Monday, 31 December 2012

Doctor Who Christmas Special: Telling a Story in Roleplaying

I've noted before that Doctor Who: Adventures In Time and Space is, in comparison to other role-playing systems, very plot-heavy. The exciting finale of a Doctor Who story is usually a character crisis, rather than a "boss" to be defeated in classic roleplaying rounds of physical combat.

This leads to a rather unusual dilemma. As a GM, how much can you script plot and outcomes, when what you really want is to allow the players to feel that they are roleplaying towards an ending that they have created themselves? This question became even more pertinent during our own Alternative Doctor Who Christmas Special game.

That is, after all the beauty of pen-and-paper roleplaying. At the beginning of October, I wrote this letter to Edge Magazine:
What I think pen-and-paper gaming offers over videogaming - as technology currently stands - is that the direction the game takes, the places journeyed to, the characters met and the adventures had, is entirely the result of an organic agreement between the players and the Gamemaster ... There is no detailed plot design up-front, because there is no guarantee that the players will act in the "right" way to follow the plot. Furthermore if a GM really needs to steer wandering players back on track, this can be achieved with natural narrative methods, rather than an invisible wall
I tend not to prepare too much detail in my plots. I have a basic structure and a few ways I can imagine the story resolving. At one point, my comparatively inexperienced players were looking to me for helpful hints to resolve the situation, but I told them, "oh I haven't actually written a way out of this problem! I'm just waiting to see what solutions you come up with."

But, the few dramatic moments that I do prepare are generally essential for the ongoing story or campaign and it's hard to know how much is "too much" when providing GM-controlled narrative. In the penultimate game before the Alternative Doctor Who Christmas Special, I really wanted the players to meet the villain face-to-face, because it would reveal that The Doctor is already known by the enemy and that his arrival was expected. In an alternative-history Nazi occupation, that should set some alarm bells ringing for players and characters alike.

However, I had real trouble getting the players to this scenario. Firstly, a senior NPC summons the players to report (since they were in disguise as soldiers at this point). Assuming (correctly) that they would get rumbled, they opted to abscond and decided that driving the nearby fuel tanker into the castle and detonating it would be a good ploy. They proceeded to hijack the truck and began driving it. I brought four armed troopers out to arrest them. They decided not to submit.

The Doctor (who, in this game, has Telekinesis) rolled a nearby petrol barrel at the guards and succeeded in knocking them down. The other player hit the gas and tried to run over the remaining soldier. A couple of soldiers managed to recover their wits and a: fired on the player in the drivers' seat, taking off about 50% health and b: shot out the front tyre on the truck, forcing a crash. Even after that, the players were still up for a scrap.

Players generally cannot resist barrels

In the end, I narrated the approach of even more soldiers, alerted by the sounds of shouting and gunfire. I try hard to avoid narrating any action or event that takes control away from the players. This approach involves introducing seemingly unstoppable odds that leave the players with little choice.

In the Alternative Doctor Who Christmas Special, I had a situation in which the two Doctors ended up strapped into chairs in twin machines, as part of a Dalek plan to eradicate all versions of the Doctor. The players had, thankfully, split into two parties so I had them where I wanted them, so to speak. In the end, once each Doctor was near the chair, I narrated that the Doctor was pulled, suddenly and irresistibly into the seat. Within the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time & Space system I could have easily made this action a forced mental attack, resisted by the player characters Resolve and Ingenuity or Presence.

But had the resistance been successful it would have robbed the players of the dramatic ending and the revelation of the Dalek's master plan. In this case, I felt it was better to present the Doctor's entrapment as a situation for the players to work out how to resolve, rather than an attack in itself which the player would try to resist.

It's always a tricky balance. Usually I don't worry too much if the stories don't resolve the way I had expected. Where I do come unstuck is that I like to drop little foreshadowing hints for each player about bits of plot that will affect them in later adventures, but sometimes you just need the players to walk into things.

The Christmas Special, however, required some extra handling: I needed a plot that explained why I had two (very different) first-generation Doctors at the same time and why Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart didn't recognise either of them. Therefore the ending was largely fixed, I just needed to find a subtly way to guide the players to it in a satisfactory way.

In the end, the biggest problem was the need to wrap the story up in a single session. Usually I can just wait for a suitable cliffhanger and then cue the music (which I do actually play!) but because the group of players and the scenario were unique for the Christmas Special, I had to get the stories resolved and both Doctors back to their own dimensions.

All the players seemed to have a good time though, which was the most important thing. I worry sometimes that guiding the story too much might make it feel less like a game and more like storytime, but I think so far the balance seems to be working.

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