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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:

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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.

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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.

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Start Trek

January 5, 2013 1 comment

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The humble bicycle. My preferred method of travel, my means of commuting and recently, alas, the source of considerable stress and annoyance which I may possibly have already mentioned once or twice. Since this blog is an irregular and eclectic thing, more a bag of Cadbury’s Mis-shapes than Mr Gump’s box of chocolates, there’s far too high a proportion of moaning bike posts in the recent entries, so let’s stop that and have a rather more positive one before moving along to more interesting topics.

After the unmitigated disaster that was the b’twin Riverside 1 bicycle I’ve been relying on a bike loaned to me by the ever generous JJ, who had one day found himself in possession of a neglected machine superfluous to his needs (long story). A quick Internet search revealed it to be a Raleigh model currently selling for nearly £400, so it’s a decent enough bike in its own right, just sadly abused and neglected by the previous owner. As a commuting machine the obvious deficiency was the complete lack of mudguards (a pet peeve of mine, since they ought to be standard for road use outside of specialist racing cycles: try following someone who doesn’t use them in wet weather and you’ll immediately see why, assuming you can see anything at all), so I bought the cheapest possible model to attach to the seatpost. Mudguards of that type are better than nothing, but only by a hair and of course they don’t address the mess and damage caused by spray from the front wheel coating the chain and lower part of the headset (addressed on this rather more authoritative site, if you don’t believe me). Still, tight budget and all that. In use the biggest problem actually turned out to be the dilapidated state of the gears. After an hour or two of tinkering and repair I managed to get them back to almost exactly the state they were in before I started messing around with them, after which I found that the best thing to do was to leave them in the one gear I could find that didn’t slip dramatically. This meant that I was effectively riding a single-speed bike, which is the closest I’m ever likely to get to being a hipster.

Via Twitter my plight came to the attention of Dave, the genial face behind revolveMCR, who suggested that he might be able to put something together for me. Knowing what a fine job he’d made of servicing and repairing my old Pashley in the past I was interested, so we discussed my requirements (which are not especially demanding or specialist) and he came back with some options. You can see the end result in the photo above, a nine-speed bike with suspension forks, full mudguards (FULL MUDGUARDS), pannier rack and slightly bonkers handlebars, all based around a Trek frame. I’d never really looked at these sort of “butterfly” handlebars before, but Dave threw out the suggestion and I decided it was worth a go. They’re great, actually, offering enough variety of positions to avoid stress or numbness on my hands. The odd-looking pole they’re attached to will change, incidentally, as I’m going to raise them up just a little based on having ridden the bike for a few days. One very nice thing with not buying an off-the-shelf design is that it’s possible to leave room for alterations like that. The other interesting point for me was Dave’s initial spreadsheet listing his suggested configuration. I’ve never dealt with a bike as a collection of brand-name components prior to this and it was intriguing to be able to search for reviews and information about the particular frame or forks, rather than just the bike as a whole. Trek, for instance, simply wasn’t a brand I knew anything about (I’ve not exactly been keeping up with the cycling world over the past twenty years) but this appears to be a pretty well regarded frame. At 26″ the wheels seem strangely small to me (which might seem odd coming from a former Brompton rider; it’s probably just the comparison with the Pashley) but I certainly can’t complain about the smooth ride and responsive handling. It does mean that my spare tyre won’t fit, though.

The end result is a compromise of course, a collection of new and secondhand parts due to my very restricted budget, but how nice it was to be able to choose the compromises. Instead of a generally inferior machine I’ve managed to get something with a pretty decent specification but no unnecessary bells and whistles (having said that, I shall be adding an entirely unnecessarily fancy bell very soon) which, so far, rides quite beautifully. It would have been lovely to have had the frame repainted, hub gears and dynamo lighting fitted, but that can come later when I can afford such things. As a working bicycle I couldn’t ask for more on my budget.

Dave’s business is bicycle repair and maintenance, I should point out, and I am not suggesting that he generally offers complete bikes for sale (contact him directly if you want to discuss anything). Delighted that he did this one, though.

Serving Suggestion

February 13, 2012 3 comments

Morrisons, venturing boldly to astounding new vistas of the imagination.

Hearty applause to Morrisons supermarket for the audacious, groundbreaking serving suggestion displayed on their own brand of brown sauce. Best served, it seems, on a sausage, robustly pronged by a shiny fork, and with no trace of the actual product on show.

Categories: Nothing in particular

Radar Love

September 5, 2011 4 comments

Slightly relevant picture from weatheronline.co.uk

It has not been the best of weekends for laundry. Until the temperature drops enough to warrant turning on the central heating the house is not a great drying environment, but Manchester is rarely a fine spot for hanging out your great and smalls on the line. Catching up on some overdue washing, it looked as though everything would be as likely to come in wet from rain as it would remain wet if hung indoors.

The casual nature of modern technology struck me again in the early evening (and if you’ve ever been struck in the early evening you’ll know what a shock that can be) as I wandered out to the garden to cast a dubious eye at the heavens. I’d been lucky, very lucky, that the day had stayed dry, but another hour would be really helpful… or I could skip the chance and take the now almost dry laundry inside to hang. Considering my firm belief that it was about to rain every time I’d looked outside since about ten in the morning I wouldn’t have wagered heavily on my predictive abilities… then I remembered that these days I have a mobile ‘phone. Whipping out the little time-waster I punched up the weather map app (weather m’app?) and watched as it rolled a series of animated radar images across a virtual Manchester. Three minutes later I was inside, putting the clothes on the rack to air. Five minutes after that the heavens opened.

The secret that helped to fight the Luftwaffe, right there in my pocket, available at a moment’s notice. Helping me to do the laundry.

Going mobile

No big post today, just a test of the WordPress app for Android. Hopefully there will be no disruption to comments etc because of it, but you never know until you try.

Hello to everyone who has dropped by from Backpackinglight.com and Andy Howell’s blog. Try not to be alarmed if I start posting about the gaming convention I’ll be attending at the weekend 😉

Categories: Nothing in particular

Spring Break

January 26, 2011 1 comment

Not standard on all models...

The gentle snapping crunch, accompanied as it was by a slow sagging to the right, was enough to tell me that the spring on my bike saddle had just broken. Again.

Manchester’s roads are, on the whole, bloody awful – if they ever need to fake a video feed from the Mars rovers they could just set up a camera here and point it at the potholes – but my commute is generally level and I don’t launch myself recklessly, or even with reck, off kerbs and over obstacles, so it’s more than a little disappointing to have a supposedly heavy-duty item like a saddle spring fail during a slow, smooth ride. When this happened last year the manufacturer, Brooks, fitted a new spring, apparently newly crafted to solve a design flaw in this particular saddle which historically had both rear springs twisting in the same direction and was prone to failure. I can’t fault their customer service, at least.

This time the B33 saddle (which, for the curious, looks very much like this) is going back for a replacement rather than repair. After enquiring about alternatives I’ve been offered the even more sofa-like B190 (this wide boy here); no saddle like a razor blade for this commuter, no indeed. And if you recall that advert you’re probably as old as I am. The “stranded rear coil springs” haven’t actually left me stranded yet, but breaking twice in under two years has left me wary of them.

In the meantime I’ve pinched the saddle from Emma’s bike and fitted it temporarily to The Vicar. I’m sure she won’t mind.

The Obligatory Cat Photo

January 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Because nothing says "comfort" like someone else's clean laundry.

This is not a post about my cat. Not about anyone’s cat, as it happens, but there does seem to be a law of the Internet (not quite Godwin’s, unless we’re discussing Nazi cats… Catzis? Have I strayed far enough from the point yet?) requiring all blogs to include at least one cat photo, so here it is. As it happens, the photo is of my cat, the genuinely adorable Mrs Peel, but the rest of the post will not be about cats at all, unless I’m feline up to it. *ahem*

So anyway, yes, ultralight hiking! I knew there was a topic in here somewhere.

I cannot claim complete immunity from an interest in the material side of hiking, the kit, the gear, the gubbins etc. My wardrobe is full of the stuff for one thing, although there’s a handy degree of crossover with the gear I use when cycling to work. No point buying two lots of performance clothes, eh? I like to research something before I buy it, which does mean that my dearest girlfriend (Mrs Peel is her cat too. Damn, I mentioned cats again…) has to put up with me while I wander around camping shops, click between outdoorsy websites and pore over the technical listings in gear catalogues. The end result should be that I buy precisely the right thing for the job and don’t waste money or acquire kit I end up not using. And here’s a lovely bridge I’d like to sell you.

Even so, I’m an amateur, the merest dilettante, when compared with some people, especially some of the people who like to frequent hiking forums on the Internet. On one site there was a rather sad post from a lady bemoaning the fact that such places always start off with excitement, enthusiasm and innovation but inevitably become little more than a string of enquiries as to which new gadget to buy.

In the case of ultralight hiking the shift from weird marginal extreme pursuit, the haunt only of the obsessed and the creative, to slightly less marginal pursuit with lots of commercially available products has happened pretty much alongside a similar but more pronounced shift for the Internet itself. In the late nineties the ‘net was growing, creeping into homes and offices, but not everyone was convinced and not every company felt the need to have a website. Today you really don’t need much in the way of technical knowledge in order to surf, just as you no longer need to source exotic coated synthetics and break out the sewing machine if you want to use ultralight hiking equipment.

There comes a point, of course, when the rapid innovation and explosion of ideas slows, when new gear begins to look a lot like the old gear, merely in a different colour and fractionally lighter (or even, to the horror of many, slightly heavier!). In many respects we are hitting material barriers in the pursuit of ever lighter equipment. Some incredible fabrics and materials have been found and put together with ingenious methods of construction, but really, how light do we need to be? At what point does the compromise become too great? Price, durability, complexity – pretty much everything except, say, your pet cat… Damn again – figure into the suitability of any one piece of gear for any one hiker. The numbers game of ultralight is fascinating and it’s very easy to find yourself drawn into shaving off an extra ounce or two, or even a gram, but like many people I’m less interested in the extremes of the process than I am in enjoying a nice walk and a spot of camping. For me, carrying less weight does indeed mean a much better hiking experience. I’ve had fewer injuries and less fatigue for starters. That said, I can’t say with any conviction or honesty that a full rucksack weighing nine pounds is going to adversely affect my hike when compared to one of eight and a half pounds; small differences might show up eventually, but if the difference is down to a warmer pullover or an extra bar of chocolate I’m as likely to shoulder the difference and not worry about it.

When I did my first TGO Challenge walk across Scotland in 2009 I was wearing my battered old Ventile smock and trusty cotton duck Tilley Hat; trousers were almost certainly involved as well. If the comments I heard are anything to go by then this was considered somewhat eccentric. The smock was worn every day, since it was both my windproof and waterproof outer garment. Only on one day did a relentless spell of rain overwhelm it, but for the route I took and conditions I encountered (including sleet and snow) it was excellent, as good as it has always been. Even so, I’m taking a Páramo 3rd Element jacket on the next Challenge, partly because I’m being slightly less cautious about my route and will be spending more time out of the valleys. The 3rd Element (now sadly discontinued, although that’s why I was able to buy a new one for rather less than half price) is considerably more eccentric than my smock – I’ll let you Google it to discover why – yet is greatly prized by the likes of Andy Howell and Colin Ibbotson. Colin, of course, is British ultralighting’s combination boffin and test pilot, pushing the limits on behalf of us all, but mostly because he clearly enjoys it.

Anyway, I might also carry a very lightweight windproof jacket, useful as an extra layer to trap a bit of warmth, or too help keep the bugs off on very hot days when zipping up the Páramo would be unbearable. Mine is a GoLite something-or-other, bought, like so much of my kit, in a clearance sale and consequently a particularly eyebrow-raising shade of orange. This flimsy, gossamer-thin hooded top weighs a rather astonishing 108g (bit of a sop to the metric users out there. I get complaints, you see), despite the fact that I don’t take small sizes. It folds into its own pocket to form a tiny, wallet-like pillow of nylon, yet erupts impossibly out of the pouch as though liberating itself from John Hurt’s chest, ready for action. It is by no means the lightest such jacket on the market. How light can such things get? How light do we really need them to get, indeed? Posts on the ultralight hiking forums seem to suggest that newcomers are terribly worried that their gear might not be light enough. Are they buying the right things? Will losing another half pound make all the difference? Will the big boys point and laugh at their comparatively heavy kit? In reality, it’s not at all difficult in these days of supermarket fleece jackets and tough synthetics to get a respectably light outfit together for a very reasonable amount, without needing to spend hundreds on the cutting edge. Carrying twenty pounds is a lot better than carrying thirty (unless the extra ten pounds are included for a purpose, of course: lightest possible is not necessarily lightest suitable), so why agonise in advance? It’s a wonderful thing to be able to access all of this information and opinion from one’s desk (or even ‘phone), but nothing substitutes for experience: a decent, cheap start lets you actually get out and hike, then next time you can start tweaking it all to suit your personal preferences.

My stove, of course, sits sneering at me to highlight my apparent hypocrisy. It weighs less than half an ounce and is made of titanium, of course. Get over it.