So, we’ve been calling this game Thousand-Leaved Grass, but that’s a working title that we’re looking to discard. It happens to refer to yarrow, which is a reference to I Ching (yes, I’m using this romanisation, but in the bulk of the text we’ll be using pinyin like civilised persons), but it’s not the same kind of yarrow, and while that’s a detail that, like, three people in the world will care about, I happen to be among those three.

So, we’re asking you for help.

You know what this game is about, right? It’s (from Scooter’s intro) “a game about the mythology of an imaginary China, where archetypal and amazing mortals interact with and challenge gods, magicians, and other larger-than-life stuff of legend– and, through nothing more than their extraordinary-but-mortal courage, wit, and strength, become the stuff of legend themselves.” It’s inspired a lot by Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds and sequels, in a structural way but not necessarily in details; it tells a kind of story that I want to tell, but it’s also steeped in a kind of orientalism that we don’t need to ourselves become victim to.

So, that said, what we want to express with this title is a sense of the vastness and grandeur of this world on the edge of myth, and connect it with an image of archaic China. It doesn’t have to be a super-accessible image, in my opinion, but it’s got to be something that you can think about and maybe find the connection if you know how to think like that. That’s why I think Bridge of Birds is such an excellent title, actually, but it’s sort of…already been taken.

We’ve already talked about this at some length, and here are some things that we thought about.

There are lots of commentaries on I Ching! Among them are Chain of Mountains, which is a phrase I find beautiful but it’s not quite there. Another one, Gui Cang, Wikipedia maintains is translatable as “Return and be contained,” which doesn’t really speak to me.

I do like “Explanation of Horizontal Lines” and “Ten Wings,” but they are both really opaque, and also at this point, my discomfort with reusing titles asserts itself. We need to use these as inspiration rather than a place to steal from. Perhaps The Eleventh Wing? Maybe Legend of 64 Heroes?

Maybe we go farther back and look at Shang dynasty oracle bones. There’s a form of divination that was practised at the time using tortoiseshells or the scapulae of various animals. Apparently they used to be sold as “dragon bones” as a medicinal product…Cracking a Dragon’s Bones? Things Told to Pan Geng by a Tortoiseshell? (Pan Geng is apparently the posthumous name of a Shang ruler.)

Another direction to pursue is the exploration of mysterious heavenly vistas, or making reference to the Milky Way as Bridge does. In Japanese it is the “River of Heaven,” which is pretty okay to me. In a couple of languages it is a road or path.

There’s another way to go, making reference to the great literary classics of China, but I can only read them in translation, and Journey West is not the vibe I’m really going for…or is it? I’m just starting Outlaws of the Marsh (thanks, Jon) this week, and I dunno whether that’s going to be it, either. But maybe the classics aren’t where we should look at all? Maybe we should look at literature-for-the-masses, like Jin Yong’s wuxia fiction?

I wait with bated breath for your thoughts!

Once you have created a full hexagram, look it up in the book. There will be two entries for each hexagram: Theme and Legend. Ignore the Legend when casting your character’s hexagram– the Theme suggests the issues going on in your character’s life, and the lessons it is endeavoring to learn.

Finally, as a group, you cast one final hexagram. This is the hexagram which rules the adventure; the passage that correlates will determine the overall themes the adventure should address. Using these, brainstorm and decide what the issue is that you’re setting off on an adventure in regards to: perhaps the children of your village are ill with a mysterious illness, or holy men are being systematically killed in supernatural ways, or the moon is slowly turning red.

But there’s more to your adventure hexagram than simply themes. In any good story, there is a Key and a Foil; the Key is the thing which solves the adventure, and the Foil is the thing which thwarts the solution. Every line of the adventure hexagram holds clues to the identities of both the Key and the Foil.

As an example, let’s say your adventure hexagram is #50, The Cauldron:

new yang
new yin
new yang
new yang
new yang
new yin

The Theme of the adventure would be as follows. (This is also what the meaning of your character hexagram would look like.)

You will have great success, which shall lead to envy from those around you; you will be confronted with problems which are beyond your ability. Your loftiest ideas will be impractical, and you seek responsibility you are not ready for. When you seek truth and responsibility with sincerity and admit what you do not know, wisdom will be yours for the taking. Others will help you, but only when you are receptive to them.

The Legend of the story– the clues to finding the Key and thwarting the Foil– would be as follows:

Iron legs hold the vessel above the fire.
When the vessel is full, the wife becomes ill.
There is a broken vessel in the rain:
When the legs are broken, the vessel spills.
One vessel hangs on a gold pole
One vessel hangs on a jade pole.

It is up to the GM to provide more information about the Legend during the game itself, but that is the all the information the characters begin with.

For your outer trigram, again, identify the nature of the trigram and select a moving line and trappings. I didn’t mention this earlier, but if you’ve already got any moving lines in your trigram, you don’t need to add one.

So, now we’re going to talk about the reasons that your character bears these trappings. While the inner trigram describes the nature of your heart, the outer trigram outlines your circumstances. The next step in creating a character is understanding how these flow into his trappings. To illustrate this, let’s draw a hexagram. After casting the yarrow sticks, I get (grey lines are moving):

This character is Li on the outside and Gen inside. So, I’ll pick some Gen trappings. For these and the Li trappings that follow, I’m going to italicise the trappings I’ve altered for changing lines:

  • Gen crushes the things he loves.
  • Gen is unfriendly, but welcomes strangers.
  • Gen guards something of little obvious value.

And Li trappings:

  • Li is educated in the learned arts of reason and debate.
  • Li pushes himself away from a person who nourishes him.
  • Li has a hawk on his shoulder.

Now, we come up with reasons for the trappings. The reasons for the inner trigram’s trappings come from the character’s own needs, preferences, and actions, while the outer trappings come from the caprices of fortune and society.

  • Gen crushes the things he loves because he can’t bear to have them no longer need him.
  • Gen is unfriendly, but welcomes strangers because he distrusts those who are close to him.
  • Gen guards something of little obvious value because it reminds him of happier times.
  • Li is educated in the learned arts of reason and debate because his family’s wealth bought him a good schooling.
  • Li pushes himself away from a person who nourishes him because her family will never approve of that match.
  • Li has a hawk on his shoulder because the local government requires him to know how to hunt.

So, now we kind of have a vision of this character; he’s had some difficult family history, and that’s sort of perturbed his core of inner strength, so that he’s forced to turn to this outward display of strictness and military bearing…

☵ Kan: Water

Kan is a dangerous person. It is cold and hungry. Kan’s trappings are mostly yin. Its yin trappings are:

  • Kan chooses jobs which require it to only work at night.
  • Kan sets traps for its enemies without regard to who might trigger them.
  • Kan fears something it will not name.
  • Kan is pale, but never sickly.
  • Kan moves quickly, and with grace.

Its yang trappings are:

  • Kan eats its meat raw.
  • Kan lashes out when wounded.

☶ Gen: Mountain

Gen is a calm, dependable person. It is slow to action, and stubborn-minded. Kun’s trappings are mostly yin. Its yin trappings are:

  • Gen is a master of meditation.
  • Gen guards something precious.
  • Gen is who people will turn to for comfort.
  • Gen has older siblings, but none younger.
  • Gen is welcoming, even to strangers.

Its yang trappings are:

  • Gen crushes the things it loves.
  • Gen’s physical strength is legend.

☳ Zhen: Thunder

Zhen is a enthusiastic, driven person. It seeks change. Its trappings are mostly yin. Its yin trappings are:

  • Zhen awakens before the rest of the house.
  • Zhen asks innocent questions that penetrate the heart.
  • Zhen keeps a garden with plants both medicinal and lovely.
  • Zhen has a bow and arrows.
  • Zhen’s ideas and visions change the people who seek it out.

Its yang trappings are:

  • Zhen will fight to change what it sees as unjust.
  • Zhen browbeats loved ones into aiding its goals.

☴ Xun: Wind

Xun is gentle and strong. It is deferential, but always extracts a price for its obedience. Its trappings are mostly yang. Its yang trappings are:

  • Xun can improvise the necessary tools when the tools are unavailable.
  • Xun is restless if everything else is calm.
  • Xun is a spear fisherman.
  • Xun inspires artists to create.
  • Xun’s gaze is intense and disconcerting.

Its yin trappings are:

  • Xun smiles in secret.
  • Xun is at home in the forest.

After you have performed the yarrow-stick divination, you’ll have a hexagram in front of you. Mentally divide it into two trigrams, the top three lines and the bottom three, and look at the trigram on the bottom. Find it in the list below; this, the inner trigram, indicates your character’s Bagua personality. We’ll examine the upper/outer trigram, which will help describe the character’s circumstances, a little later.

You see that each trigram has a list of trappings, of yin or yang attitude. For each line in the trigram, select a trapping of appropriate attitude (yang trappings for solid lines, yin trappings for broken lines); this trapping shows and tells something about the character. That is to say, it gives you a hook for characterisation, and it also reflects something about the character’s inner life. So, you’ll end up with three trappings; think about how they interrelate. We’ve given you the outward expression of the trappings, but it’s your job to decide what they mean about the character’s head.

Now you have to choose one to disturb. This trapping is in a state of conflict and transformation. The character’s whole attitude is in a process of shifting. As the trapping’s transformation proceeds, it will change its yin-yang attitude and stabilise, changing the character’s inner trigram. Eventually, when the trapping’s change is complete, it will have become a trapping from the new trigram. Mark the dot next to the line corresponding to this trapping, to indicate that it is a moving line. It’s also possible for a moving line to become stilled without changing, but this has certain consequences.

A changing line’s trapping expresses itself in a perturbed or reversed way. For instance, a Li character with “He has a hawk on his shoulder” assigned to a changing line might ride a giant hawk instead, or be a falconer whose falcon has gone missing. It’s good if this expression is problematic somehow, but it doesn’t have to be.

On to the trigrams…

☰ Qian: Heaven

Qian is a rigid, virtuous person. It is direct, strong, and radiant. Qian’s trappings are all yang in attitude.

  • Qian has a book of laws.
  • Qian is the head of a prosperous family.
  • Qian will always accept a fair challenge.
  • Qian carries a lit lantern.
  • Qian’s immaculate honour is well-known.
  • Qian is built like a bull.
  • Qian is a Buddhist priest.

☷ Kun: Earth

Kun is a gentle, devoted person. It is yielding and hollow; thus it contains necessary things within its emptiness. Kun’s trappings are all yin in attitude.

  • Kun has a water jar.
  • Kun benefits from strong family connections.
  • Kun is mysterious; sometimes it is difficult to discern the truth of its words.
  • Kun receives gifts at every turn.
  • Kun is slender but never frail.
  • Kun has a black silver mirror.
  • Kun knows little but is always learning.

☲ Li: Fire

Li is a young person of reason and clarity. Its trappings are mostly yang. Its yang trappings are:

  • Li is educated in the learned arts of reasoning and debate.
  • Li has a hawk on its shoulder.
  • Li has a precious weapon.
  • Li is consulted when a riddle needs answering.
  • Li has an elder sibling and a younger.

Its yin trappings are:

  • Li clings to a person that nourishes it.
  • Li leaves a trail of dramatic memories.

☱ Dui: Lake

Dui is juvenile and joyous. It breaks things in pieces. Its trappings are mostly yang. Its yang trappings are:

  • Dui is known for its loquacity.
  • Dui knows how to take things apart and put them together.
  • Dui throws wild parties.
  • Dui is the youngest member of the family.
  • Dui is a shepherd.

Its yin trappings are:

  • Dui has a surprising cache of resources.
  • Dui knows old-fashioned magic.

Thousand-Leaved Grass (working title) is a game about the mythology of an imaginary China, where archetypal and amazing mortals interact with and challenge gods, magicians, and other larger-than-life stuff of legend– and, through nothing more than their extraordinary-but-mortal courage, wit, and strength, become the stuff of legend themselves.

Shreyas and I are going to alternate posting about stuff, but to get the ball rolling, I’m going to post what I remember of what we have so far. It’s a bit of a cop-out for an initial post, since everything here is a total jumble of collaboration; don’t look at this as a post of what I’m bringing to the table, so much as me picking through the scant leftovers and trying to piece together what Shreyas and I completely, savagely ripped through earlier today.

The sacred geometry of chance

Character creation is based on the Yì Jīng. There are eight character archetypes, called Bagua, which correspond with the eight trigrams; these will have certain trappings or descriptors (maybe Shreyas will list them in his post; that would be awesome); choose three of the trappings, around which you then build a character.

Once you’ve got a basic concept, look at the three trappings you’ve chosen. Think about what’s going on internally within your character; if any of these specific trappings are conflicted (ie, a trapping is “always in a state of creation,” and you want your character to have serious creative blockage), turn that whole line into a broken one.

Once you’ve done that for all three, think about how your character looks and presents itself to the rest of the world. Decide what the world sees– keeping in mind that some things which are whole might appear broken to people which do not understand things!– and make the lower trigram.

Once you’ve created your hexagram, look it up in the book (which will have massaged/reinterpreted passages of mystery based on public-domain translations of the Yì Jīng). The definition of your hexagram is the challenge you are facing, or the lesson you must learn. Character growth happens by mending and breaking lines in the trigram.

I’m sure there’s more that I’ve forgotten, but it’s almost 3 AM. Scooter will have to fill you in with his next post.

June 2020