In ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ the Doctor explains that the reason the TARDIS has arrived on the ship is because it had picked up a distress call. In the end the source turns out to be an alien vessel but this excuse is frequently used for way the TARDIS crew become involved in events.
From a game point of view this is a much more proactive start to the game. The player characters are actively deciding to respond to the call. When they emerge from the TARDIS one thing they can be certain of is that a ship is in trouble.
This can be very useful to give players some direction. As opposed to games where they spend the first act working out where they are and what they should be doing here they can start trying to track down the ship.
The big questions here are; Where is the ship? Why did it send a distress call? What can the player characters do?
Things are rarely that straightforward. In this story the ship that sent the signal is not initially apparent. The far greater concern becomes the Siren that is picking the sailors off. Only in Act 3 do we find out that the two events are connected.
In ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’ the distress call is part of a scam by Captain Jack, who is planning to sell the location of the Chula ship. Here it isn’t a matter of saving the ship but dealing with the consequence of its arrival.
There is also every likelihood that the sender of the distress call is hostile to the time travellers. We can see an example of this in ‘The Wedding of River Song’, when the Doctor responds to the calls sent by a crashed Dalek ship.
The signal might also be a trap, designed to prey on good Samaritans. This would be an excellent tactic for a species lacking their own vessel, allowing them to hijack the vessel of any potential rescuers.
Having said all that there plenty of potential of creating an adventure where everything is exactly what it seems. A vessel could be in distress for countless reasons. A vital component could have failed, it could have crash landed, it could be under attack, have been boarded by a hostile race or simply be lost.
If the player characters arrive soon after the distress call they will be thrown right into the middle of the action. The crisis is happening now and they need to solve it! The question is whether they have the capabilities to do so.
They will need to deal with the crew, take stock of the situation and deal with it. The easiest route is simply to get everyone on board the TARDIS. This should be discouraged, not simply because it would make the game end very quickly.
Firstly it probably isn’t a good idea to take people you don’t know within your time ship. Imagine the reaction of the crew, finding themselves on a ship with amazing capabilities. Even the most kind hearted space explorers might consider taking the vessel for themselves, especially if they out number the player characters (which they most likely will).
Secondly there could be an issue of time. If the ship is quite big it might not be a simple matter to get everyone to the section with the TARDIS. If the ship is in trouble or under attack they don’t have the time to organise the movement of all the personnel inside.
Lastly there could be the matter of getting the crew of the ship to safety. The Doctor found it difficult enough to get one person to the right time and space. How long would the player characters have to spend with a crowd of people who each want to go to a different planet?
Far better for the player characters to try to deal with the problem with the resources available. This makes events feel more immediate, without using the TARDIS as a bolt hole.
The distress call, and the reason for it, could also be used as background for an adventure. The player characters could find that they’ve arrived decades or centuries too late. The focus of the adventure would then be on the consequences.
If a ship crashes on an alien world what effect would it have on the inhabitants? Would the devastation caused make them hate alien life forms? Would salvage from the crash give them technology they weren’t ready for? Did the ship contain anything in its cargo that might threaten the natives, such as nuclear weapons or dangerous life forms?
If the ship came under attack who was responsible and are they still out there? Have other ships also suffered similar destruction, leading to the creation of a floating graveyard? Are the cause of the attacks still a mystery?
The distress call itself can be used to create some mystery for the adventure, particularly if it is coming from a time period or planet that it shouldn’t. The question becomes ‘Why is it there?’
The Doctor really should have questioned why he was picking up a signal from 17th century Earth. Most players will immediately realise the significance of picking up advanced transmissions in a historical period.
This can lead to an interesting twist on plots about protecting history from alien interference. In this scenario the aliens could be survivors of a crash, just trying to find a way home. Can the player characters find them before the aliens have altered history or been killed by suppositious locals?
Similarly picking up a Draconian distress signal from Skaro or an Ice Warrior broadcast from Metabilis 3 would all immediately seem out of place and require investigation. Here it is the introduction of an alien element that creates the adventure.
One thing to consider here is that responding to a distress call is an active choice by time travellers. It could be said that by responding they’ve chosen to become involved in those events. We’ve seen that a time travellers actions are already part of the normal timeline but it is still a big choice to make.
In addition existing outside time robs those distress calls of any urgency for the player characters. In theory they could deal with it at any point. The only issue is whether they’d get around to it and if they’d be able to get back to that particular time and place (which could be an argument for dealing with it at that particular point).
The fact that the Doctor responded to the distress call when he did makes sense in the light of ‘Day of the Moon’. At the end of that episode it is clear that he is looking for a distraction, an adventure, after the events of the 1960s. It makes sense that he’d have the TARDIS scan for a distress call and respond to the first one it picked up.
The advantage of this is that player characters don’t have to feel honour bond to constantly search for distress calls. The TARDIS will only pick them up when the pilot wants to deal with them.