Running for Asthma

Why am I Running for Asthma UK?
You may have seen my Just Giving page by now, and wondered what I'm up to.

When I was little, on a boating holiday in June, I had my first attack of asthma.

It started as a wheezing of breath when it was bed-time. I remember our parents telling us - quite late at night - to go to sleep, because we were whispering and giggling in our bunks, and Ewen, my brother  saying "I can't sleep: Alastair's doing a Darth Vader impression!"

I remember being quite unconcerned at the time, really. My breath was making a funny noise, and it wasn't distressing - yet.
Mum and/or Dad told me to stop it, of course. When I said that I couldn't, that was when moods on our little holiday boat changed.

I remember both Mum and Dad listened to my wheezes, and talked together in a urgent hush. I was brought out from the bunk to sit up in the cabin. Dad left to find help.
We were in the middle of Ireland's wide countryside, moored on the bank of a canal off the Shannon. I can only imagine how scary it must have been to have to go out in the middle of the night, miles from any town or village, looking for help.
He's told me since that he saw a houseboat along the canal earlier that day, and guessed they would know where to find a doctor, or a phone for an ambulance.

My breathing got worse while he was gone. Since then, Mum's told me that she was wondering if she knew how to do mouth to mouth breathing for me, and if it would help, or if it would make things worse. I was apparently going pale.

It's hard trying to remember it all - but I think Dad came back to say that he'd found a phone and called for a doctor to come out. Before too long - though again, I can only imagine how long it must have seemed for my worried parents - the doctor arrived along the towpath.

By the time the doctor had finished injecting the few mililitres of adrenalin into my arm, I was breathing normally again.

I'd had an anaphylactic shock to my respiratory system, apparently - probably caused by the sudden emergence of thousands of caddisflies from the water, whose moth-like scaled wings left fine dust wherever they fluttered. There were hundreds of them all over the boat, crawling and flying around...

Whatever it was that started it, that was my first attack - and the beginning of my allergic life. Before that, I'd not had any signs of allergies. After, I developed hayfever, and my instances of asthmatic reaction to the world in general became more common.

Hayfever has never left me. I hated summer - until the medication got better and now it actually works most of the time.
But through my teenage years, my asthma seemed to have a sort of cycle of coming and going. I was able to become a reasonably good runner at High School, at those short "long" distances they let teenagers run, the 800m, the 1500m. On the cross country race, I would finish in the top ten of my year. I cycled everywhere, on our hilly island. I hiked with the Scouts. I suppose I was quite a fit teenager.

As an adult my asthma came back.
It's never gone away since. But I suppose I've always refused to slow down my life.
I've had a couple of pneumothorax episodes, where the lung tissue bursts and air gets into the chest cavity. The worst it ever got was when I was hospitalised with a collapsed lung.

After that hospital spell - which hurt, really badly, worse than the broken bones I've had - I've been more careful managing my medication.

Millions of Sufferers

5.2 million people in the UK alone have asthma - and over a fifth of those are children.
Over a thousand people died in 2009 from asthma - 3 people each day, or 1 every 8 hours.
It's said that 90% of asthma deaths are preventable.

I'm lucky. Every day I take my medication, and I remember that I could have died as a child, and a few times as an adult.

Fitness through Medication
Preventer, peak flow meter, and reliever

I took up running because I wasn't getting much exercise - I used to cycle to work, but then I got a car; I used to dance nearly non-stop every weekend, but then I got too old and dignified for such silly displays. I was getting fat round the middle, and going up stairs was making me a little breathless.

But exercise triggers my asthma. It's always been one of the prime triggers - my lungs and airways react to the stress of exercise by swelling up. Very helpful.
So I've had to train slowly, to push back the point at which my airways are stressed. The fitter I am, the harder I can push before my lungs react badly.

Every day, I take a preventative inhaler, morning and night. The preventer keeps my lungs and airways  generally clear.
Preventer inhaler
I check this by taking my peak flow - a measure of how fast air can move out of (and thus also into) my lungs. Normally, I get a 600l/min result. I can just about cope with a 400l/min flow (that's a relatively normal flow for a healthy adult - but since my diaphragm muscle has been worked harder than average all my asthmatic life, I have a bigger peak flow) - but at that stage, an attack is more likely, and I run the risk of damaging my lung tissue again.
I have a reliever inhaler, too. This will dilate my airways during an attack, to let me get more air.

Without my medication, I can't run. Without my daily preventer inhaler, I start to wheeze and cough.

That's why I'm running for Asthma UK.


Monsters - what are they for?

Monsters of one sort or another are a staple of adventure stories and role-playing games - from Tolkien's orcs and Heinlein's arachnids, to Sauron or the Joker, our heroes need adversaries.

So what are monsters for?
In this post, I'll look at monsters purpose in the story, and in the game.
Aside: Is story important in adventure games? 
Yes - we tell stories in our role-playing games, sometimes even despite ourselves.
Even in the war-game roots of the beginning of RPGs, the idea that a scenario is mutable by the actions of the players inevitably provided a story - at least an anecdote - that we could tell after the game.
Whether we set out to or not, those player characters grow and develop, and the bad guys become more cunning.
I've tried to run purely episodic games for club venues, where the players come and go - but the adventures naturally flow into each other. Players look for connections and stories. It's actually hard not to end up with some continuity between games.
A story is part of making a believable frame for the adventure - your characters could just beat up everyone, but despite how awesome that sounds at first, it ends up being a bit empty.
So if we're resigned to telling stories, what is the point of the monster in the story?

Firstly, let me clear up what I mean by "monsters".
I expand the definition of monster to include all belligerent adversaries - it's a gaming term: "monsters" are what heroes fight. So monsters include Stormtroopers and Darth Vader, orcs and Nazgul, and so on.

Already we can see that we've got more than one type of monster role: Vader is in a different league to mere orcs. Also it's fair to say that Stormtroopers and orcs may fill similar roles, but they are of different types.
I can identify three major roles for monsters, and four major types:

  • Roles: mooks, lieutenant, Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal (BBEG)
    • Mooks - the TV Tropes link there explains the role of the mook very well, but to quickly summarise: these low level cannon-fodder are there solely chasing and driving the heroes on, and letting the heroes swashbuckle. Without mooks, your action adventure has less in the way of adversarial action.
    • Lieutenant - or "The Dragon" in that TV Tropes link. This adversary is the arch-enemy's main muscle, the force he sends to attack the heroes. The lieutenant often leads mooks, and is rarely fought directly, except as a climactic fight
    • BBEG - the cause of the evil plot. This villain is a smart, resourceful adversary, but often physically weak - the archetypal wizard. It is usually their scheming that makes them an adversary, not their combat actions.
  • Types: horror, criminal, totalitarian, natural
    • Horror - these monsters are unthinkable, driven by unknown or mad desires - especially when those motives, once revealed, are frightening or transgressive. The eponymous Aliens, the Thing, Romero's cannibal undead, vampires (when they're not being sparkly or emo) - these are all monsters of the horror type.
    • Criminal - this type not only includes the expected bandits, burglars and buccaneers from that link, but also adversaries out for personal gain (or for their clan or gang), with amoral attitudes and a lust for power or wealth - including corrupt clergy, power-hungry politicians and the like. One of the more human monster types, and thus one of the most varied types.
    • Totalitarian - the monster wishes to enforce its views, rules, or way of life on everyone, or destroy them in the attempt.Unorthodox behaviour will be crushed. Minorities will be swept aside. You will be assimilated. Includes the Machines in the Matrix and Terminator, the Empire in Star Wars, and various real-life regimes.
    • Natural - no link for this one: it's a broad category, which includes many aspects of normal behaviours... just the kind of normal behaviours that puts a creature at odds with heroes. The monster becomes an adversary out of instinct or natural reasons. Think of ignorant mooks led by BBEG's propaganda, a shark feeding on tourists, or natives reacting to invasion or settlement of their homeland. These monsters may even be sympathetic adversaries in more enlightened stories - players may wish to at least try to defuse the conflict without violence.
Why do you need to know this?
Knowing your monster's niche tells you how it should behave, and what it does for the story. It's the first step in playing the role of that monster.
A criminal mook is clearly different from a horror mook, although they may serve similar roles in terms of action in the game - both line up to obligingly die at the heroes' hands. A horror lieutenant is different from the horror BBEG - spoilers here: Kiefer Sutherland is not the BBEG of The Lost Boys! The big reveal is that he's just lieutenant to the Head Vampire (who would have got away with it too if it wasn't for those meddling heroes).

So assigning the roles to your adversaries creates the beginning and hints of a story for you, too. Someone is usually in charge of those mooks - who is it...?

Before you know it you've got enough bones to hang a plot on.


The wrong clothes

Today, without much warning, it was suddenly snowing heavily, all through my run. As Billy Connolly says, "There's no such thing as bad weather - only the wrong clothes."

Today I had the wrong clothes. I got soaking wet with snow and freezing rain. I had to wring my gloves out and windmill my arms around to keep my hands warm - and keep running to get home.

When I got back, I realised I was a little hypothermic - all the blood was retreating from my extremities to keep the core warm. After my shower, my skin was bright red with the blood coming back to it.

Lessons to learn from this?

Take a shower-proof jacket in my pack, and buy goretex gloves.


Hill training

I've been using bikehike.co.uk to check profiles of courses and training routes.

When I run the 33 Mile Challenge, the distance isn't the only thing I need to overcome: the Marlborough Downs course is hilly.
Map and elevation - click for a bigger version

Here's the course elevation profile:

The highest points on that course then are in the first 15km - an up-and-down climb of about 100m (300ft or so).

Then there's a long drop down to the canal, and a flat section for about 10km, before a steep climb of about 100m, followed by another climb of about 60m.

Then, a steep descent of about 150m, before going straight back up again to 250m.

Last, after a complete Marathon distance, there's a 90m climb, followed by a slow descent to the finish.
The biggest single climb is around 150m, with a good few 100m climbs. This is what I need to train for.

But I live in the Midlands - which is predominantly flat. Hills are hard to come by. I may get in shape for long distances, but I need to put in more effort to condition myself for long, steep, relatively high hills.

Interestingly, what I've found while I've been running, is that it isn't only the ascents that are tough - the descents are punishing too.
Going downhill uses muscles for control and braking that are already tired and worn from a long run. Often it's the fine control muscles that are most tired - those big thigh and calf muscles can take much more fatigue that the small control muscles, I've found.

So I've been scouring the maps of the area for all the big long hills, steep hills and repeating hills that i can find.
Here's the 32km route I found:
32km hilly run

It goes down to a low of about 80m, then climbs for about 70m, followed by a descent than a climb back up of about 50m at about the half-way mark. Then there's a few short hills (they don't feel short yet - I'm still new to this route), before the big nasty climb over Newnham Hill, about 100m.

These hills aren't quite as big as the Marlborough course, but they're close. This course takes me around 3 hours.

Here's the 21km route - starting with Newnham Hill.
21km hilly run

A similar bunch of hills again - I can manage this in about 1.5 to 2 hours.

I run this course with ankle weights on, to simulate a higher fatigue level, as though I was at the end of a longer run.

I also run this course in reverse, so Newnham Hill is last.

There's a big difference between trying to fool your body into being tired, and really being tired.
After 2.5 hours of running, I'm practically out of fuel to burn, and running on grit. I take a backpack full of energy drink. After about the halfway mark, I take a gulp every five minutes of so - it helps keep me going.

When I can run these courses easily, with weights, without much worry - I'll know I'm ready.

Remember to please visit my Just Giving page, to raise money for Asthma UK.


Magic items: role and drama - Part 2

Continuing from part 1, I'm going to look at what we can do to make magic items more awesome and interesting.
But first, I need to talk about consumables and artefacts - because magic items aren't always infinite, permanent things, and that is a significant difference.

Consumables versus artefacts
Consumable magic items of one sort or another are a near-ubiquitous trope in fantasy fiction: various powders, foodstuffs, liquors and salves that are used up each time they are applied, and grant special effect to the consumer - they allow the hero or villain a one-time chance to magically cheat.
In part 1, I mentioned d'Artagnan's cure-all salve, but let's also consider literally consumable magic items - fantastic foods like Lord of the Rings' lembas elvish way bread, and Thomas Covenant's aliantha treasure-berries; or potions like Getafix's strength potion, and Oberon's love potion.

(Incidentally, after some digging around, it appears that the now common idea of one-shot magical scrolls first appears with Vancian magic (from Jack Vance's Dying Earth, later stolen paid loving tribute in D&D). Magical writing prior to that appears to be thought of as permanent - which makes sense, really, given that this is what writing is for: permanence.)

Anyway, back to the topic: the drama of consumable magic items is that they run out. The hero cannot always be saved - and in some instances, reaching the precious item becomes a point of tension itself. Remember Popeye straining to get to his last can of spinach?

Items that are used up are in effect sacrificed. The magic is called up by the destruction of the precious thing (even if it is only precious because of the magic it will invoke - let's not get bogged down in circular argument, though). Token objects have been found at temples sites by archaeologists - sacrificial items to invoke magic. So we have a long tradition of one-shot magic, where the magical item is exhausted in the act.

Compared with items that never run out, this is a significant difference of drama and narrative in itself. If Excalibur only worked once, the whole story would be radically different.

So let's draw a line between one-shot and permanent magic items.

What to do about it?
In part 1, I hope I made it fairly clear that I think magic items should not be the common tools that they have become in our hobby - and in this part, I hope also that I've shown there is a distinction between two broad types of magic items: the one-shot consumable, and the persistently magical artefact.

Here, then, is my core aim: 
Magic items should START awesome, and STAY RARE.

By which I mean that the tool box of mundanely magic items should all but go - no more stacks of trinkets providing small bonuses here and there - leaving only the powerful and exciting magic items. So the first time a permanent magic items shows up in the game, it should be an awesome item. There should be no lesser items in the game.
These powerful items should remain rare, so that the discovery of each one is a memorable event.

The tool box need not completely vanish of course - that's why I pre-ambled for so long about consumable items. Consumable items can replace the myriad mundanely magical trinkets (look: alliteration - literary!) - potions, oils, paper bombs and other one-shot items can make up an adventurer's utility belt.

But permanent magic items should never be reduced to tools.

How we can actually enforce such a concept on our games will depend on the rules we're working in, of course. We can use increased thresholds for crafting magic items, changed probabilities on  random treasure tables, and the like.
I have in mind (for example) the idea that the special materials in the d20 OGL rules should become cheaper - these are materials that grant special properties to things made from them, but are not inherently magical. The special properties are impressive (adamantine cuts through most objects, for example), but are not magical.
However, as the rules currently stand, these special materials are so expensive that it is cheaper to make an item magical than it is to make it out of one of the special materials.

As for permanent magic items, some maths modelling is probably needed to work out an optimal way to encourage awesome item creation (again, depending on the game system you use)  - but the GM can simply veto dull items (the kind that grant +2 to this, +1 to that) when creating treasure, replacing such things with single-use of limited charged items.

What is awesome?
Your mileage may vary, so to speak, but generally a clear and overt spell effect is awesome, whereas a numerical bonus is a little dull. A flaming sword, arrow-repelling armour, a ring of water walking, or an invisibility cloak - these clearly awesome.

This is not to say that improving abilities can't be awesome. In old editions of D&D there were magical items that literally doubled your character's weapon damage, for example. A massive bonus like this is certainly in the realms of awesomeness. What we should be avoiding is a +2 or +4 here and there, and favouring a +8 or +10 instead.

In short, awesome magic items allow the user to do something they could not normally do - not by improving their abilities, but by giving them new ones.

What is rare?
I'm thinking that any character should only have one or two permanent magic items, plus a plethora of one-shot tools, at the peak of their career.
These permanent items should be signature items that are as famous as the hero or villain wielding them. The tool belt of one-shot items can be pretty cool in their own right, but they shouldn't be things that the character relies on and uses in all encounters.

What does this do to the game?
Permanent magic items become more impressive - both from their rarity, and their (hopefully) inherent awesomeness. Characters may become associated with their awesome artefact - such as Thor's hammer, or Arthur's sword.
Limited magic items become a resource to be managed. Those potions and scrolls won't last forever.

Ultimately, I think adventuring will be more dramatic - without the mundane magical shopping trip, the golf-bag of enchanted swords, the bag of holding with half the Gamesmasters' Guide treasure list stashed away in it.
Heroes will have to rely on their own skills and abilities more, with only one or two signature magical items.
Villains will wield significant artefacts that can be the target of the heroes' plan (steal the Evil High Priest's Staff of Horrors, and he's nothing but a mortal man).

How to mechanically achieve this balance of magic items will depend on the game you're playing - I still have plenty of work to do to make magic item tables for my own game. When I'm done, I may post another article showing the workings - but don't hold your breath....

There's no reason why we can't just wing it - it's a lot less work! But ultimately, to show fairness in action, it helps to enshrine those principles in the rules.
Of course, like many things in RPGs, it is often far easier to think of a general principle and aim, and use GM judgement to apply that principle, than it is to make rules to reflect it.