I wanted to take a moment to post a review of playing Dungeons and Dragons in the “Play By Post” format, since I have been actively playing since this post.
My group and I have been playing Adventurer’s League via play by post since April and have, as of writing, completed 3 modules in tier-1, and have begun another module from Season 2 (Elemental Evil). Our characters are all level 4. Each module has taken about 4-6 weeks to completed at our current pace in play-by-post. So, a back of hand calculation means that a 4-hour module takes about 4 weeks to complete.
All in all, I’ve enjoyed this experience and I really like my PBP party. However, as for play by post, let’s talk about pros and cons so far.
Pros: The pacing really helps busy folks enjoy their periodic fix of Dungeons and Dragons, especially us parents who can’t realistically block out 4-6 hours a week. I love being able to play a little bit every day, or a few times a week, and still feel that sense of progress. Once I got used to the slower pacing than a typical sit-down game, it’s been a nice background in my life.
Another big pro, particularly for Adventurer’s League, is that you can spent more time on the role-playing side of things. Normally, when you are playing AL modules, the time is fixed, the story rail-roads a little bit, and you don’t get to always delve into inter-character role playing as much. It’s nice to have the same 3 characters in our party get to know one another, and develop distinct personalities.
Finally, the Avrae bot really makes PBP work. It takes a while to get used to the commands, and you should have a command cheatsheet bookmarked somewhere.
Cons: The biggest challenge has been the combat maps. Avrae does a good job of keeping track of combat initiative, spell status, hp, etc. However, keeping track of position on a map, especially a 3-dimensional map, really requires some careful Theater of the Mind. Maps definitely help, but even then players forget where they are because they can’t see it. And if there are delays (more on that next), then it’s easy to lose track of player position vs. monsters. The Theater of the Mind issue is partially solved by being less stringent on distances and such, such as this helpful article explains, but it requires careful vigilance nonetheless. That doesn’t mean combat isn’t fun (it has been!), but depending on the map, things can get hairy.
The other issue is delays. PBP naturally has a slower place than a sit-down game, but sometimes life happens and players may not respond for a while. In some rare cases, they may not be able to respond for weeks. We had some incidents in the past months where a player had a genuine commitment or family issue that arose, and the adventure simply can’t continue without that player. For shorter delays, a little extra role-playing can tide you over, but this will eventually run out.
However, one can also argue that this is also a strength of PBP: when our missing players would return, we just picked up right where we left off without losing momentum. PBP can definitely tolerate downtime and interruptions a lot better than a committed, set campaign between friends, but you also have to learn to tolerate life interruptions, and a willingness to support fellow players who have genuine reasons why they can’t play. I am thankful to have a circle of players who have been mutually supportive, but then again every good campaign is built on mutual support.
Having a PBP campaign in the background of your life, especially the Pandemic Life, is a nice way to keep enjoying D&D, even when you don’t have an active campaign in the meat world.
Recently, I’ve been delving into both the Sanskrit and Pali languages, both used for Buddhist religious scripture, and just when I thought I had things figured out, I realize the situation is even more complicated and fascinating than I thought.
Sanskrit is a language that was brought to India by invaders who called themselves the Arya (“the noble”), but had origins in what is now Iran. They came to India sometime after 2000 BCE and settled across northern India and surrounding areas, subjugating the native population, and bringing their religious values with them. From there, we see very early religious inscriptions such as the Rig Veda, composed in very old Sanskrit (e.g. “Vedic Sanskrit”).
But, gradually, Sanskrit and what was spoken informally “on the ground”, diverged. This diverged by regional variances, social classes, etc. They could probably understand each other’s regional dialects the same way that Americans can understand Australian English, and Australians understand American English, or Scottish English, etc, and all of them differ from “textbook English” also known as Standard English.
One might also draw an example from Latin. Classical Latin, such as the writings of Cicero, differed from “vulgar Latin” such as that spoken in the provinces. Further, vulgar Latin as spoken by the Celts in Gaul probably differed from vulgar Latin spoken by Berbers in north Africa or Egypt. Even Cicero’s spoken Latin probably differed than his writings.
Such regional dialects or variances of the original Sanskrit included:
Magadhi – A language spoken in the kingdom of Magadha, and quite likely the Buddha’s native language. It is spoken today in India as well, but like Ancient Greek has changed over time to its modern version.
Kosalan – A language spoken in the neighboring kingdom of Kosala, also mentioned in early Buddhist texts.
Arda-Magadhi – “Half-Magadhi”, a possible predecessor to Magadhi above, or at least closely related.
Paishachi – A popular, possibly literary-only language, though more research is needed.
Maharashtri – A language spoken more to the southwest of India and frequently used in poetry. Modern day Marathi and Konkani derive from it.
Gandhari – A prakrit spoken in north-west India, in the important region of Gandhara, and used in some Buddhist scriptures composed in the region, instead of Pāli. Examples of recoverd texts here.
Speaking of Pāli, what’s up with Pāli? The earliest Buddhist scriptures, or sutras, are recorded in Pāli language, but Pāli isn’t technically a Prakrit like those shown above. It seems to be a language that arose as a kind of lingua franca between Prakrits.1
It makes sense why early Buddhist sutras are recording in it then: rather than recording in each Prakrit for the benefit of local audiences, pick something that was generally understood, even if imperfectly.
Pāli may have arisen around the 3rd century BCE, two to three hundred years after the Buddha, so here’s a hypothetical (repeat: hypothetical) timeline:
The Buddha preached in his native language, Magadhi (assuming that’s what he spoke), probably around the 5th or 6th century BCE. It’s also possible he used other Prakrits as well depending on his audience, assuming they were mutually intelligible.
Disciples remembered his teachings, and per Buddhist tradition, recited them as beset as they could recollect after this death in the First Buddhist Council.
Per existing Indian tradition, the teachings were then passed down for centuries from teacher to students.
As Prakrits developed and diverged over time, it probably became harder to keep things consistent across Buddhist communities, and the communities relied on more. Since it was widely used anyway, this was probably a simple, practical move.
As Buddhist tradition changed from oral to written history, Pāli was the logical choice for some Buddhist schools, such as the Theravada. Other Buddhist school at the time stuck to local Prakrits (some of which became part of the Mahayana canon later), such as in the Gandhara region.
As Buddhism spread even further, and Pāli fell out of use in India, Sanskrit became the liturgical language of choice and Buddhist scriptures, notably in the Mahayana tradition were shoe-horned into Sanskrit in successive waves. Given the rise of Hindu religion, which relied on Sanskrit for scripture, Buddhist communities may have felt the need to “keep up”.
Anyhow, this is speculation, but seems to fit what I’ve learned so far, and shows a fascinating evolution where Sanskrit sets the foundation, but dialects flourish until a new lingua franca is needed (namely, Pāli), until things sort of come full-circle and return to Sanskrit again, at least for the Mahayana tradition.
However, a couple points should be emphasized:
The Buddha probably didn’t preach in Pāli language. We may never know exactly what the language was, but it is likely a local prakrit, or more than one.
Prakrit languages are neither Sanskrit nor Pāli, but possibly developed in this order (more research needed): Sanskrit at time of migration into India -> Prakrits -> Pāli -> Classical Sanskrit
Thanks for reading!
1 Speaking of “prakrit”, there is not a universally agreed upon standard as to which languages at the time are prakrits, and which ones aren’t. In some broader definitions, Pāli language is considered another prakrit. As an amateur, I have no opinion one way or another.
Some time ago, I discovered the 30th chapter of the Flower Garland Sutra, which is titled “The Incalculable”. This chapter is unusually short and takes a very unique approach to expressing the massive scale of the Universe. The Buddha begins by saying:
At that time the enlightening being [bodhisattva] Mind King said to the Buddha, “World Honored One, the buddhas speak of incalculable, measureless, boundless, incomparable, innumerable, unaccountable, unthinkable, immeasurable, unspeakable, untold numbers- what are these?”
…The Buddha said, “Ten to the tenth power  times ten to the tenth power equals ten to the twentieth power ; ten to the twentieth power times ten to the twentieth power is ten to the fortieth power ….”
translation by Thomas Cleary
From there, the Buddha then just keeps squaring each number. As you see above, the numbers get extremely large. I can’t even imagine how big 10101493292610318652755325638410240 is. That’s a lot of zeros! For example, a billion is 109 while a trillion is 1012 and so on. So it’s almost impossible to imagine how big a number that is.1
The point of this mathematical exercise is to demonstrate that the Universe in its totality is almost incomprehensible in scale, even to a bodhisattva who has deep insight. Only a buddha can truly fathom it.
Also, the same chapter then has a long verse section afterwards which expresses in poetic form how all things are contained within all other things. Even a single hairtip contains this unfathomably huge cosmos, and in turn the contains contains the hairtip:
The lands [realms?] on a point the size of a hairtip Are measureless, unspeakable So are the lands on every single point Throughout the whole of space.
One of the central themes of the Flower Garland Sutra is the total interconnectedness of all things. A single kernel of rice contains the sun’s energy, rain, minerals from the soil, the labor of the people who farmed it, and so on. If you stretch this out far enough, that kernel of rice then contains the universe, but you can apply this same logic to anything else in the Universe big or small. When you add all this up, this creates a truly profound but almost incomprehensible web of relationships.
Chapter 30 of the Sutra expresses this probably better than any Buddhist literature I’ve read thus far.
1 By the way, if exponential math is intimidating, I found this website provides a nice simple explanation of how it works.
Having lived with my Japanese wife for 15+ years has influenced eating habits a lot despite not living in Japan.
Years ago, I found the idea of eating nattō (納豆), that is Japanese fermented soybeans, abhorrent. They smelled like sweaty feet, had a sticky, stringy texture and smelled awful if too warm. At some point I took a liking to them and eat them almost every morning I’ve rice, usually with a bit of kimchi and coffee.
I also discovered recently that they taste really good with shiso (perilla) leaves too. As with nattō, I didn’t like shiso leaves either due to their strong mint-like flavor but with nattō they are surprisingly good.
Shiso leaves are also easy to grow here in the Pacific Northwest climate so we have a herb garden where they heartily produce leaves every week or so. The leaves above are a gift from my friend’s garden however, and we’re terrific.
As someone who grew up on 80’s breakfast cereals, including this one, I never imagined myself eating fermented beans over rice with perilla leaves, but it’s amazing how easily a person can change with the right experiences. 😄
P.S. gifts from the garden are a wonderful thing to share with others, by the way.
Recently, in my play by post D&D group, my fellow players and I decided that after completing a few adventures, we could afford to upgrade to proper shelter and transportation. Up until now, we have been traveling from town to town, place to place either by walking, or asking our hapless druid character to Wild Shape into a horse.
Adventurer’s League modules don’t normally enforce things like travel, camping, etc, and so we could continue to gloss over that, but since we had been adventuring as a group for so long, it only made sense to make it more comfortable for our characters. Further, as one player wisely pointed out that it doesn’t really make sense for a character to walk 8-10 hours a day while wearing 55 lb of chain mail armor. My character, Fenmaer Wasanthi, would no doubt appreciate stowing that armor on a wagon instead.
Thus, the party decided to get a vardo wagon. More specifically, we purchased a carriage from the Player’s Handbook with “vardo” flavor, and two mules to pull it. Mules are inexpensive in the PHB, but have good carrying capacity and could easily pull a wagon. This gives our player characters both a place to use as shelter, but also transport our goods more easily.
So far so good.
Since my forge cleric character had some extra cash to spend, and nothing to really spend it on,1 I decided to also get a horse. Not a warhorse, but purely for riding and transportation. Having an extra horse, in addition to our mule-driven wagon, might also come in handy later.
However, then I realized that I had no idea what is needed to properly outfit a riding horse. I assume we need a saddle, but is that it?
I did some poking around on the web, and found a great discussion on Reddit here about outfitting a horse in Dungeons and Dragons. In short, the following equipment with cost are:
A riding horse (75gp), evidentially a pack horse is not necessarily trained to handle a human rider in real life, so a riding horse, though more expensive, makes sense.
A saddle (10gp), namely a riding saddle for a riding horse. Pretty simple. One could forgo the saddle, and Bronze Age horsemen often did, but not only is the saddle more comfortable, but in real life keep the rider from falling off.
Saddlebags (4gp), again not strictly required, but often a sensible idea.
A bit and bridle (2gp), this is how a rider directs and drives the horse, so it makes sense to have this.
Total cost: 91gp by my estimate. I didn’t factor in grass and feed as I assumed that the horse can reasonably find food while on the road, and lodging will be treated as needed. I may have to start factoring that in though in the same way my character manages rations.
In D&D Beyond, I also updated my character sheet, and added my riding horse under the “Extra” section, so that it’s stats would be reflected. I also customize the horse and renamed it Tantanel which sounded Elvish to me.
Given that I know nothing in real life about horses, I have to admit I learned a lot of basics about horse riding, what’s needed, what kind of horses work and what aren’t suitable for traveling. In medieval times, only the wealthy nobility could usually afford a horse, so it was certainly a luxury to have, but after surviving a few dangerous adventures, it seemed appropriate to finally invest in one. 🐴 😄
P.S. On the subject of wagons and animals to pull them, you can find many good resources, such as this one, based on historical records from the Oregon Trail. In real life, turns out mules have good carrying capacity and endurance, but are easily spooked compared to oxen. Strangely, oxen are not listed in the PHB.
1 Unlike wizards, clerics don’t need to add spells to a spellbook, they are endowed with their spells from their deity (Darahl Firecloak in Fenmaer’s case). Further, armor upgrades for Fenmaer are out of the question as his strength score is just too low, and at this time it isn’t worth increasing his strength score to compensate. Fenmear had already spent some money on necessary spell components as well, so the rest was just pocket change to spend.
I am not an old man yet. However, I am that point in my life where I am looking ahead and I have decided that rather than just indulging myself in my twilight years, I would focus on doing some good in the world instead.
As Saicho, the Buddhist monk, famously said: ichigū wo terasu (一隅を照らす, “light one corner of the world”).
This is why I look on people like this as a spiritless lot — the people who are forever acting as interpreters and never as creators, always lurking in someone else’s shadow….It is one thing, however, to remember, another to know. To remember is to safeguard something entrusted to your memory, whereas to know, by contrast, is to actually make each item your own, and not to be dependent on some original and be constantly looking to see what the master said. “Zeno said this, Cleanthes that.” …. Besides, a man who follows someone else not only does not find anything, he is not even looking. “But surely you are going to walk in your predecessors’ footsteps?” Yes indeed, I shall use the old road, but if I find a shorter and easier one I shall open it up. The men who pioneered the old routes are leaders, not our masters.
Recently, I made a lengthy rant on Twitter about my frustrations with learning Sanskrit in order to read Buddhist texts. The issue is a surprisingly complicated one, and something I wanted to explore here a bit more.
When you look at religions of the world, Buddhism is somewhat unusual in that it isn’t rooted in a single, sacred text. No Bible, No Quran, etc. Buddhism has many sacred texts, or sutras, all purportedly the words of the Buddha as passed down by his disciples, but nothing was actually written down until centuries later. This is not as bad as it sounds, as by the Buddha’s time, India already had a sophisticated tradition around memorizing sacred texts and teaching them disciples, such as in the Vedas (the forerunners to the Hindu religion). Writing sacred teachings down would put them on the same level as mundane receipts and political documents, and was thus considered profane.
Attitudes changed centuries later, but these sermons of the Buddha that had been carefully passed down were scattered in various collections, and different Buddhist schools had slightly different collections from one another. Worse, the languages used varied.
The Buddha, in his time, warned against using the priestly Sanskrit language to transmit his teachings, preferring instead local dialects, but even at that time, India had many, many dialects. Pāli was a very popular one, and remains so for some Buddhist traditions, but as Buddhism grew, keeping track of Buddhist sermons via local dialects probably became less and less practical.
Thus, in the end, Buddhist texts began to be recorded in Sanskrit. It wasn’t an overnight swap, however. Research into “Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit” shows that the transformation was a gradual one: Buddhists would first write things down in a way that looked “Sanskrit-ey” (but not actually Sanskrit), then later generations would write something down that actually used Sanskrit, but still peppered with local colloquialisms. Eventually, later texts were composed in “true Sanskrit”, at least something that Pāṇini would hopefully approve of.
So, what we see is a kind of gradual spectrum from early texts being composed in local dialects (primarily Pāli) and then gradually transforming into Sanskrit.
The difference, by the way, between Pāli and Sanskrit isn’t as dramatic as it sounds by the way. Pāli, like many Prakrits, were local languages that derived from Sanskrit, and still had much in common. Compare a basic word like “king”. In Sanskrit, it is rājaḥ, and conjugates like so (not a complete chart):
Instrumental (e.g. “with” or “by means of”)
Dative (e.g. “to” or “for”)
Note: due to Sandhi rules, rājaḥ frequently becomes rājo to smooth things out.
…and so on. Sanskrit also has Genitive, Ablative, Locative and Vocative cases too.
Pali is a bit more streamlined by comparison being a more colloquial language by nature, so one word for king is rāja (i.e. without the visarga ḥ sound at the end):
Instrumental (e.g. “with” or “by means of”)
rājebhi or rājehi
Dative (e.g. “to” or “for”)
rājāya or rājassa1
This form appears to be more commonly used according to this Pali textbook written by Ven. Nerada Thera
At first glance, Pali kind of reads like the kinder, gentler version of Sanskrit. The dual form is almost entirely non-existent,2 and the sounds are softer, and lacking the ḥ (called visarga) at the end. You can see they share similar grammatical structures, pronunciation, etc.
So, the first challenge with Buddhist text is this gradual transition from local dialects to literary Sanskrit, whcih took hundreds of years. If you picked a particular Buddhist text, it might be somewhere in the middle of this transition (is it Pali? Sanskrit? Sanskrit with Pali terms, or Pali with a Sanskrit “polish” to it?).
How Is It Written?
The second issue, though is the written script.
Some languages are closely tied with their script: Greek language is written in Greek (obviously), while Korean is written in Hangeul. Other writing systems are not: the Roman alphabet is used in many languages: English, French, Vietnamese, etc. In medieval times, Chinese characters were used by a wide variety of disparate languages: Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Khitan, etc.
So, languages are not always tied to a particular writing system.
Sanskrit (and Pali) are one of those examples. Sanskrit has been written down using a wide variety of scripts across the ages, though mostly in a kind of continuum. Early writings were done using Brahmi script, and Brahmi itself evolved into newer and better writings systems over time leading to the most common example today: Devanagari.3 Many, many languages are written in some script derived from Brahmi.
But this includes Buddhist texts, too!
Inscriptions by Emperor Ashoka might be written in old Brahmi script:
…while texts written in palm leaf might also be written in Sanskrit, but using a derivative script:
You can see that while both are Buddhist (or Buddhist-historical) subjects, they are not necessarily written in the same script. Further examples include later Siddham script, often used in mantras and other esoteric practices by some schools:
Then there’s other one-off, but important scripts like Karoshthi and so on.
This is not that unusual by the way when dealing with widely-used languages from antiquity, by the way. Although Greek was always written in Greek letters, the style of writing could be vastly different depending on regional variations, such as those found on papyrus vs. modern textbooks. Latin wasn’t always written in big block letters, it had its own cursive form that was more frequently used, and is frankly obtuse to modern Westerners without some training first.
Why Does This Matter?
For the average day-to-day practice of Buddhism, not much. Buddhism has always been at heart a religion of practice, not dogma. The classic tripod of wisdom, conduct and practice (i.e. chanting, meditation, etc) has two “legs” which involve day to day action. Wisdom is important too but differs from dogma in that it’s not something you believe, but something you learn.
So, you could follow the Buddhist path perfectly fine if you focus on these things, and never bother with ancient languages, relying on respectable translations instead. Studying the sutras is a helpful practice in Buddhism, but there are already plenty of good translations.
However, especially if you get into a more professional position either as a teacher, scholar, monk, nun, or priest where knowing some command of Pali or Sanskrit is really helpful. It won’t necessarily make you a better Buddhist, but may help you be a better teacher to others.
Back in 2019, I tried my hand at learning Sanskrit, with the intention of reading Buddhist texts natively, partly for fun, partly for curiosity, partly because I was frustrated by shoddy, overly sectarian translations. What I found is that Sanskrit courses and texts overwhelmingly focus on Hindu content, and insist on teaching Devanagari script, which makes sense, but neither of which necessarily appropriate for the study of Buddhism.
Thus, my efforts to learn Sanskrit languished for a long time.
These days, I would like to try again, but I believe that to effectively learn Sanskrit for the purposes of studying Buddhist texts, the following caveats might be helpful:
Learning Devanagari is not required. Buddhist texts are written in a wide variety of scripts and even when written in Devanagari, it’s not always Sanskrit. There are some excellent resources for Buddhists texts preserved in Sanskrit, but using the Roman alphabet. This may sound weird, but as you can see in this post, Sanskrit has never been tied to one writing system. One script is as good as another. Seriously.
Much of Buddhism’s corpus of sutras and sacred texts aren’t even “pure” Sanskrit anyway. Just as one might learn ancient Greek starting with Homeric Greek before moving onto Koine, the study of Buddhist texts may benefit by starting with Pāli and then migrating to Sanskrit as needed. Even learning a bit of Pāli might be a nice way to get back in touch with early Buddhism and as close to the Buddha’s words as we might ever get.
Alternatively, rather than trying to find a “one size fits all solution”, find a Buddhist text you are interested in, and determine how it was written, what language, etc, and start from there. Again, there are parallels to ancient Greek. The New Testament isn’t written the same way as Euripides, nor Hesiod. You have to accept that Buddhists are similarly written at different times by different people.
One thing I haven’t mentioned so far was Classical Chinese. Much of the Buddhist canon, now lost in India, is preserved in Chinese and epitomized in the Taisho Tripitaka formalized in Japan in the 1920’s. If you want to study ancient Buddhist texts, studying them in Classical Chinese might just be as useful, if not more useful, in some cases.
Anyhow, this is one amateur’s look at the situation, something I’ve learned the hard way. Your mileage may vary, but if you wish to study ancient Buddhist texts, I hope this helps.
2 According to this textbook, only two words in Pāli have a dual form: dve or duve (two), and ubho (both).
3 Southern Indian languages also use scripts adapted from Brahmi, but through different evolutionary course, hence they look quite different than northern Indian languages.
I am being a bit facetious here, but I know from personal experience in my early years that Buddhism is frequently portrayed as a negative religion, and religion where “all is suffering”, based on poor translations of the First Noble Truth.
The Buddha acknowledged that existence is dukkha, a word in Pāli language which is compared to a potter’s wheel which wobbles and grinds, rather than rotating smoothly. In other words, life is hard.
Life is not without its joys and moments of pleasure, but it’s also counterbalanced by pain and sadness too. Like two sides of the same coin.