OVAR Report – March 2018

Earlier this week, I was in Canada’s capital as the guest speaker at OVAR – the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Valley Associated Railroaders. I had a great time – I’m so glad they invited me!

Before I report on the trip, some words about OVAR are in order…


OVAR is an amazing group. It’s been around for decades – it was established in 1961 – and has a membership of around 180 people. Key to its success is the informal nature of the group. It exists as a social organization – an umbrella for various other groups in the Ottawa area – and that’s it. Membership includes representatives of many such groups, of course – from round-robin operating groups and modular railroading associations, to members of the NMRA and other such official organizations, to those who volunteer at museums and other railfan/historian venues.

Anybody who has been part of a group or club in this hobby knows that politics can become a problem. It rarely is with OVAR, because it exists solely as a place to bring those various other groups and clubs together under one roof, once per month, for dinner and a presentation.

When I moved to Ottawa in the early 1990s, it was for a work opportunity. Never mind knowing fellow hobbyists: I knew nobody in the city. But I found the local hobby shops – and there, I found a brochure for OVAR. It sounded like a good way to tap into the local modelling community, so I attended a dinner. And then I signed up – because it was such a great concept.

Each of us in this hobby have a different approach to railway modelling. We all have preferred scales, prototypes, eras, degrees of prototype adherence, and so on. In addition, we each enjoy some aspect of the hobby more than others. Everyone’s approach is valid – but let’s face it: If the local club’s approach is too different from what you want to do, you won’t continue to be a member.

The strength of OVAR is all of those unique combinations come together in one room. So when I first joined, I’d use each dinner to sit at a table with a group of modellers, and talk to them about how they engaged with the hobby. If their approach was too different from my own, then I’d sit at a new table the next month, and so on until I found the people with whom I best identified. It took a few months, but what a great way to survey the hobby within an entire region!

I haven’t lived in Ottawa in more than 20 years, but I’m still regularly in touch with those friends I made at OVAR.

Having said all that, it’s not surprise that I had a wonderful time as the group’s guest speaker on Tuesday night. I talked with many old friends – several of whom I haven’t seen in person in years. (A few asked about blogging, so I have written another post on that topic, called “Why you should consider blogging“.)

What’s more, I thought the presentation went very well.


I talked about how I ended up modelling Port Rowan in S scale. I started with my days in Ottawa when I built my first prototype-based layout – on which I attempted to recreate a portion of the Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railway in the late 1970s in HO scale. Then, while helping a friend decide what to model, I realized the TH&B’s bridge line railroading was not for me, and I switched to a Boston & Maine branch line in the steam era. I was still doing this when I moved back to Toronto in the late 1990s and built my first B&M layout.

However, dissatisfaction with the performance of my fleet of brass HO steam engines – small models of small prototypes – and recognizing in myself an interest in detailing structures and scenes, I moved up a couple of scales, to model a Maine two-footer in O scale. Here, after several years of progress, I ran into an unexpected setback: Modelling a Maine two-footer while living in southern Ontario was a lonely prospect. There just aren’t that many people in the hobby who are interested in The Standard Gauge of Maine. I was also frustrated by poor running qualities of my On2 fleet.

While searching for ideas for what to do next, I met the members of the S Scale Workshop and the die was cast.

There’s more to the story – and I hinted that it might be time for another change – but I’ll save that for future presentations.

As with many of these events, the guest speaks after dinner – and the dinner is a buffet style. Whenever doing this type of event, I’m cognizant that the audience isn’t looking for a clinic – it’s not an RPM meet. They want to be entertained – and they’re going to be sitting in a dark room (so they can see the presentation) after a big meal. Talks have to be general enough to appeal to an audience with broad-ranging interests.

Therefore, I framed the talk in such a way that I hope those in the audience who are curious about making any sort of change in their own hobby have some ideas about the research they should do and questions they should ask before diving in – in the interests of knowing, ahead of time, what they’re about to undertake.

After dinner speeches also have to be entertaining enough to keep everybody awake. I didn’t hear any snores from the audience, so I think I did okay.

I’ve done this talk before, but this was the first time I’ve presented to an audience in which several members lived through my various changes in direction. It was novel, and fun, to be able to expand on some of those stories.

When I do a trip like this – where I stay for less than a day – I like to treat myself to a good hotel. (I’m glad I did – the weather was, well, wintery: that made the 4.5 hour drive from Toronto to Ottawa feel even longer.)

OVAR covered the price of a modest hotel. I paid the difference and gave myself an upgrade, booking into the Chateau Laurier – one of a family of grand old railway hotels built by Canadian Pacific.

Chateau Laurier - Main Lobby

I got to my room late in the evening, and looked out my window in time to see an entourage pull up: a fleet of black vans with red/blue flashing lights. They showed up again the next morning to collect their passengers:

Chateau Laurier - Belgium Entrouage

I found out at breakfast that the King and Queen of Belgium were in town, and staying at the Chateau. They even left behind some terrific waffles, which I thoroughly enjoyed:

Chateau Laurier - Belgian Waffles

All in all, a fine trip!

The opposite of extreme

These days, there’s a lot of discussion in the hobby devoted to extreme weathering of locomotives and rolling stock. We’ve all seen examples, I’m sure – but if not, Google is your friend.

Some of the models I’ve seen are stunning. But I’ve never been tempted to put any such models on a layout. Weathering styles are a personal preference, and what looks great to one person looks awful to another. Regardless, if you’re building a realistic layout I feel it’s important to develop a uniform weathering approach – a palette of colours and media – and stick to it, so that individual pieces of rolling stock blend into the scene you’re creating.

I achieve this blend by employing a limited selection of acrylic paints – a grey-black, an earth colour, and a light grey – and applying them with an airbrush. My goal is to create cars that are sporting a bit of road grime and smoke – I model the steam era, after all – without looking like they’re ready for the scrap yard. Here are some examples:

CNR 462085

BAOX 378

CNR 209503

Note that the palette can be adjusted to suit specific models. In the following two examples, I’ve added additional colours to my weathering set – white for cement dust, and rust for the interior of the gondola:

BO 530382

NYC 399574

In this example, I’ve modelled a snow plow that has recently been repainted. (That’s often done in the summer, when they aren’t needed.) The plow has very little weathering on it, because it’s fresh out of the shop. In fact, the paint is even still a bit shiny: that’s the story I want to tell. But the plow has already acquired some weathering on the blade – including some green tones where it has been pushed through the weeds and grasses that grow on the shop tracks:

CNR 55303

Even so, the basic palette is prominent, and is applied using my standard technique and pattern: Smoky grey-black near the top of the car, light grey and/or earth colours along the bottom to represent dust and dirt kicked up from the right of way, and so on.

This uniform appearance is so important to me, that even though I have my friend Pierre Oliver build and paint many of my resin freight cars for me (so that I can focus on building my layout), I always tell him I will do the weathering myself. He does a fine job of weathering – but his style is different than mine, and that would be immediately apparent if his weathering jobs were placed on my layout.

I thought that my aversion to extreme weathering was primarily because in order to maintain my desired uniform palette, I would have to weather everything to the same extreme degree. But recently, my friend Bob Fallowfield wrote a superb piece about why he too avoids the extreme look – raising an issue to which I hadn’t really given any consideration. Here’s his story, reposted here with permission…

Bob Fallowfield's CP Rail boxcars

One trend I’m seeing in the hobby is that of extreme weathering. This is where the model is completely “ratbagged” with heavy oils and often covered in various tags with sometimes only the reporting marks being the only legible lettering. While this treatment may truly represent the specific prototype of the subject car, it ruins another illusion.

Consider this: I don’t have to tell any of you about the frustration of compression. We compress track miles, structure size, train length and even time. The other thing we compress is the North American freight car fleet. Our railways are presumabley linked via interchange to the continental rail network and thus have potential access to a myriad of cars from all over. Even the size of our home road fleet is shrunken down to often a few of each AAR type. I submit that we often ruin this illusion by applying extreme weathering to our fleet of cars. That is, we make it obvious that we are limited to certain cars and not a vast fleet.

Take the once ubiquitous CP 40’ boxcar. I have approximately three dozen of them in varying schemes. Let’s say I have ten in action red. If I weather those ten in a garish, extreme, outlandish way, they will quickly become highly visible and instantly recognizable. As a modeller already fighting the constraints of compression, this is exactly the effect I don’t want. I want those ten boxcars to represent a fleet of hundreds.

Thanks for letting me share this, Bob!

(If you don’t know his work, Bob has a wonderful HO scale layout on which he is faithfully re-creating the activities of the CP Rail Galt Subdivision in and around Woodstock, Ontario in 1980. He doesn’t have a traditional blog, but is a prolific author on the Facebook page he created for his layout. This piece came from that page – Bob Fallowfield’s Galt Sub. You can also see Bob’s layout, in action, in a two-part feature on TrainMasters TV. The tour is definitely worth the modest cost of a subscription.)

Now, this doesn’t mean that extreme weathering has no place. Locomotives – especially smaller ones used on branches like mine – tend to draw the same assignment day after day, so a distinct weathering characteristic isn’t an issue. If you really must have an extreme weathering example on your layout, a branchline locomotive is a good choice – just make sure the foundation is built up using the same palette you apply to all of your equipment. The same rationale applies to vans (cabooses) and branchline passenger equipment.

My personal preference is to use the same palette throughout – as seen on this combine that’s used on the mixed train to Port Rowan:

CNR 7184

I will even apply my consistent weathering palette to unusual cars, such as this flatcar of tractors headed to Potter Motors in Port Rowan:

WAB 181

My rationale here is that even though this is a distinctive car, Potter Motors may receive several loads of tractors over the course of a year, and I don’t want to suggest that they’re all arriving on the same flat car. They are, but the car is weathered without any distinguishing marks that would draw attention to that.

Extreme weathering tends to be applied to more modern equipment – diesels, modern boxcars, and so on. This is in part because the paints used on the rolling stock from my era were a lot tougher, and withstood the elements better, so they didn’t chip and rust like modern cars. But Bob’s thoughts on the value of creating “forgettable” cars applies equally to things found on my steam-era models, such as chalk marks for classifying cars: Make them non-descript.

This also applies to the consistency of a weathering job – if, for some reason, it turns out with memorable patterns, perhaps it’s time to repaint. I have a couple of boxcars that developed odd weathering patterns on the running boards, so I repainted the running boards and took a second run at weathering them. I’m happier that I did.

Six years on…

Six years ago today, my friend Pierre Oliver and I cut the first pieces of lumber for what was to become Port Rowan in 1:64. It’s been quite a journey.

My layout is a simple design, so construction proceeded remarkably quickly. In no time at all, it seemed, I had roadbed in place and was starting to rough in the location of turnouts and trackage:

Port Rowan shortly after construction started.

And just a few years later, the layout was not only running, but I’d say 90% finished:

Port Rowan a few years later.

That final 10% seems to take as long as the initial 90%, doesn’t it? There are structures to build, details to assemble and paint, vignettes to create, and so on. That’s all part of the fun. And then of course there are other projects. They may be railway related, but not of direct use on the layout. Or they may be projects that have nothing to do with this hobby – but that I want to undertake, just because.

There’s been a lot of that this year. I’ve rediscovered role playing games and tabletop wargaming after a quarter century absence, and a lot of my spare time has been taken up by assembling and painting 28mm figures (roughly S scale) for a couple of games set in feudal Japan.

(I really should start a blog about those interests, now that I think about it…)

As for Port Rowan, much of my work on this hobby has involved migrating photos off Photobucket and onto my WordPress server. It’s something I should’ve done from the start, I suspect. Oh well…

The nice thing about the hobby, for me, is that I don’t have a deadline. I’m not staring down a 20-30 year “Dream Layout” and wondering if I’ll achieve the dream before I am too feeble and/or addlepated to appreciate it. I can see a point – in the not too distant future – when I can declare Port Rowan “finished”. I’m looking forward to that, but I’m also in no rush to get there. It’s a hobby – not a job…

A railway modelling craftsman reflects on his hobby

Boy, does this sound familiar!

Gene Deimling is a well-known modeller working in Proto:48. He’s responsible for the patterns for many fine rolling stock kits that O scalers enjoy. He blogs about his hobby, and I’m a regular reader. His most recent post really struck a chord with me – and I’m sure it’ll resonate with many of you, too.

Click on the image, below, to read it:

Gene's Wanderings
(Is there a better way to wander than in a doodlebug? I think not!)

I have offered up several comments about this post on his blog – and in the interests of keeping the conversation in one place, I’m turning off comments on this post. If you have something to contribute, please do so! But do it in Gene’s original post. I’m following the comments on his post so I’ll take part in the discussion there.

Gene – thanks for sharing your thoughts! (And thanks for the shout-out for Port Rowan in 1:64!)

California Dreamin’ | We’ll always have Perris

As part of my trip to California in mid-September, I squeezed in a brief stop at the restored ATSF train station in Perris. This is something I’m really glad I was able to do – it was a pilgrimage of sorts.

To find out why, visit my Achievable Layouts blog. Just click on the pretty postcard view of the station, below:

The Ontario Manifest is this weekend

I’m headed off later this week to attend Ontario Manifest – the 2017 annual convention for the Pacific Southwest Region of the NMRA. I’ve been invited to deliver the after-dinner speech at the banquet on Saturday night. I’m ready to go and looking forward to it!

I like California – a lot. I’ve been a couple of times, including for hobby-related events – and there’s a lot of spectacular railway modelling taking place in the state. The people are a ton of fun, too. I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days with them.

PSR-NMRA Banquet Speech

For the banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. I spoke on this topic at the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA convention in Ottawa, Canada just over a year ago, and had a lot of interesting feedback from those who attended. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts in California.

I’m also looking forward to my first visit to the Orange Empire Railway Museum.

And yes, I’ll post all about the trip when I return…

Please Stand By

As a consequence of being out of the country for a week, I’ll be tardy about responding to comments on my blogs until late next week – and if you’re a first-time commenter, your post may get held in the moderator’s cue until then. Apologies in advance – that’s just the reality of the Internet these days: everybody gets moderated the first time.

See you at the Ontario Manifest!

That’s Ontario, California

I’ve been invited to speak at the banquet at Ontario Manifest – the 2017 annual convention for the Pacific Southwest Region of the NMRA. This looks like a lot of fun, and I’m thrilled to take part.

I like California – a lot. I’ve been a couple of times, including for hobby-related events – and there’s a lot of spectacular railway modelling taking place in the state. The people are a ton of fun, too. I’m looking forward to spending a couple of days with them.

For the banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. I spoke on this topic at the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA convention in Ottawa, Canada just over a year ago, and had a lot of interesting feedback from those who attended. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts in California.

For the Saturday night banquet, I’ll be offering up some thoughts about where the hobby is going, where we’ll find the next generation of serious hobbyists, and what we can do to foster them. As the Ontario Manifest website explains…

Ontario Manifest - Banquet PPT

For many of us, the hobby is more than a way to kill time. It’s a lifelong journey of friendships and learning. We love this hobby ‐ and many of us wonder how we can encourage more people to join us as railway modeling enthusiasts. In particular, we wonder how we’re going to reach younger people. Based on experience in his professional life as a corporate speech writer, Trevor has garnered some insights into the demographic known as The Millennials. He’ll share thoughts on how we connect with a cohort that has never known a world in which the Internet did not exist, and who many dismiss ‐ wrongly ‐ as being “more interested in playing games on their phones than in building things”. Trevor will also offer some suggestions about how we make our hobby relevant to more people ‐ especially these Millennials ‐ at a time when few people encounter real trains on a daily basis.

That’s a tall order! But I spoke on this topic at the Niagara Frontier Region NMRA convention in Ottawa, Canada just over a year ago, and had a lot of interesting feedback from those who attended. I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts in California.

Since I’m making the trip for the banquet anyway, I’ve also offered to speak about my layout – but recognizing that an S scale Canadian branchlike will be of little interest to many at the convention, I’m using the layout as a jumping off point to talk about working in a minority scale. Again, from the Ontario Manifest website…

Ontario Manifest - Port Rowan Clinic PTT

Trevor Marshall is a prototype modeler, and he’s working in S scale. In this clinic, he’ll share theopportunities and challenges of modeling a specific prototype in a minority scale-using his layout as an example. Trevor will cover why he ended up in a less popular scale and how that influenced his decisionwhen choosing a prototype. He’ll offer suggestions for others to research and ponder to determine whether a niche scale is a viable one in which to work. Anybody who has ever considered switching scales or who is interested in working in a second scale can benefit from this clinic.

I look forward to discussing S scale with convention-goers. I wonder if I’ll be the only one working in 1:64?

Ontario Manifest has a great line-up of activities planned – including a visit to the Orange Empire Railway Museum. Those who know me know that I’m a big fan of Interurbans – including the Pacific Electric and Sacramento Northern. So I’m excited to have the opportunity to visit the museum, because they have a lot of preserved Interurban equipment – from those two lines, and others. That’s my Sunday planned…

Ontario Manifest runs September 13-16 in Ontario, California. Check out the convention website for details – and I hope to see some of you there!

Narrative RPGs and Ops Sessions

I’m going to start this post by describing something that has nothing to do with model railways – and then try to connect it to railway modelling. Bear with me…

Last year, I returned to another hobby after a hiatus of some 30 years. That hobby is Role Playing Games (RPGs), and my return was an eye-opening experience:

The Game Master at work.
(That’s me, pouring over notes as Game Master for a session of Star Wars: Age of Rebellion at the end of March: My first time acting as GM in 30 years. It was nerve-wracking, but fun – and I can’t wait to do it again!)

If you’re familiar with RPGs, you can skip ahead. For the rest of you, well…

It’s a big subject – but here’s an overly-simplified description. A group of people gather around a table. One person (the Game Master, or GM) has acquired (or written) a set of rules, and prepared the setting plus other information needed to conduct an adventure. Think of the rules as the mechanics of making a film – the lighting, the camera, the microphones, and all the other things are determine what you can and cannot do. And think of the setting and the adventure as the script.

The other people (the Players) each take on the role of a hero – the actors in our script. But instead of following a rigid script, the action unfolds through a group-based story-telling session. Where they go is limited only by the imagination of the Players and the GM, plus the GM’s ability to respond to the actions of the heroes in his setting. An adventure can last a single session – typically, 3 to 4 hours – like a stand-alone movie. Or, it can stretch over multiple sessions, like a TV series. It can also be part of a larger campaign in which the same Players (playing the same heroes each time) undertake several adventures – acquiring experience, plus a combination of wealth, status, power, and other benefits. Campaign play is more like a movie franchise, or multi-season TV show.

The games can be set just about anywhere: They can be based on any popular genre (e.g.: detective stories/pulp, fantasy, realistic science fiction or space opera, horror, super heroes, and so on). They can be realistic, even historical, or built entirely around an imaginary premise.

There’s usually a challenge involved: Slay the dragon, find the stolen plans, stop the evil empire, catch the bad guy, rescue the captured scientist, prevent (or solve) a murder… the possibilities are endless. The GM has a general plan of how things are to unfold, but the players are free to take their own actions.

The rules of the game tend to focus on basic activities. They define how to shoot a gun, how to cast a spell, how to pick a lock, how to fly a star ship (as appropriate to the world in which the heroes are adventuring). These rules typically use dice to resolve successes and failures. But the mechanics of the game are balanced by improv/narrative, where the Players and the GM can make up things on the fly to move the story forward.

As I mentioned, I’ve been away from RPGs for 30 years. And since I’ve had such a long break, I’ve noticed some interesting developments between then and now.

Many of the games I used to play are still around – although they’ve gone through several rules revisions, moved to different publishers, and so on.

Over all, those games are better – the quality is better and there’s a much greater choice of accessories such as figures (many to 28mm scale, which is very close to S scale) to bring adventures to life. (By the way, these new accessories are built the same way that much of our ready-to-run equipment is: It’s designed by the game developers on computer and manufactured in China. And then gaming hobbyists expand on their collection through scratch-building, kit-bashing, and developing their own computer designs for laser-cutting or 3D printing.)

And while I don’t know whether this is universal, my own experience is that many of the newer games have mechanics that are much easier to learn. In fact, in some of my favourites, the game authors have made it clear that the mechanics should enhance the narrative – not direct it.

For me, there’s been a definite evolution – which I noticed in large part because of my hiatus. The most significant change, in my experience, is the change in emphasis from mechanics to narrative as the driving force in game systems.

The games I played as a teenager were dice-heavy, and the randomness of those roles could make or break an adventure. You rolled the dice, a number came up, you compared it to a chart that told you what happened, and there was little room for GM and/or players to interpret the results.

The games I’m playing today often have dice with no numbers on them at all. The dice are marked with symbols that mean things like “success”, “failure”, “positive benefit”, “setback” and so on. They support the character’s actions, rather that dictate them.

Arkhan's character sheet and narrative dice.
(The portfolio for Arkhan – one of the heroes in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion adventure for which I’m game master – plus dice)

In RPGs, the character sheets (or portfolios) contain a mix of data to influence dice rolls, plus background that allows the player to assume the role. In the photo above, the character is a Bothan commander in the Rebel Alliance, played by my friend Brian. How well Brian assumes the character has a direct influence on the mechanics, so he can shape his hero’s destiny.

So, what does this have to do with model railroading? Good question.

The model railway hobby has also advanced a lot in the past 30 years – and in similar ways to role playing games. Our mechanics are definitely better:

We have DCC, laser cutting, photo-etching and 3D printing.

We have amazing ready-to-run models and terrific resin kits.

We shop the world via the Internet.

We have blogs and forums to share ideas and techniques.

We have strong historical societies, photo galleries, history websites, books and other resources – online and offline – to answer questions, and help us become better modellers.

And more.

The narrative side of things is also better: As a hobby, more of us know more about the rules of railroading than ever before, thanks to groups such as (but not limited to) the Operations SIG and Layout Design SIG. Thanks to many of the improvements to “mechanics” that I’ve already listed, more people are also getting beyond the “building models” stage to the “building a layout” stage. More layouts have scenery and detailed structures than ever before. And with better running trains, sound-equipped locomotives, signalling systems, prototype paperwork, and more, operating sessions are more realistic than ever.

These are all good things. So what’s next? I suspect that as a hobby, we could do better to define and communicate the narrative that drives our layouts.

Often during operating sessions, we become fixated on the mechanical: Moving this car from here to there… moving that train from there to here… letting the dispatcher know where we are… following the time table… deciphering the DCC throttles, track diagrams and switch controls… and so on. But if we step back and look at what we’re doing, operations sessions are essentially a Role Playing Game.

The owner/builder of the layout is the game master, who has created the world, defined the adventure, and established the rules.

The rest of us assume the roles of various “heroes” in the game: we’re the dispatcher, the engineer, the conductor, the yardmaster, and so on.

With rare exceptions (and I’ll provide an example, below), the narrative takes a back seat to the mechanics of the operations game. We follow the rules, but otherwise we basically play ourselves. I know I do. Are we missing an opportunity?

Those who like Role Playing Games would think so.

I suspect that gamers would enjoy a layout like the Kansas City Terminal, built by Jim Senese of Oklahoma. I’ve read about Jim’s layout in Great Model Railroads and Model Railroad Planning. It’s also been featured online. You can find a good description of it on this page, where I will direct your attention to the last line of the first paragraph:

It’s 3:00 pm on Saturday, November 15, 1980 – the last weekend before the Frisco was absorbed into the Burlington Northern. The eight model railroaders who come to operate the KCT are divided into four two-person crews. One crew will be hired by the M-K-T, one by the Frisco, one by the Kansas City Southern, and one by the Missouri Pacific. During the 3.5 hour operating session each crew will switch industries along their railroad, provide customer service moves at grain elevators, and interchange interline freight cars with the other three trunk lines. As an additional dimension, each crew will be provided with a description of the corporate culture of the railroad they work for and will be asked to adopt that persona during the session.

What a terrific idea!

Now, this works well for Jim because he has built a terminal switching layout focussed on the interplay between four railroads in the Kansas City area, and each railroad has its own culture. But I’m sure this idea could be adapted to individual jobs on any layout. It could be as simple as assigning each operator a persona – a character sheet – that describes their personality.

Are they new to the job, and worried about making errors? Or are they old hands, counting the days to retirement? One could add detail as one sees fit. An old hand might live to hold court with the other railroaders – or might be somewhat dour and unapproachable.

In the Star Wars RPG universe (and, I’m sure, others), each player selects an “obligation” or a “duty” for their character. This is their motivation for being in the Rebel Alliance in the first place, and it combines with the character’s background story to help the player in several ways, including:

It helps the player assume the persona of their hero. In fact, it encourages this, because the Game Master will assess how well the player is fulfilling their character’s obligation (or duty) when awarding experience and other goodies at the end of an adventure.

It helps direct the story, by giving players an understanding of how they would react to situations and what sorts of opportunities they act upon. It also gives the Game Master tools to use to engage the characters in the adventure he or she has designed.

I wonder: If a long-time gamer suddenly embraced railway modelling and built a layout… what would it look like? What would operating sessions be like? Would they include props – perhaps, come to sessions dressed for the part?

Something to think about, as you ponder three Stormtroopers on speeder bikes patrolling through Port Rowan…

No 'droids here: Move on!

Podcasting and Big Model Railroad Media

I’m a big fan of the Up Dunes Junction blog written by Steve Lee. While we model very different prototypes, in different scales, Steve and I agree on a lot of things.

This includes our shared belief in the potential of podcasting to enhance our understanding and enjoyment of this hobby.

A few years ago, I created, produced and co-hosted The Model Railway Show podcast with my friend Jim Martin. I know from that experience that listening to podcasts has become a favourite activity for commuters – and no wonder. Podcasting gives commuters an alternative to “the breakfast bunch” and “afternoon drive” radio programs. Those who produce podcast content know they are reaching a self-selected, targeted audience that’s also captive: since they’re driving, there’s nothing else they can do. They’re stuck in that vehicle for the length of their commute, and looking for something to help them get through the ordeal.

This is Narrowcasting Nirvana. So why aren’t our hobby’s major publishers and advertisers taking advantage of it?

This is the question that Steve asks in a thought-provoking post called, “Hey Big Model Railroad Media: Where’s the Audio Content?

It’s a really good question.

I’ve provided a lengthy answer – just my opinion, of course! – on Steve’s blog. Since Steve started the discussion, I’ve disabled comments on this post. If you want to join in (and I hope you do!) please do so over there. Click on the still-awesome logo designed for The Model Railway Show by Otto Vondrak to head to Steve’s blog now. I’ll see you there!

TMRS Podcast Badge

From Maine On2 to Port Rowan in 1:64

This morning, I received an email from a reader who had discovered some of my On2 work online and had some questions. He wrote:

I just watched a video of your old On2 layout and loved the models, scenery, and music. It is rare for me to sit through many model rail vids but you got me. Thanks.

My pleasure! I’m glad you enjoyed the video. For those who haven’t seen it, I’m pretty sure this is the one to which he refers:

(You can also watch this directly on YouTube, where you may be able to enjoy it in larger formats)

The reader continued…

As much as I like your S scale layout it makes me wonder a couple of things like, “How long have your been building layouts?” and, “Why the switch?”

I’ve written about how I got started in 1:64 in a series of posts at the very beginning of this blog. The links have been gathered into the “First Time Here?” page and if you haven’t read them, that’s a good place to start. Go ahead – I’ll wait here…

Me and the Big Big Train
(The railway’s General Manager, surveying the line…)

To answer the first question, I’ve been building layouts off and on – mostly on – for 40 years. I started young, and then had the usual break for part of high school before coming back to the hobby in university. At a guess, I’ve built about a dozen layouts over that time, to various states of completion. The early ones were horribly conceived and executed – a product of ambition over understanding – but they were valuable learning exercises and I don’t regret undertaking them.

In my current home, I’ve built four layouts based on three prototypes/themes:

– An HO scale layout based on the Boston & Maine Railroad’s Claremont branch in New Hampshire. I described that layout in the March and April, 2002 issues of Railroad Model Craftsman magazine.

– Two iterations of a freelanced Maine two-footer layout in On2 (not On30), inspired by the slate-hauling Monson Railroad. I built the first, smaller version in the space now occupied by my workshop. The second version is the one shown in the video above. It was in the space currently occupied by my Port Rowan layout and was to incorporate the slate mill from the first layout, but I abandoned that project before the mainline reached the quarries.

– The current, S scale layout featuring the last three miles of the CNR Simcoe Sub to Port Rowan.

In addition to these, I have explored a few other ideas for my layout space. Some were merely planning exercises, while others were themes I wanted to build but abandoned when I decided I didn’t like the layouts I designed for my space. (The problem of, “If I only had five more feet…”)

The answer to the second question is more complex. Part of the answer is in those first posts about Port Rowan in 1:64.

Primarily, I found that living in southern Ontario it was pretty lonely to model a Maine two-footer. A few of my hobby friends in the area understood what I was doing – but it was just too foreign for most. My hobby is primarily a social one, and I got tired of having a layout that was difficult for others to appreciate. That’s not their problem – they simply didn’t have the reference.

Coupled with this, and equally important, is that because few people in my region knew about the Maine two-footers, I had very few local sources of information about any aspect of them. I couldn’t draw on local knowledge for very much. By switching to the CNR, my local support group got a whole lot better – for everything from equipment to operations. I was spending more and more time with terrific, fun modellers who knew a lot about Canadian railways running in southern Ontario – and nothing about Maine two-footers. Why is that important? Well, working on a layout to which others can relate is important if you’re in the hobby for the social aspects of it.

It’s also important if you want to build skills.

For example, I’m learning to modify brass locomotives with the CNR 3737 project. This is happening because another hobbyist in the area, who knows a lot about doing this kind of thing, also has a brass 2-8-2 to modify into a CNR prototype. Nobody I know in the Toronto area is doing a major modification on a brass SR&RL Forney to convert it to a Monson Railroad prototype. So, if I was still working in On2, I would be figuring that out by myself. I could do that, I’m sure – but the work sessions on the CNR 2-8-2s have become a great social event for me, too.

In the same way that the best advice to anybody considering their first DCC system is, “Buy what your friends use, because you’re going to need help and no feature on any system beats the benefit of local knowledge”, I’ve benefitted enormously from local hobbyists now that we’re moving in the same circles.

With the Maine two-footers, my local knowledge was at least 12 hours away by highway, and across an international border. (And, it has to be said, that border has only gotten more onerous to cross in the years since I modelled the Maine two-footers.) That meant my research trips were expensive, in terms of time and money. They involved at least two days on the road, plus at least two nights in a hotel. So I could only do occasional trips. It’s hard to find the answers to questions when that much travel is involved. Yes, the Internet is wonderful, but there’s nothing like going and seeing for oneself to really get an understanding.

By contrast, Port Rowan is two to three hours away, depending on traffic. I can make a day trip, any time I like.

Dogs outstanding in the Port Rowan yard
(I can even take along my wife and dogs, and make an outing of it.)

It’s much easier to be inspired when I can walk the Lynn Valley hiking trail to see the bridges, or visit with the person who ran the feed mill in Port Rowan – and do the round trip in a day.

As well, I’ve pursued both prototype and proto-freelance modelling, and I definitely prefer the prototype approach. Railway Prototype Modelling meets are among my favourite hobby events, and I never felt comfortable displaying my On2 models at them – even though they were prototype models in everything but the lettering. (And I can tell you, my displays got blank stares at RPMs in the Toronto area.) Again, it’s about how one engages with the hobby. I like Port Rowan in 1:64 because my local community can relate to the prototype, even if they’re more used to seeing the CNR modelled in HO. The difference in scale is a conversation starter – not a killer.

There are more reasons, but those are the main ones.

To the person who got in touch – those were great questions. Thanks for asking!