The hotel in ‘The God Complex’ is eventually revealed to be a prison. A highly advanced prison that snatches people from throughout space and creates rooms containing their worst fears in order to feed the only inmate but a prison none the less.
This isn’t the first time the Doctor has found himself behind bars, nor will it be the last. The Third Doctor in particular seemed to spend a lot of time there, be it visiting the Master on his island prison or being imprisoned himself on the moon while in recent years he has frequently visited River Song in the Storm Cage.
Prisons can be used in a multitude of ways in any Dr Who campaign. By their nature they are isolated areas where the player characters can be confined. The higher the security the more remote they will be and the harder to get in or out of.
It is likely that the prison will be home to criminals, the worst dregs of society and even the universe. If the ruling power is corrupt or evil there could be those who are falsely imprisoned or those to important to kill but who need to be kept out the public eye.
In time periods and civilisations that don’t have access to automation there will be wardens controlling the prison. Their relationship with the prisoners affects their general atmosphere inside.
If they are cruel there could be an atmosphere of fear and resentment. If they are lax or corrupt the prisoners could have the run of the place, able to commit acts of violence without repercussions. If the wardens are disciplined the prison might work like clock-work making it hard to escape unless a prisoner memorises the pattern.
More advanced civilisations might have robot wardens or have systems run by computer. Could prisoners, particularly technically suave ones, exploit the system? If something goes wrong could the prisoners be injured.
Even more advanced technology might allow for radically different types of prisons. Mind control and implants could influence the prisoners to keep them in line. Invisible swarms of nano-bots could devour or at least seriously injure prisoners who step out of line.
The player characters relationship to the prison will drastically alter the flow of an adventure. If they are visitors to the prison they’ll typically be on the side of the wardens and want to keep the prisoners behind bars.
If they find themselves on the wrong end of the law and become prisoners themselves their goal will be to escape. Will they help the others prisoners gain their freedom as well or must they achieve their goal while making sure no one else escapes?
These agendas can either be the focus of the adventure or serve as an added complication to the main plot. Their relationship could even change during the course of play. Player characters could find their relationship sour with the wardens and find themselves imprisoned or they could redeem themselves and earn their freedom.
A prison is the perfect place to run a ‘Base Under Seige’ story. If the building is under attack player characters will not only have to worry about the enemy getting in but what will happen inside with the prisoners.
Will the prisoners use their as an opportunity to escape? Should the wardens free them from their cells in order to improve their chance of survival or help defend the building? Who amongst the prisoners could be trusted?
In this type of story a prison becomes a good place to repel attackers. The problem is once the enemy gets inside. The tight confines and restricted movement makes it difficult to attack a more powerful attacker. Their only hope is that they can use this to their advantage to trap any intruder.
A prison can also be used for a mystery story. Not only is freedom restricted but also information. Are all the prisoners what they appear? Are the authorities running secret experiments on the criminals? Is an alien presence stalking the cell blocks?
Earning trust is difficult in a prison setting, the threat of violence never far away. Finding clues and discovering leads could quickly require the player characters to start doing favours for prisoners and wardens alike.
A secret alien invasion could be based from within a prison. The prisoners act as good test subjects, warriors and a means of infiltration. They could be used as weapons or for aliens to discover the weaknesses of human beings.
Everyone enjoys a good prison escape story. Stripped of a gadgets, especially the Sonic Screwdriver, player characters could find it a real challenge to get past security systems, guards and prisoners. This would hark back to the early days of Doctor Who, when getting back to the TARDIS was a frequent goal of any adventure.
The more advanced the technology the more ingenious the player characters will have to be. To make things even more difficult the prison might be located on the bottom of the ocean floor, on the moon or in deep space. Getting outside the walls is just the start of their troubles.
A reversal of this would be having to break into prison. They could need access to one of the prisoners, either for information or to help them escape. Some how their TARDIS might find its way into a prison, requiring them to reach it in order to keep travelling.
If caught the player characters might find themselves imprisoned, either as punishment for their trespassing or because they have been mistaken for prisoners. They could also be on site when a riot breaks out.
Those who enjoy historical aspects in their games have a wealth of real prisons to choose from. Adventures could be set in Alcatraz, Bastille, Russian Gulags and Colditz. They can rub shoulders with Al Capone or take part in the Great Escape.
The prison might just act as backdrop, long dissuaded or the technology malfunctioning. What other uses might be found for the building? Would its past return to haunt the current occupants?
Setting an adventure in a prison can very quickly communicate themes of punishment, confinement and isolation to players. Right from the start they’ll have certain expectations which you can either foster or confound.
By changing why the player characters are there, the nature of the prison and the identity of the prisoners there is a virtually limitless number of adventures that can be run within the same setting.
For a drastically different campaign the whole game could centre around the same prison over several years. Player characters could be wardens, having to deal with the most dangerous people on the planet or they could be prisoners themselves, navigating the tricky relationships with other convicts and trying to decide whether to serve their time or try to escape.
Imagine a game where the player characters have to make sure the Master doesn’t escape, along with the other criminals that the Doctor is responsible for bringing to justice. Imagine a Time Lord player characters serving his time to make amends for his actions during the Time War.