The TARDIS crew arrive in Haiti during a civil rebellion in 1915. There they discover that their is new breed of zombi that ignore mortal wounds. It isn’t only the time travellers that are seeking their source, so to are German soldiers who hope to create an army of undead to conquer Europe.
A 171 year old priest is behind the zombi and plans to open a portal to allow the Great Old Ones to claim the Earth. With the rebellion in full swing the Doctor, Bernice and Ace have their work cut out to save humanity and protect history.
‘White Darkness’ is a fun, pulp adventure. The location is exotic and rich in history. There is little ambiguity here, the villains are either German soldiers, zombis are cultists worshiping ancient unspeakable gods.
It is surprising that more Doctor Who stories don’t embrace the pulp genre. It works surprisingly well and it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the Indiana Jones quadrilogy existing in the same universe.
In this kind of story there is little distinction between science and magic. The justification might be telepathic powers and ancient aliens from another dimension but they function the same way as spells and demons in a fantasy story.
The New Adventure novels enjoyed the idea of powerful beings breaching our reality, here explicitly linking them to the tales of HP Lovecraft (there is even an American doctor in this story called Howard Phillips). Being a fan of that writer I appreciated the mixing of fictional backgrounds.
This story featured a perfect mix of setting and historical period. It comes together in a perfect storm, not giving the main characters a moment to relax. For an action packed story you want the characters to be constantly in motion, always running from or towards the next conflict.
Pulp adventures should be centred around action sequences. Investigation should be kept to a minimum, with NPCs and discarded books providing the majority of the information. For this to work best the plot should be fairly straight forward, ensuring that the characters always know what they have to do.
Achieving a goal should be challenging but not impossible. You want the player characters to feel that they can deal with any obstacle head on, rather than using stealth or caution. Extra story points during a pulp adventure can encourage players to take bigger risks.
One of the main elements are the zombi. Ordinary zombi are entirely human, drugged to keep them docile and near mindless. This is an interesting subject in itself and worth exploring.
It could be played completely straight, allow time travellers to encounter a custom that is repellent to them in much the same way that ‘The Aztecs’ did. It could also be explored in a futuristic setting, perhaps where other countries or planets have adopted the same tradition.
For a more science fiction flavoured exploration there is little difference between zombis and Robomen. Humanity might also use cybernetics or brain surgery to create mindless slaves.
The issue with a zombi is that a living person has had their free will removed. Even when the zombi are the threat in an adventure they are still the victims. This makes it much more challenging for the player characters, since they have to avoid hurting their attackers.
The enhanced zombi are closer to what we consider to be a typical undead zombie. They make for grotesque monsters, a horrible glimpse at what will happen to their victims. Rather than a communicable bite the zombie transformation is engineered by the release of gas.
A horror themed adventure could be built around the Germans trying to duplicate the effect of the gas. The player characters could find themselves in a test lab during a zombie outbreak, trying to prevent world war II shifting in the Germans favour.
Over the course the adventure Ace worries that she is becoming too good at killing. At the end she throws away her gun, hoping that she can change. Combat centred player characters might experience similar self doubt.
It is true that to a man with a hammer the whole world begins to look like a nail. Characters with weapons will try to solve every problem with violence. It is no coincidence that the Doctor and his companions are often unarmed.
This forces characters to come up with more interesting solutions. If they can’t they have to escape or let themselves be captured and hope they can escape. This helps build up opponents as frightening.
The amount of violence in a game is really a group decision. There is no reason that you can’t run a combat-centric campaign but doing so does miss some of the essential magic of Doctor Who.
It also means that in order to make opponents a threat they have to become immune to conventional weapons. This could have the unfortunate side effect of having the player characters improving their armoury, creating an ever escalating arms race.
‘White Darkness’ mixes liberal amounts of Cthulhu mythos into the Doctor Who universe. This isn’t the first time that elements from other fiction has been introduced and it won’t be the last. ‘All-consuming Fire’ not only includes more Cthulhu mythology but Sherlock Holmes as well.
This can help make a campaign feel even richer, drawing upon multiple sources of inspiration. It can be strangely satisfying to combines works of fiction you enjoy into one cohesive universe.
Care must be taken not to overdo this otherwise it can feel like a parody. Having to many fictional characters running around and interacting can stretch suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point and dilute the core of the game.
In the books there is always an attempt to make any fictional mythos that is introduced fit the Doctor Who universe, rather than the other way round. The Cthulhu and Sherlock Holmes mythos is adjusted so that it makes sense within Doctor Who.
For example ‘Blake 7’ can work within the future envisioned within Doctor Who but ‘Star Trek’ has a clearly different history and setting. This didn’t prevent several writers from including Star Trek-like characters in such books as ‘Shadowmind’ and ‘The Blue Angel’.
This can be an enjoyable process, re-imaging a movie, book or television series to fit Doctor Who. It is hard not to be inspired by the potential of having the Doctor involved in the events ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Terminator’ or ‘Highlander’.