The Good Life

I asked my wife what yojijukugo she liked while flipping through a book of them. She said this one just as I was looking over the page it was on. That’s the six-fingered hand of Fate right there.

* * *


Literally: Clear-sky plow rain read.

Alternately: Working outdoors in good weather, reading indoors in bad weather. The traditional ideal lifestyle (including both work and intellectual pursuits). A quiet and fulfilling retirement.

Also, a kind of shōchū

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A Flight of Words (a most podern tale)

Today I went out on the balcony just in time to see a hundred small black birds wheel through the sky above me like a living constellation. The sky struck me as being incredibly blue. Not that it really was, mind you – it was mostly clouded over, the sort of cloud cover with gaps through which visible rays of sunlight jut down and poke the Earth like a child trying to get its mother’s attention. It’s the kind of sky that’s mostly gray, but that gives you a strong impression of soft but pervasive blues and yellows. And against that phantom blue, which probably only I could see of all the people who might be looking out over the bay at such a moment, the fluid fractal of a hundred living black stars iterated, weaving together in space.

I know that there were a hundred of them exactly. This sort of thing happens to me at times. I’ll be busy busy busy all day, not really seeing anything outside of the HUD up in my head, which only gives me something like a wire-frame model (in green on black, like those old computer games) view of reality, when suddenly I’ll have a moment to myself and look around and see everything with a clarity that would stretch the boundaries of credulity if I weren’t mostly accustomed by now to this sort of episode occurring every now and then, especially when I’ve been stressed, which always seems to have the effect of compressing my senses, forcing them back deep into my head with an inexorable pressure, until finally I shift my angle of relation to the world just slightly, just enough to find the weak point in that encroaching shell of pressure, which I think of as external but which probably comes from within me as well, or rather, from the nature of the previous facing and angle at which I’d been meeting the world, that angle which by shifting just slightly allows my senses to expand almost beyond all credulity and take in what seems like the entire universe, or at least all of it that matters to us here on Earth and our ionosphere buzzing with radio and television shows, for a few moments as the pressure is released. I call that moment of release “aspara” because I imagine that if I were synaesthetic it would taste like asparagus. And it sort of sounds like Latin, which even these days carries a little extra gravity and depth.

Anyway, with the depth of aspara pulling my senses wide open, almost beyond all credulity, I knew that there were exactly one hundred birds: forty-two males and fifty-six or –seven females. I could have told you the exact number of feathers each had, too, or the name of each in the prelapsarian tongue to which they would have answered had anyone still been capable of speaking it. But I really didn’t care that much. They were pretty – no, they were so beautiful I’m still surprised my eyes didn’t start bleeding right on the spot – but I’ve never really cared that much about birds. They look nice; some make nice sounds; some poop on your laundry as it hangs out to dry, so that you need to wash it and hang it out again. I guess feeding them can alleviate some of the “guilt of affluence” we feel in our “developed” societies, as if watching a sparrow peck at a hunk of suet somehow stands in for actually shipping the hundreds of extra calories each of us consumes in a day to some starving child in the Third World. My vicarious benevolence feels more at home feeding the carp in ornamental gardens. That’s just my hang-up, I guess.

At that moment, though, it wasn’t just the birds that I couldn’t bring myself to care about. It was everything and anything else that might have the remotest hint of sentience. It was especially all the people who would never bother to look out at the mechanism of birds stirring the blue-yellow-gray sky over the sun-poked bay. It was also all the people who might look but be unable to condense and relax themselves in a moment of aspara. It was even the few other people who might feel the exact same aspara but not the exact same alienation; just then I wanted to wage sectarian war against those last few for betraying that moment, for turning aside at the last instant from the fullness of emotional disjunction I had achieved.

When you added all those groups up, it ruled out pretty much everybody, I think. Because it was alienation that I felt, an alienation so fierce and sudden and vast and unexpected (since during aspara one would usually become immersed in the world around, even to the point of risking losing one’s identity for a while, I suspect) that all the sphincter muscles in my body involuntarily clenched tighter than they ever had before. So tight I thought I wouldn’t be able to take a dump for a week. Had I been a bird, constellating and iterating and stirring the sky with my ninety-nine small black companions, I wouldn’t have been able poop no matter how much suet I pecked or how many clotheslines I flew over. But I wasn’t a bird. I wasn’t even human. I was the empty bubble hanging in the water, the bubble of steam that might look like air but is really just hyperexpanded water. I was the bird that wasn’t there.

Then I was struck by a strange thought. There are more than six billion people in the world, so even if someone like me was only one in a billion, there must have been a handful of other people like that – other birds that weren’t there – maybe slightly more than a handful, or a handful on one of those six-fingered people like the man who killed Inigo Montoya’s father; just such a handful of other people like me in the world at that very moment. What if I used my senses, expanded almost beyond all credulity as they were, to look out and find them? What if they looked out at that moment too, at their own birds coruscating darkly in the sky over their own sun-bothered bays, and saw me? If we all saw each other, would we be able to join, to become unalienable through our mutual experience and visceral understanding of alienation? Since there are only six, or slightly more than six, of us in the whole world, we probably wouldn’t all share a language, but we wouldn’t need to speak. Just that shared moment of perfect aspara would be enough, maybe even enough that together we would rediscover the lost prelapsarian tongue the birds knew. Would I be free then? Would I then be able to excuse myself and take a dump?

But I was afraid to look. What if I looked and none of the others did? I’d never be able to recover. I’d be “like one that on a lonesome road doth walk in fear and dread, and having once turned round walks on, and turns no more his head; because he knows a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.” Totally. Except I’d have looked at the whole world, instead of just behind me, and the fiend would have been my own alienation, seemingly moving in on me from all sides simultaneously but probably really just from within my own head. And there’s only so much alienation you can take before you start looking for aspara, sometimes in really unbelievably silly ways.

Then I was struck by the consideration that maybe the other people like me, grouped by the six- (or slightly more than six)-fingered hand of Fate, were looking while I alone held back. Or, what if all but one or two of us entertained the same doubt that I had, and those with the courage to look were insufficient in number to form a feeling of having been brought together by Mutant Fate, and the lack of that experience, or the experience of that lack, destroyed them? I resolved myself to look. I couldn’t bear the responsibility of crushing those other people, so like myself, as a result of my own cowardly hesitation. My sphincters tried to lock up more tightly yet as an expression of my determination, and I found that as a result, I couldn’t even breathe. I was overwhelmed by a moment of sheer animal panic.

Maybe that’s what did it. Or maybe the elastic of my consciousness simply snapped back to normal, as it does, in preparation for the next cycle. My aspara was over for the time being. I was afraid at first that I’d feel guilty, or that I’d fall into despair over my loss, having missed my chance at communion, but instead of hollow I felt… washed clean, I guess. Empty but open, like your gastrointestinal tract might feel after your sphincters experience a really intense moment of what I guess you could call aspara, an aspara of their own that we humans, confused by the demands for attention from all our other body parts, can’t readily comprehend.

For a little while I couldn’t even remember my name. Fortunately, it’s written on my library card, so I went inside and checked that. Then I took in my laundry, took out the trash, cooked and ate a simple but nice dinner, watched a movie, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. Not a bad way to spend a Monday afternoon.

Thanks to Google Image Search

Go on, count; I dare you.

(From the files: a parody of postmodernism that I wrote one afternoon in Japan.)

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Strength to the Strong with a Stick

Another selection from the Iroha Karuta: I’ve found a site that has not just the Edo set, but the Kyoto and Osaka sets as well, so expect to see more of these as they catch my fancy.

鬼に金棒 (Oni ni kanabou; “[Like giving] a metal rod to an ogre”)


Making something strong even stronger. An undefeatable strength. “Gilding the lily,” perhaps, although only in terms of increasing the power of some sort of already-formidable opponent or force.

Look at that fearsome warrior! Do you want some of that? I didn't think so.

from []


No verbs in this one. Just the two nouns (oni) and 金棒 (kanabou), and the directional particle (ni), generally rendered as “to.” Kanabou comprises two parts: , “metal/gold,” and , “stick,” although it seems that the kanabou is a specific style of studded club, in use as far back as the Heian era.


Kanabou can also be written as 鉄棒, literally “iron rod,” but neither the pronunciation nor the meaning changes.

A longer version of the saying supposedly continues, ~弁慶に薙刀 (~Benkei ni naginata), referencing the historical/mythical warrior-monk Benkei. This is idle speculation on my part, but I’d guess that the oni half of the phrase has, or originally had, a negative nuance, while the Benkei half had a positive one – and that together they made a complete set, so to speak. Don’t take my word for it, though. (That means you, Tim!)

An oni (variously translatable as “demon” or “devil,” “ogre,” etc.) is a mythical monster. Sometimes horned, often but not always inimical to humans, often portrayed as red- or blue-skinned, club-carrying (whence the kotowaza), and cannibalistic – although originally they were invisible spirits of misfortune. They play a role in the springtime festival of Setsubun.

Example sentence:


(“Kotoshi, juudoubu ni sanka shinai? Chikara ga tsuyoi kara, juudou de kitaetara oni ni kanabou da. Zettai taikai de yuushou dekiru to omou.”)

[“Won't you join the judo club this year? You're strong, so if you train with judo it'll make you unbeatable. I think you could definitely take first place at tournaments.”]

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So this happened in the New York Times.

One thought: I’m obviously a fan of D&D, and I agree that the whole subculture surrounding it is immensely good for fostering and encouraging creativity. It’s nice to see one of your relatively marginalized hobbies get some positive time in the sun.

But let’s not forget that D&D is hardly the only role-playing game out there. The linked article coincides, rather suspiciously, with the launch of a new edition of D&D, and I can’t help but suspect that the article is a kind of subtle advertisement.

To balance that, let me point to some other options for anyone interested in trying RPGs for the creative inspiration they offer. For starters, innumerable clones, imitators, inspired non-clones (and multiple editions) abound for D&D itself. White Wolf has a series of games designed to capture specific moods and create interpersonal dramatic storylines. Mouse Guard is an award-winning game that comes with its own series of beautifully-illustrated comic books. Fantasy is hardly the only option, either; there are plenty of science fiction, horror, investigative horror, and universal (genre-neutral) offerings as well.

I’ll end the linkstorm with this obviously-useful Wikipedia page.

Ben Robbins’ Microscope and Kingdom come immediately to mind as games that are explicitly about group storytelling, and I really can’t recommend them enough. I like Robbins’ stuff so much that he gets his own paragraph – but there are plenty in the same genre if you look.

What it comes down to is that, if you have any enjoyable framework for getting together with some friends and creating a free-form narrative – go ahead and do it. It’s good for you and you’ll probably have a good time.  8^)

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Now introducing Yojijukugo

When I’m looking for kotowaza to introduce, I often come across yojijukugo – four-character compounds that often serve similar functions. (In fact, there are a number of longer sayings that have been condensed to four-character phrases.) The tradition of using these goes all the way back to Chinese poetry and its deep influence on Japanese learning and literature. Having a good supply of yojijukugo (and knowing when to use them) can add a lot of wallop to your speech and writing.

In contrast to my more in-depth posts on kotowaza, I thought it would be fitting to present these in a pithier format. Here, then, is the one four-character compound that I have most often had cause to use in actual conversation. It’s simple but effective.

 * * *


Literally: “Ten people, ten colors”

Alternately: “Everybody is different.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “Many men, many minds.” Every person is unique and has their own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, preferences, issues to deal with, etc.

Yes, technically black, in the chromatic sense, isn't a color. Well, neither is pink! Were you going to object to pink?


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Fiddling with XP, part 3: Apologia and Addendum

Last time, I outlined a rough proposal for an alternate XP system for a class-and-level RPG. This included how the DM determines awards and how the players can work to adjust their individual awards, and then how those numbers might fit into a realistic learning curve. This time I’ll try to explain my reasoning and then add on a little more.


The first choice I made, starting with a base XP award in the single digits, was in response to my dislike for the inflationary feel of standard D&D XP totals. It just feels weird to me to talk about hundreds of thousands, or millions, of points.

As per my inspiration from Dungeon Fantastic I had intended for the base award to be five points, at first. But these considerations adjusted the value: first, it seems Dell’Orto takes off a point for each dead PC. But old-school D&D play always carries the threat of something close to a TPK, so that seemed overly punitive. Second, I didn’t want the DM to ever give out no points: I wanted it so that showing up and participating always (if you don’t gamble on your abilities and lose) means you’ll walk away with some improvement. So in the end I decided what penalties I would want to include and made the base one point greater than their sum.

Initially I had a set of categories (parallel to those presented for player goals), each carrying a penalty or bonus based on party performance, but during the process the pluses and minus became decoupled and I ended up with three and two.

Here, too, I started from the DF example and adjusted things to suit my own needs. While I don’t intend on necessarily adding an upkeep-cost mechanic, the “loss of wealth/loss of life” issues seemed relevant enough to your typical dungeon-crawler or hex-crawler to keep them almost as-is. (For the “loss of materiel,” I’m remembering a specific time when a party I was DMing for angered and then freed a powerful evil wizard, who ended up tracking down their base and burning it to the ground while they hid in barrels buried in consecrated ground. But I digress!)

Bonuses were intended to encourage a certain feel of play without dictating a style. The XP-for-killing and XP-for-treasure mechanics of old-school D&D are both out. (I put in the Conquest and Acquisition goals for individual players who revel in killing things or taking their stuff, but this still relegates the whole “murder hobo” aspect so common to D&D to an option, rather than a requirement for successful play.) Instead, both the Victory bonus and the individual bonuses are meant to encourage a pattern of making a goal and then pursuing it. The party is also encouraged to plan together and work together as a team, and to come up with solutions to their problems that are creative, interesting, and fun instead of brute-forcing everything in a head-on way.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether actual play under these rules would take the shape I intended. There are probably any number of tweaks, or even a major overhaul, necessary before we get a best fit for the style of game I’m aiming for. That said, I feel that this XP system solves some perennial problems plaguing D&D: what do to about rewards for overcoming traps, puzzles, and other obstacles; how to standardize “quest XP”; how to reward a fun session just role-playing even if no fighting or looting takes place; and so on.

All that stuff about generating a learning curve was simply because, in my heart of hearts, I’m a sucker for simulationism. If I didn’t take care to gather inspiration and consider my goals, I would never not be descending into a fine-grained simulationist madness. 8^D

Addendum: Treasure and strategic resources

So I’ve gone and decoupled XP from treasure, but it’s still a fact that part of the fun of D&D is getting stuff for your character. While I would like to see a lot more variety in treasure types beyond X coins of precious metal Y and generic magic swords and armor, I have no intention of making a version of D&D where the party can’t do a lot of treasure-hunting.

So if the party is still going to be laying their hands on hoards of coins, gems and jewelry, sculpture, old books and maps, magic swords and other items, what will they do with their wealth? Simply buying equipment is a little pedestrian, and at any rate a D&D-style game doesn’t demand a lot of upkeep. Characters could save up, invest wisely, and buy things like property, titles, and trade goods, but we’re still designing an adventure game here, not a landed-gentry simulator. Simply saving up for manors or castles is too limited a goal for everyone to be satisfied with that alone.

This is where I sneakily insert treasure-for-XP back into the mix. The trick that makes it distinct here is twofold. First, buying training with gold is just one of several options for players to balance. And second, with the reward system described previously, it’s not necessary to spend any money at all to gain levels, and you can still pretty much keep up with other party members even if they do. Depending on the rate players decide to buy XP, this add-on could call for adjustments to the progression curve, of course – but that’s a matter for play-testing, if it comes to that. In any case, the biggest problem is the old exchange rate of one XP for one GP (or SP, if you use the silver standard). That isn’t going to cut it in a system where five hundred XP will see you near level 20, not without ridiculously tiny treasure troves.

The solution is simple: each 1000 coins’ worth of treasure can be banked and converted to a single unit of Wealth. It helps to think of Wealth as existing mostly in a ledger-book: characters are probably carrying around promissory notes, or deeds, or other portable representations, rather than sacks full of ingots or coin! Once you’ve gone to town and converted your treasure haul to Wealth, you can either save it away for later, or begin spending it on stuff.

Of course, there will be remainders. A certain amount of loose coin can remain unconverted, and be spent on regular day-to-day expenses like equipment, supplies, lodgings, or paying employees. If the DM is interested in a world that grows and develops under the PCs’ influence, money spent this way can be added to the town’s economy pool. With sufficient investment, the community itself may become affluent enough to level up: people will move there from other towns or the surrounding countryside, opening up businesses and engaging in trade in order to get some of the money the PCs brought in. If the party makes one location their base and spends enough time and treasure there, they might see the town level up, increasing its population and size, and adding to the list of available goods and services. Useful specialists would move in: smiths and armorers, alchemists, wizards and sages, priests administering places of worship, and even a criminal class, for people who are into that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, here are some things that Wealth can be spent on:

  • On the most pedestrian level, Wealth can be invested. Yes, I scoffed at the idea a bit earlier, but mostly what I meant was that it shouldn’t be the only major money-sink avialable. If a player wants to be an investor, why not let them? I’m thinking of an abstract LotFP-style system where money goes into the machine, time passes, and depending on your luck either more or less money comes out. This could lead to adventure hooks when the party is called on to investigate a trade caravan going missing or guard a warehouse of goods they have stock in against thieves.
  • Slightly less prosaically, Wealth can be used for very expensive purchases, things with costs in the thousands of coins. Property is a big one: estates, houses in town, castles, magical laboratories, arcane libraries, ships, even specially-commissioned equipment like a fancy suit of plate armor. Perhaps Wealth could be spent on pay for armies, construction crews, and other mass-employment situations.
  • Wealth can be spent on training. If an appropriate teacher is available and willing, PCs may use a unit of Wealth (and spend an appropriate amount of in-game time studying under them) to buy a point of XP. This solves our order-of-magnitude problem that I was talking about before, and offers both DM and players some fine control over the rate of XP accumulation.
  • Wealth can be sunk into magical research or item creation, as per standard D&D practice.
  • And finally, a point of Wealth can be used to buy a point of Fame. This can be done through carousing (perhaps using a table like this, or one of its many imitators, to generate interesting results) or its upscale cousin schmoozing, or even through charitable donations, public works, sponsorships for artists or events, hosting influential guests, and all the other tricks of the trade. PCs with proper permission or politcal clout might even improve their Fame by using their Wealth to mint coins with their faces on them and distribute them into the economy as propaganda. While the method chosen is mechanically unimportant, in story terms the choice can be interesting and should be at least briefly detailed during play.

What can you do with Fame? At this point I only have a few vague ideas on the matter, but I’m thinking could be used as social capital: for influencing either The Masses or Very Important People. It might take a certain amount of Fame to attract the attention of the king, and even more to bend his ear. Fame could be used to “buy” rank and title even when such honors are unavailable for mere lucre. It might also be used to attract special followers: not just generic henchmen but squires for a knight, apprentices for a sorcerer, and so on; perhaps some with classes and levels of their own. Fame could be a meta-stat that attends the adventuring party and carries benefits or consequences depending on its level, and which the players could spend their Wealth to increase and maintain.

With all this Wealth business, I’m hoping to sketch out a distinct high-level economy. Low-level economics, in the desired feel, are going to be about the nitty-gritty demands of the adventuring lifestyle: buying and replacing/repairing equipment including arms and armor; hiring porters, lantern-bearers and other NPC party adjuncts; paying for meals, lodgings, passage on ships, and other necessities.

As the characters accumulate Wealth, things will begin shifting and players will be able to start making choices. Do I want to spend some Wealth now getting training (before I surpass the local fencing master and outgrow his ability to help me)? Should I convert it to Fame by throwing a party for the whole town, and then use the Fame to convince the duke to knight me? Should I assume a knighthood will come sooner or later, and save to purchase an estate or build a tower? If I save, should I invest my Wealth, or leave it safely in the bank?

Eventually, a party can begin moving beyond conventional adventuring. There comes a point when you’ve got the best weapons, armor, retinue, and array of magic that money can buy, and normal dungeon challenges such as monsters or traps aren’t an interesting challenge any longer. At this point, instead of the DM just increasing the numbers to generate new powerful traps and monsters, the characters can choose to concern themselves with bigger events and issues: castles, armies, politicking and so on, on a national or international scale. I’m thinking now of ACKS, which boasts a variety of detailed late-game activities and career paths to get involved in.

That’s all of this brain-dump for now. It’s been something like six thousand words and several charts and graphs, so thank you for bearing with me. I’ve been mulling over elements of the whole business for a while now. It feels good to get it all typed up and posted. ‘Til next time, then.

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Half- …hiding it

Continuing the theme of hiding from last week:

(Atama kakushite shiri kakusazu; “Hiding the head, not hiding the butt.”)


This saying refers to a situation where somebody has done something wrong, or has a flaw or failing of some kind. They believe that they have hidden it and won’t be found out – but they only managed to conceal part of the problem; the rest is plainly visible and they only look all the more the fool for it. A mocking kotowaza.


Two nouns and two verbs. (atama) is “head,” or by extension the top, front, beginning, leader, or brains of something. (shiri) is “rear end,” or by extension the underside, end, or consequence of something. 隠す ( is still to hide or conceal; in classical Japanese, the (.shi) form is conjunctive, with the assertive/perfective helper particle (tsu) also in conjunctive. The (.sa) form is imperfective, followed by the negation-particle (zu) in sentence-final form.


This kotowaza is mildly notable for its inclusion in the Edo Iroha Karuta card set. (Which, now that I think about it, I may look into and mine for more sayings.)

It is said to have come from China, and is based on the belief that a pheasant (, kiji), when chased, will hide its head in the brush but leave its tail visible. An equivalent that is probably better-known to most Americans is the (mistaken) belief that a frightened ostrich will hide its head in the sand, leaving the rest of its body plainly visible -although when we talk about ostriches we tend to imagine them as hiding from an unpleasant truth, rather than trying and failing to hide something from others.

Example sentence:

「健ちゃん、クッキー食べたでしょ」 「ううん、食べてない」 「ほら、口はちゃんと拭いてても、クッキー箱は床に置いたままで、頭隠して尻隠さずよ」

(“Ken-chan, kukkii tabeta desho.” “Uun, tabetenai.” “Hora, kuchi wa chanto fuitete mo, kukkiibako wa yuka ni oita mama de, atama kakushite shiri kakusazu yo.”)

[“Ken, you ate some cookies, didn't you.” “...Nooo, I didn't.” “Look, even though you wiped your mouth off well, with the cookie jar left on the floor like that, it's like hiding your head and leaving your butt showing.”]

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