The Luminaries

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For the last year I’ve been developing a card game called Illimat with the band The Decemberists. As I write this, there’s less than twelve hours left in the Kickstarter for Illimat… but I still want to take a moment to write about one of my favorite elements of the game.

One of the design goals with Illimat was to create a card game that felt like it could have been around a hundred years ago and simply been forgotten… or that it might be a classic card game from another world, a game that the characters of The Hazards of Love might play. As one of my favorite books is the Codex Seraphinianus, I loved the idea of creating a deck of cards that felt familiar and yet fantastic… and fortunately for me, Carson Ellis has always wanted to make a deck of cards as well. We started with a base deck of five suits – the four familiar seasons, and a fifth suit of Stars that is added in when you play with four players. These are the primary tools of play. But we also came up with a second set of cards… the major arcana of our fictional deck, and its strongest connection to The Decemberists. We called these Luminaries. Within the context of the game, Luminaries are dealt face-down in each corner of the board. Each Luminary has a special ability that comes into effect when the card is revealed. Some of these are simple: while The Maiden is on the board, Winter has no effect. Others are more complicated; The Changeling allows you to exchange a card from your hand for a card in The Changeling’s field, which opens up a host of possibilities.

The interaction between the Luminaries helps to make each session of Illimat unique. But my favorite thing is how Carson Ellis has blended the artistic goal – creating a set of iconic, tarot-like images – with the mechanical effects of the cards. We don’t write the rules for the Luminary on the card, but once you know what they do, the image serves to remind you. For example…

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The Changeling is inspired by the character of William from Hazards of Love. Stolen by the Forest Queen as a child, he takes the form of a faun by day while reverting to human form at night. The Changeling card presents this basic concept in an interesting and iconic way, but it also shows the exchange of cards, which is what The Changeling does in the game itself; one card is changed into another.

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In The Hazards of Love, William must find a way to cross the deadly river. In Illimat, the field that contains The River is filled with six cards, making it more difficult to clear than other fields. This is reflected by the six cards floating in the River. At the same time, the image of the cards in the reveal feels iconic to me, not unlike the classic Five of Cups – the cards being swept away. The card also has a secondary effect. Normally the player who harvests the most Winter cards LOSES 2 points; but if they have The River, it freezes over and they can cross… so instead they GAIN two points.

Developing the Luminaries was a threefold process of coming up with a set of core concepts that felt strong and iconic while still feeling grounded in The Hazards of Love; coming up with game effects that were interesting but felt like they reflected the concept; and then developing art that combined both the effect and the concept. I’m happy with their mechanical element – but I’m especially thrilled with how Carson brought them to life.

You can read Carson’s thoughts on developing Illimat here, and if you read the before 8 PM Pacific Time on October 3rd you can back Illimat here!

Any questions?

The Story of ILLIMAT

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Two days ago, I launched the Kickstarter for a game I’m making with The Decemberists: ILLIMAT. It’s a card game for 2-4 players, and you can play it in 15 minutes or an hour. I could describe it in more detail, but you can go to the page and see it right now or if you’d like to see it played, you can watch this gameplay video from One Shot Game Night… or this detailed overview of the game from GeekDad

But what IS Illimat? Where did it come from? And what, exactly, do The Decemberists have to do with it?

In 2009, The Decemberists were preparing to release the album The Hazards of Love. As Colin Meloy says, they “were doing what most bands do in preparation for such an event: trying out new hairstyles, inviting people to be in their band, and participating in photoshoots.” They had an idea for a shoot in which they’d pretend to be a secret society that met in strange places to play a mysterious board game. Artist Carson Ellis and photographer Autumn DeWilde made an inscrutable two-part board. The shoot happened, the board was tucked away somewhere, and that was that. But over the course of the next six years, the Decemberists began playing more and more games while on the road. At some point someone said “Remember that mysterious board? Could we make that into an actual game?”

I got to know guitarist Chris Funk through Gloom, and he came to me with the idea of making this game. He and Colin Meloy dropped by my house and presented me with the following enigmatic artifact.

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They also had a few specific requests. They want a game that…

  • … Felt like it could be an old game, something that might have been played a hundred years ago and just forgotten.
  • … Didn’t actually depict the events of Hazards of Love, but somehow felt like a game that would be played in the world of HoL. 
  • … Tying to the secret society vibe, something that felt mysterious and even “humorously obtuse” – while still being easy to learn and play.

The board sat in my basement for a few months while I pondered this challenge. From a design perspective, there’s a bunch of basic challenges. The board is divided into four quadrants. Does each player use a different quadrant? Does each quadrant had a different effect? What’s the relevance of the numbers and symbols in the corners? Most of all: What about that second box that sits in the center? Why do you put a box in the middle of the board – and what can you do with it?

One of the first things that struck me was that we wanted to make the box in the center the actual box for the game. The board was beautiful but also somewhat unwieldy – over time we came up with the idea of putting the design onto a cloth board that could fold up and fit into the central box. I’m very happy with the end result of this: the final game is very compact and transportable, but keeps the basic beauty of the design.

Next, I started thinking about making something that felt as though it could have been “played a hundred years ago and then forgotten.” I picked up my 1875 copy of Hoyle and started looking at games I’d heard of but never played, like Whist and Bazique. I was intrigued by the core mechanic used in Cassino and Scopa, and started experimenting with that. I decided to have each of the four quadrants of the board hold a different set of cards, but not to limit access to those fields to a specific player. This led to the next big jump: The idea that the box in the center would determine the rules that applied to each field… and that when the box turned, the rules would change.

Meanwhile, we wanted something that wasn’t about Hazards of Love, but felt like it could be played in that world. I wanted to make what essentially felt like a Tarot deck from another world. We set the suits of the cars to the seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter – and created a set of eight Luminaries – the Major Arcana of this deck – inspired by the iconic elements of Hazards of Love. Thus we have The Forest Queen, The Changeling and The River. The central box – which had been named “the Illimat” in the original photoshoot – would set the season, and the season would restrict the actions. Anything is possible in Summer, but you can’t stockpile in Spring, sow in Autumn, or harvest in Winter.

There’s many more details I’d like to delve into, especially the design of the Luminaries themselves, and I’ll get to those in future posts. But that’s how the story begins… and here’s the current image of the game as we envision it, in contrast to that original board in the picture above.

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Check out the Kickstarter if you have a moment! We’re off to a great start, but the journey is just beginning. If you have any questions, post them below!

Eberron Flashback: Aberrant Dragonmarks

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There’s lots of great things afoot. I’m keen to delve deeper into the setting of Phoenix and to explore the topics sitting on the burner for Eberron. However, at the moment I am under the gun as I prepare to launch the Kickstarter campaign for my new game illimatcoming to Kickstarter this Tuesday, October 4th! and I don’t have any time to write. So instead, I’m resurrecting an old topic from 2012: Aberrant Dragonmarks.

Dragonmarks are mystical symbols that provide mystical power to the people that bear them. “True” dragonmarks are bound to bloodlines, and over time the dragonmarked houses have turn their mystical powers to industrial purpose and carved out economic empires. Such dragonmarks are reliable and useful, and largely have postive, constructive effects. But there’s another sort of dragonmark: twisted marks that are unpredictable in every way, and which grant powers that frighten and hurt others. Where the pure dragonmarks let their bearers heal and create, those who bear aberrant dragonmarks may produce fire, spread plagues, control minds, or worse. While aberrant dragonmarks often result when people of diferent dragonmarks bloodlines have children, they can manifest on anyone. There are many prejudices and superstitions tied to aberrant dragonmarks, adn centuries ago there was a massive purge – the “War of the Mark” – that virtually wiped out the aberrant population. For a time, aberrant dragonmarks were just legend. Now they are beginning to return.

While their powers are dangerous, on the surface aberrant dragonmarks don’t seem that bad. So you can cast burning hands once per day. So can a sorcerer, and he’s not being hunted by a mob. The main point is that aberrant dragonmarks are defined by story as well as rules. The concept of the aberrant dragonmark is that it is dangerous and often unpleasant for its bearer, and that even if they can control it now, they likely couldn’t when it first manifested. As an adventurer, the power provided by an aberrant dragonmark may seem to be a blessing; but per story, at some point in your life it has surely been a curse. As you develop an aberrant character, think about that concept. How did it first manifest? Who was hurt by it? How does it feel – are you comfortable with your mark, or does it burn against your skin? Many marks are accompanied by physical or mental disfigurement… is yours? If you want your character to develop an aberrant dragonmark over the course of play, you may want to place it in the hands of your DM and have it manifest at an inconvenient time, to advance the story and explore the burden. Or as a DM, with your players’ permission you could give one or more of them aberrant dragonmarks they can’t control – so don’t require them to pay the cost of the feat, but it’s up to you exactly when and how the power manifests.

With all that in mind, let’s look back at some of the questions people have had about aberrant dragonmarks.

I was always perplexed about the detail of the War of the Mark. First, there is an apparent lack of public opposition to the persecution of aberrants. Hundreds or even thousands of them must have been killed across the continent for no other reason than manifesting the wrong version of the dragonmarks. Of course, the Houses’ propaganda painted them as evil, but there is just that much propaganda can do. Most of those people had families and friends who knew otherwise. I doubt that aberrants have any bigger tendency to become criminals due to destructive powers of their marks than, say, sorcerers, who learn how to cast burning hands and magic missiles.

If you have a moment, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.

She grew up in village in Daskara, not far from the modern city of Sigilstar. She loved the country and taking care of the livestock. When she was 13, her family fell ill with a disease no one had ever seen before. They died, and the plague spread to the rest of the village and their stock. Only two things were unaffected: the rats and the girl. When everyone was dead, she fled to the town of Sarus. You’ve never heard of Sarus, because it doesn’t exist anymore. It was burnt by those who sought to keep the plague from spreading. The rats kept the girl alive, and were the only thing that kept her close to sane. In time she learned to control her power. Even so, she couldn’t bear the burden of the deaths on her conscience. She declared that the girl had died with her family. She was someone new, someone without a name. She was the Lady of the Plague.

Before I continue, have you read any of the following?

  • The RPGA adventure The Delirium Stone, in which players actually experience a flashback to the War of the Mark.
  • The Children of Khyber Dragonshard article.
  • The novels The Son of Khyber or The City of Towers, in which we interact with modern aberrants and get to see some of them. They’re not all bad people. But many of them are strange or disturbing. Little “Junior Lady Of The Plague” Zae who only talks to rats. Brom with his troll’s arm. Crippled Filleon with his deadly touch.

Here’s a quote from the Dragonshard article, describing what it’s like to have a powerful aberrant mark:

You can feel your power festering within you. It’s different for every child of Khyber. One feels a chill no warmth can push away, while another complains of fire burning beneath his skin. An heir with the power of confusion feels the force of madness in his mind, trying to claw its way out and feast on the thoughts of others. Your mark may bring you pain. It may whisper to you as you try to sleep. But it is a part of you.

You say “Why would an aberrant be any more likely to be a criminal than a sorcerer?” The answer is that a sorcerer chooses his path. Sorcery may be a natural talent as opposed to wizardry, but the sorcerer applies himself to its study and chooses the path he wants to follow. The aberrant doesn’t. His power chooses him, and often in a very unpleasant way. If the aberrant has burning hands, odds are good it manifested for the first time when he was angry at someone. Was that in a lover’s quarrel? When he was arguing with a parent? A friend? What death is on his conscience? And whenever he gets angry, can he hold the flames in? Likewise, for a sorcerer the power isn’t a burden; it’s a tool he learns to use. For an aberrant it’s something he must master and control, lest it drive him mad or harm those around him.

Powerful aberrant marks are dangerous to the bearer. They often cause disfigurements or madness. Yes, with training these dangers can be controlled or limited, and that’s something Tarkanan was trying to do. But to your question of “Why didn’t people care? Why did people believe the propaganda?”… look at the Salem witch trials and imagine that these things were unquestionably real. That someone has a livid red mark on their skin and that they burned their mother to death – and that you’ve HEARD the stories about how these people are touched by Khyber, how they are all monsters. Are you going to say “Oh, he didn’t mean it, he just needs to learn to control it. So he killed my wife – mistakes happen.” Or are you going to sending a messenger out to find the nearest Deneith extermination squad? And again, in terms of just how dangerous these marks could be, I’ll note that Halas Tarkanan destroyed a city when he unleashed his mark – and that the curse of the Lady of the Plague still lingers over a thousand years after. Far from trying to STOP the Dragonmarked from persecuting the aberrants, most local authorities were glad they were there.

The aberrant marks seen today – the “least” aberrant marks, if you will – don’t carry the same restrictions or power. You can have an aberrant mark without being a madman or a cripple. And you’re not going to use that mark to destroy a city. But the stories haven’t been forgotten, and the houses simply keep them alive. And now the more powerful marks are starting to return… so what happens next?

So you are basically saying that abberant dragonmarks do tend to make people outcasts and criminals…

Aberrant dragonmarks certainly make people outcasts. They don’t necessarily make them criminals; being outcasts may, however. The point is that there’s a significant difference between having an aberrant mark that produces burning hands and being a sorcerer who can do it. For the aberrant, it begins as a dangerous burden. Some are driven mad. Some inadvertently take actions that lead to their deaths (unleashing burning hands in a public place and getting lynched as a result). Those that survive learn to control their powers – but it’s not an easy or comfortable thing.

But the logical conclusion would be that the society had been trying to deal with this threat long before War of the Mark. If I knew a kid who caused a whole village to die from disease and another kid who torched his mom in anger and they both had those scary red marks on their skin, I would probably vote for a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with a similar mark. I would have had a lynching mob go after such people. And if it were too dangerous, I would call on my liegelord to send a squad of archers and shoot the baddie from a safe distance.

Society would only have to deal with this threat “long before the War of the Mark” if aberrant marks existed in significant numbers long before the War of the Mark… and they didn’t. Mixed marks appeared in small numbers when houses mingled; this is how the houses discovered these existed and how “the threat” became known. At the time the houses set their policy, it was largely the way we have incest laws: mingling the blood of two houses has unsavory results, don’t do it. Then the marks began spreading – yet not tied to lineage or any predictable pattern. The first of these were the equivalent of least marks. Stories begin to spread… but bear in mind that there were no airships, lightning rails, or speaking stones at this time, so word certainly didn’t spread as fast as it once did. A boy burned his mother, and he had a mark like those of the Twelve, but traced in blood. More powerful marks begin to appear, but still nothing on the level of Tarkanan or the Lady of the Plague. People say it’s Khyber stirring in the depths. There are more stories of marks driving their bearers mad, and the deaths that have resulted are sensationalized. Ghallanda spreads the word through the inns. Orien passes it along the trade roads, and Lyranar the seas. Phiarlan sings songs of the unsavory aberrants… and it’s now that the Lady of the Plague appears, and her tale is one that terrifies the public. Families that have been hiding their aberrant kid begin to question their actions. And the marks keep appearing in greater numbers, and becoming increasingly dangerous. Now Deneith-backed squads show up promising to protect people from these unclean children of Khyber – and now is the time that people start calling on them for help, or organizing lynch mobs of their own. But…

… remember that aberrant dragonmarks aren’t predictable. They can appear on anyone at any time. It’s not just “a kid” who has the mark. It could be a soldier. A Duke. A powerful priest. Anyone could get an aberrant mark, and as society turned on the aberrants in fear, those who developed aberrant marks knew exactly what fate awaited them. The boy who burned a parent wouldn’t turn himself in; he would run. The duke would try to conceal his mark, fortify his stronghold and hide from the world. This degree of versatility meant that aberrant forces could have unexpected skills and resources. And then you have Halas Tarkanan. He was a Karrnathi officer before he developed his mark, a brilliant soldier who learned the arts of war at Rekkenmark and the ways of House Deneith from his mother. His forces weren’t solely aberrants; many of his unmarked soldiers stood by him, and he won others to his cause… as well as taking in goblins and other oppressed forces.

My point is – there wouldn’t be enough aberrants hiding out there to form a force capable to wage a regular war under Tarkanan. That would require a sudden surge of aberrant powers similar to what is happening in the world in present-day, which is quite possible actually.

First off, the current surge is far less than what was seen in the century leading up to the War of the Mark. It appears to be starting again, and a DM can take it that way. But at the moment, there’s neither the number or power level seen in the past. In canon sources (remember, novels aren’t canon), no one has been described as possessing an aberrant mark matching the power of Halas Tarkanan or his lieutenants… and it was the power of these marks that kept the aberrant forces alive.

Beyond this, bear in mind that they never fought a “regular war.” You never had formations of aberrant soldiers facing off against dragonmarked house armies. While Halas did his best to provide basic training, the majority of the aberrants were noncombatants, though with their marks they could put up a defense when cornered and forced to fight. Somewhat to my surprise, the best analogy I can think of is Battlestar Galactica. Think of the aberrants as fleets of largely civilian vessels, huddling around an individual like Tarkanan or the Dreambreaker – their battlestar, whose power was singlehandedly great enough to disperse conventional forces. You then have a small group of trained soldiers and people with lesser/greater marks – the vipers of the Battlestar analogy, able to carry out their commander’s will. But they were still always on the run, relying on the raw power of their commanders (and Tarkanan’s tactical genius) just to survive, always searching for some lasting sanctuary. They were occasionally able to gather small elite units for their own commando strikes, but they never faced the houses with proper armies. And in the end, despite Tarkanan’s best efforts, they were herded to Shaarat and forced to make a final stand. And again, you can see a little of what that’s like in the RPGA adventure The Delirium Stone.

Is this what’s happening today? Aberrant marks are manifesting in ever-greater numbers, but are they going to reach the same level of power as Tarkanan possessed? And if so, is this a natural cycle? Part of the Prophecy? Or is it being actively manipulated by the Lords of Dust or some other force? That’s up to you…

I’d like to revisit one point…

If I knew a kid who caused a whole village to die from disease and another kid who torched his mom in anger and they both had those scary red marks on their skin, I would probably vote for a kill-on-sight policy for anyone with a similar mark.

Bear in mind that nothing about aberrant marks is predictable. The red and black marks that we’ve shown are the most common sort of aberrant mark, but aberrant marks can take a vast array of forms. The lines of a burning hands mark might be formed from livid scar tissue. An aberrant mark that grants charm person could actually be a shining array of glowing white lines that’s almost hypnotic to look at… while another charm person mark is red and black. Aberrant marks are, well, aberrant. So this helped slow things down. Sure, the kid with the scary scar mark burned his mom, but our daughter’s mark is beautiful. And she’s not hurting anyone, is she? Really?

Ultimately people would decide that yes, the charmer was hurting people – that mind controllers are scary. But again, this combination of diversity and limited long-distance communication added to the amount of time it took for public opinion to form.

In conclusion…

Aberrant marks originally existed in small numbers and low power. In the century leading up to the War of the Mark, they rapidly increased in number and power. There was excellent reason for people to fear the marks. If Tarkanan had been born earlier and been a diplomat instead of a soldier, he might have convinced people that the aberrants weren’t at fault – that if they were taught to control their marks, they could peacefully coexist (though some were, of course, mad or sociopathic). But most of the media of the time was in the hands of the houses, and when the fear was spreading there was no spokesperson for the aberrants. The “war” began as a simple witchhunt and purge. Tarkanan organized survivors into small guerrilla forces with enough firepower to defend themselves as they fled. Ultimately they were caught and erradicated.

In the centuries that followed, aberrant marks appeared in small numbers and only at the lowest level of power. But the stories remained and grew with each telling. People don’t run in terror from aberrants, because it’s been over a thousand years since the Lady of the Plague laid her curse on Shaarat. But they still know the stories, and aberrants are still shunned and treated with suspicion. And now the numbers of marks are growing again, and their power with them. But this is new and unusual. House Tarkanan has noticed it, and it is acting to gather the aberrants. But society as a whole hasn’t yet noticed exactly what’s going on. aberrants are an old bogeyman; even the houses are only just now looking at House Tarkanan and trying to figure out what’s happening.

Moving to more general discussion about the marks…

“Aberrant” seems like it’s shifted in meaning since the setting was originally published, and it was always kind of broad to begin with.

It’s something that was never developed as far as I wanted. I actually had a full system for aberrant marks developed for the Sharn: City of Towers sourcebook, but it ended up being cut for space. It is the case that a number of the SLAs in the original 3.5 sourcebook do NOT, in my mind, qualify for my vision of aberrant marks. I don’t see feather fall or detect secret doors as aberrant marks. To me, a core difference between aberrant and normal dragonmarks is that aberrant marks channel destructive or aggressive forces, while true marks are constructive. With that said, we’ve seen that true marks can be used in aggressive ways – from Lyrandar slamming you with a gust of wind to the Orien assassin teleporting behind you and killing you. But note that when aberrant marks were expanded in Dragonmarked the lists didn’t include superior flight or expanded detection capabilities.

What I’m wondering is if there’s some kind of substantive difference between Aberrant Marks and Mixed Marks. For example, would mixed marks tend to appear more as a mixture of the true marks? And would such a mark exhibit powers that call to mind the two true marks involved? Or is it more like the mixture of the marks corrupts their fundamental nature and creates some bizarre, unrelated effect?

The original idea is definitely the latter. Aberrant marks are entirely unpredictable. If you knew that Orien + Lyrandar = feather fall, then it’s not an aberrant mark anymore; it’s “the Mark of PassageStorms.” The idea of the mixed mark was simply that it was and is the only reliable way to produce an aberrant mark – but that there’s no telling what that mark will be. Likewise, this is part of the 3.5 aberrant mark system in Dragonmarked. You can have charm person as your least power and poison as your lesser power. You might have an aberrant individual who develops powers along a specific theme – all fire, all fear – but unlike the true marks this isn’t a given.

Now again, this is how it’s been presented. If you want to do things differently – and for that matter, play up existing elements like the feather fall aberrant mark – go for it!

Phoenix Q&A: Playing Cards

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Twogether Studios officially released my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command in the beginning of August. Currently, it’s only available through our website, but we intend to get it to retail soon; if your FLGS is interested in carrying it, have them reach out to us at info@twogetherstudios.com. We’ve got lots of plans for ongoing Phoenix support, and I’ll unveil these as soon as the details are ironed out. For now I want to start with some simple Q&As for people who are running or playing Phoenix: Dawn Command. Today I’m going to take a look at the core mechanic.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a card-based roleplaying game. Each player has a deck of action cards that represent the capabilities and unique traits of their characters. At any given time, a player will have a hand of 5 or 6 cards, reflecting what they are capable of in this moment. There is a random element to this, because you are going through your deck and any given draw might be especially good or bad. But IN THE MOMENT you can look at your hand and know what you’re capable of… so unlike rolling a die, you know when you have a good hand or a bad hand, and the question is what you can accomplish with the resources that are available.

Long ago, Rich Malena posted two videos about Skill Spreads and Combat Spreads. These were done with prototype cards and contain one critical error, but they are still a good basic (and visual) grounding in how the system works and I suggest you take a look at these. The following questions are all dealing with specific aspects of making spreads – but these videos walk you through the basics. So if you aren’t familiar with Phoenix, click on the links and check those videos out. I’ll wait.

Back? OK, let’s get on with the questions.

I’m confused about the basic timing of a spread. Say I play a Trait in the spread that lets me draw a card. Can I then add that card to a spread? Can I exchange this new card for a card that I’ve already played in the spread? 

When playing a simple spread, you may just lay down all your cards at once. If you’re making an Attack spread and planning to play Str-3, Str-2, and Gra-4, you can just say “Attack Spread, 9 points!”… because there are no complicated timing issues. However, if there’s any question or timing or choice, you actually want to play your cards one at a time. Here’s how this works.

  1. When you make a spread, you start by declaring the action you wish to take. The GM approves the action and tells you what type of spread to make and what suits you can use in that spread. This is also a time to figure out the base value of the spread due to any bonuses from Skill Specialties or Lessons. (“I want to lift a heavy rock. Because I have the Athletics specialty, I’ve got a base value of 5.”)
  2. Declare the first card you are using in the spread. Once you do this, that card is committed to the spread and cannot be swapped out. Now resolve any effects of that card: If it’s a Trait, how are you justifying it? Will the GM increase its value? Does it allow you to draw an extra card? Continue until you have resolved every effect associated with THAT CARD. (Playing the trait Never Gives Up: “We’ve been through a lot, and I’m not going to let this boulder be the thing that keeps us from reaching our goal. I’m never giving up until I lift that rock.” The GM approves this justification and increases the value to 3; it’s appropriate, but not as perfect a match to rock-lifting as, say, Superhuman Strength. In addition, Never Gives Up says “Draw 1 card when you use this in a spread” – so you do that now.)
  3. Declare the SECOND card you’re using in the spread and go through the same process: does the card have any special effects? Does it need to be justified? (Playing a Strength-4 card… perhaps the one you just drew! Nothing special here.)
  4. Continue this process until you have played as many cards as you are allowed to play in the spread. Note that any justified Trait doesn’t count towards the limit of cards you can play in a spread, so you can play any number of Traits in a spread, as long as you can justify them.
  5. Determine the final value of the spread and determine the result.

So: Once you have committed a card to a spread, you cannot remove it or swap it out. However, if a card in the spread lets you draw a new card AND YOU HAVEN’T HIT YOUR CARD LIMIT you can add this new card into the spread. This is a mistake in Rich Malena’s Skill Spread video: he draws a new card and swaps it for a card already in the spread.

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If a player is using a Trait to enhance a spread, the only thing that matters is the name of the Trait, not its mechanical effect, right? They only need to explain why “Superhuman Strength” helps in this situation to get its advantage in a narrative way; the fact that I can use the card to stun an opponent doesn’t matter when I’m not using it in a Skill Spread. 

This is correct. A Trait has three components.

  • Suit and Value (Grace 1)
  • Descriptor (Commander)
  • Power (You may discard this card to add 3 to a wingmate’s spread)

A player can use the Trait for its base suit and value without providing any justification; they can always just play Commander as a Grace 1 card. They can also use its POWER without any justification; they don’t have to explain how they are adding +3 to a friend’s spread, because that’s just what the card does. However, if they can explain how the descriptor is relevant to what they are doing, they can add it to a spread regardless of suit and without counting against the limit of how many cards you can play… and in a Skill Spread, you as the GM may increase its value based on how appropriate it is and/or the quality of the justification.

traits-web

I feel some “card names” are quite universal like “Seen This Before”, what if a player uses it to any monster, claiming he’s seen this before and know how to inflict Brutal damage to it? Should I decide as a DM that whether it makes sense or not? 

First off, it is always up to you as GM to approve the justification of a Trait and to decide what benefit the Trait provides. And it’s only when used in a Skill Spread that a Trait may get an increased value for a good justification. In a combat spread, the only benefit is that you can add the card in regardless of suit and that it doesn’t count against limit. The POWER of the card may help in combat. So the Trait Killer Instincts does allow the player to get Brutal Damage on an attack, and it’s intentionally pretty easy to justify adding it to an Attack spread, making it a free play. On the other hand, it’s not that broadly useful outside of combat. Meanwhile, Seen This Before is potentially quite universal – but there’s no way a player could use it to get Brutal damage, because it doesn’t do that. When used in a Combat spread, it’s only worth +1 to the spread value. Easy to justify, but not that big of a deal.

Now, in SKILL spreads, justification matters. Based on the strength of the justification, you can decide to increase the value… generally to 3 if the Trait is fairly useful, and to 5 for an extremely good justification. If it’s the absolute perfect Trait for the task – Superhuman Strength when you want to lift a rock – you may decide that they can simply discard the Trait without even making a spread.

So Seen This Before is almost always valid in a Skill Spread… but the strength of the justification still matters. WHERE has the character seen this before? If they’re fighting Chanters and the player says “I dunno, I saw Chanters somewhere” I’d probably let them use it, but only for the +1. If they say “In my first life, I was in a village that got hit by the Chant; I lost my brother in that outbreak” I’d give them at least a +3, assuming that fits with their backstory. If the character says “I got killed by the Chant LAST GAME, remember?” I’d definitely make it a +5, because it’s hard to be closer to the Chant than that. But as the GM, you are always the final judge; the player can’t DEMAND a bonus.

With that said, another critical example here is Makes It Look Easy. This is intentionally an incredibly easy Trait to justify in a spread. Whatever you’re doing, you can always make it look easy. But in Attack or Defense, all it does is give you a +1. And in a Skill Spread, it’s automatically worth +5… which means that the justification doesn’t really matter. Essentially, Makes It Looks Easy is the perfect card for the player who’s NOT good at coming up with justifications, because they don’t have to; the card just hands them the bonus. On the other hand, Seen This Before is one that is easy to justify with a good story and can usually get 3-5 points… and it ALSO has the power of being a strong boost to an ally’s spread. So Seen This Before is a card I encourage storytellers to take, and Makes It Look Easy is one I’d push on a shy player who has trouble justifying things.

If you have more questions about the core mechanic, ask here. You can also get answers to questions on the Phoenix: Dawn Command group on Facebook!

Eberron Flashback: Aereni and Tairnadal

In the process of getting the website up to speed, I had to delete a few old posts. Since many of you may never have seen this post unless you dug deep into the archives, I figured I’d repost it now! New posts for Phoenix and Eberron are coming soon, but for now, let’s talk about elves. As always: This is my personal opinion. It is not official Eberron content and may in fact contradict canon Eberron source material. Read at your own risk.

The elves of Eberron are divided into a number of distinct cultures. Most of the elves encountered in the Five Nations have some connection to House Phiarlan or Thuranni. Others are descended from exiles who fled in the aftermath of the war between the Undying Court and the line of Vol. However, the majority of elves in Eberron live on the island of Aerenal. There they are split into two primary cultures: the Aereni (subjects of the Undying Court) and the martial Tairnadal.

One of the things that defines the elves is their relationship with death. Per 3.5 D&D rules, an elf can have a natural lifespan of up to 750 years, and is an “adult” at 110 years. I never liked the idea that an elf was literally a child for a century. Rather, I saw that 110-year mark as the age of the typical elven adventurer. In my Eberron, elves mature mentally at a rate similar to humans, perhaps a few years off. For me, the 110-year mark is driven by a society that places great expectations on its people. A post on the WotC boards mentions a traditional sushi chef who went through seven years of apprenticeship before he was allowed to go beyond preparing the rice. I see this principle extending to all levels of youth in Aerenal… intense, lengthy apprenticeships that focus with great intensity on every different aspect of a trade. Looking to an Aereni wizard, he might spend five years simply studying somatic components (mystical gestures) before ever learning to cast a spell. He would learn precise pronunciation of verbal components, and his fireball incantation would have the exact same accent as the elf who first devised the spell… and he might even learn the incantation from that elf. By contrast, a human wizard in Arcanix would learn that you can kind of fudge incantations if you find a pronunciation that resonates with your personal aura. Aerenal teaches perfect technique; Arcanix encourages you to MacGuyver a bit.

Part of this ties to the idea that a seven-hundred year old lifespan is both a blessing and a curse. Our fluid intelligence – which fuels our ability to adapt to entirely new things – peaks in young adulthood. You grandfather may be a brilliant doctor, a skilled mathematician, and still have trouble learning to use an iPhone that a three-year-old masters in three days. The child is running on fluid intelligence, which allows him to quickly adapt to new things. You grandfather is working off crystallized intelligence, the concrete skills he has perfected over time. For me, this is the fundamental difference between elves and humans… because in my Eberron, both elf and human peak in fluid intelligence at the same time. An elf’s mental facilities don’t deteriorate due to age as a human’s will, so the 110-year-old elf is still sharp and alert… but he is also just as firmly set in his ways as a hundred-year-old human, and it’s difficult for him to adapt to entirely new things. This is why, despite Aereni society having been around for over twenty thousand years, humans are beginning to do things with magic that the elves have never done. Elven society is driven by tradition rather than innovation – by absolutely perfecting the techniques of the past instead of developing entirely new ways of doing things. Innovation does happen – and an Aereni player character might be the great elf innovator of this age – but it isn’t enshrined as a cultural value as it often is among humanity; instead elves take comfort in the familiar. Looking to a 110-year-old first level elf fighter and a 20 year old first level human fighter, it’s not that it took the elf 110 years to learn the same skills as the human. Instead, it’s that the elf knows a truly astounding array of highly specialized techniques and traditions, while the human accomplishes the same things with far less style and finesse. When the ogre attacks with a club, the elf shifts into the fell-the-mighty-tree stance perfected by the ogre-slaying hero Jhaelis Tal (and he could tell you the whole saga of Jhaelis) while the human fighter says “Hey! I can stab him in the arm!” and does that. At the end of the day, the RESULT ends up being about the same, but the STYLE is completely different.

Another thing about the elves is that they have a great deal of trouble letting go of things. When you’ve had someone around for seven hundred years, it’s hard to finally let him go. Thus, many elven cultures revolve around not letting go… around find ways to preserve their greatest souls. In Aerenal the most remarkable members of society are preserved as animate deathless entities, forming the Undying Court. Thus, the young wizard can learn magic from the elf who first invented the fireball, because that elf is still around. The Aereni believe that there is a limit to the number of Deathless the island can support, so you have to be truly impressive to earn a place on the Court, and that’s the great drive of an Aereni life. The consolation prize – if you’re close but not quite awesome enough – is to have your soul preserved in a spirit idol, where others can consult with it in the future. The key point: The Aereni don’t let go. They avoid death by literally keeping their ancestors with them. The line of Vol took the approach of negative necromancy, turning THEIR best and brightest into vampires and liches. Unlike the Undying Court, there’s no obvious limitation on a vampire population, provided there’s enough living beings to provide them with blood. However, the Undying Court asserts that ALL Mabaran (negatively-charged) undead inherently consume the life energy of Eberron itself to survive… essentially, that the Vol practices would ultimately destroy all life if left unchecked. Hence, the bitter war that ended with the extermination of the line, and the ongoing duty of the Deathguard to eliminate Mabaran undead.

THE TAIRNADAL

But what about the other elves of Aerenal… the Tairnadal? The ancient elves of Xen’drik battled the giants to earn their freedom. Rather than preserve the elves of the present day as deathless, the Tairnadal seek to preserve the legendary elves of the past. They believe that by emulating the deeds of an ancestor, they can serve as a spiritual anchor for that ancestor and ultimately become an avatar for them in the present day. Here’s a quote from an Eye of Eberron article, Vadallia and Cardaen”…

The lives of the Tairnadal elves are shaped by those of their patron ancestors. When an elf comes of age, the Keepers of the Past read the signs to determine which of the patron ancestors has laid claim to the child. From that point forward it is the sacred duty of the child to become the living avatar of the fallen champion, mastering his or her skills and living by her code. The people of the Five Nations know little about the Tairnadal, and their general assumptions often don’t make sense. Ask ten people in Sharn, and you’ll hear that the Valenar are bloodthirsty brutes who love to pillage the weak; that they seek glory in battle and won’t fight a weaker foe; that they are bound by a strict code of honor; that they have no honor; that every Valenar is bound to a horse; and so on. In fact, no one rule applies to every Tairnadal, for every ancestor demands a different role of his or her descendants. A child chosen by Maelian Steelweaver will spend his or her days forging swords instead of wielding them. One chosen by Silence will spend life in the shadows, never touching a horse. War is the common thread that unites the Tairnadal, because the wars against giants, dragons, and goblins were what produced these legendary heroes. As such, the Tairnadal seek conflicts that will let them face the same odds and fight in the same style as their ancestors. Nowadays a child of Vadallia can’t fight giants, because the Cul’sir Dominion has fallen, but he or she must search for a foe that is equally challenging and then defeat it in the same way Vadallia would, thus creating new legends in Vadallia’s name.

A few factors here…

Tairnadal society is relentlessly martial. As noted before, war is the lens through which the Tairnadal view their patrons. These legends arose in conflict, and so the Tairnadal seek to maintain a constant state of conflict. Preferably this involves an actual, true threat – and this touches on the Valenar, which I’ll discuss in more detail later – but when there is no true threat they will create challenging scenarios. They hunt wild beasts and engage in complex wargames. This isn’t just frivolous behavior; they believe that through these actions they are preserving their greatest souls. They must keep going, or those spirits could be lost.

One analogy that works for me is Ender’s Game. From youth, Tairnadal children are trained for battle. At first, they are trained in the fundamentals, giving them a chance to prove their aptitudes and show their true nature. At this point they are selected by a patron ancestor, at which point they are assigned to a warband well suited to learning the skills of that ancestor. In the Ender analogy, this is the shift from launchie to an army. Now they have clear guidance on what they should be learning, and they WILL be placed in conflict with other warbands in wargames designed to hone those skills. As with Ender’s Game, all of this is being done in preparation for the great conflict that lies ahead, a conflict that is life or death for their culture… the difference is that they don’t know what the enemy will be. Will the Dragons finally attack in force? Will it be goblins once more? Or humanity? They don’t know, but they are determined to preserve their greatest souls until that day finally arrives.

Let’s Talk About Patrons

People often have the sense that all the Tairnadal do is fight… that they are hotheads who are always looking to start trouble. There’s a solid grounding to this: the Patron Ancestors forged their legends in battle against terrifying opposition, and so it is in battle against a challenging foe that the elves have the best opportunity to emulate the deeds of their ancestors. But let’s look to that quote again…

Ask ten people in Sharn, and you’ll hear that the Valenar are bloodthirsty brutes who love to pillage the weak; that they seek glory in battle and won’t fight a weaker foe; that they are bound by a strict code of honor; that they have no honor; that every Valenar is bound to a horse…

The point here isn’t that the people of Sharn are wrong; rather, ALL of these things are true… about different Tairnadal. There are Tairnadal who abide by a strict code of honor, and there are those who act in a relentlessly dishonorable fashion. There are those who won’t fight a weaker foe and those who seek out the weak. There are those who will draw blood at the slightest provocation and those who will never strike an innocent regardless of how severely they are provoked. Because they will do their absolute best to act as their patron ancestor would act. And there is a VAST SPECTRUM of ancestors. While we often call them “heroes”, the real point of the Patron Ancestors is that the are legends; some are infamous as much as they are famous. These are the people who defined the elves during their greatest struggles. So in thinking about a Patron Ancestor, the key things to bear in mind are:

  • They are people the Tairnadal don’t want to ever forget.
  • They are people who played a defining role in one of the great conflicts (which likely means they fought giants, elves, or goblins).
  • There is SOMETHING about them that makes them memorable.

Essentially, you can have both Gallahad and Lancelot: a knight celebrated for incredible purity and honor, and another celebrated for his fantastic martial skills but also defined by his ultimate betrayal of a close friend in the pursuit of love. If Lancelot was your patron ancestor, it would be your religious duty to try to get into a horrible tragic love triangle… whether you wanted to or not… to try to emulate your ancestor. Similarly, if your Patron was known as a guerrilla who struck fear into the giants by butchering civilian populations, then it would be your duty to prey on the weak. While meanwhile, the elves chosen by Gallahad will do their best to be paragons of virtue and honor… something that might actually bring them into direct conflict with elves following the path of the Butcher. Which also might directly emulate the lives of their ancestors.

The most critical point here: the spirit chooses the elf, not the other way around. To me, this is the MOST INTERESTING THING ABOUT THE TAIRNADAL as far as roleplaying goes. Who chose you? Why did they choose you? How do you feel about it? If you are chosen by Gallahad, it is your duty to be the purest, most honorable and virtuous person you can possibly be. Are you ready for that? By contrast, if you are chosen by the Butcher, it is your duty to be a brutal, ruthless murderer who preys on the weak. Are you ready for that? And that doesn’t even get into the more extreme aspects, such as the boy who has shown great promise as a warrior but who is then chosen by a legendary poeta man who fought his wars with words. Picture this as the background of your bard. You never wanted to be a bard; you wanted to be Gallahad! You don’t even LIKE poetry. But the spirit has chosen you, and it’s your duty to follow where it leads and to become that poet in the modern day.

WHY SHOULD I DO IT?

This begs the question: If I’m chosen by the Poet but I don’t WANT to be a bard… why don’t I just become a fighter anyway? There’s a few points here.

  • Society expects it of you. If you refuse to follow the path of your patron, you are putting your personal ego ahead of the preservation of the greatest souls of your race. You will be ostracized and driven out. You can be a fighter if you want, but you’ll never train with the greatest swordsmen and you’ll never earn glory in the eyes of your kin. More important than that…
  • The Patron Ancestors are real. When a patron ancestor chooses you, it forms a bond to your spirit. When you emulate your ancestor, you draw on that bond. A typical elf can’t communicate directly with his patron, though this is a gift that mystics and Revenant Blades develop; but the bond is there, and through it you have access to the instincts and the guidance of your patron. If you turn your back on the patron, you are throwing that gift away. When you’re chosen by the Poet, you have the POTENTIAL to be one of the greatest bards of the modern age. Will you throw that away?

This is one of those things that transcends concrete mechanics. There are mechanics for strengthening the bond, notably the Revenant Blade prestige class. But even if you’re not a Revenant, the idea is that the bond is there and strengthening you. This is the reason why the Valenar are so scary. In a world in which we have emphasized the fact that player character classes are rare, we’ve called out that the typical Valenar is a 4th level PC-classed character… and given examples of them up to 12th level. This isn’t simply because they train harder than humans, though most do; it is because they are guided by their patron ancestors. The elf chosen by the Poet will find that the arts of the bard come quickly and easily to him, whereas if he turns his back on the Poet and insists on being a fighter, he won’t have that edge. It’s not just that society wants you to be like your patron… it’s that you will gain concrete benefits if you do.

What’s This Mean For PCs?

As I said, this isn’t something represented by concrete mechanics; it’s an idea that can be used for character hooks. The Tairnadal have many of the same story hooks as the Kalashtar, in that they are tied to a spirit. But for the Kalashtar, this choice is purely genetic and something that is with them from birth. For the Tairnadal it is something that happens on the border of adulthood. This raises a host of questions…

  • What is your ancestor best known for?
  • Why did they choose YOU?
  • Do you and others around you agree with the choice, or does it seem illogical? You’ve been chosen by the Poet… have you always had an aptitude for the bardic arts, or have you been more celebrated for your brawn than your songs?
  • Have you embraced your Patron or are you rebelling against it? How does this manifest in your actions? What could cause you to change your mind?
  • What general traits or specific deeds was your patron known for? Were they especially honorable or extremely dishonorable? Bloodthirsty or restrained? Best known for their general skill or for one specific deed?
  • Did your patron have any legendary feuds that you may have to take up with elves following other patrons?
  • Do YOU interpret your ancestor in a different way from others?

This last point is the key one. Tairnadal aren’t clones; even more so than the kalashtar, it is up to the elf to choose the best way to emulate their ancestors. Consider the idea of a patron ancestor who is infamous for striking terror into the enemy through horrific murder of civilians. One follower of this patron might simply translate this to the battlefield, always targeting the weakest opponent, but not actually getting into murder. The typical chosen of this patron might tend to be sociopaths who have a very broad view of “the enemy” and view horrific murder as sport. Then there’s you. You were chosen by this murderer, but you feel that you were chosen precisely because these others are misrepresenting him and hurting his spirit. Yes, he murdered horribly when he had to, but he felt great remorse with every killing; he simply felt that it was the most effective tool in the battle for the survival of his people. As a result, you believe that YOUR mission is to hunt down and kill all the elves who are embodying your patron in a flawed manner… and boom, crazy elf Dexter saga.

The point being that six elves chosen by Gallahad will all embody him in different ways and with different degrees of success. However, it is their cultural and religious duty TO embody him, and those who do so successfully should gain power and skill as their bond to his spirit grows stronger.

Another thing to consider when creating a Tairnadal PC: after you are chosen by a patron, you are assigned to a warband. This is a group of elves whose ancestors are at least in line with yours (so the brutal killer of innocents doesn’t get teams up with the conscientious defender of the innocent), selected to work and train together. Often this is a lifelong bond. Unless your whole group embraces this, odds are good you don’t have those partners with you. So what happened to them? Did you abandoned your warband to become a PC? Did you take a leave of absence? Were they all killed, and if so do you want vengeance? Or did you kill them in a terrible parting of the ways?

THE VALENAR

The Tairnadal humans know best are the elves of Valenar. They came to Khorvaire during as mercenaries during the Last War. They sold their swords to Cyre, but late in the war turned on Cyre and seized a section of land as their own. The newly appointed High King asserted that this territory had been claimed by their ancestors long before humanity came to Khorvaire and that it was theirs by right.

However, a few things are worth noting…

  • The Valenar don’t NEED this land. They’ve got enough room back home in Aerenal.
  • The Valenar don’t have a particular interest in being lords of the land. They’ve passed a great deal of civic administration duties to Khoravar or Lyrandar, and largely ignored the human population. They’ve claimed a kingdom, but they aren’t very attached to it.
  • Valenar does NOT reflect the structure of Tairnadal life back in Aerenal. There is no King of the Tairnadal. Beyond that, the civic infrastructure of the Tairnadal… the teachers, the children, the breeders of horses… are all still in Aerenal. For the elves, Valenar isn’t ahome; it’s a military beachhead.

Ultimately, what the Valenar want is an opportunity to emulate the deeds of their ancestors in battle. Their ancestors weren’t conquerors; they were guerrillas fighting a superior foe, strengthened by their knowledge of the land. So in my Eberron – and you could take things a different way – Valenar is in fact a trick. The elves aren’t building a kingdom; they are preparing a battlefield. The reason that they are so antagonistic and provocative in their dealings with the other nations – notably Karrnath and Darguun – is because they want to be attacked by a challenging foe. They don’t want to be invaders or conquerors; they want to provoke a powerful force into attacking them on their home ground. For the last few decades they have been acclimatizing themselves to the land, learning its tricks, determining the ideal spots for ambushes or ways to disrupt supply lines, and so on. The aren’t bringing their cultural infrastructure to Valenar because at the end of the day, they are ready to LOSE Valenar; if worst came to worst, they could retreat to Aerenal and be back where they started. The Last War was a good starting point, but now they are setting the stage for the REAL opportunity to emulate their ancestors.

Not all of the Tairnadal support this idea. There are some sects that have different ideas of what to do – they think the elves should fight the dragons, or return to Xen’drik. And then there are those who are perfectly content with the way things have been done for the last ten thousand years, who think the Valenar are hotheads. If you play a Tairnadal elf, it’s up to you to decide where you fall on this spectrum. Do you support the High King and the Host of Valenar? If so, why aren’t you in Valenar now, or serving as a mercenary? Are you on extended leave and simply waiting for the call to go back? Are you a spy gathering intelligence, or a provocateur getting into a position where you could help trigger the war? Do you oppose the High King and his plan… do you believe in Valenar as a kingdom, or perhaps want to protect the innocent humans of the region from future bloodshed? Or are you a Tairnadal with no ties to Valenar, either wandering the world in you own pursuit of your patron’s path or driven from your homeland by your beliefs?

In closing, a point I’ll emphasize again: The Valenar are an army. There are no Valenar children; they’re raised and trained on Aerenal. The finest smiths and horsebreeders are in Aerenal. In Valenar, almost all civilians are humans or Khoravar (half-elves). The elves aren’t invested in Valenar for the long term; it’s a tool in a larger plan.

… At least, in my Eberron.

FURTHER READING

Unfortunately, many of the online articles once hosted by WotC have been removed from the internet. However, here’s some online articles that might prove interesting.

QUESTION AND ANSWER

Post your questions in the comments and I’ll get to them as time allows.

I remember the Vadallia & Cardaen article, but I also remember how Saer Vordalyn behaved in Queen of Stone.  And while some of the ancestors may have been great poets, given their history the majority must have been warriors (clearly not many of them were urban administrators, since they have outsourced those functions to Lyrandar).

In looking at Saer Vordalyn, consider a few things. He is Valenar, which means he is, innately, a warrior. Second, his ancestor may well have been known for pride or aggression. Essentially, when a Valenar acts like a jerk, it could be because he, the Valenar is personally a jerk; because his ancestor was a jerk and he’s obliged to act that way; or both.

As for the poet, the key point is that the poet had to do something in a time or war to achieve legendary status in the eyes of the elves. Bards are VERY important to the Tairnadal, both serving to inspire troops and more important to preserve the tales of the ancestors. So the poet could be a bard who travels with a warband. On the other hand, it could be that there is a poet who is a legend OFF the battlefield. It could be he crafted the songs that are sung by every bard, or the code that defines the Tairnadal culture. He became a legend in a time of war, but that doesn’t mean he had to be a warrior. As for the lack of civic administration, see the points above. Tairnadal culture generally avoids massive cities; even if it didn’t, the best civic administrators are back in Aerenal keeping the home fires burning. Using local talent is an excellent way to keep your personal investment in the city low.

In my experience few people live up to, or even understand, the ideal of whatever religious or secular ideology they espouse.  I can’t shake the sense that a great many adolescents would use their ancestors as excuses to indulge in bad behavior (I see this happening in real life all of the time, with teens and adults), and a great many adults would take a very simplistic and conventional view of their ancestor’s activities.

Certainly. Which ties to two points above. The first is the fact that Tairnadal culture is FAR more structured and intense than typical Sunday school. Again, I personally compare it to Ender’s Game. Tairnadal children are constantly training, fighting, and learning the stories of their ancestors. It’s not just a casual “Oh, your ancestor liked swords”; it’s a matter of drilling in his precise style, learning every account of him from history by heart, and spending hours each day sparring. You have a concrete bond to his spirit, which is something that makes you distinctly different from a human adolescent. You spar for three hours a day because it is in battle that they hope that you will find that bond, and come to understand him on a very fundamental level.

Elves in Khorvaire live more casual lives. But I see both the cultures of Aerenal as very intense. As a Tairnadal, you are part of an army preparing for a war. We don’t know if that war will come in your lifetime, but if it does, you will be ready.

How do the Stillborn deal with this situation? I gather their raison d’être is to be a contrast to the heavily tradition-bound Aereni society, but are they equally unchanging – simply more egoistical and convinced that they already know everything – or are they actually the rare Aereni equivalent of the rebellious teenager who doesn’t want to sit and have tea with great-great-great-grandmama and kiss her on the decomposing cheek, because he knows better than his elders?

They are indeed the rebellious teens. Among other things, most are drawing on the traditions of the line of Vol, which were inherently more independent. It is the nature of the Deathless that they are sustained by the devotion of living elves. Part of the reason Aerenal is so mired in tradition is that it NEEDS people to follow those traditions to sustain their divinities – same with the Tairnadal. If you follow Vol’s path, once you’re a lich you can do whatever you want; you have no obligation to anyone else. The Stillborn see undeath as a gift. They don’t want to defeat death or any other grand philosophy: they want undeath and they want it now. As a side note, Erandis Vol and her inner circle – like Demise – are largely following this same theme. The Blood of Vol faith has far deeper philosophical goals and themes – the Divinity Within, ending death for all. But the Stillborn just want to be vampires, liches, or whatever because it beats being alive.

Does this tie in with the Shadow Schism? As far as I understand what you wrote about the Phiarlan in the dragonshards, Phiarlan is almost religiously dedicated to their role of keeping peace and harmony by any means necessary, ever since the giant-quori wars – though this did not work so well after Jarot’s death. But Thuranni is presented as a much more innovative House, which wanted to move away from this world of duty (and also decided to eradicate another line of the House).

While it’s not necessarily called out in the canon material, I think there’s a lot to be said for Phiarlan being made up of those who have continued to hold to Aereni tradition (albeit not the traditions of the Tairnadal or Undying Court) while Thuranni represents an evolution that has come from living among humanity. I think it makes for Thuranni to generally be more innovative and unconventional… while Phiarlan still has the majority of the greatest practitioners of traditional arts.

Speaking of the kalashtar, how would they live their increased lifespans? It’s not as long as that of elves, but still vastly exceeds that of a human – and, though it’s not their dominant personality, their Quori part is essentially immortal and has been around since the giant-quori wars (though it is not spread thin)?

That’s an entirely different subject, but one critical point I’d make there is that the child is touched by the immortal spirit from the moment of conception and shaped by that. I see a considerable difference between true immortals and long-lived mortals. Essentially, I see long life as carrying many burdens – seeing your human friends fall, societies change, everything you know fade away. The elves largely deal with this by clinging to tradition and thus minimizing change. However, with the kalashtar, one thing NEVER changes – and that is the bond to your spirit. It was with you at birth and it will be with you to death. Essentially, I see kalashtar as having a little more natural serenity… though that will certainly vary by the individual.

I thought, though, that Five Nations elf citizens outnumbered members of dragonmarked houses . . .

By canon numbers, this is certainly true. Checking the 3.5 ECS, elves make up around 7% of the population of the Five Nations. However, as I said, these articles may clash with canon numbers… and as the setting has evolved, that number has come to feel a little high to me. I don’t feel that the elves of Aerenal have a strong drive for immigration unless forced to it, as the allies of Vol were. Some would have left in protest of the conflict even if they didn’t have to; some likely did come in search of opportunity. However, all signs suggest that elves have slow population growth – again, they’ve been on Aerenal for almost forty thousand years and haven’t grown out of it – and as a result, it seems unlikely that they would make up such a large segment of the Five Nations. So essentially, in my Eberron I’m dropping their numbers a bit – but if you hold to canon, you are correct.

With that said, I think life is challenging for elves blended into human society, given the short lifespans of the people around them and the degree to which society changes. I think urban elves likely attach themselves to institutions that can give a sense of stability – for example, the churches. Of course, if you have a 600 year old elf cleric of the Church of the Silver Flame, she is actually older than the church itself; she might have known Tira Miron personally, and helped her evangelize in the first days of the Silver Flame. I’d think that elves might also look to their relationships with humans as being a relationship with the family rather than the individual; individuals come and go, but the family will endure.

A few questions, though: what would life be like for a Tairnadal whose Ancestor was known as an innovator/inventor/visionary? Would such an Ancestor even exist, as even the elves of Xen’drik may have been largely perfecting already known techniques?

This comes back to how different people interpret the Patron’s actions. Say you have a Tairnadal wizard who invented pyromancy. I think the TYPICAL Tairnadal would respond to this by trying to master pyromancy, seeing that as the ancestor’s defining feature. A rare elf might instead say “His thing wasn’t pyromancy; it was inventing a new field of magic. I will honor him by embracing that spirit and inventing a NEW school of magic of my own!” The same principle holds true for patrons who created new martial techniques; most would respond by perfecting those techniques, and it would be a rarer individual who would recognize innovation itself as the feature to be emulated. But that certain makes for an interesting player character!

This brings up another possibility… What about the ancestors who didn’t rate patron status? In one 4E game I ran, a PC created a Valenar shaman based on the idea that rather than having a single patron ancestor, he was essentially shepherding all the spirits who were good but not quite good enough to rate patron status. An amazing cook; a remarkable jerk; etc. it was a very interesting character, as he basically developed a different ancestor for each of his powers; I could certainly see a rebellious inventor as fitting in at this level.

Also, while this may not come up much in modern campaigns, but what stance did the Qabalrin have towards tradition?

The Qabalrin are the spiritual (and physical) ancestors of the line of Vol. As noted above, it’s an approach that favors the independent individual, while the Undying Court focuses on the strength of community and tradition. This lends itself to the assertion that there was significant infighting between Qabalrin schools. So I’d say the Qabalrin were more innovative, but also more volatile.

What, however, about dwarves, who would live to 450 years, and gnomes, who can live half a millenium? The dwarves seem to be about as unchanging as the elves, if less obsessed with death; the gnomes are however known for research and progress.

It’s true. Curiosity has been established as a defining feature of the gnomes – a desire to explore, and learn, and try new things. In part this is driven by a deep-rooted desire for security; if you know everything you can’t be taken unawares, and knowing the secrets of others is a powerful weapon. But I would say that the gnomes definitely have a different fluid/crystaline balance than the elves, and that their fluid intelligence declines more slowly than most races.

How would a Tairnadal be treated if they were not touched by an ancestor spirit? Would they be a pariah; considered tainted or unworthy to be an anchor? Or would they be considered an unfettered soul; someone who could become a legendary spirit like the ancestors of old?

Well, anyone has the potential to become a legend, even if they follow the path of a patron. You’re supposed to focus on embodying the ancestor, but that hasn’t stopped later Tairnadal from becoming legends in their own right. We’ve established that there are patron ancestors from the Dhakaani conflict and the wars with the dragons; presumably THOSE elves were themselves chosen by Xen’drik patrons.

With that said, there’s no hard and fast rule established. I think it’s a rare thing and would depend on the person. If the person was lazy and uninspired, it would likely be seen as rejection due to their faults and they would be assigned to menial duties. If the person was seen as a rising star who mysteriously wasn’t chosen, it would draw more attention. In a 4E campaign I ran, someone played a Tairnadal shaman who had no personal patron but was instead in touch with a host of lesser ancestors… spirits not QUITE remarkable enough to be full patron ancestors. Each of his spells was thus associated with channeling a different patron. The same concept could generally be true of ALL of the Keepers of the Past; rather than being chosen by any one spirit, they have a broad attunement to many.

For as long as the Tairnadal have been acting as anchors for their ancestors, have they ever questioned where their souls go? Are they sacrificing their spiritual existence simply to further the existence of an ancestor’s soul?

It’s an established fact where souls go: to Dolurrh, where they fade away. The point of the Tairnadal faith is to preserve the greatest souls from this fading. It’s generally accepted that you can’t save them all; thus, a sacrifice is made to save those most important to the culture as a whole. But as noted above, the idea is out there that if you are TRULY remarkable, you may yourself become a patron to future generations; emulating an ancestor doesn’t rule this out. Again, the bond to a patron enhances your talents, allowing you a greater opportunity to achieve great deeds.

Wow, so become great or fade away into the emptiness that Dolurrh. Good to know that even though you’re representing an ancestor your deeds are still your own thus you can still have a chance to become a patron as they are.

Certainly. As I said, embodying the patron preserves the ancestor and gives you a chance to draw on their strengths, but Tairnadal history is full of those who added their own legends in the process. Technically that’s not what you should be TRYING to do, but there’s surely many who have it in mind.

So with the Tairnadal having a much less physical attachment to their ancestors, where do these spirits reside? Are they basically treating their descendants as impromptu spirit idols?

It’s essentially the same mystical principle as the kalashtar and the quori. The patron spirit is tied to multiple mortals. As long as at least one of them is alive, the spirit still has an anchor. In the case of the Tairnadal, the connection is purely spiritual where with the kalashtar it’s partially genetic; as a result, the faith and the actions of the Tairnadal matter. The elf can strengthen the bond through both belief and by emulating the deeds of the patron; an elf who has no faith and makes no effort gains nothing from the bond, and provides no real anchor.

Also, if there is a literal spiritual connection to the patron spirits, could some affect the patron by messing with their anchors? Say that a Daelkyr started messing with the elves, driving them to madness in a way that they still embodied their patron’s ideals, but in a twisted way, could the madness somehow be passed to the spirit’s soul too?

Anything is POSSIBLE, if you want it to be. With that said, as it stands we don’t say that the actions of the living elf transform the spirit; rather, the more the elf acts like the spirit, the easier it is for the spirit to guide her. But it does sound like something a Daelkyr would do, and I’ve had fun with Tairnadal Cults of the Dragon Below myself.

Is it correct to say that the Undying court is the most powerful good entity in Eberron?

“Most powerful?” Probably. We’ve established that the Undying Court has the power to shield Aerenal from an attack by a significant force of dragons, and I’m not sure who else has that level of power… and even as individuals the Deathless Counselors are pretty tough. However, “Good?” That depends on your definition. Consider how long the Court has been around. It certainly didn’t help the Dhakaani when they were being attacked by the Daelkyr. It didn’t act when human invaders were massacring and enslaving goblins, or when they began massacring humans in the War of the Mark. It instructed its followers to ruthlessly exterminate a political rival in the Line of Vol. It’s positively aligned as an energy source, and it acts to protect AERENAL – it’s up to you whether that fits your definition of “good”.

Beyond that, it’s been firmly established that its power is focused on Aerenal. It can defend Aerenal from draconic attack, but it can’t channel that same power aggressively against Argonnessen. Beyond Aerenal, it can only affect things by empowering divine champions (IE clerics, paladins, etc) who can then use that power as they see fit… just like the Silver Flame, the Undying Court doesn’t personally approve every spell cast.  

If that is true, how would you set a campaign in Aerenal? Isn’t it against the code “PCs are the heroes”?

There’s places in Eberron where players aren’t the most powerful entities around. If you decide to set a campaign in Argonnessen, I wouldn’t suddenly depower all the dragons. If there is a draconic attack on Aerenal, they don’t need the player characters to solve the problem; we know the Undying Court can handle that… UNLESS something is sabotaging the Court’s ability to form a spiritual gestalt, and that something is using magic that conceals its presence from any deathless entity or that is tied to Mabar in such a way that destroys any deathless that contacts it and/or negates any divine magic that Court clerics can bring to bear. If you want a situation where the players are the only hope, you can always create one.

Beyond that, though: Even in Aerenal, the Undying Court isn’t omnipresent or omniscient, and unlike the Trust in Zilargo, the Undying Court isn’t interested in poking into everyone’s lives. The Court deals with MAJOR threats: Invasion! Planar incursions! But you can still have any number of “street-level” intrigues and schemes that are simply beneath the radar of the Undying Court.

Out of curiosity, what would happen if a Tairnadal got a non-standard patron. For example, what would happen if an Elf was chosen by say, a warlock who sold his or her soul to one of the overlords?

In MY Eberron, fiendish bargains for souls are a fairly new concept – something introduced when I worked Baator into Eberron as a demiplane whose immortal denizens have only recently engineered a jailbreak and are in the soul business in an attempt to build sources of mystical power. But that’s neither here nor there. The short answer is that it’s up to you. In principle, the religious duty of the elf would be to sell their soul – following the same path as the patron. In practice, they could decide that it’s too extreme and that they just aren’t going to do it; this would just mean that they’d never be an exceptional avatar for that patron, and wouldn’t be able to become a Revenant Blade or otherwise draw strong inspiration from the patron.

While I’m on the topic of non-standard patrons, what if an avatar was chosen by more than one patron?

As above: the patron chooses the elf, but the choice is meaningless unless the elf chooses to emulate the patron. It is through this emulation that a bond is established, sustaining the ancestor and in theory providing guidance and strength to the avatar. So if the elf was chosen by two substantially different patrons – meaning they CAN’T somehow emulate both at once – the question is really on the elf as to which they will emulate.

In one campaign I ran, a Valenar player decided that he’d been chosen by a patron who was a legendary archer… but that he WANTED to be chosen by the traditional patron of the men in his family, a famous swordsman. Since this mean he was defying his religious duty, he’d stolen his family’s heirloom scimitar and fled Valenar, and was working at being the best swordsman he could be and ignoring his declared destiny. The player’s CONCEPT was that, over time, he probably WOULD come to terms with his destiny and embrace his future as an avatar of the archer; but in the meantime, he was TRYING to defy tradition and become an avatar of the swordsman in spite of not being chosen by him.

I’ve also already mentioned the Valenar shaman who defined his character as essentially being the caretaker of all the not-quite-legendary legends… the lesser characters who didn’t quite make it to patronhood. This was a 4E game, and every time he used one of his powers he’d explain which ancestor was helping him with it. So technically, he was working with dozens of demi-patrons as opposed to having one primary patron.

If I’m a Tairnadal avatar, and one of the other avatar’s of my patron is killed (especially if it’s in a fashion inappropriate for my patron), might I become aware of it in some fashion?

Sure. We’ve said that Tairnadal don’t communicate with their patrons casually, but there is supposed to be a bond between them. In theory, this is the same sort of connection a vassal believes they have with the Sovereigns; an avatar attributes some of their skill and success to the instinctive guidance of the patron. Essentially, the avatar simply feels what the patron feels; they don’t need to communicate as such. But you could certainly play that up – especially with an avatar that’s especially close to a patron – and say that they do have visions or flashes of divine insight.

If a given Patron were beginning to run low on avatars (for whatever reason), would that Patron become more aggressive in choosing new avatars. Or is there is spiritual queue: “I’m sorry, Poet, but you chose an avatar last month; you’ll just have to sit in the ethereal waiting room until Butcher and Galahad have chosen their next avatars.”

This process is entirely undefined. It could be that there’s a quota… or it could be that there is a reason certain elves are picked, and that an elf truly is only suitable for one particular patron. But in short, it’s a decision you should make as best suits your story.

Coming Soon to K-B.C…

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It’s been a busy time since my last update. After releasing Phoenix: Dawn Command at Gen Con, I’m now preparing for the launch of my next Kickstarter campaign on October 4th. This is a game called ILLIMAT, which I’m developing with The Decemberists. Expect to hear more about this in days and weeks to come!

Aside from that, there’s been some issues with the website. We were briefly hacked, and while we have that resolved, in the process of clearing it up I had to delete all comments. So my apologies to all of you whose contributions have been lost – but the situation is resolved and things will be more secure in days to come.

In possible news: I am considering starting a Patreon program to fund increased and improved content for this website. This would be a way to support more frequent Eberron Q&As (which otherwise sink to the bottom of what-I-can-spend-time-on) as well as improved support for Phoenix: Dawn Command, including challenges, advice, and a deeper exploration of the setting. The amount raise on Patreon would determine the number of feature articles I’d be able to produce each month, and potentially fund art for those articles. While the articles would be available to anyone, patrons would both be responsible for increasing the overall amount of content; they’d be polled as to possible topics for feature articles; and might have access to bonus content. I’ve never used Patreon before, and I’m curious what you all think – would you be willing to donate a few dollars each month for improved Eberron and Phoenix content? Be aware that I still can’t provide concrete Eberron material until it’s unlocked by WotC, so Eberron articles would continue to be casual Q&A.

 

Regardless of this, I’ve got a lot of things to talk about in the next few days and weeks. In upcoming posts I’ll be outlining our plans for supporting Phoenix: Dawn Command; telling the story of ILLIMAT; and hopefully, finally getting around to the long-promised Fey-in-Eberron Q&A. So check back soon!

One last thing: If you’re curious about Phoenix: Dawn Command, I urge you to check out the Saving Throw Twitch show, which is up to episode 7 of their live play series. Here’s a link to episode 4 which I personally GM’d! If you’d like to see what it looks like in action, here’s your chance.

More to come!

 

Phoenix, Twogether and PAX!

EPSON MFP imageAugust has been a busy month, but expect to see more content here next week. When I get back from PAX I’ll be posting the first in a series of Imperial Dispatches: articles expanding the world and setting of Phoenix: Dawn Command. I’ll also have news about general plans for expansion and support of Phoenix. 

In the meantime, you can find Phoenix at PAX: West! We’ll be exhibiting with Blackbox in the ACT Theater. This is attached to the convention center, but you don’t need a PAX badge to get in! Phoenix will be available for sale in the ACT theater throughout PAX, and co-designer Dan Garrison will be demoing the game from 10 AM – 2 PM each day. If you have questions or just want to pick up the game, this is your opportunity!

In addition, Twogether Studios will be demoing our next game in the same space. It’s a traditional card game that takes about 20 minutes to play, and we’ll be revealing more information about it over the next few days!

If you’re attending PAX Dev or PAX West, I’m participating in the following events:

PAX Dev: Thursday 2:15 – 3:15, Grand III

HEROIC SACRIFICE AND UNEXPECTED TRAGEDY

Heroic sacrifice and unexpected tragedy create some of the most memorable moments in fiction. But how can you work these into a game if death means the end of the story? When designing a game, how do you balance risk and consequence with the format of an RPG, CRPG or MMORPG? Join Keith Baker (Eberron, Gloom), Chris Avellone (Planescape: Torment, Divinity: OS 2), and Dan Garrison (Phoenix: DC) for a discussion about how death, defeat, and sacrifice can be part of a compelling game experience.

PAX West: Friday 6:30 – 7:30, Sasquatch Theatre

PHOENIX: DAWN COMMAND

You’re the last hope of a world besieged by nightmares. You may not survive the battle… but you’re a Phoenix, and death makes you stronger. Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game from the creator of Gloom and Eberron, combining card-driven mechanics with collaborative storytelling and a unique approach to sacrifice and character growth. Join creators Keith Baker, Daniel Garrison and Jennifer Ellis for a discussion of the setting, system, and the three-year journey to create this game.

That’s it! I hope to see you at PAX!

 

Bad Movie Bingo: Suicide Squad

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Sometimes you’re going to see a movie you KNOW is going to be bad, and you want to take your mind off the fact that you’re never going to get these two hours back. That’s when you can reach for a bingo card. Here’s a set of ten unique cards you can print and cut out:     BMB Suicide Squad

A few ground rules…

  • If something is in quotes, we’re looking for the exact phrase.
  • If it’s not in quotes, the thing in question can appear or simply be referenced. So Superman could be Superman himself; someone talking about Superman; or even a picture of Superman on a wall.

We don’t know if all of these things will actually appear in the movie – but hey, searching for product placement can take your mind off how terribly, terribly bad the movie is!

SUICIDE SQUAD BONUS ROUND: Before the movie starts, take a guess at How many named characters will die and write the number on the back. Now there’s two ways to win. Good luck!

 

 

Phoenix Q&A 8-10-16

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Phoenix is out in the world! We just got back from running demos at Gen Con. If you’re looking for a copy, you can buy it on the Twogether Studios website. We are working on making it available to brick and mortar stores, and if you are a retailer who wants to be kept appraised of this, email us at Info@twogetherstudios.com. If you want to see Phoenix in action, you can check out this broadcast from Saving Throw, which will be a continuing weekly series!

This is a very exciting time for me. I’ve been working on the game for over three years now, and people are finally able to play it. At the same time, I’m very nervous. What did we miss? Will everything make sense to people? With any project of this size, it’s inevitable that something will slip through the cracks. Eventually we’ll have a FAQ up at Twogether Studios, but for now, here’s some questions from the Phoenix Dawn Command Facebook group. if you have questions, post them below!

 

GENERAL QUESTIONS

Do you plan to publish expansions and to develop the world further? 

Absolutely. One of the main reasons I’ve wanted to create a new world is to have the ability to explore it as deeply as time allows. There are a number of different things on our radar…

  • Exploring the world in more depth, providing more material and hooks for GMs who want to create their own stories.
  • Additional player options: more Traits, Talons, Lessons, and the like. We also may provide a way for players to get their own decks.
  • Additional GM tools: Challenges, missions, and more.
  • I’m also playing around with ideas for Phoenix fiction.

These are all things we could do, but we’re a small company – so we’re limited both by time and resources. In days ahead we’ll be polling the player base to see what you want. Would you prefer more premade missions? Or would you rather have more information about the provinces and cities of the Empire? Let us know in the comments below! Beyond this, our ability to support the game will definitely be linked to the number of people playing it. So if you like it and want to see more, please spread the word.

What movies/tv shows/novels do you think best represent the Dawn Command game? I’m having a tough time putting my finger on it, combining elements of magical swordsman, swashbuckling, and Roman legion.

I’m not personally aware of a show or book that perfectly captures all the aspects of Phoenix. Here’s a scattershot of things that touch on some of it.

  • Rome (TV) focuses on a pair of soldiers in a classical setting. If your Phoenix party of the Imperial Army in your first life, or just from Ilona, there’s a lot to like here.
  • Game of Thrones (book/tv) isn’t a great match overall because it’s largely focused on people ignoring an existential supernatural threat and engaging in petty politics. But the plotline of the Night’s Watch specifically has some overlap with Phoenix: a small unit of soldiers with limited resources standing against a seeming unstoppable mystical foe.
  • Lord of the Rings (book/movie) includes a number of scenes of heroic sacrifice. In my mind, Moria is a perfect model for a Phoenix mission. You’re sent to the mines to find out why there’s been no contact from the dwarves. You find that the outpost has been massacred. Investigating, you encounter orcs… but you’re Phoenixes, you can handle orcs. You encounter a troll… a tough battle, but you can handle it. Then you find the balrog. Now you know the source of the evil, but you can’t handle it. Unless someone does something, you are all going to die. Who will hold the balrog at the bridge so the others can escape?
  • Aliens (movie) is science fiction, but deals with a small unit of soldiers facing a mysterious and deadly threat. The imagery may be completely wrong, but the tone is appropriate.
  • Likewise, Pacific Rim (movie) is the wrong genre, but deals with a largely united world facing an inexplicable alien threat that mundane forces simply can’t stop. Replace jaegers with Phoenixes and there’s some useful tone notes here.
  • On a more specific note, Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master (novel) inspired our view of the Fallen Folk, and is generally a good source of inspiration for Skavia.
  • My co-designer Dan Garrison also recommends Glen Cook’s Black Company books and Steven Erickson’s Book of the Fallen as mission oriented military fantasy.

If YOU have a thought about a show, book, or movie that you think captures the mood of Phoenix, post it below!

The Bitter didn’t exist in the Phoenix Imperium, meaning there were only five schools. The Devoted symbol has 6 points on it, which represent the Schools. Did it change when the Phoenixes begin to return? What were the Marshals’ reactions to the first Devoted with an altered symbol, let alone the first Bitter to appear?

Excellent question! The trick is that the Empire didn’t create the School Symbols; they are artifacts of the Crucible. So the Devoted symbol has always had six points and always been seen as “A group joined together” – even though the points don’t quite add up. The question is: assuming the six points of the Devoted symbol do represent six Schools, was the six School ALWAYS Bitter, and simply unrecognized in the Dawn Legion? Or was there a different School that never showed up, which was in some way corrupted or warped to become Bitter? Or crazier still… is Bitter NOT a School at all, and there’s still some other sixth School waiting to be seen? And if so, what are the Bitter Phoenixes? Some scheme of the Fallen? A corruption of the Flames?

As for the Marshal’s reactions, this is something we’ll explore in more depth in the future. The Marshals are working with limited resources and will essentially use whatever resources come their way. You can be sure that some of them – specifically, the Durant Marshal Honor – are very concerned about Bitters, while Winter is likely fascinated by them and studying them very closely.

Are Elementals really the only Phoenixes who can ranged attack? A Shrouded can’t use a bow or throw a knife?

The Elemental is the only School whose core combat style allows ranged attacks. But there’s a variety of ways to make ranged attacks. Most of these rely on the Talon. Mundane weapons aren’t especially effective against most manifestations of the Dread. A dreadknight is solidified fear; there’s nothing for an arrow to hit. A Talon is a conduit for the Phoenix’s supernatural power, and can bring down things that can’t be dealt with by normal weapons. With that in mind, here’s a few ways to make ranged attacks.

  • Any Phoenix can burn 1 Spark to make a ranged attack using their Talon. This is covered on page 124 of the Marshal’s Manual.
  • When a Phoenix reaches Rank 2, they choose an additional power for their Talon. The base set include six Talons. Two of those – Epitaph and Thoughtcoil – allow their wielders to make ranged attacks at no cost.
  • Often a Phoenix can make a ranged attack by using an environmental element. Is there something you can throw? Or collapse on an enemy?

So if you have a vision of a Forceful archer or a Shrouded who throws knives, define your Talon as that ranged weapon and choose Epitaph or Thoughtcoil at Rank 2. For your first life you’ll have to burn a Spark each time you make a ranged attack, but it only takes one good death to get your concept to work.

 

TRAITS AND SPREADS

First of all, I’d like to clear up something that seems to be a common point of confusion. A Trait has three elements.

  • A suit and value… “Intellect 1”
  • A descriptor… “Seen This Before”
  • A power… “Discard this card to add 3 to an ally’s spread.”

You can always use the Trait as a normal card of its suit and value… just adding it to the spread as an Intellect 1. You don’t have to explain anything or tell a story. However, in this case it counts towards the limit of cards you can play in the spread, and the suit has to match the limitations of the spread.

If you can narratively explain how the descriptor fits the action you are performing – where you’ve “Seen This Before” and why that experience will help you now – you may add the Trait to your spread as a bonus card. It adds its value to the spread, but does not count towards the card limit, and you can play it regardless of suit.

You may use the power of a Trait any time you use it in a spread, in addition to adding its value to the spread. Certain cards have powers triggered when they are discarded – this is NOT the same as adding the card to a spread.

Can I play 2 traits in a Row, as long as I can explain them in the narrative?

Yes, you can play any number of Traits as part of a spread. If you can give a narrative explanation, they’re bonus cards; otherwise they count towards the card limit.

My three person wing has a hard time getting 15+ for skill checks. What’s a good way to increase skill spreads for low rank Phoenixes?

The critical answer: TRAITS. Here’s a quick breakdown of the elements of a Skill Spread.

  • Base Cards. You get to play three cards in a Skill Spread. with a decent hand, a Phoenix can typically hit a value of around ten.
  • Skill Specialties. A relevant Skill Specialty adds +5 to the check and may allow the player to use an additional suit for the base cards. So at this point we are hovering around a value of fifteen.
  • Traits. If a player can narratively explain the relevance of a Trait, the GM may increase its value in a Skill Spread. My rule of thumb is that if a Trait seems somewhat appropriate it should be worth +3; if it’s clearly very appropriate, it should be +5. A number of Traits – such as Extensive Training, Makes It Look Easy, and Intuitive – provide a +5 bonus to a Skill Spread without requiring any justification, which can be good for players who are uncomfortable with improvisation.
  • Sparks. Each Spark a player burns is worth +1 to the spread. One of the main uses of Sparks is to let Phoenixes push beyond the limits of the cards to perform truly amazing actions – if they are willing to pay the cost!
  • Player Action. Depending on the situation, the player themselves may be able to get a bonus through creative action. For example, if the action is making a speech, I might give a bonus of up to +3 to a player who actually makes a bit of the speech… or if the player simply presents an exceptionally good plan.
  • Other Characters. A Devoted can discard a card to improve an ally’s spread. This is weak at Rank One, but becomes very powerful over time. With a good narrative explanation, a player can discard a trait and add its value to an ally’s spread; if it’s an excellent explanation and a very appropriate Trait, I’ll potentially increase it’s value to three. A number of Traits – such as Commander and Absolute Conviction – allow you to improve an ally’s spread without requiring narrative justification.
  • Thoughtcoil. The Talon Thoughtcoil allows its wielder to burn one Spark to add +5 to a Skill Spread – a powerful tool for someone who wants to be a skill user.

Essentially, fifteen is close to the limit of what you can do with no help and no special abilities. Hitting a thirty is something that will require some effort, both on your part and potentially on the part of your wingmates. If you can do it, it should feel like a triumph.

When putting a trait in a wingmate’s spread, do you still get to draw a card if the trait says “draw a card when you use this in a spread?”

No. Technically, you never put a Trait in a wingmate’s Spread – you discard the card to add its value to the Spread. This means you don’t trigger effects that say “When you use this in a Spread” because that’s not what you did – you discarded it, and in so doing you gave the person making the spread a boost.

 

REBIRTH

Regarding adding cards to a player deck upon rebirth: if they are adding a “5,” that has to come from the school tied to their original death … but if they are adding a trait card, that has to come from the school associated with their most recent death. Is that correct?

That is correct. New action cards are always draw from the suits of your core School, while new Traits and Lessons are drawn from the School of your most recent death.

When a Phoenix advances and picks a lesson from a new school, are they limited to the lessons available depending on if that other school is in play, i.e. I’m playing a Durant, but die a Bitter death. Can I take a Bitter lesson that’s already in play or can I only take Bitter lessons that are still in the box and not attached to the Bitter player?

With the default set, the idea is that you can only take the Lessons that remain… and if there are no Lessons available (because other players have taken them all) you can take a Lesson from your Core School. With that said, this is largely an artifact of the limited card set. It is our intention to make additional Lessons and additional copies of the existing Lessons available in the future, and I’m fine with a player simply writing down the details of a particular lesson and having it on a “virtual card”. With that said, the Core Lessons are only available to someone who dies their first death in that School. I’m fine with two people having the Shrouded Shadow Dancer Lesson, but your Forceful can never get one of the Shrouded Core Lessons.

How do you balance the experiences of the wingmates, if one character dies more often than his wingmates? 

This isn’t actually as significant a problem as you might think. A higher-ranking Phoenix has more power, but a lower-ranked Phoenix can push themselves to hit high values by burning Sparks… and they can afford to be more reckless with their resources because hey, they’ve got more deaths to work with.

With that said, sometimes it’s no fun for a player to be the odd duck who doesn’t die, and whose friends are all tougher than they are. This issue is addressed on page 143 of the Marshal’s Manual: If a character just isn’t dying in missions, you can always work with the player to come up with a satisfying story of how they died between missions.

Beyond this, Reward Cards (Page 153) are a way to strengthen Phoenixes who just won’t die, so they can still feel a little special… assuming that they’ve done something worthy of reward!

 

LESSONS

Which challenges count as living for the Devoted ability Share Pain?

The only Challenges that are immune to Share Pain are those listed as “Undead” (look on the back of the Challenge card). These Challenges generally use a grey color palette (versus blue for mortal and purple for Fallen). So Chanters are still alive and Share Pain works on them, but Whisperers are undead and immune to its effect.

Do the bonds that specify turns work out of combat? The Durant Bond allows the player to burn a spark to let another play draw a card. If my wingmate is trying to make a grace skill spread out of combat, but has mostly Intellect cards, can I use my durant bond to let them draw another card? Similar question with the devoted bond (and any other similar bond), can I return a committed spark to the devoted out of combat to draw two cards to take two sparks? 

Yes on both counts. The player making a spread is the active player and it is their turn – even if it’s out of combat and you aren’t tracking turns. So that player can draw on the Devoted Bond. What this means is that you can only use it once per spread; essentially, any time you take a significant action out of combat, it’s “your turn.”

This ties to the fact that you redraw cards immediately after resolving an action outside of combat… as if you took a turn and reached the end of it.

 

That’s all for now, but post additional questions here or in the Facebook group!

 

Unboxing Phoenix

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Phoenix is at Gen Con 2016 – follow the link for a list of events, or stop by room 143 in the Convention Center to get a copy. Whether you backed the Kickstarter, get it at Gen Con, or get a copy from Twogether Studios, when you open the box you’ll notice a few things. First, it’s heavy. The box contains a 460 page book and 296 tarot-sized cards, which is basically like buying four actual Tarot decks. Second, when you open it up, the cards are shrink-wrapped in six individual piles, as shown above. However, they aren’t actually sorted. So… what do you do with all of these cards? Here’s my guide to sorting your decks.

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MARSHAL CARDS

The game includes eight Affliction cards, six Talon cards, and a batch of Challenges (Name on the top, Defense in the corner, monster in the middle). Challenges and Afflictions are cards you’ll use when running a mission. The Talons will go to the Phoenixes, but not right away.

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SCHOOL CARDS

You’ll find six cards with the names and symbols of the six Schools. In addition, there’s a large number of tan Lesson cards (Talents, Combat Styles, and Skill Specialties); each of these has a School symbol and a rank at the bottom. Sort these by School. In addition, there’s a number of Traits tied to Schools, which also have the School and rank at the bottom. Put all these together, so you have a pile that has the Durant Lessons & Traits, the Devoted Lessons & Traits, etc. These will get used in character generation and whenever characters die and are reborn.

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TRAITS

Traits are action cards that have text and titles. Separate these by suit: Strength, Intellect, and Grace. You’ll also find eight special Grace Traits with different pictures than the others. These are tied to the missions and rewards for heroic actions; set them aside.

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ACTION CARDS

What’s left? The action cards, which form the bulk of the player decks. The simplest thing is to sort these as you will need them for players. Each player gets 16 action cards: two copies each of Grace 2-4, and two copies each of either Strength 2-4 or Intellect 2-4. The cards with a value of five will be gained through rebirth, so set those aside.

By the end of this, you’ll have a pile of Challenge cards and Afflictions for the Marshal; a pile of cards tied to Schools; and a pile of Traits and action cards for players.

Any questions about this or other aspects of Phoenix? Ask below!