When Cubicle 7 announced a Doctor Who RPG book that used Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition as its basis, there was a great hue and cry on social media. Eventually two basic camps emerged; one that thought that 5e was a terrible fit for Doctor Who stories and one that thought if anyone could make it work it would be the folks behind Adventures In Middle Earth. I have looked over the review copy of the first book Doctors and Daleks Player’s Guide sent by Cubicle 7 for review. Did they pull off a miracle or should this book go back to a trunk in the TARDIS? Let’s play to find out.
Lead writers Walt Ciechanowski and Zak Dale-Clutterbuck use the basic structure of 5e and recast it as a narrative engine. A lot of the basic building blocks are there. Characters are built via classes, backgrounds and species. Players roll a d20 plus modifiers when they have to achieve success on something that they might fail. The changes are most obvious when the game starts talking about combat, or, perhaps more correctly for this design, as conflict. Hit points become Plot Points and the game discusses how when someone runs out of Plot Points they are knocked out of a conflict. That doesn't necessarily mean unconscious; it can also mean being trapped in an energy field or standing on the sidelines in a huff because their feelings were hurt. This change is the first of many that fits the property given that the Doctor rarely gets what they want through violence.
This idea is central to the Vortex edition that C7 published. Other pieces carry over as well, such as initiative being sorted by what a character does rather than a roll added to a Dexterity bonus. Characters who talk go first, then characters who act, finally characters who attack roll. The game addresses the talky nature of the show by giving everyone access to cantrip-like abilities called quips. These abilities cause plot point damage and are reflected as types of arguments and dialogue the characters use to get their way. A Charmer, for example, might engage in a Draining Debate to get a Dalek to back off. Spells are similarly repurposed, with the “caster” classes getting access to once per long rest quips like a Discouraging Comment which not only inflicts damage but also gives the target disadvantage on ability score rolls based on which one was targeted by the player. I can already hear the people who heavily weight performance in RPGs gritting their teeth. As a social combat mechanic, it’s fairly straight forward. It’s doesn't expect players to be incisive debaters any more than D&D expects players to actually be able to fight with swords and individual groups can dial the actual roleplay to their preferences.
Gadgets are handled in a manner similar to magic items, but what surprised me were how the tech levels worked. These are usually just a bland index that exists in the background but here they affect a character's performance often. Characters using a tool outside their tech level use it with disadvantage unless there’s a narrative justification for familiarity. It’s a neat assumption that low tech levels can be hard to handle just like high tech levels. The modern professor of history might be able to convince their GM they can fire a flintlock because they wrote a paper on the Golden Age of Piracy. This also encouraged groups to follow the footprint of the show and include companions from all across time and space.
Time travel is a fairly large subject to cover in a single volume. Doctors & Daleks leaves the specifics of why groups are time traveling to a discussion in session zero. The assumption is that tables will model the show with a Doctor PC and their companions. Outside of specialized gadgets, time travel is used to assume players can get whatever stuff they need, either because it’s lying around the time machine somewhere or they can blink and grab it off-screen. The time travel rules are an excellent model for the concept of failing forward. It’s broken down into three steps: plotting the course, flying through the vortex of time and then sticking the landing. The players will get to where they want to go, but failures on these rolls add bigger complications to their ultimate destination. It can mean the difference between “ancient Rome” and “Vesuvius a few hours before the eruption”.
The book is framed as a player’s guide but it does include a GM section with some iconic baddies to face. A second volume full of more called the Alien Archive is due out soon. Antagonists are another place where the designers make some interesting choices. Rather than worrying about CR and game balance, encounters are designed from a pool of Plot Points that can be assigned to opposition based on the needs of the plot. Is their petty bureaucrat a bigger threat than the Cybermen stalking the streets of Cardiff? Give them the most Plot Points and the cyberman a few for the occasional quick ambush.
It’s these tweaks to the basic ideas of 5e that are the most noteworthy part of Doctors & Daleks. There is already an excellent Doctor Who RPG published by Cubicle 7, but they’ve put a lot of thought into porting over ideas from narrative RPGs into a D&D framework. It seems like some of this could be ported back to a regular D&D game or that it could be a way to get players who are unwilling to try other games a chance to see what a narrative game can look like while still using a familiar framework.