Story Points and Doctor Who

I’ve been holding on to this one for a while, waiting for the right time to talk about it. As it happens, “the right time” is today when I can’t really think about anything else to talk about. So here goes, some of my thoughts on Cubicle 7’s Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space.

First, let me point out that I haven’t even looked at the books for this game that I have, let alone looked at any new material, for quite some time, so for all I know it’s possible that this is longer applicable. I hope changes have been made, but I can’t be bothered to follow up because this game made me so mad that I’ve kind of disowned it.

I ran a Doctor Who game a couple of years ago, and the experience, for me, was not fun and just frustrating. I put a lot of the blame for that on myself, but the game itself has a lot of problems. The really weird thing is, though, that most of the cons with the game are things that I thought would be pros. Sometimes you can’t tell how good or bad a system will be until you’ve actually played it. There was one particular problem that I think is the worst, so I’m going to talk about that. I might get into others the next time I’m stumped for a topic; perhaps an essay on the difficulties of role playing a Dalek without breaking the narrative drama (it’s hard).

DW:AITAS is one of a lot of games lately that have “plot points” or “story points” or another kind of point system that gives players a degree of control over the game, making the running of the world a little more collaborative. Generally speaking, I like them. Before running my Doctor Who game, I played a Battlestar Galactica game that had a similar mechanic that didn’t cause any problems. Players can spend these points to get bonus dice or make small “edits” to the world, like “I’d like to spend a story point to have something nearby I can take cover behind.” Mutants and Masterminds also has a similar thing, “hero points” that also lets a player retry failed rolls, overcome negative conditions, and other neat things. The story points in Doctor Who have two problems though. First, your character’s story points replenish every session, so there is no motivation to ration them, especially since most characters have 12. This problem is made worse by the second, which is that you can spend story points to turn failed rolls into successes – not just get a second chance, as in M&M, but actually convert failure to success for 1-3 points, depending on how bad your roll was. In fact, the only way you can lose a roll is by running out of points or choosing to fail… which in turn gives you a story point. It’s difficult to present players with difficult challenges when they can choose whether or not to fail. It completely misses the point of rolling dice in the first place.

Story points, or whatever you want to call them, are a great way of empowering players, but when they disempower GMs, making even a starting character powerful enough to do almost anything, it makes the game broken.