To get this out of the way upfront, my favorite Doctor is still number four, my favorite companion is the eternally underrated Martha Jones, although Donna Noble, Sarah Jane Smith, and K-9 are all pretty close in the running. When I was ten years old (which was a long, long time ago), I would practice saying “exterminate,” trying to sound like a Dalek.
I love the feeling in a licensed RPG where you can walk the line between having your own story, but still hitting the same beats as the inspirational material. Because of their very distinct ways of resolving situations, Star Trek and Doctor Who have always been shows where I wanted to attempt to capture some of the magic of those stories.
I picked up a huge bundle of the Doctor Who Roleplaying game from Cubicle 7 over a year ago, but unfortunately, I never managed to take the time to dive into the game. Now that Doctor Who: The Roleplaying Game Second Edition is out, I decided to brave the Vortex and see where the TARDIS takes me.
Bigger on the Inside
This review is based on the PDF of the game, in part because shipping from overseas may require time travel to properly facilitate for the foreseeable future. The book is 256 pages. This includes a credits page, title page, a two-page table of contents, four pre-generated characters of the current Doctor and her companions, a blank character sheet, and a two-page index.
The book has two-column formatting, with large color blocks for callouts. Throughout the book, there are half and quarter page photographs from various seasons of Doctor Who, including the original run of the series. Individual chapter headings are full-page color photographs of various characters and situations from the show.
Out of Temporal Sequence
If you have the first edition of the game, you may want to know the differences between editions before diving into the proper review, so we’ll jump ahead to the end of the book and look at the conversion guide. I also took some time to read through some of my 1st edition books to check out some of these differences directly.
- Concept and Focus are new concepts to 2nd edition, which we’ll explore a bit later
- Attributes and the resolution system for rolls remains the same as 1st edition
- Skills are similar to 1st edition, although some have been consolidated, and another one is added
- Traits no longer exist but have been rolled into other aspects of the character, most notably concept and focus
- Instead of a personal goal, characters have a short and long term goal
- Many more granular applications of bonus or penalties are now handled with advantage/disadvantage
The biggest benefit to the removal of traits that I can see from looking through some of the older material is that now 90% of the women that have traveled with the Doctor don’t have to have the “attractive” benefit applied to them.
The first chapter has some interspersed in character dialogue from the Doctor, and then some introductory text to discussions of the topic at hand. This touches on topics like what kind of game you can expect from a Doctor Who RPG, what the different roles of the players are in the game, adventure structure, and dice rolling. This wraps up with an example of play.
The interspersed character descriptions and the direct language used to explain the topic can be a little bit jarring. This is one of those cases where it feels completely in keeping with the Doctor and the tone of her stories, but might still be a little challenging for someone wanting to engage their “learning” brain on the topic.
Chapter two is all about creating your character. In addition to character creation, it also talks about the general tone and theme of Doctor Who adventures and introduces several campaign frameworks that could be used for a game. Some examples of campaign frameworks that are introduced include the following:
- The Doctor and Friends (pre-generated doctor with pre-generated companions)
- The Doctor and New Companions (one player as the doctor and other players with new characters)
- UNIT Team/Time Agents (non-Time Lords using other means to engage alien and temporal threats)
Once the framework for the campaign is established, the order of character creation involves the following steps:
- Concept (who you are)
- Focus (why you are the way you are)
- Experiences (events that are used to determine XP awards)
- Attributes (descriptive aspects of your character that are added to your rolls to determine a result, and also the numbers from which damage to a character is subtracted)
- Skills (broad abilities that your character possesses)
- Specializations (optional areas of interest that give you an additional bonus on rolls)
- Distinctions (optional descriptors that allow you to bend the rules, but which reduce your story points)
- Short Term Goal (a roleplaying based XP trigger)
- Long Term Goal (a roleplaying based trigger for additional story points)
There are several example character builds in callouts in this section, showing different types of characters and how their statistics may be allocated. This includes a range of human characters that might represent companions, to alien examples like Sontarans and Time Lords.
Some charts give example background experiences and shared experiences. There are also charts showing the benefits of focus and focus intensity and XP spends for character advancement.Â
Focus, as a new mechanic is one of the ways that traits have been spread out into more conceptual rules. Instead of many granular bonuses, if your focus applies to a situation, you may roll additional dice and add them to your dice total. While there are some cases where distinctions might give you something defined in the game rules, they are often permission to break the human limit of 6 on ability scores, as well as permission to spend story points to invoke aspects of what makes you different from the human race.
Gadgets are another item you can lower your starting story points to gain. In this case, your story points are assigned to the gadget. It allows you to do some basic things based on its description, and you can spend story points to represent your gadget doing exceptional things based on how it normally functions. Another benefit of a gadget is that you can hand the gadget off to another character, meaning a gadget lets you hand story points to another character.
This section begins to define the rules for adjudicating actions in the game. The core game mechanic is to roll two six-sided dice, and adding that result to an applicable ability and skill to get your result, and measuring that against a difficulty. Example difficulty levels range from 3 to 30, and the number of sixes and ones on the dice roll create a range of successes and failures:
- Brilliant (success with extra effects)
- Barely (success with an additional downside)
- Almost (failure, but without worsening the situation)
- Disastrous (failure and something else bad happens in addition to the consequences of failure
You can spend story points to move you up the ladder to a cap of “barely,” or, you can choose to worsen your effect by one step to gain a story point. In addition to using a story point in this manner, this is a list of story point expenditures that can be used to introduce events into the narrative, from 1 to 11 story points, depending on how major the element introduced may be.
Extended conflicts have a standard order for resolution that is probably one of the most widely known aspects of this rules system. If you haven’t seen it before, “initiative order” is as follows:
This means that someone talking a hostile character out of attacking goes first, a person rushing to reach the TARDIS goes next, someone repairing the space station’s life support goes next, and the person firing a disintegration ray goes last. Because you can react to what other characters attempt to do to you, you can make additional rolls, but after your action, this incurs disadvantage and then starts to grant advantage to opponents.
There is a chart of weapon damage, and some ability scores can do direct damage in conflict. For example, you can attempt to attack someone’s resolve to convince them against taking a specific action, or, of course, fight someone hand to hand. Weapons have specific damage listed, and some weapons are listed as “Lethal.” That means if you don’t lower the level of success of that attack, the character hit with that attack is automatically killed. It’s not too hard to mitigate this while you still have story points, but if you don’t, it’s time to visit Adric in the forcibly retired companion’s home.
When a character hits zero in a particular ability, they gain a condition. This condition causes disadvantage whenever it applies narratively, and if a character takes three conditions, they aren’t just out of the scene, they are defeated, possibly missing or captured.
There are some rules added for chases, including a chase tracker example track to keep track of how far apart the participants are. There are also terrain modifiers to roll against to see just how hard it is to run flat out. If vehicles come into the picture, they are given a relative speed. For example, vehicles might be rated as fast, average, or slow, but these ratings are relative to the vehicles in question (for example, racing a 70s muscle car versus an advanced landspeeder, where the muscle car might fall to the slow category by comparison).
The chapter wraps up with example gadgets from across various Doctor Who episodes, from datapads, force fields, psychic paper, sonic screwdrivers, and other items that have appeared over the years.
This chapter starts with a tour of the TARDIS and what it contains. Many of these detailed areas and tools are specifically useful only if the story is taking place for an extended period in the TARDIS itself. In some cases, however, this introduction to what the TARDIS does may explain some tropes of the series to people that are less familiar with explanations that have come about over the years. For example, the language systems that telepathically convey local languages to anyone that has traveled to a particular place and time in the TARDIS.
The next section of this chapter explores the idea of what it means to have a TARDIS or other space or time conveyance, and how to create the statistics for it. These include similar aspects to characters in the game, including concepts, focus, statistics, distinctions, and story points. These generally only come into play when the conveyance is the focal point of the story, but it does stress that the means of traveling through space and time can be a character in and of itself.
Because other species have come up with other time machines beyond the Time Lords and the TARDIS, there are also examples of what other cultures have built, and how they can be used for a time travel campaign. This helps create different campaign frameworks if the players want to have Doctor-like adventures, without a rogue Time Lord to guide them.
This section also has random journey tables, course adjustments, and Vortex hazards. There is also some discussion of how the Vortex works, including tracking other temporal vessels across a timeline, and the means of avoiding detection when trailing or being trailed. This section doesn’t advise that you focus on Vortex-related navigation and hazards for every adventure, but only provides these for stories where it might become relevant.
This section is the gamemaster’s guide. It describes what you need to play the game, best practices for prepping the game, session zero, safety tools, researching historical time periods, and the general structure of adventures. In addition to all of these detailed sections, it also has a random adventure generation table with six columns and six rows. For example, you could roll up A Murder on Another Earth, or A Rival Time Traveller on an Alien World for adventure prompts.
This chapter revisits the idea of what kind of campaign frame you will use, this time in conjunction with a session zero. It specifically mentions the X Card as an active safety tool, and rightly points out that even though Doctor Who stories don’t often involve content that pushes boundaries, everyone has different comfort zones, and its important to honor that concept.
There is some strong advice on setting up adventure frameworks, as well as thinking about the purpose of a particular scene. There are career, relationship, and family events, which force companions to juggle these during their down time to see where they may have personal issues flare up. Additionally, there is an example campaign outline that details the ebb and flow of episodes, introducing a metaplot, and even blowing off steam at the end with a holiday special.
I really enjoy a lot of this advice, and it touches on some intentionality in adventure and campaign design that some RPGs never fully engage with. That said, they really sell the need to do deep historical research for the game, to the point that it almost feels off putting. I greatly appreciate the sections that talk about not falling into racist or imperialist tropes, but I also don’t think that most Doctor Who episodes are as deeply steeped in historical details as is implied in this section.
This chapter starts as an exploration of the history of time, as it has been detailed across various series of Doctor Who. When various species, organizations, and NPCs show up in the historical details, they get game stats for use by the GM. Because this is laying out the overall timeline of what has happened in the various series, that means you get a sampling of different adversaries from the first Doctor to the thirteenth.
That means you’ll see stats for The Master, the Daleks, the Cybermen, Judoon, Sontarans, and Silurians, as well as a whole bunch of others. In some cases, these show up in multiple points in the timeline, either because they are an ongoing interest in history (like the Silurians) or time travels themselves (like the Daleks).
For anyone that may be a more casual Doctor Who fan, the expansive history of the Doctor is spelled out in probably as succinct a manner as possible, from the ancient founding of Galifrey to the Doctor’s rebellious theft of the TARDIS, the creation of the Daleks, their advancement as a major threat to the universe, their conflict with the Time Lords, and the Time War. And also a lot of less wide-ranging events, like the period of time that the Doctor spent on Earth working with UNIT, as well as how her actions led to the formation of Torchwood.
A Shiny New Control Room
I appreciate that there is a loose enough structure for resolution that, not unlike Star Trek Adventures, it’s fairly easy to let players come up with whatever unorthodox solutions they want to try for a variety of problems, and you have a means of adjudicating them. I like that the system for granularity for adding other aspects beyond failure and success is an easily accessed reference to the 1s and 6s rolled. I also like that not only does getting rid of various traits remove a lot of fiddly +1 and +2 situational adjustments, it also allows the game to clear the decks of some questionable traits like screamer and attractive.
Spatial Overlap I enjoy this iteration of the rules, and I think anyone more comfortable with more narrative-based resolution will like the changes.
Because there are more open-ended narrative elements, I wish there had been a few more examples for these newer elements to the game. For example, a longer list of focus and focus flaws, and a bigger list of what might be an appropriate persistent benefit to a distinction, versus the kind of things you could invoke with a story point, beyond the broad examples you can see in the Time Lord, Silurian, or Sontaran builds.Â
The game is very straightforward, in that it asks for a clear goal, sets some clear standards, and has an easily resolved dice system, but for all of that straightforward design, the gamemaster section can sometimes make the game feel more complicated than it seems upfront, making you feel that maybe you missed some nuance somewhere else in the book.Â
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
I enjoy this iteration of the rules, and I think anyone more comfortable with more narrative-based resolution will like the changes. Because the previous version had simple resolution, but very granular specifics that could be engaged, it might be more jarring for people that got comfortable with more defined answers to questions like “how do I do this.”
Regardless, if you are a fan of games where action, but not necessarily combat, is the means to resolving a story, or if you are a Doctor Who fan that enjoys narrative-leaning game systems, I don’t think you’ll regret the purchase.Â