Do what I don’t do, not what I do

反面教師
han.men.kyou.shi

Literally: opposition – face – teach – expert

Alternately: A negative example. Someone who sets a bad example and so teaches you what not to do.

World's Best Father Pan Cooking

This guy! He makes some pretty cute pictures, actually.

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Magic Monday: Undoing, part 2ing

So last week we talked about counterspelling and dispelling rotes (normal “spells” in the D&D magic paradigm). This week we’re talking about the same for rituals and gnosis.

Rituals

This is magic-as-natural-philosophy. Like a chemical reaction or a Rube Goldberg device, if you set up the right conditions, the rest will take care of itself. Thus, there is no real “counterspell” necessary here. Anybody can do all sorts of things to disrupt a ritual in progress. In some cases – just as in chemistry – there will be terrifying unintended side-effects; in this case a successful Lore + Ritual skill check (Arcane Lore plus any points invested in that specific ritual) will allow you to know what parts to knock over, wipe away, or interrupt safely.

Dispelling a ritual after it’s been completed – or rather, undoing whatever long-duration magical traces it leaves – is probably much harder. (Undoing the effects of a ritual may be impossible, like unmaking an omelette.) I feel like it would work like dispelling a rote, but with the difficulty (die size) bumped up. Perhaps in both rotes and rituals, dispelling a standing magical effect can be made easier by spending extra time and effort on it. Either Lore or Concentration can be used (unweaving the effect through knowledge or through intuition), aided by the specific Ritual skill if applicable.

Gnosis

Gnosis is hard to use, because it’s mostly about focusing your will. There are no formulae, algorithms, or other crutches to lean on. Countering its use means reaching out with your own will and overcoming someone else’s. This means a simple Concentration challenge roll. As with rotes, each side is already paying a base energy cost to fuel their bending of the world’s magical currents, and similarly each side can spend extra energy to increase their chances of winning the contest.

Finally, how do you undo gnosis magic? Well, Arcane Lore or Concentration is probably a good start. Roll a check against a difficulty one step greater than the difficulty that would be assigned to create the effect through gnosis in the first place. As with countering rotes you may choose to roll two checks, succeeding if either of them passes but unleashing a blast of uncontrolled magic unless both of them pass. As with challenges you may spend extra energy to gain a bonus to the roll.

Today’s post ran much later than I thought it would due to baby-related matters. I’m sure it’s still Monday somewhere, though. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to step back and define some of the terms I’ve been using to this point, like “checks” and “challenges,” for those who haven’t read about them elsewhere.

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Voiceless it cries, wingless flutters, toothless bites, mouthless mutters

Intro: A kotowaza from old Buddhist Japan, as relevant as ever in postmodern America.

地獄の沙汰も金次第
(Jigoku no sata mo kane shidai;
“Even your sentence in hell depends on money”)

Definition:

“Money is the best lawyer in hell.” “Money talks.” Everything in the (human) world responds to the power of money. Unless we guard carefully against corruption, money – like any other tool – is a dangerous thing. For example, it can be abused to pervert the justice system, or any other system that makes human society run. Whee.

Breakdown:

We begin with the noun 地獄 (jigoku, but see below in “Notes”), literally “earth prison,” usually translated as “hell.” (Again, see below for details.) The next noun is 沙汰 (sata), a very old term (in use by the 8th century CE) referring to a number of concepts – in this case, judgment, or distinction between good and evil. These two nouns are joined into a single phrase with the associative particle (no).

This noun phrase is followed by the particle (mo), an intensifier commonly translated as “and,” but here better rendered as “even.” Finally, we have a particle-free pile of even more nouns to close off this non-sentence: (kane), here in its more common meaning of “gold” or “money,” and 次第 (shidai), which expresses the idea of order, precedence, A depending on B. All together, “Even hell-judgment depends on gold.”

Notes:

This saying is the entry for (chi) in the Kyoto and Osaka Iroha karuta sets. While modern kana orthography has shifted to using (ji) to represent the voiced reading of the kanji , it used to be written in voiced form as (also ji). This somewhat unusual phenomenon can also be found in 鼻血 (はなぢ = hanaji, “nosebleed”).

Keep in mind that unlike in Christian or Islamic cosmology, where Hell is a single place or spiritual state that lasts forever and ever, in Buddhism there are multiple “hells” or lower worlds that are, in a way, the same as the paradises or middling worlds that make up the greater reality – the main difference between them being the degree of suffering each world contains. Since suffering teaches us lessons that help us to detach ourselves from earthly desires, and a soul in any of the worlds will eventually die and be reborn in a new position dependent on its karma, “purgatory” would probably be a closer equivalent for most Western audiences. It’s not a perfect fit either, but them’s the breaks in translation. An equivalent term to 地獄 is 奈落 (Naraku), descended from Sanskrit.

In some versions of this phrase, 次第 may be elided. In others, may be replaced with , apparently without change in meaning or pronunciation. (is usually pronounced zeni.)

Example sentence:

「一般人が石を投げて店の窓を割ったために逮捕されるのに、お金持ちが自分等の利益のために世界経済を崩させても何の罰も与えられないこの世の中は、正に地獄の沙汰も金次第というものではないか」

(“Ippanjin ga seki wo nagete mise no mado wo watta tame ni taiho sareru no ni, okanemochi ga jibunra no rieki no tame ni sekai keizai wo kuzusasetemo nan no batsu mo ataerarenai kono yo no naka wa, masa ni jigoku no sata mo kane shidai to iu mono de wa nai ka.”)

[“An ordinary person can throw a stone, break a shop window, and get arrested for it, but the rich can crash the world economy for the sake of their own profit without any punishment at all. This truly is a world where money talks.”]

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Make like a perfect square and SCRAM

Of course.

三十六計
san.juu.ro-.kkei

Literally: three – ten – six – plan

Alternately: Discretion is the better part of valor. Sometimes you just need to retreat, regroup, and try again another day. Run away.

Notes: Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems passed down from the Book of (Southern) Qi in Chinese antiquity, the thirty-sixth is flight, which (in contrast with surrender or compromise) is not considered a true loss and therefore, in a way, is the best of all of them.

A longer version of the phrase also exists: 三十六計逃げるに如かず (sanjuurokkei nigeru ni shikazu), “Of the Thirty-Six Stratagems, none compare with running away.”

Thirty-six strategy seals

There, that should answer all your questions quite nicely.

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Magic Monday: Undoing

Unlike Necropraxis, I’m not building this system on a base of Vancian magic, in which (even without spell levels) each bit of magic is like a bullet that you load, fire, and are left without. So while the post linked above inspired me to think things over, I can’t use what he does as a basis. Instead, I have to think about how I want counterspelling (preventing a magical effect from being brought about) and dispelling (undoing one that’s already there) to work in YAOSC.

I like the idea of there being an art to undoing enchantments. Yes, if Bob is turned into a frog then you can quest to find the cure, hunting down princesses and all, but perhaps a skilled witch or wizard can be called on to un-frog him more directly. The literature is full of magical adepts stopping, redirecting, nullifying and unmaking magic, and I’d like that to be a common tool in the magician’s repertoire. I also like the idea of it taking time, research, and careful work in at least some cases.

I implied earlier that I don’t want either of those to be a “spell” in the sense that “rotes” are, but now I’m not so sure. On the one hand, they seem to call for their own special mechanics that operate differently from how most spells do. On the other hand, I’ve erased several of the things that make “spells” into their own special category in D&D. On the one hand, I feel like they should be just-about-universal tools in the magician’s toolbox. On the other, who says they have to be 100% universal? There’s a decent amount of storytelling to be found in a wizard who doesn’t know how to undo spells, in a world where most can to some degree or other, and of course there’s the matter of giving players more freedom of choice when it comes to customizing their characters.

Let’s consider the basic mechanics we have at our disposal. Neither counterspelling nor dispelling should be automatically successful, which means they have to be rolls. Do we make them into checks or challenges? Logically, counterspelling should be a challenge and dispelling can be either… but the spell being countered was already cast with a normal skill check, right? Do we double up on the rolls necessary for the first spellcaster? Do they just have to choose a roll type based on whether someone is working against them or not? Do we hack out a system for opposed checks to bridge the gap between checks and challenges?

To the hacking: no, definitely not. I just don’t like the repercussions for the system as a whole if we open that can of worms. In fact, now that I think about it, the first option of the three seems most logical. If you cast a spell there’s a possible point of failure there (from you screwing it up), and if someone tries to counter it, there’s a possible point of failure there as well (from them screwing it up for you). Two rolls it is: first one caster checks as usual to cast a spell. Then anyone trying to counter it rolls a challenge against them. If the first check fails, then anyone attempting a counter loses some time, but no other resources. If the check succeeds and the countering challenge fails, then the spell is cast as normal and counterer has wasted their time and energy.

The first caster uses the sum of their skill levels for the spell plus their choice of Arcane Lore (diverting the threat with their knowledge of the magical forces at work) or Concentration (pushing the magic in the right direction with sheer force of will). The countering caster can do the same, although if they don’t know the spell then they’re depending on the base skill alone. Either caster can spend energy (fill up their survival meters) to add to their result. I’m thinking there should be some base cost to a countering attempt as well. Should it be equal to the cost of the spell being countered? Less? I’ll need to think about much later, after getting a feel for the energy economy of spellcasting.

That gives a bit of an advantage to the first caster, which is fine. But here’s an optional twist that we can throw in. The countering caster can use their power to tear at the weaving of the spell, without caring about the results, instead of unraveling or blocking the magic more carefully. In this case, the countering caster makes two rolls for the challenge. If either beats the first caster’s roll, then the counter is successful. And if they both succeed, then nothing more dramatic comes of it than a fizzle and pop. But if one succeeds and the other fails, then the magic is redirected but not dissipated. It goes berserk, and you get to roll on a table for crazy results that probably give everyone a hard time.

Another option is adding in magnitudes of success. Maybe a counter attempt that overwhelms the first caster (beats them by ten points or more) allows the counterer to take control of the spell and change its parameters or re-target it. Maybe an overwhelming response to the attempt allows the first caster to take their opponent’s energy and add it to the spell, or put some kind of whammy on them with feedback.

Where does the time for a counterspell come from? From the same place it does when you want to counter a physical attack: I like the idea of a character’s “actions” being refilled at the end of their turn, and they have (a limited set of) options for spending these before their official turn comes around again. Part of the choices you make in combat will be trying to balance self-defense with the ability to respond when you get an opening. This means that, unlike 3.x D&D, you don’t need to hold back and wait in order to defend yourself. You can try to stop an incoming attack, magical or mundane, at any time; it just might leave you off-balance and unable to respond. This corresponds with real-world combat, where it can be easy to get put on the defensive.

That takes care of countering. How about dispelling? The problem with trying to use a challenge roll here is that someone may want to undo a bit of magic when you don’t know the skill levels of the original caster. In some cases it may not even be applicable. Couple that with no active force opposing the dispell attempt, and it makes sense for us to go back to a rolling a check. As with a counterspell, you can use either base skill, add the skill level of the specific spell (if you know it), pay a base price in energy, and pay extra energy to make your roll easier. Difficulty can be based on the check die for casting the spell in the first place. And again we can offer the option to roll twice and either fail, succeed perfectly, or succeed but with funky, unpredictable results.

The question I’m left with is whether I want to make “dispell” and-or “counterspell” into mini-skills (or one mini-skill for both), to reflect aptitude in unweaving patterns of magic. Probably yes: the application of skill points put into this are broadly useful across a lot of situations… but also focused, in the sense that they can only be brought to bear when enemy magic is targeting you. It gives characters something to specialize in if they want, but a minimum energy cost and consequences to failure keep it from being too powerful. If this still seems unbalanced, then we can take steps to bump up the difficulty or costs in some way, or at least allow optional situational modifiers. (For example, knowing a caster’s true name might give you a big bonus to counter or dispell their magic; working without certain specialized tools might give you a penalty.)

In brief:

  • To use a rote, make a check, adding your skill with the spell to a relevant base skill.
  • To counter a successful rote, roll a challenge. Each side uses the skills for casting the spell, spending a base energy cost plus extra as desired.
  • If the challenger succeeds, the spell is lost and the magic may run amok.
  • If the challenger fails, the spell is pushed through their defenses and manifests as normal.

We’ve spent all this time talking about rotes, and it’s already over 1400 words. Next time I think I’d like to take a look at rituals and gnosis… I’ll try to be less long-winded. As they say, I didn’t give myself enough time to make the post shorter.

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Tiger ventured, tiger gained?

虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ず
(Koketsu ni irazumba koji wo ezu;
“If you don’t go into a tiger’s lair you won’t get a tiger cub.”)

Definition:

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. You won’t succeed at anything special if you’re not willing to stick your neck out and take some risks. Thinking defensively only prevents loss rather than bringing gains.

Breakdown:

There’s some complicated old Japanese here, so buckle your seatbelts, ’cause we’re in for a ride.

虎穴 (koketsu) starts us off gently with a noun, a compound of “tiger” and “hole” which means, logically enough, “tiger den.” The particle (ni) indicates directionality, … and here our troubles begin. Our fun troubles!

In modern Japanese, the common intransitive version of “enter,” 入る, is pronounced hai.ru, while 入れる (i.reru) is transitive. Here, though, we see the intransitive variant 入る, pronounced i.ru, which is no longer in common usage. The shift from to (.ra) denotes a shift into 未然形 (mizenkei, the “imperfective aspect”), and to this we affix the negative marker in 連用形 (renyoukei, “conjunctive mood”). For the rest of the ending, I was tempted at first to get out my chart and try and assemble a construct of contracted or pronunciation-shifted bound particles (like ). But my sources suggest that it’s actually just the unbound particle (wa). The structure ずは functions as negative supposition; “if you don’t ~,” and over time underwent a sound change from zu wa to zumba. Stranger things have happened!

A slightly alternate explanation suggests that instead of 連用形, the is actually also in 未然形, allowing it to take the hypothetical-marking bound particle (which may or may not be related to the use of cited above). From there the evolution is the same: the negative hypothetical is a little difficult to pronounce, so it shifts from zuba to zumba. And now you know!

What follows is simple in comparison. We have another noun, 虎子 (koji), a tiger cub, marked with the object marker (wo), and the verb (u), “get,” in negative sentence-final form. Note that because this is a 下二段 (shimo-nidan, literally “down second grade”) verb in the old grammar, the base u changes to e in the 未然形 for the negative ending (zu), which is why the modern version 得る can be read as either eru or uru, depending on the situation.

Notes:

The character can be replaced with without any change in pronunciation or meaning. Either compound (both 虎子 and 虎児) can also be read as koshi.

This phrase, too, traces its origins back to China, in the 5th century CE Book of the Later Han.

Example sentence:

虎穴に入らずんば虎子を得ずの気持ちで、株式市場に投機をすることにした」

(Koketsu ni irazumba koji wo ezu no kimochi de, kabushiki ichiba ni touki wo suru koto ni shita.”)

[“Thinking ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ I decided to start speculating on the stock market.”]

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How much tongue?

舌先三寸
shita.saki.san.zun

Literally: tongue – before/tip – three – sun (pronounced like “soon”; a unit of measurement approximately equal to 1.19 in. or 3.03 cm)

Alternately: Glib lies. Deceptive eloquence or flattery. The ability to control or influence people with words – false or hollow words, specifically, rather than genuinely persuasive argument.

Notes: Apparently many native speakers of Japanese replace with (kuchi), but this is still generally considered an error by scholars.

This four-character compound doesn’t mean what I thought it meant when I first encountered it. The problem for me was the English expression “on the tip of my tongue,” meaning a word or phrase that you know and want to use but can’t quite remember at the moment. Keep in mind, though, that three sun is about 9cm (three and a half inches), a significant percentage of the visible portion of the tongue.

There’s got to be an amazing story behind this one, but it seems to be relatively obscure and none of my sources treated its origins beyond mentioning the Shǐjì.

Media: presented without comment:

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