Poem – “Litany”

A poem, in the voice of a character from a story much planned but largely unwritten.

by Davis van Zandt

Please report any of the following to the proper authorities:

  • When you see people who aren’t, in all objectivity, there
  • When you don’t see people who are (don’t be afraid to ask, it’s better than not knowing)
  • When people who aren’t there see you
  • When you see images other than the proper reflection or view (examples: trees in the oil-puddle’s rainbow, ages long dead through the window)
  • When you are lost on familiar paths, or know the way on strange ones
  • When you feel or observe, without good reason: fear, sorrow, euphoria, confusion, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, agitation, irritation,
  • dizziness, shortness of breath, chills, heat, pain (especially of the head or vitals), heaviness of the limbs, nausea, lightheadedness, loss of function,
  • the growth of supernumerary moles, digits, members, limbs or organs
  • When you are watched unblinkingly, or constantly but with blinking
  • When you or anyone you know dies, whether in reality or in a dream
  • When the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, comes whiffling through the tulgey wood
  • When it rains, hails, sleets or snows anything other than water
  • When you or anyone prophesizes (please include text and context)
  • When you observe two or more of the following: large red sun, black sun, large red moon, large red stars, new or mobile constellations or stars, pillars or clouds of flame and/or thunder, stones moving of their own accord, words in light in any language from Appendix B, or singing as of a great choral multitude
  • When spirits or elder gods walk the earth, revealed in their power
  • When dead Cthulhu rises from his dreaming in sunken R’lyeh (joke) OR
  • When suddenly and quite without warning,
  • it all makes perfect sense.
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Although I do say so myself…


Literally: self – picture – self – praise

Alternately: Singing one’s own praises. Blowing one’s own horn. (Public) self-congratulation.

Note: Although the 賛 can be translated as “praise,” in this case it refers to a tradition of writing poetry, or something of a similar literary bent, in response to (and perhaps to accompany) a picture. Such a written piece is also called 賛. So while the meaning is unchanged, 自画自賛 refers to ‘writing a poem in response to one’s own painting’ rather than directly, overtly praising one’s own work. Perhaps this distinction gives us a little window into traditional Japanese culture.


Often negative, but here’s a book on how to put it to use!

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Not the monkey’s paw; that’s very different

A new semester will be beginning soon. (Wish me luck in keeping up with my posting schedule!) Recently I went to a welcome lunch for the new Masters students in our department. One, from China, told me about a Chinese four-character compound, 火中取栗 (“huŏ zhōng qŭ lì”; it would probably be rendered ka.chuu.shu.ri in Japanese). He told me that it referred to some reward or profit made all the sweeter by having gone through difficulty or danger to get it. (If a speaker of Chinese would like to comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)

I went home and immediately looked for a Japanese version. Many yojijukugo come from Chinese, after all, and I thought I could use it on a coming Wednesday. Alas, if the compound is ever used in Japanese, it’s too obscure to show up in any of my sources. Google just gave me pages and pages of results in Chinese. I did find the following longer phrase, though:

(Kachuu no kuri wo hirou; “To pick a chestnut out of the fire.”)


Doing someone’s dirty work for them, without personal benefit or reward. Taking risks while someone else gets all the profit. Going out of your way, putting yourself in danger, or otherwise taking on an unwelcome task because you were tricked or cajoled into it by the person who actually stands to gain. Being someone’s catspaw, as discussed below.


火中 (kachuu) is a compound of “fire” and “middle” and, as you’d expect, means “in(side) [a] fire.” (kuri) is a nut, specifically the Japanese chestnut. Here the associative particle is giving 火中an adjectival or descriptive function: “an in-a-fire chestnut.” The noun phrase is tagged with the object marker and acted upon by the verb 拾う (hirou), “to pick up.” Note that while I rendered the phrase above as a nut, singular, the Japanese doesn’t specify number, so “chestnuts” would be equally acceptable.


Imagine my surprise and mild dismay when I discovered that the Japanese saying is derived from the French, specifically from La Fontaine’s “The Monkey and the Cat.” I said early on in this project that I didn’t want to use sayings that had been imported into Japanese from English. It can be nice to know that they are available for use, but I’d prefer to learn, and share, about Japanese rather than about my native tongue in these posts.

That said, while English has also inherited the term “cat’s paw” from the same source, I felt that circumstances justify the inclusion of 火中の栗… in this series. It’s significantly different from the English, for one thing, and comes from a non-English source. It would be somewhat inconsistent to reject French while cheerfully accepting Chinese-origin phrases.

Example sentence:


(“Buchou ni tanomu nara, yahari jibun de itte goran. Ore ga suru to, nanka kachuu no kuri wo hirou you na kanji da.”)

[“If you need to ask the department head, then you'd better try talking to him yourself. If I did it, I get the feeling I'd just be your catspaw.”]

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A How for Pow (RPG magic)

What would you give up for magical powers? Your health? Your physical strength or speed? Your sanity? Your ability to connect with the people around you?

Here’s an idea for an alternate, relatively system-neutral rule for magic in RPGs. The theme is sacrifice.

  • Magic is dependent on its own stat; something along the lines of Willpower in White Wolf games (although that’s used for other purposes) or just Power in Call of Cthulhu. Let’s run with “Power” for now. The more you have of that stat, the more magic you can do and the more effectively you can do it.
  • “Mage” is not a class, even in a class-based system. The default value for Power is zero. Anybody can increase it from during character creation, or at appropriate times during the course of play.
  • Each point you sacrifice from some other stat gets added to your Power. If a strict one-to-one tradeoff proves problematic in playtesting, this can be changed to a sliding scale of some sort, but the basic principle is the same: to gain magic, you give something else up.
  • The details don’t matter. Your character might have lost some of their native strength because they spent their days poring over musty books instead of exercising. They might have promised its very essence to some demonic or angelic being. Otherworldly energies might be slowly consuming their body. They might have just breathed in a few too many fumes in the alchemy lab. The details are up to you, but the result is the same.

In terms of the game-world fiction, a system like this is where you get your magic-users’ eccentricities. The frail sorcerer who can’t go faster than a walk. The unhealthy necromancer wracked with coughing. The crazed cultist. The reclusive wizard shut away in a tower because they don’t know how to talk to people.

Exactly how Power translates into magic is outside the scope of what we’re talking about today, and in any case should be adjusted depending on what parent game you’re playing. I’m thinking a system would be good if it encourages three distinct play styles:

  1. People who decide it’s not worth it, and just do without,
  2. People who don’t want to sacrifice a lot, but are able to get a small power or trick or two at an acceptable price, and
  3. People who go all-in, and cheerfully sacrifice their characters’ other stats to a significant degree in return for truly impressive power.

A system that ends up with everyone sacrificing just a point or two to get a spell or two is probably balanced wrong (unless that fits the goals of a specific game, of course). A system where even crippling your other stats for magic is the obvious best strategy, or where nobody is willing to make the trade at all, is fundamentally broken. But with the right set-up (a geometric but not exponential return on investment?), people should be able to fall into any of the three categories above and have a good play experience.

* * *

The idea comes with a contrapuntal magic-item creation system.

  • Minor magic, like potions or charms or other limited/one-use items, can be made by just slapping together the right arcane ingredients, as usual.
  • Anything big and permanent requires another sacrifice of stat points.
  • Any stat can be used to power magic item creation, but the choice of which might have a mechanical effect. A magic sword might do more damage if invested with Strength, but be better at hitting the opponent if invested with Agility. It might glow when enemies approach if invested with Wisdom, etc.
  • Wizards making things for personal use will often want to sacrifice their Power, though. Other stats sacrificed into an item are gone forever, but if you put Power into an object, then you still have access to that Power (in addition to its other effects) as long as you are holding on to the object. If you invest enough Power into a single object, you might maintain a connection to it, and access to at least a fraction of its Power, even over great distances.
  • On rare occasions, the death of a highly magical creature might release Power into nearby objects. The spear that pierces a dragon might become something more, for example, or bathing in the dragon’s blood could even enchant a person in some way.
  • It is possible that destroying a Power-invested object will allow that Power to return to the object’s creator, at least as long as conditions are right. If conditions are wrong… maybe it just destroys you. Maybe the feedback through the link destroys the creator. Maybe everything within a hundred miles is filled with spirits pulled howling from the void. When a large amount of magical energy is being released in an uncontrolled way, there’s no telling what will happen.

This makes me happy because it does a lot of things at once. It makes major magic items rare and precious, and gives them variety and individual stories (whose stats are powering this?). It gives players a reason to go monster-hunting without making every beast into just a list of “spell components.” It makes a magic-user’s tools of power (their staff, wand, hat, etc.) more important and more personal. It gives players a number of trade-offs to consider.

It also ties the system into a base of reference fiction. You get enchantments forged – or destroyed – in the deaths of their creators. You get Sauron and his One Ring, and you see why he so desperately wanted to get the ring back. You get Dream and his ruby (from the opening storyline of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic). You get Sigurd (Siegfried) in the Nibelungenlied. I like the epic feel that such a pedigree gives.

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Said my Parents, with One Voice


Literally: Different – mouth – same – sound

Alternately: “With one voice,” “in concert,” unanimous(ly)

Notes: Keep in mind that is pronounced ku rather than the more common kou.

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Counterintuitive Countermeasures

This week’s kotowaza was chosen, in part, to further demonstrate the use of the character from Wednesday’s yojijukugo 以心伝心.

(Doku wo motte doku wo sei suru; “Use poison to control poison.”)


“One poison drives out another.” Sometimes something bad, something that you would otherwise have wanted to avoid, can be used to solve a problem. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy to cure cancer are probably the biggest example in modern medicine.

A situation where venom is used to manufacture antivenom, or a hangover is combatted with more alcohol, (or as a saying, “fighting fire with fire”) could also be described with this kotowaza, although it seems to mostly refer to poison X curing poison Y, rather than directly or indirectly being used to cure an initial dose of X.


(doku) is a noun, “poison,” and the object (indicated by the object-marker particle ) of two phrases here. The first phrase, however, does not include a verb as such: 以て (motte) is a conjunction, and while there is some indication that the expression is derived from the verb 持つ (motsu, “to have”), 以て itself essentially has no verbal form in contemporary Japanese. As previousy noted, 以て can be rendered as “with” or “by means of.” 制する (sei suru, “to hold back,” “to control,” “to command”) is a bit of an odd verb as well. It falls into the broad category of irregular “verbs” that are formed when する (suru, “to do”) is tacked on to some other part of speech – often, as here, a noun.

In English, the whole becomes “By means of poison, control poison” with minimal distortion. Translation may be complicated, though, by the seemingly parallel construction broken by the lack of an actual verb in the first half.


This phrase also exists in four-character compound form as 以毒制毒, i.doku.sei.doku.

制する can be replaced by 制す, a common shortened form, or by 攻む (semu), the classical base form of modern 攻める (semeru), “to attack.” However, replacing 以て with 持って or 盛って (both also pronounced motte) is incorrect.

Example sentence:


(“Sono eiga no teema wa doku wo motte doku wo sei suru to iu, dorobou ga dorobou wo tsukamaeru tame ni shutsugoku suru tokoro kara hajimaru rashii.”)

[“They say the movie's theme is 'use poison to control poison,' and it supposedly starts with a thief being released from jail to catch a thief.”]

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Another meeting of minds

This week’s yojijukugo was chosen for its thematic similarity to Sunday’s kotowaza.


Literally: By means of – heart/mind – transmit – heart/mind

Alternately: Tacit understanding. Sympathy; empathy; telepathy. “Communion of mind with mind.”


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