The one before the Metal Friend

(Moto no mokuami; “The former Mokuami”)


Back to square one; ending up where you started. For something, or a situation, to revert to a previous (worse) state after temporarily improving. The ur-example is of a poor person who gets to live a relatively lavish lifestyle for a while before being returned to a hardscrabble life, but this idiom can apply to anything that gets worse again after getting better for a while, especially if the getting-better part required significant effort that in retrospect feels wasted.


This simple idiom comprises two nouns, joined by the associative particle の (no). The primary noun is proper noun 木阿弥 (Mokuami), which turns out to be a guy’s name. The associated noun is 元 (moto), “origin.”


Especially in an age of computerized auto-kanji it might be easy to forget that 木 can be pronounced moku and replace it with 黙 (also moku), “silent,” but this is an error. On the other hand, some variants may replace 元 with 旧 (“old,” “former”) without any change in pronunciation or meaning, or replace 阿弥 with 庵 (an), “hermitage,” or 椀 (wan), “bowl,” without any change in meaning.

This phrase supposedly comes to us from the Warring States period, when a feudal lord named 筒井順昭 (Junshou Tsutsui) passed away from sickness while his son was still a minor. To keep up appearances until his son reached the age of majority, the family looked for a body double and found a commoner named Mokuami. The latter was allowed to eat good food, dress in fine clothing, and generally live the life of the lord of a castle… until the son reached adulthood. At this point he was returned to his previous life as “the former Mokuami.”

Example sentence:


(“Paatii no mae ni, sekkaku zenryoku wo tsukushite oosouji shita no ni, ima kono heya wo mitara, moto no Mokuami ni nattete dotto tsukareta.”)

[“I went and worked as hard as I could to clean everything before the party. But looking at the room now, it’s right back where it started, and all of a sudden I’m tired.”]

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A looming opportunity


Literally: pleasing – loom / opportunity – arrive – come

Alternately: A golden opportunity arrives. The time is ripe for something good, with perhaps the implication that it’s an unparalleled and therefore unique opportunity.

Notes: Compare and contrast 千載一遇, which is more explicitly about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.


Again with the fish! I dunno, man; from the flounder’s point of view this isn’t really a good time. [Source]

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Fire Down Below – Character Creation

So you’re on a quest to retrieve the Fire Down Below, but first you need some heroes. Specifically, four: too large a roster would be hard to keep track of… but wounds, afflictions, and even deaths will demand a regular rotation. The character-creation process should be weighted on the side of simplicity.

This week, we’ll look at how you can build a hero for your family’s roster. Keep in mind that saves and skills come in four ranks of mastery: “unfamiliar,” “familiar,” “trained,” and “expert,” and that the default value for each is “unfamiliar.”

Rule Zero of Character Creation

Name, outlook, personality, backstory, and other details are entirely up to the player and may be filled in at any time – even posthumously – or not at all.

About Heroic Talents

In the Fire Down Below campaign, heroic talents fill the role that would be served in many games by “character class.” Each talent provides a suite of starting skill and save ranks, and a single perk (to be introduced later after I fill out the game’s systems and get a feel for what would be appropriate!). Beyond this, character customization is up to the player. There are four basic heroic talents:

  • The cunning hero is a keeper of secret knowledge. They get +1 rank each to their Int and Wis saves and to the following skills: Evading, Wriggle, Sneak, Tinker, Sight, Sound, Scent, Sixth Sense, Create, Scavenge, Inspect, and Recall.
  • The devoted hero is a keeper of society’s rituals and bonds. They get +1 rank each to their Cha and Wis saves and to the following skills: Dagger, Striking, Climb, Swim, Sight, Sound, Sixth Sense, Social, Emote, Inspect, Tend, and Recall.
  • The fearsome hero is a guard against violent threats. They get +1 rank each to their Dex and Con saves and to the following skills: Spear, Club, Dagger, Striking, Grappling, Sight, Sound, Space, Climb, Parkour, Wriggle, and Emote.
  • The vigorous hero is the most physically adept, and leads a party through the underworld’s obstacles. They get +1 rank each to their Str and Con saves and to the following skills: Spear, Grappling, Evading, Climb, Swim, Parkour, Wriggle, Sneak, Sight, Sound, Space, and Scavenge.

If you have a concept for a hero that doesn’t quite fit any of these molds, feel free to adjust one of the above slightly by shifting one or two of the skill-rank bonuses to another skill in the same category. For greater freedom, you may create a versatile hero by picking any two saves and any twelve skills; the only caveat is that you must choose at least one skill from each category. (Perk reduced to compensate for increased freedom?)

The Final Three Dice

We generated attributes by rolling 3d6 seven times and assigning six of the resulting totals. The final three will be used individually:

  • Assign one die result as the character’s menace allowance, a.k.a. “Hit Points,” although in the Fire Down Below, some of these “hits” are psychological or spiritual! This number represents the number of wounds and afflictions the character can take before being incapacitated.
  • Assign one die result as a number of extra ranks that may be applied to any skill or save in addition to what is provided by the character’s heroic talent.
  • And assign one die as the number of objects and rituals the character has studied and can use with the Create or Recall skills. If you don’t think your character would know how to make or repair anything, or perform any rituals at all, then go ahead and sacrifice this die (no matter what value it shows) to add one point to any attribute.

A Note About Menaces

Bad things happen to heroes in the line of duty, and the lingering effects are called menaces. We’ll be splitting these up into wounds (physical injury) and afflictions (poisoning, diseases, curses, and other conditions) because they’ll be treated in different ways, but the following apply to all menaces equally:

  1. If the total of a character’s wounds and afflictions exceeds their HP score, they are incapacitated and will die if not carried back to town.
  2. Every menace is specific. The character sheet will have space to write down a brief note about each one.
  3. Every menace makes your job harder. For any check where an affliction would interfere with normal functioning (such as a broken ankle when trying to run), you have disadvantage on the roll. A successful Tend check can negate this penalty for one task only, but –
  4. Menaces can only be cured in town. There may be exceptions, but a menace can only be removed by taking appropriate actions while the character is not adventuring. Best results should come from the menaced character spending their town action to convalesce while another helps treat them.
  5. Incapacitation is almost always going to be the end of your character’s normal adventuring for the rest of the expedition, but don’t worry! I’m working on something that the player can do in order to continue participating instead of sitting around bored while everyone else plays!

Build-a-Hero Workshop

  1. Roll 3d6 seven times and assign six of the results to attributes as desired. Note the modifier for each.
  2. Note the character’s level and proficiency bonus (1 and +1, respectively, for starting characters).
  3. Choose a heroic talent and add ranks to the indicated saves and skills. Make a note of your perk.
  4. Use your final three dice to assign HP, add a few extra skill ranks, and teach the character some crafting recipes and divine rituals.
  5. For each save and skill add up the total ranks, sum up the relevant modifiers, and write down the total for quick access during play.

And that’s it! You have a character who’s ready to adventure. Mark them down in your family roster and send them on missions whenever you think is appropriate.

For cases where even that would take too much time, I should probably include a number of example/pregen characters. You could literally just pick up a copy and start play with a fully-fledged character, or perhaps just steal the attribute spread because you don’t feel like rolling all those dice. For players who want a little more complication, on the other hand, I’m considering an optional system to build a fated hero talent with even more dice rolls. Whee!

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Does this ring any bells?

Not for those who refuse to hear!

(Mimi wo ooite kane wo nusumu; “To cover one’s ears and steal a bell”)

*See Notes for an important comment on pronunciation!


When you think you’ve hidden something – usually something bad that you did – but it nonetheless becomes quickly and widely known. Trying to hide your crimes in a laughably amateurish and ineffective way. In short, being presidential. This saying mocks the kind of idiot villain who thinks that hiding the truth from themselves, for example by stopping up their own ears to block out the sounds of the bell they’re stealing, or by firing everyone in their administration who is willing to tell the truth, will somehow fool the entire world.

Alternately, this saying can refer to a situation where something you want to do is wrong, and you know it’s wrong, but you try to ignore that knowledge because you really want to do the thing: you cover your ears to hide the sound of the bell so you don’t need to think about the fact that you’re stealing it. Or perhaps, when the leader of a political party has committed blatant crimes and yet the members of that party mumble hollow excuses to cover it up instead of simply allowing him to face the consequences of his actions, thus making themselves into criminal accomplices.


We begin with the noun 耳 (mimi), “ear(s),” marked by the particle を (wo) as the direct object of the verb 掩う (oou), “to cover.” This appears in conjunctive form with perfective suffix つ (tsu), also in conjunctive form as て (te), which allows what we’ve seen so far to connect to the following independent clause. This begins with the noun 鐘 (kane), “bell,” also marked by を (wo) as a direct object and acted upon by the verb 盗む (nusumu), “to steal,” here appearing in conclusive form.


Keep in mind that a 鐘 isn’t just any bell, certainly not a little jingly bell that you can muffle and stick up your sleeve. (Those are called 鈴, suzu.) No, it’s usually one of those big cast-bronze bells that you see in temples, the kind that a person can fit inside, the kind that gets rung with a whole log.

…That said, there is an alternate version of the saying which uses 鈴, if you really want to go with that. Alternately, the entire saying can be condensed down into a single yojijukugo as 掩耳盗鐘 (en ji tou shou).

Note that normally, 鐘 don’t have clappers and are not intrinsically noisy to move. Supposedly this saying comes from a tale in the Qin dynasty Chinese classical text known as the Lushi Chunqiu (Japanese 『呂氏春秋』= Roshi shunjuu) about a man who tried to steal a large bronze bell but found it too heavy, so he tried to break it up with a maul for easier transport, with exactly the results that you’d expect.

The weird thing about this one is that multiple sources give the first verb in the form 掩て (ooute). The classical grammar that I’ve studied demands 掩て, as above. Modern grammar would be 掩て (which emphasizes the following consonant and produces ootte). The most likely cause for this is ウ音便 (u-onbin), a “euphonic change” in which the original i sound was slurred into a u sound – note that the same thing seems to have happened to e.g. the word for “little sister,” 妹 (imouto, which used to be いもひと imohito / imopito / imoito).

Actually, it gets even weirder, but that’s probably a story for another day!

Example sentence:


(Mimi wo ooute kane wo nusumu you ni, uchi no booya ga yori ni yotte bokura no futon no naka de kukkii wo nusumigui shite kurete, toutei mushi dekinai hodo no kuzu wo nokoshita ndesu yo.”)

[“Like the man who covered his own ears to steal a bell, our boy snuck a bite of some cookies in our bedding of all places, and left an amount of crumbs that was absolutely impossible to ignore.”]

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For a boring time, put your awl into it


Literally: whole – body – whole – spirit

Alternately: Putting all of your physical and mental strength into something. “With all your soul and with all your might,” as they say. Doing one’s best; being utterly devoted to something.

Notes: A somewhat less dramatic version of the same idea is 全心全力 (zen shin zen ryoku), “whole heart, whole strength.”

At least one of my sources claims that this phrase comes from a 1919 novel titled 『或る女』 (Aru onna, A Certain Woman) by author Takeo Arishima (有島武郎).


全身全霊LIVES! is the title of a 2011 single by rock band ダウト (aka D=OUT)

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Fire Down Below – Core

The mechanical aspect of play in The Fire Down Below campaign will rest on the twin bases of attributes and skills.

About Attributes and Modifiers

When each hero is created, roll 3d6 seven times and assign six of the resulting scores as desired. (Set aside the remaining three dice for now.) The six attributes are:

  • Strength (physical power and leverage)
  • Dexterity (reflexes, flexibility, and fine motor control)
  • Constitution (hardiness and endurance)
  • Intelligence (reasoning and memory)
  • Wisdom (intuition and sensibility)
  • Charisma (sense of self and force of personality)

Each attribute has an associated saving throw, which is a special check made to decrease or escape the negative consequences of some event. More on this below.

Each attribute also has an associated modifier. This modifier is added to (or subtracted from, as a penalty) all checks using that attribute. The modifier is a -2 penalty for attributes at 3/4/5, -1 for 6/7/8, a +1 bonus at 13/14/15, and a +2 bonus at 16/17/18. Attribute scores of 9/10/11/12 have a modifier of 0, without any bonus or penalty. Anything below a score of 3 gives a -3 penalty, while anything above a score of 18 gives a +3 bonus.

















The other major factor affecting checks is the character’s proficiency bonus, which slowly increases as the character gains levels, as follows: At level 1, the bonus is +1; at level 2 and 3, +2; 4/5/6 give +3, 7 through 11 give +4, levels 12 through 17 give +5, and levels 20 and up give +6.





7 – 11

12 – 19









About Checks

When the outcome of an action or event is in doubt, the DM may call for a check. Each active participant in the action rolls a d20, then adds all relevant bonuses (and subtracts all relevant penalties). The participant with the highest result “wins” and imposes their will on the action’s outcome. In cases where all active participants are working to overcome something inanimate or passive, then instead a Difficulty Class (DC) is assigned before any dice are rolled, and the active character overcomes it if their check result is higher than the DC.

In case of a tie, both sides technically “win”! The DM and players should talk the matter over and decide on a result where each participant gets what they want but to a reduced degree, or with some drawback, or at some cost. Conversely, for each multiple of ten by which one check result beats the opposition, that character gets a boost. The DM and players should again talk the matter over and decide what extra benefits are gained.

At times there will be a factor that makes a check especially likely to succeed or fail. The former is known as advantage; when you have advantage on a check, roll two d20s and choose whichever result you prefer. The latter is known as disadvantage; again, roll two d20s, but this time you must choose whichever result is worse. Advantage and disadvantage are absolute values: you may have one, or the other, but neither stacks up in multiples. Having both advantage and disadvantage from different factors cancels out both and leads to a normal roll.

Some checks rely almost entirely on a single attribute, such as using Strength to move a heavy stone out of the way. For these attribute checks, roll d20 and add (or subtract) the relevant attribute modifier. Other checks rely entirely on random happenstance; for these luck checks, simply roll a d20 and see what random fortune decrees.

For saves and skill checks, things are a little more complicated and onion-like: there are layers.

  1. For any save or skill where the character has no training or practice whatsoever, even latent talent can’t help them. For these “unfamiliar” saves and skills, roll d20 and apply attribute-modifier penalties only.
  2. A little bit of practice allows natural affinities to emerge. For these “familiar” saves and skills, you may add attribute-modifier bonuses to the roll.
  3. Sustained practice or organized study gives the character some actual technique. For these “trained” skills and saves, add both the attribute modifier and the proficiency bonus to the roll.
  4. Finally, long periods of intense focus may allow a character to master the depths of an art and compensate for their weaknesses. For these “expert” skills and saves, add attribute-modifier bonuses but do not subtract penalties, then add the proficiency bonus, and then add another +2. Zang!

All saves and skills begin as “unfamiliar,” but ascend through the layers of proficiency due to choices made during character creation or advancements gained during play.

About Skills

Skills are divided into four groups of six:

  • Athletic skills
    • Climb (scaling vertical objects and surfaces)
    • Parkour (running, jumping, rolling, etc. to bypass obstacles)
    • Sneak (moving carefully to avoid attention; covering one’s tracks)
    • Swim (moving and acting effectively while in a liquid)
    • Tinker (fine motor control and sleight of hand)
    • Wriggle (contortion; passing through narrow spaces and escaping bonds)
  • Cerebral skills
    • Create* (craft or repair a known type of object)
    • Emote (performing and persuading; call for a boon in desperation)
    • Inspect (search an area, study an object, analyze a situation)
    • Recall* (use a known language or bit of lore; call for a boon through ritual)
    • Scavenge (find food, water, useful objects, and shelter away from home)
    • Tend (give first aid or long-term medical care)
  • Combat skills
    • Spear (use weapons about the length of the body)
    • Club (use weapons about the length of the arm)
    • Dagger (use weapons about the size of your hand)
    • Striking (fight with bare hands, feet, elbows, etc.)
    • Grappling (fight with balance, joint locks, and holds)
    • Evading (duck and dodge, or feint to affect an opponent psychologically)
  • Sensory skills
    • Sight (notice visual cues and details, judge size and distance)
    • Sound (notice and identify auditory cues; echolocation)
    • Scent (notice and identify chemical cues)
    • Space (proprioception, touch, depth and direction sense, tremorsense)
    • Social (notice and interpret interpersonal cues; judge intent and state of mind)
    • Sixth (notice supernatural cues; intuit the workings of magical phenomena)

*Create is used with objects that the character has studied. The player should keep a list of known objects on their character sheet. Similarly, Recall is used with languages, rituals, and lore that the character has learned, and these too should be recorded. It is simply not possible to create or repair an object when you don’t know what it’s supposed to be like, speak a language you have never read or heard, or remember a fact you have never heard of!

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As recently as this morning


(Bouzu nikukerya kesa made nikui;
“If you hate a priest, even the priestly robe is loathsome”)


If you hate somebody or something, then all too often you also start to dislike neutral things that you associate with the object of your dislike. If you hate a Buddhist priest (or priests in general), then you may begin to have a negative reaction even to their distinctive clothing.


We begin with the noun 坊主 (bouzu), a relatively casual term for a Buddhist priest. Next we have the adjective 憎い (nikui), “detestable.” (While modern Japanese might put a particle such as subject-marker が (ga) in between noun and adjective, this is elided here.) The adjective appears in imperfective form as 憎け (nikuke). Technically what follows is passive-marker postpositional る (ru), also in imperfective form as れ (re), and then hypothetical-marker postpositional ば (ba), “if.” However, all this is slurred together and comes out as りゃ (rya), continuing the casual mode of speech from 坊主.

The following independent clause begins with the noun 袈裟 (kesa), a “kasaya,” a traditional outfit worn by Buddhist priests. This is marked by the particle まで (made), often “up to” or “until,” but here probably best rendered as “even.” And finally we have the adjective 憎い again, this time in conclusive form.


It’s less common, but perfectly acceptable, to replace the ~けりゃ conjugation with the more correct ければ, and/or to use the older conclusive form 憎し at the end. One variant phrase replaces 坊主 with the more formal 法師 (houshi), also indicating a Buddhist priest but literally meaning “law teacher.”

Supposedly this phrase carries cultural memories of to Edo-period laws by which people were required to register (and confirm their Buddhist faith) with local temples. While from the government’s point of view this offloaded and organized some bureaucratic work while providing a bulwark against Christian incursions, in practice this placed more power in the hands of priests, that power corrupted, and corruption led to backlash and resentment.

However, note that this saying’s origins go back to the Western Han dynasty in China, specifically a collection of stories known as the Shuo Yuan (Japanese 『説苑』= Zeien).

Example sentence:


(“Tsuittaa de ano sakka no momegoto ni makikomarete kara, kare no hon mo iya ni natte yomenaku natta. Bouzu nikukerya kesa made, ka.”)

[“Ever since I got caught up in that one author’s Twitter war, even his books make me feel awful; I can’t read them any more. Even the priest’s robe, I guess.”]

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