Doctor Who is one of those great treasure troves of stories and ideas that GMs can plunder from again and again. Personally, I can’t count how many times I’ve adapted ‘Tomb of the Cybermen’ for my Players in one form or another. But today, I’d like to go a bit further back to an episode that is probably not as well known as most.
The Aztecs does not feature Daleks, Cybermen or alien menaces in any form. It is one of those purely historical episodes that relies on misunderstandings, poor choices and human ambitions for its drama.
The Tardis crew—comprising at this time the reluctant travellers, Barbara and Ian, the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan and the Doctor—land in the Aztec empire in the fifteenth century. Before you can say ‘boo,’ they are separated from the Tardis (it is hidden within an apparently entranceless tomb) and Barbara is mistaken for a god.
Desiring to end the perceived barbarity of human sacrifice and wishing to give the Aztecs a fighting chance against the Spanish, Barbara attempts to change history by declaring an end to human sacrifice. Hilarity and cultural misunderstandings ensue as Barbara’s attempt to change the world runs up against the ambitions of a faction of Aztecs. The Doctor even gets to give a ‘stupid humans, don’t try to change history’ speech; possibly his first.
Truthfully, this episode has a glacially slow pace from the perspective of a contemporary television viewer. There is a lot of standing and talking followed by more standing and talking. But don’t let that fool you. This episode still has plenty to steal.
For starters, if you are running a game involving travellers to strange lands, I would certainly recommend taking a page from the Aztecs and having a PC be mistaken for a god. Moreover, it’s a good template the next time you are tempted to say ‘yes’ when your Players try to bluff themselves into a similar situation. It works because:
• It shows that being publicly thought a god isn’t that great, there will be plenty of cynical priests out to use you for their own ambitions
• It gives duties for each of the PCs who are not taken as gods as ‘demi-mortal’ servants of the god, in The Aztecs these included:
o An advisor (the Doctor) who could mingle with a certain faction of more pliant Aztecs (and have his first on-screen romance)
o A champion (Ian) who very much rubbed the established warriors the wrong way
o A marriageable pawn (Susan) who can be drawn into local politics and potentially used against her compatriots
o An honoured sacrifice (not one of the Tardis companions, but I’d make a PC one) who is lauded as hero and given glory, but is doomed if they go along with local custom
• Each of these roles leaves a fair bit of room for the Players who haven’t been mistaken as deities to make decisions and stir the pot
• There is a ticking clock, a climatic scheduled sacrifice slated to occur during an eclipse, that forces all the characters to act and react in a timely way
Taken together, I think there is enough ammunition for a one-shot or a two or three part arc in an ongoing campaign (your ship has crashed on a primitive world and the auto-repair requires two weeks to finish working, your fantasy adventurers have washed up on an unknown island). It even falls into that great category of plundered GM materials: one that your Players are probably not super familiar with.