Tuesday, October 31, 2017

My Yardmaster Has a +4 Rulebook of Smiting

When I was a kid, I played a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons.  At its core, D&D is interactive, co-operative storytelling.  You get a bunch of folks together around a table; one person (the “game master”) describes a situation (usually something dramatic from a fantasy novel involving saving the village from a dragon, or breaking into the Thieves’ Guild, or exploring an underground labyrinth full of monsters and treasure). You each describe what your character does, and the gamemaster describes what happens. At its best, it's like writing an adventure novel on the fly.

Dungeons and Dragons - the initial version - was originally created by war gamers. That lineage shows up as lots of statistics and lots of dice. How much damage can my fighter take before he’s disabled? How much extra damage does my extra-good sword give? What saving throw must I roll to avoid being turned to stone by a medusa? The randomness adds to the fun of role-playing, but it's easy for the dice-rolling to take over.  Worse, some folks start thinking the points are what matters rather than the story.  Min-max'ers start making decisions on the game based on the probabilities, acting out of character in order to get the best results.  “Why rescue the princess? It won't give me enough experience to reach level 7.” Munchkins - the stereotypical kid playing only to score more than their buddies - ignore the puzzles and atmosphere in order to kick in the door, kill the monsters, and collect a +16 vorpal sword.

Dungeons and Dragons is a good forty years old now.  (Note to self: keep an eye out for retirement communities with active gaming groups).  Those forty years of game play also means that role playing games have evolved. The latest versions of Dungeons and Dragons still have voluminous rule books, odd dice, and lots of mathematical tables to decide whether your thief can climb to the top of the castle wall. Other games go much more towards the story telling. One of the more extreme examples, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron von Munchausen, has the players pretend to be the famous Baron von Munchausen of tall-tales fame; each tries to tell a story to outdo the others in the 17th century German tavern…. er, sitting around the table.

And some games stress the interactive storytelling but still have some of those random mechanics. One example is Fate Core. In Fate Core, you still create an alter-ego, and catalog down some of that character’s attributes on a “character sheet”. However, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, you generally use words instead of numbers. You choose a subset of skills that your character is good at (“Very good at athletics and investigation, poor at deceiving.”) You name aspects of your character - one liners - naming both how you generally respond, and an obvious weakness. (“Thief with a heart of gold”, “always jumps in to help the underdog”, “afraid of zombies”). Fate Core uses a simpler mechanic for deciding if you succeed, with simple dice with pluses and minuses for the random angle, and a range of success where you get to narrate the result.  Most importantly, the Fate Core rules includes the simple statement:

“Both players and gamemasters have a secondary job: make everyone around you look awesome. Fate is best as a collaborative endeavor, with everyone sharing ideas and looking for opportunities to make the events as entertaining as possible… Fate works best when you use it to tell stories about people who are proactive, competent, and pragmatic. A game about librarians spending all their time among dusty tomes and learning things isn’t Fate. A game about librarians using forgotten knowledge to save the world is... Characters in a game of Fate always lead dramatic lives. The stakes are always high for them, both in terms of what they have to deal with in their world, and what they're dealing with in the six inches of space between their ears.”

After all, isn't that what we want in fantasy stories? Conan the Barbarian fighting off the invading hordes? Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser thwarting the evil Overlord? A conflicted Batman deciding whether to go after the Joker? Academic psychologists defeating the Blatant Beast in the world of Spencer’s Faerie Queene?

Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show on YouTube shows what an actual game is like; if I’ve made you curious, go check it out.

But this blog is about model railroading.

I’ve said before that model railroad operation is pretty close to roleplaying - a bunch of us come together in a scenario planned by someone else, and try to tell a story about a day on the railroad.  Switchlists and train sheets give some of the war-gaming randomness.  But we also have a much different mission than Fate Core.  We don't want drama and excitement - we want to be recreating the action of the model railroad in a day-to-day, get-it-done model. We’re coming together to get the jobs done and keep the trains moving.

I think of it as more than a game; I’d like folks to get an appreciation of working on the railroad in the 1930s - what the jobs were like, how busy the railroad was, and where the other San Jose residents was working. The role playing is also a reminder of the difficult parts of railroading - the times you're stuck at the top of Tehachapi Pass at the San Diego Model Railroad Museum,  and can't get permission from the dispatcher to leave the siding, or wondering what a switch job would have been like in the rain or snow. It also determines whether we just re-rail those cars that fell in the canyon, or if the dispatcher immediately shuts down the railroad and sends the Big Hook to fix the derailment.

A war-gaming style doesn’t work for us; Joe can’t be a level 5 hostler; if you run over your switchman, that doesn't mean you have a half-effective switchman. But we can try to name ourselves by adjectives, just like in Fate Core. A particular tower man might be “crotchety” and "slow". A yardmaster might be “helpful”. An engineer may be “selfish” and try to tie up his train ahead of others; another engineer may be “know-it-all” and may push the schedule and safety to get to the next siding. A brakeman might be “sleepless” after ten days working without a break. The jobs might have Fate-style aspects, too. A switch job on the edge of the layout might be slow-speed: “don’t sweat it too much”, while a switchman working in the yard might want to feel as if he’s “micromanaged”. Chuck Hitchcock’s Argentine Industrial District Railway sets adjectives like this for certain jobs, with the AT&SF tower man encouraged to favor his own trains and ruin the plans for the crossing railroaders.

But just like the real railroad jobs, some of the role-playing on the layout comes from our own experience. If I operate on Rick Fortin's layout, I know there's experienced crews who know what they're doing, and newbies who make lots of mistakes, and I’m likely to plan for that behavior when I switch the yard. Some of that role-playing falls back on indivdual personality; there's going to be crochety members of the operating session, and mellow coworkers.  If Sam’s the yard master at Keyser on David Parks’ layout, then the yard’s going to be run strictly by the book. If Falkenburg is an engineer, he'll be no-nonsense. If Seth's running the yard, we'll be working double-speed, but he’ll be teaching the newbies out the whole time.

So we're kinda not role-playing - we're just running trains and letting some of our own personality bleed out. That’s not surprising; I suspect the folks who tend to play thieves in D&D probably tend towards the clever and sneaky personality, and the folks playing a paladin probably have a strong sense (or secret inclination) to make sure Things Are Done Correctly And Properly.  We'll role-play a bit outside our normal roles, but most of us probably tend towards acting in a way that has some parallel with our real self.

But model railroading is still role-playing; we need to describe a setting and provide some hints. Our operators need to know whether the rulebook is “more like guidelines” on this layout, or if breaking a rule gets you banished. Our operators need hints about the job and the role, both so they know if it’s a character they want to play, and so they know how to behave towards the others in the session. We can have a bit of randomness to make the system heroic. Perhaps some maintenance work shuts down an important stretch of track, and we all need to pull together to make it through the day. Maybe we should imagine that it’s a winter day, and getting the trains over the hill is a bit of heroism.

Sometimes we just play up the drama. I often describe my own Vasona Branch model railroad as a "high speed, thrill ride switching layout", for I personally like challenging switching puzzles, and I want to invite operators who are interested both in the prototype and in the switching challenges. Like Fate, most of my operators are "proactive, competent, and pragmatic", and if they're not saving the world with their switching, at least they're removing a bit of chaos from the tracks next to the cannery. The real crews, with thirty years of experience switching these same tracks, were probably just as adept at dispelling the chaos.

If I want to inspire my operators with a bit of drama, I can be blunt in my introduction to the layout:

"It's June 15, 1932; apricots are ripe, and everyone's running full-out to can the crop. The canneries have been running double shifts since April on different crops, and you all have been working with hardly a break since then. You've got all the shifts you would want; you don't dare try to take time off, and you've had enough practice so you're confident and working together as a team.

It's six in the morning; the canneries start up in two hours. You need to get the boxcars in position so all those guys on the dock can load the cars up. Go show those guys on the loading docks how railroaders get things done.

But not all my operators are like that; some of my visiting operators, either by choice or by a random roll of the invite list, can be sedate, challenged by puzzles, or are new model railroaders getting thrown into the deep end of the San Jose extra board switching pool. Sometimes, those folks play the role of the new hire on the railroad, destined in his or her first shift to decide whether railroading is the right profession, or if he's going back to the farm where they won't need to distinguish between thirty boxcars in various shades of brown. Some folks might play the character of the old hand who needs some help in the role, which might frustrate the other folks on his train, or might remind folks of how the railroaders protected their own. Hopefully, no one's playing the rest of Ed Gibson's crew on that infamous trip on the Hayward Turn. Sometimes the operator having a hard time on the layout reminds us of crews the real railroad. Sometimes, we hope they'll fall asleep under the layout. Sometimes we'll just want to scream - just like on the real railroad.

To help our operators play the correct role on the railroad, we need to give them hints. We can suggest the tone of the operating session in our introduction and in how we explain our layout, the way the game master does. Just like Fate Core, we can use adjectives to give our operators hints about their roles or their characters. We can also let each operator's personality reflect into the game, either by letting the operators be themselves, or carefully inviting the folks who match the tone for our layout. No matter which way we provide those role-playing hints, our operators will end up making the operating session awesome, and as entertaining as possible... even if they're not a level 5 hostler.

Interested in other story-style role playing games? Check out Tabletop's video of Dread, where characters need to pull a block from an unstable Jinga block stack to avoid bad things happening, or Fiasco's story-telling based on 1970's dance clubs. And if you'd prefer that +16 vorpal sword, check out the card game Munchkin.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Just Scan It.

The biggest challenge for recreating a prototype railroad in miniature is finding enough information about the real thing. I've been lucky with the Vasona Branch. Maps of the railroad are common. Newspapers and city directory help me spot the location of businesses. The local historical associations have lots of photos. Folks who worked on the modern SP tell stories that suggest that operations in the 1930's sometimes matched operations decades later.

That doesn't mean there's enough information; sometimes I've had to search official archives (such as finding out about the rebuilt Hart gondolas from the University of Texas, El Paso's collection of SP files), or poke around California State Railroad Museum's collection for maps of Wrights.

Still, I'm always hoping there's more documentation out there, so I occasionally go searching on Google for new documents, or even check eBay for interesting railroad paper.

Last year, for example, I found an eBay auction for a document from the Ogden Union Railway and Depot, which I assume controlled the tracks around Ogden Union Station. I was hoping the document might give some hints about local switching in the 1930's. Instead, it turned out to be primarily an accounting document, setting the rules for how traffic from each of the owning railroads - the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific - counted towards upkeep of the depot area.

Now, although it's not too interesting for me, it might be interesting for others. There’s also a bit of detail about operations. There’s hints about the routes that trains take (discussing UP routes), lists of major industries on the industrial track and branches operated by the Ogden Union, and details about when the Ogden Union gets a switching allowance for handling a car.

So, just in case there's someone out there modeling Ogden, I've scanned the document and put it up on Flickr. You won't get to enjoy the crackling of cheap paper and mimeographed text, but it's one more bit of research available to someone interested in modeling Ogden, or understanding how a jointly-owned belt line might think about the railroads that own it. (The San Francisco Belt Line folks might check for any similarities with how the Belt Line operated.)

The document is “Rules Governing the Counting of Freight and Passenger Cars at Ogden Utah between the Southern Pacific Company, the Ogden Union Railway and Depot Company, and the Union Pacific Railroad Company. It’s dated June 27, 1938. It also includes sample register check forms for the railway.

Go check it out, and if you see anything interesting, let me know! And if you've found some odd document in your research for your own prototype, how about sharing it online so that a future researcher can discover new tidbits from it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Market Street: Construction

A couple months ago, I needed a project that I could really focus on, and preferably one that required hammering lots of 2x4s together. In a feat of poor judgement, I just started building. The result was this Market Street Station layout, a modular layout in the british exhibition layout style.

This new Market Street Station layout is a big change from what I’ve built in the past. It’s modular, so I need to worry about how the pieces connect up. It’s intended for longer passenger cars, so I need to use different standards for curve radius and switches from my garage layout. It needs to be portable, so I need to be able to move the pieces, set it up accurately, and break it down quickly.

From the last layout and planning for this one, I knew that a complex design would just mean I'd spend too much time planning and rethinking. Instead, I decided to get some minimal bench work up as fast as possible so that I could test out module width, track position, and composition of the scenes as fast as possible. With some quick building, I could figure out if I were on the right path.

First Problem: How to Build Fast. In order to get modules built quickly, I decided to try out hollow core doors. They’re available - one short trip to Home Depot got me most of my benchwork - and require minimal other carpentry. Doors often don't seem appropriate for a model railroad because building terrain lower than the tracks is difficult. That's not a problem with Market Street, where most of the area is completely flat. Using doors also cuts some of the work to build a self-supporting structure - they’re pretty stable on their own. By building on a flat surface, I also don’t have to plan every exact curve and track location (as I might with a cookie cutter plywood layout), and can instead start building and worry about exact track locations later.

Underside of door with leg pocket and wiring.

I used 28” doors (Home Depot, $25 each), framed them with 6” wide birch plywood (3/4” for the end plates, 1/2” for the sides). I added pockets to fit 2x2 legs inside, with the pockets glued and nailed to the sides. I placed the layout at a nominal height of 50 inches. Cutting the plywood side pieces accurately was a challenge without a table saw, but I got close enough with a rip guide on my circular saw. The first two modules took two and a half days to build, with most of the time taken up trying to figure out how to build stuff. I’m relying on glue joints a bit too much, but I’m thinking it’ll work. I also learned a couple tricks on the first doors. The door I got was already primed; I had to use a plane on the edges to get down to raw wood for gluing. I also expected that everything would be suitably square if I built it on our patio concrete, but found I still needed to check squareness constantly and adjust. I used 1x2 scraps to reinforce corners. The final modules weighed about 30 pounds each.

Second challenge: the track arrangement. Once I had the modules built, I started laying out track just to get an idea of what would fit.

Experimenting with track arrangements.

As with my Vasona Branch layout, my first goal was to define my average train length so that I could ensure most trains would fit on the sidings, passing tracks, and staging tracks. I ended up choosing four car trains with three coaches and a baggage car or RPO. Although I’m expecting to use shorter Harriman cars for most of my trains, I sized the spurs for eighty foot cars. I've collected modern commute cars over the years; running those Gallery and Baby Bullet trains will help folks understand that the Market Street station is part of San Francisco-San Jose commute history.

With the train length set, I could start placing track on the doors and figuring out track arrangements. I quickly found that 29 inches was an awfully wide space. Even with the Freemo suggestions to keep track six inches from the edge, there was plenty of room for tracks and for surrounding structures and scenery. Door length, however, was an issue. The trackage on the module to the left of Market Street station needed crossovers to allow trains to and from the station to go to either track, the switch for the mainline bypass around the station, and switches at the end of the baggage sidings. This resulted in five switches placed end to end which had to fit in the 6’8” space of the single door.

Track plan near 4th Street Tower

Another essential bit of track was the area east of Market Street station where the tracks diverged to head towards Oakland and Los Angeles. Modeling the Oakland track wasn’t a big priority for me - there weren’t a lot of trains going that way. However, the split was memorable because it was the location of the Fourth Street interlocking tower (controlling track on the east end of the station), the venerable Golden Gate cannery sitting between the tracks (later run by Hunts and Richmond Chase), and the unusual sharp curve of the eastbound track towards Los Angeles.

The curve of the Los Angeles track was a particular bit of reality I wanted to capture. The tracks heading east from Market Street slowly came together and curved towards the south. At Third Street, just as the tracks approached the Golden Gate cannery, the tracks curved sharply, cutting through several backyards until popping out onto Fourth Street and heading defiantly towards the heart of downtown San Jose. Those tracks ran down the middle of Fourth Street, passed homes, offices, and San Jose State University, and finally hit the cannery district south of downtown where Fourth Street ended but the tracks continued. Those tracks are interesting, not only because of the specter of freight trains running past San Jose State, but also because of the political fight between San Jose and the Willow Glen neighborhood about how to get the SP off the city streets.

Because this section of layout couldn't be rectangular, I built it using more traditional construction: plywood roadbed surface and cookie-cutter framing underneath. I found the construction more challenging, time-consuming and tedious, and I ended up getting the curves wrong so that the track to Oakland didn't actually end up in the middle of the end plate. It was a heck of a lot of work just to keep a favorite scene.

Third Challenge: Laying Track The cheap doors use masonite or hardboard for the door surface, so spikes and nails can't be used to hold track down. I decided to try gluing down track using acrylic caulk. (M.C. Fujiwara's video on laying track on Freemo-N modules convinced me to try this out.) I used Walthers code 83 track and #6 switches - matching the Freemo track height, but using sharper switches than Freemo allows on mainline modules. The caulk approach went down quickly, but I’ve already had a couple places come loose, so I’m a bit concerned that it won’t handle abuse as well as spiked track. I did drill holes to put spikes into the masonite door surfaces to hold switches in position; we’ll see how those hold. Next time, I may get doors faced with lauan plywood, or glue thin plywood onto the doors.

Keeping track on the module in place is one challenge, but modules also need track to align at joints accurately. For joining the three key modules, I used steel pegs to ensure all track joints would be in alignment. I turned these pins by hand on a lathe from 3/8" steel rod, making a male and female pin. I clamped the modules together in alignment, drilled a single 3/8" hole, and epoxied both pins in place.)

For the sections leading to staging, I used the Freemo approach of ending tracks 2 inches before the end of the module, and then using bridge rails to cross the joint. One advantage of the bridge rail approach is that there isn’t a rail at the very end of the module that can snag when moving the modules. I've already snagged a rail end once while moving the modules.

But Is It Freemo-Compatible? I'd intended to make the modules fit Freemo specifications, but early-on was forced to break away from the Freemo specs. The modules don’t have the required 26” end plate with tracks centered, though that’s not a big deal; I could always create transition modules to shrink the end plate to the correct size and location.

The bigger problems were curve radiuses and switches. Freemo mainline modules require 42 inch curves and #8 turnouts on the mainline.U I couldn't make either requirement work. The broad curves would have narrowed the Golden Gate cannery scene too much. The #8 turnouts just wouldn't let the track plan fit on the two doors. My specific problem was on the door representing the area west of the station. That track required five consecutive switches - the switch for the baggage tracks, crossover from east to west main, switch to the bypass around the station, crossover from west to east, and far switch for passenger rip track. Making any of these switches #8 would keep the track from fitting on a single door and would stretch the track over a second module. Because I’m also not aiming for modern era, I wasn't sure my modules would be particularly interesting in a standard Freemo setup, and decided to give up on Freemo track standards.

Wiring I did wire the modules in the Freemo style, with an accessory and DCC bus both joined between modules with PowerPole connectors. I didn't bother to wire for signals on the main - the whole scene, in the 1920's, would have been unsignaled (west side), or controlled by the interlocking in the Fourth Street Tower (east side).

I did power all the switches, as I do on my garage layout - it avoids damage to the switches, allows me to power frogs, and helps suspend disbelief by keeping operators' hands out of the scene. Instead of using venerable Tortoises, I tried using the MP-5 switch machines. These new switch machines, imported from the Czech Republic by Richard Brennen and sold by Seth Neumann's Model Railroad Control Systems, are a great improvement. They're much tinier than tortoises, easier to adjust, and so low profile that they hide inside the door. To mount the switch machines, I cut a hole in the underside of the door, then glued a piece of 1.5 inch 1/2 inch plywood to the skin just below the switch. I found that the supplied stiff piano wire didn't work well with the short distance to the switch machine; the 6mm throw pushed the switch points too hard, and occasionally the switch machine wouldn't move far enough over to hit the limit switch to allow throwing the other way. Fixing this required pushing the mechanism a bit further to get it to a s point where it could throw again. One particularly nice feature for a Freemo layout is that these switch machines don't need to be continuously powered. Instead, I can have momentary throw switches on both sides of the layout so operators can work from any side.

So that’s construction. I’ve set up and torn down the layout several times successfully; my biggest challenge is that the combined length - 25’ - is longer than my garage. I’ve set up parts of the layout inside when I’ve been doing track work or installing switch machines. Testing the whole layout, though, requires setting it up in the back yard. Luckily, California weather means I can set the modules up most weekends. I’ve got little chance of rain or humidity. For a weekend of work, I’ve been able to set up the layout on Saturday and keep the benchwork outside through Sunday or Monday. The rest of the time, the modules lean up against the wall of the garage. That’s not a good long-term solution (especially as I do more scenery), but it’ll work for now. Considering the layout is intended for operations and transportation, minimizing the amount of detail on the layout might be a reasonable decision. I’ve got some mock-ups of buildings in foam core which give the impression of rolling through the city.

Coming Up: Electronics, Software, and Operations.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Movie Night XXVI: Buy a Bit of the South Pacific Coast!

And for all you fans of the Santa Cruz branch of the SP who have a bit of money burning a hole in your pocket, be aware that the south end of the Summit tunnel (the Laurel end) is up for sale at $1.6 million for 110 acres. (That's less than what you'd pay for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath rancher on a 6000 SF lot in Sunnyvale!)

Property listing for 23411 Deerfield Road available on Redfin, or check out this video showing your potential new home. Note that if you plan on laying some track and running some trains, you'll need to rebuild a wooden trestle immediately in front of the tunnel. And if you do run some trains up there, invite me over.

Spotted by Derek Whaley, and originally posted on Santa Cruz Trains. If you haven't already checked out his Santa Cruz Trains" book, go get a copy.