Chanting the Shiseige / Juseige

Just as the Heart Sutra is chanted by a very wide swath of the Buddhist community in the world, within the Pure Land Buddhist community1 there is another liturgy that’s similar in length and popular in Japanese Buddhism called the juseigé (重誓偈), shiseigé (四誓偈) or rarely the sanseigé (三誓偈). These names mean something along the lines of the “hymn of the grave [as in important] vows [of Amitabha Buddha]”, “hymn of the four [or three] vows [of Amitabha Buddha]” and so on.

This liturgy is actually a small excerpt of an influential Buddhist sutra called the Immeasurable Life Sutra, also known as the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the largest of three sutras called the “Pure Land Sutras”. These three sutras are so called because of their central importance to the tradition. However, two out of three of these sutras are simply too long for lay people recite in whole (unlike the Heart Sutra above), so key excerpts are recited instead.

In any case, the Immeasurable Life Sutra goes in great detail about the origins of Amitabha Buddha (also called Amida Buddha in Japanese), his 48 vows to aid all beings, aspects of the Pure Land that Amitabha created and why one would want to go there. It also, provides a nice overview of Buddhist teachings overall, so in my opinion, it’s a handy, self-contained Buddhist text.

The Forty Eight Vows are central to Amitabha Buddha’s “origin story” (a la Marvel Cinematic Universe), and are beyond the scope of this blog post.

However, in the sutra, what follows right after the forty eight vows is a short series of verses by aspiring buddha-to-be, proclaiming his lofty and grand vows, summarizing his intent to liberate all beings and provide a refuge for them. These verses were later turned to a liturgy chanted by various Pure Land groups in Japan as a devotional to Amitabha.

While being a member of the Buddhist Churches of America,2 the American branch of the Jodo Shinshu tradition, I can’t tell you how many times I chanted this liturgy during Sunday services. I can practically do it from memory. Here’s a nice Youtube example provided by Tsukiji Honganji,3 one of my favorite Shinshu temples in Japan, located in the heart of Tokyo:

For people who aren’t part of a Buddhist community, I have created a PDF file to help you chant the verses of the Juseige / Shiseige. Please use it, and refer to Youtube videos and other sources for how to chant. I was surprised to learn that someone actually made a Sanskrit version too, since the Immeasurable Life Sutra was originally translated from Sanskrit to Chinese.

For me, I tend to rotate between chanting the juseige / shiseige and the Heart Sutra. One day, I’ll chant the Heart Sutra in my daily service, the next day the Juseige, back and forth. I like covering both bases.

Finally, the BCA Bookstore (a great site) sells a kind of “starter kit” for new Buddhists that is only $5. It includes an image of Amitabha Buddha and a laminated card for chanting the Juseige. I have purchased this in the past and definitely recommend.

The Buddhist tradition of chanting verses during home services, or in community services, is not limited to whole sutras. It’s quite common in many communities to chant important excerpts, whether these come from the Pali Canon, the Mahayana Canon or whatever. Recitation is a great practice to help internalize teachings, and generates good merit for oneself and others.

Good luck and happy chanting!

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

1 At least, in the Japanese Pure Land Buddhist community. I poked around Google and wasn’t able to find comparable liturgy in Chinese Buddhism. They do discuss it quite a bit in Buddhist websites, but it’s not clear to me if it’s chanted or not. It’s possible people just chant other comparable liturgy instead.

2 While I am not an active member anymore, my kids grew up there and I have many fond memories of the Japanese-American community, and the many friends I still keep in touch with. 10/10 definitely would recommend to anyone. My disagreements with Jodo Shinshu theologically do not impact my positive experiences with the community.

3 Official homepage in Japanese and English.

A Case for Using Augury in Dungeons and Dragons

My kids drawing omikuji fortune “sticks” from a cylinder at Sensoji temple in Tokyo, Japan in 2016. The numbers written on the sticks correspond to the cabinets, where one can find their fortune.

I recently enjoyed a great video by Zee Bashew about the spell of Augury in Dungeons and Dragons:

My main Adventurer’s League character, Fenmaer Wasanthi, does use Augury from time to time, and it’s been fun, though because it’s a low-level divination spell its benefits are limited. In spite of Zee Bashew’s criticism, I think it’s still a worthwhile spell to use if you keep your expectations low. But let’s cover the spell a bit in more detail first.

The spell, as written, takes one minute to cast, or 11 minutes if cast as a ritual. You must have 25gp worth of augury “tools” that function as a recurring spell component, but the Player’s Handbook is intentionally vague about what those tools would look like. This provides a fun role-playing aspect for your character as you get to decide what those look like. For my elven forge cleric, I go with the “smithy” theme of using metal sticks (similar to the metal chopsticks used in Korean cuisine), with gold filigree, gems encrusted, etc. Since this is a spell component you can re-use, but is required for the spell, it’s a one-time cost of 25gp which you can keep reusing over and over. In my character’s DnD Beyond character sheet, I just note such spell components like so under “Other Possessions”:

Fenmaer’s DnD Beyond character sheet inventory. At 9th level, he now has access to a number of more powerful spells, but has to track their spell components too.

In any case, once the spell is employed, you can inquire about a specific action you plan to undertake in the next 30 minutes. The DM, the proverbial “god of the universe”, is then obligated to answer with one of the following omens:

  • Weal, for good results
  • Woe, for bad results
  • Weal and woe, for both good and bad results
  • Nothing, for results that aren’t especially good or bad
Here’s me drawing a bad fortune (凶, shown upper right) at the branch temple of Toyokawa Inari in Tokyo in 2018.

The spell also clarifies that if any circumstances change the situation between now and then, the spell can’t anticipate that, so it’s based purely on the current situation and how that will impact your subsequent choice.

Depending on when it’s used, Augury can be straightforward for a DM to answer, or really tough.

Imagine an adventuring party is in a dungeon, and confronted with a couple doors. The party is unclear which door to go through, and are in pretty wrecked shape already, so they would like to avoid further disaster. This is a case where the Augury spell can help tip the decision one way or another, by inquiring what happens when the party goes through a particular door. Of course, if they want to know about both doors, it would have to be cast twice (22 minutes at worst).1 Here we see a specific course of actions the party can take, and opening a particular door can lead to danger (woe), treasure (weal), an empty door (nothing) or danger + treasure (weal and woe).

On the other hand if the party wants to talk to such and such person and maybe ask for help, the Augury spell in this case would be harder for a DM to respond to. Predicting social interaction is hard because it depends in large part on how the players choose to carry the discussion, plus randomness associated with any Charisma checks and so on. Unless the other party has some clear intention toward the party, anything is possible. Another example would be using Augury to predict breaking in to a castle will work or not. There’s a lot of factors at play, and it’s too broad for the Augury spell to provide a specific answer to a specific action. Your DM would rightly push back here and say that the scope of the spell doesn’t cover something like this.

Thus we get to when Augury works and when it doesn’t. Augury is basically meant to detect upcoming danger (or benefit) based on one intended action (open door, get item, drink potion, take this road not that one, etc). As a mere 2nd level spell, it doesn’t have the power of something like Divination, but provides a quick-and-dirty “read” of the situation.

If properly employed for what it was meant to do, your DM will thank you for not putting them on the spot for unreasonable inquiries about the future. 😃

1 Of course, each time you use it after the first during a day increases teh risk of getting an inaccurate, random reading anyway, so choose wisely.

Buddha Here And Now

Meditation Hall at Sōjiji Temple in Kawasaki, Japan, head temple of Soto Zen sect. Photo taken by me in 2012.

Recently in a Japanese documentary on buddhist temples, I saw a really interesting quote made by one Shōichi Kokushi (聖一国師, 1202 – 12901) who was abbot of the venerable Tōfuku-ji temple (Rinzai Zen sect). You can see their official site here (Japanese only).

He said:

一時座禅すれば 一時の仏
ittoki zazen sureba, ittoki no hotoké

“If you do zen for one moment,
you are a buddha for one moment.”

一日座禅すれば 一日の仏
ichinichi zazen sureba, ichinichi no hotoké

“If you do zazen for a day,
you are a buddha for one day.”

一生座禅すれば 一生の仏
isshō zazen sureba, isshō no hotoké

“If you do zen for life,
you will be a buddha for life.”

Nothing to really add, please enjoy.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

Freedom To Not Be A Dickhead

While reading Tanahashi’s book on the Heart Sutra, mentioned here, I found a great passage I wanted to share:

The word “freedom” often suggests that we can do anything we want, including being unethical and destructive. But there is also another kind of freedom, one that may prove to be more truly free. If we fully follow rules and ethics, we no longer need to think or worry about them. Thus, we are completely free from rules and ethics.

Banging on a piano keyboard without practicing is one kind of freedom that doesn’t get us anywhere. By diligently practicing the piano, however, we come to play beautifully and improvise freely. That is the kind of freedom the Heart Sutra calls for.

Pages 14 and 15

Being a dickhead is easy. We all do it to some degree or another. Most of us manage to suppress this tendency enough to function in society, but some people can’t even manage this. Further, as we get older our minds break down, and those restraints break down too. Thus, many elderly become mean, paranoid or say off-color things.

The root of this dickheaded-ness is of course at the heart of Buddhist teachings. In a previous post, I talked about Japanese Buddhism and “bonnō“, but TL;DR this dickheaded-ness extends from ignorance of how things are, anger when things don’t turn out our way, and greed by putting our needs first and foremost. Worse, like bucket with a small hole in it, when you try to satisfy and appease these urges, it only lasts for so long before you feel empty again.

This is where the training side of Buddhism comes into play. It’s tempting to want the more exotic mantras, thought-provoking teachings, or the faux-Zen quips that blow your mind. But if you really want to get some mileage, you should consider getting your house in order by studying and applying basic Buddhist teachings include personal conduct, such as upholding the Five Precepts. As these basic teachings and practices sink in, and internalize, it opens up many other things. Time and patience are good foundations in religious practice.

P.S. Really had trouble coming up with theme picture for this post because there are plenty of example dickheads in the world, but also didn’t want to make an example of anyone, or any country’s flag.

Chanting the Heart Sutra

This is a photo from a sutra book I frequently use for daily services. I bought this book years ago from the temple of Sensoji (a.k.a. Asakusa Temple) in Tokyo, Japan, a place that I have visited many times over the years.

A photo I took in 2016 of the famous market of nakamise-dōri. The actual temple is way in the back.
The temple just after New Year’s, taken in 2009.
Me carrying one tired little boy at the iconic kaminari-mon gate in 2016. Note the giant red lantern in the back.

It is still one of my favorite temples, even if a bit touristy, and of the Buddhist sutra books I own this is still one of my favorite to use.1 This sutra book uses the traditional Classical Chinese with Japanese pronunciation guides (furigana), which is pretty typical of Japanese-Buddhist sutra books. As you can see, it’s not a long sutra to recite. It is probably the shortest sutra in the entire Buddhist canon.

Chanting the Heart Sutra is something many Buddhists in the Mahayana tradition (everything you see from Tibet to Japan, and overseas) do both in group services and in home services. People chant it in many languages and styles. It’s simplicity, and general message about the nature of reality means that it tends to cut across sectarian lines and is popular in many sects and communities. Its cryptic and profound nature also means that for a one-page sutra it is the subject of intense study and research.

I have been reading Tanahashi’s book about the Heart Sutra and learning a lot about its various interpretations, how it’s conveyed in various languages, and various theories about its origin. I was fascinated to learn that there is a Mongolian version sometimes transcribed in Cyrillic. None of this is strictly necessary for the purposes of Buddhist practice, but it is fascinating.

As for chanting the sutra, I’ve been doing it for years, so I can more or less recite the Sino-Japanese version from memory, and am pretty comfortable doing it that way. I study the meaning of the sutra in English of course.

I have also attended Zen centers on rare occasions (I tend to lean toward Pure Land Buddhism, to be honest) and seen the Heart Sutra recited using English. Learning the English meaning is very useful, but English doesn’t work as easily for the purposes of chanting due to lack of rhythm. It always sounds a bit awkward to me. However, your mileage may vary.

But regardless of what language you use, the Heart Sutra, like all Buddhist sutras, has a funny tendency to gradually “sink in” over time. The meaning may not make much sense at first, but over the course of months and years, it takes on new meaning as you go through life, and see the sutra in a new light. I believe that’s the real value of Buddhist chanting: to internalize key Buddhist teachings in a way that you can carry with you throughout life.

As for me, these days, I tend to recite a Tendai-style home service,2 and as part of that I rotate between chanting this and a certain, small excerpt of the Immeasurable Life Sutra called the shiseige (四誓偈) or juseige (重誓偈) in Japanese Buddhism. When I finish one, I put it under the other sutra book, so I don’t forget which sutra to recite next time as I might go a week or two before reciting again. As a short, traditional liturgy, I am pretty content.

As with any Buddhist practice done over a long period of time, I believe that it gradually polishes the mind, and dispels one self-centered viewpoint. It’s super simple to do, but its benefits last a lifetime. To paraphrase Nichiren, when dying cloth in indigo, the more you do it, the deeper the color becomes.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

P.S. It’s tempting for some to look for an original “Sanskrit” version of the sutra, but alas, the best we know today is that the sutra was compiled originally in China, using teachings and verses from the much, much larger Prajña-paramita sutras. The story of how exactly that came to be is a much-discussed subject in Tanahashi’s book.

1 Because it is devoted to Kannon Bodhisattva, this sutra book also includes (left in photo) a certain Japanese-Buddhist verse called the Jikku Kannon-gyō (十句観音経, “ten verse Kannon sutra”) popularized in the middle ages. The verses are:

觀世音
kan ze on

南無佛
na mu butsu

與佛有因
yo butsu u in

與佛有縁
yo butsu u en

佛法僧縁
butsu ho so en

常樂我淨
jo raku ga jo

朝念觀世音
cho nen kan ze on

暮念觀世音
bo nen kan ze on

念念從心起
nen nen ju shin ki

念念不離心
nen nen fu ri shin

A nice explanation of the meaning and history of the ten-verse sutra can be found here.

2 I like the Tendai approach to Buddhism because it encompasses all the things that are important to me, but avoiding a narrow, dogmatic approach that I found in the past and ultimately rejected.

Early Ukraine History: Of Scythians, Thracians and Greeks

Hello Readers,

My continued read about the Scythians, especially the Scythians in the west, has lead to a fascinating period of time in early history, overlapping with the Hellenistic Period called the Kingdom of the Bosporus. The Kingdom of the Bosporus, later part of the Kingdom of the Pontus, survived in one form or another from the 5th century BC to the late Roman Imperial period in the year 370 AD (roughly 800 years). As you can see from the map, it started very small, just a collection of Greek colonies bound by mutual defense, and grew in size into a much larger kingdom that included the Crimean peninsula and parts of modern-day Ukraine.

The Bosporan Kingdom at various points in history, File:Bosporan Kingdom growth map-pt.svg: Sémhur (talk · contribs)derivative work: Morningstar1814 (talk · contribs), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Later growing into a much later kingdom that went to war with Rome:

Javierfv1212, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What makes the Kingdom of the Bosporus / Pontus fascinating is the convergence of Greek, Thracian, Scythian and other cultures, and the exchanges between them. Let’s take a brief look at each…

The Greek Colonies

The humble beginnings of the Kingdom of the Bosporus began as a hodge-podge of Greek colonies in the Black Sea. The ancient Greeks were prolific colonizers in the Mediterranean because the lands of Greece have low agricultural output, and as populations grew, they needed places to grow and stretch. Famous colonies include Syracuse on the island of Sicily (home of Archimedes!), southern Italy a.k.a. Magna Graecia, Cyrene in modern-day Libya, as well as countless colonies in Spain, southern France, Asia Minor and so on.

Colonies in the Black Sea, including the modern Ukrainian city of Odessa,1 mostly originated from the Greek city-state of Miletos which had been aggressively colonizing all around the Black Sea. Even now, old Greeks relics can be found. The Greeks were colonizing hostile territory, so they tended to build fortresses on off-shore islands, or just inland from a river. From the inland communities, the Greeks would get raw materials, grain and other foodstuffs to ship back to the Greek metropolises back home. In turn, they would bring wine (much prized by the Scythians), crafted luxury goods and spread Greek culture.

From the perspective of the Greek world, the Black Sea and colonies around the Crimean peninsula were the very edge of civilization. This was the frontier, where only the bravest, or the punished would go.

The Native Thracians

The Thracians are an influential people who lived north and east of Greece proper, but are not well-attested in history. Thracian culture shows considerable Greek influence, but they spoke a different language (now lost), and had a more loose, more tribal political structure than the classic Greek polis.

But the Thracians weren’t slouches either. They frequently combated with the northern Greeks, especially Phillip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, and the Odryzian Kingdom was a serious attempt by the Thracians to unify and challenge their Greek neighbors.

The Kingdom of the Bosporus, the subject of this post, was perhaps their most important contribution, though, because the founder of that kingdom was a man named Spartacus. No, not this Spartacus:

The name “Spartacus” is a distinctly Thracian name, and the founder of the ruling dynasty of the Bosporan Kingdom was a Thracian man named Spartokos I, first as the strongman or “tyrant” of the Greek colony of Panticapaeum (modern Kerch), and then gradually uniting the nearby colonies in a system of mutual protection.

The Steppe Warriors

Starting with the Cimmerians, steppe nomads would often encroach into the steppe lands of modern Ukraine and Hungary, the westernmost extent (as well as the most hospitable) of the Eurasian steppes. Having driven out the Cimmerians, they settled and lead a confederation of tribes that dominated the lands for centuries, until they were eventually defeated by the Sarmatians.

The nomadic Scythians were at first largely hostile to the settled Greco-Thracian cities along the coast, and there is evidence of war and violence at some places, hence the colonies banded together for mutual defence. Gradually, though, the different cultures learned to get along and began mutually beneficial trade. The Scythians liked Greek commodities and helped ship raw resources from other cultures further north down to the Greek settlements.

The kurgan tombs of Scythian warriors also began to show more Greek architectural influence, such as the great kurgan at Kul-oba, and a tomb at Bliznitsa near the colony of Phanagoria that depicted the goddess Demeter, hinting at the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Further, a number of famous Greeks have (often dubious) claim to Scythian ancestry such as the Athenian orator, Demosthenes, so intermarriage did occur between the colonists and steppe nomads. Herodotus’s historical accounts of his travels in these lands also provide invaluable information about the people of the Bosporan Kingdom, the Scythians beyond it, and more.

The Wider World

How the Bosporan Kingdom fit into the wider Hellenistic and Roman world is interesting too. Because of its location, it was luckily not involved much in the power struggles between Alexander the Great’s successors, nor did it tangle with the Roman Republic until much later during the Mithridatic Wars. All three of them.

Further, the mixed ethnic composition of the Bosporan Kingdom meant that it was an unusually cosmopolitan place, and held a certain mystique among the more urban residents of the Greeks and later Roman empire. When Ovid was banished there, though, he often whined about how hard and rustic the life was, but he would, wouldn’t he?

Anyhow, even when we watch the news about events in Ukraine, especially southern Ukraine, it’s helpful to remember that these lands have a long and fascinating, multicultural history, and we haven’t even gotten to Kievan Rus’ yet.

1 Which, as of writing, remains free thankfully. Слава Україні! 🇺🇦

Optimizing a Forge Cleric in Dungeons and Dragons

Hello Readers,

This is probably my last post on the subject, but my current active character in Dungeons and Dragons Adventurer’s League, a high-elf cleric of the Forge domain who worships Darahl Firecloak, has reached level 8. Our humble play-by-post group has been actively playing for one year, and so I would like to review the Forge cleric as a character class and what has worked best for it (and what didn’t). Obviously, I will still keep playing the character, and maybe reach level 20 for once in my life, but I’ve used him long enough that certain patterns have definitely emerged.

Forge Cleric Theme

Feanor, the OG elf forge master. Image by Steamy via Deviantart

Unlike some of the cleric domains in 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, the Forge cleric has a very clear theme: earth, metal and fire.1 Everything in its toolkit is geared toward these three things:

  • Many of the extra “domain spells” are fire spells or related to stone: Wall of Fire, Stone Shape, Magic Weapon. These are great since they are spells that clerics normally don’t have access to, yet fit the theme nicely.
  • Proficiency in heavy armor. Nature and Life clerics get this too, but as we’ll see it just works better with the Forge cleric, because it can be further enhanced with Blessing of the Forge and other subsequent abilities.
  • Resistance, and later immunity, to fire, which is a very handy in the right circumstances.

However, this does include a couple challenges as we’ll see

Challenges

Because the Forge cleric leans heavy into both elemental magic, and melee combat, it tends to lose out on general clerical abilities. Its channel divinity ability, Artisan of the Forge, is pretty situational, and I have yet to use it even once within an adventure module. The Turn Undead / Destroy Undead abilities are OK, but often end up being slightly underwhelming, and the Forge cleric gets no healing magic or divination magic apart from the standard fare. This means the Forge cleric has the bare minimum abilities as a cleric.

For combat, a cleric, even a Forge cleric, gets only minimal help. Spells like Searing Smite give the Forge cleric power similar to a Paladin, but it still falls behind the martial classes in that it only gets one attack, and not all of the weapon proficiency needed. Thus, an offensive build for a Forge cleric is underwhelming as I learned the hard way. The 8th-level ability Divine Strike helps a little bit by adding extra elemental damage, but you’ll still get more damage per round by falling back on your cleric spells instead.

Finally, and this is a subtle one, the Forge cleric works best with a Wisdom + Strength based build. An elf, which usually relies on Dexterity, has to allocate at least 13 Strength allocate anyway. Without Strength, a Forge cleric can’t use heavy armor, and without heavy armor, certain abilities never get activated. This means that there’s really only one effective way to play a Forge cleric, without too much room to move around.

Things To Optimize a Forge Cleric

First, heavy armor is a must. This lets you gradually increase armor class through Forge cleric abilities.

Believe it or not, all these bonuses stack according to 5th-edition rules.

Second, learn to play a Forge cleric as a tank, not an offensive or support cleric. In early levels, it’s enough to get some chain mail armor, add Blessing of the Forge, and then use concentration spells like Bless to buff up your party members (and yourself). At level 8, using the same basic chain armor I started with,2 a +1 shield, and various Forge cleric abilities, Fenmaer has 21 AC and access to Spirit Guardians, allowing him to just get in the monster’s faces, without taking much damage, while dealing plenty simply by proximity.

The key word here is “non-magical”. Until you get to +2 items, you probably can just stick with Blessing of the Forge for your weapon or armor.

Third, lean into your strengths, namely fire and earth magic. For example, a handy feat I took at level 8 was Elemental Adept (fire). This feat doesn’t seem to very impactful, but it does smooth out the damage output from your fire-based attacks, so it increases consistency. Searing Smite can be a frustrating spell if you only hit for 1 damage, but now it hits for slightly more, and ignores resistances. Wall of Fire? It will have more punch from now on which is great when it catches multiple enemies off-guard. I hardly use cleric staples such as Guiding Bolt or Sacred Flame simply because I can do a lot more with fire magic.

Yet another fine bonus while playing a Forge cleric…

Finally, as with all clerics or magic users, make sure to have a least one utility spell, one healing spell, and such handy. Forge clerics aren’t great healers, but they can still heal in a pinch, and divination / detection spells are always useful to have in small quantities. Even you are a melee/tank, you may still be the only salvation the party has, even if you’re not super powerful in that regard.

… and of course, have fun. This elf forge-cleric was an experimental character and not an optimal build but as I learned to make it work, I have had a lot of fun with it.

1 If only there was a cleric theme with earth, wind, and fire. Do you remember the 21st night of September? 😋

2 Blessing of the Forge ability doesn’t work on magic armor or weapons, so if you get a +1 armor, you can’t enchant it anymore. It will end up with the same Armor Class anyway, but just be aware.

Ukrainian Handwriting

While Duolingo has been a pretty fun introduction to the Ukrainian language, it clearly has some limitations with respect to explaining grammar rules, pronunciation and (obviously) writing.

So, a little while back I picked up a textbook on Ukrainian and it has been vastly helpful in filling in the blanks of my knowledge. For example the letters Я (ya) and Ю (yu) become “a” and “u” if they come after a consonant. Wish I had known that sooner.

Another area that the textbook helped with was writing Ukrainian. It turns out that Ukrainian has a cursive form of handwriting, it’s fairly different than “print” Ukrainian, and it’s frequently used, unlike cursive in English.1

Here is me practicing Ukrainian handwriting in my little notebook:

As mentioned earlier, some letters are noticeably different than the print version. The letter Т looks like a cursive “m”, while cursive М looks like the Greek letter μ (mu), while И looks like cursive “u”. Small letter д looks like a cursive “g”, while small б looks like Greek δ (delta), and so on. The word for dad, тато, in cursive looks like “mamo” in cursive at first glance.

At first, this feels pretty confusing, and tutorials on YouTube don’t always explain the nuances and differences clearly because they are taught by native speakers who just intuitively know.

However, what I can say as a non-native speaker, is that with time, practice, and a good textbook, it does eventually get easier and easier and in time your handwriting becomes more legible. Writing practice in any language can be a nice stress-reliever too. 🥳

1 I learned cursive writing when I was in grade school, but my children barely touched it. Personally, it’s a bit sad to see it fade away, but then again I never used it very much anyway, even before the Internet. Not everything is necessarily worth preserving.

Playing a Warforged in D&D

Front cover art for Eberron: Rising from the Last War, adapted from free wallpaper art (see link), all rights reserved

My kids and I have been playing a longer D&D campaign in the world of Eberron, a noir steam-punk magic setting for almost a year now, and the kids consistently seem to enjoy this setting more than other D&D campaigns we’ve run. Since we have only two players (my daughter and my son), the party consists of:

  • Daughter: Swiftstride shifter fighter / ranger, Latisse
  • Son: Halfling bard, Kirby1
  • Sidekick: Hobgoblin cleric (knowledge) / wizard, Borsheg
  • Sidekick: Warforged fighter (samurai), Malbus 414
  • Sidekick: Valenar (wood) elf fighter, Tantalus

I run the sidekick characters myself, and some have come in and others rotated out.2 The hobgoblin and warforged sidekicks have been with the party since the beginning and have been a pretty integral part of the story.

Our hobgoblin cleric’s backstory is that he secretly wanted to be a wizard instead and only did the cleric role out of familial obligation. However, since Borsheg was rejected by the wizards guild, he has since gotten private tutorship on the side with a shady teacher named “Dak” who, currently unknown to the party, is a Rakshasa.

Our Warforged has become the most central character to the party though. Originally, Malbus 414’s backstory was that he had, like all Warforged, fought in the Last War, particularly as part of the 523rd Battalion in East Breland. However, it became clear that his entire platoon had been secretly conditioned by their gnomish creator, Dr Vilnius Volrani Vishkik, to attack any gnomes from a certain rival house on sight. Eventually, the kids were able to find an artificer who could remove Malbus’s conditioning, and scrape up enough money to pay for it, but at the cost of partial memory loss. The kids really got choked up when they realized that Malbus wasn’t going to be quite the same.

Out of all the stories that I’ve teased in front of kids, including demonic cults, Borsheg’s evil tutor, smuggling jobs, etc, the kids have really attached themselves to Malbus’s and have since pursued Dr Vishkik (who unknown to the kids, is now a glorified brain-in-a-jar) across continent only to discover that he has reconstituted most of the old 523rd platoon, and means to take on the Lord of Blades in Cyre in order to become a new ruler there, assert dominance over all Warforged at large. Malbus is torn between his loyalties to his old platoon, but also his new purpose in stopping Dr Vishkik, especially where violence is required.

Mechanically speaking, a Warforged is an interesting character race since it’s fully artificial, yet is also a living being. According to the 5e guide, if you play a Warforged, you (among other things):

  • Gain a +1 bonus to Armor Class.
  • Have advantage on saving throws against being poisoned, and you have resistance to poison damage, and are immune to disease
  • Do not require sleep, but when you take a long rest, you must spend at least six hours in an inactive, motionless state, rather than sleeping. In this state, you appear inert, but it doesn’t render you unconscious, and you can see and hear as normal. Further, you don’t need to sleep, and magic can’t put you to sleep.

These things all come from the Warforged’s artificial nature. However, as a living sentient being, you can still benefit from things like healing magic, potions, etc., so you are not a construct either. It’s not entirely clear to what degree a Warforged is a machine vs. a living being, but I’ve mostly leaned toward the artificial, and focused on the “power core” as a source of their sentience and humanity.

The mechanics of a Warforged are fun, but the role-playing side of the Warforged is what I find most compelling. Because the Last War is over, Warforged are kind of superfluous now. Society doesn’t need them anymore, and they are no longer manufactured (at least in mass-production), so they have been tossed out on the street with no clear picture of what to do with themselves. This leaves plenty of room to decide how you would want to play a Warforged. Malbus 414 initially took mercenary jobs because war was the only thing he knew, but once he met the party during the initial session, he gradually took his life in a new direction with them.

The official interview with creator Keith Baker helps clarify this and is worth a watch:

I tend to roleplay Malbus 414 similar to Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in that he is searching for his humanity, and trying to forge a new identity for himself bit by bit as something more than just a war machine. One could conceivably do the opposite and play a Warforged who never really left the Last War. The noir, brooding atmosphere of Eberron really lends itself to this, because of the heavier emphasis on character backstory, personal challenges, etc, but if you play a Warforged within the larger universe, such as Planescape or even the Forgotten Realms somehow, the brooding war backstory can still come into play and create a good starting point for the character.

Or you could just make a character like this one:

Comment posted in linked video above

I wish Warforged were more available in other settings, not just for its useful mechanical reasons, especially in Adventurer’s League, but I am happy to play one when the opportunity comes up. Its nature lends itself to good role-playing, and its mechanics allow for all kinds of interesting character / class options.

1 My son is a huge Kirby fan.

2 Our half-orc rouge-scout sidekick died a few weeks back in a random encounter, and the elf fighter replaced him since the party was near Valenar anyway. I keep a pool of sidekicks in the backlog in case I need to replace one. Still, the half-orc scout was a good character in his own right, and the kid and I kind of miss him already, even as we enjoy the new character.

Meet the Scythians

Long, long ago, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a people living beyond civilization whom he called the Σκύθης (Skúthēs), who rode horses, fought with bow and arrow and subjected the sedentary people near the Crimean peninsula (modern day Ukraine). Elsewhere, the Assyrians wrote of a people called the 𒅖𒆪𒍝𒀀𒀀 (Iškuzaya) who raided their borders and caused havoc. Finally, in Persia, the Achaemenid dynasty had to contend with a nomadic people they called the 𐎿𐎤𐎢𐎭𐎼 (Skudra) to the north who served the empire at times, but also raided them at other times.

These names come to us from history, but until the 1930’s little was known about the people collectively known as the Scythians.

An illustration of a Scythian warrior, Janmad, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the last days of the Russian Empire and later during the Soviet Union, archeologists began to explore and excavate a series of tombs or kurgans found in Siberia, and were shocked to discover that the treasures inside closely matched those found in Ukraine and the Caucasus mountains.

Sarmatian Kurgan, 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia. A dig led by Russian Academy of Sciences Archeology Institute Prof. L. Yablonsky excavated this kurgan in 2006, courtesy of WIkipedia

With some archaeological wizardry, researchers were eventually able to trace the migration of people back to the Altai mountains in Siberia westward all the way to modern Ukraine across the Eurasian steppes.

The Eurasian Steppes shown in light blue, Two-point-equidistant-asia.jpg: Mdfderivative work: Shattered Gnome (talk)earlier version: Cp6, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Eurasian Steppes, the largest of their kind in the world (other large steppe climates exist in central US and Canada as the Great Plains), were a long east-west stretch of land that benefitted from incoming, though minimal, moisture from the Atlantic but are otherwise a harsh climate. Daytime temperatures can reach 45C and can drop to -40C. Because of this difficult climate, there isn’t much that can grow on the steppes besides grass:

The photo on the left is from Kazakhstan, while the photo on the right shows wheat fields in Ukraine. You can imagine how hard it is to sustain a population in such an open area with fluctuating temperatures and so on. Further, during winter, when snow would pile up, cows and goats were not capable of digging far enough into the snow to get at grasses. But horses can. Thus, the steppe cultures increasingly centered on rearing horses and using them for everything possible: warfare, food, tools, etc., from the 11th century BC when the climate changed into a colder, dryer one.

Further, because of the chaotic nature of steppe politics, fighting over very limited resources, tribes were constantly at war with one another. Tribes who lost had to flee and migrate elsewhere, generally westward or southward. This is how various tribes ended up in the Crimean peninsula: first the Cimmerians, later pushed out by the Scythians, who in turn were defeated by the Samartians, who later fell to the Huns, Mongols, etc.

Because politics and tribal affinity were so fluid, terms like “Scythian” and such aren’t always precise. Multiple tribes could be called Scythian by other cultures, but they didn’t always have the same genetic origin, and wouldn’t necessarily have the same relationship to one another. Herodotus described in his time a group called the Royal Scythians who dominated other lesser Scythians who often labored day to day to support them, while the Royal Scythians job was to lead and defend the lands.

But they did share a common culture, as shown by excavations of kurgan tombs showing similar horse-riding technology, bows, a reverence for animal art, and similar burial patterns. Their comparatively equal status between men and women horrified the highly patriarchal Greeks, and probably gave rise to the myth of the Amazon women.

The interactions between the Scythians and sedentary cultures like the Greeks and Persians wasn’t always hostile though. In fact, the Scythians often found mutually beneficial relationships with other cultures through trade, employment as mercenaries to local rulers, and so on. There is even a Scythian philosopher in the Greek world named Anacharsis who famously said in response to Athenian law:

Laws are spider-webs, which catch the little flies, but cannot hold the big ones.

Probably true in today’s world too.

But the Scythians, just like the Cimmerians they drove out before them, were eventually displaced and defeated by the Sarmatians and so on. But in their heyday they were a force to be reckoned with and yet they were also deeply involved in Classical history and politics.

The book that I have been reading about the Scythians and steppe culture has been very fascinating and I hope to write more about it soon.

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