Girls Day Bento

The Japanese festival of Hinamatsuri or Girl’s Day is almost here and I recently dug up this old photo I found. My wife used to make bento lunches for our daughter when she was a little girl and this one was themed for Girls Day. 🥰

Compare with the real doll display here:

The traditional Hinamatsuri set depicts a prince in traditional clothing of the era, wielding a flat shaku wooden scepter, while the bride is wearing the jūnihitoe style of kimono robes associated with noblewomen at the time, and holding a fan.

Around the dolls are various auspicious symbols: orange tree for long life, stacked mochi rice cakes for wealth, etc.

It’s a lot of fun to setup and Girl’a Day is always a fun holiday to look forward to in our home, even if my “little girl” is now almost in high school. 😭

Making a Historically Accurate Ninja in Dungeons and Dragons

A while back, I had written a post about making a elven samurai character in Dungeons and Dragons. The result, Heian Amakiiro, has been a lot of fun to play in Adventurer’s League and was the original inspiration for my “Hamato Islands” series of adventures, starting with A Good Night’s Rest. However, recently I got to thinking: how do you make a ninja, preferably a historically accurate one, in D&D?

It turns out that in 5th-edition Dungeons and Dragons, this question is harder than it looks. Let’s delve into why.

First, even with supplemental rule books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, there is no explicit “ninja” class. Most people reasonably assume they are either rogues with Assassin archetypes or monks with Kensei archetypes (from Xanathar’s), and that probably woudl work, but there’s an important wrinkle to all this.

A 19th century depiction of ninja by famous painter Hokusai, courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is a split between “fantasy” ninjas and the ones that actually existed. Fantasy ninjas, like those in the anime series Naruto, or any bad 80’s martial arts movie, are highly secretive, use esoteric magic and lots of crazy martial arts. This is true not just in Western minds, but in Japanese pop culture too. Ninja as an organized group of mercinaries/assassins only existed during a brief period when Japan was in total civil war, but in the subsequent Edo Period (1600-1868), stories about them took on a larger-than-life appeal which has persisted to this day.1

The real ninjas in Japan were something a bit different and hard to pin down. One could easily argue that ninja were really just shady sell-swords. By that time in Japan, the samurai warrior class had largely solidified into a social stratum (though not always), and lower peasant classes were often excluded (or relegated to regimented tasks for foot-soldiers). Ninja helped fill a role that warlords needed by doing lots of dirty work. This included things like assassinations, sabotage and such, but frequently also meant working as body-guards or other things. The reality was was that such dirty work could run a wide gamut of options, and ninjas were there to provide such services.

No, not that bodyguard…
(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

For this reason, I got thinking that if I wanted to make a more historically accurate ninja in D&D, he or she would have to be a fighter/rogue multiclass: some balance of melee combat experience, with roguish abilities like Sneak Attack, stealth and so on. The Assassin archetype from the Player’s Handbook still seems like the most appropriate both thematically and for some of the disguise and infiltration abilities.

I put it to my fellow D&Ders on the local Discord channel and got some good feedback about how this might work. We came to an agreement that starting with a rogue character and moving into Assassin archtype made sense, but then an almost 50-50 split between that and a Fighter (any archetype could work). For a 20th-level character, a few possible scenarios came to mind:

  • Rogue 11 / Fighter 9 – you get Reliable Talent and at least 2 attacks, and maybe an off-hand weapon too. This probably would the more “infiltratey” ninja build.
  • Rogue 9 / Fighter 11 – you get 3 attacks and most of the roguish skills you’d need anyway. This is probably the more “bodyguardish” or militaristic build like the infamous Hattori Hanzō. The Assassin archetype seems to drop off by level 8 anyway, so you may not necessarily be losing much.
  • Rogue 7 / Fighter 11 / Cleric or Monk 2 – this would add more magic elements, or with a kensei monk build some more “martial-artey-ness”. This gets less accurate, since “Shaolin-style monks” as depicted in D&D were more native to China than Japan, but it’s OK to branch out too sometimes.

Anyhow, unlike the elf samurai build I made, the lack of an explicit ninja class makes this intrinsically harder, but the Assassin archetype for a Rogue still makes a good foundation so long as you supplement it with some good melee combat skills too. That makes your ninja more than just a thief and closer to the original “sell-sword” type that existed back in the day.

I’ll post more updates if this build works (or not) as I get a chance to play. I have a tentative elf-rogue character in mind (‘cuz I always play elves) for this, but we’ll see if it gets very far.

1 One could argue the same for the infamous warrior monks or sōhei in Japanese history due in large part to the larger-than-life stories about a monk named Benkei. In reality, most were just hired muscle by large Buddhist temples to protect themselves from other warring Buddhist temples. Their commitment to Buddhism was tenuous at best. As for a D&D class though, sōhei make a pretty decent martial-cleric build though, such as in my Hamato Islands setting.

It’s OK to Suck in D&D

Lately, I’ve been really enjoying an excellent animated series on Youtube about Dungeons and Dragons called “Animated Spellbook” and I wanted to share this one particular video with readers (D&D players in particular):

The point of this video is that when you make a character in D&D, being super powerful or a perfect character gets boring pretty fast (and if someone insists on it anyway, are they trying to somehow compensate for something in real life…?). Having a character that is more flawed is memorable fun.

One of my first characters I played in Adventurer’s League, and still one of my favorites, was a female dark elf (drow) nature cleric from the infamous city of Menzoberranzan. I don’t normally play female characters, nor do I play drow, but I liked the backstory idea of her being a former priestess of Lloth who recanted and followed the goddess Eilistraee instead. The rest kind of wrote itself. It was a bit of an homage to the Drizzt Do’Urden character but with a twist.

Trouble is, from a 5th-edition rules standpoint, drow don’t make optimal clerics because of their default racial stats.1 So, my drow cleric would be off to a weaker start in AL-rules because the highest she could start with is 15 to Wisdom, rather than 16 like a wood elf. Further, because drow are from the Underdark, their sensitivity to light can occasionally cause major problems.

Gwynen’s painted figurine from an earlier post.

Even so, Gwynen Naïlo (link to her current character sheet) ended up being a very fun character. The lower Wisdom score didn’t affect things enough that I didn’t enjoy playing her, and being a drow, I leaned a bit into the role-playing side of being a loner even when they wanted to do some good in the world. For that reason, she leaned into the Nature domain more (being at one with the stars and nature, away from people).

I haven’t played her in a while but she’s still one of my highest level characters in Adventurer’s League, and I would happily play her again, and likely will when the pandemic is finally, FINALLY done.

Stat-wise, she was average to slightly above average, but in terms of playability she was great. Further, just like my odd elf samurai character (one of my other favorites), it’s all about finding your own. I grew up with R.A. Salvatore’s dark elf books, and while I didn’t want to just make another “Drizzt clone”, I enjoyed having a character that still tapped into that mythos but also had something original to offer.

Also, in playing Gwynen, I made a few mistakes, like allocating a weapon I never use (Shillelagh has proven more than sufficient for me), and I took feat choices (such as Observant) that may not always be the best choices from a raw-stats standpoint, but they’ve fleshed out her character in fun ways.

And in the end, as the video shows, D&D is really all about having a good time than it is show-boating, although that can be fun too.

1 With the release of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything in 2020, the cliche of Tolkien-style “racial stats” is less of a hindrance now and probably for the better. The old-school gamer in me still likes the old rules because they’re familiar like a well-worn blanket, but at the same time, I am happy that D&D is keeping up with the times (and frankly the world doesn’t revolve around me anyway). In any case, the character was made years before Tasha’s so that’s what I had to work with at that time.

Plum Blossoms

Recently, the Buddhist temple Yakushi-ji in Nara, Japan posted this update on their Twitter feed:

When most people think of Japan, they think of cherry blossoms, specifically sakura (桜) cherry blossoms. However, while cherry blossoms usually appear sometime between March to May depending on climate, variety, etc, another famous flowering tree blooms slightly eariler: umé (梅) or plum blossoms.

Japanese plum trees are not the same as Westerns trees and some would say the fruit is closer to an apricot than a plum as we know it. In any case, ume trees have been a part of Japanese culture for a long time, and celebrated since antiquity.

For example, the famous scholar later deified into the God of Learning, Sugawara no Michizane (菅原 道真 845 – 903), was a big fan of plum trees. When he was exiled to Dazaifu due to political intrigue, he composed a famous poem about his plum back home in his yard:

東風吹かばKochi fukabaWhen the east wind blows,
にほひをこせよNioi okose yolet it send your fragrance,
梅の花Ume no hanaoh plum blossoms.
主なしとてAruji nashi toteAlthough your master is gone,
春を忘るなHaru o wasuru nado not forget the spring.

Plum blossoms differ in appearance than sakura cherry blossoms in a few ways: plum blossoms tend to be whiter in color, though shades of pink do exist. While they both have 5 petals, the plum blossoms have rounded edges, while the cherry blossoms are notched and a bit pointier:

I have two different types of plum trees in my yard: a pair of Thundercloud Plum trees (one white and one a deep pink) and an Italian Plum tree.

The current Italian Plum tree is actually the second generation. The previous tree had grown in our yard for years, and bore lots of fruit every September, but during a famously bad snow storm in 2019 here in the PNW, it grew heavy and fell over. Amazingly, one of the seeds must’ve taken root before than as we have new tree growing not far from it.

I once had 3 Thundercloud Plum trees but one fell over into a neighbor’s yard after a prolonged rain storm, plus it had become too overgrown (my fault) and top-heavy. I have learned since that Thundercloud Plum trees grow fast and need to be trimmed about every 2-3 years otherwise they make a huge mess and run the risk of falling over.

The least worst photo I’ve taken of my Thundercloud Plum tree (the white one)

There have been times where I’d like to cut down the Thundercloud Plum trees because of the maintenance (plus the mess of rotting, fermented plums in fall), but when they bloom for that one week in late February, I feel like Sugawara no Michizane admiring the tree and looking forward to Spring.

Setsubun: Then and Now

Every year since the kids were little, we celebrate a fun, Japanese folk holiday called Setsubun which traditionally comes the day before Spring (risshun 立春) in the old Japanese calendar. Now it usually falls on February 3rd, though this year unusually it was February 2nd due to a quirk in the old calendar.

One of the fun traditions of Setsubun is the mamemaki or bean-throwing. One of the family members (usually the dad) dresses up like an oni (鬼, ogre) and comes to the house. The kids throw roasted soybeans at the oni to drive out bad luck for the year.

In our home, the kids like to make me oni masks each year. My daughter, now a teenager, made this one for me many years ago.

Frankly this mask, while intending to be cute, is a touch frightening, so we call it the “Setsubun Death Mask”.

This year my son, who is in elementary school, made this one for me. He was inspired by the monsters of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I play a lot so the mask is supposed to be a “gold bokoblin”. To be honest I look more like a friendly Nazgûl.

Anyhow, it is really fun to let the kids make masks for me, rather than buying them (or make my own which are kind of blah).

Oh, and to close this post here is me stuffing my face the yearly ehōmaki roll while facing whatever auspicious direction is determined that year:

Happy early Spring, y’all!

A Look Back at Kiyomizudera Temple

Lately, I’ve been reminiscing on old visits I made to Japan, since I haven’t been there in about two years (and with vaccination rollout being slow, I probably won’t visit this year either). It started when I showed the kids some old photos, and that’s when I decided it would be fun to share with the blog too. These are often old photos, and details and layout are kind of fuzzy now to me, so I might get some things wrong. But, I hope you enjoy!

In any case, my first trip to Japan was way back in January 2005 shortly after my wife and I got married, and we went to visit her family, and see take a tour of Japan. The first Buddhist temple I visited was the venerable Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), a very old temple of the once-powerful Hossō (Yogacara) sect in Kyoto, Japan. This is the front entrance as I recall it:

Another view from the front entrance. I believe past that second entrance is the inner compound.

The highlight of Kiyomizudera, is it’s famous drop-off. Wikipedia has a much better photo than the one I took:

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Here’s touristy, newlywed me at the drop-off.

It’s pretty far to the bottom of the temple complex, as you can see:

As this was January, Japan was pretty cold (definitely colder than the PNW where I live), and cloudy, but somehow I got this nice sunbeam photo.

The main Buddhist deity of worship at Kiyomizu-dera is the Bodhisattva Kannon. The English language page for Kannon has a very nice overview and well worth a read if you’re curious to learn more. At that time, I wasn’t clear who Kannon was, but I took this photo of a small wood-carving in the ceiling. I believe this is Kannon depicted with 1,000 arms, a common motif to express the many ways and efforts that Kannon does to assist all living beings.

Personally, even after 16 years, I still like this photo very much, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve felt a connection to the Bodhisattva Kannon through most of my adult Buddhist life, even when I didn’t always pay attention to it. Even now, this photo kind of brings me some warm fuzzies even if the quality was terrible.

Anyhow, Kiyomizudera is a temple that I would very much like to visit again next time I ever go to Kyoto. Knowing what i know now about Japanese Buddhism, I feel like I’d get a lot more out of it than I would have at the time. Like many of the old Japanese-Buddhist temples, there’s layers of history and meaning that are not readily obvious, but many treasures await those willing to explore.

P.S. I have a few other photos besides this, but editing out family members and in-laws is just too hard with would negatively impact the photos. All the more reason to just go again sometime. 😀

Adventure Number Three

In 2020, I published two small adventure modules for Dungeons and Dragons on DMS Guild: For King and Country, and A Good Night’s Rest. I enjoyed making both, but after publishing a Japanese-themed adventure at encouragement of my wife, I felt like I could make more of them. After playing with some ideas with the kids, I decided to make another Japanese-themed adventure titled A Letter Buried:

Originally, I had planned to publish this in mid-December, but then everything went nutty (you know what I am talking about). I also ran into some health problems in December that kept me fairly bed-ridden (more like couch-ridden), plus dealing with normal end of year festivities. With all these different things going on, the mental stress and fatigue at watching the news kind of sapped my motivation for weeks.

Only recently have I started up writing again, but I am feeling much better physically than I did a month ago (more on that another day), and my mental stress has faded a lot. So, instead of being mentally locked onto the all the negativity here and now, I’ve been focusing my attention positively toward the future again.

Further, I have been encouraged by some helpful feedback I’ve gotten from players who did my previous module, A Good Night’s Sleep, and are interested in playing this one as well. All these incremental improvements to the adventure series I am making, along with the small, but increasing interest in Japanese-themed, historically accurate D&D adventures has given me reason to plan yet more modules in the near future. Each one takes work, but I feel each one is getting a bit easier and easier as I learn the ropes.

As for A Letter Buried, I hope to publish this one in the first week of February. Stay tuned!

A Nerd Dad’s Review of Planescape in Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons

Recently, my kids have gotten sucked into a lengthy Dungeons and Dragons adventure at home (with me as the DM, of course) that started in the plane of Limbo, the chaotic-neutral plane, before the next phase of the story came to a place called Sigil, the City of Doors.

The City of Doors, and the plane that surrounds it, the Outlands (sometimes called Borderlands), are originally from an old D&D adventure setting called Planescape which provided a unique framework outside of the usual high-fantasy setting. I never played it as a teenager, but I spent some time delving into the lore recently. Instead of staying in what’s called the “Prime Material Plane” (e.g. the default setting), the adventuring party hops across many of the outer planes with Sigil as the “hub”. Each of these Outer Planes reflects a particular moral “alignment”, and each one has a “bastion city” in the Outlands surrounding Sigil.

If each of the Outer Planes reflects a moral alignment, the Outlands are the closest thing to a truly “neutral” plane. In older editions, the oppressive neutrality of the plane causes such effects as minimal damage inflicted in combat, as well as minimal healing. Magic is suppressed more and more as you get closer to the center of the Outlands to the point that it stops working. Even deities cannot approach. At the very center of the Outlands is a needle-like mountain with a ring over it. The ring itself is Sigil, the City of Doors.

Sigil is the focus of the Planescape setting, and is the most cosmopolitan city in the multiverse. Because the floating, ring-shaped city (not unlike a mini version of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the ring worlds in the Halo series) is a universal hub, it is rife with portals to the Outer Planes, and thus the city is comprised of denizens from these planes who all co-exist in an uneasy balance. Celestial angels from the “good” planes will often be seen interacting with infernal demons and other such beings. The various player-character races from any and all settings, humans, elves, dwarves, etc, can also be found here. Plus, as a DM, you can also introduce all kinds of character races that are more obscure, like Gith, Eberron races such as Warforged and Shifters, and Thri-Kreen from Dark Sun. The point is that just about anything you can imagine from the Multiverse has some presence at Sigil, presumably.

Further, Planescape the setting was defined by some basic principles such as the Rule of Three: (e.g. things tend to happen in 3’s), the circular nature of planes (e.g. everything tends to come back around) and that, theoretically at least, wherever you are standing is the center of the Universe. For a fantasy adventure module, it does delve into some interesting philosophical ideas too.

Sigil, the city, is a powder-keg of conflicting interests, with little oversight from the authorities. The ruler of Sigil, the enigmatic Lady of Pain, rules the city in a hands-off-or-wrath-of-god style approach, and to even look upon her is to erupt in terrible pain and physical injury. To oppose her in any way meant that beings disappeared. However, the Lady of Pain seems to really only care about a few things:

  1. Threats to Sigil itself
  2. Threats to herself
  3. Maintaining the delicate balances of forces in the city
  4. No external deities, who by their presence would probably upset the balance above.

Outside of this, there is little authority in the city. The city is overcrowded, constantly undergoing renovation, and so long as you’re not caught, you can get away with anything.

Getting back to my kids’ campaign, I gleaned what I could from older sources, and spent some time filling in the blanks. I had to make some encounter tables for Sigil, mainly thanks to the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Xanather’s Guide to Everything (plus some personal improvisation), and some tables for random planar portal encounters (the 16 outer planes, plus 4 elemental planes, plus the Feywild, Shadowfell and various places in the Material Plane) as well as a random enconter for denizens to Sigil. I tried to include just about every player race from every book I had (including Eberron and the Theros crossover books).

The kids love the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of Sigil, as well as the wide variety of weird encounters. Lately they have almost totally forgotten the main story-line just so they can play around and get into trouble at Sigil, including pit fights and shady jobs. They also enjoy the intrigue of opposing a certain arcanoloth who tricked them at one point, but still needs their help to recover an artifact.

As for the city layout (which isn’t covered in detail online), I divided it up into 48 “sectors” so when they go around to meet this person or that, they’re orienting themselves by sector. Their home “base” is in sector 7, but the person they were originally looking for is in sector 42. I also made up some “embassies” from various planes including an embassy from Mount Celestia (the lawful good plane), in sector 21, which has free marshmallows for anyone who stops by. My kids love the free marshmallows.

Also, I used the opportunity to bring back an old NPC from the city of Waterdeep who had appeared much earlier in the campaign as a friendly constable. The backstory I made was that at some point, this character was killed in the line of duty after last encountering the adventurers, and his soul went to Mount Celestia where he was dispatched to the embassy Sigil. He was a good NPC, and it was nice to give him some closure, even if it is a bit poignant. That was all before Loki (yes, the Marvel villain / antihero ) showed up at one point, avoiding detection from the Lady of Pain, but willing to work with the characters again after he betrayed them at an earlier point in time. This contradicts the design of Sigil a bit as written, but since the kids liked Loki and had encountered him in past adventures, it was a fun way to mix things up even further.

The sheer weirdness of Planescape, coupled with the relative openness gives the kids an opportunity to really mess around and explore without a heavy story to digest. As a parent, I also try to keep it as kid-friendly and lighthearted as I can, so even the infernal creatures are on the one hand scary, but on the other hand somewhat predictable and easy to overcome.

I hope someday Wizards of the Coast prints more 5th-edition friendly material for Planescape someday, but even if not, there’s just enough out there to get started on a campaign, and with a bit of ingenuity, you can keep players happy and entertained for weeks on end. 😆

Spring On Its Way

Some wildflowers sprouting in the yard yesterday…

It is mid-January, deep in “small cold and big cold”, but already signs of life are returning to the yard, and the world around us. Inspired, I found this old Japanese waka poem (originally posted in my other blog) composed by a female poet named kunaikyō (宮内卿), also called wakakusa no kunaikyō (若草の宮内卿). This poem, number 76 in the Japanese Imperial anthology named the Shin Kokin Wakashū, has young grass (wakakusa, 若草) as the topic.

薄く濃きUsuku kokiLight and dark:
野辺のみどりのNobe no midori nothe green of the field’s
若草のWakakusa noyoung herbs
あとまで見ゆるAto made miyurudistinct in
雪のむら消えYuki no muragiepatches of fading snow.
Translation by Professor Joshua Mostow

Happy Belated New Year!

Hello Readers!

Although the first couple weeks of 2021 have been kind of lousy for us all, I wanted to take a moment to say “happy new year!” to you all.

In Japanese, people greet one another the first time they meet after the new year with a special greeting. First, people say to one another akemashite omedetō (gozaimasu) which means “congratulations on the conclusion of the (old) year”. This is then followed by kotoshi mo yoroshiku (onegaishimasu). This is literally means “please be kind to me this year, too”. The words in parentheses are for polite conversation (drop them when speaking among friends).

This year with lockdown and such, we couldn’t do much for New Years. We didn’t risk going to our usual Buddhist temple for hatsumōde, the first temple visit of the year. Maybe we’ll make up for it later in the year, but we’ll see.

Instead, I celebrated as much as I could online.

My humble abode in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Besides the kagami-mochi on the table is a small “cow” since this year is the Year of the Ox.

There is one additional tradition that happens on the 11th of January called kagami-biraki (鏡開き), which means “breaking the mirror (mochi). Originally this was observed on the 20th day of the new year, but at some point moved to the 11th. After breaking open the kagami-mochi (more on that here) you then cook the rice cakes with sweet red beans (azuki) in a kind of red bean “stew” desert.

Our real kagami-mochi is a bit simpler, but I still like it.

Since our kagamimochi is plastic, it opens at the bottom revealing the real mochi rice cake inside. I tend to keep the little plastic daidai (bitter orange) too just because they are cute.

In any case after crazy holidays and a crazy end of the year in genera, we are hoping things will gradually calm down in the following days, weeks. I hope you all have a better year ahead too. 🎍

akemashite omedetō gozaimasu!kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu!