Bubbling under the surface of ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is the idea of changing time. It is not the Doctor and Amy’s intention to change time but, as they grow closer to Vincent, Amy can no longer bear the foreknowledge that he will shortly commit suicide.
Ultimately her kind words and the knowledge that he will be recognised as a great artist isn’t enough to change history. We must assume that Vincent’s uncontrollable moods which filled him with such sadness eventually overwhelmed him.
The Doctor says to Amy that he views life as a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t cancel out the bad things but vice versa the bad things don’t spoil the good things. Although they weren’t able to save Vincent they definitely added to the pile of good things.
This is a useful philosophy to keep in mind for both the games master and the players. There are fixed points in time and they might not be able to change the final outcome but what they do still matters to the people they meet and influence.
It is this thinking which leads organisations to grant wishes to terminally ill children. It might not be possible to cure them but you can make them happy in what time they have left. We are born and we die, life is the what happens in-between and that’s the important part.
A good demonstration of this can be found in the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures episode ‘Lost in Time.’ In that story Rani is sent back in time and encounters Lady Jane Grey. Rani can’t save Lady Jane from execution but she does provide her friendship and inspiration in her final days.
As the games master, in adventures where the player characters know there is a bleak ending for people which they can’t avoid, you can raise spirits by focusing on the comfort they provide in the short term.
This can be anything from words of comfort to providing medical care or supplies. It could also be something grander such as fulfilling a desire as in this episode where Vincent visits an art gallery filled with his work and hears how much esteem he is held in.
At the end of the episode we do see evidence that cosmetic changes to time can be made. The krafayis is no longer in the painting of ‘Church at Auvers’ and ‘Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers’ is now dedicated to Amy.
Making these changes can work like the family photo in ‘Back to the Future’. In that film the fading members of the family in the photo indicated that time was off track but there is no reason it couldn’t work the other way. If the player characters had a memento from the future they could consult it to see the changes that are being made.
This of course necessities two time periods; the future and the past. You can format in the same way as this episode does, with the main characters switching back and fore between the two time zones but you could also split the player characters so the team in the future can see the changes occur first hand and gather information for the team in the past.
A change that the Doctor is very concerned about is the death of Vincent Van Gogh. Although they need him to find the invisible alien the Doctor worries that he could be killed and asserts that if that was to happen his paintings would vanish from the walls of the museum in the future.
When using important NPCs in this manner the players should be protective of them. They can’t guarantee that just because history says they didn’t die in their adventure it doesn’t mean that they won’t.
It is interesting to note that removing Vincent Van Gogh from his natural place in time to take him to 2010 doesn’t cause any paintings to vanish when they arrive. There is no mention that he mysteriously vanished so it seems natural to assume that time wasn’t altered by this jaunt.
In ‘The Curse of Fenric’ it demonstrated a pre-destined time line. This seems to hold true here. With Vincent still alive, even though he was in 2010, he could still go back and carry out his part in history. As long as that was still a possibility time didn’t change since it was predestined he’d go back to his own era.
‘Vincent and the Doctor’ follows on from the death and then erasure from time of Rory. Throughout this episode Amy is unaware of his existence, although she is suspicious about why the Doctor is being nice to her.
This opens up an interesting way to put new twists on characters. What if their past had been rewritten, just as Amy’s has been. Important people from their lives could be removed, their actions changed and even their whole personality altered.
Changing a characters time line could be a story line that you introduce over a series of adventures, as in this season of Doctor Who, or the starting point of an adventure. You could write a very unusual adventure with the player characters living different lives and having to put things right.
The Doctor Who novel ‘Unnatural History’ by Jonathan Blum and Kate Orman explore this idea. In that story Sam Jones is approached by the Doctor and informed that she used to be his companion until time rewrote her life.
Throughout the story Sam resents the ‘better’ version of herself that she has replaced and is actually quite reluctant to allow the Doctor to undo the changes. This character journey is something the player characters should experience. Do they really want to give up their existence for what is effectively someone else.
Rewriting a character’s past is a good opportunity for a player to reallocate their attributes, skills and traits. In many ways it would be their own version of regeneration. Given a chance to amend their character might actually improve their roleplaying experience.
Unlike Amy the Doctor is aware that Rory has vanished and is hiding it from her. This would fit the Dark Secret trait. It presents complications during this adventure, damaging Amy’s trust in him and creating situations where the Doctor accidentally makes reference to her missing fiancée.
In the final two-parter Rory is restored to existence but at this point in the series there was no indication that would be the case. Caring around the knowledge of the unchanged history can be a burden for a character, making it worthy of being a bad trait.
During the episode there are subtle signs to Amy about what has happened such as when she begins crying without knowing why. In your own game you could also use deja vu to hint at what they have lost, certain situations, places and people triggering some recognition in the character.
The question would then be what the character does when they find out the secret.