Shinto Traditions Course — Inari

Today, the Shinto course at Kokugakuin University started again after the summer break. Of course, I’ve not posted any reports of the course in English since the very first lecture, way back in April, due to not having enough time, but I’m going to try to cover the last four lectures, because they cover the four most important and widespread traditions in Shinto.

Today’s lecture covered the fourth largest tradition, Inari. Now, if you’ve read about Shinto you may have heard that there are more Inari shrines in Japan than any other kind, up to around 30,000. However, according to Professor Okada there is no basis for that statement. The analysis that they did at Kokugakuin of a survey conducted by the Association of Shinto Shrines suggests that there are only a few thousand Inari shrines, and that it is the fourth largest tradition. However, as he pointed out, that survey was based on the names of the shrines, so it only reflects the primary kami. If you go to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura, it’s a Hachiman shrine, but it has three Inari shrines in the precincts. So, if you count all of the sub-shrines, and the shrines on the roofs of department stores (which are not part of the Association of Shinto Shrines), and the shrines in people’s gardens, then it might get up to 30,000. However, nobody has counted them, so there is no real evidence for the large number. Thus, Inari is a large Shinto tradition, but maybe not the largest.

The central shrine of the Inari tradition is Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto. According to the shrine tradition, it was founded in 711 by the Hata family, who were immigrants from the Korean peninsular. The story is that one of them, Irogu, became rich from rice farming, and made a rice cake, and then set it up as a target for archery. However, it turned into a white bird and flew away, and where it landed lots of rice sprang up. It landed in a cedar tree, and Irogu took one of the branches as a lucky charm. The shrine was founded where the bird landed, and branches from the tree remained lucky charms. It is said that if you plant one and it flourishes, you will be rich, but if it withers, you won’t be.

The name “Inari” is written with the characters for “burden of rice”, but it was originally written with those for “growing rice”. The most common kami at Inari shrines (it isn’t always the same one) is Ukanomitama no Mikoto, and his (or her) name is sometimes written with the characters for “rice granary”. It is, as you might guess, uncontroversial that Inari was originally an agricultural kami. Many kami were, of course, so this is hardly unusual.

So, the question is why Inari’s cult spread so much. Professor Okada suggested several reasons. First, in the ninth century Fushimi Inari became associated with the Imperial court. The emperor fell ill, and he despatched a messenger to make offerings at the shrine, because the illness was judged to be due to the kami’s curse. One of the causes was that Kukai (Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism) had chopped down trees on Mount Inari to build Toji, his large temple in Kyoto. This incident seems to have created a link between Inari and Shingon, as well as with the imperial court. In the later Heian period, Fushimi Inari became one of the 22 shrines that received special attention from the imperial court, which helped it to become more popular. In addition, its association with Shingon meant that it spread as Shingon temples spread across Japan.

Another reason for Inari’s popularity was that women were allowed to worship there. Most Buddhist temples, particularly the ones with sacred mountains, forbade entry to women. This was true until the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, and I believe there is still one place that maintains the tradition today. This was, obviously, a problem for women who wanted to visit sacred places. However, Fushimi Inari allowed women to visit all parts of the shrine, and it was quite close to the capital, so it became a popular destination for pilgrimages. It features in quite a few works of literature from the later Heian period (from about 950 to 1100), generally in the context of women visiting the mountain. This factor seems to have increased its popularity with ordinary people; indeed, Fushimi Inari may well have been one of the first shrines that people in general visited for personal worship.

A further reason is Fushimi Inari’s attitude to distributing divided spirits of the kami. Basically, this is what you need to found a new shrine; it’s a kami to enshrine there. Fushimi Inari would, basically, give one to anyone who made an appropriate offering. That meant that, if you wanted to establish a shrine to look after your new house, it was easiest to establish an Inari shrine.

A final reason is connected to Inari’s current area of influence. These days, Inari is seen mainly as a kami of commercial prosperity. Professor Okada suggested that this started because the people living in the area of Kyoto that was taken to be under Fushimi Inari’s protection were mostly craftsmen (particularly metalworkers) and tradesmen. Thus, Inari became associated with business success and when, in the Edo period, people founded businesses in the towns that grew up around the castles of the samurai, they established Inari shrines as well.

As a result, Inari spread widely, but if you tabulate the shrines by region, there is a noticeable bias towards eastern Japan. The reasons for this are not entirely clear.

To prepare for this lecture, Professor Okada visited Fushimi Inari, for the first time in about twenty years. He said that the famous tunnel of red torii, set up by people making offerings to the kami, has got longer, and now covers most of the main path up and around the mountain. At the top, there are areas full of torii erected in the Heisei period, which means since 1989. Thus, this practice is still current. He also mentioned that there are, along the tunnel, signs giving a price list for the torii. The smallest one is 500,000 yen, or about $6000 (at the moment), and for the largest ones you can expect to pay a few million yen. Not exactly an impulse purchase, but within the budget of ordinary individuals.

One shrine on the mountain is called “White Fox Shrine”, and it enshrines a white fox who serves Inari. The association of foxes with Inari is very strong, and very famous, but its origin is also very obscure. There is one theory that says that Inari was associated with a Shingon Buddhist deity called Dakiniten, and that, as Dakiniten rode a white fox, the fox became associated with Inari. Another theory, however, says that Inari was associated with Dakiniten because they were both associated with foxes. This is a mystery, but everyone knows about Inari and foxes, if only because the guardian statues at an Inari shrine are invariably foxes rather than the koma-inu that most shrines have.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Okada told us an extra story, nothing to do with Inari. Over the summer, he went to Tsushima, an island near Korea, and found an interesting shrine. It isn’t very big, and looks like any other small shrine, but the kami is Maria Konishi, the wife of a lord at the beginning of the Edo period. As you might guess from her name, she was a Christian. While Christianity was forbidden in Japan, the hidden Christians used the shrine as a way to worship, but now it is an ordinary Shinto shrine, as the Christians have churches. Professor Okada commented that he wasn’t sure how Maria Konishi herself felt about becoming a Shinto kami, but it shows how ready Shinto is to accept and incorporate outside influences, of various sorts.

One thing that this series of lectures has made clear is the variety found within Shinto. Inari might be very popular, but the Inari shrines are noticeably different from other shrines, with their red torii and foxes. The diversity of Shinto is, for me, one of the most appealing things about it.

Mayuki’s Birthday

Mayuki has now had her third birthday, and the first one I think she really appreciated. Obviously, actually getting born is unlikely to be a pleasant experience for the child, and the child doesn’t even get the elation that compensates the mother. I’m not sure that Mayuki noticed her first birthday at all; she really had to be encouraged to look at the presents, and quickly lost interest. Her second birthday was much the same. This time, however, she did her birthday properly.

Mayuki playing with her dolls' house.Her present from my mother (and Ray) and Yuriko’s parents was a large, wooden dolls’ house, which came with wooden furniture and two wooden dolls. None of this plastic rubbish for Mayuki. Of course, wooden toys are durable, as well as feeling nice to play with, so there were definite practical considerations involved. There were also completely emotional considerations; Yuriko really wanted Mayuki to have a dolls’ house like this, possibly because Yuriko never had one.

Fortunately, Mayuki also loved it. We set it up in the evening after she went to sleep, so it was there in the morning. She quickly found it, and, as the picture shows, started playing with it in her pyjamas, completely forgetting about having her morning milk. She kept playing with it for the next few hours, and still plays with it a lot now, although the various wooden lamps are as likely to be the family as the dolls are. Still, that’s the benefit that these sorts of toys have for development: they encourage her imagination. The fact that she will happily play with the house by herself is just an extra benefit for us.

In the evening, we gave her the present from us: a wooden Thomas the Tank Engine train set. People seem to suspect that my enthusiasm was as much behind this as Yuriko’s was behind the dolls’ house, but it really isn’t. I was never into train sets, and I’m still not. No, this is the present that Mayuki pretended to get and play with while playing with me a few weeks before her birthday.

Fortunately, she was just as enthusiastic about playing with the real thing, spending hours pushing the trains round the track with me. We got her two trains: Thomas, and Hiro, a Japanese train introduced in the newer animated episodes, so I would push one round while she did the other, taking turns to go in front. She took the train set with her when she went with Yuriko to visit her grandparents in Nagoya soon after her birthday, and played with it a lot there. It’s not been unpacked yet, so maybe we’ll do that tonight.

Mayuki with her birthday cake

Mayuki looks at photographs of herself. You can see Thomas and Hiro on the table.

Then we had the birthday dinner. This was less of a roaring success, although it certainly wasn’t a failure. The main problem was that Mayuki refused to eat the food that Yuriko prepared, preferring to play with her toys, and didn’t even eat any of her cake, only one of the strawberries off the top. (Mayuki isn’t that into sweets and chocolate in general, in fact.) Still, that aside, Mayuki did participate in singing Happy Birthday to herself, and blew the candles out, getting two with the first blow and the last with her second attempt. Maybe next year Mayuki will be properly into the celebratory meal aspects as well.

Mayuki didn’t really want to go to bed, but that’s fairly normal. She was reassured when we told her that the toys would still be there in the morning, and she did play with the train set again as soon as she woke up. In fact, she got up and went to play quietly with it, so that I didn’t immediately realise that she was awake.

So, her birthday was a success. Now that she’s three, we’re looking at kindergartens, because the Japanese school year starts in April, so it’s nearly time to apply. Maybe next year she’ll be able to have her friends from kindergarten round for a birthday party.

Choosing the World

Although I will, of course, develop the detailed design of the game world while I’m working on the game, I do need to choose the basic type of world I want to create. Since we are focusing on things I’m personally interested in, there are four options: “classic” fantasy, modern fantasy, science fiction, and historical.

By “classic” fantasy I mean, essentially, the sort of fantasy world popularised by Tolkien and his imitators. Elves, dwarfs, orcs, swords and sorcery. That sort of thing. Yes, a lot of role-playing games have used this background, most famously Dungeons & Dragons. However, the basic aim of my game is sufficiently different from that of D&D that using a familiar background might actually be a good thing, if I’m aiming at an audience of role-players. If the background is classic fantasy, the players’ assumptions about the general ways in which the background works will be correct, which will help them get into the game, and make sensible choices from the background options available. As the basic goals of the characters are very different from those in other role-playing games, a bit of familiarity could be a big help. In addition, this is something I keep coming back to when I look at classic fantasy worlds; I really like them, no doubt in part because they were an important element in my formative years, but the games set there do not support the sorts of characters I actually want to play.

What about the other sort of fantasy, modern fantasy? If I wrote a modern fantasy game, I would probably set it in Japan. It would be something like Tamao: The RPG. Of course, that would make the background very unfamiliar to the players, apart from the handful of English-speaking role-players who live in Japan, unless I wrote it in Japanese and targeted the Japanese market. However, I suspect that’s a bit too ambitious for the moment. I could set it in the UK or the USA, but that removes one of the big advantages of putting it in Japan: I can’t use information and images that I can gather just by walking around the area where I live.

Moving away from fantasy, if I created a science fiction world it would be fairly hard science fiction, not space opera. However, since the things that characters would create would include new scientific theories, it couldn’t be hard science fiction according to the strict definition, because the characters would discover things that broke the currently-established laws of nature. (This is, however, a fundamental problem for hard science fiction; new scientific laws will be discovered in the future, so if you set something far enough in the future it’s not hard science fiction if you don’t make something up, but also not if you do. Obviously, there are ways round this, but it does make the standard definition less applicable than it might be.) I’d probably set it in a somewhat transhumanist setting, like those used in Transhuman Space and Eclipse Phase, because those settings provide a lot of space for engineering creations as well as for fundamental scientific discoveries, and thus make it easier to create a setting that supports a long-running campaign. It’s a bit hard to maintain continuity, and interest, if you completely restructure the world every week.

Finally, a historical setting would probably start with a straight historical setting, without fantasy, but the actions of the player characters would quickly turn it into an alternate history setting. They might make scientific discoveries and change the technological background, or create important new works of art, or change the political structure. In any case, the aim of the game would be to enable the player characters to change history, in deep and fundamental ways. However, the first changes might be quite minor, so this would also have an educational aspect, as the players would naturally learn about the historical period while playing.

The downside of both a hard scientific setting and a historical setting is that a large amount of research would be needed to do them properly. I could probably do a historical game set in medieval England based on the research I’ve already done, and I have enough scientific background to be able to make a stab at the science fiction, but in either case I’d have to do even more research. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, because I like research, but it is another barrier to getting started on writing the actual game. I probably don’t need any other preparatory projects to waste my time on.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said of the modern fantasy setting. While I only need to go outside and walk around for some things, for others I really would need to find out how Japanese society works in that respect, and that might not be at all easy. Again, it’s something I want to know, but research takes me even longer in Japanese than in English (my Japanese reading speed is still not the same as my English reading speed), so it would, again, significantly delay the creation of the actual game.

Looking at all of these issues, it rather looks as though the classic fantasy setting is the best choice to start with. I can just make the background up to fit the structure of the game, which is likely to be helpful while I am still trying to get things working. More generally, I can just make bits of background up as I need them, and, as long as I keep track of them, they can’t be wrong. I might decide I want to make revisions later, and there will be time for that, but I can’t make actual, unambiguous mistakes.

The next step, then, is to start actually writing the game. This process, however, will not lend itself to regular blog posts, and virtually nobody is reading these posts anyway, so while I think I will post about it from time to time, when there is something significant to say, this will be the last of this semi-regular series.

Setting the Scene

Introducing the game world is, like character creation, a major problem for role-playing games. Most games end up with several volumes of world information, running to thousands of pages; Ars Magica is certainly no exception to that. Reading this information and discovering the game world is part of the fun for a lot of people. However, feeling that you need to read several thousand pages before you can play a game does tend to discourage casual players, and make it hard to try new games. It’s even more of a problem for my design, where I want people to be able to start playing within fifteen minutes, and to do so without a gamemaster, and thus without someone assumed to know what is going on in the game world.

A bad approach to this problem would be to provide lots of material to be read out by the players. Reading is fun, but it isn’t playing, so this also delays people getting into the game. In addition, the players are not going to remember everything that is read out to them, particularly if it’s about an entirely fictional world, or something historical or from a remote culture. Boredom and confusion are the likely result, and neither of those is fun.

On the other hand, the information does need to be contained in the scenario, because there’s nowhere else to put it. However, it is better if the information is supplied as needed, rather than in large chunks, and if the information supplied is closely involved in the action being taken. This is the “show, don’t tell” rule for writing fiction, transferred to a role-playing context.

The concrete application of this is to the description of the actions the characters take, and to the description of the characters themselves. Each individual problem needs to be described, and that description should introduce part of the world. Further, each action that the characters take should be described, and further the world’s description. Describing the problem is relatively easy; this can be a bit of text that one player reads out. It can be kept short, and it’s immediately relevant to play, so boredom and confusion can be avoided.

Character actions are a bit more difficult, because the players should have control, but don’t have the necessary knowledge. I think the best approach may be to provide two or three options for actions in each situation, with a description, and then let the player choose which one the character does.

Character features, which grant additional dice to roll, should also describe part of the background. They won’t go into detail, but they’ll start to reveal something of what the game world is like. And, if they’re chosen, they’ll be linked to the character, and thus easy to remember and important. Of course, they should continue to be important in later parts of the scenario, but that’s just a matter of careful design.

Finally, there’s the background itself. What is the world like beyond the immediate concerns of the characters? Here, I would like to introduce elements that characterise the world, and the particular location where the characters are working. One possibility is to make two elements available at each action, with a brief description of each one. Then, the player can choose to incorporate one of the available elements into the description of her character’s action. If she does so, she gets an extra die to roll, and that element is confirmed as being present in the immediate environment.

A possible development of this is to have more detailed descriptions of certain elements, which become available when a basic element is in play. Later players can choose to involve them, making the description richer, and getting extra dice for their characters’ actions.

However, there’s going to be a lot to keep track of here, and scratch paper may not be the best way to do it. Instead, I think it might be a good idea to print the descriptions on cards, around business-card size. The cards can then be placed between the players, so that they can see what elements there are in the environment, and how they are built up. The cards could also have pictures on, although, as I can’t draw, that is unlikely to happen in the first stages of development. Actually, the whole thing could be made multimedia, with images and sounds, even animations, and then run on a laptop, tablet computer, or smartphone. However, I’d have to learn to program to do that, as well as get the multimedia from somewhere, so that’s also not going to be the immediate form this takes.

Another advantage of using relatively small cards is that it limits the length of the descriptions, which is an important consideration. The elements might build up into a lengthy, detailed description, but they start small. Since adding detail means going back to an element that has already been added, that will remind the players of what is around them, and, again, makes it important that the individual elements are short. Reading over a lot of long descriptions repeatedly risks creating boredom again.

This is going to require quite a lot of work from the author of the scenario. He will have to make sure that the elements work together well, support the story of the scenario, and let the players generate interesting characters. They will also need to be structured so that it is very difficult to produce something that doesn’t make sense. Thus, each background element card will need instructions for what replaces it in the pool of available elements if it is used, or, for incompatible detailed descriptions, what has to be taken out. For character elements and elements of the thing being created, the scenario needs to specify what is available at each point, possibly depending on what was chosen earlier.

However, it is important to avoid closing off options. We must remember that the players do not know what they are doing; they should not be allowed to make choices that mean they cannot do, or be, something significant in the game world, at least not early on. For example, in a classic fantasy game, players should not be able to exclude the possibility that their character belongs to a particular race until they know enough about the races to make that choice sensibly.

Again, looking away from the scenarios, this information can also be gathered into books about the game world, so that they are available for people who like to read that sort of thing. A player could learn about the background from books, which would just mean that he knew more about how the elements introduced in a scenario connected to the rest of the world. That wouldn’t, normally, be an advantage, since the characters would be assumed to know even if the players didn’t. It would also be possible to produce packs of background elements, for use with any scenario, that introduced new features of the game world.

I’ve been very vague in this as to the nature of the background, because that’s the next thing I have to decide. In broad terms, what is going to be the setting of my game?

Revising Creation

My suggestion in the last post that we could generate characters during play created the problem that it would work better if the basic rules relied on simply beating a difficulty, not on the amount by which you beat it. However, the rules I designed for creating something relied on the final total. Can I redesign them to use fixed difficulties?

We can start with the simplest level again. To make the creation “work” in a certain way, you need to beat a certain difficulty. If we keep the pattern of having about three aspects to a creation, which seems reasonable, that would require about three rolls for a whole project, which is obviously insufficient.

So, we start adding complications. If you try and fail, the resistance of that aspect increases by a certain amount, the same no matter what the failing total is, adding to the difficulty of future attempts. If you try and succeed, the resistance of the other aspects increases by a certain amount, again the same no matter what the succeeding total is, meaning that the order in which you approach things matters.

We can then add rolls to reduce the resistance, giving them fixed difficulties again, in return for a fixed reduction in the resistance. The rolls to get additional dice for your pool work perfectly well as they are, as long as we only include one level of success. That’s fine; more complex things can be introduced later in the game, when scores have been fixed and people are more confident about their characters.

So, will this work? We want the characters to succeed at just about everything, because a failure fixes features of their character, and we want to avoid fixing things this early. So, if there are three qualities in an encounter, that’s three rolls, one for each quality, to start with. If each success adds the same amount of resistance to the other qualities, and we are going to recommend reducing the difficulty to the base level, that’s another three rolls; one to reduce the resistance of the second quality, and two to reduce that of the third. Six rolls is, at least, enough for one each in any practical group, but it’s still a bit low.

We can also introduce rolls to get additional dice to roll, or give the option to purchase character features that grant additional dice in a limited context. This would help to keep the level of commitment to talents down, by allowing the characters to explain some of their pool dice through a feature instead.

Thinking about the big picture, shorter encounters might actually be better in this situation. We do want to finish creating the character, or at least the relevant aspects of the character, by the end of the scenario, so we probably want a relatively large number of short encounters, to give the players a good idea of what the various talents and abilities do. In these encounters, the difficulties should be set to encourage easy success, so that the characters who do act only have very low minimum scores in the relevant statistics. A difficulty of 4, requiring a 5 or higher to succeed, might be reasonable. Success while keeping a single die is certainly possible, but players are likely to need to roll more than one, which provides space to introduce features. A difficulty of 3 might even be usable, because there’s still a 50% chance that players will need to roll more than one die.

Let’s look at a semi-concrete example. Suppose there are three tasks, each of which has a difficulty of 3. Failing at a task adds 3 to its resistance, but failing is strongly discouraged. Succeeding at a task adds 3 to the resistance of the other tasks, but there are things you can do to reduce those resistances. These tasks also have difficulties of 3, and reduce the resistance by 3. For each task, there is a character feature available that adds one die to roll, and an action that another character can take, with a difficulty of 3, to similarly add a die. We’re going to need features available to make more dice available for the rolls for assistance, as well, because we don’t want them to push the defined statistics up too high. However, support tasks for the support tasks are a bad idea in general; things will get rather recursive.

So, once we have gone through the bits of the setting and rules that are relevant, we can move on to more difficult tasks, where players can choose what they want their characters to be good at, and start to define them. The short encounters would naturally be part of a larger problem, but it’s probably best not to provide any major choices at this point, as the players don’t know what they’re doing. However, the more difficult tasks in the second part should allow for real decisions about strategy, and the first part of the adventure should have provided enough information for the players to make such decisions sensibly.

The biggest remaining question is how to justify the fixed difficulties within the game. It doesn’t make much sense for there to be thresholds of success in writing a novel, for example. You can write a readable and entertaining novel, and still have plenty of room for improvement. (Been there, done that.) However, it does make sense in what might be called engineering problems. For certain problems, you can solve the problem, and it really makes no difference how much extra brilliance you put into it; the solution won’t be any better. Obviously, there are exceptions, and the game should cover them, because they are the great technological breakthroughs that revolutionise society, but the more mundane problems do exist, and so they can be used in an introductory game.

Of course, this means throwing away my example pretty much in its entirety, but that’s OK. The example was just to help with clarifying the basic structure, rather than a serious suggestion for what I was going to use.

At the end of the introductory scenario, the players will have spent a certain number of points, and defined a number of aspects of their characters. Note, however, that you could also create a character just by spending the points, and such a character would be perfectly balanced with one created in play. This means that I can also produce a big book full of character creation options with point costs, for people who like doing that sort of thing, without biasing things in favour of people with the book. People who create a character in play are, after all, guaranteed to have lots of statistics that are useful in play, because something is only defined when it is useful in play.

In addition, this change to the basic rules still doesn’t require a gamemaster. The scenario needs to define the difficulties, but the players and characters are supposed to be aware of them, so there’s no problem with defining them out in the open. However, there is a problem for the introductory scenario. Someone needs to describe the world, but there might be no-one at the table who knows much about it. How can we approach that problem? That will be the topic of the next post.