‘Vincent and the Doctor’ centres on Vincent Van Gogh. It is his presence that makes this a very special episode, thanks in no small part to an excellent portrayal by Tony Curran. As the games master running a famous NPC can be more of a challenge but with a little research and preparation you can make their appearance more than just a background detail.
Firstly you need to know the basic details about the famous figure. You need to know what they looked like in order to describe them, how they spoke so that your dialogue sounds authentic and their character so you can understand their motivation.
Looking into their background can give you an idea of the skills they possessed which helps when you write up their character sheet. For example I recently had Amelia Earhart feature in one of my own games and the obvious skills to give her related to flying but in researching her I found out she’d spent some time during the first world war and subsequent Spanish flu epidemic as a nurse. This allowed me to add some levels of Medicine to her skills.
When writing the adventure it can be useful to look through your chosen famous NPCs background for when in your life you want to set the game. Do you want to set it before they were famous, during the high point of their life or in their final days?
Each choice offers up different possibilities. If you set it in early days you can look at what inspired them, for example the 6th Doctor’s encounter with HG Wells in ‘Time Lash’ that seemed to have inspired his books.
Setting it during their highest point you can explore the nature of celebrity. An example of this can be seen in ‘The Shakespeare Code’ or ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. Both feature writers who are used to fame and being renowned for their writing.
Both ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ and ‘The Unquiet Dead’ look at an artist in their final days. This brings forth the tragedy of such encounters with famous NPCs, that no matter how bright their soul everything dies. This can lead to one last grand adventure that sums up their whole life.
Another factor that you can consider is the events that were occurring around them. An adventure set during the civil war can be exciting but can be even more interesting if it is along side a young river pilot called Mark Twain.
‘Vincent and the Doctor’ demonstrates the advantage of having plenty of resources available to you. During the episode the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh serve as a guide to the locations the Doctor and Amy encounter, from the cafe to Vincent’s bedroom.
Having paintings and photos to show the players can save you describing places, letting them get a better idea of what it is their characters are seeing. It can even help you write the adventure, suggesting locations you’ll want to include in the game.
This can extend beyond just showing pictures of the NPC and their handiwork. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is set in France and filmed in Croatia. The overseas shooting really works to the episodes advantage, the streets and even the flora and fauna help it to feel different from other episodes.
To recreate the feeling of being in a different location you should be able to easily find pictures of the local area, capturing the feel of the native architecture, people and what the surrounding area look like.
You can either provide hand outs or, if you have access to a computer, simply show the pictures on the screen. Even if you don’t intend to show the pictures knowing what things look like can help your description of the setting.
To avoid having the NPC just be a background detail your adventure should take advantage of their character. The centre point of the episode is that Vincent sees things differently from others. It is this unique vision that not only lets him produce breath taking works of art but also see invisible aliens.
It is this plot point that makes him vital to the story. This is a good policy to follow when deciding if your adventure needs to have a historical NPC in it. Would you be able to tell the same story without them.
If it could consider removing them or adjusting the plot so that they serve an important function. They don’t need to save the day themselves, after all that is what the player characters are there for. Rather they should provide aide, information or otherwise help them achieve their goal.
This is where research really pays off. Knowing what makes an historical figure special allows you to craft a scene that show cases this. In this episode we have the scene in the field where Vincent shares how sees the night sky with the Doctor and Amy. Is there something about the person you’ve chosen that you can demonstrate in a similar scene, illustrating how they view the world?
This episode bravely tackles the crippling depression that Vincent suffered. Showing negative elements of a NPC fleshes them out and reminds the player characters that they aren’t just dealing with a character from a history book but a person.
Interacting with them is a delicate business. The Doctor is at a loss to how to deal with Vincent when he is crying in bed, unable to rouse him to come on the monster hunt. In ‘Tooth and Claw’ the Doctor and Rose end up irritating Queen Victoria that she forms Torchwood specifically to deal with the Time Lord and the less said about Queen Elizabeth the better.
Their relationship has to be built naturally, a bond formed. If there is a connection this can lead to wonderful moments like the Doctor showing Vincent that his work is recognised by taking him to the art gallery in 2010. It can also lead to further adventures, as Vincent later leaves a warning for the Doctor.
An adventure with a historical NPC can be rewarding for the players. There is something special about being able to say your character is friends with Vincent Van Gogh or fought alongside Charles Dickens.