‘Vincent and the Doctor’ by Richard Curtis follows the trend in the new series of centring around famous historical figures. The classic series would have such notable people referenced, especially during the 4th Doctor’s era, but were rarely on screen. In the new series we’ve had Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Agatha Christie to name just a few.
Each of the plots has been different, making the best use of the guest character. In this case the plot could be best described as a ‘Monster Hunt.’ The characters know there is a threat in the vicinity and their goal is to track it down and stop it.
In this episode it is a visit to a modern day museum that starts the hunt. Amy and Doctor spot a sinister figure in one of Vincent Van Gogh’s pictures. They then travel back in time to find what Vincent had depicted.
This is a good way to make the character feel proactive, especially if they have control of their TARDIS. Rather than arriving at a destination and stumbling into trouble the characters are making it their goal to go there to deal with the problem. When they are put in danger it was their choice.
You can provide this first evidence of the monster in a variety of ways. A visual medium, such as a painting or photo can give the players an idea of what to look for and is very immediate. They see the monster and know something is wrong.
This information could also be conveyed in other mediums such as television or film. While watching an old movie the player character could spot something out of place in the background and end up travelling to when the film was being made. Or they could stumble upon an audio recording made years before, capturing horrifying events.
Characters who are keen readers might find references in a book that indicate the author encountered an alien race. Imagine a time traveller reading a supposed science fiction novel and realising that every word of it is true.
Lastly the player characters could investigate myths and legends they hear in their travels. They could be enjoying a quiet stay in a small village and hear talk about a giant wolf who preyed upon the locals 50 years ago and decide to travel back and see if there is any truth to the tales.
Let us not forget that the monster hunt is perfect for a campaign without a time lord. A game centred around UNIT or Torchwood can expect to regularly despatched to hunt down the latest threat in their area.
Once the hunt is begun the player character need to establish three things. What is the monster, where is it and how can they stop it?
Generally the monster doesn’t need to have a plan. In ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ the stranded Krayfayis is just trying to survive. Left alone it would probably have just continued to pick off the occasional local until it died.
That isn’t to say that you can’t mix things up by having the monster be something more than it seems. In this episode the monster is unexpectedly invisible and Vincent Van Gogh is the only one able to see it. This makes hunting it down even harder.
You can add your own twist to the monster hunt. It could also be a stranded alien but one with more intelligence and a plan in place to return home. Depending on its methods the player characters might have to decide whether they should allow the monster to leave.
The information that put the player characters on its track might have been distorted or misleading. For example they could have heard about a metal monster that was turning people into machines. Travelling back in time they expect to encounter a cyberman but instead find a Dalek, using humans to make more of its own race.
Doing so requires them to learn about the monster. How does it move, what environment does it like, what evidence does it leave behind that they can use to track it down? Knowing a monster is aquatic would lead player characters to search areas near bodies of water while knowing a monster can tunnel leads them underground. This is where your selection of the environment not only adds variety to the game but makes a difference to the plot.
Patient player characters with a good eye could look for tracks in the ground, find the remains of the monsters previous meals or other indicators in the environment that show where it went.
Witnesses help this search and offer good opportunities for roleplaying. Player characters have to treat an eye-witness carefully, winning their confidence and overcoming any fear they might have. It also gives a chance for the player characters to see the effect the monster is having on the locals, whether it be through injuries or the misery of losing a loved one.
Showing the effect the monster has on the surrounding area and the people who live there gives the player characters mission a sense of purpose. In the episode note how the Doctor, Amy and Vincent encounter a funeral procession. They are face to face with the reality of the deaths the monster has caused.
If you are centring the adventure around a historical figure this is a good way to bind them to the plot. As in this episode the Doctor needs Vincent in order to track down the monster. You could also play up the time travel element of the story by having the player characters accompany a person they know will encounter the monster.
Once they have found the monster they need to think about what they are going to do with it. In this story the Doctor’s intention was to take the krafayis home. If the monster is animalistic then the player characters will need to think about how they will capture it and bring it within their TARDIS.
This is actually a more complicated procedure than just killing the monster. In this case they are almost like animal conservationists. They could set rope traps, use drugged darts to incapacitate their quarry or if the monsters nature allows, befriend it. A whole campaign could be built around capturing lost alien species and returning them to their natural environment.
Such tactics are not always possible, nor should it be assumed that the player characters would choose this course of action. Sometimes there is no other option but to use force to eliminate a threat and prevent further loss of life.
Although the Doctor and Amy end the deaths caused by the monster it is a sad victory. In the krafayis’s last moments it reveals it is afraid and Vincent emphasises with it, understanding that it lashed out in fear.
Giving your monsters easy to understand motives help your players think of them in more realistic terms and might even make them question their actions. If they were stranded on an alien world wouldn’t they need to kill, whether it be for food to eat or to protect themselves? Can they really describe the actions of the monster as evil?
The monster hunt is a good basis for an adventure allowing many variations, from the monster being hunted, where it is located and what the eventual outcome will be. It also makes a good change from the player characters being the hunted ones.