‘Night Terrors’, by Mark Gatiss, demonstrates that Doctor Who doesn’t always have to be epic. It isn’t an alien invasion or a threat to time itself that gets the Doctor’s attention. No, it is a small child who is frightened.
This theme runs throughout the episode, with Rory complaining that they could have caught a bus to the housing estate and the Doctor commenting that the boy’s distress call reached through a universe of wonderful, terrible impossibilities to get his attention.
So can the mundane make for an interesting adventure? Will the players enjoy the type of drama that they could experience in real life?
They key is creating drama, no matter the setting. The believability of the setting should be its strength, resonating with the players. Helping a woman escape an abusive husband or a small child find their way home should be just as rewarding as defeating Zygons or Weeping Angels.
In this scenario it is the player characters that provides the fantasy element. They will be the guardian angels that we wish would help us at our lowest point. This can only enhance their mystic.
This can also help change things up, as the characters will need to adjust their usual tactics. Here, as in the Dr Who book ‘Damaged Goods’, getting answers is a challenge. In our world people are more likely to close the door in the face of the player characters than help them.
Even the Doctor struggles to win the confidence of father and son. His eccentric behaviour is more of a hindrance than a help. There is no villain for him to outwit our overcome. Just a man at the end of his rope and a frightened little boy.
Just why would the player characters get involved in these small dramas? In ‘Night Terrors’ it is easy to assume that the real reason that the Doctor gets involved is because it is so unusual that a boy would be able to project a telepathic distress call so far, a hint at his alien nature.
Yet the Doctor doesn’t work this out until later. It is completely in keeping with the 11th Doctor’s character that if he saw a crying child in the street he would do everything in his power to help them.
Part of this is his nature as a time traveller. Most heroes are forced to concentrate on the most urgent matter, both because of time issues and because of their own mortality. For most they only have limited life span to deal with problems.
For someone like the Doctor these aren’t issues. We learn on the mini-episodes on the latest Doctor Who dvd set that the Doctor sneaks out at night to have additional adventures, even if it is just volunteering at a medical clinic.
Tackling small issues is easy when your could live forever and move back and fore at time at will. The Doctor wants to make the world a better place, whether that be on a small or big scale.
So in having an adventure focus on smaller issues these qualities are passed on to the player characters. It emphasise their priorities as time travellers, that doing good is something that can be judged by quality rather than quantity.
This would be ideal for player characters who are focused less on combat and more on social interaction. They help people because they can, the TARDIS able to get them where and when they are needed most.
Although ‘Night Terrors’ was set in the modern day there is no reason all these type of adventures need to be. People find themselves in distress no matter where they are in the world or in what time period. The only important thing is that the adventure focuses on the people, rather than the historical detail.
As the story develops more fantastical elements are introduced, from the doll house and its frightening residence to the boy’s alien nature. The great thing about science fiction is that it can be used as a metaphor.
Here everything can be seen as a metaphor for adoption. The boy is frightened that his ‘parents’ don’t love him, that they will send him away. The climax of the story has his father dispelling his fear by telling him that it doesn’t matter what he is, he is his son.
This is a great way to deal with mundane issues and yet retain some elements of science fiction. Alien drug addiction, a computer game that hypnotises you and drains your life, shape shifting aliens who pose as your friends to make you do bad things and an artificial under-class of humanity are all science fiction ideas with real world roots.
These type of adventures also can add depth to player characters. Seeing them blow up a Dalek spaceship is one thing but how they help a woman get over the death of her son reveals more of their human nature (if they are human).
They might even reveal some issue for the player characters past. Just as Ace was haunted by her personal demons in ‘Ghost Light’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’ an adventure might touch a nerve with a player character.
Care should be taken that these real world issues don’t hit to close to home for any players at the table. No one finds their own problems entertaining to deal with through dice rolls. No adventure should make players feel uncomfortable.