Monday, August 25, 2008

Ran (Urusei Yatsura)

Ran (ラン) is Lum's best friend since childhood (Lum, Ran, Benten (弁天), and Oyuki (おユキ) all grew up together), but she is also a bit crazy. Although she was a genuinely sweet little girl when she was young, even enduring the many times Lum accidentally dropped her from a tree, or left her to hit a large object, and so on, the final straw was when an older Lum became engaged to Rei (レイ), Ran's true love! At this point, something broke, and Ran gained two personalities - her sweet personality and her crazy personality. With the latter, she does her utmost to try to break Lum and Ataru apart, seduce Ataru (which is very simple to do), or otherwise cause havok.

Of course, in actuality her two personalities are two facets of the same personality, and eventually Ran mends her relationship with Lum little by little, as Rei and Ran start to spend a little time with each other (Lum no longer has any interest in the empty-headed Rei, although he still seems to want a relationship with her) .

For sure, Ran always had it hard, as the weakest of all her alien friends (Lum can fly and shoot lightning bolts, Benten is extremely tough and a powerful fighter, and Oyuki can control cold and ice at will) - Ran's only power is the ability to cause another to age by kissing them (and willing it). Although an alien herself, her only alien feature is pointed ears (which she often hides behind her hair when in her Earthling guise of Ran (蘭)). Although she sometimes tries to make up for her lack of strength by using alien machinery or artillery, her much stronger friends easily overpower her (after which she quickly apologizes, or flees!).

In the end, though, Ran is one of my favorite characters for some reason!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

THAC0 Table Inflation

Through the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions of AD&D and then D&D, PC THAC0s experienced a sort of inflation, making their lives much easier in their quests for XP and treasure (and making DMs' quests to destroy them a bit more difficult (but not that much)).

In 1st edition, THAC0 advancement was irregular and ultimately limited (i.e. there was a value "cap"). PCs in general improved their THAC0s in increments of more than 1, but not at every level (i.e., fighters went from THAC0 20 to 18 at level 3), to balance similar gains of other classes (for example, clerics went from THAC0 20 to 18 at level 4). In general, fighters, rangers, and paladins were the best at combat, while clerics, druids, and monks were good as well; thieves and wizards were on the low end, but at higher levels, they received larger-than-normal THAC0 improvements (i.e. magic-users went from THAC0 19 to 16 at level 11, while thieves got the same at level 9). On the other hand, monsters had quite good THAC0s at lower HD (a 2 HD monster had a THAC0 of 16), but slowed in advancement as they got stronger, with a maximum THAC0 of 7 (at 16 HD).

In 2nd edition, THAC0 advancement was smoothed out and made regular; in addition, THAC0 limits were removed (except for monsters). Warriors thus now could look forward to a better THAC0 (by 1) at each level advancement, allowing them to be an edge (and some) ahead of their non-warrior peers. Thieves' low-level THAC0 improved a good deal as well, but at advanced levels they reached a similar level to their 1st edition counterparts; wizards THAC0s were similarly improved at low levels, but at higher levels, they became worse. Weak monsters had worse THAC0 as well, while stronger monster had slightly better THAC0, with a new maximum THAC0 of 5 (at 15 HD) (although PCs were no longer restricted by maximum THAC0s, monsters still were).

In 3rd edition, the regularity of 2nd edition was retained, expanding to include monsters as well, who simply used the same table as fighters (or other classes). Fighters started out with a better THAC0 by 1 at 1st level (until now, they started out with THAC0 20 like everyone else), while the other classes received boosts of their own. Priests and rogues (the new name for thieves) now were vastly improved in combat (thieves in particular - now they became equal to priests on the battlefield), while wizards became much better at combat as well - roughly about the level of thieves in 2nd edition.

Actual THAC0 figures to view and compare are as follows (values are for level 1, 2, 3, etc.):

1e: 20 20 18 18 16 16 14 14 12 12 10 10 8 8 6 6 4* 4 4 4
2e: 20 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
3e: 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

1e: 20 20 20 18 18 18 16 16 16 14 14 14 12 12 12 10 10 10 9* 9
2e: 20 20 20 18 18 18 16 16 16 14 14 14 12 12 12 10 10 10 8 8
3e: 20 19 18 17 17 16 15 14 14 13 12 11 11 10 9 8 8 7 6 5

Thief (Rogue):
1e: 20 20 20 20 19 19 19 19 16 16 16 16 14 14 14 14 12 12 12 12 10*
2e: 20 20 19 19 18 18 17 17 16 16 15 15 14 14 13 13 12 12 11 11 10
3e: 20 19 18 17 17 16 15 14 14 13 12 11 11 10 9 8 8 7 6 5

Magic-user (Wizard):
1e: 20 20 20 20 20 19 19 19 19 19 16 16 16 16 16 13 13 13 13 13 11*
2e: 20 20 20 19 19 19 18 18 18 17 17 17 16 16 16 15 15 15 14 14
3e: 20 19 19 18 18 17 17 16 16 15 15 14 14 13 13 12 12 11 11 10

1e: 19 16 16 15 15 13 13 12 12 10 10 9 9 8 8 7* 7 7 7 7
2e: 19 19 17 17 15 15 13 13 11 11 9 9 7 7 5* 5 5 5 5 5
3e: 19 18 17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

*Maximum values

In general, 1st edition was the hardest to remember but the most interesting and the most balanced. In 1st edition, low-level humans and demi-humans were no match for grubby goblins, orcs, or lizard men; however, at high levels, humans and demi-humans were heroes, quite a bit more skilled than the monsters they came to dominate. Our 1st edition PCs also had epiphanies - usually at "name level." Maximum THAC0s also helped to retain game balance, with the idea that there is a limit to possible skill.

2nd edition was clearly easier to remember, but game balance was a bit worse and at high levels, PCs had it too easy. At least, clerics and druids should have been given incremental increases as well (i.e., 20 20 19 18 instead of 20 20 20 18) so that they did not have to be useless for so long.

3rd edition was even easier to remember (although multi-classing made things complicated anyway), but it seems that the non-combat classes became too good at combat.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

An Introduction to Baguazhang

Baguazhang (八卦掌), or "eight trigram palm," is a famous "internal" martial art centered in Beijing. Like the other internal martial arts of taijiquan and xingyiquan, baguazhang trains intrinsic energy, or "qi" (氣), and thus can be used effectively even in old age. Baguazhang is notable for several reasons:

  • Baguazhang is a Daoist martial art with unclear origins. Dong Haichuan (董海川), the expert who first made the style famous in Beijing, never made clear who or where he learned his skills from. Later historians have, however, pointed to likely influences such as the Longmen (Dragon Gate) branch of Quanzhen (Complete Reality) Daoism (道教全真龍門派), whose headquarters was the White Cloud Temple (白雲觀) in Beijing; one practice in particular, called Turning Heaven Veneration (轉天尊), has striking similarities to baguazhang's own circle walking practice.

  • Philosophically, baguazhang is based on the "Eight Trigrams" (八卦) of the Book of Changes (易經), an ancient book of divination, philosophy, and cosmology. As such, each technique is related to one of the 8 trigrams or one of the 64 hexagrams; techniques most often come in groups of 8. The Eight Trigrams consist of a combination of three lines that can be either Yin (broken) or Yang (unbroken); the set of eight shown here are displayed in the Fu Xi (伏羲) post-heaven (後天) order, i.e. Qian (乾), Kan (坎), Gen (艮), Zhen (震), Xun (巽), Li (離), Kun (坤), Dui (兌). These specify various divisions of reality, such as in nature (heaven, water, mountains, thunder, wind, fire, earth, marshes) or directions (NW, N, NE, E, SE, S, SW, W) (note that ancient Chinese drew compasses with south at top).

  • Two (or three) generations of baguazhang experts, starting from Dong Haichuan in 1864, were employed by Prince Su (肅親王) as guards and teachers at Prince Su's mansion (肅王府) and eventually the Forbidden City (紫禁城) itself. In particular, Dong's first disciple Yin Fu (尹福) taught the Guangxu Emperor (光緒帝) his art, as well as using his art to escort and protect the Empress Dowager Cixi (慈安皇太后) during the Boxer Rebellion (義和團).

Technically, baguazhang is known for its ability to move quickly, using spiral power (螺旋勁) to attack with palms and hidden legs, and defeating multiple opponents at the same time. The repertoire of baguazhang is extensive, including strikes, throws, locks, 72 kicks, and a great arsenal of weaponry as well. Baguazhang weapons tend to be either oversized (such as huge swords) or extremely weird (such as strange, multi-pronged, multi-bladed weapons). Although baguazhang includes a great variety of methods and skills, its main training method is the enigmatic practice of walking in circles (走圏).

In pop culture, baguazhang has been referenced by popular cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender (airbending is based on baguazhang) and Naruto (The Hyuga (日向) family's style of Juken (柔拳) is obviously based on baguazhang), as well as unpopular non-cartoon TV shows like Black Sash (whose main character (played by Russel Wong) practiced and taught baguazhang). Real-life baguazhang, of course, is quite different from its pop culture derivations; one of the best examples is demonstrated here by Ma Chuanxu (馬傳旭), 4th generation inheritor of Liang style baguazhang (梁派八卦掌).

The Mixed Bag of Deities of the Forgotten Realms

Although Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and many other campaign settings have rather robust pantheons of original deities, the Forgotten Realms pantheon (even ignoring culture-specific regions such as Mulhorand for now) is an interesting mixed bag including several gods from historical pantheons, as well as many original deities as well.

From the Celtic mythos, we have the greater gods Silvanus and Oghma; from the Finnish mythos we have the goddesses Mielikki, Loviatar, and Ilmater (the last who apparently had a sex change and is now a god); finally, from the Norse mythos we have the one-handed god Tyr. Less obviously, there is also the goddess Tyche from the Greek pantheon, who was split into the goddesses of Tymora and Beshaba, as well as the goddess Bast of the Egyptian pantheon combined with Felidae and Zandilar the Dancer to become Sharess; finally, there is of course Tiamat, whose Realms variant borrows simultaneously from the Babylonian pantheon and the original AD&D five-headed dragon.

Besides historical sources, the Forgotten Realms pantheon has also borrowed heavily from (and expanded upon) the "standard" Greyhawk pantheon, including the four elemental lords of Akadi, Grumbar, Istishia, and Kossuth, but also nearly the entirety of the demihuman pantheons, with some modifications - some of the more notable additions include the drow goddess of good Eilistraee, the psionic duergar goddess Deep Duerra, and the triumvirate elven goddess of Angharradh (who is the Realms "combined" form of Sehanine Moonbow, Aerdrie Faenya, and Hanali Celanil). The Realms-only jungle dwarves have been given their own god as well (Thard Harr), but other races have been left deity-less (the arctic dwarves). Nearly all monster deities have been mentioned in Forgotten Realms sources as well, although almost none have been given a full treatment.

Although the Realms pantheon is in many ways a strange amalgam of different sources, it is very well-detailed with long, official writeups on the various churches, priesthoods, and rituals of each god. The specialty priest classes are in particular very attractive (and probably over-powered, but that is another story), making the various priest classes a lot more fun to play.