Magic Monday – Campaign Concept – The Fire From Down Below

This post was brought to you by the very fun “You’re Welcome” song from Moana.

I’ve talked before about an “unlocking” campaign, in which the main draw is to explore and plan, negotiate and fight, and acquire new tools that allow further exploration. In this case, though, I’m imagining a campaign centered around one specific quest: stealing the fire of the gods from the underworld.

The logical fit in terms of setting would be a megadungeon of some sort, and a society with a bare-bones minimum technological level. Imagine a human society without fire: tools and supplies would be limited to stone, bone, wood, and a few plant and animal products.

With no armor and with weapons limited to clubs, pointed sticks and rocks, there’d be a lot less combat than in most fantasy gaming. I’m thinking there’d be a relatively high proportion of tricks, traps, and puzzles. Monsters would generally be powerful enough that they couldn’t be taken down in a fight, and the players would need to discover their rules: the things they like, which can be offered in return for help or at least mercy; their taboos, which can be turned against them; their friends and enemies, who can be manipulated into getting them out of the way. There’d be a lot of planning, a lot of in-game talking, and a lot of stealth. Take a vow of silence and gain the ability to see in the dark for as long as it lasts. Give something up to get what you need to continue.

Beyond this, perhaps some “natural” magic: players would learn that blue stones keep away the spirits of the angry dead, or that painting certain patterns on their bodies render them invisible to dragons, or that the scent of certain berries when crushed allows them to pass safely by the Flower of Death.

The “dungeon” itself would be different from the usual fare, too. It might begin with man-made diggings, but would soon transition to natural caverns descending into the earth. Eventually you might come to something closer to the familiar world of worked stone, doors, and artificial lighting, but this would be in the lowest levels when the player characters encounter the people of the fire-invested underworld. Imagine the characters’ shock (and the players’ excitement) when they start encountering fire and its products such as worked metal, cooked food, heat, and light.

Not that it would do to just grab any old ember and carry it back to the surface. The theft of fire itself would have to be a symbolic act (and it wouldn’t have to be a theft, for that matter, if the players want to negotiate, gamble, fight, or compete to get it). There’d be one specific fire, belonging to a god. This flame would probably be magical enough to pass through all the obstacles back to the surface without being snuffed, and bringing it back would bring humanity the secret of fire – the ability to start new fires at will instead of fetching more from the neighbors a mile below.

This would probably be a campaign of indeterminate length, but with a defined start and end: the group is told that they need to fetch fire (whatever that is) from the cave, and their quest is over when they’ve accomplished that. I know there are people out there who feel that a concrete, final goal along those lines doesn’t fit well with exploration-based megadungeon play, but I feel like in this case at least those people would be wrong: when your overarching goal in play is to act out a primal myth, you need an end-point and closure.

One final twist: What if the player characters are just pawns in a game played by the gods? We’ve already looked at how they’d interact with surface (or cthonic) deities on their way down in order to avoid harm or receive aid, but what if the quest was given to them by a sky-god? What if the sky-god’s goal is to create lightning, or place stars in the sky? Perhaps at the end of their quest the characters would have to decide how much of the fire they took: taking more would mean greater reward back at the surface, but carry greater consequences, like being burned by the flames, causing the underworld people to suffer, or drawing the attention and anger of powerful monsters. And even at the surface, perhaps they’d have to decide whether and how much to surrender the fire to the sky-god, and how much to keep for themselves.

Clearly as outlined this would be a huge project, but I really like the idea of this fire-dungeon. It would be a pretty novel variation on how most people do their fantasy gaming, and it would give the ability to tinker and engage with all sorts of powerful mythic ideas. Clearly something to keep in mind if I ever try to make a living designing gaming products.

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In which a biographer is like a taxidermist

Maybe an Uberdermist, these days.

(Tora wa shi shite kawa wo todome hito wa shi shite na wo nokosu;
“A tiger dies and leaves a skin, a person dies and leaves a name”)


Live well. Live so that your memory is honored by those who knew you; live so that the story of your deeds makes the world a better place. When a tiger dies it leaves behind a beautiful and valued pelt… and people should live in such a way that what they leave behind – their names – are similarly beautiful and valued.


Yet another parallel structure! We begin with the noun 虎 (tora), “tiger.” The particle は (wa) marks it as a topic of discussion and sets up a contrast with the second half of the saying. What does the tiger do? Well, first it 死す (shi su) “dies” (in conjunctive form, because we’re chaining verb phrases) and then it 留む (todomu), “leave behind” (in conjunctive form, so that the first and second halves of the sentence connect). The direct-object particle を (wo) tells us that what is left is 皮 (kawa), its skin.

In the second half, 虎 is replaced with 人 (hito), “person”; 皮 with 名 (na), “name”; and 留む with 残す (nokosu), which seems to essentially be a perfect synonym in this context.


Some variants (including the original!) use 残す in place of 留む for the tiger’s pelt. Others use 留む for the human name. Some even change the tiger out for a 豹 (hyou), “leopard.” However, replacing 皮 with homophone 革 is an error: while both are related to skins, the former can refer to fur, while the latter implies leather.

This saying comes to us from a Kamakura-era setsuwa collection called the 十訓抄 (Jikkinshou or Jikkunshou), literally the “ten explanation excerpts.”

Example sentence:


(“Segare yo, tora wa shi shite kawa wo todome hito wa shi shite na wo nokosu. Tachibana-ke no meiyo wo kaifuku sase!”)

[“My son! When a tiger ties he leaves his pelt, but when a man dies what he he leaves is his name. Restore the honor of the Tachibana clan!”]

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What are you, chicken?

They’re known for their careful scheming.


Literally: female – prostrate – male – fly

Alternately: Following someone else while waiting for a chance to strike out on one’s own. Keeping a low profile while preparing for your time to shine. Playing second fiddle… for now.

Notes: While it’s easy to tie the use of 雌 and 雄 characters to traditional sexist attitudes in East Asia – and while this view isn’t exactly unwarranted – the allusion at work here is a little more subtle. Apparently the images invoked are from the lives of birds, perhaps a specific species, where the nesting female lays low (雌伏) and the males flap their wings and take dramatically to the air (雄飛).

This compound comes to us from the Book of the Later Han (後漢書), in the biography of Zhao Dian (趙典) given in volume 27.


A couple of the image search results suggest the relevant bird is chickens. Behold the glory of the male in flight!

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An all-new take on the ant and the grasshopper

(Dai no mushi wo ikashite shou no mushi wo korosu;
“Let the large bug live, and kill the small”)


Sacrificing small considerations so that the large may survive. Cutting off a part so that the whole may live, as in amputations. A gambit. Triage.


We have another pair of parallel phrases. The first begins with the noun 大 (dai), “large.” (Yes, it’s functioning as a noun. We know this because:) This is connected by the associative particle の (no) to the noun 虫 (mushi), a generic term for creepy-crawlies most closely associated with insects. This noun phrase is made into the object of a verb by the particle を (wo); the verb is 生かす (ikasu), a transitive verb meaning “to keep something alive” or “to let something live.” The verb is in conjunctive form, allowing it to connect to the second half of the saying. The latter follows the same pattern except that it replaces 大 with 小 (shou), “small,” and 生かす with 殺す (korosu), “to kill,” in sentence-final form.


A close variant switches the order and “saves” the large insect rather than merely letting it live: 小の虫を殺して大の虫を助ける (Shou no mushi wo koroshite dai no mushi wo tasukeru).

Example sentence:


(“Hikkoshi nante iya da naa. Nidzukuri no tame ni mono wo suteru no wa shushasentaku to iu yori, dai no mushi wo ikashite shou no mushi wo korosu koto ga kurikaesu bakaritte kanji.”)

[“Man, I really hate moving. Throwing things away before packing feels less like ‘sorting’ and more like just ‘letting some die so that others may live’ over and over again.”]

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Like being two-faced, but more compact



Literally: one – mouth – both – tongues

Alternately: Saying one thing and then saying something incompatible later on. Equivocating or, more often, outright lying depending on what’s convenient to say at the time. Speaking with two tongues. Acting presidential, ha ha ha.

Notes: A variant of the compound bumps up the number of tongues to three: 一口三舌 (i-.kkou.san.zetsu).


I’ve decide I don’t want any more pictures of aging racists on my blog, so instead here’s one of the people who call out his 一口両舌 behavior.

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Magic Monday – Thoughts on Timing

(I picked up YAOSC and tinkered with it in the winter, then put it down… for the whole spring semester. It’s high time I picked it back up for more tinkering, at least for the duration of the summer. I’ll be busy, but not as busy as things will be in the fall, so it’s high time. Anyway, this post is a day late, but dangit at least it’s going up!)

Combat and time have some weight in YAOSC despite the overall abstracted design, in part because how those things work will be instrumental in shaping a wide selection of skills. At the moment, I’m sort of stuck between two incompatible systems… and if I’m going to muse about it, why not do so in a post? Anyway, the options under consideration are what I’m calling rounds and therbligs.


This is the traditional route for most RPGs, and it’s already included in my time scale and assumed in a number of other mechanics such as spell descriptions. You chop up time into discrete packets, and assign various actions a value either in fractions of that packet (e.g. you can sneeze up to twice in a round) or multiples of it (e.g. belching on purpose takes three rounds). Everybody has a default number of actions (for YAOSC I’ll say two), and everything you can do consumes a default number of them (one). An initiative mechanic determines who goes first, either anew each round or one time that governs an entire combat scene, and then everybody just does things in turn until it’s over.


  • It’s easy in play. Your turn comes, you do your thing(s), done. You don’t need a high degree of system mastery to understand how combat time works.
  • It’s familiar. I can’t even think of an RPG right now that doesn’t use rounds in some form or other, at least until you get into the GMless story games.
  • It’s simple to design. You don’t need to weigh and balance a whole lot of factors or add a whole lot of complexity unless you really want to.


  • It breaks verisimilitude. People in real life don’t take turns doing things, especially in a fight (despite what kung fu movies might have you believe). You can imagine a dynamic scene in your head no matter the system, of course, but thinking about the mechanics too hard can (and does) make it all start to feel weird.
  • It can get complicated anyway. Just look at any RPG where combat leans toward the tactics-and-minis school, and it’s easy to see how using rounds to mark time doesn’t protect against system bloat.


(I’m not using the word correctly; it’s just there because it’s fun and sort of relevant.) This system would be based on a scrolling version of time, still granular but less choppy than the above. Instead of actions being counted in terms of rounds, each action would cost a given number of time units (which I’m tongue-in-cheek calling “therbligs”). These values could be adjusted by factors such as skill level, the condition the character is in, the circumstances they’re acting under, and so on.

When your place on the scroll comes around, you choose an action. Then, if all goes well, the action is completed after its assigned number of therbligs have passed, and then you choose again. Instead of initiative, a skill determines the number of therbligs it takes to comprehend and respond to a situation, after which the scroll unrolls on its own.


  • It offers greater verisimilitude. You can tinker with your therbligs until the relative length of time spent on a given action feels right, and there is no artifice of “taking turns” – everybody is always engaged in some action or other. This leads us to:
  • It smooths out edge cases. The simplicity of rounds invites extra rules to account for cases where rounds don’t make sense, and you end up adding things like “surprise rounds.” Therbligs do away with this.
  • It affords tremendous versatility and tactical depth. A therblig-based system makes it easy to set up situations where a fast fighter can interrupt a slow one, wait for exactly the right moment to act, or simply gain advantage by observing.
  • It should increase engagement. Rounds tend to encourage players to “tune out” when it’s not their turn, and while my imagined implementation would break this open a bit, I suspect that a well-managed scroll would


  • It would be hard to learn and hard to master. The basic concept may be intuitive, but it could take some time for GMs to learn how to run the scrolling combat efficiently and without too many mistakes, and a long time for players to get a feel for how to use the system to their advantage. This is definitely a system that can prioritize player skill over character skill, which creates a barrier to new or casual players.
  • There’s lots of room for bloat. Every time you add an element of versatility or tactical depth, you add another rule for everyone to learn and remember.
  • It would mean a massive amount of work to design. While it’s possible and necessary to establish generic guidelines for the number of therbligs it takes to perform any given action, at the very least the system seems to demand a considered, hand-crafted rating for hundreds of common actions, combat maneuvers with a variety of weapons, and spells.

Therbligs delight me to no end, and I want to develop them further as a pet project… but for the time being I’m leaning toward sticking with rounds for simplicity’s sake. If YAOSC ever gets published, like, for reals, then perhaps I could roll out therbligs in all their fiddly glory for those theoretical players who like my quirky hyper-niche D&D clone but also want some extra tactical combat up in there. Or maybe I’ll recycle some of the ideas for use somewhere else – I can’t stop thinking about how therbligs would work.

No minis, though. Even feeling some excitement at the idea of detailed, “real”-feeling tactical sword-and-sorcery battles, I’m more interested in making a theater-of-the-mind RPG than a combat-focused boardgame.

Anyway, this is definitely a topic where any feedback or thoughts on the matter would be appreciated. Should I nurture this beautiful awkward pet, or invest my time in putting a fresh spin on the familiar, traditional system? And does anybody know of a game that does use a therblig-scroll for its timekeeping that I could look at for reference?

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See also 急がば回れ

(Makeru ga kachi; “Losing is winning.”)


No, this isn’t some Orwellian doublespeak. It means that there are times when granting your opponent a win can be advantageous for you in the long run. Avoiding conflict and thus ceding a default win; using a gambit; or even surrendering can all help avoid unnecessary harm or even benefit.


This super simple saying comprises two noun phrases derived from verbs and a single particle linking them together. The particle is が (ga), which makes the link a subject-predicate kind of arrangement. The subject is the verb 負ける (makeru), “to lose” (as in losing a battle, not one’s keys), with a nominalization implied. (Note that this is not classical grammar; that would give us attributive form 負くる makuru.) The predicate, describing the subject, is 勝つ (katsu) in a more explicitly nominalized form. You can imagine a copula to make this a complete sentence if you want.


A variant on this saying hearkens back to the Thirty-Six Stratagems by replacing 負ける with 逃げる (nigeru), “to run away.” Some people apparently use the conditional verb form 負ければ (makereba) instead of the implied noun, but this is considered an error. However, replacing the particle が with topic marker は (wa) is acceptable.

This is the ま entry of the Edo iroha karuta set.

Example sentence:


(“Rei no kyaria yakunin wa kubi ni natta ga, ippou de sore ga kare no joushi no fuhai no akashi ni naru you ni te wo mawashite oita. Ichimai uwate no mono ni koso, makeru ga kachi na no de aru.”)

[“That one career official was fired, but he set it up so that his firing became proof of his boss’ corruption. For truly skilled people, a loss really can be a win.”]

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