Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Who’

You and Me Against the World

Rose and the Doctor, Fafhrd and the Mouser, Axe Cop and Dinosaur Soldier. Two heroes, simultaneously different yet essentially the same, facing danger and death.

Count Fucking Dracula

Count Dracula without Felix? The Count personally fucks that noise.

Buddy adventure, whether cops, swordsmen, or time travelers, is pretty much my favorite fiction format. I’ve tried my hand at writing it1, and it’s been a staple of my gaming forever. Hackan and Marek were pre-steampunk brother swashbucklers. Frankie and London were two kids lost in the night and the city.2

Oddly, it’s a structure mostly ignored in roleplaying games. I suppose it’s partly because the ur-campaigns of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson featured large casts of rotating (and sometimes short-lived) PCs. Besides enjoying the format, one of the reasons I’ve run buddy adventure so much is that it’s been easier for me to gather and focus two players than four.

Most games work pretty well with two players and one GM, though rules occasionally need fudging. What, though, about two players, no GM? I can think of a lot of times in my life when I’ve had one other gamer available and neither of us was keen to take on the sole GM responsibilities.

There are a few good examples, but the best is Emily Care Boss’s entirely excellent Breaking the Ice, a game that follows a couple’s first three dates. Boss has a particular talent for what I like to call “roundtable” games — roleplaying games that aren’t so much based on eliminating the GM as distributing the traditional GM duties. In addition to the base game, which you have to play with somebody who’s not squicked at telling a romance story with you, I’ve run a number of sessions of Meet Your New Partner, the same rules applied to buddy cops.

Since this is an under-explored design space, where could we start exploring it? A game about two characters should be defined by the push and pull between them, as well as their push and pull with adventure. The character contrasts (push) and compatibilities (pull) are what drive our scenes. Their motives (pull) and obstacles (push) define their adventures.

Traditional GMed games make the adventure’s pushing the responsibility of the GM. Players may or may not bring push between the characters to the table. Adventure push is possibly the defining feature of the referee as created by Dungeons & Dragons. In my experience, it’s one of the first things that falls out when D&D-style groups decide not to use a GM.

What about pull? Most games provide a bit of intra-party pull in the form of the characters needing each other — rules and settings are generally designed to make sure no one goes alone by default. The adventure pull is usually also the domain of the GM, although most games provide a default pull, like “treasure beneath the earth.”

I’d suggest that for a two player game, the mechanics should remind players to provide push and pull. Your adventure push could be as simple as “roll for wandering monsters.” Adventure pull’s a little harder: at some point, somebody’s going to have to say “this is what we want.”

Fortunately, your genre’s going to come to the rescue for both of these things: pushes and pulls are usually familiar constructs. Buddy cops? Pulled by justice, truth, revenge. Swashbucklers? The glitter of jewels and the gleam in dark, pretty eyes. Time travelers? The wonder of the unknown.

You have a relatively finite number of goal types, then, and it’s easy to brainstorm new ones, especially if you have random tables or other such divinatory aids.

What about pushes? The genre and divination tricks apply here, too, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that having players cycle through pushing each other’s characters works really well. In other words, I describe my character’s response to the situation and the complications your character faces, then you take those complications and respond to them, then send some more my way.

Sam and Max

"This place reeks of adventure and excitement, Sam!"

Gameplay lends itself towards being both cooperative and competitive, which most heroic partnerships are. Rose and the Doctor try to top each other on one-liners. Legolas and Gimli count kills.

So, let’s boil this down into a quick list of questions, starting from the broadest subject (characters) and drilling down all the way to the combat round.

  • Characters:
    • What sets your hero apart from your partner’s hero?
    • What do your hero and your partner’s hero share?
  • Adventures:
    • What does your hero want from this adventure?
    • What’s the overall nature of the obstacles your heroes face?
  • Scenes:
    • What’s at stake in this scene?
    • What’s in the way of what your heroes want?
    • How can your hero top your partner’s hero?
  • Actions:
    • What’s your hero doing?
    • What’s going to complicate things for your partner’s hero?
  • Are they fucking? The Internet wants to know.

    Those are your narrative questions, which should be a good foundation for plugging into traditional roleplaying games (with more or less time statting the obstacles, depending on your system).

    How can we go further, though? How can we embed those questions into the rules, so that gameplay is a series of natural reminders to do the things that make these adventures better?

    And how can we build a fantasy adventure game that utterly nails them?

    1. Vampire: The Requiem‘s Count Dracula stories, in Savage and Macabre and The Man Himself.
    2. That would be my Vampire game Never Let Go, the best game I’ve ever run.

    Space Magic

    SFX has Terry Pratchett commenting on Doctor Who.

    Pratchett says he wishes he could hate the show, because it’s not science fiction and it discards Chekhov’s rifle. Unsurprising, really: the Doctor doesn’t much like guns.

    Pratchett elevates said rifle to a Law of Narrative, which I’m not sure it really is. For all his objection to deus ex machina, it’s a founding technique of literature, and hardly unusual. And anyone who follows the man behind Who, Steve Moffat, knows that he’s an absolute master of that supposed law. Coupling‘s core mechanics were desire, shame, and Chekhov’s rifle.

    His predecessor, Russell T. Davies, is also pretty able to plant props in advance.

    So on Doctor Who, why don’t they?

    Because it’s beside the point, I think. Modern Doctor Who is entirely about the characters and the spectacle and how the characters react to the spectacle. When I sit down to watch the show, I’m not looking to find out how Amy Pond came to be attached to cracks in the universe. I’m watching for that scene where she chases the Doctor around her bedroom.

    I’m not there to find out what rules the Doctor will manipulate to stop the plague of gas mask zombies… I’m there to see his reaction when, for just one episode, everyone lives.

    The narrative structure of Doctor Who is all about those reactions and interactions along the way. It’s kind of like going on an actual trip, where the point isn’t whether or not you mentioned sunscreen to Mom but how she reacts when you find yourself in Egypt without it.

    By the way, this is one reason I basically don’t write Doctor Who fanfic. As a writer, my brain always wants to go back in time and set everything up just right for the events to come. I have to keep myself from building too many rules into my worlds, because I already have a terrible tendency to put things into little quantifiable boxes.1

    I’m grateful, honestly, that somebody’s making TV that’s not about that.


    1. I don’t know if roleplaying has helped or hurt in this regard. Ron Edwards would probably say it’s White Wolf baggage, and he might be right. On the other hand, roleplaying’s taught me a lot about screwing around with my plans retroactively.

    A Quick Primer on Middle School Gaming

    Matthew J. Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming has been around a while, and, in certain Dungeons & Dragons circles, is held as a sort of Leviticus on how the game is supposed to be played. I, however, did not start gaming in 1974.1

    I’ve gamed in a lot of different circles, and in a lot of different ways. With luck, I’ll continue to do so. I play the old games, I play the new games, I’ve obviously played a lot of the nineties games. Any way you want to play is cool with me.

    That said, here’s some of what I’ve learned so far.

    We’re all friends here

    Alex Kingston as River Song in Doctor Who

    River Song is the hottest Carmen Sandiego.

    We wouldn’t be sitting here in a spare room full of Apple IIs arguing about which Carmen Sandiego poster is the hottest if we weren’t friends. And it’s certainly because we’re friends that we stopped naming Oregon Trail characters after each other.

    Now, being friends isn’t some magical thing where you never argue or always do everything together or whatever. And just like you don’t always get along, your characters don’t get always get along. They also don’t always work together. For the most part, an adventuring party is a social group, not a sports team.

    If the rules break your game, break the rules

    The core mechanic behind middle school gaming is “stat + skill = whatever the GM says.” Rules are important, because they lend structure to play and provide a common vocabulary for the game, but the main adjudication remains in the hands of the human beings at the table.

    The GM shouldn’t be a tyrant. Forcing people around to obey your will is for Debbie and Ms. Frost. Which brings us to:

    The GM’s supposed to provide action

    No aspect of the game is so important that things should stop happening. Forget puzzles and “player skill” and all of that… if the characters are stuck for ten minutes at a dead end, something should happen and it’s usually GM’s job is to provide that.

    The GM should also keep the world moving. I don’t mean you need to map out the troop movements of every city state or envision every insult a vampire makes to another. But there needs to be a sense that the world isn’t sitting, paused, waiting for the characters to wander into the appropriate hex.

    Do what seems like a good idea at the time

    If a cool idea strikes you, run with it. Player or GM, doesn’t matter. What you planned earlier isn’t as much fun as what you’re doing now and you’ll all have better memories of the session if you broke it.

    Middle school gaming is not about the strategically or tactically optimal path. Leave that to the old school with its ten-foot poles and the graceful death ballet of D&D 4. Middle school gaming is also not about maintaining perfectly the mechanics of a great novel.

    Crib Shamelessly

    Octorok, from the Legend of Zelda

    Come on, this guy deserves to be in the Monster Manual.

    If White Wolf asks you to turn your game into a novel, you may have some problems here, but otherwise? Go nuts. Like the Octorok from The Legend of Zelda? Give him some hit dice and you’ve got the Roktopus. Think Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer would be more awesome as a Nazgul? Time to make that noise.


    1. Though I’ve gamed with those who did, and they don’t play like Matthew Finch. Confusingly, the Quick Primer also more or less rules out Call of Cthulhu as an old school game, something I’ve never quite been able to grasp. Nonetheless, it’s a neat book on gaming style with a lot to recommend it.

    “how to roleplay as doctor on a guy”

    Somebody searched us up that way. I’ll admit, it’s important. When a guy asks you to roleplay the Doctor, what do you do?

    • Talk first: As the Doctor, the most dangerous thing you can do is talk. It’s the thing your enemies should never, ever allow you to do, but you always do it. When roleplaying, keep up the banter. If nothing seems relevant, go irrelevant. You’ll find a use for it later.
    • Get a coat: Just about every version of the Doctor has a coat, jacket, or other unique outerwear. Need I mention the scarf? You probably don’t want to go too far into fancy dress,1 but pick a coat that says something about you, the Doctor.
    • Humans, you love them: Even in your grumpiest incarnations, you love humans. You love everybody else in the universe, too, almost to a fault, but humans are pretty much your favorite species. Always so curious, like cats. In fact, a couple milennia on, some of them will be cats. And isn’t just like a cat (or a human) always to turn up where they shouldn’t be, wide-eyed and looking for…?
    • Run for your life! Running is the key element of your character. It’s the easiest thing for you to do, and every time you’re faced with a difficult decision, it’s the instinct you fight down. The Doctor fears responsibility. The Doctor must take responsibility. The Doctor doesn’t know just how far his responsibility extends.
    • Get a Sonic Screwdriver: A few Doctors lacked them, yes, but it’s quite the handiest tool you can have. Key to the universe, opens everything, from doors to rifts to companions’ shirt-buttons. Trust me, that guy will be expecting this one.
    • Careful on the historical references: You probably were there for all the important bits, or you will be at some point, but you really shouldn’t mention it more than once an episode or so.
    • Don’t Explain: Once you’re in the Doctor zone, a good deal of what you say won’t make any sense to your companions. Remember, this is part of your charm. Undercut it occasionally by offering a concise explanation or admitting you just made the last bit up. It’ll keep a guy guessing.
    • Show it in the eyes: You are unbelievably ancient, unbelievably sad, unbelievably alone. And you’ve done it to yourself. Show that in your eyes, especially at the moment the guy most wants to kiss you.

    Thanks for the question, reader! I hope this helps you and your guy!

    1. Russell T. Davies felt this was a particular danger of the series.