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The Doctor Who Role Playing Game

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

Question Nine of our readers' questionnaire form back in TSV 1 asked if anyone possessed or played The Doctor Who Role Playing Game. So far there has been a 100% reply of 'No'. More than half of the responses admitted to not having the faintest idea as to what it was, but wanted to know. Here, then, is the information you requested, and also what I think of the game.

For a start, what is a role-playing game? Well, very briefly, it is something that requires a certain amount of skill and lots of imagination. It is all played on paper, but miniature figures can be added for more realism. Each player takes on the role of a character defined by attributes and skills. One player is the referee or Game Master (GM). His/her job is the most vital, as the GM must describe to the Player Characters (PCs) exactly what they see and what happens as they move through an adventure, known as a Scenario in Role Playing jargon. The PCs on the other hand, dictate what their characters do, and the GM must be able to anticipate every action the player might decide to do. In addition, the GM must also control every Non-Player Character (NPC) within the scenario. There are many, many role-playing Games on the market; Dungeons & Dragons is the most well known, but there are also many based on television or films, such as James Bond and Star Trek. It was somewhat inevitable, then, that eventually Doctor Who would join in.

The Doctor Who Role Playing Game was designed and produced by a top American games company called FASA in 1985. The basic game comes in a boxed set of three gamebooks and two dice. The books are:
The Players Manual: Provides all the rules a player needs to know in order to play a character.

Game Operations Manual: Contains the rules necessary for the GM. This is the most important book of the three, as it is possible to play the game using the information contained in this book alone.

Sourcebook For Field Operatives: Features background information on Doctor Who such as how to operate the TARDIS, background information on monsters, the Doctor and his companions and equipment used by the Doctor.

In addition to this, it is possible to buy further sets of books. These come in sets of two; one for the player and one for the GM. The GM version contains adventure ideas and secrets that the player will only discover through play. There are scenarios, which are ready-made adventures, and expansion rules sets, on the Daleks the Cybermen, and the Master. Each set, however, costs in excess of NZ$20.00, but it is perfectly all right for the GM to make up their own adventures, or adapt the Doctor Who novels. I have done this successfully, using Warriors of the Deep, The Five Doctors, Genesis of the Daleks, Tomb of the Cybermen, plus a whole swag of adventures from my own imagination. None of them, I might add, have used the Doctor; his character is an option left up to the GM, and I have preferred to use original Time Lord characters devised by the players. It has been over a year since I last played the game, and I have always been the GM.

The rules are based on the Star Trek Role Playing Game, so FASA has thus avoided having to start from scratch. The main complaint I have about the game is that while on the surface, it appears to be a faithful and accurately researched Doctor Who game, once you get into it, all sorts of errors are exposed. These errors all lie in the Doctor Who background research. Things like making the Time Meddler and the Master one Time Lord and dating The Ambassadors of Death as 1987 and Mawdryn Undead as 1988! The whole premise of the game is based on Robert Holmes' idea in The Deadly Assassin that there was a covert society on Gallifrey disobeying the law of non-intervention. Known as the CIA (Celestial Intervention Agency), the concept was seized upon by the game designers, and lost quite a lot of the unique atmosphere of Doctor Who in the process.

The game is very action/combat orientated, an unfortunate hangover from other, total-violence and war-type games of the Role-Playing genre. Now, as you and I know, Doctor Who is not a programme about the Time Lord and co. going around destroying monster after monster for the good of the universe (although a large portion of the JNT stories might have you thinking otherwise). The Doctor always tries to avoid killing and destruction, and encourages others to do the same. The Doctor Who RPG almost blatantly encourages an attitude of xenophobia, where the prime objective is to ally yourself with one side and destroy the other with whatever happens to be at your disposal, be the enemy Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sontarans, Yeti, humans, Time Lords, or what have you. Technology seems to take second place in the game, apart from the TARDIS, used for transporting the characters from one battle to the next, I suspect.

My adventures always tried to rely on more problem-solving situations than combat, but the odds were against me when facing a bunch of seasoned Dungeons & Dragons players fresh from gaily slaying Orcs, Dragons and Ogres. What I did discover about the Doctor Who combat system, though, was that it was more deadly than most RPG's. After losing several characters by rushing into battle with high-energy weapons, the players began to rethink their strategies. Towards the end of the seven or so game sessions, the players had begun to take on the Doctor's attitude that there should be a better way of resolving a situation rather than blowing away every obstacle. The great advantage of the Doctor Who Role Playing Game above nearly every other RPG is that Time Lord characters at least, can easily regenerate; elsewhere, the character may have died, eliminating the player from the game.

The boxed set of rules is priced upwards of NZ$50.00 to the best of my knowledge. You may have seen the solo game books by FASA on bookshop shelves: The Rebels Gambit and The Vortex Crystal. These give a very rough idea of what the game is like. In conclusion, the game has potential, but it needs a GM with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Doctor Who and a fertile imagination to make it work; players soon get bored otherwise. To make it really excellent, a complete revision of the game is perhaps needed, or a totally different version?

This item appeared in TSV 8 (August 1988).