We leave Classic Who for the moment, leaping into New Who and a story written by one of my favourite writers, Steven Moffat. I’m talking about ‘The Girl in the Fireplace.’ The plot is what I like to call a jigsaw mystery.
In a jigsaw mystery the main characters encounter several pieces at the start and have to work out how they fit together. In this case, upon landing on a 51st century spaceship, they encounter a 17th fireplace, time windows, organic parts inserted into machinery and clockwork repair robots all in short span of time.
The pacing of the plot is not based around action sequences but of establishing the connections between the elements. The robots have opened the time windows, they used the crew for spare parts and now want Reinette. The ultimate reason for why she, of all people, is chosen by the repair drones is only learnt by the viewer and not the characters but makes its own twisted sense.
The tension in the plot is provided by knowing that events are already in motion. In order to stop the threat the characters must put everything together. The more pieces they have the better the chances they putting it all together and seeing the bigger picture.
This style of plot works for conspiracies but the reason this episode is so good is that the the individual pieces are so strange they initially seem worlds apart, both literally and figuratively, but by the end of the story we understand how it all fits together.
Just as we discussed how a time travelling police box is shocking because it is found in a junk yard, pieces of the jigsaw that are out of place are more thrilling. Look for interesting combinations that stand out. In this episode we have the 17th century contrasted with the 51st, horses walking around a space, organic parts fitted to machinery and even the robots are clockwork.
What other combinations would be interesting? Beings of fire on a planet of ice, a desert beneath an ocean, archaeologists burying ancient cities? Don’t dismiss anything for being too odd, you can work out how it makes sense later.
Once you have your pieces create a network of links between each piece. Each part of the puzzle should have a connection to at least two other elements. This is to tie it together and allow the player characters of solving the puzzle.
Ultimately the player characters will need to know the answer to these three questions;
How? Why? When?
‘How’ requires them to know how these jigsaw pieces came into existence. How were they created? How did they come to be where they are?
‘Why’ demands they discover the purpose of the jigsaw piece. What does each one do? What is the desired effect? What is the ultimate goal?
‘When’ establishes what the deadline is. When is the plot going to culminate?
The order in which they answer these questions is not important and most likely will be solved simultaneously. Answering these questions yourself can help bring the basic plot framework together.
If we were to answer these questions using ‘Girl in the fireplace’ as a model then the ‘How’ would be 51st century robots using the power from a spaceships engines to open magic doorways. The ‘Why’ is to repair their ship. The ‘When’ is that they will take Reinette’s brain on her 37th birthday (Why? Because that’s how old the ship is.)
The trick for the player characters is working out which is the most important jigsaw piece. Mickey is concerned why there is a horse on a spaceship while the Doctor thinks having 17th century France on-board is a much bigger issue.
Remember that it doesn’t necessarily have to make logical sense or have high stakes. In this story events are put in motion because a spaceship broke down and the robots though the most logical thing to do was cannibalise the crew and then punch holes in time to get the brain of the person the ship was named after. The only result of the robots completing their plan would be the death of a single, fairly minor historical figure.
All that is important is that something will happen and all the player characters have to do to stop it is discover the reason.
It can be useful to think of clues that can alert the player characters to the presence of jigsaw pieces. For example the clockwork robots would break time pieces to avoid two things ticking in the room. Once this tactic was discovered the presence of broken clocks alerted the Doctor and Reinette to the clockwork robots.
Clues can also inform the player characters about the nature of the jigsaw pieces. The horse wandering around the spaceship is not only a striking image in itself but lets the characters know that things can pass through time windows both ways.
A clue can also be the key to saving the day. The fireplace of the title is very quickly established as malfunctioning, time passing much quicker on one side than the other, which the Doctor attributes to loose wiring. When all seems lost the Doctor is able to fix this wiring to reopen the connection with the spaceship in the 51st century.
These rules can be used in any game. They define the nature of the threat and let the player characters know what they have to overcome or find a loop hole. The clockwork robots have two rules that are used against them.
By shutting the time windows they become trapped and know that they will inevitably wind down. They do the logical thing and shut down immediately. The Doctor has used the rules that govern their nature against them.
A jigsaw plot is great for encouraging the player characters to split up. They can cover more ground, gathering more pieces of the puzzle in a shorter space of time, rather than staying in one group and wasting time.
The advantage of this is that the players will feel that they are doing more for themselves, giving them a chance to shine. It also means that when facing a challenge they only have themselves to rely on.
In an ideal situation the player characters split up, gather pieces and then meet up to compare notes, solving the puzzle together. The reward for the players is the satisfying ‘click’ when everything falls into place.