Saturday, July 29, 2006

Canadians on the front lines of Afghanistan

I received an e-mail from a friend, Tom Barclay, in Ottawa. He, in turn, received it from a friend in the Canadian Armed Forces. In the e-mail was a description of combat written by a Canadian soldier fighting in Afghanistan.

Apparently the media in Canada has been hovering somewhere between ignoring and deriding the war in Afghanistan. (This is the implication I received through various links, admittedly from pro-military folks.) Canada isn't participating in Iraq, but has been participating in Afghanistan since December, 2001. If the Canadian media have been quiet about this, you wouldn't even know Canadians were in Afghanistan via the American news media if some Canadians hadn't been hurt there this week. As such, few people have heard of what is being called the Battle of Panjawai.

The Battle of Panjawai was the biggest ground engagement for the Canadian Forces since the Korean War. The original five day mission was supposed to last from July 7 until July 12, but it wasn't over for most soldiers until July 21. I only found this out from a blog; I couldn't find any mention of it in any media outlets.

Tom's e-mail forwarded on an e-mail from a Canadian Forces soldier to some friends. The soldier, named Andrew, wanted his story to get out so he asked folks to circulate it. It showed up on the Small Dead Animals blog originally. I've pulled it from there. I have not altered it in any way. I have added information, clearly shown as my own additions (I include my initials — AWG), to explain military and other terms for laymen.

This message originally appeared online here:

The other blog entry, which gave the dates of the battle and includes a short message from another Canadian in the battle, can be found here:


Battle of Panjawai and Beyond

Hey everybody! First off I apologize for the length of this email, as it contains two weeks worth of Afghanistan fun. I am doing well and brutally honest I have enjoyed this last couple of weeks. Seven years of training culminating in 14 action packed days. At first I wasn’t going to write a lot of detail about what happened, because some people might find it upsetting. However, when I got back to Kandahar Air Field (KAF) and read the deplorable media coverage that the largest operation Canadians have been involved in since Korea, I really felt I had to write it all down, to give you all (and hopefully everyone you talk to back in Canada) an appreciation for what we are really doing here in this “state of armed conflict” (lawyers say we can’t use the word “war”, I don’t know what the difference is except for it being far more politically correct.)

We received word while down at our Forward Operating Base (FOB) that we were going to be part of a full out three day (HA HA) Battle Group operation. [The Battle Group in Afghanistan is about 1,000 members strong, and made up primarily by the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. More information here. - AWG] This was going to be the largest operation Canada had undertaken since the Korean War. When we arrived back in KAF for orders we found out that we were rolling for Pashmul in the Panjawai District of Kandahar province. That was hard for my crew to hear, as that was the same town where Nichola had died and where Bombadier [Artillery rank equivalent to Corporal. - AWG] Chris Gauthier (a signaler in the party before I arrived) had been injured in an ambush. Participating in this attack were A, B and C Company (Coy.) Groups [A company has between 100 and 200 soldiers. A battalion consists of three infantry companies and some support units in Canadian army units. - AWG], both troops of artillery from A Battery [A battery has between 4 and 8 artillery pieces. - AWG], an Engineer squadron [An engineer squadron is roughly equivalent in size to an infantry battalion. - AWG], two Companies of Afghan National Army (plus all of their attached American Embedded Training Teams – ETT), as well as a huge lineup of American and British Fixed and Rotary wing aircraft ["Fixed wing" means fighter and bomber aircraft. "Rotary wing" means helicopters. - AWG]. Additionally, we had elements of the 2/87 US Infantry [2nd Battalion, 87th U.S. Infantry Regiment, part of the 10th Mountain Division. - AWG] and 3 Para [3rd Parachute Regiment. Equivalent to an American Airborne regiment. - AWG] from the UK conducting blocks to prevent the enemy from escaping. From an Artillery perspective beyond the two gun troops (each equipped with 2 x 155mm Howitzers and 4 x 81mm mortars) we had three Forward Observation Officers (FOO) and their parties [Artillery soldiers who serve on the front line with the infantry. They call in artillery and air strikes in support of the infantry. - AWG] as well as the Battery Commander and his party going in on the attack.

On the night of the 7th around 2200 hrs local C Company Group (with yours truly attached as their FOO) rolled for Pashmul. As we arrived closer to the objective area we saw the women and children pouring out of the town… not a good sign. We pushed on and about 3 km from our intended Line of Departure to start the operation we were ambushed by Taliban fighters. At around 0030hrs I had my head out of the turret crew commanding my LAV [Light Armoured Vehicle, an armoured personnel carrier (APC). Click here for more information. - AWG] with my night vision monocular on. Two RPG rounds thundered into the ground about 75m from my LAV. For about half a second I stared at them and thought, “huh, so that’s what an RPG looks like.” The sound of AK 7.62mm [Likely either an AK-47 or AK-74 assault rifle. - AWG] fire cracking all around the convoy snapped me back to reality and I quickly got down in the turret and we immediately began scanning for the enemy. They were on both sides of us adding to the “fog of war”. We eventually figured out where all of our friendlies were, and where to begin engaging. We let off about 20 rounds of Frangible 25mm [A type of ammunition. Click here for more information. - AWG] from our cannon at guys about a 100m away before we got a major jam in our link ejection chute. We went to our 7.62 coax machine gun [A "coax" machine gun is a "coaxial" machine gun, one that is mounted parallel to the main gun of a tank, APC, Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV). It aims where the main gun aims, and can be used for finding the range to a target. - AWG], and fired one round before it too jammed!! Boy was I pissed off. I went to jump up on the pintol mounted machine gun [A machine gun mounted on the top of the LAV's turret, which can be swung around. Since it's on the turret, the gunner has to expose himself to use it. - AWG], but as I stuck my head out of the LAV I realized the bad guys were still shooting at us and that the Canadian Engineers were firing High Explosive Incendiary 25mm rounds [A type of ammunition used primarily against light armour and personnel. A pretty nasty round; click here for more information. - AWG] from their cannon right over our front deck. I quickly popped back down realizing that was probably one of the stupider ideas I have ever had in my life J Eventually after much cursing and beating the crap out of the link ejection chute [Larger machine guns have bullets linked together in a belt. This chute is where the little link bits are chucked out of the machine gun. - AWG] with any blunt instrument we could find in the turret, we were back in the game. The first Troops in Contact (TIC) lasted about two hours. The radio nets were busier than I had ever heard before and we realized that A and B Coys. as well as Reconnaissance Platoon [A platoon designed primarily for scouting. - AWG] had all been hit simultaneously, showing a degree of coordination not seen before in Afghanistan. The feeling amongst the Company was that was probably it, as the enemy usually just conducted hit and run attacks. Boy, were we wrong! We continued to roll towards our Line of Departure and not five minutes later as we rolled around a corner, I saw B Coy. on our left flank get hit with a volley of about 20 RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenade. They look nothing like grenades, and are actually anti-tank weapons. Click here for more information. - AWG] all bursting in the air over the LAVs. It was an unreal scene to describe. There was no doubt now that we were in a big fight.

We pushed into the town following the Company Commander behind the lead Platoon. This was not LAV friendly country. The entire area was covered in Grape fields, which due to the way they grow them are not passable to LAVs, and acres of Marijuana fields which due to irrigation caused the LAVs to get stuck. The streets were lined with mud compounds and mud walls just barely wide enough to get our cars through. After traveling about 300m our lead platoon came under attack from a grape drying hut in the middle of what can only be described as an urban built up area. The Company Commander then issued a quick set of frag orders and I was about to participate in my first ever Company attack. He signaled for me to dismount and follow him. It was an uncomfortable feeling dismounting from the turret, as the only way out is through the top of the turret. I was standing probably 15 feet high in the air with friendly and hostile rounds snapping and cracking in the air everywhere. Needless to say I got down quick. I went to the back of my LAV and banged on the door to signal we were dismounting. As the Master Bombardier opened the door he went pale as we were only 20m from where they had previously been ambushed and where Nich had died. Regardless, we soldiered on. We grabbed our radios and followed the Company Commander. We went into a compound that was actually the same one Howie Nelson had dropped a 1,000lb bomb on after the attack in May. We went up to a second story ledge on a mud wall, and the Company Commander pointed out a compound and said “can you hit that?” I lased the building and found out it was only 89m away. Back in Canada we never bring Artillery in much closer than a 1000m, so you can imagine what I was thinking. I sat down and did the math (those of you who know my mathematical skills are probably cringing right now!). I looked at him and said that in theory and mathematically we would be okay where we were, but I made him move one of the other Platoons back 150m. A funny story as I was doing the math, an American ETT Captain working with the ANA looked down at me and said “There are no ANA forward of us” I responded “Roger”, to which he said “good” fired three rounds and said “Got him”. I then realized that he had asked me a question and had not stated a fact (for some reason everyone seems to think that the FOO magically knows where all the friendlies are). Through all the gunfire I had missed the infliction in his voice. I looked at him and said, “Hey, I have no idea where your ANA are, you’re supposed to look after them!” Luckily it wasn’t a friendly he had shot at.

We started the Fire Mission with the first round landing about 350m from my position. The noise of Artillery whistling that close and exploding was almost deafening, the FOO course sure hadn’t prepared me for this! Master Bombardier and I debated the correction for a second and eventually agreed upon a Drop 200m, mostly because we needed to get rounds on that compound ASAP as we were taking heavy fire. The round came in and landed a bit left of the compound. We lased the impact and found out it was 105m from us. We gave a small correction and went into Fire For Effect with 50% Ground Burst and 50% Air Burst. [The FOO estimates the range and calls in a single round. He watches where it lands, makes a correction, and calls in another round. When he thinks the artillery unit has the round on the target, he calls in a Fire For Effect, which is a full artillery load. In modern combat the FOO rarely fires more than two or three ranging rounds. Ground bursts explode when they hit the ground. Air bursts, or proximity rounds, detonate a set height above the ground. - AWG] The rounds came in 85m from us, right on the compound. Truly I did not appreciate the sheer frightening and awe-inspiring nature of proximity (the air burst rounds). I then had the worst moment of my military career as one of the Sections began shouting “Check Fire, Check Fire!” ["Check Fire!" is the command to "stop firing". - AWG] on the net, followed quickly by their Platoon Commander saying they had casualties and to prepare for a 9 Line (air medical evacuation request). It turned out the two events were unrelated but for a while I thought I had injured or even worse killed a Canadian. In actuality the Section that called Check Firing was actually the furthest of anyone in the Company from the shells and had panicked (which led to a lot of ribbing and jokes from their buddies afterwards who had all been closer). The 9 Line was for an ANA soldier who had been struck 5 minutes before. However unfortunate, I was definitely relieved to here all that.

Day one carried on with several more small skirmishes and me moving from compound to compound to set up Observation Posts (OPs), from which I could support the Company’s movement. I never thought that in my career I would literally be kicking in doors and leading a three man stack, clearing room after room to get to my OPs.

We ended the day, which had seen us in contact for 12 straight hours, by sleeping beside our vehicle in full battle rattle for about an hour with sand fleas biting us. They are the single most ignorant and annoying bug ever. The next morning started off with what seemed like a benign task. We were to clear the grape fields to the south of our objective area. Intelligence said there was nobody there and this would only take us a couple of hours. About an hour into the clearing operation we came under contact from a heavily fortified compound. Unfortunately we had a young fellow killed early in the engagement when the infantry tried to storm the compound. They met fierce resistance, far greater than expected. (I didn’t know the young soldier personally, but do recall thinking how fearless he was a week earlier when I saw him running around the Brit compound with a Portuguese flag right after England had lost in the World Cup. I was impressed by his peers and friends and how professionally they carried on after his death.) After the attempted storming of the compound, the Company Commander came to me and said “right, we tried that the old fashioned way, now I want you to level that compound.” As I was coming up with a plan for how I would do this, we had a call sign I had never heard before check in. It was Mobway 51. Ends up he was a Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle armed with a hellfire missile. [For information on the Predator, click here. For information on the Hellfire missile, click here. - AWG] I don’t know how he knew we needed help or what frequency we were using, and frankly I don’t care, he was a blessing. When the Company Commander asked me what the safety distance for a hellfire was I literally had to go to the reference manual I carry (J Fires Manual) because I had never seen one before and had no idea what it actually could do. I told him the safety distance was 100m. To which he asked how far we were from the compound – the laser said 82m. We debated the ballistic strength of the mud wall beside us and in the end he decided to risk it. Nothing like seeing an entire Company in the fetal position pressed up against a mud wall! The hellfire came in and it was the loudest thing I have ever heard. Three distinct noises: the missile firing, it coming over our heads and the boom. For about 30 seconds we couldn’t see anything but a cloud of dust. Then when the dust settled the Platoons started hooting and hollering. The compound barely even looked the same. (At this point our embedded journalist Christie Blanchford [Actually, Christie Blatchford of the Globe and Mail. - AWG] from the Globe and Mail had enough and left us, can’t blame her I guess.) The Company again tried to clear the compound but still met resistance. So we lobbed in 18 artillery shells 82m from us (even closer than the day before) and then brought in two Apache Attack Helicopters [For more information, click here. - AWG]. On the second rocket attack (I actually have video of this) the pilot hit the target with his first rocket and the second one went long and landed just on the other side of the mud wall from us. It engulfed us in rocket exhaust, but thankfully no one was hurt. When the hellfire had gone off it had started a small building in the compound on fire and suddenly we started getting secondary explosions off of a weapons cache that was in it. Everything started exploding around us, and the two guys that had not listened to me to press up against the wall got hit with shrapnel, both in the legs. One was the Company Commander’s Signaler, a crazy Newf [A "Newf" is someone from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. - AWG], who was cracking jokes even with shrapnel in his leg. The medic dealt with him and I went over to the American ETT Captain who was only a few feet from me and began doing first aid on him. He looked liked he was going into shock, until his American Sergeant came up behind me and said “Shit Sir, that’s barely worth wearing a Purple Heart for!” I was surprised how much first aid I actually remembered, and the only difficult part was trying to cut off his pant leg because American combats are designed not to tear, making them particularly difficult to cut! In the end we took the compound and captured a high level Taliban leader who was found by the infantry hiding in a sewage culvert, begging for the shelling to stop. As well, we found a major weapons cache, which the engineers took great delight in blowing up. Unfortunately the assault had cost us one killed, two wounded, a Section commander had blown his knee throwing a grenade and four guys had gone down to extreme heat exhaustion. We found out though that this was a Taliban and Al Qaeda hot bed and that they had been reinforced by Chechen and Tajik fighters (which I guess means we really got a chance to take on Al Qaeda and not just the Taliban). [This surprised me. I didn't know Chechens were there. Western media tends to give Chechen rebels a neutral, even slightly positive, image because of the excesses of the Russian army fighting them. I hadn't realized the Chechens were fighting our forces in Afghanistan.]

Day three was uneventful for C Coy. and we prepared to go back to our FOB. Which would have been good because I had come down with a cold… not what I needed in combat (umm, I mean state of armed conflict!) Unfortunately that was not to be. A British Company from 3 Para had been isolated and surrounded by Taliban in the Helmand Province in the Sangin District Center. They were running out of food and were down to boiling river water. They had tried to air drop supplies but they ended up landing in a Taliban stronghold (thank you air force). C Coy. was tasked to conduct an immediate emergency resupply with our LAVs. We headed off to what can only be described as the Wild West. The Company (B Coy) of the Paras that was holding the District Center had lost four soldiers there and was being attacked 3 to 5 times a day. We rolled in there after a long and painful road move across the desert. When we arrived in Sangin the locals began throwing rocks and anything they could at us, this was not a friendly place. We pushed into the District Center, and during the last few hundred meters we began receiving mortar fire. They never taught me on my LAV Crew Commander course how to command a vehicle with all the hatches closed using periscopes in an urban environment. [When a tank or APC is "buttoned up", the only way to see out is through a series of periscopes. - AWG] I truly did it by sense of touch, meaning as we hit the wall to the left I would tell the driver to turn a little right!! We resupplied the Brits and unfortunately it turned dark and we couldn’t get out of there, so we had to spend the night. We were attacked with small arms RPGs and mortars three times that night, I still can’t believe that the Brits have spent over a month living there under those conditions. They are a proud unit and they were grateful but embarrassed that we had to come save the day. And as good Canadians we didn’t let them hear the end of being rescued by a bunch of colonials!!

We left Sangin again thinking we were headed home. We made it about 40km before we were called back to reinforce the District Center and help secure a helicopter landing site. As we sat there we received orders that we were now cut to the control of 3 Para for their upcoming operation north of Sangin. This was turning out to be the longest three day operation ever!!! Enroute we were engaged by an 82mm mortar from across a valley. I engaged them with our artillery, it felt a lot more like shooting in Shilo as they were 2.8km away as opposed to the 100m or less my previous engagements had been. We went round for round with them in what Rob, the Troop Commander firing the guns for us, called an indirect fire duel. In the end he said the score was Andrew 1 Taliban O and there is no worry of that mortar ever firing again. We rode all through the night (with my LAV on a flat tire) and arrived right as the Paras Air Assaulted onto the objective with Chinook helicopters [For more information on the Chinook, click here. - AWG]. There were helicopters everywhere. It was a hot landing zone and they took intense fire until we arrived with LAVs, and the enemy ran away. It was a different operation as we were used to a lot more intimate support tanks to shoot the Paras in. It was impressive to watch them though, they are unbelievable soldiers.

We left the operation about 25 hours later (still3 going on no sleep) and thought that for sure we were now done this “three day op”. But as we were withdrawing to secure the landing zone for the Brits (under fire from 107mm rockets and 82mm mortars) we received Frag orders to conduct a sensitive sight exploitation where the Division had just dropped two 1000lbs bombs. Good old C Coy. leading the charge again!

We drove to the sight and saw nothing but women and children fleeing the town. I thought, “here we go again.” Luckily this time I found a good position for observation with my LAV and did not have to go in on the attack. The Company quickly came under attack from what was later estimated as 100+ fighters. For about 15 minutes we lost communications with the Company Commander and a whole Section of infantry as they were basically overrun. The Section had last been seen going into a ditch that was subsequently hit with a volley of about 15 RPGs; I thought we had lost them all. I had Brit Apaches check in and they did an absolutely brilliant job at repelling the enemy. The only problem was I couldn’t understand a word the pilot was saying because of his accent! Luckily I had the Brit Liaison Officer riding in the back of my LAV. I ended up using him (a Major) as a very highly paid interpreter to help me out. After about an hour long fight the Company broke contact (but lived up to the nickname the soldiers had given us, “Contact C”) and we leveled several compounds with artillery. Somehow we escaped without a scratch, truly amazing.

We were again ordered back to the Sangin District Center with 3 Para and spent the next few days fighting with the Paras. For four days I did not get a chance to take off my Frag vest, helmet or change my socks, etc. We were attacked 2-3 times a day, and always repelled them decisively. I also discovered during this period that exchanging rations with the Brits is a really bad idea. Not only were they stuck in this miserable place but their food was absolutely horrible!

After saying our good byes to our Brit comrades (the enemy learnt their lesson and finally stopped attacking the place), we again prepared to go back home. Alas, it was not to be again. We were ordered South to take back to towns that the Taliban had just taken. Luckily this time after 11 straight days in contact, C Coy. was the Battle Group reserve. We headed to the British Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT). We rolled into the town to the strangest arrival yet. This was coalition country. The locals (unlike Kandahar and even more so in Sangin) were excited and happy to see us. We had kids offering us candy and water instead of begging. There were no Burkhas. The women were in colorful gowns with their faces exposed. The town was booming with shops everywhere and industry flourishing. We went to the PRT and it didn’t even seem real. I took off my helmet, Flak vest and I had a shower and changed my clothes for the first time in two weeks. I ate a huge fresh meal (until my stomach hurt), and then went and sat on the edge of a water fountain in garden and watched a beach volleyball game between the Brits and Estonians. I laughed as I had supper and watched the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) which was reporting that we had taken back the towns, but H Hour was still 2 hours away, so much for the element of surprise. After what we had been through it was hard to believe this place was in the same country. I slept that night (still on the ground beside my LAV because they did not have enough rooms) better than I think I have before in my life. The next couple of days were quiet for us as they did not need to commit us as the reserve. On day 14 of our 3 day op we conducted the 10 hour road move back to KAF, literally limping back as our cars were so beat up (mine was in the best shape in the entire Company and we had a broken differential … again).

Things look like they will be quieter for us now, and I will be home soon. Sad news from the home front, our little Yorkie, Howitzer, was in an accident the other day and didn’t make it. It won’t be the same going home without him, he truly was one of our kids (furkids!). We had three great years with him though and my only regret is that I wasn’t there to comfort Julianne who has been through so much lately. But she has some great friends their who have looked after her. To those of you who have been with her through this and the events of the last few months, I am forever indebted to you.

There are more stories I could tell of these last two weeks but this email has become long enough as it is and if I did that I would have no war stories (I mean state of armed conflict stories) to tell you when I get home. I will end by saying that I have truly enjoyed this experience. Combat is the ultimate test of an officer, and on several occasions I did things that I didn’t know I was capable of. I am so proud of my crew and the entire Company Group, we soldiered hard and long and showed the enemy that messing with Canadians is a really bad idea. We accomplished something in the last two weeks that Canadian soldiers have not done since Korea. The Afghan Government, elected by the Afghans, requested our assistance and we were able to help. We were the equal, if not superior of our allies in everything we did. I hope that I gave you all an appreciation of what these young brave men and women are doing over here, and even if the media can’t find the time or effort to report what we are doing and the difference we are making, hopefully you can pass it on. I will see all of you real soon. I hope all is well with all of you, and please keep the emails coming, I read every one and enjoy hearing from you, even if I cannot respond individually.

Take Care


Friday, July 28, 2006

Who wants to make an ass of themselves?

Last night was the premiere of Who Wants to Be a Superhero on the SciFi channel. I'm really not sure what to make of this show. I laughed out loud a couple of times, but I suspect it was more in spite of the show than because of it.

The premise: eleven humans with super powers compete to see who is the greatest superhero on Earth.

No, really.

Well, okay, it's not really like that. I mean, there is no such thing as super powers. They even mentioned this in the show, just in case the costumed clowns contestants didn't get it. Now, I thought this was a stupid premise at first, but as I got thinking about it, it's not that outlandish. Survivor could just as easily have been named Cannibal and had the same effect. You know, once every three weeks someone disappears, and when the show ends the two finalists have to prove that they were the least evil. Gosh, why do they even run Survivor on tropical islands? (I know: cleavage.) They should instead hold it in the Sierra Nevadas or the Andes.

So you have 11 adults (youngest was 19, oldest 42, average age in their 30s) dressed in costumes that wouldn't have passed muster at Jimmy's Halloween party. They compete for the title of greatest superhero and a slew of prizes: a comic book, a SciFi channel movie deal (one of those horrid Saturday night things that are too bad even for direct-to-video), and an appearance in the "superhero parade" at the Universal Studios Orlando theme park. Not much of a prize, really, for making an ass out of yourself. I think I made more money when I sold off my nearly-complete run of Claremont/Byrne/Austin X-men comics back in the 80s.

The hero bios can be found here:

Presiding over this motley crew is Stan "The Man" Lee, co-founder of Marvel Comics. The driving force behind the show is Dark Horse Comics. Stan Lee doesn't actually appear on camera with the contestants. He's seen giving directions to the heroes on widescreen TVs. He's no Jeff Probst, and he's way, way too earnest, but he does bring a sort of kitschy charm to the show.

Not so charming are the contestants. They look like they were dragged out of a GenCon superhero LARP.

No, I take that back. LARP-ers would have actually read superhero comics at some point in their life. There is very little evidence to suggest that any of these people can read a cereal box, let alone a comic book. Cell Phone Girl, Monkey Woman, and Fat Momma are the worst as far as concepts go. Worst costume goes to Monkey Woman, though the Iron Enforcer — with a huge prop gun and steroidic muscles that scream "Compensating!" — and Major Victory are right up there in the fromage department.

Nitro G is an ex-comic book store worker who knows "all" the characters. Maybe he is a little too close to the subject, because he sure doesn't act like a superhero. Maybe he should have spent more time roleplaying...

I missed the first bit of the show, coming in 50 minutes from the end. I don't know if the first episode was two hours long or only an hour, but the first casualty — Levity — had already been ousted when I tuned in.

[Edit: I had missed closer to half an hour. Levity was thrown out because he makes action figures and was caught on tape talking about making money on his character.]

The rest of the episode consisted of the superheroes finding their "hidden lair", and then competing in a test of super powers.

This is where Lee made a point of explaining that the contestants didn't really have any super powers! (Too bad for Krispy Kreme, as Fat Momma's bio says she gets her super powers from doughnuts.) Instead, the challenge (notice that "games" are always "challenges" in reality TV?) was for each superhero to change from street clothes to their costumes in a public place without being noticed, and then run under an archway. The first one through wins. Presumably the last ones would be up for elimination.

Oh, but there's a catch! Unknown to the heroes, a young girl with lousy acting skills was hanging around the finish line crying for her mom. The superheroes were actually supposed to help her get to her mother. Only those who raced past her and followed the letter of the challenge were selected for possible elimination.

(Stan Lee declared the little girl to be the "real" challenge. There's a constant theme in comics about saving the innocent, even when there are more serious things afoot. If any of the losers who ran past her had cracked open a Spider-Man comic they'd have known this. If any of them had listened to her pretend sobs, they would have realized something was up. Still, it seemed like cheating. It's obvious not all of the heroes saw her, or heard her. And, really, should Batman ignore the bat signal because of a little girl was suffering from parental neglect?)

The show's elimination ceremony takes place on the rooftop of their secret lair. Each hero stands on an acrylic box lit by a white light. Three heroes risk elimination, and they are told to stand on one of three red boxes. They have to give the little "why I should stay" speech so popular in Hell's Kitchen, and then Lee turfs one of them via a billboard sized plasma screen.

In the end, Nitro G was the second superhero sent back to his parents' basement. I can't remember the reason, something about Stan Lee not believing in him, or some such crap. Lee was deathly earnest. He even berated Monkey Girl for smirking at one point in the proceedings, which was the second time he told them this was serious stuff. If you have to tell your contestants that the show is serious, you have a problem! Personally, I thought they should have thrown the loser off the roof. If he could really fly, he should win by default. At least it would have been something no one had tried before.

I did laugh several times. Some of the contestants looked like they were having fun and knew full well they looked like idiots in full daylight. Other contestants looked... well, like there was a very good reason Lee had to mention they didn't have powers in real life.

I compared the show to Survivor earlier, but this is really Hell's Kitchen with secret identities and four-colour spandex (and Hell's Kitchen is really The Apprentice with appetizers and expletives). There's nothing really new here except for the incredible geek quotient. Still, I'm intrigued enough to watch it again. It's like Toby Maguire trying to stop the subway car in Spider-Man II, except you know this train wreck isn't going to end in hero worship.

The first episode airs again in 11 hours on Bravo, and July 30, at 9 a.m. EDT and 11 p.m. EDG on SciFi, just in case only seeing is believing. The next episode is next Thursday, and features the appearance of a super villain. For Fat Momma's sake, it better not be Richard Simmons.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

When dice go bad

This post is one for all you gamers out there. Someone on the Ground Zero Games mailing list posted a link to the Boing Boing blog. They, in turn, posted this link to the original site:

It's the post by a gamer whose dice were rolling so badly that he went into the back yard and buried them!

Driven to school

An article in the July 19 issue of The Scotsman says that Scottish parliament members are considering "no-car zones" around schools. The idea is still in the discussion phase, and so there are no details, but the government would ban cars from around schools at certain times of the day. The intention is to encourage children to walk or cycle to school. It would be done in conjunction with cycle routes. By contrast, England has been encouraging "park and stride", voluntary programs to encourage the same thing: get kids walking or cycling to school as a way to lower child obesity.

It absolutely shocked me how many kids around Monroe are driven to school each day, either by parents or by school bus. It's an accepted part of life that kids will be driven to school. There is a semi-circular drive in front of Logan's school that acts as a "kiss and ride". We drop Logan off, but that's because he has to be in class before 7:50 a.m. and we're driving past there anyway.

Logan's school is about a kilometre from our apartment. I checked Google Maps and found that the distance from our apartment to Woodcrest Public School in Oshawa, ON, the school I attended from grade 2 to 6, was also about a kilometre distant. (This surprised me; I remember the walk as being much longer.) Not only did I walk that distance for five years (sometimes riding a bike when I got older, but through snow in the winter), I did it twice a day. I always went home for lunch. Very few kids got rides to school. There was a "safety patrol" that helped the younger kids crossing the road. When I went to Ridgeway Senior Public School for grade 7 the distance increased to 1.6 km, or a mile. We moved before grade 8, reducing the distance to Ridgeway to about 1.4 km. I rode my bike to Ridgeway whenever I could (meaning September to November, and April to June).

The Scotsman article says that some 22% of kids in Scotland are driven to school. I'm sure the percentage in Monroe, LA is much, much higher. It's pretty much a given that kids are driven to school. This just floored me. It's not something the American media grabs hold of when they talk about childhood obesity, but it has to be a factor.

It certainly floored me when I first saw all the cars dropping kids off. It floored me even more to learn that the school bus picked up kids where we lived. I asked Alana why kids didn't just walk to school. She looked at me like I was talking in a foreign language.

Not having had a child in Toronto, I'm not certain how kids get to school. My friends Chris and Liza had a problem with cars outside their house (they live across from the school) but most kids in the neighbourhood walk. Likewise, I lived across from a school and it looked like most kids walked there. The bike rack was always full, suggesting a large number of kids riding their bikes. I remember a ton of bikes in the Ridgeway bike rack.

I think the shift away from letting kids walk home changed in the 1980s. I seem to remember an increased awareness of child predators and safety issues with regard to kids walking to school. There's also the move to both parents working. Our mornings are incredibly busy. We drive Logan to school not only because we drive past the school anyway, and not only because until late last year he still wanted one of us to walk to his class with him, but because we'd have to wake up half an hour earlier to get him up earlier and off to school in time.

Speaking of school lunches, Alana remembers always eating lunch at school. Logan eats lunch at school. When he first started going and I was out of work I asked her if she wanted me to take him home for lunch. She just looked at me funny (that foreign language thing again). It was then that I discovered that kids are just assumed to eat lunch at school, and that schools frown on kids leaving once they get there. Mind you, they only have about half an hour for lunch and the young kids eat around 10:30 (with a snack in the afternoon), so it's not very practical taking them home for lunch.

By contrast, we had an hour for lunch. Neither Woodcrest nor Ridgeway had a cafeteria. Kids eating at school ate bagged lunches on benches in the gymnasium. I think that's all changed now. I remember Woodcrest getting a big expansion, including a cafeteria. At the time, though, the only school I went to that had a cafeteria was the high school, McLaughlin Collegiate and Vocational Institute. Even then I only ate lunch there a handful of times. By that time we lived right behind the school. The school clocks were always a little bit slow (or ours were always fast); I could climb the back fence and walk to school such that the time I left was later than the time I arrived!

Monday, July 24, 2006

RPG motivational posters

There is a thread on RPG.Net — a roleplaying game forum — dealing with photoshopped motivational posters. The idea is for readers to create images similar to the corporate motivational posters popular in many companies (or the parody of same, as seen at This thread started off simply enough, but it's become hideously long. At last count the thread has had 1.3 million hits!

Early on, I created a number of motivational posters of my own. I've since added a couple of others (two of which Jimmy and Jason haven't seen, and one Alana hasn't seen). Since most of my blog readers are unlikely to go traipsing over to RPG.Net, I thought I'd post them here.

Note that one of them is in... uh... questionable taste and may not be exactly "workplace friendly". Technically it could appear on prime time television (i.e. no breasts, genitals, or bums showing), but... well, you've been warned.

Here are the posters I created. If I do any more, I'll add them as I create them.

(Click on the image to see a larger, better looking version of it.)

This is the first one, based on a quote from the brilliant The Colbert Report:

This is, so far, the only Call of Cthulhu based poster. Non-gamers won't understand it. A "SAN Check" is a roll to see if a character has lost a little — or a lot — of his sanity:

This is probably the weakest poster I've done. It's based on a line from The Princess Bride:

This poster is based on a standard gamer theme, that gamers — many of whom are overweight guys with poor social skills — can be... smelly, at least in conventions (where folks tend to game non-stop for the better part of a weekend):

This is the "workplace dangerous" poster. When I originally created it back in May during a gaming weekend, Jimmy, Jason, Alana and I were rolling on the floor laughing after I posted it. I got a number of positive comments about it... and about as many very negative comments. One reader gave me a "laugh point". Another said he was unsubscribing from the thread over it. Hmmm... if I was CNN, that would be termed "balanced":

After posting this picture under the "Pimping Do-Ming's ride" entry on this blog, I was inspired (apparently only a little bit) to turn it into a poster. For the non-roleplayers, "LARP" stands for Live Action Role Playing; this is when people play the game by moving around as though they were playing make believe (as opposed to sitting around in a living room talking about what their characters do):

My most recent poster. This is based, only slightly tongue in cheek, on an actual incident. I don't think the guy was a stats major, but he was a university student. A "D20" is a twenty-sided die, like the one in the picture:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Pimping Do-Ming's ride

In a comment about gas guzzlers (where Winter started the ball rolling by suggesting I get a blue gas guzzler), Do-Ming said the following:

How about getting a white one with Starfleet markings? My essential geek nature comes out :-)

Well, since Do-Ming brought it up, here is his car, after it was pimped! (*grin*):

That picture was taken in January, 1993 in Toronto.

I sincerely hope it's not Do-Ming's car...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I have an office!

After almost exactly 27 years in the work force (I started my employment history as a McDonald's burger jockey on July 8, 1979), I have my own office! Yes, an honest to ghod office, with like walls, and a door and stuff! I even have a window, though it's a window to the rest of the office.

Actually, the cubicle I left was the best cubicle I ever had. I'm not sorry to leave it. Okay, the window opens up into the rest of the office...

Here are some pictures of the office.

This is the office as seen from the doorway.

This second shot is the office as seen from outside from another angle.

Okay, a short tour:

The picture in the back is a Sierra Club photo of a comet as seen from the desert in the western U.S. The picture on the right is a poster commemorating Canadian Canadian participation in the Battle of Britain. On the desk at the back is a robot shaped desk light that Alana got me as an "office warming" gift. You can't see it, but I have a plastic figure of the Killer Rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail on the desk beside the lamp. The main portion of the figure is a night with a big gout of blood shooting up from his body as he's been decapitated. Okay, you have to see it to understand. On the first of two (yes, two!) monitors is a plush Killer Rabbit.

You can see the Killer Rabbit on the monitor better in this shot. In the background is a framed print of the Red Baron's "final victory", the British aircraft he shot down as his last victim before he was killed. On the book case is a "quilt" square Logan made for me last year at the library.

The desktop. The background on the two monitors is a picture of the Horsehead Nebula. The calendar is the 2006 Monty Python calendar.

The cabinet in the background on the right deserves special mention. That was just a plain wooden cabinet we bought at Hobby Lobby. Alana did an excellent job painting it. I received lots of compliments on it. On top of the cabinet is a Demotivators poster (found at You can see a better picture of it here:

The view out my office at the poor cubicle dwellers. Suckers!

(Well, maybe I'm the sucker. The person in the picture is Carl, our project manager. He makes probably three times what I make, and he works from his home in Spokane, Washington most of the time. I'd trade the office for that...)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Good time to buy gas guzzlers?

Alana sent me an article from It suggests that now might just be a really good time to buy a gas guzzling SUV, from a cost perspective. (It's still a nightmare as far as global warming goes...). It's an interesting article that points out a simple economic fact: large SUVs have fallen out of favour enough that the extra gas money paid to run the vehicle is more than offset by the drop in price.

You can find the article here.

Feds relax some citizenship requirements for Medicaid

I mentioned last month how the federal government was requiring all Medicaid recipients to be citizens, and how they backed off that requirement by July 1. What I didn't post, but meant to, was how they came back later in June and made the requirements more stringent than ever!

In order to be a "citizen" as far as Medicaid is concerned, a Medicaid recipient needs a passport, or a birth certificate and a government-issued ID with their picture on it. This has to be presented to a Medicaid analyst when the person's Medicaid is due for renewal. If you don't have proper documentation, you can get by with a statement from two people who do have proper documentation.

Alana supports a lot of elderly people. Many of them don't have birth certificates. At the turn of the 20th century it was common for a "birth certificate" to be an entry in a family bible, particularly if they were born poor or in a small town. She also came across a couple of other people who could not comply with the new regulations. One was a woman who was house bound. She can not drive, does not live in Monroe (so no bus service), can't afford a taxi, and has no friends or family. How is she to get to the Medicaid office to prove her citizenship? Another person had a daughter on Medicaid. The daughter has been in a persistent vegetative state since she was a child, so she has no government issued ID. These are just two of many people who are American citizens but who can not comply with the regulations.

There are thousands of people who are trying to comply but do not have a current birth certificate. They are now rushing to get a certificate, a process that could take many weeks. Alana was put on a pilot project with access to the Vital Records system. This would allow her to look up birth certificates online. Unfortunately, these records have only been compiled electronically from 1985. If an American was born since then, or asked for a certificate since then, are in the system. Most of Alana's clients are not.

With all these problems, and the fears of legitimate Medicaid recipients, the Feds relaxed their requirements on July 7. The new rules show, gasp, common sense! The disabled and the elderly who are already on the system will be "grandfathered" into the system. They won't have to prove citizenship. Anyone else who is making a "good faith" effort to prove citizenship will not lose coverage. If no proof of citizenship exists, a sworn affidavit of the recipient and one other person will suffice.

Alana predicted over a month ago that the government would have to do something like this. It only took them about 6 weeks, and the scaring of a thousands of legitimate citizens — I say "thousands" based on the number of calls Alana's office received on the issue — before they changed the policy.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

We're home!

We drove from Chattanooga, TN to Monroe, LA yesterday. The drive took us about 8 hours, so we were home in time to order a pizza for supper. The vacation was very enjoyable, but too short.

Chattanooga is nestled between the Appalachian and Cumberland mountain ranges, giving the city breathtaking mountainous scenery. Although it is in Tennessee, it is less than an hour away from Alabama and borders Georgia.

Alana's family live on a mountain in Jasper, TN. We visited her two aunts (Sandra and Debbie, an older and a younger sister — respectively — of Alana's dad), Sandra's husband Wilroy, and a smattering of cousins (Jennifer, her husband Ray, Jonathan and Scott) the day after we arrived. They were disappointed that we didn't phone them in order to make arrangements to stay with them. We didn't want to impose due to the last-minute nature of the trip. We weren't sure exactly where we were going on our vacation until late last week. If we had known for certain earlier on, and if we hadn't taken Sabine with us, we could have stayed with them. They certainly offered us a place to stay, repeatedly.

We brought Sabine with us to Jennifer's house, where she was quickly overwhelmed by Jennifer's dogs. Sabine was so hyper that she spent a good deal of the visit in her crate in the garage just to stop her from barking. Sabine's hyper behaviour did not spoil the visit. Alana's relatives fed us all too well and made me feel a part of the family. The funniest part of the visit was a few hours after lunch. Ray cooked us steak for lunch. Later, an evidently hungry Logan went and took another hunk of steak for himself without asking. We wouldn't have known about it if he hadn't knocked over the dog's water dish. You just don't see kids going for steak when they are hungry.

On Wednesday Alana's family took us of a tour of rural middle Tennessee. It was nice to be chauffeured for a change! They drove us up and down a nearby mountain, stopping at a couple of lookout sites. They drove us into Sewanee (pronounced "Swan-nee"), where the University of the South is located. It has some beautiful architecture and a lot of history (two Civil War generals are connected with the university). Along the way Alana's Aunt Sandra took us to a gift shop that used to be a general store where her father once worked. He father also taught at the university for a short time, before becoming a high school teacher and later a principal. Her great grandfather was involved in building a retaining wall along the mountain highway.

The whole lot of us stopped by her Great Aunt Gladys' home, to see her and Great Uncle Merrel. They were incredibly shocked by the visit from the family, and terribly delighted. Uncle Merrel used to make his own furniture. He gave me a tour of the furniture in his home, which was awesome. My Dad would have enjoyed this. Later we drove to her aunt's cousin's home. Back in June we were supposed to go to a family reunion/anniversary party for Aunt Sandra and Uncle Wilroy, but we couldn't go because it fell on Father's Day (and we'd have to get Logan back to Monroe for a visit to Alana's ex). Cousin Beth had the reunion at her place, with the mountains visible from her home and farm. We got to meet Beth and Bill, and took several pictures with the mountains in the background. We returned to Jennifer's house for more food and more relatives.

We were late getting back to the La Quinta where we were staying. Sabine was happy to see us. This La Quinta is one of the few hotels in Chattanooga that allow pets. That morning we swapped rooms as the air conditioning died in our previous room. Sabine didn't have to stay in her crate all day, as the room was already clean. Alana had a problem with her door key twice, and there were a couple of times where housekeeping didn't clean up our room (probably because of Sabine, even when we told them that she was crated), so it wasn't a great hotel. It wasn't the Bates Motel, either. The hotel was inexpensive, which combined with taking pets made it ideal for us. It allowed us to take Sabine, saving us kennel money.

I'd been wanting to visit the Chickamauga battlefield for more than a decade. I finally got my wish on Monday. The battlefield is about 10 miles from Chattanooga, across the border in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. This is the site of the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War, second only to Gettysburg in casualties. This doesn't tell the whole story: Gettysburg was fought over three days while Chickamauga was fought over two, and there were 30,000 fewer Union soldiers at Chickamauga (but about the same number of Confederates).

We followed the signs to the battlefield, which caused us some disconcerting moments due to the signs being somewhat vague. We got to the visitor's centre after lunch. Logan was immediately enthralled with the Civil War cannons on display. I answered his questions about how the guns were loaded and fired, which echoed something that happened later. The gift shop was fairly small, but well stocked. I purchased a couple of maps based on period surveys similar to those that I bought in Gettysburg in 1994 (only to discover, later, that the maps are double sided; I guess at some point I'll have to buy two more!).

The battlefield itself reminds me a lot of Shiloh. It is heavily wooded, without clear lines of sight over the battlefield (characteristic of the western battles). Instead of the battle being focused along a long battle line (as at Gettysburg, Antietam, and Manassas), it was fought in disjointed pockets (like at Shiloh). Unlike Shiloh, the defensive line didn't shift too much. The result is a battlefield with concentrated pockets of monuments and markers, but without a lot of distinctive features. Snodgrass Hill, though impressive, is no Little Round Top. It more closely resembles Culp's Hill at Gettsyburg, but is smaller and has far fewer monuments. For the casualties, the battlefield seems too small. It reinforces the largely unimaginative tactics used by both sides (particularly the winning Confederates) which produced massive numbers of dead and maimed.

We were at the battlefield for about 5 hours. I'd like to go back some time and check out some of the more obscure locations. I'd also like to spend more time on Snodgrass Hill and poking around in the woods. The fall would be a good time to go; it was a bit warm the day we were there.

After the battlefield, we went to Baskin & Robbins for ice cream. There is no B&R in Monroe (nor a Dairy Queen, anymore) so this was a real treat for Logan, who had never been in one.

There are three or four game stores in Chattanooga. I'm sure the only one we went to — Gameboard in the Hamilton Place Mall — was the most expensive. It had a great selection, though. They didn't have much in the way of miniatures games, but they had a whole wall of fantasy miniatures (and some old Battletech miniatures). Their roleplaying game selection was very good, with a heavy emphasis on GURPS, but also games from other companies (like the Army of Darkness RPG from Eden, and Rune — a heroic Viking game I purchased — from Atlas Games). There was an obligatory D20 section, but non-D20 or OGL games outnumbered the D20 stuff by at least three to one. I was impressed with their selection of "designer" board games, like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. I would have purchased the new Carcassonne game (Carcassonne: The Discovery) but that was about the only variant they did not have in stock. I almost picked up Metro. Its price tag put me off. Instead we bought Beetlez, a family card game that I'm sure Logan will enjoy. Oh, and we bought more dice! Alana is in denial; she says she isn't a gamer chick (in spite of playing RPGS and board games), yet she has a huge collection of dice. She claims it's because she is a dice collector. Anyway, she has more dice now, (as do I; I'm a sucker for new dice, too. I at least admit that I'm a gamer).

We hit a few of the local tourist traps. The best was the Tennessee Aquarium. We bought a set of group tickets that got us into the aquarium, the IMAX theatre, and the Creative Discovery Museum. The aquarium is in two parts. When we toured the ocean portion I was a little surprised at how small it was. Turns out this was an expansion building. The original building is about four times the size. It concentrates on life in rivers around the world, and in ocean areas fed by rivers (such as the Gulf of Mexico). I found the whole thing fascinating. So did Logan. He was thrilled to touch a live stingray and a sturgeon. We spent what must have been 20 minutes watching two divers feed some fish, including the big stingrays.

We split up the aquarium visit by going to the 3 p.m. showing of the IMAX Deep Sea 3D film. This is the first full colour 3D movie I'd seen. It was quite well done, even if you had to wear the dorky glasses, and even if you did go nuts trying to focus on things that were out of focus on the film. After the movie we ran over to the Creative Discovery Museum. This was a disappointment for Alana and I. It is almost a duplicate of the Children's Museum in New Orleans, which we took Logan to a couple of years ago, and is pretty similar to Sciport in Shreveport, which we went to last year. We were expecting something more/different. Logan adored it, though, and that's the main thing. His favourite part of the trip was digging for dinosaur bones in a big sand box.

Lookout Mountain is a large mountain that extends down into Georgia and, I think, Alabama. The north end of it overlooks Chattanooga. In the north face there was a cave complex known to the natives for centuries and used during the Civil War. It was sealed in 1905 when a railroad tunnel was created near it. In the 1920s, the land was purchased by Leo Lambert and an elevator shaft was drilled down to get to the cave complex. Lambert wanted to open it up for tourists. Instead, with a blast of fresh air, his drilling team discovered a different cave. Lambert crawled for hours until he came to an underground waterfall 165 feet high. He took his wife down to see it the next day and named it after her. Her name was Ruby. Ruby Falls is now a big tourist trap. The trip to the falls and back takes close to two hours, including elevator rides down and back up to the surface. The passageway is some 1100 feet below the gift shop on the surface. The trip through the cave was very enjoyable, particularly if you like stalactites and stalagmites, and flowstone. The falls themselves were disappointing. The guides build up the falls all along the route. They then crowd you into a dark chamber. Suddenly music fires up and a spotlight hits the falls. Oooo. Ahhh. Next they herd you around the back of the falls, and after about five minutes send you back down the passageway. It is all designed to get as many people through the tour as fast as possible. I expected the chamber to be bigger, like the kinds of caves you hear about in Carlsbad. Instead, it wasn't much bigger than our apartment. I didn't like the fact that they herd you out of the chamber so quickly.

Here is the Wikipedia article on Ruby Falls:

Rock City was different. It's almost the exact opposite of Ruby Falls. It's on the other end of this section of the mountain. Instead of being underground, it is all above ground. The limestone boulders form passageways you can walk through (some of which are a very tight squeeze). This is essentially just a hiking and nature trip around the boulders, but it is well worth the effort. A rope bridge spans a deep chasm. You have the option of crossing a stone bridge, but I took the rope bridge anyway, in spite of my legendary fear of heights. The rope bridge takes you to Lover's Leap. The view from the Lover's Leap cliff is breathtaking. They say you can see seven states from up there, but I was skeptical even when I got there. I've been up the CN Tower in Toronto and you can barely see Buffalo, NY. I didn't think it was possible to see Virginia from there. According to Wikipedia, you can't. The farthest you can see are the mountains in the Knoxville, area. You can see Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina, but forget about Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia.

Part of the trip is through man-made stone corridors past fairy tale displays involving fairies and gnomes. The gnomes were garden gnomes painted bright colours and illuminated by black light. At the end of the passage is a large diorama of figures from various fairy tales. Alana and I independently described the displays and the diorama as "cheesy".

Here is the Rock City Wikipedia entry:

I'd do Rock City again before I'd do Ruby Falls. The hike is a lot of fun, with a great view of the scenery. Best of all, you can take it at your own pace. Ruby Falls was interesting, but you are herded through too quickly to truly enjoy it. I will post pictures when I get them developed (probably not until we get paid next month).

These tourist traps are certainly not cheap. I think it was around $70 for the three of us to go to Rock City and Ruby Falls, and that was a package deal. It would have been more if we'd paid to go on the incline railway.

Between Ruby Falls and Rock City we went to Point Park. This is at the summit of Lookout Mountain. It marks the point where Union and Confederate forces fought in the "battle above the clouds" during the Battle of Chattanooga. Chickamauga was free to get in, so it was a surprise that they wanted $3 per adult for point park. The view was worth it. I mentioned early on that Logan wanted to know about Civil War cannons. We just missed a reenactor doing a rifle drill. Afterward, a park ranger demonstrated how they fired a cannon. An enthralled Logan wanted to be involved in this, but the ranger only picked the older people in attendance. It didn't stop Logan from standing near them, as if he was part of the action.

My trips tend to have themes. This trip's theme was climbing. I climbed up and down point park, taking pictures of the cannons and the view. I went down along one trail until I got to the point where a lot of the heavy fighting took place. From there I could see all of Chattanooga, including Missionary Ridge where the main part of the battle took place. I had to climb up and down pathways in the heat. This added to the climbing at Chickamauga (including an 85 foot high monument), the aquarium, the Creative Discovery museum (they have a tower there, too), and later that day. It hammered home just how bad a shape I'm in.

On the way back from Lookout Mountain we stopped at the Craven House, where I was able to take more battlefield photographs. On the way home, we drove to Orchard Knob (where I did even more climbing) and along Missionary Ridge, again as part of the Battle of Chattanooga (technically the Third Battle of Chattanooga) pilgrimage. Orchard Knob is a steep hill in a lower middle class area of Chattanooga. It was fairly important in the battle, and as such is sprinkled with monuments. Missionary Ridge is not really a protected battlefield area. There are some protected areas called "reservations" and some tablets on private properties. I hope the photograph of the cannons on the front lawn of a private home turn out. The view was spectacular from the ridge, but you could only catch it in several places. You'd think that if they were going to bother putting markers on the ridge that they'd bother to put places where you could park — or at least stop — without getting in the way of traffic. Considering how expensive some of these homes are, I suspect that they want to encourage tourists in this area as little as possible.

We drove off the mountain and on to the highway, stopping for lunch in Trenton, Georgia. As we left, Alana and I were hit with a mixture of looking forward to getting home and sadness at the end of the trip.

So, there you have it, our vacation. This was the first time Alana and I had gotten away for longer than a slightly extended weekend, without one of us working, since I moved down here. I guess it could have been our honeymoon if Logan hadn't been with us. We made a list of things we wanted to see and do. We got to most of it, but there are still other things on our list. We intend to visit Alana's family more often in the future. Logan wants to get to the amusement centre at Raccoon Mountain in the worst way. And, of course, I have more battlefield portions to visit.

Alana and I agree that we'd rather live in Chattanooga than Monroe. (We'd rather live in Shreveport than Monroe. In fact, there's not much to say about living in Monroe at all. The list of places we'd rather be is quite long.) Right now, the best chance of that happening is either us winning a lottery or somehow managing to retire to the Chattanooga area. With the U.S. dollar crashing, my dream of returning to Scotland is evaporating. A return to the Chattanooga area, though, is a good substitute.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On vacation

Just wanted to make a quick post announcing that we are on vacation. I'm typing this in a hotel in Chattanooga, TN. We left Saturday. On Sunday we visited some of Alana's family who live in the area. Most of today was spent at the Chickamauga American Civil War battlefield park. We did get to a large nearby mall, too... which had a game store! (Jimmy and Jason, there is a hack-and-slash viking roleplaying game in your future).

Tomorrow we are going up Lookout Mountain, and will hit some of the local attractions. There is an aquarium and a cave complex that Logan will enjoy (though he seemed pretty entranced by the battlefield).

The only downside has been my forgetting to set the VCR. I wanted to tape the Stephen King miniseries that starts Wednesday. I also wanted to tape the World Cup final game. I didn't manage to do either.

I probably won't post much until we get home. When I do, I'll give a more detailed account of our vacation. Right now, we're too busy enjoying our time away from work.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Coyote Trail - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Alana and I got back from TexarCon 2006 very late Sunday morning. If you haven't heard of TexarCon, that's because it is a very small game convention, with only 6 participants. Alana and I enjoyed ourselves. It was great to see all the Texarkana guys again. Mark and Tom were wonderful hosts, putting up with Sabine — our mutt — in their homes. Sabine, for her part, was much better behaved than we expected. She is very energetic at home when Jimmy and Jason come to game, but she was much more sedate in Tom's house. Tom and his wife Yoshiko cooked us a great dinner Saturday night, barbecue turkey burgers (with apple mixed into the meat; not something I would have tried, but it was wonderful) and shiskabobs. Better eating than I've ever done at a convention. We gamed until 1 am Friday night. We took a trip to Excalibur, the local game and comic store. This was our "dealer's room". Alana and I bought dice and the Acme Catalog (a wonderful book with all the Acme products from the Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons), and a card holder book for Logan. Jimmy and Jason bought 10-sided dice for Godlike and/or NEMESIS. We gamed after supper, ending the scenario around 11:30 pm. Alana and I drove home less than an hour later, getting home around 3:30. I did bring a board game to play so that our "convention" would actually have three game sessions in two genres, but we didn't have time to play.

Last year I ran a game of Feng Shui for a group consisting of the Crazy 98s (Jimmy, Jason, and Alana) and Jimmy's and Jason's regular group (Mark and Tom). This year, the second annual TexarCon in Texarkana, Arkansas, featured an Old West theme. We talked about this last year, and right after the Feng Shui game I began researching Western roleplaying games for this year.

After conducting some research, I came up with this list of games: GURPS Wild West, D20 Modern using Sidewinder: Recoiled as the sourcebook, Action! with the Gunslingers sourcebook, or Chaosium's BRP system, either using Cthulhu By Gaslight and Pagan Publishing's Weapons Compendium, or the Worlds of Cthulhu magazine issue #3 article on setting Call of Cthulhu games in the U.S. old west.

I polled the players to help make my decision. GURPS Wild West was a good choice, but it tends to have a fairly slow combat system. (My own EasyGURPS combat system would fix that, assuming I could find the rules I wrote). The players, except for Alana, have experience in GURPS but it has been years since I played it. The Action! game looked very good, but none of us had used the system and combat looked quite fiddly.

My own preference was to use Chaosium's system. I know it incredibly well (don't need the rules to run it). Even without an actual Wild West sourcebook, I could have faked it. The GURPS Wild West sourcebook, like most GURPS books, is good enough to be used for pretty much any game. Chaosium's system would have been the easy answer, but we use that system an awful lot. I wanted to try something different. Plus, I didn't have the World's of Cthulhu issue with the Wild West article, so I didn't know how to handle things like fast draws. (In fact, fast draws as seen in the movies never happened, the Weapon Compendium has a suggested rule, and I came up with another option later, but this was all sort of beside the point.)

The winner was D20 Modern and Sidewinder: Recoiled. D20 is, of course, the most recent incarnation of the Dungeons and Dragons rules. A few years ago Wizards of the Coast, who bought out TSR, released a generic version of the D&D rules as "open source", meaning that anyone could write a game for it, provided they follow some licensing rules. For instance, to use the "D20" trademark you have to require the use of a Wizards of the Coast rulebook (such as the Dungeons and Dragons D20 Player's Handbook). You could also make the game "OGL", meaning that your game follows the basic rules but varies in some ways from standard D20. OGL books can stand alone, though they have a lot in common with D20. Sidewinder: Recoiled is a D20 book. There is an OGL Western book, but Sidewinder looked better. To play Sidewinder you need the D20 Modern basic book, which I received a couple of years ago as a gift.

(To muddy things, the OGL license allows for other versions of the main rulebook. The D20 rules are full of minutiae. True 20 is a new version of the rules that simplifies a lot of stuff. It's getting very good reviews. Spycraft 2.0 is a modern OGL book that fixes a lot of the stuff in D20 Modern, like the weapon effective ranges.)

The only problem with the D20 route (other than the fact that I'm not crazy about D&D's levels and classes) was that I haven't played a D20 game in its current form, and the last time I played something like it was about 6 or 7 years ago for a one-shot (a roleplaying adventure designed to be played once, and not as part of an ongoing campaign). D20 Modern is fairly complicated, with lots and lots of options. Spycraft, which I have, is more complicated, mostly because it is aimed at modern spy type games and would have to be tweaked for the Wild West. I'm not afraid of complicated games; I used to own Advanced Squad Leader. I find in my advancing years that I just don't have the time to spend learning a long, complicated game. Jimmy, Jason, Mark, and Tom play D20 games (mostly fantasy) all the time. I didn't care for the idea of running a game that I didn't know very well. I could do it, but it would require a fair amount of work. Still, this was the game I had decided to run.

Then late last year I came across a game called Coyote Trail by Politically Incorrect Games. Soon after buying it (as a downloadable PDF), I chose it as the game system for our TexarCon scenario. It was different, easy to learn, and seemed to cover the period very nicely. Alana wants us to play a post-apocalypse game. PIG also sells a post-apocalypse game (Earth AD with the same rule system), so if Coyote Trail worked for a western, we could use Earth AD later. Everything fell into place.

The Scenario

The scenario was set in 1870 in western Texas. Instead of railroading the players into a set-piece scenario, the players' characters were free to do anything they wanted. I did have some things happening in the town, but the characters were not forced to deal with any of it.

The characters were relatively poor. There was a bank in town, which would make an obvious heist location. Two of the characters had a hatred of Union soldiers, so they were obviously interested when a buckboard with two soldiers and four cavalrymen on horses rolled into town. The soldiers told the sheriff that they needed help guarding their buckboard, which had the payroll for a nearby fort. The sheriff obliged.

The characters consisted of an outlaw (Tom), a hunter (Jason), a gambler (Mark), a young adult whose family had been killed (Jimmy), and a prostitute (Alana). The characters decided to steal the payroll, but while casing the cavalrymen they determined that something was not quite right. The cavalrymen were ragged looking. They didn't have the demeanor of soldiers. Tom surmised that the cavalrymen were not real, that they were probably after the bank. Jimmy concurred, opining that the payroll was probably fake. The group as a whole wasn't sure, so they decided to go after the strong box on the buckboard anyway.

The gambler rigged the town's Lutheran church to burn, then joined the poker game going on in the stable with the buckboard. Jimmy's character (I'll call him "the Kid" for ease of writing) groomed his horse, which was at the same stable. The town was alerted by the fire. The prostitute locked most of the soldiers in their hotel room, stopping them from interfering.

The hunter and the prostitute went for the horses, while the outlaw helped the Kid. The cavalryman guarding one entrance to the stable was caught by the Kid. The outlaw killed the man. The Kid rushed inside while the outlaw killed a deputy guarding the other door. The Kid burst inside and told the people at the card table — one of which was drunk on laudanum-laced whiskey provided by the gambler — not to move. Another deputy had passed out from the whiskey. The men rose from the table and drew their guns. Lead flew. One deputy was killed outright. Another was wounded, and so was the Kid. The wounded deputy was dispatched, but the drunk cavalryman remained.

The outlaw rushed in, followed by the prostitute and the hunter. Everyone fired at the cavalryman, but it was the hunter that dropped him.

When they checked the strong box they found $10 in coins. The rest of the box was filled with pouches of broken bits of chain and rocks to weigh down the box. It was all a ruse. The Kid was right: the "cavalrymen" were out to rob the bank. (Actually, they were out to rob someone coming in on the morning train, possibly hitting the bank at the same time). The characters escaped the stable as the rest of the soldiers moved in, guns blazing. They left the town, but the hunter, the outlaw, and the Kid went back to check on the stable. It was now guarded by townsfolk. (The soldiers had played up the attack as a spoiled raid on the payroll.)

With game time growing short, the players decided that their characters would head to the next town and a new adventure. The Kid had other ideas. He was leaving the gang for good. The outlaw couldn't allow that and shot at the Kid. The Kid turned around and stared down the outlaw. The Kid drew his gun. The outlaw and the Kid fired. The Kid, already wounded from the earlier altercation, collapsed to the ground with a bullet through his skull. The band of outlaws headed for the next town.

Game Review

Characters in Coyote Trail have five "abilities": Fitness, Awareness, Reasoning, Creativity, and Influence. These range from 1 to 5. They also have skills, such as firearms, brawling, commerce, investigation, composure, etc. Skills have a rating from 1 to 8, though 2 through 6 is average.

You generate abilities by spending up to 10 points. As stated above, each ability has at least 1 point and no more than 5 points. Optionally, you can roll a number from 1 to 5 (using a 10-sided die, or a six-sided die and re-rolling sixes). For heroic games or one-shot games you can add from 1 to 4 points of abilities.

Skills are purchased from a pool of 30 points. Each character has a vocation with a list of skills. The skills in the list cost one point per skill level. Any other skills can be purchased at two points per skill level.

Characters make skill checks by adding an attribute to a skill (such as Fitness + Firearms to fire a pistol, or Influence + Negotiation to barter with a store keeper) and rolling two six-sided dice. The numbers on the dice are added together. The margin of success is equal to the skill total minus the roll of the dice. Basically, if you roll equal to or under your skill total, you succeed.

A roll of two is a Triumph (critical success) and gains special benefits. A roll of a 12 is always a failure. There are ways of rolling a Calamity (a fumble) and another way of rolling a Triumph (more about this later). I used the advanced system with difficulty modifiers. If your margin of success is greater than the difficulty level, you succeeded at the skill. The difficulty level is a number from 7 (impossible) to -2 (trivial). I did not use the Basic system, which uses bonus and penalty dice.

Combat is resolved in turns equal to five seconds of time. Players roll a six-sided die and add their character's Awareness and Fitness. The characters, and the gamemaster's non-player characters (NPCs), act in order from highest to lowest. Firing a weapon or brawling is just a skill check (with modifiers for range, etc.). If the roll succeeds, the character takes damage levels equal to the weapon's damage. Damage is either Injury, Fatigue or — in the case of taking "damage" from getting drunk — Intoxication.

All character have the same 5 levels of wound per type. The second, third, and fourth levels give a character +1, +2, and +3 points of difficulty, respectively. The fifth level knocks the character unconscious. Additional Fatigue points carry over into Injury points. Additionally Injury points above the five levels kill the character. Characters with 4 or 5 Fitness get a point of armour. Cover and protection also gain points of armour. Roll a six-sided die for each point of damage inflicted. If the roll is greater than the character's total points of armour, the damage is nullified.

Characters can have gimmicks. A gimmick is equivalent to a GURPS advantage or disadvantage, but they are broader. They fit well with the genre (while many GURPS advantages and disadvantages are generic). The rules don't have limits on the number of gimmicks a character can have. The Enhancement Pack includes Cliches. These work like Gimmicks, but they give cinematic effects, for those who want to recreate Silverado or Rio Bravo rather than Deadwood or Unforgiven.

I used a house rule from the PIG Coyote Trail internet forum to modify damage. As realistic as the damage rules are, I wanted something a little bit more heroic. I didn't want the players scared of gunplay, so I gave the players a special armour equal to their Fitness. For every point of Injury damage that failed the special armour roll, the player had the option of converting the Injury point to Fatigue. This worked very well.

I also used the optional rules for character creation, allocating 14 points to character abilities and 35 points to skills. I gave characters between two and four gimmicks.

Finally, I utilized the "house rule" that allowed the matching of a skill with any appropriate ability, not just the ability the skill is listed under. This isn't really a house rule, as Brett Bernstein, the game system's author, has stated in the PIG Coyote Trail forum that the game was intended to work this way from the start. This is an official ruling, though it is not written in the rules.

Coyote Trail is a western game. Tom and I each created soundtrack CDs for the scenario. Independently we started our CDs the theme from Clint Eastwood's, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. It's a bit cliche, but I just have to review the game with the same three adjectives.

The Good

Coyote Trail, and the genreDiversion game system it uses, is one of the new breed of "rules light" RPG rules. "Rules light" games focus on the fact that the rules should support the actual roleplaying while staying out of the way. Coyote Trail does this rather well.

It is a fast system. You can generate characters in about half an hour (less if you are experienced).

The combat system is pretty quick, too. This is something I've been striving for in recent years, skipping "realism" for something that will play quickly and give reasonable results. Coyote Trail does this. There are no hit locations. Guns do a set amount of damage, so there are no damage rolls. Given the ranges where our gunfights occurred, this was realistic enough. The game turns were five-seconds long and flew by quickly even with five players and four or five NPCs involved.

I was surprised by how well the Gimmicks focused character behaviour. I've played GURPS games where character advantages and disadvantages get in the way. This didn't happen here. Most of the Gimmicks came into play.

Probably the best feature of the game is its price. $4.95 gets you the core game in an Acrobat PDF format from Politically Incorrect Games. This is the 76 page rule book with character creation, task rules, Old West background information (including a two page price list), rules for character advancement, optional rules for making the game more cinematic, two adventures, three reference pages, a character sheet, character templates, and even a die you can print on card stock and glue together. For $1 you can buy the Enhancement Pack, which includes rules for Cliches and explosives, an adventure, and a better character sheet (with room for horse and/or wagon stats). However, for $6 you get the core book, Enhancement Pack, and a Whitewash City cardstock saloon (suitable for miniatures games or RPGs; it even has an interior floor plan) that you can print out and assemble.

There aren't a lot of weapons to choose from, but the core book has rules for converting weapons from the excellent Knuckleduster Firearms Shop, a generic supplement that can be used for any western game. This is only available as a softcover book, sold through their site.

Coyote Trail is an update of an older game called Shady Gulch. The new Shady Gulch Revisited is a fully formed western town, available as a PDF for $2.50. Politically Incorrect Games sells a set of "Disposable Heroes" cardstock miniatures. Two more supplements, Indian Trail and Straddle County are due soon (very soon for Indian County). The company offers you print-on-demand options if you'd rather have them print out the manuals and send you a hardcopy.

I didn't run any of the adventures, so I won't comment on them.

The Bad

This is not a game for munchkins. There are too many ways to break the system. There are no limits on Gimmick purchases, other than gamemaster fiat. If your vocation makes you take a gimmick, it doesn't cost you points for a positive gimmick or gain you points for a negative gimmick. This makes some vocations "cheaper" than others. The "secondary" vocations (the vocations that all fit on page 7 and which are less fully explained than the other vocations) "better" in terms of points.

In fact, the Drifter vocation is easily the best of the bunch: you can select any skill at character generation as a vocational skill. You can't raise the Drifter's skill to more than 5 points during character generation, but a munchkin is going to buy as many skills as he can anyway, so he's unlikely to have any above 5 to start with. As it was, very few of the characters I generated had skill points above 5 (one, maybe two, had a single skill at level 6). The description of the Drifter says that he's unlikely to hang around for more than a single story. That's fine for a one-shot or short campaign, but I don't know of any gamemasters who would enforce this rule in a long running campaign.

Munckins will want to roll for their abilities. Rolling creates random abilities in the range of 1 to 5, averaging 3. If you choose to build your character, you get 10 points to spread across 5 abilities, thus averaging 2. At least you get the choice of where to put the ability when you choose.

I don't like the way "untrained" skills work. If a character doesn't have a skill, he is supposed to roll against a specific ability alone. This is not uncommon in roleplaying games. The One Roll Engine found in Godlike and NEMESIS does the same thing, but the lowest chance of success in that system is 1 out of 10, and only if the ability is a 2. In the case of Coyote Trail, it is impossible for a character to attempt something untrained if they have 1 in an ability, a 1 out of 36 chance of success with a 2, and a 1 out of 12 chance with a 3 (the average ability range). By contrast, an ORE character with average ability would have between a 28% or 50% chance of success when trying something unskilled. A Call of Cthulhu character begins with a Spot Hidden skill chance of 25%. Coyote Trail characters relying on their innate abilities are less potent than characters in other systems.

I admit that this is my own game experience interfering. A simple fix for this is to give characters skills with effects appropriate to their character, even if they "seem" odd for vocation. It might not seem appropriate for a Prospector to have "Investigation", but it would be the right skill for representing the character's ability to find hidden things. This is where Designer Notes would help.

The called shot combat mechanism is broken if you play anything but the standard, gritty version of the game, or if you use small calibre weapons. A character can aim at any location in the body for a +2 modifier. A shot to the head will kill an enemy (or put them into a coma). The rules imply that a called shot ignores armour, too. A +2 isn't a huge modifier once a character needs to roll a 9 or higher to hit, which is pretty easy to get if the character takes a 4 or 5 in Fitness. The modifier is simply too small. The outlaw character spent most of his time firing head shots. This isn't realistic in an era of inaccurate firearms. What's funny is that the Knuckleduster Firearms Shop comes out and says that this sort of aiming during a gunfight is unrealistic, yet the rules tend to encourage it.

The Ugly

Calculating Calamities and Triumphs is simple math, but the process is not intuitive. I know from experience that getting people to do simple math in their heads is not a quick process. People with learning disabilities, or people who are simply shy in group situations, have a hard time doing it. It doesn't help when the math is non-intuitive.

A Triumph occurs when snake-eyes (a 2) are rolled on the dice. It also occurs when the margin of success (how far you roll below the skill level) is greater than 6 plus the task's difficulty. For example: if a character's ability plus his skill level is equal to 12 and the character rolled a 3, the margin of success is 9. If the difficulty was 2, the result would be a Triumph. The player calculates the margin of success (a 9), adds 6 to the difficulty (6 + 2 = 8), and then decides if the margin of success was greater than this number.

This isn't a hard calculation, but it's something that doesn't stick in my mind all too well. It also doesn't come into play until the character gets at least 10 points in a skill + ability, unless the task is easy (negative difficulty). Until you hit 10 points in a skill the only way a normal or harder task roll is a Triumph is if you roll snake-eyes, but snake-eyes are always a Triumph. Using the game of Craps as a basis, it would be easier to say that a Triumph was a) a roll of snake-eyes or b) a dice roll where the margin was a 7 or more. Then you wouldn't have to worry about determining if the margin of success is greater than 6 plus the difficulty.

Another option would be to include a simple chart that cross indexed margin with difficulty to indicate if the roll was a Triumph or not.

For a Calamity, the margin of success must be less than the difficulty of the success minus 10. Remember, if you roll over your skill total the margin of success is a negative. Everything I said above about simply math is "more so" when it comes to figuring negative integers. So, a character fires a gun. They have a Fitness rating of 4 and a Firearms skill of 4. This gives a total of 8. They are making an impossible shot (difficulty of 7). The player rolls a 12 on the dice. The calculation is 7 (difficulty) - 10 = -3. The margin of success is a -4. This is less than -3, so there is a calamity.

Like Triumphs, this isn't a difficult calculation, but it does involve people calculating negative integers in their head or out loud. Like Triumphs, it only shows up when skill abilities are particularly low. An 8 (which isn't that low!) will only result in a calamity if a) the difficulty is -7 and b) the player rolled a 12. You never have a calamity under normal situations (difficulty of 0) unless the character is untrained in the skill, and even then only if they have 1 in the ability.

Again, a table could have been included that would remove the math. An easier method would be to have a Calamity happen whenever you roll box cars (12), as that already is an automatic failure. Okay, that might be pushing it, as it is only 1 out of 36 tries. How about having a Calamity Check happen if you roll box cars. On a Calamity Check, roll two six-sided dice. If the roll is greater than the skill plus ability, a Calamity happens (and a Calamity always happens if the Calamity Check roll is a 12). It doesn't take difficulty into account, but this may be a good thing, based on the next paragraph.

Because of the way Calamities work, your gun is more likely to jam or explode in your hand if you fire at a target far away, or if your target is running. Range to the target and the target's movement (not to mention your own movement) increase the difficulty of the task. As I described above, the higher the difficulty, the more likely you are to have a Calamity.

Now, I know why they did this. If Black Bart is holding a hostage in front of him, it is more likely that a character will accidentally shoot a hostage from a long way away than if they were at point-blank range. If a character is firing while running, he is more likely to shoot himself in the foot. If the lock is particularly difficult to pick, the character is more likely to snap a file in the lock mechanism and thus warn Black Bart that they were trying to break into his room.

On the other hand, there is the case of a character firing at a fleeing horseman. There are no innocent civilians to get in the way. Why should the chance of a Calamity increase with difficulty? Since a Calamity is the only way a gun will misfire, jam, or have any number of other nasty things happen (as described in the relevant sections of the Knuckleduster Firearms Shop), why should increased difficulty increase the chance of the gun gang-firing and exploding in the user's hand?

The answer is it should not. My suggestion of a Calamity Check would fix this.

Another oddity: if a character with a 1 in an ability succeeds at an unskilled roll, the result is automatically a Triumph. This is because rolling snake-eyes is the only way to succeed if your ability is a 1, and rolling snake-eyes is always a Triumph.

The skills are so broad that you end up with extra abilities that may not fit a character concept. When I created the hunter I did not give him Investigation as I didn't think it was warranted. When he and the outlaw went to search a room, I realized that the hunter was incapable of reliably searching a room unless I allowed him to use his Tracking skill. This felt odd, but it's the only way for the rules to fit the character concept since he didn't have an Investigation skill. When I read the skill description the Investigation skill did not seem appropriate for the character. Now I believe almost every character should have the Investigation skill.

I'm glad I gave the characters 14 points in abilities and 35 points (plus points from negative gimmicks) for skills. We ended up with competent characters that were not overly heroic. If I gave everyone Investigation at a reasonable level — which is a really good idea as Investigation is the generic "search for something" skill — I would have been hard pressed to come up with competent characters. This is not a big deal in a one-shot. I'm not sure how viable starting characters would be if I had created them using the rules as written. They would have only 10 ability points and 30 skill points, before Gimmicks are purchased.

In the same vein, there are no guidelines for creating "grizzled" characters with lots of experience. Beginning characters appear to model young adults. Sure, you can give the grizzled characters more skill points, but how many?

The term "Reaction Roll" is used in Advanced Skill Resolution, but it is never defined. There is a roll you make in Basic Skill Resolution to see which character goes first. This is a Reaction Roll, though it is never explicitly named in the rules. Brett Bernstein confirmed this on the PIG forum.

As mentioned, the game doesn't have a lot of weapon statistics. I used the Knuckleduster Firearms Shop to come up with gun stats. As per the conversion process, I determined Short, Medium, Long, and Extreme weapon ranges. There is also a Point Blank range (which gets a -2 difficulty), but the book doesn't give you stats for a gun's Point Blank range.

The book is professional looking, but I thought the organization could have been better. I don't like it when books come up with advanced rules that say, "use the basic rules, except where we modified them here". I'd rather that they just rewrite the section fully so I have all the rules in one place. This is particularly true of PDF rules, where I'm footing the printing cost myself. I thought "Expanding the Game" should have come before "Western Legends", keeping all the rules together. The book really needs an index (admittedly this is less of an issue if you just use the PDF version).

I wish there were more character vocations. There are no Outlaw, Prostitute, or Bounty Hunter vocations (to name a few), even though these are pretty typical Western stereotypes. There are no native vocations, either, but Indian Trail will handle that.


With a couple of bumps, the game went very smoothly. The rules certainly function "out of the box". Coyote Trail is an excellent set of rules for one-shots or short campaigns.

I'm not sure how well it would work for a longer campaign. I don't think it's quite right for my players, as they tend to come up with character concepts and then fit the skills to that concept. This type of character concept doesn't mesh well with games that have a few broadly defined skills. The hunter player (Jason) mentioned that he would want to redo his character, based on the character not having the Investigation skill.

If I were to do another one-shot with this system,\ I'd be more generous with the skill points, throwing the character generation system out the window (except as a guideline).

I don't know if our group would like the low-powered characters this system generates at the start. I think they'd want more "heroic" characters, if for no other reason than they tend to create "experienced" characters.

You'd be hard pressed to find a better game for players new to roleplaying, or for characters from unknown backgrounds. It's an ideal one-shot system because of the ease of use and the deadliness of the combat system.

I would like to try the game again sometime, though I would try it with my proposed method of handling Calamities and Triumphs.

That having been said, I think the next western game I run will be in Chaosium's Basic Role Playing system, found in Call of Cthulhu. I have a method for handling fast draw duels, and I know the system by heart. Arc Dream's NEMESIS (freely available for download) is another option; I love their combat system. I was planning to use Earth AD for a post-apocalyptic game, but I think I'll use a different system instead (perhaps D20, more likely Eden Studio's Unisystem as seen in All Flesh Must Be Eaten). The source material, particularly Shady Gulch Revisited is applicable to other systems, and I think Indian Trail will be usable with other systems, too.

I definitely got my money's worth out of the game!

By putting this on my blog, I invite other members of the Crazy 98s (with Tom and Mark as honorary members) to contribute their comments.