A Coventry Way Challenge

A Coventry Way is a full circumnavigation of the city of Coventry in Warwickshire. It was started in the 70s, and thrashed out over decades of path finding (they literally thrashed it out in some places) by some local runners who were training for mountain marathons by running in the country- side around the city. Here's a link to the association's homepage history:

The Challenge then is to do the whole route in one go. Some walk, some run, some form relay teams. All start when they feel like it on the day - so there's a stretched out circle of tired folk round Coventry from before dawn to after dusk.

Getting ready

In my head, whenever I have an event run to do I always set out my excuses first - it's not part of any planned psychology, it just tends to happen. I think I'm a positive pessimist: by planning for the worst, I'm well prepared - but often pleasantly surprised.
Maps - upside down, too
So this event's excuses are: I had a chest infection that developed into a minor bout of pneumonia over the New Year and into February, so my training has been shortened; I've never run this distance before; it's a self-navigated course, so I might get lost along the way; it's going to be the hottest day of the year so far at a maximum of about 20°C in the shade.
With all those problems to overcome, I decided that I would be pleased if I just finished the course!
Standard rations
Naturally, some part of me also optimistically predicted a finishing time based on my closest similar distances - I tend to complete the 33 miles of the Marlborough Downs Challenge in 6.5 hours - so I guessed between 8 and 9 hours would be pretty good going.
There are checkpoints along the way, with food provided, but I have learned that you can't rely on the world to provide veggie friendly options - I carried my own. It barely fit in my pack! I also took extra isotonic tablets to let me replenish my drink, as I reckoned I'd need to refill my two litres Camelbak once or twice along the way.

Setting out

This year over 200 took part. It was a breezy, very sunny day, and warming up even at 8 am when I arrived. The car park at the Queens Head in Meriden (west of Coventry, just off the A45) was filling up with cars, and people in hiking and / or running gear. I gave in my number, got my start time logged, started my tracking app, and set out.
Straight away, I felt my calves tighten up - I get this sometimes when I'm not properly hydrated. I slowed my pace and drank, and shook it off. The opening section was up hill, in rolling middle-England country side - with an unfortunate stink of cattle (one of the local farms near Meriden is rather intensive in its housing of the cows). Breathing through the nose, I found myself falling in with an ultra-runner called Glyn - he was a Grand Union Canal veteran. We chatted for a long stretch up til check point 1, where I met up with a work colleague Jon and his kids who cheered me on before going off to rugby practice. It's good to get support! This event doesn't draw crowds, so peer support from chatting with fellow runners along the way is key. Lots of gelatin-based snacks, sadly - it's amazing how many running events want to hand out jelly babies and Haribo! - but some Jaffa Cakes were on offer.

Horses - I didn't steal any
Between CP1 and check point 2, we had a diversion because of a golf tournament as we headed out of Kenilworth. Glyn lingered longer than I wanted to at CP2, so I made off on my own.
Through Bubbenhall and on to Ryton-on-Dunsmore, where we ran through some narrow paths among industrial sheds - a bit grim after the open country - and then crossing under the Eastern side of the A45, to head north. I spotted some leisurely horses paddocked by the path - I doubt they'd have made better progress than us runners! As I came up on CP3 I was really grateful for a rest. I'd only done 19 miles by that point!

Halfway and harder going

Motte or Bailey?
From Wolston, I headed off through open fields toward the Fosse Way, over the Avon and along a straight and deeply hoof-pitted bridleway (the mud was like concrete with the dry weather), up to Brinklow. There are the remains of a motte-and-bailey castle at Brinklow - thankfully we didn't have to climb it! Out of Brinklow, at CP4, I refilled my Camelbak - over half way.

The route joins the Oxford Canal path for a few miles, and passes under the M6 (concrete and noisy traffic) and the Nettle Hill Bridge (iron aquaduct, much quieter).

M6 - going under it
Coming off the towpath, headed toward Ansty - and then across what I have come to think of as the Plains of Gorgoroth! Like something out of Mordor - a ploughed field of crumbled earth so dry, it was like staggering across rocks. I swear I could hear Sam Gamgee trying to encourage me onwards.

Once again the course came back to the Oxford Canal, before turning north to Barnacle and into Bedworth.
Urban(e) art
Here, I got lost. Making it to CP5 in a pleasant housing estate, I paused, chatted with other walkers and runners, had a Jaffa cake or two, water, etc. - and then set off in completely the wrong direction. If it hadn't been for a helpful driver at a set of lights about a kilometre away sending me back the way I'd come, I'd have been properly lost!
Back to CP4, and off in the right direction, then. This urban section was the trickiest - the signs were harder to spot, and fellow challengers were harder to see among the usual normal townsfolk. I tagged along for a bit with a challenger who knew his way, going at a brisk walk rather than a jog, and I was grateful not only for the guidance, but for the rest. To be honest, I'd been walking longer sections between jogging by this point - about 30 miles.

M6 again - over it this time
Back over the M6, and down into Corley Moor. I'd been warned this would be a quagmire, but it was hardly even muddy that day! On to Corley Moor village - the Red Lion looking very inviting in the sunshine - but onwards to CP7. I should have refilled my Camelbak again - I ran out of water as I went through Birchley Hays Wood, as I discovered trying to wash down an energy gel to pep me up for the last stretch - but a fellow challenger let me have some of his. Very thankful! The course runs mainly downhill from there, gently enough to ease the legs - and I finally came in sight of the Queens Head again 8 hours and 53 minutes after I'd set off.

Food was being served - mainly carnivorous at a glance, but to be honest, I didn't feel hungry so much as thirsty and tired. I collected my certificate, changed into soft shoes and headed home for a decent thirst quencher.
Reward (unofficial)
Reward (official)


There were lots and lots of kissing gates along the way, which broke one's stride (I tended to walk up to and away from them, rather than run). The course was generally well signed, as the Coventry Way logos were well-placed at turns and gates and so on. The few places that caused confusion were when we passed through built-up areas (just a couple in the whole 40 miles), where it was easier to miss what signs there were.

This is a challenge I will definitely do again! I hope to make better time in future (less wrong turns!) - but the biggest challenge for me is just finishing!



Keeping it Simple - Bonuses and Penalties

Specific lists restrict creativity

Lots of games seem to fall into the trap of giving you lists and lists of specific adjustments to apply to die rolls in your game.
I'm calling this a "trap", because if you specify a set of adjustments, then you are strongly suggesting and promoting the idea that only those adjustments are correct.
Yes, you may state that the GM can invent their own adjustments, but unless you put that text alongside every instance of specified adjustment, players will end up treating it like a mandatory list of unassailable law.
Games also have a habit of having lots of levels of adjustment, from lots of sources. The d20 OGL games have a myriad of +1s, +2s, -1s, -4s, +5s and so on. There's a lot of maths to juggle, and in the excitement of an action scene, who wants to be fiddling with mental arithmetic?*

OGL d20 games also have rules on which adjustments are allowed to "stack" - that is, what can and can't add together. Usually (but not always), the same type of bonus cannot stack - but there are lots of types of bonus (circumstance bonus, equipment bonus, morale bonus, etc., etc.), and they don't always follow the rule you might expect - so you have to go look them up.
D&D Next, or 5th Ed, call it what you like, has a neat way of overcoming this maths issue, with the "Advantage / Disadvantage" rule: when circumstances give you better or worse conditions, roll 2 dice, and take the best (advantage) or worst (disadvantage) result.
Unfortunately, as neat as this rue is, it applies in a list of specified case again, resulting in a perceived lack of freedom to wing it.

Broader guidelines promote freedom

Broader guidelines on adjustments allow freedom and creativity. If you give the players and GM a list of a few adjustments that can be made, then they can apply them how they see fit.
If the players are trying to get an advantage, they'll tell the GM how they want to do it, instead of looking up a rule that tells them how they must do it.
Instead of checking through the combat rules to see if there's a bonus for higher ground or charging or whatever, you'll feel free enough to declare that your character's swinging in the rigging and jumping on her enemy like a proper swashbuckling hero!

My "fix"

Let's have just three levels of adjustment: Minor, Major and Extreme. This lets us have bonuses or penalties of just three types, positive or negative. Giving them simple descriptive names lets you make value judgements about them, too.
  • Minor = 2, Major = 4, Extreme = 8
Can we stack the adjustments?
Yes - but to avoid run-away adjustments, here's the only bit of complexity I'm going to add: you need 2 of the lower adjustment to add up to make one of the higher adjustment.
That is, 2 Minor = Major, and 2 Major = Extreme.
In this way, adding a Minor adjustment has no effect on a Major adjustment (unless you add 2 Minors, which add together to make a Major).
And to keep our adjustments from getting too high, I'll say that Extreme is as high as they ever go. If you've ever lucky enough to have 2 Extreme bonuses, then the GM should just rule that you succeed, rather than making you roll.

Will it work?

For games with a gritty or heroic scale of characters (Conan, Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction and the like), this sort of thing will work fine. If you need more extreme adjustments (such as in a superhero game, modelling both Superman and Lois Lane), then you'll need to allow them - maybe add an Impossible adjustment level beyond Extreme?
I'll see how we get on with this ruling, and post my findings!

* Yes, some people like maths. Not everyone does.


Keeping It Simple - DCs

Lots of games, especially D&D (all editions - some worst than others), suffer from target numbers or difficulty classes ("DC"s) that are opaque, presented once as a special case, with no explanation as to where the number comes from.

On the other hand, there are plenty of games that give you a set of numbers up front as a basis to let you (the GM or the players) eye-ball the numbers and set your own DCs accordingly - R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020, for one (I think it was the first game I played that used the idea).

How do we set these difficulty-based target numbers?
Decide what difficulty types you want - they should be clear and memorable, and not too many. There should be no doubt which is harder and which is easier.
I'm going with:

  • Easy (little chance of failure), 
  • Average (trained people usually succeed, but may fail), 
  • Hard (trained people need a few attempts to succeed), 
  • Heroic (little chance of success), and ...
  • Epic (even elite trained people usually fail).

Now we need to look at the numbers we should assign to these.
"Easy" should be at least a 50% chance of success even to untrained and untalented characters - so in the d20 system, that's a 10 (you can beat a 10 on an unmodified 1d20 roll 50% of the time).
"Average" should be about a 50% chance for someone with innate talent, or training. In d20 games, a starting character can have a maximum skill bonus of +4, plus their ability score bonus (again, a maximum of +4, but those sort of scores are relatively rare).  So we can set the Average task number at 15, because you need to roll an 11 if you have a bonus of +4, which is what we expect an unexceptional starting character to have.
"Hard" should require talent and skill, and maybe a little more experience. The starting character's maximum ability + skill bonus of +8 can be boosted by Feats like Skill Focus, or by proper tools - so we can set this target number as 20.
However, so far, each of these difficulties can all be beaten by someone with no training, if they're lucky - i.e., they get a high roll. Even an average unskilled person can achieve a hard task sometimes - it'll just take more tries.

"Heroic" and "Epic" tasks are out of the reach of the untalented and untrained.
Let's set "Heroic" at 25 - to beat this, you'll need to roll high, and have a big bonus. That maximum starting character bonus of +8 we looked at a moment ago will need to be boosted with experience or other bonuses to get to the point where Heroic tasks are routine. To have a 50% chance of beating a 25, you'll need a +15 bonus - requiring Feats, experience levels or special tools to reach.
"Epic" needs to be harder, but not out of reach of higher level characters. Let's set it at 30 - that way, Epic tasks won't become routine until you've acquired a +20 bonus.

I've picked increments of 5 for each of the difficulties. Nice and easy to remember, and supported by the game's mechanics: a +5 bonus is normal for a starting character's speciality, and it can be expected to increase by an average of 2 points per level.

  • Easy 10
  • Average 15
  • Hard 20
  • Heroic 25
  • Epic 30

With these numbers set, instead of having to look up the skill, you just have to agree the class of difficulty.


Of course, it isn't perfect - it needs some tweaks to make it work universally. I'll look at solutions to these in future posts, but first, I'll state what the problems are.

Fixed difficulties can make it hard to model tasks that require advanced training.
For example, if someone wants to open a lock, the GM might think "This is just an ordinary door in a house - the lock is nothing special. I'll make it an average task, 'cause the lock is just an average object." However, this would mean that an untrained person with a decent Dexterity could open the lock with a few tries - not very realistic.
D&D and many other d20 games deal with this by saying that some skills cannot be used untrained - if you've not invested your skill points in the skill, you just can't do it. Me, I don't like that so much, as it adds another level of look-up: which skills are prohibited to untrained characters.

Fixed difficulties don't account for circumstances.
If you're trying to break that lock by torchlight, with a kitchen knife and a bent nail, while the rest of your team are fighting a rear-guard action at your back, it's harder than if your were doing it on your table at home under a bright lamp.
This is simple enough to fix - we can make a system of bonuses and penalties to apply. But again, we need to keep it simple!


Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I like my games to be simple, so I can concentrate on the play. I don't like having tables and table of things to look up.
I like games that have a neat core mechanic, and stick with it so that everything runs off one easy to learn rule. I don't like special exemptions.
I want to be able to run or play a game with only my notes or the character sheet in front of me, never needing to dig through the rule book.

I've been playing around with my own d20 hack system for a while now. I'd become very familiar with the Open Game Licence d20 systems through playing D&D 3.x, Pathfinder, d20 Modern, and all the rest - so a d20 hack seemed like the way to go. It's been great, very enjoyable ... but I've been weighed down by a lot of legacy issues from the original system.
OGL d20 comes close to having one core mechanic, but then it produces lots of special cases. The character class system, the feats, the skills - there are far too many special abilities, specified DCs, and so on: too much stuff to look up.

So - I've been thinking about how to get rid of look ups. Using d20 as a base to work from (partly because it's where I'm starting from with my own hack, but also because it's OGL and we can all look at it for reference), I'm going to present alternative methods and examine them to see how they stand up.
At the end of this process - or at least after several iterations of the process - I may have a plan of cuts and adjustments to make that'll turn my d20 hack into a system that really stands up by itself. Or I may just have a set of house rules to bolt onto the rules as written. Either way, I'll be happy.


Marlborough, Physio and Stretching

I've been laid low with sciatica. Some months ago I decided I was going to have to bail out of the Marlborough Downs 33 mile challenge.
Very disappointing, especially as I'd persuaded / challenged my brother to run it this year. We're looking to raise money for the Kenya Community Education Project - a small non-profit school funding project that my brother's been involved with.

I'd seen the doctor about my sciatica, and been told to rest and take ibuprofen. The NHS website has a few stretches to combat sciatica, which I was trying to remember to do regularly. Nothing was getting better - in fact, with work requiring me to drive assorted hire cars with badly adjusted seats on long hauls, and my lab stool being badly set for typing up reports, I was getting worse.

One day I was in such agony that I just made a private appointment for a physiotherpay session, then went home, calling in sick for the rest of the day.
That was my best move of this saga!

Physio at Daventry's  Heartlands Physiotherapy (not a sponsored plug, just a genuinely grateful nod) discovered a bunch of things wrong with me that were causing the sciatica - but which all boil down to one overall issue: I'm not supple, and running was tightening everything up.

When I first satarted running, I used to stretch a bit afterwards. I seem to have stopped bothering at some point. Part of the reason I was doing it was to strengthen my knees - but the knee troubles of my novice days seemed to have disappeared, so I suppose that's why I stopped.

I've never been able to touch my toes with my knees straight - but I'd been gradually getting worse. Toughening up my legs with long distances was also shortening my muscles and ligaments. I was less and less flexible.
When the sciatica hit, I could hardly even touch my knees! (Exaggeration, but not much.) And putting on socks was a real struggle.
I'm not actually this skinny

So I was prescribed a bunch of stretches - hamstring, piriformis, side core, knee - and some strengthening exercises - squats. Twice a day. The pain started to go away. I need less ibuprofen.
I have a couple of pages of diagrams like this

After a couple of appointments to check progress, I got back to running short distances, and have built up the miles gently. I've got back into a routine, but added to it, too - now I'm running shorter distances at the weekend, but more often. Instead of running 30km in one go, I'm doing two lots of 15km - one in the morning, and one in the evening, and then again the next day.

So now, after 3 months, I'm ready for the biggest run of the year.

Click here to sponsor me (or my brother - the choice of charity was his).

I'll never neglect my stretching again!


Buying Shoes

Shoes are hard to buy for long distance running, because you don't really know what they'll be like until you've run a serious few in them - and then it's too late to take them back.

Here, then, are some problems I've found over the last 4 years:

  • Stripes - dynamic stylish stripes on shoes can cut into the instep. Maybe they're added for arch support? But for me, they are usually a sign of bleeding soles to come.
  • Width fitting - I've got skinny ankles but wide toes, and my spread starts back at the arch. If I don't get medium width or wider shoes, I get compression across the bones of the middle of my foot.
  • Differences in sizing - a 9 is not a 9 from all the shoe makers. At least this one is easy to spot in the shoe shop, or before I go running, but sometimes I've been caught out by shoes that are only slightly too small, and thinking I'll get away with it. Black toenails from repetitive briuising are the result - not good.

Moat of these issues take about 6km (3-4 miles) to manifest. The shoes by then are muddy and the soles are clearly scuffed. It's cost me an average of about £100 each year in hardly used shoes - I wear out shoes every 500 miles or so.

This outburst today was brought to you by the shoe sale at our local sports store, from which two pairs of low priced lemons have recently made their way, via a 6 mile detour round my running routes, into the charity shops.

So for the 33 mile ultramarathon next month, I'll be running in my old, nearly worn out shoes - cause I'm not risking wrong shoes on the race day!


"Following!" - apprentices and goon squads

Re-watching Game of Thrones the other night, I was struck by how several characters wield power by commanding various others, rather than directly - in particular, one character snaps an order to their guards to seize another name character and cut his throat, just to demonstrate their power.

A goon squad in action

This got me thinking about how to introduce that sort of thing into an RPG - and whether it's a good idea at all.
There's a long history of games, from D&D onwards, adding lots of hirelings and men-at-arms to the player party, but as time has worn on, these features seem to have fallen away. Lately it seems games focus on individual player characters - you get one PC, and maybe an animal companion or hireling.

In my experience as a player and GM, there are issues with player characters having followers - the followers can overshadow the players' characters, they can add to the complexity of scenes (especially combat), they can boost one character's power far beyond the rest of the player-base...

So here's my list of pros and cons:
  • Physically weak but charismatic characters become more viable, even in a violent setting
  • Politically powerful or important characters would tend to be surrounded by guards
  • Apprentices, squires and batmen are trope-tastic
  • More role-playing opportunities
  • Many more characters means more work for the GM
  • More combatants means longer combat
  • Players who don't want henchmen might lose out
With that in mind, I'm going to look at how to harness the pros, while avoiding the cons. Let's see how it might work...

Avoiding GM overload

A follower, yesterday
My first need is to avoid overloading myself!

To that end, henchfolk are an extension of the player's prime character - the player looks after them and directs them, rather then adding to the GM's load.

(I was going to say that "I've not had much experience of this", but actually in the main group I play with, any absent player's character has been run as a sort of collective character by the players and me as Ref.)

Giving the playing of the apprentice or guards to the player of the leader character keeps the GM's load down, but we have to make sure the player doesn't abuse this extra power.
Let's give the GM the right to question any apprentice actions that the player declares - perhaps with some mechanical back up, like a loyalty check.

Avoiding longer combat & extra actions

Goon squads and apprentices defend their master as a default - taking no active action, but granting defensive bonuses.
Directing the henchfolk to do something else requires the master to use an action. The follower(s) do  that action till complete, then return to default. And to avoid shenanigans, these directions can't be contingent - like "Attack those guys there, then those guys over there."

That ought to make sure that we don't have a proliferation of  dice rolls to worry about, and that getting henchfolk to do anything complex or scene-stealing will use up the master character's actions, too.

However,  we've still got the possibility of a squad of guards all needing dice rolls to resolve their actions. That's not what we want!
Some games treat small groups of soldiers as a sort of gestalt larger creature - Star Wars Saga Edition used Squads, for example. By using these sorts of rules we can just roll once for the squad of guards.

Types of followers

I've mentioned "apprentices" and "guards" so far, but we can extend those terms to cover any squire, butler, caddy or similar individual, and any gang, mob, or small force of combatants.

Followers need not be the same character type as the leader they follow -  in the Game of Thrones example that started me out thinking about this, those guards are very definitely differently skilled (tough fighters) to their leader (a scheming court socialite).

So I'd be quite happy for a scholarly wizard character to have a gang of dumb thugs protecting him, or for a barbarian warrior to have a loyal minstrel sidekick. Some combinations can be quite amusing, especially when they stray from what's expected.

Advancing followers

D&D 3rd edition and later editions allow player characters to gather followers - and then advances those followers as a function of the leader character's advancement. As your PC levels up, so do your followers.
So rather than letting any of your fellow PCs who've elected not to have followers catch up with your increased power, that system means that you will always be better than others due to your horde of followers and cohorts.
I reject that - it's exactly what I'm trying to avoid. Under that system, taking followers grants you an immediate advantage over any player who doesn't want to do so, and at very little cost. Once one player takes followers, anyone else who wants to play a loner character is put at a disadvantage - their character concept becomes sub-optimal within the player group. That's no fun.

Improving your followers should require that you spend effort training them, equipping them and so on. In terms of game mechanics, perhaps you should have to give up some of your lead character's experience points to improve followers, and spend your hard-gotten gains on kitting them out with decent weapons.

This method means that your fellow adventurers will advance faster than you if you spend effort keeping your followers trained. You could always neglect their training instead - but it will be part of the game to decide how much investment you want to make in your band of goons.



With a few easy tweaks, we've created some basic rules to gain the pros of using followers, and avoid the cons.

We've given control of the follower to the lead character's player, to avoid overloading the GM.
To keep the use of followers in games balanced, we've limited the additional actions - the leader needs to use some of their turn to command the follower - and we've made the player choose how much investment in the advancement of the followers she wants to make.

In practice, using followers has worked reasonably well with my gaming groups. At least, the cons have all been avoided - to gain all the pros, it may take time for us to get used to having multiple characters to play with.