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I'm considering GMing Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, but there's something I fundamentally don't understand: Why is The Doctor a player-character option? And why is it the default selection? Shouldn't the Doctor almost always be an NPC?

Player's Guide, P5: "If you like, you can play the Doctor...."

Read Me First: How To Play insert, P2: "..use one of the character sheets from the box of the Doctor or one of his companions... (like the one to the right)..." [The example sheet shown is the 10th Doctor.]

From Donna Noble character sheet: Attributes from 2 to 4 (2.7 mean), Skills from 0 to 3 (1.9) From The Doctor character sheet: Attributes from 4 to 9 (4.8), Skills from 1 to 5 (3.3)

In a game which has one resolution mechanic: Attribute + Skill + 2d6 vs Difficulty, isn't the Doctor significantly overpowered vs. his companions? On average he will score 3.5 higher on checks (an entire success ladder rank) - and that is before optimizing for his best attributes and skills. In fact, Donna will always perform significantly more poorly than the Doctor at nearly every task given the same dice roll. That doesn't sound like a lot of fun for Donna's player. See: How do you encourage the use of lesser trained skills in a skill challenge?

That's even before considering that role playing the Doctor would suffer from well known issues related to playing a character more intelligent than the player, especially a Time Lord (aka demigod). See: How do I roleplay an intelligent character?

Though I understand the desire for new players to climb into the skin of their favorite hero, as an experienced D&D DM this looks fraught with peril.

What am I missing?

Shouldn't the Doctor always be an NPC (and be out of the scene as much as possible) for a fun game for the companions? Have GMs out there found a Doctor-PC is "no problem"? If so, please offer concrete advice on how do GM for this situation (or pointers to the same.)

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3 Answers 3

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Maybe, but he doesn't need to be.

It depends a great deal on your game, and your players.

I've played The Doctor - with good results - in an AITaS game. I've GMed games with large power imbalances that worked well. I've also run a couple that didn't. It depends on where the focus of the game is.

In, say, D&D, the focus of the game is often on defeating monsters and getting treasure. Power imbalances that make one character much better than another at that are bad, because a player gets left out. (But if you run a D&D game that focuses totally on court politics, it simply won't be a problem in the same way. In Birthright it's fine for characters to have massive power differences; what matters is that their nations interact on relatively even terms.)

In a game like Doctor Who, story and relationships are essentially king. It doesn't matter much that he can win at all the skill rolls, as long as he doesn't have any more plot control or screen time than anyone else.

So here are a few GMing tricks to keep it that way:

  • Pick the player who is playing the Doctor carefully. Obviously you want a decent roleplayer who doesn't mind the acting challenge, but more to the point, you want a player who doesn't feel the need to be powerful and in charge - someone who will let other people have their turn in the spotlight.

  • Don't just look at what the Doctor can do, but at the many things he can't.

  • The most important thing the Doctor can't do: be in two places at once. If the aliens are attacking the bridge, the reactor is exploding, and the oxygen supply is being poisoned - it doesn't matter how awesome his skills are, it's going to take the whole party to handle it.

  • The Doctor's +4 to +8 on a roll only matters if the roll is marginal. Litter the game with easy skill checks that anyone will pass. (This isn't a design mistake the way it would be in a d20 game - Doctor Who characters are competent, and drama in Doctor Who episodes doesn't come from failing at difficult tasks, but from succeeding at impossible ones - and then discovering you were solving the wrong problem.)

  • Likewise, feel free to throw in problems that make skill checks too difficult to succeed. When you're up against Daleks or Weeping Angels, it doesn't really matter what your skills are in most things - they're Not Good Enough. Threats like this can be kept at arms length with fast talking, but they have to be beaten with creative thinking - the problem isn't passing the skill check; it's coming up with one that's worth trying.

  • For similar reasons, the show dynamic is about personality, not skill. (River Song is the Doctor's equal or superior, and it's not because she can beat his awesome I-can-do-anything skill list. It's because she has the attitude of superiority to him. There's nothing she can do that he couldn't - but there's plenty that she does that he wouldn't.)

  • It's perfectly OK to adjust difficulty behind the scenes, too. Remember: just about every major threat in the universe is scared of The Doctor specifically, and prepares counters to his known tactics.

  • Bring the plot to everyone else. He'll stick his nose in anywhere, you don't need to make it about him. Have NPCs call up companions for expert opinions in their fields, or aliens abduct them.

  • Make sure to put things into the adventure that play to companion's strengths. The Brigadier? Plan an invasion, and let him command troops to stop it. Clara? Remember to put the Doctor in danger from a threat he didn't see coming... she saves him, not the other way around. Ace? Remember to provide a source of explosives...

  • Likewise, the best Companions shore up the Doctor's weaknesses. To take your example, here are a few things that - no matter what the skill ratings are - Donna can do but the Doctor can't:

    • Sympathise with - and therefore learn from - a frustrated office worker who can't quit his job.

    • Notice the blindingly obvious massive alien thing. (The Doctor is notoriously bad at this, presumably because everything is equally alien to him. He's never in a familiar place. They bore him.)

    • Stay patiently in one place for an hour.

    • Pick up a gun.

    • Control her curiosity enough to avoid walking into an obvious trap.

There are a few other game genres worth looking at for examples in how to deal with this sort of thing, story wise.

  • Superhero games deal with this issue all the time. (The last game I GMed starred Green Lantern, Flash, Star Sapphire... and Green Arrow. Oliver isn't in the same league, power wise - but that doesn't stop him being in the same League.)

  • Buffy / Dresden Files style games often have massively powerful supernatural protagonists mixing with ordinary mortals. But those mortals get critical control of plot and relationship elements.

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Fantastic answer! –  SevenSidedDie Jan 20 at 17:46
    
+1 Thank you for the very detailed (and helpful) answer. –  F. Randall Farmer Jan 20 at 23:20

I chose Doctor Who:Adventures in Time and Space as the first game I ever GMed and ran a pre generated adventure to begin with, just to get the hang of the system. This adventure included the Doctor as a PC, in fact it was written specifically to include him. I therefore had to deal with this straight away.

The first thing you need to remember with DW:AiTaS is that it is not D&D, I know this seems obvious, but it really does take a different mindset both to play and to GM. Yes the Doctor looks wildly imbalanced on paper, but as long as you ensure that you play to everyone else's strengths as well, he shouldn't be game breaking. It's not just about the skill checks, it is often about creative thinking, problem solving, empathy. The Doctor isn't a medical man, if Martha is in the party throw in some new disease, or injured person, this brings the focus to her. Choose some things that anyone can do, and some that only the companions can (or will) do, for example; the Doctor will not usually pick up a gun, but Mickey or River will.

Cast your Doctor well, for goodness sake don't let a powergamer play him, or you will end up having the problems that you mention in the question. If you cast him right ( I asked Tynam to take on the role) you get a confident Doctor, someone who can spout techno babble, talk down a Dalek, but also makes sure his companions don't feel left out. The Doctor needs to understand before you start that they can't be a limelight hog. If you don't have a player who is capable of not making it all about them when playing such a powerful character, then I do suggest taking the Doctor off the menu (or writing an all Time Lord game to solve the issue the other way ).

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+1 for "or writing an all Time Lord game", a solution I'd completely neglected but now really want to play. –  Tynam Jan 20 at 8:51
    
+1 for concrete play advice about casting the Doctor with a compatible player. –  F. Randall Farmer Jan 20 at 23:21
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Hmm. Here's an idea based on your answer as inspiration. What if the Doctor-PC got story points [only?] for making sure that his companions were appropriately featured (or lost SP when he hogs the spotlight)? I'm warming up to the idea! –  F. Randall Farmer Jan 20 at 23:23
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If you think that your Doctor player needs the incentive, then that would certainly be a good way to encourage it. –  Heather Jan 20 at 23:25

It probably depends on your group more than anything else. Some groups are happy with being characters in a storyline cast that may have vastly different levels of ability, just like in a novel or TV show. Others want to be mechanically balanced for combat/action.

The most important thing is to talk with your group in advance and make that decision between you. Don't allow a player to become aware during the first session that they're massively underpowered compared to someone else, just to find out they hate that style of game.

If you need mechanical balance, there's always the option of having other Time Lords travel with The Doctor (at least, there is as long as you're not sticking too closely to the idea of him being the last) - such as Romana during the 4th Doctor's adventures. You could also allow players to create uniquely powered individuals such as Captain Jack Harkness.

I'd really recommend checking the rules before doing that though - the Vortex system used by DWAITAS does an excellent job of ensuring everyone contributes easily through the Story Point system, which gives an important boost to characters of lesser ability (such as human companions) at a plot/storyline/narrative level. Using that, everyone gets pretty much the same ability to contribute to the story - as long as you're not trying to turn it into a dungeon-crawl game :)

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