This is the part where my other blog invades this one for a bit and I talk about Doctor Who. You see, I’ve been seeing the Cubicle 7 Doctor Who RPG about quite a lot recently, and… well, I don’t like the sound of it. The thing that worries me about a Doctor Who RPG is that the kind of story Doctor Who tells and the kind of story an RPG generates are… well, I don’t want to say ‘mutually exclusive’ because it can, no doubt, work. ‘In tension’ might be better.
Presuppostion: For a Who RPG to accurately reproduce What We Love About Who, it needs to have the Doctor in it. Who has a central protagonist who, superficially, is so much ‘better’ than the supporting cast, and the areas in which the supporting cast are better than him are nebulous things that struggle to find mechanical definition, like ‘conscience’ or ‘moral compass appropriate to the situation at hand’. That relationship structure is an important part of a Who story and, without it, something about the thing you love and are celebrating by playing a Who RPG is simply not there.
(An effort was made to do a Who RPG without the Doctor in it and have every player character be a Time Lord, but to be honest, it felt like a regular science-fiction RPG where everyone had a TARDIS, and it compromised some other aspects of the show’s ethos – suddenly the characters were working for Gallifrey rather than running away from it, for instance. It worked as an RPG, but it only looked like Doctor Who and featured bits of the Who setting – it didn’t simulate the source material at all well. Fine if you’re not into simulationism, but I’d argue that anyone playing a Who RPG must have some simulationist leanings to have chosen that game in the first place…)
That means either the Storyteller has to play the walking, talking, expositioning, plot-bending, mostly-awesome central character, or one of the players does – either way, most of the group are, or at least could feel themselves to be, playing second-fiddle to either an NPC or one player. The other option, of course, being to contrive ever more elaborate ways to keep the Doctor out of the picture and allow the companions to shine. That could work. You’re part of a Who story with the Doctor + Companion vs. The Universe dynamic preserved, but nobody has to unbalance (structurally, rather than game-mechanically) the play experience by actually playing the Doctor. A good Who story is one in which the companions have something to do other than listen to the Doctor being brilliant, so that’s okay.
However, I know that my lurching creativity isn’t up to the job of coming up with Reasons The Doctor Isn’t Here week-in week-out, session after session, and even if it was, the device would become obvious after a while. A Who RPG is still not one I’d pick up for repeated ‘campaign’ usage… and I’m not terribly inclined to pick up another £35 RPG book for a few one-shot sessions. I’d play a Who board-game RPG a la Descent, where the Doctor was missing for some reason and the players had to find him, like a shot, but I just don’t think Who and RPGs have the same objectives in mind.
Perhaps ironically, Torchwood‘s premise would make for excellent RPG fodder (although it would be a bit like British Delta Green with Daleks and thus have that ‘all been done’ feeling to it once the novelty of playing something in the Whoniverse wore off), and the cast is constructed as an ensemble (and thus more like an RPG party) and not a supporting cast for a central character. The Institute is old enough to open up the entire twentieth and much of the nineteenth century as a potential setting and has the variety between small field teams (like we see in the series) and large institutions (its initial presence in Who) as a backdrop for play.
It does have the problem of a functionally immortal, highly knowledgeable member of the ensemble, whose flaws are hard to represent mechanically and so could be swept under the rug, but he feels more disposable than the Doctor. Until quite recently in the Institute’s history, it was a huge organisation and Captain Jack wasn’t in charge of it or particularly important to it, so you could quite easily play away and never meet the miserable bugger. Even in the recent, post-‘Doomsday’ timeline, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the premise to read ‘it’s Torchwood without Captain Jack’, because Jack isn’t as important to what makes Torchwood go (defend the earth! salvage alien technology! shag your way through your colleagues!) as the Doctor is to Doctor Who.
Which seems pretty obvious, given their titles, but still.