Rolling with the Doctor: Doctor Who Role Playing Game (FASA)

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Who rpgLike an immutable law, at some point, every long-lasting science fiction franchise attracts at least one role playing game based on its setting, lore, and characters. Doctor Who proves no exception to this rule, with several different role playing games to its name over the fifty-odd years of its existence.

FASA produced the first of these in 1985, The Doctor Who Role Playing Game: Adventures Through Time and Space, a boxed set featuring three booklets: one for the players, one for the gamemaster, and one a sourcebook with information about the world of the show. All three are illustrated copiously, though only in black and white (an unintentional homage, no doubt, to the early years of the series), a mix of photos from the show and drawings of varying quality. Later years saw the publication of nearly a dozen sourcebooks and adventures to supplement the core rule books.

The game system itself broke no new ground upon publication, being a fairly standard attribute-based system using skill checks to determine the success or failure of actions the players wish to take. Players are allowed to take on the role of the Doctor or other Time Lords if they wish, though the rules suggest new players stick to being companions; regardless, the assumption is that all players are members of an organization known as the Celestial Intervention Agency, a group created by FASA for this game to provide a framing narrative for the core rule books and the supplements to follow.

And, indeed, the degree to which the writers employed by FASA for this project added backstory to the Doctor Who universe makes this game interesting. These inventions are certainly not canonical in any form (though, as any brief perusal of my Doctor Who Project posts will attest, adherence to a consistent lore did not figure greatly in the concerns of the show’s production team), but they represent an early attempt to formalize certain aspects of the show’s setting.

Who rpg stats

From attempting to judge the relative strengths of Daleks versus Silurians to postulating the existence of a standard time zone based in Gallifrey, from providing a user manual for K-9 to summarizing visits to Earth by Time Lords other than the Doctor, The Doctor Who Role Playing Game makes for compelling reading, albeit in a form punctuated by charts and game statistics.

I’m not sure contemporary role players would find the game experience to their liking, being too casually designed for those who like a bit of crunch in their rules and too restrictive for more free-form gaming. As an artifact of mid-1980s thinking about Doctor Who, however, The Doctor Who Role Playing Game provides fascinating insight into the areas of the series’ universe never fully explored in the show itself. This active fan engagement with the series beyond passively watching it on television speaks to its enduring legacy today.

You Always Remember Your First Vault: Fallout

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The first time my computer-controlled companion Ian accidentally shot me dead with the sub-machine gun I had given him, I just shrugged. It was my fault for standing too close to the radscorpion, blocking Ian’s line of fire. Even though I hadn’t played in over fifteen years, I remembered that these types of mishaps could occur in the post-apocalyptic landscape of Interplay/Black Isle’s Fallout (1997).

Isometric Zombies! Well, ghouls, actually, but close enough.

Just load up the auto-save and we’re good to go. Except, there was none. And I hadn’t bothered to save once the last ninety minutes. I mean, who dies in the first two hours of a computer role playing game? Come to think of it, there hadn’t been a tutorial, either. Sure, there were some rats to beat up on, for practice, but none of the hand-holding I had gotten used to with the games of the last ten years. Even the generational successor to Fallout, Fallout 3, took you step-by-step, literally starting you off as a baby learning to walk (or WASD, as the case may be). But here, with Fallout? Nope.

Undaunted, I started over, happy to have a chance to tweak some set-in-stone starting characteristics. I fought through the rats again and ventured forth into the unknown. And promptly died again to a random event far too overwhelming for a first level character. Yeah, I didn’t save this time either. Who dies in the starting area?

Rats of Doom

This plan of mine to replay Fallout in light of the progress being made on Wasteland 2, the rumors of Fallout 4’s production, and, fortuitously, the generosity of Good Old Games in giving away a free copy in a recent promotion wasn’t getting off to a very good start. But I persevered, and even read the manual, which counseled saving early and often, a tip I took to heart.

Fallout, much like the game that preceded it ten years earlier, Wasteland, allows freedom of choice and action with concomitant consequences. Give Ian that big gun, the better to mow down super mutants and uppity rodents, and he’s just as likely to accidentally hit a bystander, turning an entire town against you (and wiping out vast numbers of potential quests from said town). Fallout even contains a time-sensitive quest, anathema in this era of gamers wanting to complete every possible quest at leisure, regardless of choices made. You’ve got 150 days to save Vault 13 from doom, and the game conspires to use up those days. Show up in a little village after dark? Everyone’s asleep, come back in the morning. Want to visit another town? That’s a week of travel right there.

Suffice it to say, they don’t really make them like this anymore. Sure, Fallout 3/New Vegas contained pseudo-morality systems that forced particular quest branchings, but you never felt under pressure, forced to make really tough choices. If you want to spend a ton of time walking all over the map, the main quest in Fallout 3 will wait for you. And I confess that I’m not a big fan of time-sensitive quests—this Fallout playthrough, I bee-lined right for the solution once I had gained sufficient resources to solve the problem, a resolution I somehow remembered over the years, so that I could play the rest of the game at a leisurely pace.

As a journey of exploration, my replay of Fallout has been enjoyable, but it lacks that tension inherent in the first play, when I managed to save the Vault with scant days to spare. That was a gaming experience I remember to this day, and they don’t make many of those these days, either, which is why I always give Ian the SMG every chance I get.

Rolling the Dice on Kickstarter

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I’ve backed enough Kickstarter projects by now to fully understand that it’s not really a “pre-order” site. You’re supporting a concept, a product, or an idea, and hopefully said concept, product, or idea comes to fruition. As a wiser person than I once said, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

Indeed, of all the Kickstarter projects I’ve backed, only two have, thus far, delivered, though I’m not worried quite yet. I knew the lead times would be long, and my investment is hardly large. I received my most recent Kickstarter backer rewards just last week, a set of four Precision Machined Dice, and the results are quite stunning.

Precision Machined Dice

These anodized aluminum dice were machined from solid blocks of aluminum and have significant heft (and sharp corners). They’re not really practical for actually rolling, but they make lovely display pieces. I consider them propitiations to whatever forces control the flow of luck in the universe.

Thankfully, though, the creator of these dice, Amber Rix, has launched another Kickstarter project for Precision Machined Metal Gaming Dice, a little smaller (at either 16mm or ½”) than the casino sized dice from the original project and with rounded edges. As with the original project, they will be available in a variety of metals and, for the aluminum, a variety of colors. Plus, looks like you could roll them without damaging a table, though you’d still likely put your glass dice cup at risk. The creator of these projects has also mooted the possibility of metal polyhedrons as a future Kickstarter project. Yes, please!

Because at a certain point in every gamer’s life, you have to ask: Why roll plastic?

Dungeons and Scanners: The Return of Downloadable D&D Material

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It goes without saying, in this era of the long tail, that canny publishers with niche products know all about electronic publishing and make their wares available legally (and profitably) to those who want to throw money at them. Well, most canny publishers, that is, for Wizards of the Coast, current license holders for the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game, stopped making their back catalog of long-out-of-print adventure modules and rules supplements available for legal download several years ago for reasons they never quite explained. Perhaps they didn’t like making money — or perhaps some wrinkle in their license terms prohibited the sale of scanned .pdfs of the products.

In any event, like a lich with an intact phylactery, Wizards of the Coast couldn’t keep their archive down, and they have brought their back catalog, er, back, at dndclassics.com. According to Wired‘s GeekDad, the products have been re-scanned as well. From the one module I’ve downloaded so far, the new scans are a serious improvement over the original offerings from several years ago, which had some instances of iffy scanning.

The downloads, ranging from classic adventure modules for Basic D&D through to rulebooks for the not-so-well-regarded D&D Fourth Edition, come as watermarked .pdf files with, wonder of wonders, searchable text. The watermarking is unobtrusive, placing your name and the order number in faint, tiny lettering at the bottom left corner of each page. Prices seem reasonable, in the $5 to $7 range for D&D and First Edition AD&D modules and rulebooks around $10—and really, who needs anything else?

Detail of a classic adventure

For a limited time, the site is offering a free download of Basic Module B1, In Search of the Unknown, so go give them a try and, if you’re of a particular age, relive some of your childhood as well.

The Past Remade: Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition

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Baldur's Gate CDBack in 1998, a gargantuan computer game burst upon the scene, stored on five CDs and taxing the modest hard drives of the era with its multi-gig installation. That game, Baldur’s Gate, matched its digital size with an epic role playing story based on the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset (second edition AD&D, more precisely).

Though it hid the complexities of its rules behind the screen, as it were, the game made no apologies for its complexity or its scope. This was gaming nirvana: hours and hours (and hours) of herding a party of adventurers through an intricate web of plots and quests and events, all told from an isometric perspective with pausible combat and the elaborate branching conversations that would become the hallmark of its developers, BioWare and Black Isle.

Baldur’s Gate spawned expansions and sequels and devoted fans, but eventually the isometric, text-heavy, detailed role-playing game would become the purview of independent developers like Spiderweb Software as the industry moved to shorter, more easily digestible (read: simpler, dumbed-down) games. BioWare would move on to more action-oriented role-playing games, but even in light of such successes as the Mass Effect franchise, they’ve never recaptured the glory of Baldur’s Gate.

Or perhaps I’m just seeing this game in a rosy, nostalgic light. Given that Baldur’s Gate has just been re-released in an “enhanced” edition, optimized for modern operating systems and generally cleaned up and given a polish, I’ll have the chance to see whether my fondness for the game stems from a general belief in the superiority of the ’90s to the ’00s or if the game actually is that good. It certainly was that good, but how it stands up to that proverbial test of time is a question I’m looking forward to answering.

Kickstarting the Apocalypse: Wasteland 2 in Development

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These days, computer games that perform even tolerably well in the marketplace are all but guaranteed a sequel. Indeed, my current pile of Xbox 360 games is all sequels: Mass Effect 3, Gears 3, NHL 12, Fallout: New Vegas, Forza 4, and so forth.

But in the heady days of actual floppy discs, when loading a game on your trusty Commodore 64 took five minutes and Electronic Arts was amazingly cool, sequels were few and far between. So it comes as a welcome surprise that one of the finest games of the late 1980s, Wasteland, stands poised to make a return. If you ever wondered where the Fallout series came from, look no further.

Combat in the Wasteland

Brian Fargo, one of the original creators of Wasteland, is spearheading development of Wasteland 2, to be funded as a Kickstarter campaign. I spent hours and hours with the original post-apocalyptic RPG, both on floppy and later via the magic of emulators (when I finally finished the damn thing), and I call upon all true fans of the genre to pony up some cash and fund this game!

Perfect Start Syndrome II: Or Why I Haven't Gotten Very Far in Skyrim

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My copy of Bethesda Softworks‘ long awaited Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim arrived promptly on launch day, some ten days ago, and I’ve frolicked about this corner of Tamriel more or less every day since.

Skyrim on flicker.com by Joshua Livingston via a Creative Commons Attribution license.

You would imagine, then, that I’ve climbed every peak, slain a slew of dragons, quested until my coffers burst with coin gladly given by the fetch requesters and the life savees. After all that play, I must be a hero of awesome renown, with skills unmatched by any other.

Um, well, no, not really. But I have cleared Embershard Mine twelve times!

As I suffered with Fallout 3 (and to a lesser extent Fallout: New Vegas), I am burdened by Perfect Start Syndrome. Given that Skyrim is a huge sandbox of a game, with the main quest merely a suggestion for what to do with your time in the world (and without any annoying time constraints on putting the Big Bad Evil in its place), once you step out of the obligatory tutorial dungeon, the Sky(rim) is the limit. And sometimes, faced with such seemingly infinite freedom, one freezes. Perfect Start Syndrome claims another victim.

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