Ka mate, ka ora


Literally: life – kill – give – rob

Alternately: Controlling people according to one’s whim. Having absolute power over others – to keep alive or kill; to give them things or take things away.

Notes: The order of the first two characters may be reversed to give 殺生, sassei. This compound may also be incorporated into a longer phrase by adding ~の権を握る (~no ken wo nigiru), “to hold the authority of ~.”

This yojijukugo comes to us from the Xunzi (荀子) of Xun Kuang.


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Someone who can see through the shell game

(Kame no kou yori toshi no kou;
“Better the wisdom of years than a tortoise-shell”)


Pun time! Japanese is actually full of puns, and here’s one that made it into a kotowaza. The phrase itself means that one should honor and value the knowledge and wisdom that comes from the experience of many years of life. Despite the phonetic play at work here, the meaning is also serious: apparently in the old days turtle-shell was valued for its uses both in jewelry and in divination. This saying asserts experience is both more valuable – and more accurate in determining what course of action to take – than the shell.


We begin with noun 亀 (kame), “turtle” or “tortoise,” with the associative particle の (no), um, associating it with noun 甲 (kou), “shell.” This whole noun phrase is marked by the particle より (yori) as less (useful/valuable) than the noun 劫 (kou), “long ages,” “many years.” This in turn is associated by particle の with the noun 年 (toshi), “year(s).”


劫 is the original version, but it may be replaced with homophone 功, “merit,” without any change in the meaning of the phrase as a whole. That said, using 効 (also kou; “effect,” “result”) is considered an error. And apparently some people interpret the toshi no kou part as simply meaning “to get older,” which is of course a misunderstanding.

Example sentence:

「占いなんて要らないさ、私の祖母ちゃんに尋ねてみよう。亀の甲より年の劫よ」 「こっくりさんは本気の占いじゃないよ、遊びだよ、遊び」

(“Uranai nante iranai sa, watashi no baachan ni tazunete miyou. Kame no kou yori toshi no kou yo.” “Kokkuri-san wa honki no uranai ja nai yo, asobi da yo, asobi.”)

[“We don’t need any fortune-telling, let’s just try asking my grandma. There’s a lot of value in experience, you know.” “Kokkuri-san isn’t real fortune-telling; it’s a game. A game.”]

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Knockout poor


Literally: vessel – use – poverty – scarcity

Alternately: Someone gifted with relatively good across-the-board skills… who, because of this, fails to develop any one skill to its full extend and ends up doing things only halfway. A “Jack of all trades but master of none.”

Alternately, someone of great ability who ends up being highly valued – and used – by those around them, who accordingly fails to achieve any significant successes or receive recognition for their work. This latter meaning may be signified by adding 人宝 (hitodakara), literally “human treasure,” to the phrase.

Notes: On its own, 器用 is a set phrase meaning “skillful,” “dexterous,” etc.

Multi-tasking Business Woman Isolated On White

Like a Bodhisattva of multitasking!

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Soryaa, ii kamo?

(Kamo ga negi wo shotte kuru;
“A duck comes bearing a green onion on its back”)


A confluence of almost-too-good-to-be-true convenience. Often used when somebody you’d been planning to use or con comes to you with a get-rich-quick scheme; when suckers come to you essentially asking you to take their money. Like a duck that comes for dinner, bearing ingredients for its own cooking on its back.


We begin with the noun 鴨 (kamo), “duck,” marked as the subject of the sentence by the particle が (ga). Next comes the noun 葱 (negi), a long vegetable akin to Western green onions or leeks, marked as the direct object of the verb by the particle を (wo). What follows is all one verb phrase. It comprises the verb 負う (ou), “to carry on one’s back,” in conjunctive form, combined with the noun 背 (se), “back,” followed by the verb 来る (kuru), “to come,” in sentence-final form.


Note that while one might expect 背負って to be pronounced se.otte based on its parts, the slurred form shotte is considered correct for this kotowaza.

This entire phrase can be condensed into the two-character noun 鴨葱 (kamonegi).

The surface meaning apparently leads some people to use this phrase to thank others for helping them out, but the deeper connotations mean that doing so is actually pretty rude.

Example sentence:


(“Nakata no yatsu ni aete yokatta naa. Kyou no uriage wa sappari da to omottara, choudo kamo ga negi wo shotte kitaa.”)

[“I’m glad I ran into that Nakata guy. I was just thinking I wouldn’t have any take today, when the sucker fell right into my lap with a ribbon on top.”]

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War and Weft


Literally: join – vertical – lead – horizontal

Alternately: This compound commonly refers to diplomacy based on calculations of profit and loss; of making and breaking alliances based on the convenience of the moment. Originally, it referred to two competing schools of thought toward the end of the Warring States period in China. By around 334 BCE, the Qin state was becoming increasingly powerful compared to its neighbors, leading each of the other six states comprising “China” at the time to consider whether they should ally against the Qin (a “vertical” strategy), or ally with it in order to share in its success (a “horizontal” strategy).

(In the end, the Qin repeatedly exploited fears and tensions to lure its neighbors out of their “vertical” alliance into “horizontal” ones, allowing it to take over the other states and eventually gain complete dominion.)

Notes: More properly 従 means something like “follow” and 衡, something like “equilibrium.” In this case, though, they refer respectively to the vertical and horizontal axes on a map, and thus ultimately to alliances between northern and southern, or eastern and western, kingdoms.

Reading 合従 as goujuu, 連衡 as rengou, or writing renkou as 連合 are all considered errors.

This compound comes to us from both the Records of the Grand Historian and the writings of Xunzi (荀子, in Japanese Junshi).


History! (Via Wikipedia, attribution Philg88.)

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Magic Monday – YAOSC Combat

Characters adventuring in a fantasy RPG setting are probably going to have to fight, sooner or later. This chapter is about how to handle it when at least one of the characters participating in a scene decides to try to hurt or physically overpower somebody else.

0. Guarding, Stealth, and Scouting

Characters on guard against potential foes may roll their a Wariness challenge (or have it rolled for them, if the GM determines that they don’t know how well they’re watching). Characters not specifically on the lookout use their passive Wariness. On the flip side of the coin, characters attempting to hide themselves or move quietly roll a Stealth challenge. Both of these skills are penalized if the characters are moving faster than half speed.

The results of these rolls determine who is aware of whom and at what distance. If neither side is aware of the other and they meet, they will generally do so at room, reach, or even contact distance. If either side is aware of the other, it will generally be at area or estate distance. Naturally, the specific circumstances will affect this: maximum encounter distance may be “reach” in a cramped and noisy labyrinth, while large obvious groups can be spotted from good lookout positions even at region distance. If one side is aware of the other first, they may attempt an ambush.

1. Initiative

If the aware side opens combat from ambush or surprise, they automatically win initiative. If everyone is aware, all involved roll an Intuition challenge (or Combat Fluency challenge, if they have the skill) and initiative is ordered from highest result to lowest. Characters who are not aware of combat do not roll initiative until the start of the next round after they become aware of it, and may not do anything except roll saves; their only defense against most attacks is the passive deflection and absorption of any armor they may be wearing.

2. Distance and Engagement

People in a fight usually move around a lot, so where characters are in a scene is treated in relatively abstract terms, as a function of both in-world descriptions and the actions they take to move, engage, or disengage. Players should pay attention to descriptions of their surroundings, asking questions when necessary, and have their players respond realistically. (The GM may reward clever thinking with bonuses ranging from +1 to a one-step bonus on a roll!) When the narrative doesn’t make it clear how long it will take to get from point A to point B within a scene, refer to the table below for the Move action.

Meanwhile, a fight can be confusing and distracting, with tunnel vision, pain, fatigue, noise, and lots of moving parts – even for a one-on-one duel. When you’re focusing on someone in order to attack them and/or block their attacks effectively, you’re “engaged” with them. Each opponent engaging a character who isn’t engaging them back hampers that character’s actions, applying a cumulative 1-point penalty to all their rolls! In addition, actions including ranged attacks or spellcasting invite free reaction attacks from an engaged opponent unless the character is specifically engaging and targeting that opponent.

3. Actions

Each character is (re)set to a default (usually 2) of Action Points (AP) at the start of each of their turns, and may use any number during their turn. A character not yet aware that combat is happening has no AP allotment and can’t do anything beyond rolling saves, but characters who are aware may act reactively at any time, or may “hold” AP to use at any point in the round after their turn. (A common example would be using one AP to attack and holding the second for defense in a duel.) AP may go unused; at the start of the character’s next turn, their AP allotment is reset to their default.

Even characters with no AP remaining may take action reactively: For example, a character who is attacked may still use their defenses. However, when a character has used up their AP allotment, each additional action carries a cumulative one-step penalty on the dice.

Common actions used in combat include:

Ready/Aim: Taking out a weapon, setting up a polearm to interrupt a charge, loading or aiming a ranged weapon, or recovering the balance on a heavy weapon after an attack all take AP. As a rule, weapons at hand and arm size take 1 AP to ready or aim, and each size category above that increases the cost by one. Spending an extra AP to steady and aim a ranged weapon gives a one-step bonus to the attack roll, up to a limit determined by the weapon’s skill level.

Engage: Focusing on someone with the intent to fight them directly. This will usually be done at reach distance, but some ranged actions use engagement as well, and grappling occurs at contact distance. Engaging with an opponent can be done automatically (cost 0 AP) by simply switching your attention to them.

Disengage: You don’t have to engage with anyone if you don’t want to! For example, an archer standing back from the action can pick targets freely. If someone wants to stay engaged with you, spend 1 AP to disengage or they get a free reaction against you… and even then they can try to follow and re-engage on their turn.

Move: You can move around the scene, or leave. The number of actions it takes to get where you want to go on foot depends on the distance. (Keep in mind that interruptions or obstacles will often take extra time to bypass!)

  • At reach distance, it’s 1 AP.
  • At room distance, it’s d6 AP.
  • At area distance, it’s 2d6 AP.
  • Beyond this, you probably can’t get there within a single scene! Keep in mind that mounts, vehicles, or magic can all change the time it takes to get somewhere, though.

Attack: You can try to hurt someone. Roll a challenge of your relevant skill against the defense of their choice.

Defend: You can try to dodge someone’s attack, deflect it with your armor or shield, parry it with your own weapon, or simply take it and hope that it doesn’t penetrate your armor.

Magic: If a spell has a casting time listed in real units such as minutes or hours, it probably can’t be used in a fight. If the casting time is listed in rounds, moments, or AP, then it probably can. Casting a spell while engaged may invite reaction attacks unless you are also engaged with that opponent.

Other: A wide variety of actions are possible in combat. Anything not listed above should be discussed with the GM, who should assign it an AP cost (ranging from “free” to a die roll, but generally one or two) or a time cost (generally in rounds) and any necessary rolls, situational bonuses or penalties, and other costs (such as allowing reactions from engaged opponents).

4. Attacking

Roll a challenge using the skill of your choice (as long as you’re appropriately armed for it!). Your target may choose to let you hit them in the hope that their armor absorbs the blow, but otherwise they’ll probably oppose you with a skill of their choice. \

The weapon used has a default damage rating; if it hits, each degree of success increases the damage by one step. Roll this damage and apply it to the target’s HP after subtracting any absorption from armor. Specific skills may also use degrees of success to trigger extra benefits or maneuvers such as disarming a foe.

5. Defending

When attacked you can roll a challenge to use the Armor skill to deflect, a Weapon Specialization skill to parry, or Dodge to dodge (funny how that works). As with attacks, specific skills may allow extra benefits at times, such as a free riposte.

If the defender purposefully takes a hit, then the attack rolls against the armor’s passive blocking value (to determine degree of success). In either case, armor may have an absorption rating that reduces or eliminates the damage even from a strike that connects.

6. Morale

Everything in the world, even mindless undead and animated constructs, have conditions that cause them to fight or to not fight. The GM should know these ahead of time and adjudicate them in a common-sense way: animals will avoid potential injury when possible unless driven by hunger, territorialism, the urge to defend their offspring, etc. Intelligent foes would often rather surrender than face death or severe injury, but will fight to the last if they don’t believe a surrender will be honored or if driven by their value system.

That said, GMs who wish to determine morale issues by chance rather than fiat may use an optional scale based on the Stability meter. In addition to strain, keep track of blows to morale: evidence of a strong opponent; allies being killed, incapacitated, or driven away; personal injury or loss; etc. When this track of the SP meter is full roll a “break” check as normal, with any fail-state result being read as a desire to flee or surrender.

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Der Dreigroschenvorteil

(Hayaoki wa sanmon no toku; “Rising early is a three-penny profit”)


Waking up early in the morning instead of sleeping in leads to better health and a variety of other benefits. “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” “The early bird catches the worm.”


The topic, as marked by the particle は (wa), is the noun 早起き (hayaoki), comprising the noun 早 (haya), “already” or “early,” and the verb 起きる (okiru), “to wake,” in conjunctive form, which allows it to act as a noun. The comment on this topic is 徳 (toku), which these days is often used to mean “virtue,” but which can also mean “profit.” The particle の (no) associates the virtue with number-noun 三文 (sanmon), where 文 is a small unit of currency.


We’ve seen 三文 used before to signify a trifling amount of money, and some scholars say that originally the full saying was 早起きしても三文ほどの得しかない, “Even if you wake up early the benefit is a pittance,” but at some point the meaning flipped and now it’s only used to encourage early rising and scold someone who sleeps in.

早起き may be replaced with synonym 朝起き (asaoki), while toku may be replaced with homophone 得, “gain.”

This saying comes to us from a Qing-era text we’ve seen before, the 通俗編.

Example sentence:

「ひな、早起きは三文の徳よ、もう起きなさい」 「だって、最近の研究によると、ティーンエイジャーの体は大人より、たくさんの睡眠が必要らしいよ。だから、逆に早起きは…小判の損じゃない?」

(“Hina, hayaoki wa sanmon no toku yo, mou okinasai.” “Datte, saikin no kenyuu ni yoru to, tiineijaa no karada wa otona yori, takusan no suimin ga hitsuyou rashii yo. Dakara, gyaku ni hayaoki wa… koban no son ja nai?”)

[“Hina, rising early is a three-mon profit, so please get up!” “But according to recent research, teenagers’ bodies need a lot more sleep than an adult. So isn’t it… rising early is a gold-coin loss?”]

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