Death is a topic I’ve covered before, mostly in relation to how to react once it happens, but it can be valuable to look at how it sets a tone for an adventure and a campaign. Making sure everyone involved in the game understands the risks establishes what kind of campaign is being run.
Compare ‘The Beast Below’ to ‘The God Complex’ in regards to tone. ‘The Beast Below’ has its dark elements but no one dies. The Doctor and Amy can fall down great heights, stand in the mouth of the Beast and be attacked by clockwork men but come out of it without a scratch.
There is the suggestion of danger but an understanding that the main characters won’t perish. The Doctor knows they’ll survive the fall from the voting booth to the Beast’s mouth, even though he shouldn’t.
Similarly ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ doesn’t hold much peril for the main characters, even though they are surrounded by blood-thirsty pirates and Rory is marked for death. The Doctor’s method of getting on to the alien spaceship is to invoke the Siren, which up to that moment everyone thought had been a death sentence.
This helps set the tone that these are fun adventures. A game in this style encourages the characters to take risks. They might be menaced but the monsters are never lethal or if they are there is an easy escape route.
If people do die then they are minor NPCs or villains. The truly innocent or vulnerable can always be saved. In the end good triumphs with minimal losses. There are no regrets, only fun.
In contrast ‘The God Complex’ makes things grittier by stripping away the fantastical elements. The majority of the adventure takes place within a shabby hotel, a positively mundane location despite the minotaur and rooms of fear.
In this ordinary world people die. Good or bad the Doctor is unable to save any of them. Even poor Rita, so full of promise, is claimed in the end. Here the main characters aren’t special, they aren’t invulnerable.
This makes adventures much darker and weightier. The stakes are higher, the threat to the main characters seem more real. It is why people remember episodes like this. We can temporarily forget that this is a television show and we know whether actors have left or not.
‘Midnight’ does something similar in that the Doctor is put into a position where his status doesn’t carry any weight with those around him, where his usual tricks don’t work. When his voice is taken by the entity and he is powerless to prevent the other passengers dragging him towards the airlock we fear for his safety.
‘The Impossible Astronaut’ manages to set the tone for the whole season by having the Doctor die early on in the episode. This establishes that no one is safe, that time is running out for everyone.
Looking back at the classic series there are several stories that highlight these techniques. ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ is a horror story due to fact that ever supporting character dies while ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ is more of a rollicking adventure with only unnamed extras and minor characters being killed.
‘The Caves of Androzani’ constantly reminds us of death, from showing the Doctor and Peri apparently die in front of a firing squad to being fatally poisoned later in the same story. ‘The King’s Demons’, ‘Time Flight’ ‘The Awakening’ and ‘Arc of Infinity’ are all less threatening due to the minimal body count.
The adult tone of the Doctor Who books, especially the Virgin New Adventure range, comes chiefly from the fact that death was never far away. The medium allowed supporting characters to be developed so that their deaths would have more impact.
‘Eternity Weeps’ feels apocalyptic even before a plague is released upon the world because Liz Shaw dies before hand. We realise that if the author is willing to kill a beloved ex-companion of the Doctor, what chance does the rest of the population have?
Establishing this tone can be as simple as discussing it with the players. You can agree that no one will die, at worst they’ll be knocked out or captured. Alternatively everyone accepts that death is a real possibility with lasting consequences.
The tone can also be established through play, using NPCs as examples. If a NPC survives what should have been a fatal encounter then the players know that it is unlikely they’ll die in a similar situation. If a friendly NPC is brutally shot in the head without warning the players know that their characters can be killed suddenly.
The flexibility of Doctor Who allows this tone to shift from adventure to adventure. It is exactly the contrasts that described above that make certain adventures feel more fun and others more serious, because we know the rules are different.
Care should be taken not to mix tones within the same adventure. I think an example of this can be seen in ‘The End of Time’. The whole story is about the Doctor facing death. The Doctor talks about this at length, we have the Master killing people in a gruesome manner and an early story point is an alien gate that promises immortality.
This is all undone when the Doctor plummets from the sky, crashes through a glass skylight before hitting a marble floor. When he gets up without a scratch how can we believe that this character is vulnerable? That he is mortal?
It is here the difference between the two tones jars us out of the story. All of the tension evaporates and we realise that the Doctor will regenerate when the writer wants, not when the plot demands it.
Another approach to take is to allow players ‘Lives’. You might choose to give them 1 per season of adventures, 1 every 5 games or 1 each adventure, depending on how non-lethal you want to make your game.
In game terms when a character would normally die they automatically expend one of their lives. They then either survive, are saved or the whole situation simply turns out to not be what it appeared.
Rory is the best example of this, being shot in ‘Cold Blood’ and in ‘Amy’s Choice’, claimed by the Siren in ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ and possibly his fate in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’. Amy also benefits from this in ‘The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang’ and arguably has her life given back to her in ‘The Girl Who Waited’.
When characters have Lives they know there is a safety net, that they can be less cautious and more brave in their actions. A games master can also use this as license to push the envelope, putting the characters in situations that he knows to be lethal because he can always give them more Lives if a character is ‘killed’.
Once a character is out of Lives they are vulnerable and everyone knows that. The character can either be retired or keep going in the hopes they survive until they receive more Lives.
This allows the situation in ‘The God Complex’ to be emulated. The Doctor was simply aware that after everything they’d been through Amy and Rory had no more Lives left. That it was time to say goodbye.
He may even have been aware that he’d run out of Lives as well. Times runs out for everyone, including the Doctor.