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.


Morality & Reality - meta-ethics in your game

What is good? What is evil? Are they real physical forces, purely mortal moral judgements, or what?

What started me thinking about this again - after I've already laid out my opinions and tool box for both gods and morality in games - was a rather heated discussion about a particular real-world religion and its morality or lack of it. I'm naming no names. The discussion got rather entrenched, but it made me think of a few things that I found helpful.

Now there are plenty of discussion threads out there on alignment, and some very serious heavy debate about religion. I'm not going to try to replicate those here - I want to look at how the different points of view can be used when creating your game world.

Like my article on gods, I think that one's attitude toward Good and Evil in the game setting can have profound consequences which may be more wide reaching than you'd expect. As in that article, I'm going to present some stances that  you might consider for your game setting, and look at how these influence the setting.

I'm going to talk about Good and Evil with capitals, in that I want to distinguish these grand concepts from the less important good (meaning beneficial, competent, fitting, etc.) and evil (meaning nasty, ill, etc.).
I'm also going to talk about gods, angels and demons, and mortals as creatures that have different moral scopes within a fantasy game setting - but I'm using these terms generally: I don't mean to refer to D&D 3.5's demons, WoD's angels, or Zoroastrianism's gods, or any other specifics.

Debating ethics

Good & Evil are Actual Forces?

In this stance, Good and Evil are real, measureable forces, like temperature or mass.

As well as conscious beings having morality, Good and Evil can inhabit objects and places. A book may be inherently Good, its presence harmful to Evil creatures - or dreadfully Evil, driving its readers insane. An Evil ring may corrupt the wearer. A Good, sacred place may heal the sick.

If Good and Evil are tangible forces, then are sapient creatures left with a fixed morality? Can Good be driven out of a person? Can an Evil being become Good?

Of course, it's a common complaint about alignment systems that characters' mortality becomes fixed, and this stance seems to reinforce that idea - but it needn't be like that...

A flexible alignment system in action?

Only Actions are Good and Evil?

Only the actions of sapient creatures are Good or Evil in this stance.

Things cannot have morality, only people - and then only as the result of their acts. By doing Good, Bobby the Barbarian is Good. By doing Evil, Winifred the Wizard is Evil.The Book of Nasty Tales, however, is just a book, the Sword of Demonslaying is just a magic sword, and the Chapel of Holy Rest is just a building.

Perhaps the build up of moral actions can be detected in a person - their Evil becomes tangible through their repeated acts, and we can sense it, through divination magic, or as a creepy feeling.

This stance inherently allows the moral standing of a person to change as they choose to act differently. Over time, a Good person can be corrupted by Evil acts, and vice versa. We can have redemption and damnation as story arcs - a rich vein of role-playing to mine!

While this stance is flexible and arguably more realistic, it lacks the supernatural element of Good and Evil that we enjoy from  fantasy literature.

The Middle Way

The above stances can be somewhat restrictive - especially for a fantastic setting, which is of course where we most commonly want to play with Good and Evil ideas.

Perhaps there are beings who are inherently Good and Evil, who are exemplars of those morals - Angels and Demons - but the common folk, the mortals of the setting, are free to choose their moral acts, and in choosing, to determine whether they are Good or Evil.

Perhaps objects can be inbued with Good and Evil by exemplars like Angels and Demons, or particularly pious or profane mortal magic users.

In such a setting, mortals retain free will, and can change their moral codes over time, but the existence of creatures of absolute morality is permitted. We can have our inherently Evil monsters, our literally holy ground, AND our ambiguous and mutable protagonists, struggling to do the right thing.


Sciatic nerve pinch!

It feels like I've somehow pinched my sciatic nerve - the leg nerve that runs from the back of the pelvis to the calf. It's a sharp pain in the back of my right hip, that gets worst when I raise my right leg, especially if I keep the leg straight.

No, it's not some Vulcan incapacitating technique, it's an injury.
Apparently this is common in runners, though I've only just experienced it after years of happy running.
Weight lifters also get it, so maybe the leg lunges with weights I was trying out to strengthen my knees started it off.
Lower back mobility is another issue - and I've always had difficulty touching my toes with straight legs, ever since I was a kid.

There are a bunch of exercises to strengthen the core muscles, which should prevent it from re-occurring, and there are a load of stretches to ease it off in the mean time.

But the horrifying crux of the matter is - I should stop running till the pain goes, then build back up gently.

Yuk! Horrible idea!

I've got three and a half months till the Marlborough 33 miler - so I've got to rest if I'm going to get better.

In the meantime, I'll be back at the boxing and static bike - and I'm looking to get a rowing machine maybe - to keep the cardio up and help with the core flexing and strength.


Selling a load of mixed minis

Just so I can store the pics somewhere easy to point to, here's a list and pics of the minis I have for sale.

  • Big GW case of assorted humanoids, hero figs and a few larger monsters. All painted to reasonable standard. 30 quid. SOLD

  • Small GW case of assorted humanoids and heroes - painted reasonably. 20 quid. SOLD

  • Assorted modern and sci-fi minis. Includes 2 helicopters in 1/72 scale & a bunch of matchbox cars. Mixed level of painting. In carry case with packing. 15 quid.
  • Assorted dungeon scenery in a carry case. Includes floor tiles, walls, door, columns, crates and barrels etc. 30 quid.


Self-censorship in RPGs?

There are times when I wonder about my sense of good fun.

Last weekend, I ran a game where the players had fun battling through storm conditions on the high seas, getting excited by running the risk sinking and drowning - when that very night, in the North Sea, dozens of real sailors lost their lives in a shipping disaster.

Regularly, I run games where religious intolerance, inter-faith war, assassination, fanaticism and the like are sources of entertainment - while the so-called Islamic State and al-Qeda are organising and inspiring the murder of journalists and aid workers
Is it okay to use these horrible events, vile actions and situations as part of a game?

Yes - of course!

We can examine the world through RPGs. By playing roles, we can understand people better, empathise better. By imagining what brings a person to behave in a certain way, we aren't condoning it.

Would you say that Sean Bean is evil because he played the corrupt agent 006? That Alan Rickman is a bad person because of his portrayal of the Sherrif of Nottingham?
Would you say that Peter Jackson is promoting black magic because he made films about Sauron and the Witch King of Angmar and all those evil beings?

Story telling is one of our ways of coping with the nasty and horrible parts of the world - and roleplaying games especially so.

So let's not self-censor ourselves. You only have to answer to your player group. If it's cool to you, then it's cool.