Archive for the ‘Nine Suns Must Fall’ Category


Dong Chensheng vs. Aliens

July 12, 2007

If I could have any cover art I wanted for Nine Suns, I’d choose Dong Chensheng’s “Yi Shoots Nine Suns” (yi she jiu ri). Nobody does a better depiction of the neolithic archer king than Mr. Dong.


Also, we played Giger Counter last night at StoryGames Boston and it went pretty well. The aliens ended up killing all the humans, but only barely. If the humans had bothered to pick up all the equipment laying around and used it against the aliens, they might have won. I feel like I just need to play it a bunch more and keep tweaking the numbers slightly to get the balance right (so that, in most cases, one or two humans will manage to survive). Otherwise, it’s pretty much ready to go, once I update the current draft to reflect this last playtest.

So now I’m all set to run Giger Counter at GenCon as planned, in a scenario based on Clint Kraus’ Roanoke where some mysterious thing is preying on the earliest English colony. I can’t wait. Should be a great time.



July 6, 2007

So, it’s been a long time that Jon and I have been talking about games that are in kind of the conceptual space of Nine Suns will Fall. I remember one was kind of a disaster-movie game, and I was on a kaiju kick at the time (who isn’t on a kaiju kick all the time?), so I was pretty excited about it.

This new concept, a work of scholarship and education, it’s not as viscerally exciting to me, but on a different level I’m much more excited, that it’s doing something probably a bit more difficult, but way way cooler. Less like WOO AWESOME and more like this is worth seeing.

I have some Story of the Seed stuff to post, but I’m saving it for tomorrow, when it’s in English.


Giving Life to the Bones

July 5, 2007

(We’ve prettied up the actual Secret Wars page, so check it out if you’re just reading this on feed.)

I had a revelation about Nine Suns while walking home from the movies in the rain.

One of the coolest parts of the game is being able to play actual Shang diviners. We actually know the names of these guys and know what charges they actually made to these bones some 3200 years ago while cracking them in what were surely major religious ceremonies. We know (well, I don’t, but surely someone does) which diviners were likely to ask what kinds of questions about what things. We have statistics on how often diviner Que, for example, asked about rainfall and how often it was auspicious and how often the king made personal observations and how often those observations were verified. We have all that data.

So… what if I tried to make the game as accurate as possible? Not just in terms of having the players take on the roles of actual diviners, but what if their divinations were actual divinations from 3200 years ago? Now, there are a couple of ways to do that.

First, you could do it statistically. You could figure out how often a certain issue would come up by how often it came up in the oracle bone record and then create mechanics that matched. So if diviner Que makes charges about rival chiefdoms in 5% of all unique divinations (ones that aren’t just about rain or other normal stuff), you know that, in 1 in 20 of the divinations that Que performs, he needs to ask about rival chiefdoms. And you could have a chart of the major chiefdoms, sorted by the percentage of the oracle bones that refer to them, and roll on it to determine which tribe is causing problems. So, ultimately what would happen is that, by playing the game, you would create months or years of events that were statistically similar in content to what actually happened.

The second way is to construct in-game events from actual oracle bone charges. For example, the Shang have their 60-day cycle that goes: 1.1, 2.2, 3.3, 4.4, 5.5, 6.6, 7.7, 8.8, 9.9. 10.10, 1.11, 2.12, 3.1, 4.2, etc. The first number is the 10-day week and the second number is the 12 rotating astrological signs. There are 60 different numeric combinations before it comes back to 1.1 and I could make a list of 4-5 charges that were actually make on each of those 60 days. So players could determine what day it was, in their game, and then see what actual charges were performed on that day and by which diviners. Then that could be the basis of play.

A third way, and I think perhaps the best, is to use a mixture of these two, so that players have some leeway and personal agency in choosing what charges to make and, therefore, what events happen in play. I’m not sure exactly how to do that yet, but once I figure it out, I’m sure it will be really interesting.


Divination Develops

July 3, 2007

Excitingly, Shang oracle bones hint at three major styles of divination that rose to prominence in three different periods.

  1. Question Charges: Unfortunately, the oracle bone record that we have starts with the reign of Wu Ding, a king right in the middle of the Shang chiefdom’s dynastic rule. This makes it difficult to know what divination was like under the kings that proceeded Wu Ding. However, Scholar Li Xueqin has noticed that the divinations marked with the diviner name Dui, “(which now appear to be the earliest found at Anyang) rather commonly used interrogatory final particles. This raises the possibility that the earliest divination charges may indeed have been true questions,” rather than the paired RAIN/NOT RAIN charges that I showed you before, the type of charge that is most common in the Wu Ding period. Interrogatory final particles are pretty standard in modern Chinese and turn a statement into a question by adding a character on the end of a line. So instead of “RAIN,” you’d get “RAIN?”
  2. Paired Charges: I’ve already talked about the RAIN/NOT RAIN form of charges, but I haven’t mentioned how it came about. Keightley points out that “in pre-Shang pyromancy, heat was applied to the bone surface in a haphazard manner… it would seem likely that the Neolithic diviners were not always able to produce a crack by the application of heat and, and that they were certainly not able to control its shape or direction… The introduction of turtle plastrons [shells] into Shang divination… introduced a new divinatory medium, symmetrical along its bifurcating central axis, with conveniently marked matching zones on the right and left.” Hence, the move towards paired charges, based on the new divination methods involved with turtle shells. Wu Ding’s reign would then represent a transition towards paired, turtle-based divination.
  3. Single Charges: Sometimes, charges would be a single line, like RAIN or NOT RAIN, but not paired with the complimentary charge. Under Wu Ding’s reign, “divination charges were not likely to be paired when (1) the king was required to do something, such as offer sacrifice or go hunting according to a predetermined schedule, or (2) the king routinely wanted something not to happen, like misfortunes or bad weather.” In these cases, the charges are most often NO MISFORTUNE WILL OCCUR THIS WEEK or THE KING SACRIFICES ON 5.7 DAY. These are not divinations so much as charms, magic to make the king’s desires come true. Interestingly, the later Shang kings — unlike Wu Ding and his immediate successors — tended to use single charges for most everything. Also, the divinations were always found to be favorable. This has led scholars to think that “the last two Shang kings… were talking, perhaps, more to themselves than to the ultrahuman powers… Optimistic ritual formula had replaced genuine metaphysical anxiety. Convention had tamed belief… The late Shang kings were not asking questions, they were expressing wishes.” Unfortunately, for modern scholars, such charges are much less interesting and tell us much less about what was actually going on in those periods.

All quotes are from David N. Keightley, “Shang Divination and Metaphysics,” Philosophy East & West 38, no. 4 (1988).



July 2, 2007

Aside from the oracle bones and some bronze inscriptions, we have no texts that date from the Shang period. So, in many cases, we are forced to look to later sources and see what they say about the early Chinese chiefdoms.

When Sima Qian (who lived 1000 years after the Shang) completed the historical chronicle begun by his father, Sima Tan, he called it The Record of the Great Historian, referring of course to his father, not himself. This is the my translation the Record, describing the birth of the Shang’s earliest ancestor, Xie.

Xie of Yin [a major Shang encampment],
his mother was called Jian Di,
she was a daughter of the Song clan,
and the second concubine of Emperor Ku.

Three people on their way to bathe
saw a dark bird drop its egg,
Jian Di took and swallowed it
and accordingly become pregnant and gave birth to Xie.

The Classic of Mountains and Seas is a Warring States era text (I think) which endeavors to record myths from earlier times, including perhaps some myths that date back to the Shang or earlier. The selections about the sunbirds read:

In the great desolation [the underworld]
there is a mountain called Nieyaoyundi,
there is a fu tree there
three hundred li [120 km] tall,
its leaves are like the mustard plant.

There is a valley named Warm Source [of a river] Valley,
above this hot springs valley there is a fu tree,
one sun arrives,
one sun departs,
all wearing the form of birds.

Above the hot springs valley there is a fu mulberry tree,
ten suns bathe there…
nine suns sit upon the lower branch(es),
one sun sits upon the upper branch(es).


Severance of Heaven-Earth Communication

July 1, 2007

“Anciently, men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded, and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below, and their insight to illumine what is distant and profound. Therefore the spirits would descend into them. The possessors of such powers were, if men, called hsi (shamans), and, if women, wu (shamanesses). It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters. As a consequence, the spheres of the divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessings on the people, and accepted from them their offerings. There were no natural calamities.”

“In the degenerate time of Shao-hao (traditionally put at the twenty-sixth century B.C.), however, the Nine Li threw virtue into disorder. Men and spirits became intermingled, with each household indiscriminately performing for itself the religious observances which had hitherto been conducted by the shamans. As a consequence, men lost their reverence for the spirits, the spirits violated the rules of men, and natural calamities arose. Hence the successor of Shao-hao, Chuan-hsu, charged Ch’ung, Governor of the South, the handle the affairs of heaven in order to determine the proper place of the spirits, and Li, Governor of the South, to handle the affairs of Earth in order to determine the proper places of men. And such is what is meant by cutting the communication between Heaven and Earth.”

K. C. Chang, Art, Myth and Ritual: The Path to Political Authority in Ancient China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 44-45, quoting a 4th century B.C. text.

Comparable to this Yi story of the division of the living and the dead from what is now Western China.


How to Read An Oracle Bone 2

June 28, 2007


Last time I showed you how to read the first two lines of this oracle bone (and, really, any oracle bone).

As a reminder, it goes:

  • DATE + “Crack” + NAME + “Divines” + negative CHARGE
  • DATE + “Crack” + NAME + “Divines” + positive CHARGE

Or, more specifically and in plain English:

  • Crackmaking on 6.3, Que divines: “It will probably not rain.”
  • Crackmaking on 6.3, Que divines: “It will rain.”

So let’s finish off the last two lines, which are not present on most oracle bones. About 10% of oracle bones will have notes on what the king says or predicts when he personally examines the cracks (as in Line 3). And about 10% of that 10% will have follow up notes made later on that confirm the king’s pronouncement (as in Line 4).

Looking at Line 3, we see that it reads: king + says + rain + bird + ninth day. Now this would all make fine sense without the “bird” character, right? The king says it will rain on the ninth day. No problem. But what do we do with “bird,” which seems like a clear reminder that this is a language and culture very different from our own and even from that of modern China. There’s no easy answer, but I would suggest something like: The King says the rainbird (i.e. the bird, possibly mythological, that brings the rain) will come on the ninth day. It’s not completely satisfying, but it may be the best we can do.

Moving on to Line 4, we see that it reads: 9.6 (another date) + actually + rain. This is way more straightforward. On 9.6 it actually rained. So the king’s prediction was correct. When the rain or the rainbird finally arrived, it was on the ninth day of the week, on the day numbered 9.6 according to the Shang calender.

So that’s how you read an oracle bone. Simple as pie.