Doctor Who on a Budget

costumeThe biggest advantage of running a Doctor Who roleplaying game is that is based on pure imagination. There is no limit to what you can achieve, taking the players to furthest reaches of space and time with a cast of thousands.

The question is does this miss the point of what a Doctor Who game is trying to emulate? In my articles I’ve tried to explore works of fiction in the context of a consistent universe but the truth is that it is just a television show, a show with a budget.

It could be that in order to make a roleplaying game that captures the spirit of Doctor Who we must think in terms of what could be achieved on screen. When designing an adventure we are not just the writer but the production team who will have to build the sets, hire the actors and bring monsters, aliens and technical marvels to life using make-up and special effects.

Not only will this create a game that is easier to visualise as something that could have been produced but it also places a self-imposed limit on the games master, forcing them to be more creative. Much of what we love about many science fiction shows were born out of over-coming adversity.

Taking this approach requires everyone to go along with the concept. Players are taking the role of actors playing their characters, rather than the character themselves. They still act and think as their character but they might do things they ordinarily wouldn’t in order to make the scene more dramatic.

For example their emotions might be heightened, making big displays when they are angry, happy or sad. This is so that it is easier for the viewer at home to connect with the character. They might also voice thoughts and concerns they would otherwise keep to themselves for the same reason.

For the games master the biggest concern is the number of locations and the number of speaking NPCs. This is a good exercise in working out what is really important to the story. Each NPC is taking money out of the budget so they had better serve an important purpose.

Look at your plot and decide if there is someone who is the central villain, or at least the cause of the threat the player characters are dealing with. If there is then that is one NPC from your budget already. Is there someone who opposes him, does he have a right-hand man or is there another NPC who will help or hinder the player characters? All of them dwindle your budget.

Non-speaking extras are cheaper and can fill out the adventure, preventing an adventure from feeling to under-populated. The mere fact an NPC is speaking to the player characters can be significant, indicating they have more importance to the plot than the guards who never say anything.

We can go through the same process with locations. Each location will need to be built and constructed. The large the area and the more detailed it is the higher the cost. Therefore you need to think about which places are important to the plot.

This could be the lair of the villain, the bridge of a spaceship, the throne room of a king or a prison cell. Notice in Classic Doctor Who how many scenes take place in the same handful of places, the characters shuffling back and fore between them in different combinations.

Generic areas are cheap, easy to redress multiple times during an adventure. This is why many people associate Doctor Who with people running up and down corridors. It can also be done with areas of wilderness (forest, jungle, wood, etc) or featureless rooms.

You can also reuse locations in subsequent adventures, but bare in mind that there will be limit to how many standing sets there can be at any one time. The TARDIS console room is obviously one of those but you might have prison cell, lab or futuristic console room that can be redressed for different stories.

This will encourage you to write adventures that take place in a limited number of locations. By choosing different combinations you can make very different stories and if you can’t maybe its time to retire one set and build another.

When thinking of special effects the era of Doctor Who you are trying to emulate will dictate what is possible. Try to visualise what the technical team would be able to produce, especially in an age before computer graphics.

Don’t under-estimate the player characters ability to enhance these special effects. They can be key in convincing an audience that the foam tentacle wrapped around them is really shaking the life out of them.

This can be a fun opportunity for players to act out these scenes, rewarding them with plot points for particularly convincing performances. This can occur when they’re physically attacked, shot by laser beams or their vessel begins to rock back and fore.

The more human an alien is the cheaper it will be for the budget. This means it will be more likely they’ll encounter aliens with small cosmetic differences such as pointed ears, different colour skin or an extra eye than something which has a completely non-humanoid appearance.

One way around this technical and budget related limitation is to imagine what will be seen on screen. You could have a flying alien by just having the player character look up and play the sound of beating wings to convince the viewer that there is a threat from above. It is also the reason that invisible monsters are so popular in early science fiction.

In practice you can begin to describe creatures and locations as they would appear on the screen, rather than as a reality. You might note the ugly creases and folds of aliens skin to indicate that it is really just a man in a costume or the random blinking Christmas lights on a non-functional computer terminal.

When reusing props, actors and locations you might explicitly make reference to how similar they are to things the player characters have encountered before. Within the story these things are related, rather they are short hand for the players that they are being reused.

You might even use the exact same description of reused locations. This can give the players a sense of familiarity when they run into the ‘Dark Cave’ set or get lost in the ‘Foreboding jungle’ set. 

You could have all death rays produce a standard negative effect or a warping like a mirror being bent. Spaceships could move in slow, straight lines as if pulled by string and robot drones bump into things as if they were remote controlled or operated by someone inside who can’t see.

cybermenattrestThis minimalist approach really pays off when you push the boat out. This creates the moments that we remember the television show for. The location filming in the streets of Paris and the reveal of Scaroth’s real face are memorable in ‘The City of Death’ because they are an unexpected change from studio based shoots and human looking aliens.

Remembrance of the Daleks’ has an alien scout ship landing in the Coal Hill playground and battle Daleks battling in the streets of London, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ has Nicholas Parsons playing an important role, ‘Enlightenment’ has a fleet of sailing ships in space. All impressive because we can see where the budget has been focused.

In a roleplaying game having something very impressive happen can make the player characters sit up and take notice. If this can be tied to a scene where they make a real difference to the story then they are very likely to remember the adventure in the same way that we remember the above episodes of Doctor Who.

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1 Response to Doctor Who on a Budget

  1. Craig Oxbrow says:

    Linked here as I consider what a “classic era” story from my ongoing game might look like.

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