In ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ we are reintroduced to the glowing white boxes that act as distress beacons for the Time Lords, first introduced in ‘The War Games’. This remarkable piece of technology can have a dramatic influence on your own Dr Who game.
This is a device that, when disassembled, resembles nothing more than a number of square cards. Yet this can contain mental energy and travel through space and time without any obvious form of technology.
It is remarkable to think that it can achieve this without a Time Rotor, Eye of Harmony or any of the other pieces of machinery that fill a time ship. We can assume that its destination is pre-programmed by the person entering the message, doing all of the navigational computations usually handled by the TARDIS.
This suggests that moving in and out of the time vortex is easier that we might believe. It could simply be a matter of using either the psychic energy of the user or draining some of their arton energy to push into the vortex and then emerge at their destination.
The Dalek’s ability to Time Shift and the Time Lords use of Time Rings does support the idea that once you have mastered time travel it is much easier to enter the vortex. The hostile environment of that realm and the lack of precision makes this method of travel more suited for unfeeling items, those with protection or short trips.
In a game the existence of these Message Boxes means that Time Lords can send for help. There is no reason why the box need only be sent to other Time Lords, meaning that it can still be useful in a post-Time War setting.
This has its advantages and its drawbacks. It does mean that should things go horribly wrong the player characters can still turn to someone for help, allowing the games master to bring in the cavalry and save the day, preventing the setting from being irreversibly ruined.
The disadvantage is that player characters might use it before they’ve exhausted all options. To temper this you must stress the negative consequences of sending the distress call.
The recipient might want a favour in return, it might draw unwanted attention on the player characters and may even lead to people viewing them as incompetent. If they are continually calling for help their allies might think the player characters are a danger to themselves and try to prevent them from going on any more adventures.
It is not just the player characters who might make use of Message Boxes. In ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ receiving the Corsairs gives the Doctor hope that at least one of his people might still be alive.
In a pre-Time War campaign it might be less unexpected but no less exciting. It is one thing to respond to a distress call (as a previously discussed) but to respond to one sent by a Time Lord dramatically increases the stakes.
Where and when is that Time Lord? What were they doing and what trouble are they in? Is it someone the player character know or is it only by chance that they received his Message Box?
This can create some interesting challenges for a group if they don’t possess their own time ship. How would UNIT or Torchwood react upon receiving a Message Box telling them that someone needed rescuing in the past or the far future? Could the player characters be sent on a dramatic rescue mission through time with little chance of returning?
Even if the sender of the message isn’t alive, as was the case with the Corsair, this can still be an interesting hook for a story. We can imagine that many plans and operations were put in motion during the Time War, that might still be playing out.
Player characters could follow the trail of a Message Box to a secret factory, still creating frightening weapons of mass destruction, planets still be transformed into hellish battlegrounds for wars that will never take place or hidden bunkers with Time Lord artefacts and technology.
As one of the few remaining Time Lords the player character might feel it is their obligation to clear up these messages or honour the memory of their fallen kinsman. This could be a Time Lords main focus or just an occasional diversion, an excuse to explore the history of Gallifrey.
In a game set prior to the Time War Message Boxes could be the focus of a campaign. The player characters could all be based on Gallifrey, part of a Search and Rescue team. Each adventure a Message Box arrives on the home world and the player characters scramble to their Time Ship, their mission to bring the sender back alive.
This allows for a campaign with a very different feel. It isn’t about stopping evil (although the might) but saving lives. Here they will be using medical skills to heal the wounded, engineering to repair damage and maybe combat skills to fight off pursuers while they escape.
There is no reason that these Message Boxes need only be used in emergencies. In fact they are the perfect tool to run games where player characters each have their own TARDIS and are scattered through time and space.
Message Boxes allow them to quickly pass along information and co-ordinate their actions. So one character might extract an invading alien fleets landing co-ordinates from their home world and send the information to a colleague on Earth 50 years in the future, allowing them to locate where they crashed.
The fact that it is a recorded message prevents player characters chatting back and fore but does give everyone to pay attention to scenes they’re not involved in, as upon receiving a Message Box they’ll know everything that occurred.
Since the Message Box contains a psychic energy it is conceivable that it might be able to contain the entire mind of a Time Lord. In the event of their death (and failure to regenerate) a Message Box could be programmed to automatically copy their mind and return to Gallifrey to be deposited in the Matrix.
This opens the possibility that the death of Time Lord player character might not have to be the end. If the other player characters can find the Message Box that contains their mind it could be uploaded into the TARDIS, a robot duplicate or into a cloned (loom spun?) body.
All of this from a small, glowing box.