Saturday, July 15, 2017

Season 11, Episodes 13-14

Another diptych-of-sorts, with two different episodes set in 1911...

Episode 13: The Trouble with Jack
1911. Once again, Penelope takes a holiday in her beloved Weston-super-Mare, savouring the last days of summer. No alien invasion to fend off, no monstrous entities to battle, no eerie mysteries to investigate – just the sea, glorious sunsets, the pleasure of farniente and the quaint charm of Edwardian friendships. And then Jack Harkness had to show up…

Episode 14: Family Ghosts
Following her seaside holiday, Lady Penelope reunites with Edwardian psychic detective Everett Blake, who finds himself at the center of a devious psychic trap involving a gothic ghost simulacrum, dark family secrets and the terrifying legacy of Jack the Ripper. Will he become the living instrument of the sleeping Lloigor waiting in the Shadow Below London?


Episode 14 saw the return of our “guest-star” Cyrille who plays Everett Blake, a character who might be described as a somewhat decadent Carnacki. From Everett’s viewpoint, it was a very personal story, involving many revelations about Everett’s family and a make-or-break psychic ordeal at the end; it also gave us the opportunity to expand the character’s background and sow the seed of his future occasional involvement in the campaign. From Penelope’s perspective, this story allowed me to retro-weave together various elements from previous stories – including the “Jack the Ripper” episode from our first season (“The Shadow Below London”, yes that was years and more than 100 episodes ago!), recurring tidbits of Torchwood history and stuff from the far more recent “Gaze of the Abyss” (two episodes ago!).

Having recurring guest stars in a Doctor Who campaign is a delightful challenge – but a challenge nonetheless, since it requires the establishment of what we might call a “secondary continuity” in order to create a satisfying serial feel for the guest player-character, without unbalancing (or making things too dependent on) the main continuity of the campaign. And with a time-travelling RPG, this can become quite tricky.

From past experience, I’ve found that the easiest way to handle this is to firmly anchor the guest character in a specific time period to which the time-travelling character can regularly return. Making the guest character an independent time-traveller with his own means of temporal transport might seem a good idea at first but is bound to create a somewhat frustrating imbalance between the two players – i.e. player A having all the fun and player B’s various temporal travels remaining mostly unplayed except when they happen to cross the path of player A’s adventures…

All in all, it’s a better deal to “root” or “ground” the guest character in a more stable temporal environment and personal background – but this also has its pitfalls: in this case, the GM will have to avoid making the player feel “stuck” in a static background, as if his character was “frozen in time” between adventures… but the trickiest aspect of it lies with the following simple question: “Well, since we’re so good at adventuring together, why don’t you just hop in the TARDIS and come with me to explore all space and time?” and its obvious reply: “Well, my character would really love to and has no real reason to refuse… except that I cannot play as regularly as you so it cannot happen, can it?”. The only way to avoid this kind of meta-gaming cul-de-sac is to provide very strong reasons for the guest character to remain in his time period – a demanding job or dependent NPCs might work but it’s far more satisfying to establish some kind of “ongoing mission” tied to some major aspect of the campaign world, such as membership in (or strong ties with) UNIT or Torchwood – after all, one of the original purposes of UNIT was to provide a satisfying excuse for the Third Doctor to remain grounded on Earth for many episodes – you know, defending the Earth and all that.  In the case of Everett Blake, I chose involvement with Torchwood (or more precisely with its semi-rogue “Ghost Department” – perhaps one day I’ll tell you more about this) and the necessity to stand guard against an underlying psychic menace (namely the Lloigor).  

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