Feed the Trolls

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

tunnels_and_trolls2_6431

Amazing the things you can find on the Internet. Idly searching led me to the startling discovery that I have a blog.

No guarantee that I’ll ever update this thing on any sort of regular basis, but on the plus side I rarely have much to say.

There are exceptions, as you can hear by listening to the recent episode of The Grognard Files podcast, in which archaeologist of the arcane Dirk the Dice digs into gaming history and chats about his finds. In this case it’s Tunnels & Trolls and Dirk asked me along to chatter enthusiastically about the game. Previous episodes, covering various RPGs,  are well worth a listen.

After Nuclear Armageddon, it’s Tri-Tac!!

September 15, 2014 Leave a comment
Tri-Tac make a pitch to the previously overlooked irradiated zombie demographic

Tri-Tac make a pitch to the previously overlooked irradiated zombie demographic

A long time ago in a magazine from far, far away I saw an advert showing a rather alarmed cartoon ghost and a man holding it at gunpoint. Above the picture, the words, “Some People Hunt Ghosts, We Exterminate Them… STALKING THE NIGHT FANTASTIC.” In another magazine was the ad shown above: “After Nuclear Armageddon, it’s Tri-Tac!! The Holocaust needn’t be dull when you have Tri-Tac games and Tri-Tac game supplements!” My attention was immediately held. Stalking the Night Fantastic? Fringeworthy? Rogue 417? What were these games with the rather serious looking themes and the cartoon adverts?

Unfortunately it took me a while to really find out, other than reading product reviews which only made me more eager to get my hands on the games. In the mid-eighties I was lucky enough to live near to a pretty good hobby store, but Tri Tac (precisely how they write their name varies, but currently it seems to have lost the hyphen) had fairly spotty distribution in the UK. I saw a copy of Stalking the Night Fantastic in the window of a Games Workshop, but when I returned to buy it the book had already sold. Eventually I made it to GenCon and met Mr Tri Tac himself, Richard Tucholka, who was selling the latest versions of the games, with full-colour covers and perfect binding rather than the saddle-stitched or comb-bound versions of a few years previously. I left with a stack of books and supplements.

Tri Tac’s system looked insanely complex at first and presentation wasn’t flashy. The functional layout and wonderful Doug Blanchard illustrations appealed to me, but even around 1985 when the ads appeared the major players in the industry had moved on and reviewers grumbled about the old-fashioned style. As for the rules, they were indeed incredibly detailed, particularly in sections of the combat system, but what was often overlooked was that the core mechanics were actually quite straightforward (generally rolling d%, which is the heart of Chaosium’s popular system) and the rules included simplified options for things like combat. A couple of very easy to use charts allowed players to tackle the less important non-player characters swiftly (“extras” or “mooks” as they tend to be termed in current games) while maintaining variety and interest (Is the soldier you just shot dead, wounded, or merely “playing possum” and waiting for you to step closer?) Tri Tac’s science-fiction game FTL: 2448 went further with the option of a one page “Hyper Light” system, boiling the mechanical parts of play into something as easy to use as anything on the market, yet the perception that Tri Tac meant unplayable complexity persisted in some quarters. Time moved on, Tri Tac faded from view, then a few years later they resurfaced, selling PDF versions of the old games. Unfortunately, the only option for buying them was to order a CD-ROM and have it shipped, which made things a little expensive here in the UK.

Now things have moved forward. Tri Tac is offering the option of directly downloading their games; and there are new titles in the catalogue, as well as reworked versions of the old, sprucing up the presentation and adding more than a dash of colour. Which brings us, gentle reader, to a review:

2014-09-15 14.29.19

Weirdzone, printed and spiral bound from the Tri Tac PDF

 Recently I downloaded a copy of Weirdzone, which has an unusual history in that it was released as a convention item in 1985 and disappeared until this 2010 PDF version. According to the PDF there were only ten (or a dozen… I’ll be returning to this) copies made and although the original cover shows it labelled as a Fringeworthy product, Tri Tac’s game of interdimensional exploration, it was never expanded and printed as a full-blown Fringeworthy adventure or supplement. This newish PDF, as with most of the products coming from Tri Tac at the moment, is designed to be used with whatever your favourite RPG is. The only mechanical rules included are the 1 to 100 charts covering encounters, salvage and that sort of thing, able to be used without modification regardless of the rules system you prefer: it’s largely generic.

2014-09-15 14.29.03

What you get: Weirdzone is a full colour PDF running to 24 pages of gaming material, not counting the covers, credits, copyright details, record sheets and the like. Generally the layout is two columns of text in a nicely clear font, sometimes a single main column and then a sidebar. In common with many earlier Tri Tac products Weirdzone includes short examples and comments from in-game characters, in this case a farmer called Osgood Brown and his robot named Pickles. There’s plenty of humour (and indeed Weirdzone is more overtly a humorous setting than most Tri Tac games, which tend to have something of the air of a Roger Moore Bond film or even early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic about them, played straight with the occasional wink but some really crazy moments. Don’t go into one of these games expecting everything to be utterly po-faced, but on the other hand don’t plan on thigh-slapping high jinks and constant pratfalls either. Brief designer’s notes top and tail the text and there are a couple of short scenarios and adventure ideas. The bulk of the book covers the setting concept, encounter tables and a number of sample buildings with basic maps showing their layout. This is very much a book that sets up the premise, explains the “ground rules” of the setting and then gives you tons of stuff that might happen, but it doesn’t plot everything out for you. That’s a strength for some, a weakness to others.

What it’s about: The central concept of Weirdzone is that a building your character is in, along with a circle of land roughly a hundred feet or more around it, is suddenly wrenched from the Earth and dropped into “Weird Space,” a strange dimension where the physical rules you’re used to clearly do not apply. In effect, your house has just become a dimension-hopping spaceship. After a variable amount of time the house and grounds – known as the Zero Plot – appear in a new location. It could be an alien world, an Earth populated by dinosaurs, a land where machines have risen up against people, or any other cool, amusing or bonkers idea that comes to you in an afternoon reverie or from an episode of the Twilight Zone. The book has plenty of ideas, but it also fits smoothly with the Fringeworthy game and particularly its Portals supplements, which contain hundreds of world ideas from the absurd to the eerie to the desperately perilous.

What’s bad: Okay then, let’s look at a few areas where Weirdzone has problems, which I’m doing before the good points because I very much like this book and don’t want you to go away with the bad stuff fresh in your mind. It opens with a (mercifully brief) quote from Ayn Rand. Editing and proofreading is poor. Shocking in places. This includes referring to the book as “A publication of Tri Tac Games, Booka & Graphics, ” which is embarrassingly sloppy, and describing it on the back cover as having 54 pages, which is nearly twenty more than it does have; the back cover blurb also mentions the original run of the supplement being 10 copies, whereas the notes inside say that there were a dozen. Dropped letters, typos and the like are sprinkled liberally throughout the text. Most of these are quite minor, trivial indeed, but it’s impossible not to have one’s opinion of the product affected by this apparent lack of care. Tri Tac have always been very good at providing worksheets and charts for their games, but the ones in Weirdzone are not their best. In part that’s because this is a generic product and so the character sheet (for example) cannot be tailored to particular rules, but the inventory sheet is effectively a piece of lined paper with a low resolution surround to make it look like it’s on a clipboard, while the character and zero plot sheets have their otherwise blank boxes filled with swirly colours, which does nothing aside from getting in the way of printing it cleanly. Parts of the text appear to have been cut and pasted from other Tri Tac products, such as the description of encountering a flock of birds in Weird Space which looks to have been only slightly edited from its appearance in the Hardwired Hinterland setting, which features adventures involving vintage aeroplanes; either that or it’s common in Michigan to fit propellers to houses… Again, it’s relatively minor stuff and it doesn’t wreck the utility of the book, but it is infuriatingly sloppy. You might also notice reuse of some of the illustrations, both within this book and with others. Finally, Tri Tac PDFs are a little pricey compared to some similar products, with the relatively short Weirdzone currently selling for $14.95.

What’s good: Right, let us put such negative observations behind us. The concept won’t appeal to everyone, but if the idea of suddenly finding yourself travelling to other lands in your house, improvising solutions to the problems that causes (such as immediately severing the utilities) and encountering wildly varying situations every time you play, sounds at all like fun to you then pick up a copy of Weirdzone. It’s concise, clear and exceptionally simple to use. The book addresses some of the important issues the players will need to consider, while the inventive and well organised charts of encounters and the like contain enough variety to drive your adventures for years. You can shift the tone from wacky all the way to desperate survival horror without throwing out any of the material. The photo illustrations are generally very good and I’ve had no problems viewing the PDF on a PC or a Nook HD tablet with its 7″ screen, as well as the printout shown in the pictures above. The charts cover all sorts of situations and can add everything from an amusing encounter to a truly serious problem, ensuring that you’ll never be short of ideas or interest when running the game. The core concept and the rules that govern how the strangeness of Weird Space affects your “ship” are well thought out and clearly explained. The book may indeed contain “zero plot” but it’s impossible not to see how exciting and interesting situations will arise from this conceit. Because the Zero Plot travels again after a period of time you can easily keep things fresh or leave behind an adventure that wasn’t suiting the group, making Weirdzone a good way of trying out new settings. And although it’s presented without a system of its own, Weirdzone doesn’t lack structure and direction.

In the end, this is a gaming product I’m very happy to own. Brimming with ideas and full of potential for campaign play, it will also be pounced on by referees as a source of instant adventure ideas for those occasions when you want to play something right now but there’s nothing prepared. Compared to some other gaming PDFs the price is perhaps a little high (although there’s an argument that many PDFs are somewhat undervalued), but taken on its own merits Weirdzone is worth it.

Imagine a pun-filled, clever title about ukuleles for this blog post

June 24, 2013 5 comments
An unwarranted reputation for smallness.

An unwarranted reputation for smallness.

I should get out more.

The sun was shining when The Lovely Emma and I reached Cheltenham, the first time I had been to the town. Staying in a Travelodge over the road from GCHQ might not have screamed glamour, but it was cheap and convenient thanks to excellent (indeed, rather plush) buses. Dumping everything bar our ukuleles we made our way to The Exmouth Arms, which was hosting a large part of the Ukulele Festival of Great Britain on Friday evening and Sunday, with the main event taking place at the town hall throughout Saturday. If you’re going to start a new experience in a strange place then you might as well do it with a decent pint in your hand.

There’s a wonderful effect you can experience at festivals and conventions of this sort, something I’ve also noticed at the UK Games Expo, where complete strangers are immediately friendly due to a shared interest and lack of any reason to be competitive or unpleasant. It was even more noticeable at the ukulele festival, since it was so easy to spot people who were attending by their ukulele cases, leading to friendly waves and hellos from people we’d never met before even when strolling around town, away from the actual events. On Friday this quickly translated into groups strumming away and singing together, with a few frighteningly organised individuals even coming prepared with additional song sheets. I’d taken a couple of Levy Uke Up songbooks, as well as several sheets I’d put together myself such as Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which works considerably better than you might expect. Since I’d originally misheard the song badly, briefly believing in the finest tradition of mondegreens that one of the lines went “Are all bald Mexicans lucky?”, it actually went rather better than I expected, too. By the time the sun had set and we were improvising with iPhone torches under the marquees I’d pretty much lost all feeling in my strumming hand.

I was too busy playing to take names.

I was too busy playing to take names.

Saturday brought a rainy start, but the main event was set to be in the town hall anyway and so was unlikely to be disrupted. We wandered around town, enjoying the Regency buildings and general airiness of it, and happened to stumble across Kit Williams’ Wishing Fish Clock, which I knew of but hadn’t realised was in Cheltenham.

2013-06-22 10.33.52

Might get one of these for the upstairs landing.

Even more exciting than that, if only for me, was finding a sweet shop selling these:

I'm the only person in the world excited about this.

I’m the only person in the world excited about this.

It’s been years since I had eaten a Zagnut bar, so long in fact that they were made by a different company back then. Almost unknown in England, they were hard enough to find in some parts of America. This was the only one in the shop; I almost cried. Happily, especially given the eye-watering price tag, it was every bit as delicious as I remembered. Anyway, ukuleles…

The festival had a room set aside with various commercial stands, mostly selling instruments although there was a small amount of peripheral material. To be honest this seemed like a missed opportunity. They sold quite a lot of ukuleles over the weekend which, although they may be relatively cheap by musical instrument standards, are expensive items, but there was surprisingly little in the way of impulse purchases. I rather expected to see lots of T-shirts, cards, badges, novelty items and so on, but there was hardly anything of that sort. Somebody could really make a few quid there. The stalls were great, a wonderful opportunity for us both to play a wide selection of ukuleles, particularly handy as Emma is shopping for a new soprano at the moment. Hands on is really the only way to buy an instrument. There were several beautiful, eye-catching ukuleles we tried which sounded quite flat, dead or uninspiring when actually played, along with a few real surprises; you simply cannot judge a musical instrument on looks. The Ohana table was intriguing, although also rather confusing as around half of the ukuleles were not for sale, being prototypes or samples, and it was a little unclear as to what the stand was for. Since I already have an Ohana I just took the opportunity to try out some of their other models and a few sadly not destined for production.

There was a full lineup of acts from about one o’clock until almost eleven, so inevitably we missed a couple. By all accounts Sarah Maisel was fantastic, so it’s a pity that we were off doing other things and didn’t get to hear her. Sam Brown’s International Ukulele Club of Sonning Common started things off in hard-to-follow fashion, more than three dozen musicians, talented and well rehearsed, showing that ukulele clubs can be more than slavishly strumming “I’m a Believer” in unison.

Spot the luchadores.

Spot the luchadores.

At this stage we’re into low light pictures taken with my mobile ‘phone, so I’m afraid that the quality will be a little grainy.

The excellent crew cleared away the chairs and gear in short order, which did leave an unfortunately empty stage for Nicholas Abersold, making him appear rather lost and lonely and not making for the easiest setting for his performance. He might have done better if there’d been a smaller band on before him. Neither myself nor Emma had a clue what to make of Elof & Wamberg from the programme description, some sort of Nordic folk jazz duo apparently, but they were absolutely stunning. You know you’re watching real talent when someone like James Hill (with whom they have toured, it says here) joins them on stage for a number. Emma was particularly impressed with Ukulele Uff and Lonesome Dave, a duo I’d come across on YouTube last year but paid little attention to since. Their set could probably use a little work on pacing, as even when they slow things down they still rattle along at quite a rate, but you’re unlikely to see a more jaw-dropping demonstration of high speed right hand work on any stringed instrument. And Ukulele Uff is a Cliff Edwards fan, so there’s really nothing to be said against them.

Elof & Wamberg with James Hill. Full marks to Nicolaj Wamberg for the best trousers of the festival.

Elof & Wamberg with James Hill. Full marks to Nicolaj Wamberg for the best trousers of the festival.

Phil Doleman and Ian Emmerson, no longer performing as ukulele duo The Re-entrants but instead as a ukulele duo not called The Re-entrants, combined virtuosity with humour and relaxed patter that really made the fairly large hall seem more like an intimate front room gig. Many of the acts made us wish that they had more than half an hour available, certainly true of these two.

Lacking a zoom lens or the Hubble Space Telescope I couldn't even see the tiny uke played by Ian Emmerson here.

Lacking a zoom lens or the Hubble Space Telescope I couldn’t even see the tiny uke played by Ian Emmerson here.

Something very different for the show arrived in the shape of Mr B. the Gentleman Rhymer, whose act has been thoroughly tempered in the fires of clubs, cabarets and Glastonbury. The result was polished, energetic and not all about his banjolele, which might have caught some of the audience by surprise – I’m not entirely certain that jolly songs about crack cocaine and acid trips were quite the standard festival fare – but by the end of it he’d won the hall over, whether they previously knew hip-hop or not. The only pity was that, in a rare misstep by the sound crew, his vocals were a bit muffled at times.

2013-06-22 20.04.49

A little chap-hop history

I’ve skipped over many other acts, some very impressive and others hugely likeable (I wasn’t sure that I’d think much of The Winin’ Boys until frontman Fred took the stage and showed what a difference some personality makes to an act); only one that I saw was not at all to my taste, to the point that I left the hall to escape it, which is pretty good going for a full day of music. The evening ended with the biggest name at the festival, James Hill.

James Hill and Anne Janelle.

James Hill and Anne Janelle.

Accompanied by Anne Janelle, who could very easily have been high on the bill in her own right, James Hill presented such a seemingly effortless display of virtuosity and complete musical understanding that I was torn between being powerfully inspired or deciding to just jack it all in right there and throw my uke in the toilet. A genuine superstar of the ukulele world he not only performed his famous version of “Billie Jean” but also played the ukulele with chopsticks and a comb at one point. His voice sounded even better than on his last album, the songs were beautiful and his playing was quite breathtaking. Annoyingly, he is by all accounts a thoroughly nice chap and a real gent. A Faustian pact is the only possible explanation.

To finish off the night most of the acts returned to the stage for a terrific last song, in which James Hill showed that he can play the bloody violin as well.

Rock? Of course ukuleles can rock.

Rock? Of course ukuleles can rock.

The end of a fantastic day, with the promise of a great Sunday to follow and the Big Busk of all the festival goers playing together in the middle of town. My first music festival, certainly not my last. As a matter of fact I’m about to book tickets for another right now. Hats off to the organisers, attendees and performers at Cheltenham, a thoroughly enjoyable, utterly inspiring weekend.

Pity I forgot to put my hat down at the busk, though… might have made enough to cover lunch…

Too Many Games, My Dear Mozart

June 17, 2013 2 comments
There are, inevitably, many more.

There are, inevitably, many more. Shelves of the damn things.

There’s an old line about the Golden Age of Science Fiction, claiming that it’s not the 1950s as is usually stated but is in fact about twelve. It rings worryingly true, not least for me since when I was twelve I happened to be reading an awful lot of science fiction from the 1950s. My childhood was a period of odd resurrections and reprints, with the cinematic serial ancestors of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark being shown on the telly, anthologies collecting old horror and sci-fi stories being sold by places as unlikely as Marks & Spencer, and American comics appearing in the UK years after their original publication and often in a different form, which meant that I discovered Neal Adams’ Batman strips more than a decade after they had initially appeared. Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen a problem with the role-playing game Traveller, which is often mocked for its outdated future technologies: in my head, science fiction is “Buster” Crabbe, Cyril M. Kornbluth and Forbidden Planet. My dreams of the future have always raced recklessly forward into the past.

Every so often, on one Internet forum or another, someone will ask about the Golden Age of Role-playing Games, the assumption being that there must actually be such a thing, one wonderful moment when everything fell perfectly together before the talons of corporate greed tore the heart out of it all. Such a thing is impossible to consider without admitting to nostalgia, because the greatest game you ever played is almost certain to be a game you haven’t actually touched for years. Looking through some of my old favourites recently I was particularly struck by the thought that I must have had a phenomenal tolerance for densely typed, poorly written, overly complicated rules back then… or maybe I didn’t actually play them as “by the book” as I’d like to believe. The notion of corporate greed spoiling it for everyone is laughable, too, particularly if you take the time to look through old magazines and fanzines from the early days as the gaming hobby started to become a viable business opportunity. People were complaining about it back in the mid-seventies just as they complain about it now and will continue to complain about it.

My Golden Age is probably a broad swathe of  the 1980s. For every game that turned out yet another Dungeons & Dragons clone, mistaking more character classes and more spells for innovation, there was something else that was genuinely inventive, not least because the hobby was still young enough that not everything had been done. If you wanted to play a game about swashbuckling Musketeers then you could find one, but you couldn’t find half a dozen; and on the whole playing a different genre meant buying a different game. The marketplace was busy but not as crowded as you might expect, in part because every game tended to appeal to its own niche audience and also because regional distribution meant that not every game was equally available in all areas. UK players had a strong early liking for RuneQuest, which vied much more closely with Dungeons & Dragons here for a time than it did in America; the fact that Games Workshop, rapidly becoming the main source of such games in the UK, printed copies of RuneQuest here and supported it strongly in their White Dwarf magazine definitely influenced that. Ah, White Dwarf… two words conjuring instant nostalgia for Gamers of a Certain Age, who will inevitably adopt a soft-focus gaze over your shoulder and wistfully announce that they remember back when it were a proper magazine, lad…

Games sold in (relatively) huge numbers in the 1980s. They began to appear in real shops, actual toy shops and department stores, not just the strange, often rather intimidating (but now fondly remembered and sadly missed) specialist hobby shops where the staff were as likely to insult your choice of purchase and mock your lack of gaming experience as they were to actually take your money. Practically any idiot with a typewriter and money for printing and a couple of magazine adverts could sell respectable numbers of supplements and original games in the early part of the decade, when gamers were desperately hungry for new products and were quite prepared to buy something because it sounded interesting even if it didn’t technically fit the rules they used. Perhaps the strongest reason to consider it a Golden Age, if we must pin that badge on any moment in history, is that more of us were playing the same games back then. Typically you’d have your “go to” game, then several others you enjoyed or at least vaguely understood. Finding other players in that pre-Internet world wasn’t necessarily easy, but when you did find them the common ground was broad and firm. Maybe it was just the sheer relief at encountering another gamer, forcing people to adapt. For all of the petty arguments about which was the better game (which have not gone away, nor even abated) it was easy to have a broad understanding of the field and find fellow fans of Bushido or Champions or whatever because everyone was choosing their games from a smaller pool, usually whatever the local shop happened to stock. Every now and then someone would produce a game they’d sent away for, something exotic and foreign, shipped from America; I remember struggling to make space in my luggage when I returned from the USA so that I could fit in a load of Tékumel books I’d bought.

Anyone can publish an RPG now. It’ll quite probably look more professional, have better art, be better printed and maybe even have better rules than most of the stuff we lusted after in the 80s. It may also not exist as a physical item until someone buys it, thanks to PDFs and print on demand, reducing the financial risk for the producer. For someone wanting to make their own game this is the golden age, with Kickstarter campaigns, electronic distribution, easy communication and advanced publishing tools available cheaply. Except they’ll be lucky to sell a few hundred copies. The market died, battered by video games and the Internet, lost in time.

So the field of play is very different than it was, endlessly fractured into smaller and smaller, more specific, more focussed games, drilling down on ever more obscure topics like a ludographic Mandelbrot Set. A great many games out there now aren’t intended to be played in the ongoing, expansive manner of the old RPGs. Many others are remarkably cheap, many are free. There’s a game for every topic you can think of, pretty much, and the days when my own Metaphysical Ninja Maniac Chainsaw Vitamin Junkies was considered wacky are long gone. My shelves creak and groan under too many games as it is, I don’t actually need more; owning another game won’t actually mean I play more often. The market as it stands isn’t trying to woo me, because I’ve long passed that point where I look at a new product and think yes, that looks like fun, but I can already do that with my old copy of Dream Park. The occasional nostalgia release – limited anniversary reprints, leatherette editions – sparks interest, but there’s usually a good reason why I got rid of the original twenty years ago.

I’m looking at those tired shelves, selecting something to run for some friends in a couple of months. Something new, fresh, exciting! Something we never get to play! Or… or how about something we love, something we come back to because it does the job and we enjoy it? Hand me down the Old Faithful, Mozart, and put aside the distracting shinies.

TGO Challenge 2013: Reflections

June 14, 2013 2 comments

2013-05-19 10.33.24

A few weeks have passed since I headed home from Scotland and the 2013 TGO Challenge is very much behind me now. Trip reports have appeared on a wide variety of blogs, routes and gear have been discussed, amusing anecdotes (and a few rather less amusing ones) retold. It’s very much time to look for the next adventure.

It was a strange finish to the walk for me this year. After leaving Tarfside, walking alone again, I started to feel that I simply wanted to get to the coast. Many walkers will tell you that the eastern part of the crossing is unsatisfying, but I think that I was especially unfortunate with my choice of route this time, a slog through rather industrial farmland and strangely forbidding hamlets. Even so, there are always bright moments: at one point I realised that a car was drawing alongside me, a shabby hatchback seemingly driven by the sort of man who is either living an homage to Deliverance or on the lookout to score some cheap Buckfast… my heart sank. And then he spoke, and instead of the mockery and jeering I expected he turned out to be cheerful and enthusiastic about my walk (once I’d explained why I couldn’t accept his kind offer of a lift) and I quite clearly shouldn’t judge people as I did, which is one of the inevitable outcomes of living in Manchester. Considerably buoyed as he waved and drove on, I continued towards Lunan Bay.

My planned route to the coast didn’t survive for long. Enjoying a spot of lunch between the White and Brown Caterthuns, a couple of Iron Age hill forts which turned out to have excellent mobile ‘phone reception (very forward thinking people, the Iron Agers), I decided to press on a bit since the weather was glorious. I’d heard that there was a campsite at Brechin, which turned out to be one of those strange towns where the modern world has rendered past glories into liabilities; the place was full of churches, most of them up for sale. The site turned out to be right next to the road and not especially tent friendly, then I discovered that the chap running it was out and would “probably be back soon.” I sat and looked over the map, considering my options… then I picked up the rucksack and started walking, slipping into that rather dangerous “sod it, I’ll just keep going” attitude. And keep going I did, right on to the coast, arriving at Red Castle in the evening, well ahead of my planned schedule.

2013-05-21 18.09.52

This was a little ridiculous, since I wasn’t supposed to reach the coast until Thursday and I was actually there two days early. Red Castle itself, home largely to rabbits and seagulls, struck me as a fair place to pitch my tent for the night, so I decided to head down to the beach and cook a meal, waiting until later to set up camp so as not to be in the way for anyone trying to enjoy an evening stroll in the area. Dinner on the beach was quite delightful, with the section I was on being separated by a channel from the main part where people were dog walking and flying kites. I happened to spot a birdwatching hide, which I discovered was unlocked, so I sat in there for a while when the wind picked up. Naturally I didn’t set up my mattress on the benches and spend the night there, though. Naturally.

A few miles in the morning took me to Montrose, where I met a number of the early arrivals and those people who had sadly had to drop out for various reasons. Quite a few seemed to have finished earlier than they planned as I had. It was rather nice to meet people as they rolled into town over the next couple of days, spoilt only by a bout of suspected food poisoning from a chicken salad I unwisely ordered at the hotel, the effects of which stayed with me for over a week and kept me off work for days. As a result I was in an unusual frame of mind at the end of the Challenge.

I spent a lot of time, both when walking to the coast and as I sat around feeling grim and sorry for myself, thinking about the Challenge and how it had worked for me this time around. This was my third and I had certainly learned quite a bit since the first one, but I had to admit that I had done a poor job of planning the route, cobbling it together hurriedly during a period of blackest winter depression when I was seriously regretting having even applied for the walk. Importantly, I had reached the point at which I knew a great many Challengers so the social side of things was wonderful,  bumping into people I’d encountered on a hillside a couple of years earlier. This is a major reason why the Challenge has such a hold on people, I suspect, as there’s no reason why you can’t just go walking across Scotland at any time but meeting fellow Challengers makes it something special. That may be one reason why the last couple of days left me feeling a little hollow and directionless, as I left everyone behind and pressed on.

In previous years I have started the Challenge with great intentions of really getting back into walking, something I’ve done much less of since moving to Manchester, then by the time I’ve reached the coast I’ve pretty much been ready to pack away the gear and never venture out again; indeed, the last time I did any serious backpacking before the 2013 Challenge was the 2011 Challenge… Coming home this time I realised that my goals had shifted a little. I’ve been out walking since I came back and have plans to get out more often, mostly relatively local walks reachable by public transport but Manchester does at least sit on the edge of some fine walking country. I realised that I very much want to look at some of the other major trails around the country, routes I’ve neglected in recent years, ambitions I’ve put aside. Smaller trips, long weekends or perhaps a week taking in some different routes closer to home. At this point I have absolutely no idea whether I’ll apply for the 2015 Challenge (every other year is the best I can aim for, as it eats up my holiday allowance rather badly), yet I do know that I want to get back to frequent walking and that I’ve let things slip away in recent years. I went walking with friends last week, a ten mile loop to help them train for an upcoming charity walk, and as we stood outside a shop in Littleborough at the end, eating ice creams in the sunshine, a simple walk in the British countryside seemed like the grandest thing in the world.

This sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!

June 4, 2013 2 comments
This is, in fact, my bag.

This is, in fact, my bag.

The rucksack hasn’t changed since my 2011 TGO Challenge, a semi-custom ZPacks Zero constructed from Cuben Fiber, and it’s still going strong. Such a light bag requires some thought across your entire range of kit, since you can’t overload it and expect it to be comfortable, nor does it take kindly to being loaded with gear any old how. For my needs it once again proved to be superbly comfortable with the fairly light load I was carrying and is showing very little sign of wear and tear, a popped stitch on the haul loop being about the extent of it so far. Were I to add a few more pounds or take bulkier equipment then this would not be the right pack for the job.

The brolly you can see furled and stowed in the picture was a silvered version of the Swing LiteFlex Trekking model I’ve used previously, but unfortunately this didn’t fare so well. I recall Colin Ibbotson, I believe, mentioning some failures he’d had with this brand and sadly a rogue gust snapped a stretcher on mine, causing it to tear through the canopy. A repair left it able to fulfil some duties as long as there was no chance of much wind, but I’ve had to bin it now. Excellent as a cooling sunshade, a very convenient tarp porch cover and an essential shelter on rainy breaks, I’m still a great fan of the umbrella when hiking, but these particular models are just a little too light, too weak.

On previous Challenges (and indeed most of the time when I step outside, for the past twenty years) I wore a Tilley Hat. I have rather too many of these, if I’m honest, despite not having bought a new one for several years; looking at the range now it all seems a bit cluttered and fancy, somewhat removed from the solid outdoors credentials of the originals, but a few of the venerable models are still there including the classic T3. This time I took the plunge and made a change, a peaked cap from Marks & Spencer costing an impressive £2 from the sale bin. These were most likely poor sellers due to being labelled as size XL but actually being big enough to fit me, which makes it more like an XXXL (the availability of a size 8 is one of the reasons I discovered Tilley Hats in the first place, the world being unfairly biased towards people with tiny heads). My thinking here was that I could wear the cap more easily under the hood of my windshirt or waterproof, which certainly worked. I wore the thing practically non-stop for the fortnight and it even stayed neatly on my head without a chin cord, only once blowing off… when I returned to Manchester. Naturally, it landed straight in a fountain. Despite a foldaway neck cape I did get a little too much sun on my ears, so I expect I’ll go back to full brim hats most of the time.

The Prat in the Hat.

The Prat in the Hat.

A large number, perhaps even a majority, of Challengers can be seen to use Crocs, particularly the classic enclosed sandal style, because they are very often hanging from their rucksacks. They may not pack neatly away, and they are certainly astonishingly ugly lumps of plastic, but they are quite light (around 300g for a large size men’s pair), easy to clean and very comfortable. Boot wearers switch to them in camp and also when fording streams, whereas those who opt for trail shoes generally walk straight through the water regardless and wear the same shoes in camp as when hiking. Sometimes it’s nice to have a change, though, and since Crocs were too bulky and a bit heavier than I’d like I made a pair of flip-flops:

Is there no beginning to my talents?

Is there no beginning to my talents?

A couple of bits of spare foam from my sleeping mat and a few strips of duct tape. 23 grammes for the pair. Absolutely perfect for using in campsite showers and pottering around a bunkhouse. They made it through the fortnight intact, albeit with little cushioning left under the heel.

After the 2011 Challenge I was largely happy with my cooking system, but having seen a Trail Designs Caldera Cone in action I thought it might fix the one weak point, namely the inadequate foil windscreen I was using. Last year I bought a Caldera Cone but otherwise kept the same Esbit burner and titanium pot (the one minor annoyance with the Cone is that it has to be bought to fit specific cooking pots, as it can’t be adjusted). Cooking performance and convenience was vastly improved and I also saved on quite a bit of fuel, as I could generally manage both the main meal and a hot drink on a single tablet. I ate well and it never seemed like a chore to set up the stove.

Mm... Christmas pudding and custard.

Mm… Christmas pudding and custard.

Most of the other kit performed well and much of it had been in the bag for the 2011 Challenge. A pair of Jacks ‘R’ Better Down Sleeves made my old PHD Minimus Down Vest much more versatile, giving me increased flexibility for sitting around camp and to boost my down quilt quite a bit on a couple of chilly nights. I only had one night when I woke up cold, which was fixed by reaching for extra clothes; in the morning the spare water bag was frozen and I draped the quilt around me as I left the tent. My Mountain King walking poles are still going, giving me occasional concern as they flexed alarmingly when used as tent supports on windier nights, and I wore the same pair of Inov-8 Flyroc shoes that I used on the 2011 Challenge, although they certainly won’t manage a third.

Instead of my old GoLite Cave tarp I tried a Gossamer Gear SpinnShelter. Slightly longer and considerably lighter with useful doors at each end, it’s also less versatile than the Cave as it can only really be successfully pitched in one basic configuration. The tent is not currently in production as the fabric used is now virtually impossible to obtain, but it certainly deserves to reappear if an alternative material can be found. The classic sloping shape only allows you to sit up at one end, but it kept the weather out successfully and was fairly straightforward to pitch tautly. An inner from BearPaw Wilderness Designs, the Minimalist 1, kept the ticks and midges out and as I specified a silnylon area at the foot end it meant that I could keep the doors of the Spinnshelter open, reducing condensation without risking wet feet from the rain. I originally bought the inner for my Cave, but it fit the SpinnShelter quite well.

Please excuse the clutter.

Please excuse the clutter.

Trousers were a pair of stretch Sprayway Compass Pants, very comfortable and surprisingly weather resistant with well designed zipped pockets, and a Rab Meco 165 shirt (bought, like the trousers, in a clearance sale) worked splendidly to keep me comfortable in challenging conditions. Instead of the Paramo 3rd Element jacket I wore in 2011 or the Snowsled Ventile smock from 2009 I decided to take a Marmot Essence waterproof jacket (which I normally pack for cycling use, hence the eye-watering shade of orange) and a Rab Cirrus hooded windshirt. The Cirrus was fantastic, good for all but heavy rain and one of the few windshirts around at the moment with big useful pockets. The Essence was okay and worked well, but for the very typical May Scottish weather of the TGO I think I’ll go back to the Paramo in future. Less faffing around as conditions change, which they do quickly and often, and supremely comfortable in cold wet weather.

Would I take the same on a future, hypothetical Challenge? Some of it. I might go back to a thicker mattress (my foam MultiMat is rather flattened with use and age now, for one thing), tweak a few things here and there, but very little genuinely needs to be changed. It doesn’t take a huge amount of gear to be comfortable on the Challenge, with the caveat that I choose my route accordingly: I wouldn’t think of deliberately camping high or in very exposed locations with this exact kit. I carried about 4lbs more this time than in 2011, extra weight accumulating from more and heavier warm clothes, the tent inner, sturdier tent pegs and numerous other odds and ends, which I don’t regret at all. The compromise between weight and comfort is always there and I managed to be comfortable due both to a fairly light pack and a very adequate range of camping gear. I don’t have any set ideology here, though, and you’re just as likely to meet me on a hill wearing leather boots as trail shoes. Horses for courses, as they say.

Ooh, a packhorse… maybe I could take a packhorse…

What Has It Got In Its Pocketses?

June 3, 2013 2 comments
Moistly picturesque along Glen Affric

Moistly picturesque along Glen Affric

Continuing my unsystematic method of writing about the 2013 TGO Challenge, a few idle thoughts (of a very idle fellow) concerning the kit I carried. Whether you call it hiking, hill walking, tramping, rambling, backpacking, bimbling or some equivalent in a long dead tongue, the important thing to remember is that it’s about the journey, the experience, the act of being out there and moving at nature’s pace, and it’s certainly not about the gear. Except that’s what everyone talks about, because people are like that. Anyway, if you want trip reports you need to be following people like Philip Werner, who started his TGO piece this week. It contains a couple of pictures of me grinning buffoonishly and Philip is comically generous in his estimation of my tent pitching skill, but don’t let my presence put you off. I kept photobombing the poor chap’s walk.

So, what worked? With some doubts and fears for its safety I decided to take my smartphone, not a cheap item (for me at least, it’s a very rare bit of fairly high-end electronic folderol) and an inherently fragile one. Despite being relatively new to the world of contract ‘phones I upgraded last year to an HTC One X, which has done fantastically well at pretty much everything I’ve used it for. I made a protective case for it using bubble wrap and an aLoksak, essentially a very overpriced sandwich bag, which worked to fend off moisture and minor bumps, although I was under no illusions about it protecting the ‘phone against a fall with my ample bodyweight crushing it against the rocks. A silica gel pouch added a little defence against moisture in the bag, keeping the humidity down but not likely to do much if the seal failed. The resulting package fit nicely in the pocket of my Rab windshirt.

There’s no user-replaceable battery in that particular model, so I also carried a TeckNet battery pack, capable of recharging the ‘phone up to four times before itself needing a charge; my thinking was that I’d rather leave the battery plugged in at a campsite or pub than I would the ‘phone itself. In practice the battery pack proved fickle, apparently very unhappy about the generally low temperatures, and had to keep being prodded in order to continue charging, but it has worked and continues to work perfectly well at home and when travelling. It also behaved itself in the pub, allowing both myself and Philip Werner to simultaneously recharge our ‘phones as we made use of the reasonably priced WiFi at the Fife Arms in Braemar. The result was that I had a way to call and text Challenge Control (on those occasions when I had a signal… not in any way guaranteed and there are many known signal dead zones in the Highlands), an entertainment centre including MP3 player and a Kindle reader app with plenty of books, and a back-up mapping source; in common with many modern ‘phones it could also function as a torch and a radio if needed, too. The HTC One X, pouch, headphones, charging cable etc came to about 250 grammes and the battery pack 200 grammes (roughly a pound in all), so a fairly heavy bit of kit for someone hiking in a relatively lightweight style but I found it to be worth carrying.

While I’m not here to recommend a particular ‘phone or even operating system (The One X uses Android, if you didn’t already know) I will point to an app I sometimes used and have found to be very handy indeed, Arthur Embleton’s Grid Reference. There are likely to be similar apps for other operating systems. Grid Reference does one thing: turn on the ‘phone’s GPS and it displays, big and bold, filling the screen, your UK mapping grid reference. That’s it. A few seconds and there it is, handy confirmation of your position for those occasions when visibility and local conditions make a little reassurance very welcome. I used it in very poor visibility as I approached Jock’s Road and it saved me a bit of floundering through the muck after I reached an area where the path was indistinct. Without a proper map it’s useless but I’ve been very happy to have it on a couple of occasions now and can imagine it having a useful place in rescue situations.

As I don’t own a digital camera the ‘phone was intended to take on that role, but of course there are issues with using a camera on a hiking trip. Water, primarily. Keeping the ‘phone in my pocket meant it was available to use as a camera quite readily (I left in on all of the time in “airplane” – sic – mode and had ample battery life) but naturally exposed it to greater risk than if I’d buried it in the rucksack. In the past I’ve been told that I take too few pictures, which is certainly true, so I took the chance and only kept it in the pack if conditions looked especially dicey.

2013-05-13 10.38.49

It’s not all mountains and moors, you know.

I’m no Ansel Adams, but looking through a few old boxes of photos this weekend showed me that the features built into a smartphone camera have greatly improved the snaps I’ve taken when compared to my old 35mm compact. For my needs the results are perfectly acceptable, although of course dedicated equipment could do better still and would give far superior results in low light conditions. Still, I’m happy with how the pictures turned out and I’m tempted to trawl eBay for a modern compact, which would allow me to take pictures in those circumstances where I simply did not want to risk the HTC: you’ll notice that I have no pictures taken during storms or when hiking in the rain and snow.

Finally for now, one related item I got absolutely no use from: the Woxom Slingshot. It’s a great idea, a flexible cradle with a standard tripod mount, allowing you to use a smartphone more like a regular camera. It comes with a basic handle/tripod but works very nicely with my old Ultrapod too. Perfect for self-timer images, keeping a better grip on the ‘phone in precarious poses and generally stabilising the platform to produce sharper images. Seemed like a great idea. I didn’t use it once. That’s my fault rather than any problem with the Slingshot, however, and I fully expect to use it in the future, it just didn’t make it out of the pack on the TGO.

Martin Rye and Philip Werner boulderly go where TGOers have gone before.

Martin Rye and Philip Werner boulderly go where TGOers have gone before.