Saturday, October 30, 2010

Campaign Notes : Episode Templates (Part One)

(Wow... it's been almost two months since I last updated this blog - I guess I was lost in time...)

Designing a Doctor Who RPG scenario can be quite challenging, mostly because the Whoniverse is so full of possibilities, from aliens and weird science to time travel and even alternate realities - indeed, with all of space and time to play with, it might well be one of the most possibility-rich fictional universes around. Faced with so many possibilities, the aspirant DWAITAS gamemaster may feel a bit dizzy at first - and the question he should ask himself here is : HOW DO THEY DO IT ?

Well, Doctor Who episodes tend to follow a fixed pattern or format – the episode from the latest season featuring Vincent Van Gogh, for instance, clearly follows the same pattern as The Shakespeare Code: in both episodes, the Doctor and his companion meets an artistic or literary genius and helps him battle some hidden menace; in both cases, the genius’ particular talent (Shakespeare’s words or Van Gogh’s vision) plays an essential part in the resolution of the struggle and in both cases, a trace or echo of this struggle can be found in the genius’ artistic work – Van Gogh’s painting showing the TARDIS or Shakespeare’s lost play “Love’s Labours Won”.

Template 1: Historical Errors

The Doctor travels to the past and discovers that something has gone seriously wrong, disrupting, contradicting or threatening history as we know it; in most cases, this historical divergence or distortion is the direct result of alien interference and must be straightened out to avoid serious damage to the continuum. Episodes which follow this pattern include The Empty Child, The Doctor Dances, The Idiot’s Lantern, Daleks In Manhattan, The Fires of Pompeii, The Vampires of Venice and The Next Doctor. Episodes which include a major historical figure, such as Winston Churchill, Queen Victoria or William Shakespeare tend to follow Template 2 (Meeting Famous People) - see below.

Template 2: Meeting Famous People

The Doctor travels to the past and meet a major historical figure – usually an artist or writer (Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Vincent Van Gogh) – only to discover that weird, otherworldly events are unfolding around that famous personage. In most cases, the mystery or its solution is directly tied to the historical character’s life, personality or creativity. Epsiodes which clearly follow this pattern include The Unquiet Dead, The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp and Vincent and the Doctor. The artist / writer may be replaced by a major historical ruler (such as Queen Victoria in Tooth & Claw and Winston Churchill in Victory of the Daleks), in which case the episode also tends to follow Template 1 (Historical Errors).

Template 3: The Darkness of Space

This is our aforementioned Alien-like template: The Doctor travels to a futuristic location (such as the inside of a spaceship, a space station, an underground base, a spaceship crash site, a gigantic museum / library or any other reasonably high-tech and claustrophobic place) and quickly realizes that some unspeakable hidden menace is lurking in the shadows. Such episodes always feature a significant supporting cast (spaceship personnel, fellow passengers, soldiers in the field etc) who either start disappearing one after the other, as they get eliminated, devoured or possessed by the menace or make the Doctor’s job more difficult by losing their self-control – until our heroes manage to solve the mystery, beat the entity and save the day. Many episodes follow this template, including The End of the World, Dalek, New Earth, The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit, 42, Voyage of the Damned, The Doctor’s Daughter, Planet of the Ood, Silence In the Library / Forest of the Dead, Midnight, The Waters of Mars and Flesh & Stone / The Time of Angels.

This template also has a more ‘social’ variant (found in episodes such as
The Long Game, New Earth, Gridlock, Utopia, Planet of the Ood or The Beast Below), in which the Doctor travels to Earth’s future (or to another futuristic place), discovers the darker secrets (or the less pleasant aspects) of a society gone wrong and (of course) attempts to make things better. These dystopian scenarios, which usually involve a fair amount of social satire and present-day topicality, often deal with moral or even philosophical themes and conflicts (e.g. society vs. the individual, freedom vs. control, morality vs. practicality, ends vs. means etc); nevertheless, they follow the same pattern as the more classic Alien-like episodes – simply make the hidden horror a social horror and voilà!

Template 4: The Truth Is Out There

In this somewhat X-Files-like pattern, the Doctor investigates some mysterious events in the present-day– such as unexplained disappearances, abnormally high-levels of what-have-you radiations in some ordinary-looking place, weird scientific experiments or the public trumpeting of some revolutionary, far-too-advanced technology such as a rejuvenation machine or a miracle diet. Episodes which follow this pattern include Boomtown, Rise of the Cybermen, School Reunion, Army of Ghosts, The Lazarus Experiment, Partners in Crime, Planets of the Ood and The Sontaran Stratagem. It should also be noted that quite a few of these stories feature a powerful corporation (such as Atmos or Ood Enterprises), a government agency (such as Torchwood in Army of Ghosts) or some sort of institution (such as the school system in School Reunion) acting as a façade for the conspiracy. Also, such stories are often used as the first part of a Major Alien Crisis two-parter, as in Rise of the Cybermen (prelude to The Age of Steel), Army of Ghosts (prelude to Doomsday) or The Sontaran Stratagem (prelude to The Poison Sky).

Template 5: Lives Less Ordinary

The normal life of a normal person is troubled, warped or even shattered by alien interference or some other weird, out-of-this-world events (which are often a forewarning or manifestation of a forthcoming alien attack or similar large-scale menace). Such episodes are often firmly rooted in some aspect of everyday life or deal with common personal themes – such as family life, work, childhood memories, complicated love stories etc. Episodes which follow this pattern include Rose, The Idiot’s Lantern, Fear Her, Smith & Jones, The Eleventh Hour and The Lodger; as this list demonstrates, this episode template is often used to introduce new companions, who are pulled away from the ordinary routine of everyday life by otherworldly events, meet the Doctor and end up adventuring in space and time. Like template 4 above, this template is also present in the first half of two-part stories like Human Nature / The Family of Blood and The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, where they serve as the ideal introduction for major alien trouble.

Next time : Templates 6 to 10!

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