As I mentioned in my last post, I have recently started another, completely different DWAITAS campaign, with my wife Sylvie (Lady Penelope’s player) and two very good friends of ours, Cyrille and Nathalie. We had recently finished a long-running Amber Diceless RPG saga in which Cyrille and Nathalie and we were looking for a new campaign concept – and since they are both Doctor Who fans and steampunk enthusiasts, DWAITAS came out as a natural (if slightly obvious) choice.
Of course, it had to be completely different from the ongoing Lady Penelope’s Odyssey, for my own gamemastering comfort and because Sylvie would play in both campaigns; she and I decided right from the start that this new campaign would be set in a completely different universe, a parallel timeline if you will, to avoid any sort of interference or crossover temptation between the two series. I also decided that, while Lady Penelope’s Odyssey takes direct inspiration from the Doctor Who continuity, this new campaign would be modeled after Torchwood – but with quite a few key differences. The basic concept is the same as that of Torchwood: an Earth-based team of agents who investigate the mysteries and perils of the wider Whoniverse… but with the following variations:
The characters are not members of Torchwood, but belong to its French counterpart, the Bureau des Affaires Extraordinaires. They are not based in 21st century Cardiff… but in 1900 Paris (which does change quite a few things, in terms of atmosphere, style and story opportunities). The three player-characters are actually the only active field agents of the Bureau, which has just been created as the French answer (riposte?) to those darn Brits with their oh-so-victorian Torchwood Institute; in this campaign, Torchwood will be used as the heroes’ main rival organization with the mysterious, deathless Jack Harkness as the British’ newest asset (remember he was recruited by Torchwood in 1899!) in the continuing secret struggle to prepare for the futuristic challenges of the 20th century. But as the characters themselves have begun to discover at the end of our first episode, things may be more complicated than this, with some mysterious forces at play around (and behind) their very own Bureau (more on this later).
So what about the characters? I handled character creation as a group session, to make sure that we ended up with a well-rounded team – but I also wanted to make sure that each player would create a unique character. Not just a “typical 1900 adventurer” kind of character, but a hero (or heroine) who would really have the flavor of the Whoniverse – and the results really lived up to my expectations.
Cyrille plays a character named Théophraste – but it’s not his real name you see, because he is actually a blue alien who fell to Earth a couple of years ago and has forgotten pretty much everything about his past, including the history of his species – but has the elusive certainty of being the last of his kind. Yes, that’s right: the only male agent of the Bureau is actually an alien. Of course, he has a holomorphic gadget which allows him to appear human (think Abe Sapien masquerading as Adrian Brody). Thanks to his high Science and Technology skills (and native Tech Level), Théophraste is the main “techie” of the team, but also plays the part of the eccentric, detached investigator.
Nathalie plays Philippine de Blois, an independent, free-spirited woman of adventure, explorer and aeronaut, with her own steampunkish dirigible (full of futuristic tech, thanks to Théophraste). But because of a scandalous tragedy in which she played a major role (to make a long story short: she rebuffed the courtship of a young man, who then committed suicide – and since he was the son of a wealthy and powerful industrial magnate, she also gained a powerful enemy in the process), her social reputation is more than slightly damaged, which adds a darker touch to her character and personal history. As the two other characters, she also has a mentor (more on this later), who played a key role in the creation of the Bureau and more or less acted as a role model during her adolescence – her aunt Cordelia, an aging, eccentric spinster who has obviously quite a few secrets to hide (more on this below).
Sylvie plays Louise Moreau, an elusive adventuress with a combination of scientific and espionage skills… and a few dark secrets in store. Secret n°1: she is a Torchwood defector (and stole some precious alien tech from them). Secret n°2: she is actually the daughter of the infamous mad scientist Dr Moreau – yes, that one (and yes, in this universe, the novels of H.G. Wells are based on real facts – for a number of reasons which will become clearer later in the series). Secret n°3: as you’ve probably guessed by now, her father experimented on her during her childhood and she is actually a feline hybrid, complete with heightened senses, retractile claws and catlike curiosity. She (rightly) sees her late father as a monster, who abused her in a terrible (if rather unusual) way.
Each of these characters was given a mentor – and these three mentors are the founders and what we might call the “old guard” of the Bureau:
Théophraste’s mentor is professor Varende, a scientific genius / classic absent-minded professor who rescued him after his traumatic arrival in our world through the Paris space-time rift, and whom he regards as a father figure, the human who taught him everything about Earth and humanity.
Louise’s mentor is her uncle, Colonel Forestier, a gruff military officer with government and secret services connections – which allowed him to create the Bureau as a semi-official organization, an obscure branch of the French secret services dealing with “weird stuff” and trying to outplay the British Torchwood.
Philippine’s mentor is the aforementioned Aunt Cordelia. At first, I hinted that Cordelia had obviously been a spy or secret agent of some sort in her younger years, but (part of) the improbable truth was revealed in the very final scene of the first episode: the characters discovered that Aunt Cordelia was actually not Philippine’s aunt at all… but a time traveler from the future - echoes of H.G. Wells again! She went on to explain that History was in danger, because there was a big space-time rift around Paris – a rift which was obviously tied to Théophraste’s arrival in our world and also explained the real purpose behind the creation of the Bureau (beyond the whole “riposte to Torchwood” thing). So the adventures of our heroes will not simply be about investigating strange events in 1900 Paris: it will also be about exploring a hidden, larger world, with space-time rifts, hidden agendas and history-manipulating forces…
But what about the adventure itself? Well, for the first episode, we obviously needed something quite straightforward – a classic Whovian investigation (with all the added French flair and Parisian panache of la Belle Epoque, naturellement!) which could set the overall tone of the series and would not throw the characters right in the eye of the whirlwind from the start, while still lifting a significant corner of the proverbial veil. So I went for a story involving spontaneous human combustion, the spiritualist movement, the Pyroviles and a tragic family backstory. The title was Le Bal des Ardents (“Dance of the Burning Ones”, after a rather horrendous 15th century event of French history) and I must say it worked really well.
The next episode will probably have something to with the 1900 Universal Exhibition… Stay tuned for more information about Le Bureau des Affaires Extraordinaires…