‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’, by Stephen Wyatt, has a very distinctive style. This is no doubt due to the extensive location filming. This only seems to enhance any Doctor Who story, as seen in ‘Spearhead from Space’. There is just something about filming in the real world that gives the series an extra layer of reality.
Episode 1 creates a dream-like atmosphere, which sets the tone for the entire story. It is as if the Doctor and Ace have stumbled into a David Bowie music video, complete with spooky clowns in hearses, threatening kites and half buried robots.
Wisely the main characters are given something to focus on immediately, the quest to reach the Psychic Circus. No matter how strange things get the characters have a goal to motivate them. This is a handy tactic for any game.
This has the added benefit of giving PCs the same goal as NPCs they encounter. Here it doesn’t take long for the main characters to team up with Captain Cook and Mags, after being given the cold shoulder by Nord.
No matter how unlikely such a collaboration is PCs can soon find themselves travelling with a varied group of NPCs, if they are heading in the same direction. This can be an opportunity to provide exposition, as each of the NPCs gives their reason for heading to their destination and what they know about it.
Along their way the NPCs can demonstrate their use to their PCs. Their skills and abilities can help the PCs overcome the challenges they encounter along the way. In return the PCs can help the NPCs.
This could also lead to NPCs exposing their flaws. In this 1st episode Captain Cook initially presents himself as a well travelled explorer. Soon it is revealed that he is cowardly and deceitful, not raising a finger to help his companion and putting the Doctor in the line of fire.
Like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ PCs might end up recruiting NPCs they encounter on their way. NPCs can provide companionship and protection, something that becomes more important the more hostile and alien the environment is.
Journeys give the opportunity to play out short character arcs. A flawed character could redeem themselves, just as characters can overcome their limitations or face their fears. This can help travelling companions bond.
The number of perils the characters face during their journey will depend on how much emphasis you want to place on it. Is your adventure about the journey to the destination or what happens when they get there?
Perils can establish themes of the story. In episode 1 the characters discover a bus, with a killer robot conductor on board. Immediately we have the idea of something pleasant being turned into something lethal. This story will also include plenty of robots.
The length of the journey can instil a feeling of isolation. Once the characters have arrived at the circus the safety of the TARDIS feels like a long way a way. This becomes an important factor when the character discover that they need to escape.
It can be difficult to strike the right balance, especially in a Dr Who game. If a destination is too far PCs might decided to turn back and obtain another form of transport or use their TARDIS.
Ideally there should be some doubt just how far away the destination is before they begin their journey. By the time the characters start to wonder if they should turn back they should already have gone too far to turn back.
Places and things the PCs encounter on the way can help establish the history of the location. Nowhere is this more evident than in this first episode. Why is there a giant robot buried in the sand? What happened to the people on the bus? These questions give the character further motivation to find out more about the planet and how it connects to the circus.
Establishing that a location has a history is a good way to emphasise that the PCs are travellers. Thing don’t only occur when they are present. Sometime they’ll arrive while the story is already in motion.
‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is another example of this, with Brad and Janet arriving during the third act of the story. Although told from their perspective they unwittingly arrive at the culmination of Frank-N-Furter’s attempt to create life, following the murder of Eddie who was the nephew of Dr Scott who was working for the government to expose the secret invasion of the aliens from the galaxy of Transylvania. All of these important events occurred before the film ever began.
Once the Doctor and Ace arrive at the circus there are many hints that things have changed drastically at the circus. Through their interactions we piece together their relationships and the events that led to their current situation.
Players don’t need the whole backstory spelled out to them or provided in exposition. Discovering what happened is part of their story, allowing for investigation and social interaction scenes.
The landing pad that we witness Nord and Whiz Kid arrive on appears to be some form of teleporter, described as a polyportable landing bay. Smoke issues forth from the platform, from which emerge new travellers.
This technology radically changes how space travel is treated in a setting. If planets are linked together by polyportables then anyone can go to an alien world, without the need of a spaceship. It becomes a casual affair to travel to distant planets.
In a campaign this can be ideal if the PCs don’t have a spaceship or TARDIS of their own. At most they only have to worry about maintaining some form of land vehicle, be it a van, car or motorcycle.
This also changes the type of people that PCs will encounter exploring the universe. Instead of being members of galactic empires or scientists they’ll likely to rub shoulders with backpackers hiking around the universe, thrill seekers and families out for a picnic.
This trivialisation of space travel when travellers realise they’ve gotten in over their heads and their destination isn’t as pleasant as the brochures indicated.