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An Unexpected Trove

Since coming to Toronto, I had heard rumours that the Royal Ontario Museum held an exceptional array of Japanese swords in its archives, unavailable to the public. Finding a way to get a look at those swords has been on my mind for years now, but thanks to some very well-connected friends, Toronto Kenjutsu was privileged to go behind the scenes at the ROM and examine some of its many treasures.

The rumours were well-founded. We stood around in stunned amazement as tray after tray of fabulous works of art were presented to us. Swords of the like I never thought I'd get a chance to look at, much less handle (after very stern lessons on proper handling of priceless artifacts), lay before us in stacked rows. It was truly an amazing experience.

One day was not sufficient to go through all the treasures, but we found plenty to marvel at. There were gorgeously detailed koshirae, classic katana and a number of very strange swords, difficult to classify but fascinating to consider and wonder about. We passed them around, our hands encased in thin gloves to shield the ancient artifacts from our skin and its oils. There were swords that had been made for battle, and many bearing signs of heavy use (though whether on the battlefield or just getting thrown around by an incautious owner, it's hard to say), and then there were some in breathtakingly perfect condition. And not only swords; we examined daggers and spearheads and other edged weapons.

While not everyone finds the Japanese sword AS compelling an object as most of us do, there's no denying the elegance and beauty of these artifacts, and the careful detail that goes into them.

This little moth pattern appeared on a kurigata -- the little knob on the sheath to which the cord is attached. It's no wider than your little finger, and yet so much care was lavished on it. We saw item after item like this, until the mind could scarcely take it all in.

But this attitude, of attaching importance even to the smallest of details, is paramount in our practice. The angle of the feet, the line of the cut -- if these are not understood and performed to the most exacting standards, the sword will not cut. More importantly, if the mind is not fully present, and not truly aware of all these tiny details, then opportunities slip away, and vulnerabilities are not seen or attended to.

It's not that there is only one 'correct', or 'perfect' way to perform the kata. But as I practice, as I strive to attend to every conceivable detail (and Sensei is always able to find yet another detail I am not attending to), I learn to open my mind to what is truly in front of me. To let go of my preconceptions and prejudices and see clearly that which is actually there.

This last illustration came from a massive sheath -- carved from a single piece of ivory that can only have come from an elephant's tusk. It was covered all over with carvings of this sort of detail and delight. Full of samurai pursuing each other, swinging swords and naginata, on horseback or on foot, beautiful images of fighting men in poses and stances that we practice to this very day.

We will never use our arts for the same purpose they did. We will never kill or face death at the end of a sword. But the wisdom those long-ago men learned in that violent, terrifying fashion still serves us today.

We are very grateful to the staff members at the ROM for accommodating us and making this visit possible. It was honestly a dream come true for all of us, and we will always remember that day.

So Many Games

GenCon 2011 really showed for me what different games can do.

A variety of game systems produced amazingly fun stories in the world of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, as I and three of my favourite DMs in the world ran our ambitious little "con-paign" THE JADE THRONE.

Four days, seven games, across four different game systems. How'd it go? Fantastic, which surprised me. I honestly didn't think it was going to work out, which is one of the reasons I most wanted to try it. For me, GenCon is a chance to push RPGs to the limit. You're surrounded by thirty thousand of the most enthusiastic gamers in the world, imaginative people who have come to Indianapolis looking for chances to do what they can't do with their home games. The perfect place for DMs to try out things that demand a lot of their players.

Or their settings. I wasn't at all sure that the proposed games of our mini-event were going to work well in this setting, but they did.

Feng Shui and Mutants & Masterminds, perhaps not so surprising. Old School Hack has turned out to be a reliable generator of hilarious awesomeness. But Leverage? A game designed to very faithfully reproduce the idiosyncratic story-telling style of a TV show about con men and thieves?

Yup, it worked just great. The REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS set out to confront Jihanna the Demon, infamous pirate queen, and as you might guess, wrapped things up with explosions, screaming bad guys and catapult-launched hang gliders.

DINO-PIRATES is a broad, pulpy setting, in the full sense of "pulp" as a "shapeless mass". It's about adventure, thrills, and delight, but the stories that take place there can come in all sorts of flavours. Different game systems produce different kinds of stories. Some, like Feng Shui and Leverage, are meant to emulate specific story-telling modes. Others, like Old School Hack, encourage certain kinds of events or situations. All of which mesh perfectly with DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND, which was designed from the start to support all kinds of stories and story-telling.

I've taken to running some DPoNI games using what I now think of as the "classic" rules; the ones based on Green Ronin's True20 game, and some with Kirin's fabulous Old School Hack system. I loved how the Leverage game went, and so I'm working on a Leverage hack for the NINJA GIRLS. DPoNI is never going to be a game the way Dragon Age is a game, or even Dungeons and Dragons -- it's too messy and unselective about what it includes. I think of that as a strength rather than a weakness.

We'll be posting the full story of THE JADE THRONE in the next few weeks (I hope), and we have even more ambitious plans for next year's GenCon conpaign. Zombies! Maybe. Or possibly lizardmen.

GenCon 2011 -- Games, Posters, and more...

So I'm off to GenCon 2011 on Wednesday, and this is probably the last chance I'll have to talk about what's going to come up there.

THE JADE THRONE, mentioned in my last post, is all put together and just needs players now to bring it all to life. We start thirty years ago, as the Empire is collapsing, with ESCAPE THE EMPIRE, a desperate wuxia adventure using Old School Hack, as six great heroes try to save the last heir of the Jade Throne.

Then it's FREE THE FLAME GOD, as a DIFFERENT band of heroes (in the present day) try to stop an Imperial sorcerer from taking control of a fierce volcano god. What is he up to and why does he need a volcano? Also, angry ninjas.

After that comes the Feng Shui goodness of THE UNEXPLODED MONKEY, run by my good friend Matt, in which the machinations of the Impsalan nation can only be stopped by... GIANT ROBOTS. How could this possibly go wrong?

But wait, there's more! Jody takes the helm next for a Leverage game adapted with the REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS, as they strive to solve the mystery of "The Crown Jewels Job" -- saving the Imperial heir (who's still hanging around, it seems) from the clutches of the terrible pirate queen Jihanna the Demon!

Matt comes back for a second round, the ominously-titled WHEN SOMEONE ASKS IF YOU'RE A GOD adventure, which like the next game, known simply as "ENDS, LOOSE", will be largely created on-the-spot, based on how the previous games have gone.

But it all wraps up, regardless of how things go, with the APOCALYPSE KEY, a massive battle between giant robots, fiery gods, massive beasts and other titanic creations, all battling it out in the midst of a great Impsalan temple complex. While a volcano erupts.

It's gonna be awesome.

But just as exciting as this great project is the release of the REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS Limited Edition GenCon 2011 poster. We will be selling this for $20 -- and each purchase comes with a second poster of one of the girls, all with original artwork by Claudio Pozas, who will be illustrating the comic book.

Because yes, there will be a comic book. Debuting in 2012, REFORM SCHOOL NINJA GIRLS will be an all-new, all-awesome graphic novel of amazing ninja action. We'll have more updates on that as things proceed.

Forging Imperfection

Is there a perfect blade? A perfect cut?

If there is, I'm not sure I've ever seen one, or at least, I've never recognized it as such. That may say more about my powers of observation than anything else, but while I've been astonished at the beauty of some blades, and some cuts, it wasn't perfection I was seeing. Any piece of steel forged by hand will have irregularities in it. Connoisseurs of Japanese blades seek out irregularities and celebrate them. Smiths strive to produce just the right irregularities in just the right places, to elevate the steel, to display its natural character or to create a specific effect in the viewer.

A beautiful blade is not perfect. My sword, pictured here, is hardly perfect. The afore-mentioned connoisseurs will probably point out that it's not particularly beautiful, either, but never mind them. But I do love my sword, and I have grown to appreciate the beauty it has more and more over the years.

When I watch Sugino Sensei perform the kata of Katori Shinto Ryu, I don't see perfection. I couldn't possibly imagine how it could be improved, but I can see that his version of the kata is different from his father's. It's different from Ishida Sensei's, or Iwata Sensei's. It's of course different from Otake Sensei's as well. All the great masters that I have had the privilege of observing have performed the kata differently.

Those differences appear to me now like the grain in the steel of my sword. Subtle (or not so subtle) variations, all of which work together to make the steel strong and beautiful. If the steel had no grain or flow to it, it would be mechanical and lifeless, but Katori flows through its students, moving onwards from one to the next, and nobody does it 'perfectly'. Everybody's version is irregular somehow.

Through practice, those irregularities can be constrained, or directed, but if they can be eradicated, well, it doesn't seem to be happening in my case. But just as a great swordsmith brings out the natural, inherent character of the steel when forging a sword, perhaps steady practice in Katori can do something with my own natural, inherent character.

The Jade Throne: A DINO-PIRATES Event!

This year's GenCon in Indianapolis will be hosting an exciting event:

The Jade Throne

This is a first for me, and I think for most of us participating -- a GenCon-specific DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND mini-campaign, with four GMs participating, running four separate game systems (at least) across six or seven gaming sessions. We'll have Leverage, Mutants and Masterminds, Old School Hack, DPoNI: The Animated Series and Savage Worlds all in effect. Good friends (and awesome GMs) Matt, Jody, Kennon and James are all running sessions in this never-before-attempted (by us, anyway) feat: to run a multi-session story over the course of "The Best Four Days in Gaming".

We don't know if it's going to work out. We don't even know how exactly it's all going to end -- we're leaving lots of room in our plans for players to throw us curveballs and introduce all sorts of trouble. We'll be making things up as we go, for sure.

Fortunately, low-prep games like Old School Hack and Leverage make it easy to "roll with the punches" and we're anticipating this will turn out to be tons of fun. If you're coming to GenCon, check out the announcement and sign up for any of the games that look appealing to you.


Wait, how can there be old school DINO-PIRATES? We haven't even really established the first school, much less the new school to come after so that there can even BE an old school.

Nevertheless, it's here. Our friend Kirin has produced the rather awesome game Old School Hack, and it's a whole ton of fun packed into a mere 26 pages (including five pages of cut-out displays, a cover and seven character sheets). This is truly a game you can pick up and just run, right off the cuff. It's a lovely bit of game design.

And Kirin has done us all the very great favour of releasing it under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license, so anyone who wants can create their very own works based on it.

You can see where this is going, can't you?

Yes, there is a DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND version of Old School Hack now available. Choose from the Swashbuckler, the Sea Dog, the Ninja Shadow, the Ninja Sword, the Shaman, the Hunter and the Sorcerer -- all with their own powers and abilities. Imperials, DINO-PIRATES, ninjas and natives all in the mix. We tweaked the armor rules a bit, since heroes in DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND are more swashbuckly, less clompy and stompy.

The DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND setting isn't tied to a particular mechanic, and the rules aren't meant to model physical laws. Rather, the rules (both the "classic" DINO-PIRATES and these Old School rules) are meant to provide a structure in which interesting stories are likely to happen. So why not supply multiple rulesets? If you like one more than the other, that doesn't make you a bad person. Try 'em both!

All you need to do is download the original Old School Hack rules from Kirin's site, then download the DPoNI substitution for the DINO-PIRATE-y classes and abilities. Then yaaaarrrrr! You're ready for adventure among the islands!


Wait, how can there be old school DINO-PIRATES? We haven't even really established the first school, much less the new school to come after so that there can even BE an old school.

Nevertheless, it's here. Our friend kiznit has produced the rather awesome game Old School Hack, and it's a whole ton of fun packed into a mere 26 pages (including five pages of cut-out displays, a cover and seven character sheets). This is truly a game you can pick up and just run, right off the cuff. It's a lovely bit of game design.

And kiz has done us all the very great favour of releasing it under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license, so anyone who wants can create their very own works based on it.

Slimmer, Faster

One of the reasons there isn't a downloadable version of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND is that I'm still wrestling with the final ruleset. It's been one of those projects where the idea expanded to take on a variety of cool ideas, but in a couple of years of playtesting, the most obvious need is to have fewer rules.

So a bunch of things are going away. Nothing very core, but a few key things that will, I hope, really help to cement the rules (and in doing so, the setting).

Reputation: I really liked the idea of reputation being an alternate form of wealth, but it just made for a complex set of rules that never, ever got used. It's gone.

Adjustable Powers Stats: You used to be able to drop the number of ranks you put into a power, so you could bump your Resilience Roll. Too complicated. Even just explaining it was complicated. So it's gone. Your Power stats are all static now, but there's a feat you can take, "Resilient", that gives you a bonus on your Resilience Roll. Simple.

A Bunch of Feats: There were a number of feats that just made things complicated without being very useful -- stuff like "All-out Attack" that just made for MORE math at the game table, and again, that nobody ever used. And "Leadership", because I've always found that one annoying.

Also a Bunch of Powers: Some powers likewise got the boot. For example, Harm, and Pain. Harm is wrapped up in a new power called Pressure Points to mimic the common wuxia ability of "blocking energy flows" or whatever whangdoodle they call it when somebody goes tap, tap, tap on someone else and they drop down dead or freeze in place. So you can use that to either injure or paralyze someone. Pain went away because I find the Mental Grapple ability of Mind Link accomplishes the same thing (screwing with someone's ability to act with YOUR BRAIN) just fine.

And Then Just Some Tables, Too: We threw out all the Role progression tables and just included the formulas required for each progression. The formulas are simple enough and the tables annoying enough that hopefully that won't slow anyone down.

We've also explored a completely different ruleset, and will have postings and things about that, too. Stay tuned!

Princess PUNCH!

This is such a great example of what I love about the Internet, I just had to post it.

If you've seen the trailer for Zack Snyder's upcoming film Sucker Punch, this mash-up will blow your mind.

Breanne Brennan has been making her own trailers from her favourite films for years now, which explains how she was able to put this together. I wouldn't even know where to start, even if I was brilliant enough to have the idea in the first place. I don't know how she finds the lip-synched moments, but some in this mash-up are just uncanny.

But what I think this really proves is the profound depth and quality of classic Disney animation. These brief shots are all (or at least mostly) so full of character and story that they make this admittedly silly exercise work. Close-ups of Cinderella and Aurora carry actual emotion, and draw you in even without the context of the film they come from. It's really a testament to how amazing that studio was.

The loss of 2-D hand-drawn animation is a loss to cinema. While I love the work of studios like Pixar, I'm glad that Miyazaki at least is still carrying on with beautiful cel work, but it's too bad the Disney studio can't find a way to carry it on as well.

Snyder's film may turn out to be full of awesome, or it may be overblown exploitationist crap. He's a talented film-maker, but I haven't outright loved anything he's done so far. But Princess Punch? I'd totally go see that movie.

Fiasco: Adrilankha

So this fascinating game Fiasco has been popping up all over the place on my radar recently.

Made by Bully Pulpit Games, it's a GM-less story-telling game that attempts to produce the sort of knotty caper flicks well-typified by the work of the Coen brothers: Blood Simpler, Miller's Crossing, The Big Leibowski -- stories of characters with, as the game tagline says, "powerful ambition and poor impulse control."

So the game is built up using what are called "playsets", which are basically sets of story elements -- relationships, needs, objects, locations -- that the players assemble at the start of the game in order to kick off the story. A given playset reflects a particular genre or setting. So there's playsets that enable stories in modern suburbia, or a luxury liner in the 1920's, or the Old West, or Ming Dynasty China. Very cool stuff.

What I find really cool about this is how easy it makes it for folks to create new material for the game. There's no need to reproduce any copyrighted material in order to create a playset -- no rules, no stat blocks, nothing. Just lists of story elements, organized into groups of six. So they publish a new playset every month, written by all sorts of different people.

Being me, I immediately wondered about a playset I could create, cause I don't really get excited about playing a game until I've sat down with a page layout program and built myself some forms or something. I thought about various caper stories I loved, and realised that a lot of them had been written by the wonderful Steven Brust, and were set in the imaginary capital of his imaginary Dragaeran Empire: Adrilankha.

So that's what I used. It's a very narrow-appeal sort of playset, since only die-hard Brust fans will have sufficient background on life in Adrilankha to be able to build a game there, but it pleases me. I was able to get Devera into it, of course, and it includes a number of deep in-jokes if you're a fan of the Vlad and Paarfi tales.

Download the playset and check it out!

Barsoom Tales

While it's possibly a bit gauche to be so self-promotional, I'm going to do it anyway, since Corey hasn't.

The Barsoom in barsoomcore has made a return. A version of the wonderful ENWorld story hour, Barsoom Tales was recently released, in it's entirety (and now, with more grandma-unfriendly language!) You can pick it up here at this link from I actually recently did so. Yesterday, I finished re-reading it. You probably need to follow the direct link; for some reason when I search Lulu, I can't find it (although a Google search brings it up. Lulu must have a crappy search engine.) I just reviewed it on my personal blog, but I'd like to spend a bit of time talking about it here too.

Barsoom Tales is not exactly a novel per se, (despite its appearance as one), it's a story hour, and even Corey himself has said that that "genre" (if you will) is a difficult one to work in for reasons that cause it to frequently fail as an interesting read. Barsoom Tales is an exception to this; it is primarily the story of relationships; relationships between Arrafin and Yuek Man Chong, Arrafin and her best friend Elena, Elena and her good friend slash surrogate brother Isaac, to say nothing of the entire group's occasionally strained relationship with Nevid, Zuleika, Étienne and others. Sure; it still reads like a game report in some ways (plot often meanders reflecting players finding new focii to harry off after, main characters seem to come and go in occasionally unexpected ways, main characters can die in completely unexpected ways due to blown saves or whatever, etc.) But I think it's a good read.

And... the setting. I know Corey's been all about DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND lately (and who could blame him?) but I've always found his version of Barsoom to be a brilliant bit of setting design. Plus, it coincides very neatly with my own tastes, and when I first started hearing about Barsoom, it was eerily similar in many respects to what I was working on at the time (the very earliest versions of DARK•HERITAGE, the setting I've been tinkering with and running off and on ever since then. Even when I'm not; it's ended up being a cannibal setting that gobbles up almost all of the other settings I've done before and since, incorporates many of their elements and then spits out the rest like little owl pellets to be discarded.)

While there are some very obvious nods to the original Barsoom (red guys who wear nothing but leather harnesses, banths, lots of desert terrain, etc.) there are some equally obvious nods to Glen Cook's The Black Company; especially in that everyone who knows anything at all about magic (with the exception of the player characters, who have to approach it as neophytes after believing that there was no such thing) is scary, paranoid, and plain disturbing. These guys would get along great at a mixer with The Limper, Soulcatcher, etc.

My own setting design efforts were influenced by Barsoom in ways both significant and not. As an example of the former, I actually hadn't read The Black Company until I read Barsoom Tales (in its serialized ENWorld format) but its characterization of insane übersorcerers turned me back to Glen Cook (after trying but failing to read it previously.) That has since become a favorite plot device of mine as well. As an example of the latter; despite the fact that I speak Spanish and lived in South America for a few years as a teenager, it never occured to me to intersect my love of fantasy and my love of Mediterranean culture until reading of all these Saijadani characters with their cities of Pavairelle, Cadençia and others. I was actually quite captivated by the Old World, almost Medieval-sounding Spanish/Italian/Provençal names of characters like Collete de Orofin, Isabella del Maraviez, Philip de Guzma, Isaac del Valençia, Elena de los Santos, etc. My own Terrasan Empire, the polity under which much of the developed section of the setting operates, was started on this path by Saijadan--later coming to more closely resemble the historical Crown of Aragon.

And last but not least, while I was struggling from almost the very beginning of the Third Edition rules era with the D&D magic rules, which I didn't like, it hadn't quite occurred to me to be as drastic as Corey had been and just remove them entirely. The original Barsoom campaign started play with, basically, just the fighter, rogue, and expert character classes available. I'd like to think I would have gotten there eventually (probably at some point after picking up the d20 Call of Cthulhu book and deciding that I like every aspect of the magic system there better than that in D&D) but Barsoom helped me arrive much faster.
So, Barsoom is pretty significant to my own gaming; if I were to make a list of a dozen major influences, it'd have to be on that list (along with the original Barsoom, curiously). I like it. I recommend it. I think gamers in particular would have a great time reading a story that reads almost like a novel, but which has its genesis in a game session not unlike those that they play. And I think they'd like seeing how the gaming medium can be used for a lot more than the usually rather shallow kinds of tales that are the end results of most campaigns--the randomish drive to explore "dungeons" and ruins for treasure, or whatever. Barsoom really set a new benchmark in campaign play that is rarely equalled in most people's games (I'd venture, based on my own experience) and even more rarely documented so nicely as it is here.

More Clans Than YOU'LL Ever Need

I make no secret of my love for Wikipedia. It's a great resource, and a great demonstration of what's awesome about people.

Especially this page of "Organizations in Wuxia fiction".

That's YEARS of DINO-PIRATES OF NINJA ISLAND campaign ideas, right there. See, the ninjas of NINJA ISLAND are organized into an endless array of clans. And these organization names are PERFECT ninja clan names. Just reading these names triggers off thousands of ideas for stories.

What's the secret of the Yan Family Fist? Who is the King of Herbs? Where do I find Sky-Touching Cliff, and while I'm at it, how do I join the Carefree Sect?

Kingdom of the Golden Bird. Thunderbolt Hall. Dead Warriors of Qingcheng. Seriously, this list goes on and on, and every one of these would make for a great ninja clan amongst the islands.

Also, there seems to be a large number of, um, escort agencies. I guess heroes got needs.

The Heaven-Forsaken Nunnery!

On the left here, is a picture of Obsidian Tiger, who belongs to the Gilded Fang Cult. So there's already some pretty crazy ninja clans running around in the islands. But those ladies at the Heaven-Forsaken Nunnery? I shudder to think what they're like.

Clean Mats, Clean Mind

Clean Mats!One year comes to an end, another begins.

We spent a portion of a year-end afternoon washing the mats at Toronto Kenjutsu. It was a good chance to reflect on cleanliness and renewal in a dark time of the year.

Miyamoto Musashi warns us against spending too much time keeping everything looking good:

"Do not overvalue the things you have."

"Do not become obsessed with having splendid weapons."

And martial arts tales are full of disreputable characters in grubby robes who turn out to be great masters.

And yet, cleaning and maintaining my space and possessions helps me to clean and maintain my mind. Scrubbing the mats, restoring their shine and luster, helps me to come to the dojo with my mind clear and unclouded. Not to mention that a couple of hours in physical labour with good friends is a fine way to spend an afternoon.

And a fine way to look back on 2010 with thankfulness. We were invited to demonstrate at Haru Matsuri at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center, a great honour for us. Our practice expanded to two classes a week, and is still going strong. We traveled to Sherbrooke to study with Sugino Sensei. And Såzen Sensei came out for a wonderful weekend seminar that students here are still talking about. New students joined, and our little community has grown over the year. 2010 was very exciting. We wrapped up the year with a bonenkai party at Jigan Dojo, a great chance to visit with other Katori Shinto Ryu practitioners around Southern Ontario.

This past year had many great moments for Toronto Kenjutsu. Now that our mats are clean and shiny, we look forward to 2011 in anticipation of many more!