Doctors and Daleks Review

Gamers have long memories. In the early 2000s, the first iteration of the Open Gaming License was released by Wizards of the Coast, and accompanied by the ‘D20’ branding, which allowed many games to claim official compatibility with the Third Edition of Dungeons and Dragons. While this new era in licensing created some new and interesting games, it also created a lot of, well, garbage. This large quantity of garbage combined with Wizards handing out the ‘D20’ branding to essentially anyone combined to erode consumer confidence in the brand. Unfortunately, D&D was the biggest game in the industry at the time (much like it is now), so this, combined with some misplaced faith in the brand on the part of game stores and publishers, caused the ‘D20 bust’. Books didn’t sell, publishers and game shops went bankrupt, and Wizards…well, they published 3.5e and went on their merry way.

The point of recounting this is that the D20 bust is one of the root causes of distrust in the current crop of games developed using the D&D 5e ruleset. Because D&D is the largest, most successful RPG brand, it stands to reason that associating yourself with that brand is a way to make more money, regardless of the quality of your game, and regardless of whether or not your game aligns with the mechanics of D&D. It also doesn’t help that one of the recent high-profile games using the 5e ruleset, the Dark Souls RPG, was released in a pretty messy state, giving it no real chance to disprove the notion that D&D was a poor choice for emulating the ‘Soulslike’ video game genre (whether or not it could have otherwise is an open question).

It was in this environment that Cubicle 7 announced ‘Doctors and Daleks’, a Doctor Who role-playing game built on the 5e ruleset. The announcement was met with a fair amount of criticism, much of it baseless given that there wasn’t a game yet. The surface-level thinking, though, made sense. Doctor Who, especially the newer runs which started with Christopher Eccleston playing the Doctor, is a fantastical series about time travel, the history of the world, and a generally optimistic outlook on coexistence with life all over the universe. The Doctor has a code against killing, gadgets like the TARDIS and the Sonic Screwdriver have capabilities mostly defined by the scripts in that season, and the stories rapidly shift from small and intimate vignettes involving Vincent Van Gogh to apocalyptic, universe-ending plots where the Doctor faces off with the Master, or the Daleks, or the Cybermen. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, is a game where the rules are roughly 90% predicated on killing things and taking their stuff. The mismatch observation is a fair one.

This is pretty much why I had to look at this game. Cubicle 7 has owned the license for a Doctor Who role-playing game for some time, and they have one in print using a custom 2d6-based system. In fact, this game has won several awards, and the second edition was just released back in 2021. So why, exactly, would Cubicle 7 choose to make another Doctor Who RPG using the 5e ruleset? The cynical alarm bells do start to ring, but even if the answer simply is “to win over 5e players”, that’s a fair cop. When D&D is so much larger than the next biggest RPG, working within the 5e ecosystem is a smart business decision (and Cubicle 7 is in fact a business).

The bigger question, then, is ‘does it work?’ The answer to that is a qualified yes. Cubicle 7 did not see the 5e mechanics as an excuse to take shortcuts, instead reverse-engineering entire swathes of rules to work better for the conceits of Doctor Who. There’s a lot of fun genre emulation in here, but also, whether intentional or not, a lot of criticism of D&D. The designers of Doctors and Daleks had to break down a few fundamental elements of the D&D ruleset, including but not limited to hit points, the encounter math, and the entire magic system. In the process of molding these elements into things that worked for their game, they also demonstrated quite conspicuously why these elements didn’t work for their game…and maybe even their liabilities in D&D itself.

The Game

Doctors and Daleks is rooted in the D&D ruleset; technically the game requires the SRD to play (one annoyance, more the fault of the litigious history of D&D than anything else, is that all references to D&D in the game are simply “Fifth Edition”). The six basic stats are the same, the proficiency mechanics are the same, and the structure of character creation is roughly the same. The only part of the game which was adjusted in a minor way was Skills; the skill list was changed to reflect the setting and Tech Level was added to explain the differing levels of technology from different time periods (in essence, using tech from a different Tech Level than your own grants disadvantage on a roll). The reason Skills are the only part of the game that was adjusted in a minor way is that most everything else was changed fairly dramatically. One fascinating example of this is hit points. Hit points for PCs are generated the same way (more on the enemies and encounters later), but are now called Plot Points. This is entirely a framing mechanism. When a character runs out of plot points, they are incapacitated or removed from the scene; player characters are not threatened by death rules-as-written (an amusing/annoying oversight is that Death Saves are still on the character sheet, but I digress). Similarly, for the most part, when enemies run out of plot points, they too are not assumed to be killed, and given the Doctor’s code against killing, the circumstances in which enemies do die should be rare and reserved for otherwise implacable foes (like Daleks).

Now, as I am describing a version of D&D that has almost no killing in it, one should naturally assume the rules have to change quite a lot to accommodate this. In some ways yes, but in others no. Combat mostly works the same way, structurally, though initiative has been simplified by dividing acting characters into Talkers, Doers, and Attackers, and resolving them in that order (as noted in a sidebar, traditional initiative still works if you’re attached to it). What you’re doing in combat, though, is completely different. The spell mechanics have not been removed from Doctors and Daleks, rather they’ve been co-opted, reskinned into a system called Quips. Quips are social attacks which cause either Emotional or Logical damage depending on the attack. This changes the D&D combat mode from one of swordplay and fireballs to one of quick-witted remarks, clever use of environmental obstacles, and, very much unlike D&D, running away. Better yet, the martial/arcane split is completely wiped out and all character classes get access to Quips, making the system a core gameplay element rather than something restricted to specific characters.

The classes in the game are built on what the character is doing, rather than a genre archetype like in D&D. Charmers are big into persuasion and getting others to listen to them, while Thinkers are more intellectual and Tricksters are focused on deceit. The high level classes are a bit plain compared to D&D, but Doctors and Daleks really enriches them with Backgrounds and Motivations. Backgrounds were a fantastic addition to 5e, and Doctors and Daleks makes good use of the mechanic. Backgrounds like Athlete, Everyperson, Pilot, Thief (and of course Time Traveler) are at the same level of description as a D&D background, but they play into what we know about the Doctor’s companions very well (and also tend to give a more orthogonal dimension to the character compared to D&D, at least in my opinion). Motivations, though, are a new mechanic and help generate a lot of information to help a player understand their new character. While D&D has each background come with a set of ideals, bonds, flaws, and personality traits, here they’re attached to the Motivation. Given the nature of the people who travel with the Doctor, this works way better for helping you understand how your character fits in the party, and also amplifies the more evocative motivations (you know exactly what sort of character a Killjoy is, for instance).

Due to how the D&D skill mechanics work, the rest of the game mostly makes do with being based on skill checks, tool proficiencies and the like. There’s a lot of descriptions of tech, aliens, and setting information from the Doctor Who universe, but even though I’m only a casual Whovian I know they’re just scratching the surface. What’s in the book covers all the high-profile aliens you’d expect it to, and the supplement library will be, if the other Doctor Who RPG is any indication, plenty vast (not to mention that the more setting driven supplements from the earlier game are likely still usable in this one).

Speaking of aliens, though, the GMing advice and tools are interesting. I’m a fan of the segment on time travel and time machines; it doesn’t have much in the way of mechanics, but Doctor Who never tells you how the TARDIS works either, so that seems to be fairly aligned. The combat/conflict guidance, though, is a bit different. For the most part, all conflicts, instead of having unique stat blocks, go through one Encounter Level Table, which defines a number of Plot Points, Armor Class, save DC, and damage per attack. There are rules to build ‘Complex Encounters’ using multiple different enemy types (the example given is Cybermen and The Master), but for the most part everything boils down to the Encounter Level Table. For lack of a better term, this is…pretty OSR? Like, the idea that ‘all encounters have these values’ sounds like something Chris McDowall would write in Electric Bastionland. It tracks, though. The game tells you to make the circumstances of the encounter interesting, and let the math pretty much lie; these are ‘plot points’ after all, and the Doctor solves problems with their brain and what’s available to them. Cubicle 7, though, then made the decision to write traditionally-styled 5e monster stat blocks and include them alongside the Encounter Level method. It’s here, looking at these completely different encounter building methods side by side, that we can start discussing what Doctors and Daleks is really saying about D&D.

The Implications

A Dalek is Challenge Rating 10, has (on average) 210hp, and does 8d12 lightning damage. At the same time, a group of ten Daleks is specifically called out as a fun and interesting encounter for a first level party. If there’s a good place to discuss the notion that 5e is a bad place to start for a Doctor Who game, this would probably be it. Now, Cubicle 7 clearly agrees with me that the core D&D encounter math will not be fun for a Doctor Who game, that is why they threw it out (the inclusion of these stat blocks is ostensibly as an alternative, but they’re clearly there for the benefit of GMs who want to put Daleks in their 5e games). But this all circles back to the big question: “Why use 5e in the first place?”

Criticizing Cubicle 7’s intent is not the same as criticizing the game; in all honesty I’m pretty damn impressed with Doctors and Daleks. I’m not surprised that the 5e system had to get major surgery, but at the end of the day the system still looks like D&D and actually could play like a Doctor Who episode. On that front, nothing but kudos. In terms of the objective of this game, there’s a bit more to think about.

I’m not entirely sure if it matters how much this game plays like D&D. The reason this is important, of course, is that this game will not play like D&D; the class and ability spreads are narrower, combat has been completely rearranged (if not exactly redesigned), and a Doctor Who plot arc looks nothing like a typical D&D questline. What the game does have, is all the same levers and dials as D&D, especially to the players. There’s the same breadth of actions and specificity of actions. You have a lot of things to choose from, and they all do different things diegetically. If having options is important, then it’s important to know the difference between a Tricky Argument and a Thoughtful Argument and how they affect your opponents. And, as it’s modeled after D&D, Doctors and Daleks provides a similar slate of options to characters. If you’re considering this from, say, an Actual Play perspective, the rules will slot in perfectly and the players can get on with saying Doctor Who things without missing a beat. So my consideration is, essentially, which is more important, the rules and how you interact with them, or the underlying stories being told? Because if what a group wants is D&D-level complexity, this is fairly perfect. If they want to play something that feels like D&D, Doctors and Daleks cannot do that, even with the same acronym.

It’s also hard to ignore that Cubicle 7’s design choices can be interpreted wholesale as criticisms of 5e. The encounter math sucks and is nonsensical, so let’s excise it. ‘Are hit points meat?’ Who cares? They’re Plot Points now. Why are martial characters so boring? Well, let’s just give our spell equivalent to everyone so we avoid that. Is D&D an analog for colonialist violence? Well, the Doctor doesn’t kill, so we have a good reason to kibosh that too. It’s not written this way, per se. In fact, Doctors and Daleks has a lot of wordcount dedicated to how to revert to traditional 5e systems, be it initiative and encounter math, as noted above, or re-integrating the excised Languages rules, or even using 5e spells as additional quips. It’s only from looking at the game with a designer’s eye that you begin to see that the mechanical rework to make this game work was essentially slash and burn. The results, all told, are pretty good. For all the baggage that 5e brings along, Doctors and Daleks manages to stuff it all into the overhead bin and close it.

I was pleasantly surprised by Doctors and Daleks. The game makes for a good vehicle for Doctor Who stories and doesn’t let itself get weighed down by the existing structures of 5e. It does that, though, by deleting (encounter math) and wholesale repurposing (spells) large swathes of the mechanics. In assessing whether or not the game’s mechanics are going to act like D&D, I think it’s pretty easy to say that they won’t. However, this game is still structured like 5e, meaning that D&D players should be able to pick it up pretty quickly. The game’s rules conversion/reversion is also very well-documented, so it’s fairly easy to run either ‘The Mighty Nein find the TARDIS’ or ‘Rory accidentally awoke the Tarrasque’. Ultimately, everything works and works the way it should, even if a lot changed under the hood. Does this absolve designers from having to prove the choice of 5e as a system? I don’t think so. Rather, it tells us a few things about D&D and Doctor Who. Both are about groups of adventurers going new places, using their grit and personal capabilities to get past their adversaries. At a plot and structural level, Doctor Who fits into the D&D pulp fantasy framework pretty well. What Cubicle 7 shows us is that you can apply a bit of game design to push past what look like intractable differences. When that game design involves centering non-violence and adding social conflict mechanics, though, I don’t think anyone could be faulted for wondering if ‘kill things and take their stuff’ D&D was going to work.

Doctors and Daleks is available on DriveThruRPG.

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