Donna Noble or Rose Tyler.

Probably built her character with more story points than skills.

In contrast, by the end of two sessions pretty much everyone had worn their story points down to the bone.  One thing we didn't do so much was earn points by voluntarilly making successes into failures - though I did award Story Points when I captured them at the start of sesseion 2.  Still, they found themselves having to ration them and worry about exactly where they were going as the session pressed on, and several combats with Sontarans and their lethal firearms require spending quite a few story points.

Combat is something worth discussing, because Doctor Who is quite different to other RPGs in the fact that there's a focus on action but without the usual focus on fighting.  Most RPGs encourage crunchy, punchy combat in which the enemies die quite easilly - witness almost every D&D fight known to man.  A minority of games remove the lethality but combat still flows freely - superhero games, like our DC Adventures campaign, have non-lethal combats every session.  But Doctor Who produces combat so lethal, and where the opposition are so much better at lethality, that one is encouraged to run or talk your way out of a fight rather than just standing in a 10ft room and shooting.

The archetypal Doctor Who villains all have weapons which are basically insta-kill - Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans only need to beat your target number by 4 to kill you with one shot.  You need to hang onto story points otherwise a bad dice roll and it's blue skeleton time. 

Yeah, kinda like that.

Even when you play a more combat-happy character - say, a UNIT Soldier - you're still very vulnerable to this enemy fire so when guns come out the smart option is to take cover and try to diffuse the situation some other way.

The order actions take place per round also influences the way action scenes play out.  In most games this ordering is based entirely on speed - the most nimble characters act first, bar the random factor of the dice.  In Doctor Who actions always occur in the following order - Talkers, Runners, Do-Ers, Fighters.  Within that there's subdivison based on skill, but on any given turn the people with guns always act last and the people trying to charm, fast-talk or intimidate their way out of a problem get the initiative.    Having a strategy to, say, weld the end of a Sontaran gun shut with your sonic screwdriver or hack into the Cyberman to disarm his combat systems is therefore preferable to shooting at them because you know you'll get to act first.

The end result is that the game felt very much like a Doctor Who episode.  Characters with special powers got to use them, but a certain amount of bolshiness and luck still shines through from the more mundane characters.  The monsters are less D&D random encoutners and more Hammer Horror villains - a stand-up fight is rarely wise, so you'll seek the alternate option and try to outsmart your foes.

Best not directly fought.

Whereas the last time round the group was a little cool to the game, this time round people seemed much happier and the prospect of playing again seems far more viable.  I would definitely come back to this, possibly even as a short campaign of some sorts - a few adventures strung together to form a little season of Doctor Who goodies.

I'm on holiday in a couple of weeks time so we're putting off restarting our Star Trek game - no point in getting into it only to have to pause for a week or two.  Instead we're going to have a couple of evenings of one-offs, board games and Star Trek prep in advance.

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