Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Weird in Mystic Japan Part Four - Japanese Treasures

I meant to write about Japanese monsters with this next part, but they are a bit trickier than expected, so instead I’ve decided to showcase some uniquely Japanese treasures.  Looking at the old AD&D Oriental Adventures, supposedly Asian treasures are just more weapons, armor, scrolls, and staves with powers that would not be out of place in a vanilla fantasy world. Unlike last time, where I basically cribbed stories from Japanese fiction and fairytale that can be thrown easily into a game or campaign, this time I’ll introduce some unique Japanese items that are staples of life here, and give some suggestions of magical versions.

Please note that I have decided to stop giving stats to things I post on my blog. I am not really a crunchy gamer, so statting everything I post would take time and also force me to choose a dominant game system, which I am loathe to do. I hope my descriptions are fine enough to allow the reader to easily create or convert to their favorite system.


BYOBU (屏風) – Large and ornate gilded changing screens of 2 to 6 panels depicting scenes from life, history, or mythology, byobu were made by craftsmen of renown and given as gifts between nobles, and some were reported to have as much value as an entire castle. Byobu are not very portable or durable, so moving them would require hiring trained movers, one for each section, who could command a fine wage for their labour.

Example - Byobu of 1,000 Faces (千面の屏風senmen no byobu). This ornate 6-panel byobu depicts the capital city bustling with people. The figures are of fine detail, and in fact the byobu can change its user into the appearance of any of the figures depicted on it. The wielder must first choose a figure and meditate at sunrise before the byobu, then use the screen to change from the sleeping kimono to their daily dress. Regardless of what clothes they change into, they will come out from behind the screen with the exact appearance of the figure they have chosen, as well as pertinent skills. The effect is undetectable by mundane means, and only high level sorcery could detect or pierce the illusion. The effect lasts until the user returns and changes behind the byobu, and the screen can only be used to effect an illusion once a day. There is a rumour that demons and other mythic creatures are hidden in the byobu and can be chosen as a disguise with appropriate powers. However, to find the truth will require either meeting the byobu’s creator or conferring with a powerful (and costly) sage. The byobu can be destroyed quite easily by mundane means, and only one person, its owner, may use it at a time.

Shaku (尺)- A shaku literally was a unit of measurement about a third of a yard or meter long. The word also referred to a thin stick used to make measurements, but was also used by nobles as a symbol of office, while zen monks still use them to smack tranquility into meditators.

Long Distance Shaku (遠方尺 enpo shaku). This simple shaku is made of cherrywood and emblazoned with the Kanji en, literally meaning ‘far.’ If the wielder of the shaku concentrates, he or she can extend the shaku as far as they could throw a stone (10 meters or so). The extended shaku can thus be used to attack (does damage as a small club or gauntleted fist), to trip opponents, to flip switches or knock over small objects weighing under a pound. The wielder cannot move or do anything else besides dodging while using the shaku. The shaku can be destroyed quite easily by mundane means.

Onsen (温泉) – Japan is an archipelago known for its seismic activity, and while the Japanese rightly fear earthquakes, they welcome the steaming hot springs or onsen that also dot the land. Many are the tales of healing properties of onsens, and famous warlords like Kanpei recovered from battle and torture in their favorite hot springs. A hot spring can either be natural, usually in a mountainous area, or dug out and filled with water bubbling up from the earth.

Good Medicine Spring (薬膳温泉 yakuzen onsen). This onsen sits on top of a mountain that can only be scaled by a treacherous path over a yawning chasm guarded by a 1000 strong pack of savage monkeys. Characters with flying capabilities will find that the shifting winds and fog, as well as random lightning strikes and hail, make the onsen accessible only by the path. If characters brave the path and find some ways to appease or avoid the monkeys, they will find a ring of stones within which fragrant blue water steams, next to which sits a simple hut. If bathed in for a day, this onsen immediately stops any poison or wasting disease. For every day spent bathing in its waters, the onsen confers double daily normal healing, OR restores a point of physical attribute lessened by damage, regardless of whether the cause was natural or mundane. Note that onsen waters taken from the ring of stones lose any power.

Swords () – Magic swords in Japanese myth date from ancient periods, and so are not the classic katana of the samurai, but rather the double bladed tsurugi or broadswords brought over from Silla (ancient Korea) or Tang (ancient China). The most famous is of course the Grasscutter Sword (草薙 kusanagi), which features in several legends and is one of the three Japanese Imperial Treasures.

The Liquid Sword (水剣 Suiken). The Liquid Sword is an ancient blade with the Kanji ‘sui’, literally ‘water’, emblazoned on the hilt. The sword reveals its powers only to those it favours, usually brave warriors fighting to protect life. So far, myths tell of how the sword has allowed certain users to move like water and avoid all but the fastest physical attacks, as well as drawing poison out of a wound or purifying the water from a bad well. It definitely has more powers, being aligned with the mighty force of oceans and seas, but these are as yet unknown. The sword is notoriously fickle, however, and has been known to disappear from its wielder’s scabbard to avoid incessant or useless bloodshed. The sword will disappear if anyone tries to destroy it.

Tea Service (お茶具 ochagu) – No Japanese noble home is complete without a set of tea goods, usually kept in a lacquered box and usually including a smack charcoal heater, a teapot, cups, candy dishes, a bag of sweet candy, a tin of bitter green tea (抹茶 maccha), bamboo or silver teaspoons, ladles and tea whisks. The appearance and materials of a tea service often reflects its owner, so a rich noble would use a lot of gilding, a shogun might favour silver and metals, and a monk bamboo and lacquered cedar.

Takuan’s Tea-Box (沢庵の茶箱 takuan no chabako). This simply lacquered cedar box was crafted by the legendary monk and contains a complete set of bamboo utensils, and if used to perform a tea ceremony 茶道 sado, will confer one of the following benefits on a partaker for the remainder of the part of day (morning, noon, afternoon, evening or night) in which the ceremony is performed:
Courage – The partaker is immune to all fear inducing effects.
Serenity – The partaker is immune to all confusion inducing effects.
Inner Strength – The partaker is immune to strength and damage effects, although any damage accrued will come to effect after the period expires. If this is enough to kill the character, they can make a heroic last speech before they die.
Rumour has it that Takuan instilled other powers in the tea set, but these can only be unlocked by high level practitioners of either tea ceremony or Zen Buddhism. The ochagu can be destroyed quite easily by mundane means, by Takuan made many of these during his lifetime and so others can be procured or found, along with countless imitations that grant no powers at all. Only monks or trained tea masters can use the powers of this tea set.

Brush () – Ornate brushes made of cedar, ivory, jade or bone were the accouterments of Japanese ladies, who would also wear them as pins or stays for their ornate hairstyles.

Spiderweb Comb (蜘蛛の巣の櫛 kumo no su no kushi). Legend has it a power hungry court lady had this comb made. It consists of a green jade comb in the shape of a spider spinning its web and holds an accompanying pin. Only women may use it, and if a character uses it to comb then pin up their hair, they may move as silently as a spider, climb walls, hide in shadows, and cast one magical web per day. The pin also contains a deadly poison that incapacitates anyone its flesh pierces and will kill them if they are not treated within a day. If the comb is displaced from the hair, the wielder loses all powers until the next day, when they must bathe and re-do their hair. The brush can possibly be destroyed by magical means, but has been known to mysteriously disappear once its wielder has been captured or killed.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Ultimate Magedungeon Maze Map

Done by a janitor at a uni here in Japan. No one knew what he was working on, people are still trying to figure it out. Reminds me of Henry Darger a bit.

The full story is HERE.

I've got another Weird Japan post should be done tonight or tomorrow between student essay marking.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Blog mod

I just added a cloud of topics on the right to help readers navigate the blog better. Figured I'd better do it before this thing became unwieldy.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Interweb Buried Treasure Find – TSR 2001 A Space Odyssey RPG?!?

I have been pretty tied down before my preliminary exam on Thursday (today), but while web surfing to de-stress, I came across two TSR modules for Star Frontiers based on the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and the sequel 2010. They are available at the Star Frontiers website in the Modules section. They are well made curios invaluable to any Kubrick film or Clarke scifi buffs, but gamers might balk due to their extreme faithfulness to the source materials.

Although I thought maybe the OSR hadn’t stumbled onto these retro goodies, a quick search for images resulted in reviews of them by Grognardia. Whereas James M didn’t see Star Frontiers as a good fit for the game and understandably dismissed the modules’ gaming usefulness due to their extreme railroady nature, I thought they were great resources for someone looking to run Star Frontiers as ‘harder’ scifi than the default setting, an aspect of the rules modifications they present which James also comments upon. More than that, as an inveterate OSR DIY guy, I think these railroads are ripe for Jacquaying and modding with switchbacks, loops, and alternate tracks.

How would I do that? One way to see 2001 is a space where extremely hard scifi (i.e. human technology like HAL and the Discovery) meets extremely soft ‘techno-magic’ (i.e. the monolith and starchild, and more if you’ve read the novel). Put in this way, adding in the goofy space opera of the original Star Frontiers is hardly a stretch, and so my first move would be to ignore the restrictions to human characters outlined in the modules. Next, since the modules and their source films and books take place over enormous spans of time, from the Dawn of Man to centuries in our future, a bit of Star Trek style time traveling from the Star Frontier’s timeline would be in order. Finally, as a DM I would be OK with PCs going off the rails of the film plot. I’ve always had the dream of running Lord of the Rings and letting the PCs try whatever they want to get the ring to Mordor, maybe allowing Gandalf all spells with the caveat that using any unlocks them for the forces of darkness as well. I’d try to do a similar balancing act with these modules. If possible, I’d run the modules without letting players know they are gaming 2001, but I’d also be open to players in the known who are happy to muck about in the setting.

Here’s an example of how I would Jacquay the first chapter, including some of the complications and reactions I would have anticipated:

The Dawn of Man – It is the default Star Frontiers future, and the PCs are contacted through an agent to make a delivery for a princely sum of money. The condition is that they ask no questions and do not pry into the unknown devices installed on their ship or the cargo it holds, and they must sign a Non Disclosure Agreement to that effect. The cargo is, of course, the moon and Earth monoliths, and the mission is to deliver them to our solar system at the dawn of mankind.

If the PCs do not have a ship suitable for transport, one is provided for them, and unbeknownst to them can both travel FTL and in time. Note that I am a big handwaiver with this type of lightspeed/parsecs speed vs time stuff, and as PCs should be ignorant of what is in store for them, I see no need to get into it. If the PCs have a suitable ship, they are asked to leave it with the agent for a day, after which it is fitted with the FTL and timejump devices and cargo is loaded.

Any attempt to tamper with the devices or pry into the cargo should be met with increasing warnings and danger. Players should first be told that the devices make no sense to even the most skilled mechanic or technician in the group, and both their function and purpose are a mystery. Attempting to open them should either not work (cutters can’t cut the material, there are no joints, etc), deliver warning shocks (small damage or unconsciousness) or worse (increasing damage, a warning message from the agent). If the players don’t seem to want to go along for the ride, tell them they are knocked out by some force, awaken unharmed in their ship but with a Breech of Contract notification informing of the legal repercussions if they disclose any details of the agreement they had made.

If the players do play ball, they are put in stasis until their ship reaches our moon in antediluvian times. When they awake, the shipboard AI informs them that their first mission is to bury the monolith on the lunar surface, so PCs will have to suit up and accomplish this. To throw players off, the GM may describe the lunar monolith as a translucent or transparent oblong filled with tiny crystalline circuit structures as in the novel instead of the ebon monolith from the film. As a red herring, the GM may want to add a subplot of lunar quicksand that sucks down either the ship or several PCs and complicates their task (see the Arthur Clarke story ‘A Fall of Moondust’ for inspiration).

The real action starts on earth, which the PCs may not recognize as such due the change in constellations over the millennia and the difference in Earth’s atmosphere and composition of continents. The ship AI can navigate around the system, but will curiously be unable to give time or coordinates in relation to the PC’s normal setting. The ship AI informs them they must plant the second oblong near a group of cave dwelling apemen, then observe and record its interactions with them for two weeks. It’s up to the players to plan – do they knock out the apemen with stunners, or try and sneak it in? (See Jack Kirby’s 2001 comic for inspiration.)

Once the device is set, it comes to life at night, blinking and flashing hypnotically, after which the entire tribe sleepwalks out to stand rapt before it. After the first night, players making a perception roll will notice the apemen are walking more upright and using sticks to knock down fruit instead of climbing to get food as they did the day before.

The GM can introduce several dilemmas here to challenge the PCs. First, a predator jaguar or tiger can threaten the apemen, or a rival tribe could show up and threaten their access to water or food. Have some apemen die or be injured in front of PCs to provoke a reaction. As the apemen are influenced by the alien device, have them become more aggressive and start using weapons such as sticks or bone clubs. Have a Cain-Abel style first murder occur before the PCs to show them that maybe the monolith’s influences are not entirely benign. If players decide to fire on the monolith or stop it, have any human character instantly devolved into an apeman and modify his stats as per the module (p. 4). Now the game can switch to a return to try and restore the timeline.

If the players allow the monolith’s function to proceed, after the two weeks they are placed back in stasis and wake up in orbit around Earth’s moon just before the discovery of the lunar monolith, with US and Soviet teams rushing to reach the object pinpointed by magnetic scans as in the crater Tycho. Their mission next is to stop the Soviet advance and surreptitiously assist the US team. Once again, throw dilemmas at the PCs, such as the hidden armaments of the US team and the unarmed Soviets. Make them question whether their mission is good or not, and make all humans speak Russian if they decide to stop the Americans. Have fun with the wonky paradoxes of time travel and going off the rails of an established property.

Anyway, with my prelim done expect a speed up of posts of the backlog of ideas I’ve had while grinding away at my thesis.