Phoenix & Gloom at Emerald City Comicon

I’m going to be at Emerald City Comicon this weekend demoing Gloom and Phoenix: Dawn Command. If you’d like to be in a Phoenix playtest, follow this link to find the available times! Otherwise, you can find me at the following times and places.

SATURDAY, March 28th

11 AM – 2 PM: Gloom, More Gloom and Phoenix. I’ll be in the Board Game demo area in the level 2 corral. Come try the prototypes of Fairy Tale Gloom or Munchkin Gloom, or see what Phoenix is all about.

7 PM – 9 PM: Q&A With Keith Baker. Join me for an informal discussion of Gloom, Eberron and Phoenix: Dawn Command. Bring questions! Or cookies! This is a casual Q&A – you can show up at any point and stay for as long as you want. This event will take place in the Level 3 A/B Lobby (near the back escalators on the third floor).

SUNDAY, March 29

2 PM: Prototyping Tabletop Games. Do you have an idea for a card or board game, but you don’t know how to make it? This workshop will discuss prototyping tools and techniques.

I hope I’ll see you there!

Phoenix Dawn Command: What’s A Phoenix?

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a card-based roleplaying game I’m developing with Twogether Studios and my friend Daniel Garrison. We’ll be launching the project on Kickstarter on April 6th; if you’d like to stay on top of the last developments, get on our mailing list or follow @Twogetherstudio on Twitter.

Shrouded PhoenixThe world of Phoenix: Dawn Command is under siege by a host of horrors. An unstoppable legion of fallen soldiers advances across the south. Werewolves and skinchangers prey on the unwary. Entire cities have fallen to a chant that turns all who hear it into mindless killers. Any nightmare you can imagine could be part of the Dread. Mortal soldiers are no match for most of these threats. But for the first time in centuries, Phoenixes are returning.

The Phoenixes are champions imbued with supernatural power. But no one is born a Phoenix. If you lead a remarkable life and die a meaningful death, your spirit can be drawn to a limbo called the Crucible. Here you go through a gauntlet of physical and spiritual trials that will test you to your limits and beyond. Time moves differently in the Crucible than it does in the Daylit World, and you could spend decades proving yourself in these trials. If you make it through, you are bound to a source of mystical power – your flame- and reborn in the Grand Aerie as a Phoenix.

Phoenixes are divided into six schools. These reflect the lessons you have learned from your life and your death, and determine the sorts of powers that you possess.

  • Devoted Phoenixes died for others, and their keyword is sacrifice. The Devoted are healers and mediators with the ability to strengthen their allies and their Wings.
  • Durant Phoenixes died because they weren’t tough enough, and their keyword is survival. Military leaders and athletes, Durant Phoenixes specialize in defending their allies; they are the hardest Phoenixes to kill.
  • Elemental Phoenixes died for duty, and their keyword is power. They can channel destructive forces of fire and storm, and can burn their own life force to power their deadly attacks.
  • Forceful Phoenixes died because they weren’t fast enough or because they faced obstacles they couldn’t overcome; their keyword is motion. Unmatched scouts and martial artists, Forceful Phoenixes strike with blinding speed and precision.
  • Shrouded Phoenixes died because of secrets, and their keyword is mystery. Sages and spies, the Shrouded excel both at striking from the shadows and uncovering hidden things.
  • Bitter Phoenixes died as failures, and their keyword is vengeance. These fearsome warriors turn injuries into strength, and are at their best when close to death.

I’ll look at each school in more detail in future posts. The critical thing is that the first thing you have to do when you’re creating a character in Phoenix: Dawn Command is to determine how you died, who you were before, and what gave you the strength to make it through the Crucible and return. Because you may have spent years or decades in the Crucible, you could have been anyone in your first life. You could have been a soldier, a schoolteacher or even a child. Whoever you were to begin with, by the time you make it through the Crucible you are one of the most dangerous people in the Empire. One other question in character generation is what do you look like? When you are reborn, your physical appearance is tied to your self-image; how do you see yourself? Race, gender, age and any other details could change… and could change again each time you are reborn, as your concept of who you are evolves. As a Phoenix you possess supernatural physical power that’s not limited by your physical body… so your Bitter could be an old man or a little girl and still tear your enemies apart.

A critical aspect of being a Phoenix is that your power isn’t unlimited. You have a pool of mystical energy you use when you perform superhuman feats, and when that power runs out you die. So you can do amazing things… but you need to choose the right moment to spend that power.

When you die, this process repeats itself. You are drawn back to the Crucible to learn new lessons… represented by new cards that are added to you deck. And once again, the critical question is always why you died. Not how… it doesn’t matter if you were burnt to ashes or torn apart. The question is why. Did you die to protect others? Did you die because you weren’t strong enough? Did you simply fail? It’s not simply that death makes you stronger – it’s that your powers reflect the lessons you’ve learned from each life and each death.

In future posts I’ll go into more detail about the world of Phoenix, the nature of gameplay and the six schools. Until then, get on our mailing list or follow @Twogetherstudio on Twitter for the latest news!



Upcoming Appearances: Gamestorm & ECCC

Here’s a quick head’s-up as to where I’ll be in the next few weeks and what I’ll be doing there.

From March 20-21st I will be at GAMESTORM in Vancouver, WA. Here’s my schedule of events:

FRIDAY, March 20

11 AM: Fear Of The Unknown. I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on invoking horror in RPGs, along with Jess Hartley, Anthony Pryor, Gwendolyn Kestrel and Scott Woodard.

12 PM: Game Mastering Tips. A panel with me, Rhiannon Louve and Andy Collins. Just what it says on the tin.

SATURDAY, March 21

9 AM: Let Your Players Do The Work. A panel on collaborative gaming, with myself, Gwendolyn Kestrel, Andy Collins and Rhiannon Louve.

11 AM: Phoenix: Dawn Command Q&A. Co-creator Dan Garrison and I will answer any and all questions about our card-based RPG. This is an unofficial event, so I’ll be announcing the location on Twitter (@Hellcowkeith) and Facebook Saturday morning.

12 PM: Building Your Own RPG World. Where do you start? How deep is too deep? What’s the value of drawing on our world vs unique and alien ideas? Andy Collins, Anthony Pryor and I will cover these topics and more in a two hour workshop.

2:30: Phoenix: Dawn Command. I’ll be running a three-hour demo of Phoenix. This is a four-person event and you’ll have to sign up in advance, but people are welcome to come take a look even if the table is full.

In addition to this, Phoenix co-creator Dan Garrison will be running sessions of Phoenix: Dawn Command at 12:30 PM and 3:30 PM. These are also four-person sessions, and you have to sign up in advance.

From March 27th-29th I will be at EMERALD CITY COMIC CON. My schedule there is more fluid, and I will be running Phoenix: Dawn Command demos throughout the weekend. We’ll be setting up advanced signups using the Phoenix: Dawn Command mailing list, so join that if you’d like to be informed about demo slots.

In addition to that, I have a few concrete events:

SATURDAY, March 28th

11 AM – 2 PM: Gloom, More Gloom and Phoenix. I’ll be in the Board Game demo area in the level 2 corral. Come try the prototypes of Fairy Tale Gloom or Munchkin Gloom, or get an overview of Phoenix!

7 PM – 9 PM: Q&A With Keith Baker. Join me for an informal discussion of Gloom, Eberron and my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. Bring questions! Or cookies! Or both! This event will take place in the Level 3 3A/B Lobby (near the escalators on the third floor).

SUNDAY, March 29

2 PM: Prototyping Tabletop Games. Do you have an idea for a card or board game, but you don’t know how to make it? This workshop will discuss prototyping tools and techniques.

That’s it! Post below if you have questions about any of these events.

Dragonmarks 3/12/15: Origins, Authors and Thrane

It’s been a busy few months for Twogether Studios. We’re continuing to work towards the Phoenix: Dawn Command Kickstarter campaign, and I’ll be writing more about Phoenix soon. But it’s been nearly three months since my last Eberron Q&A, and I figure it’s time to get to some questions!

With the recent Unearthed Arcana release of the Eberron material, do you like the 5e work up of the material? Would you change it any further from what is currently “playtesting?” Do you think the Artificer should be re-designed in 5e as a stand-alone class, or would you like to see it supported as a Wizard (or other) type of sub-class?

At the moment, I’ve held off creating my own 5E Eberron material, beyond the vague first drafts I’ve presented for the warforged and artificer. I’m keen to develop new Eberron material, but until it’s been authorized by WotC I’ve got more things to work on than I have time. I’ve been focused on playtesting Phoenix Dawn Command for the past year, and there’s always more to do there – not to mention the Gloom variations and other projects I can’t talk about yet.

Given that: I’m glad to see WotC exploring Eberron in Unearthed Arcana. Personally, I would like to explore different approaches to the material, but the UA article specifically states that it’s an exploratory first draft… and it’s always good to explore multiple directions. The 3.5 warforged went through seven drafts before the final one. In one version warforged could attach extra limbs. In another, they absorbed the energy from magic items to gain enchantments. I don’t see a version I’d want to consider final in the UA material, but if I have an opportunity to work on official Eberron material I’ll certainly consider the UA drafts and the feedback people have given about them. Which comes back to my previous request: tell ME what you think about them, and what you would keep, add or change.

If the Du’rashka Tul tale proves to be true, could it be neutralized or dispelled? And could its effects go to Khorvaire?

For those not familiar with it, the Du’rashka Tul is mentioned on page 53 of Secrets of Xen’drik. According to legend, it is a powerful curse laid on the continent of Xen’drik by the forces of Argonnessen when the dragons destroyed the civilization of the giants. The theory is that the Du’rashka Tul is triggered any time a civilization or settlement reaches a certain level of size or sophistication. The curse drives members of the civilization into a homicidal madness; they turn on each other and destroy themselves. In this way, the dragons ensured that the giants would never rebuild their ancient power. As a result, there is evidence of a number of civilizations that have risen only to suddenly disappear over the course of the last thirty thousand years.

As it stands, details about the Du’rashka Tul are far too nebulous for me to be able to answer the questions that are posed here. So the question is how do you WANT it to work for purposes of your campaign? If you don’t want it to be possible for it to be dispelled, then it’s a curse leveled on the entire continent using a form of magic human mages can’t even begin to understand. On the other hand, if you want to be able to break it, the first thing is to define it. Perhaps it’s tied to an artifact: the skull of the titan emperor Cul’sir, engraved with draconic runes and imbued with immense magical power. First you have to find it; then you have to decide what to do with it. If it’s an artifact, it may be impossible to destroy or dispel it. You don’t know how far its radius is (it’s currently affecting all of Xen’drik). Do you drop it in the ocean and potentially destroy the civilizations of the sahuagin and merfolk? Take it back to Argonnessen and see what happens? Or might someone bring it back to Khorvaire not knowing what it is and accidentally trigger an apocalypse?

If you don’t like that approach, you could decide that it’s actually tied to a living creature. Ever since the destruction of the giants, there has been a dragon stationed in Xen’drik maintaining the Du’rashka Tul. Can you find it? Do you need to kill it, or could you just convince the guardian that the time has come to end the curse?

About the Du’rashka Tul… If it could be dispelled, would it bring about an era of colonization of Xen’drik by the great powers? If so, that could bring about potential conflict not only between the great nations of Khorvaire, but also with the Riedran empire, who already have a settlement therein. Do you think more cities would be created? And could the traveler’s curse be removed as well?

The Du’rashka Tul is an unproven myth, so I don’t think THAT’S what’s stopping the colonization of Xen’drik. The Traveler’s Curse is unquestionably real and a serious hindrance to colonization; who wants to establish a colony if you might not be able to find it later? If you posit that you remove BOTH curses, then the main issue is that you’re dealing with a continent that’s still full of powerful monsters… and the fact that Khorvaire isn’t exactly overcrowded right now. The main draw to go there is untapped resources and treasure hunting. So if you took away all the curses, I certainly think you’d get an expansion of settlements there to claim and harvest resources, in a sort of Wild West gold rush development… but I don’t think you’d see a vast proliferation of permanent settlements. Heck, if you’re looking to live on a dangerous frontier because you want a chance to strike it rich with dragonshards, you can already do that in Q’barra.

As for bumping into the Riedrans over territory, Xen’drik is the same size as Khorvaire, and KHORVAIRE still isn’t overcrowded, so it seems a little hard to imagine it happening in a hurry. Personally, I’d make it more about conflict between settlers from the Five Nations and the Dragonmarked Houses. Tharashk would definitely want to harness the resources as quickly and efficiently as possible, and any number of the other houses could see this as a way to establish lands outside of the Korth Edicts. So you could certainly have conflict between would-be independent prospectors hoping to strike it rich and dragonmarked Tharashk.

If my goal was to run a campaign focused on territorial conflict between Riedra and the Five Nations, I’d actually create a new massive island in the Lhazaar Sea. Let’s say that it’s a chunk of another plane that suddenly drops in during an odd planar conjunction – so a piece of Lamannia, filled with natural and mystical resources never even seen before on Eberron. This gives a new desirable territory directly between Khorvaire and Sarlona; lets it be small enough that forces can quickly come into conflict; places it in a region where Lhazaar pirates can pose an interesting threat; and lets in be filled with unknown threats and commodities. I think that could make for a very interesting campaign… though I’d also throw the Dragonmarked Houses in as a third player in the conflict.

There are some fairly close thematic similarities between the kalashtar and the githzerai: both use psionics, both have extraplanar connections, both are at eternal war with a race of shared origin. Were these similarities intentional when the kalashtar were designed? If so, were they meant to be a playable version of the githzerai for your campaign (ie, lacking in level adjustment)?

Interesting theory, but no. The kalashtar have the distinction of being the one new race that was mentioned in the original ten-page overview of Eberron in the setting search (though the idea of a playable doppelganger was also there in the ten-pager). For me, the defining elements of the kalashtar are that they are mortal humanoids tied to immortal spirits and their unique connection to the world of dreams, something that’s been a long-time interest of mine. My first published piece of RPG material dealt with a conspiracy of people who shared dreams and affected the world through dream manipulation (more than a decade before Inception, mind you). So no, I’m afraid it’s just a coincidence.

Meanwhile, I’ve always used the Gith as a race whose world was destroyed by the Daelkyr before they came to Eberron. I consider the Illithids to be to the Gith as the Dolgaunts are to hobgoblins; they are creatures the Daelkyr created from Gith stock. Thus the Gith are a race who have lost their world, and they despise the Mind Flayers both as the instruments of their destruction and a mockery of their people.

Also, I have read elsewhere that warforged and shifters were elements introduced to Eberron only after WotC accepted it as their contest winner. In the pre-WotC conception of Eberron, did elements related to warforged and shifters exist?

That’s not quite true. The Warforged and Shifters weren’t present in the TEN page submission, because I made the assumption that WotC wouldn’t be interested in adding lots of new races when so many already existed. As such, the kalashtar were the only NEW race I presented. When WotC chose Eberron as a finalist, I had the opportunity to talk to the D&D R&D team and they discussed the aspects of Eberron they liked and what they wanted to see more of in the 100-page final story bible. In particular, they wanted to see more races – specifically races that addresses the magic-as-part-of-life aspect of the world. Sentient war golems and playable lycanthropes both fit that bill. So warforged, shifters and changelings were all in the 100-page story bible that was submitted in the final round of the setting search… and then after Eberron was selected, they were further defined and refined for inclusion in the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting.

Is it conceivable for a 5e Great Old One Warlock to have a bond with a Quori? If so, how would you interpret a warlock bond with a Quori outside of the Kalashtar case?

You can certainly have a Great Old One Warlock tied to Dal Quor. Here’s a few ways I could see it working.

Higher Power. The Warlock isn’t dealing with the lesser entities of the Quori; rather, he is dealing directly with one of the greater spirits of the plane. If he tends towards evil, this would be the dominant spirit, il-Lashtavar, the Darkness that Dreams. If he’s benevolent, this would be il-Yannah, the Dawn Yet To Come.

Essentially, the Quori are the creations and servants of il-Lashtavar. If a PC warlock is directly chosen by the great spirit, he is being elevated above the Kalashtar or even the rank and file members of the Dreaming Dark; among the Quori, only the Devourer of Dreams communes directly with il-Lashtavar. This would make the PC a remarkable special person… as a PC should be. The question then becomes HOW the power communicates with him and why. Does it have specific requests, and if so why can’t those be handled by Kalashtar or Quori? Or does it simply need a mortal vessel for some other reason?

Enemy of Higher Power. Twist the concept of the Warlock. The PC isn’t a SERVANT of il-Lashtavar. Instead, the Warlock has essentially hacked into il-Lashtavar and is draining its power by casting spells. This concept works well if you don’t plan for a lot of direct warlock-patron interaction. Alternately, you could say that the power is taken from il-Lashtavar, but the patron is il-Yannah; by weakening the darkness, you speed the coming of the light.

Quori Stooge. The player’s patron is a malevolent quori, likely one of the most powerful of the Kalaraq (such as the Devourer of Dreams). It is posing as some awesome dream entity; it is only through play that the PC will realize that the missions he’s being given are pushing the world in a subtly sinister direction. At this point he’ll need to find a new patron, such as…

Lost Kalashtar. The rebel kalaraq Taratai started the Kalashtar rebellion, but all of her kalashtar hosts have been eliminated and her spirit is lost, presumed to have been reabsorbed by il-Lashtavar. But perhaps it still survives, and has managed to reach out to the warlock. While this bond wouldn’t be the same as being a Kalashtar, it would make the warlock incredibly important to the Kalashtar.

If you named a bunch of books, or films, or TV shows, or whatever, whose inspiration has been critical in creating Eberron, in a sort of multimedia Eberron Appendix N, which would they be?

I could swear there’s a two page list in one of the 3.5 sourcebooks, but a quick search isn’t turning it up. Putting together a list of every book, show or film that I think could possibly inspire people working on Eberron would take more time than I currently have. For example, I have a FEELING that some people might find China Mieville’s books to be inspiring for Eberron, but I’ve never actually read them (which is embarrassing, as all accounts suggest they are awesome – I’ve just never gotten around to it). Likewise, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game. So I’m going to list a few things, but these are simply a few things that personally inspired me – not every possible source of inspiration.

Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and almost any Film Noir movie.

The original one sentence description of Eberron was “Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Maltese Falcon meet Lord of the Rings.” Anything in this vein will help inspire adventures tied to dirty dealings on the mean streets of Sharn… and I’ve always described Graywall in Droaam as “Casablanca with ogres.” For what it’s worth, I prefer The Maltese Falcon as a movie and The Big Sleep as a book.

Two-Fisted Tales of Adventure!

The Mummy. Any Indiana Jones movie. Any Republic serial (such as “Nyoka and the Tigermen”). Anything by Edgar Rice Burroughs or Jules Verne. I originally came up with the idea for Eberron because I’d spent a few years working on a pulp-flavored MMORPG that ended up being cancelled, and I’d been watching a LOT of pulp serials.


William Gibson’s Neuromancer is one of the early cyberpunk novels. It combines aspects of a dystopia future with some basic film noir tropes. There are certainly ways in which the Dragonmarked Houses are inspired by the classic cyberpunk megacorps, with the basic question of what happens when corporate power equals or exceeds the relevance of nations. Almost any cyberpunk novel can provide inspiration for a House-heavy game, but Neuromancer remains my favorite.

Steven Brust

Brust’s Taltos series are pulp stories set in a fantasy world, and deal with many of the same issues as Eberron… though Dragaera is more magically advanced than Eberron; teleportation and resurrection are basic tools available to civilization and everyone effectively has a psionic cell phone. I’ve often considered running a Taltos-style campaign in Eberron, in which the PCs are small time operators in the Boromar Clan trying to hold their turf and expand their reputation and influence. I also like Brust’s Phoenix Guards series, in part because it’s set in an earlier age and there’s an opportunity to see how the science of magic evolves. And as long as we’re mentioning The Phoenix Guards, you also can’t go wrong with anything by Alexandre Dumas.

Phillip K. Dick

I prefer PKD’s short stories to his novels, but I love the questions he raises in his work. The warforged essentially spring from my long love of Blade Runner, bringing us back to cyberpunk. What is the nature of life? What do you do if you were made to be a weapon and there is no war?

H.P. Lovecraft

If you’re going to get into the Cults of the Dragon Below or the Lords of Dust, you should delve into some Lovecraft.

I’m going to stop here because I could keep this list going for pages, and I’m out of time… but anyone reading, post your inspirational films and stories in the comments! For honorable mention, as authors I’ve read and enjoyed who may or may not have directly influenced Eberron: Jack Vance (anything to do with the Dying Earth); Tanith Lee (Night’s Master or Tales From The Flat Earth); J. R. R. Tolkien; George R. R. Martin; Michael Moorcock; Robert E. Howard; Sheri S. Tepper; Neil Gaiman; Patrick Rothfuss; William S. Burroughs (maybe not useful for Eberron, but great if you’re running Over The Edge)… I’ll stop there, but I’m sure I’ll think of a dozen more as soon as I post this.

And now, the Thrane and the Silver Flame questions…

Is there any cardinal who is seriously opposed to Krozen or is suspicious about him? Does Jaela Daran mistrust Krozen?

As with many things about Eberron, it depends on your campaign. In MY campaign, I might decide to have Jaela be a canny politician who’s quite suspicious of Krozen and seeks personal agents to help her carry out personal missions. However, more often I cast Jaela as the truly spiritual leader of the Church, who has little interest in politics and thus tends to trust Krozen and rely on him to handle that side of things. I hate to say this with so many questions, but it’s really a question of how you want the story to go; there’s no wrong answer.

In the 4e ECG it’s mentioned that Aundair refused to return lands to Thrane and that is why Thrane kept Thaliost. Why did Aurala attach more importance to those lands than to such a city? Magic, strategic importance, or other settlements?

Personally I see this as an oversimplification. It’s not that Thrane offered to return Thaliost and Aundair said “No deal,” it’s that each nation had made territorial gains and neither one was willing to give ground. Remember that Aurala in particular believes in the righteousness of her claim to the throne of Galifar and has the least interest in the peace process. What’s been said in other sourcebooks is that Aundair claimed the land that is currently home to Arcanix during the war; note that as Arcanix is a set of floating towers, it was moved to this location to help secure the claim. However, if you consider what makes specific locations strategically important in Eberron, if I were to write something about Arcanix in the future I’d propose that the current location is a powerful manifest zone that is valuable for the research conducted at Arcanix… which would explain both why Aundair attaches such importance to the location, why they moved the university there, and why they aren’t prepared to surrender it.

Wasn’t it mentioned somewhere that Overlord Sul Khatesh is imprisoned under Arcanix?

Good catch! You’d think I’d remember that, since I wrote it (it’s on page 31 of the 4E ECG). In my opinion, this isn’t something anyone KNOWS – it’s a fact for you, the DM. But it’s an excellent reason to say “Arcane magic is remarkably effective in this region and people are far more likely to make amazing breakthroughs in arcane studies.” People think it’s because of a manifest zone, but in fact it’s the influence of Sul Khatesh. So Aundair does believe it’s an ideal site for the University. If I was looking for a plot hook, I’d have some Church scholar figure it out and Thrane suddenly urgently pushing to take back the region, which threatens to escalate into open conflict.

What kind of discrimination (if any) would an aristocrat face who is a devoted follower of the Silver Flame but who holds lands in Cyre, Breland, Aundair, etc.  Having that kind of dual loyalty would strike me as fertile ground for rivals to nibble away at holdings. 

The Silver Flame was widespread across Galifar before the Last War. Ever since the Lycanthropic Purge it’s been especially strong in Aundair, which has always been the stronghold of the Pure Flame. However, devotion to the Flame DOES NOT EQUAL LOYALTY TO THRANE. Many of the Purified don’t approve of the theocratic government of Thrane, asserting that involving the Keeper and cardinals in secular politics distracts the Church from its true mission and breeds corruption.

The purpose of the church is to protect the innocent from supernatural evil. Mortal politics don’t enter into the equation. So a Brelish noble who is loyal to the Flame can absolutely oppose the soldiers of Thrane when they are engaged in military action on behalf of Thrane. If, say, an army of demons pops up, all of the Purified would be expected to join forces against this supernatural threat; once that’s out of the picture they could return to their secular conflict.

So: an Aristocrat who is devoted to the Flame is unlikely to suffer significant prejudice in any nation other than Karrnath. However, a noble who vocally supported his national government being dissolved in favor of Thranish theocracy would likely suffer trouble.

How prolific is the CoSF in Karnath and to what degree would the Karnathi Purified have been persecuted?

The CoSF has never had a strong presence in Karrnath. The people of Karrnath are pragmatic and pessimistic by nature, and the Silver Flame is fed by optimism and altruism. Beyond this, the Blood of Vol was deeply rooted in Karrnath a thousand years before the modern CotSF was even formed… and the Blood of Vol is fundamentally opposed to the Silver Flame, as it embraces what the Church would call “Supernatural Evil”. So it was weak to begin with, and most SF loyalists would have risen in revolt when the state embraced the Blood of Vol as the state faith and began employing undead in the military. This is also the reason Thrane and Karrnath have the deepest emnity of any of the Five Nations. There are surely some in Karrnath who embraced the faith of the Flame… and even if most immigrated or revolted during the war, some could have chosen to hold position and endure so that they could continue to protect the innocents of Karrnath. But they would certainly be viewed with distrust and disdain by those around them, and could easily be accused of treason (true or not).

Side note: While the state no longer supports the Blood of Vol, the cultural tone of Karrnath is still a better match for the BoV – which is a bleak faith based on the concept that the universe and the gods are our enemies and ultimate dissolution is inevitable – than the Silver Flame.

After the Day of Morning, Thrane turned away Cyran refugees.  Would the Purified of Cyran birth been exempt from this prohibition?

Well, here’s the thing. In the extended aftermath of the DoM I could see Thrane refusing to admit refugees. However, in the IMMEDIATE aftermath, it’s the only nation I CAN’T imagine refusing refugees. The entire purpose of the church is to DEFEND THE INNOCENT FROM SUPERNATURAL EVIL. Not “Defend the citizens of Thrane” or “Defend the followers of the Flame”, DEFEND THE INNOCENT. The Mourning is about as “supernatural evil” as things get. It is utterly bizarre to suggest that when faced with clear evidence of supernatural attack that anyone devoted to the Flame would turn back civilians to fend for themselves.

So frankly, the first thing I’d do would be to rewrite whichever history book says that they turned away refugees in the immediate aftermath. After that, I’d have to come up with an explanation that would make sense to me as to how they would justify turning away refugees in a long-term situation. I do feel that they would accept anyone who wished to serve the church itself, because again, the purpose of the church transcends politics. I could see AUNDAIRIAN Templars aligned with the Pure Flame taking such actions (turning back any who didn’t support the Flame) because the Pure Flame is an extremist movement that frequently ignores the core principles of the faith (as shown by Archbishop Dariznu burning people)… but it’s very out of character for Thrane Templars, and personally I’d ignore it in any campaign I run.

I can see the explanation for turning away refugees to involve something along the lines of, “In our capacity as worldly rulers, we are forced to separate ourselves from our spiritual roles as leaders of the Church. So, it is with a heavy heart we are forced to look at what is good for Thrane, rather than what is good for for the suffering souls of Cyre. We are therefore closing our borders to any, and all, refugees from the event known as the Day of Mourning.”

Certainly. If I had to come up with an explanation for it, it would the the reasons that any government turns away refugees. I’m just saying that of all the Cyre-adjacent countries, Thrane seems like the strangest one to make that decision. Consider our options…

  • Karrnath. A very logical choice. Not only are they a highly pragmatic, militant culture used to making harsh decisions, they are also called out as dealing with famine and thus legitimately lacking the resources to suddenly support refugees. If I was picking one of the Five Nations to turn away refugees, it would be Karrnath.
  • Breland. On the one hand, you have Breland’s egalitarian character; on the other, Breland is often also presented as pragmatic and opportunistic. It wouldn’t surprise me to have some corrupt border patrols lining their pockets in exchange for safe haven.
  • Thrane. The odd duck. Thrane isn’t noted as suffering from a crippling lack of resources that would prevent it from accepting refugees. The fundamental principle of the Silver Flame is protecting the innocent from supernatural threats… like the Mourning. Thrane abandoned its secular government in favor of a theocracy based on this faith, and this faith is widespread throughout the nation – so even if the secular leaders gave such an order, I’d expect many border forces to ignore it and follow their faith. Bear in mind that when Aundair was threatened by a plague of lycanthropy a few centuries early, an army of Thranes threw themselves in harm’s way to protect their neighbors. They are the one nation with a proven history of altruistic behavior. Now, I have no problem with Thrane turning away immigrants under any other circumstance… but specifically turning away refugees fleeing from a horrific supernatural threat is bizarrely out of character for Thrane.

Historically, Thrane has the least consistency in its presentation by different authors. The corruption is often blown out of proportion, when a) the CotSF isn’t supposed to have MORE corruption than any other faith in Eberron, it’s simply that there IS corruption even in this altruistic institution; and b) the majority of that corruption is based in Breland. The zealotry becomes a focus, when Aundair is supposed to be the stronghold of the Pure Flame and Thrane the seat of the moderate faith. Heck, we can’t even get consistency on the fact that archery is an important cultural tradition.

So: there is a book that says that Thrane ruthlessly turned away refugees on the Day of Mourning. I could come up with an explanation for that if I had to. But in MY campaign, I’m simply going to ignore it and say it was Karrnath that turned people away… which was an unfortunate necessity due to their limited resources.

So, in your view the Cyran refugees problem presented in the books happening in Breland, it also exists in Thrane? With ghettos and maybe a big refugee camp( like a smaller New Cyre). If not, why the refugee problem exists only in Breland? They have gone there BECAUSE of New Cyre? The Thrane refugees adopted quickly the faith and culture of Thrane and are more keen to mingle and adapt than the Brelanders?

All good questions! To be clear: My issue is the concept that Thrane would turn away people fleeing from a severe supernatural threat. Once that imminent threat is over, I have no issue with them placing political reality ahead of altruism. It’s the same idea that Thrane followers of the Flame can fight Brelish followers of the Flame, but if that demons appear they should both stop fighting to deal with them. For followers of the Flame, a supernatural threat should override political concerns – but once that threat is resolved, politics are back in play.

I believe that Cyran refugees are a problem across Khorvaire (and heck, as far away as Stormreach). If there’s a nation where they aren’t a problem, I’d pick Karrnath… both as the nation legitimately most likely to reject them in the first place (famine!) and as the nation most use to draconian enforcement (Code of Kaius). However, I think that Breland is unique in embracing the refugees… specifically creating New Cyre, a place where their culture is allowed to flourish. Thrane could well be pushing its refugees to abandon their culture and assimilate into Thrane and the Church… given which, those with the means to do so would likely have made their way to New Cyre.

So if I was creating a Flamekeep sourcebook, I would certainly address the presence of Cyran refugees within it. But again, I’m happy with the idea that they are under significant pressure to assimilate, and that NEW refugees aren’t welcome. It’s not that Thrane is the kindest, gentlest nation; it’s that it is specifically altruistic when it comes to fighting supernatural threats, and the actual event of the Mourning would fall under that umbrella.

The accounts of the spread of the Mourning suggest it was very fast (it was the Day of Mourning, not the Week of Mourning or the Month of Mourning, and the Field of Ruins was certainly overrun that same day). If that is the case, how are there any significant number of refugees at all? For that matter, how was there time for any official policy on refugees to be formed? It doesn’t seem like anyone other than border guards would have had time to react before the refugees were already there.

Another excellent set of questions. You’re absolutely correct: it’s called the Day of Mourning for a reason. The first point is that the effects of the Mourning bizarrely conform to a particular set of borders. In my opinion, the bulk of the “refugees” weren’t actually in Cyre when the Mourning occurred; they were soldiers and support staff either in enemy territory or land temporarily seized. This raises one of the long-term issues of dealing with Cyran refugees: most of them were actually enemy combatants, and the war wasn’t over.

In terms of civilian refugees, start with those already out of the borders. Add to those communities on the very edge of Cyre… it was the Day of Mourning, not the Hour of Mourning, after all. The cloud could be seen from a great distance away, and you could easily have had a few places where there was communication – a Speaking Stone station sends a message out saying “Cloud approaching” and then drops off the grid. People on the edge who discover that no inner city is responding might have time to make it to the border… though given that they wouldn’t have known it would stop at the border, odds are good that you’d just have general panic and “SOMETHING IS COMING!!!” – again, the sort of supernatural threat Templars are supposed to defend the innocent from.

HOWEVER, at the same time, it was a time of war and for all border guards would know, it could be a trick. In a time of war, it’s not unreasonable for any nation to act with fear and suspicion; it’s simply that of all the nations, Thrane has the most compelling reason in the very short term to set that suspicion aside to defend those endangered by a supernatural threat.

So for refugees, this gives us Cyrans in enemy territory already; civilians on the very edge who were able to flee before the Mourning reached them; and one more category: survivors. The effects of the Mourning weren’t entirely predictable, and not everyone exposed to it died. The Storm Hammers in Stormreach (City of Stormreach, p.73) are a group of such survivors. So you could have had people in border communities who didn’t escape – but who survived and then fled in a panic.

In any case, you’re right: we’re not talking about large numbers of refugees, and it would be the border guards that would be making the initial decision.

What’s your take on the event leading to the creation of the Church of the Silver Flame?

Well, the 3.5 ECS has this to say…

In 299 YK, the event that started the religion of the Silver Flame took place. In that year, a terrible eruption split the ground and a great pillar of crimson fire emerged from the resulting chasm. No one understood the significance of the blazing column of flame, but most who dared approach it felt unrelenting malevolence in its radiating heat… Tira Miron, a paladin dedicated to Dol Arrah, received a powerful vision about this strange fire while exploring the western reaches of the realm. In her vision, a great rainbow-winged serpent warned her that a terrible evil was emerging in the east, riding crimson fire from the depths of Khyber itself. Tira rallied the forces of Thrane and defeated the dark creatures that had come to venerate the crimson fire and help free the malevolent entity trapped within its flames.

A key point here that’s sometimes missed is that Bel Shalor was never truly free; he just got VERY VERY close to being released. This caused the appearance of demons. Some were likely drawn to the region from other points (such as his followers in the Lords of Dust), but many were probably just released from the Flame itself in advance of him… imagine a fishing net pulled from the ocean with one big fish trapped in it and hundreds of smaller fish tumbling out through the gaps. So: Demons were afoot in Thrane, and their numbers were increasing over time. However, I think that the actions of mortals were more noticeable than the presence of demons. As Bel Shalor’s influence over the region grew, he brought out the worst in people. As noted in the 4E ECG, “People who fall under his sway become selfish and cruel, turning on one another instead of standing against him.” So you’d see feuds and vendettas taken to extremes, the rise of petty tyrants, widespread banditry, and far worse. It makes me think a little of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles – there ARE demons in the darkness, but the people are more concerned with increasing banditry, war, taxes and the like… not realizing the darker forces that are influencing things.

Tira becomes aware of the threat, but in my opinion she doesn’t just rush over and dive in. Personally, I feel that it took her the better part of a year to prepare – gathering mortal and immortal allies, traveling across Khorvaire and even the outer planes to learn about Bel Shalor and how he could be defeated. In my personal campaign, she went to the Demon Wastes to obtain Kloijner; the greatsword was forged by the couatl (technically it’s a couatl frozen in steel) in the Age of Demons and was previously in the possession of the Ghaash’kala orcs.

In coming back through Thrane, the first step was uniting people and helping them break free of Bel Shalor’s influence; then she led these forces and her allies to the site of the breach, where she defeated the demons and sacrificed herself to force Bel Shalor back into the Flame. Those she left behind then laid the foundation of the modern church. As a side note, in my opinion Tira was essentially one member of a party of adventurers. Dragon 417 includes an article called Miron’s Tears, which identifies an Avenger named Samyr Kes as one of these allies. Others haven’t been named – but these would be the people who established the Church.

One other point: While Bel Shalor was never fully released, it seems likely that his prakhutu, The Wyrmbreaker (described on page 30-31 of the 4E Eberron Campaign Guide) would have been commanding the forces defending the breach… so likely Tira and her allies had to defeat him before they could reach the Flame.

Phew! That’s all for this installment. I’ll certainly let you know as soon as I have any news about Eberron development of 5E. Next up: More about Phoenix: Dawn Command!

The Download with Andrew Looney!

The_Download_postcard_150dpiAndrew Looney – who you might know as the creator of Fluxx, Loonacy, Looney Pyramids and many other award-winning games – is a longtime friend of mine. Around 15 years ago, we decided to have a call each week to keep in touch… talking about work, life, and the things we’d been reading, watching or playing. This became known as “The Download,” and we’ve kept it up ever since. Now we’ve decided to let anyone who wants to listen in on the call. This is an experiment, and to be clear, this is still just our casual phone call. We’re not scripting anything. Many of the topics may interest anyone but us. But it’s a chance to get some insight into how our design process works and the secret life of game designers. If you want to listen in, you can find The Download here.

I’m in the middle of multiple deadlines right now, but there’s a number of things I hope to post about this week… including an update on Phoenix Dawn Command, my upcoming convention schedule, and an Eberron Q&A. All that in upcoming posts!

Six Questions: Daniel Garrison


I first met Daniel Garrison in 2011. He’s a brilliant designer and one of the finest game masters I’ve played with. In 2013 we began working on an RPG project together, which ultimately evolved into Phoenix Dawn Command. But just who IS Daniel Garrison?

Phoenix: Dawn Command is your first foray into the gaming industry. But where does the Dan Garrison story begin? Who are you, and how did you fall into the sordid world of roleplaying games?

I’ve been gaming for over twenty years. When I was ten years old I scored the early 80s Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set – the one with Keep on the Borderlands - from a garage sale. It was in pretty rough shape, with some of the pages and dice missing. My parents were a little skeptical if I was ready for it – the box back then said “ages twelve and up” – but there was no way they could have torn it away from me. Even with nobody else to play with (my brother and sister were too young) I must have read it cover to cover a million times.
From there, I think an embarrassing amount of Bar Mitzvah money went to all sorts of 2d ed AD&D books, and that’s when I tried my first abortive attempts at GMing with my brother and our friends – I was always running games because my friends just wanted to play characters. I went into a new high school where I didn’t know anybody – a science & tech magnet program where everyone was pretty nerdy – and gaming was a great way to make new friends, and it has been ever since. 

You came up with one of the core concepts of Phoenix: Dawn Command – the idea of a game where death is what makes you stronger. What inspired this?
It was killing you, Keith! (evil GM laugh) Traditional role playing games are interesting. We’re exploring genres where people and monsters die a lot – lord knows our characters kill a bunch of things and take their stuff – but death of your own character is always a really touchy subject. There has to be the threat of death – otherwise there are no stakes, no tension to these life or death situations your character experiences. But actually killing off PCs? I can probably count the times on my fingers, even after GMing for twenty years. Nobody wants to die because they rolled a one, and nobody wants to die because the GM executes them by fiat. A lot of GMs (myself included) sort of have an unspoken social contract with their players – even at 0 hp, you’re not really dead. Your healer can fix you. There’s a resurrection spell. There’s no real permanent harm, because gamers HATE permanent harm to their characters – our characters are supposed to grow more powerful, more experienced, not diminished – and permanent death is the ultimate diminishment.

But in the stories our games are supposed to emulate, sometimes protagonists die. It’s usually one of the most powerful moments for that character, where their lives and their meaning is redefined in the moment of death. I think about Boromir in the Lord of the Rings – until he dies, he’s just the jerk who betrays the Fellowship and is corrupted by the Ring. When he dies, he shows how brave and loyal he is, that he’s regretted coveting the Ring, and he saves his friends from certain death. Dramatically, we weigh that scene more heavily than everything we know about Boromir that came before.

I experienced that personally in a game with Keith’s character Summer, in a long term Exalted game I ran – Keith was moving out-of-state and we knew that we had to give his character an exit, and we orchestrated a death that was dramatic, timely and that left this huge legacy that affected all of the other players and the world of the game. It was awesome. And I found myself thinking, as a GM, how do I encourage more of that?

The answer that I came to that became Phoenix: Dawn Command seemed ridiculous at first and then obvious. Take the ultimate catnip for your players – leveling up and becoming more powerful – and marry it to dying. They’ll be lining up to make noble sacrifices and high-stakes risky gambits and last-gasp monologues. And playing a Phoenix, you will, and it’s great.

If you were going to be stuck in a remote arctic colony with only three roleplaying games – other than ones you’ve designed – what would they be?

Oh wow, this is an incredibly difficult question, but a few stand out:

Nobilis (Jenna Moran, Hogshead Press edition) – Nobilis, when it came out, looked nothing like other gaming products. It’s this beautiful white coffee table book that doesn’t fit on your gaming shelf, with fantastic art and layout. It wasn’t the first RPG to completely abandon dice, but it was one of the first, and that was just one of rules of game mechanics it totally broke. It’s a hard game for me to run, not because of the mechanics, but because I set the bar too high, wanting a campaign that’s as beautiful and moving and disturbing and weird as what I read in the book. Every other page or so has these microfictions – short stories between a sentence and two paragraphs – that are incredible. There’s so much inspiration here.

Apocalypse World (Vincent Baker) – Vincent Baker’s two games he’s most known for, Apocalypse World and Dogs in the Vineyard, are both so good, but AW in particular completely turned the way I think about game design on its head. With traditional RPGs, we caution against railroading your PCs but we also encourage it – you need to have a plot, after all. We depend on the GM for the narrative but we also resent them for limiting our characters’ agency, by forcing us to follow that narrative. AW and my favorite of its spiritual successors, Monsterhearts, control the GM’s agency and force them into being responsive to player actions. The scene grows organically and the narrative control is shared as players choose their own consequences. It’s funny as a GM to admire a game where GMs are more limited in what they can do, but it’s awesome – the story goes places you would never come up with on your own, while still feeling natural and dramatically satisfying.

Exalted (White Wolf) – Exalted is an epic martial-arts fantasy setting that combines extremely powerful PCs with a kitchen sink of every sort of fantasy and anime and mythic trope you can imagine – God-kings! Ninjas! Vampires! Dinosaurs! Fair Folk! Robots! When they weighed whether “does this makes cohesive sense” vs. “is this awesome” they just hit the “awesome” button a hundred times. The mechanics are just as wild. Game balance? Whatever. You can basically be invincible with some starting character builds. I love this! Nobody else figures out what the stakes are for the guy who can’t die. I watched a PC parry the moon. The freakin’ moon. Not a scratch. Later on there’s martial arts that turn you into a 4-dimensional being or that create infinite copies of your character or that turn the guy you touch (that invincible guy that can’t die) into an unloved goldfish. How’s them apples? Now, does this present opportunities to break your game? Yes. But Exalted is the sportscar that goes up to 1,000 miles per hour but is only safety-tested up to 100. You can go the speed limit and you’ll be fine. But you’ll be tempted to see how fast it goes. You’re probably okay up to around 300 mph. The resulting crash and explosion is very entertaining.

While Phoenix is the first game you’ve worked on professionally, you’ve created a number of interesting systems and settings in your home campaigns. What are a few of your favorites?

Well, for setting, there was the Exalted game in which we met – Academy of Keys. Exalted usually operates at a demi-god level of power, but the PCs started as mortals, washed up naked on the shores of the Academy, a school/prison for the various types of Exalted. Think Hogwarts, but you can’t leave, and “Defense from the Dark Arts” class is actually “Defense from Your Monstrous Classmates.” The PCs, still human, slowly worked their way up from the bottom of the Academy and became Exalted in the process, eventually meeting and exceeding the power level of their most terrible enemies. There were all these teams of classmates, NPCs who the player characters could interact with, through combat and dueling but also through politics and partying and dating around. There was a baccarat tournament that we invented a new card game for! There was a cooking contest, and storytelling to the death, and a battle of the bands. And lots of murder, and they save the world and crown a new Empress and all that. Just the best sort of sandbox setting, and all the players and my assistant GM contributed so much extra material; I’ve never felt so spoiled as a GM.

For systems, two come to mind. The first, Saints and Devils, was a diceless convention game in a supernatural Western setting. The PCs are these agents of divine justice, but they’re paired up: Saints are these righteous gunslingers who judge the wicked, but they’re each spiritually connected with a Devil, these tricky con men with magical abilities to trick and tempt people but who are forbidden from handling weapons. If either the Saint or Devil dies, their partner dies too, so even if the Saint and Devil don’t see eye to eye they have to watch out for each other. And different Saints can have different ideas of justice: some are forgiving, some want to hang ‘em high; the Devils tend to just want to have fun and get away with stuff.

The other system I’d like to mention, Swords and Cups, was my first foray into using cards for conflict resolution in games instead of dice. Inspired by Tim Powers’Last Call, each player has their own deck of tarot cards that they use to represent their character. By making tarot spreads, the PCs could bend or change fate to their advantage depending on the suits they were strong in. Although it went through many iterations, and changed genre a couple times, some of this system became the core of the card resolution mechanic we use in Phoenix: Dawn Command. There’s a lot I like about these systems, and I could see revisiting them again in the future.

What’s your favorite aspect of Phoenix: Dawn Command?

Well, there are a lot of system things that I’m impressed and excited by when I see them in play – the death and rebirth system, the deck-building component – but one thing I want to call out is Traits. Playtesters have done so much with these and I’m always surprised and pleased by what they come up with. We thought a lot about ways that we could give mechanical advantages to people who play their characters well, showing off their character’s style and personality. As a result, we added Traits: they are action cards in your deck, but in addition to have a regular value (“1 Strength”) they have a descriptor that tells us something about your character (“Reckless”). You can just use it as a Strength card, but you could also use Reckless in any kind of spread where you make it work – “I’m tired of these trade negotiations and I kick the table over!” in a social situation, for example. They also have a special ability on them, too – maybe Reckless gives you an extra attack if you’re willing to neglect your defense. Players are never forced to use Traits, but they’re satisfying and a significant bonus, and it really helps define the player characters and differentiate them from each other.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a game master?

It’s hard to think of these things on a large scale because gaming, to me, is so collaborative. I love creating and facilitating these moments for my players, but I don’t usually think of my own – I think of their characters’ most dramatic moments and love hearing about them. That said, I can remember a little one. I ran a Call of Cthulhu one-shot that was pretty outside my normal comfort zone. The characters were investigating this shuttered asylum, and I had a whole bunch of photographs from an artist who explores abandoned locations – with each room they explored I’d give them another creepy, horrible picture of where they were. Rusted medical equipment and disturbing graffiti and wreckage and shadows everywhere. They knew something bad was here and the sense of tension was incredible. In the end, the characters never even got a look at what was living in the asylum – the mood was so intense that once something was chasing them, the characters ran for the car and were happy to escape with their lives. It really stuck with me because that was a game that was almost entirely descriptive, without any combat or social interaction or dice rolling or referencing a character sheet – all the tools I usually rely on. I think it just goes to show how expansive and varied our hobby can be, how it really can encompass anything you can imagine with collaborative storytelling.

Phoenix: Dawn Command will be funding on Kickstarter in April 2015. If you’d like more information, sign up for our mailing list here!


Phoenix Dawn Command: Death and Rebirth


“What if you had a game where death was the way a character grew stronger?”

It was the summer of 2013, and my friend Dan Garrison and I were playing around with a game design. Dan put this question on the table, and the more I thought about it the more intriguing it became. Death is rarely a satisfying experience in games. Often it’s trivialized; if resurrection magic brings you back without a scratch as soon as a fight is over, it’s basically a trip to the penalty box. If death is final it becomes a thing to be avoided at all costs… or if it’s final and common (hello, Tomb of Horrors) it keeps players from ever really forming a strong attachment to a character. It’s rare to see a moment like Gandalf holding the bridge at Khazad-dûm, because no player wants to throw their character away… and yet these are wonderful dramatic moments.

The idea of Phoenix: Dawn Command evolved from this simple seed. We needed to find a way to keep death and rebirth from feeling trivial; if a character knows they will return, then a sacrifice wouldn’t really be a sacrifice. Over time we developed the follow elements.

  • Players are special individuals – Phoenixes – who have the ability to return stronger from death. This isn’t an innate trait; it’s something you earn after your first remarkable death. Thus, part of character generation is exploring your first death – who you were, how you died, and what gave you the strength you needed to return.
  • Phoenixes grow more powerful with each rebirth, but they can only return a certain number of times. Thus life is a limited resource – but it’s one you can choose to spend.
  • You don’t return from death immediately. Most missions in Phoenix are time sensitive, and thus the fact that you can return from death doesn’t entirely eliminate tension from a scenario. If you all die you will fail your mission – and because you will return, you will have to deal with the consequences of that failure.
  • Your character evolves based on the lessons you learn from each life and death. Thus, the reasons for your death have a concrete impact on the abilities that you gain. This means that in the long term, your character’s abilities reflect your triumphs and defeats… and also, that if you have a particular set of abilities in mind you will want to choose the circumstances of your death carefully.

Each of these steps moved us in the right direction. Death isn’t the end, and sacrifice is a viable option… but at the same time, you don’t want to throw your life away casually.

This is also tied to the fact that Phoenix is driven by an underlying story. It’s not a sandbox where you’re seeking wealth or power for its own sake; instead, you are the last hope of a world facing an existential threat. Your missions matter, and again, you don’t want to throw your life away if it doesn’t help the cause… but sacrifice is a choice that you can make. Death isn’t trivial, but neither is it the end of the story. And the circumstances of each death will shape the character you become.

This likely raises more questions about the game than it answers. What happens after your character dies their final death? When a Phoenix dies, what does the player do for the rest of that session? Exactly how do the reasons for a death affect the returning character? I’ll touch on all of these and more in upcoming posts! In the meantime, follow this link to join the mailing list for updates on Phoenix: Dawn Command!






Games at JCC5: It Takes Two

The wood paneled game room on the JoCo Cruise is luxurious. It’s not just the bottomless cauldron of coffee or the terrible pizza on demand, but the truly luxurious experience of being able to find fellow players to join in on a game at nearly any hour of the day or night. The early risers start conquering kingdoms over breakfast, the afternoon and evening gamers overflow to other floors of the ship, and late night gaming morphs into morning. There’s more people checking to see what the maximum number of players are for a game than struggling to find the minimum. Luxurious, right?

But we don’t live our lives on cruise ships, and it’s often a challenge to find enough people to play your favorite game on the spur of the moment. Over the last few years, Jenn and I have built up a roster of games we enjoy playing with just two players… and when we helped plan the gaming track on JoCo Cruise 5 this year, we put together the “It Takes Two” Event to share some of these games with our fellow Sea Monkeys. A stellar group of Helper Monkeys, volunteers and game designers abducted from vacation made the whole event possible by teaching these games.

We wanted to share the list of games from the event both for those Sea Monkeys who attended but couldn’t remember the name of a new favorite… and for anyone else who’s interested in learning a new two player game.

Do you have a favorite two player game that’s not on this list? Let us know in the comments below!


Two players work together to build a castle… but each player wants to seize control of the best courtyards. In Castellan each player uses a set of castle walls and a deck of cards that determines what pieces can be played; the challenge is to claim the most territory by the time the castle is complete. A typical game of Castellan lasts 45 minutes.


Invented nearly 40 years ago, Cosmic Wimpout is a classic press-your-luck game using five custom dice. It’s simple and easy to learn, and can be played in under ten minutes; the design allows even a losing player a last hope for a come-from-behind victory. While the basic game is very simple, there’s an assortment of variant rules that add complexity; some of the more popular rules can be found here.


It’s the French Revolution, and everyone’s trying to get a head… or as many of them as possible. Each day there’s a line of nobles heading for the guillotine; you want to use your tricks to rearrange the line to ensure that you end up with the best nobles in your basket. Will you manage to end up with the head of Marie Antoinette, or will you be stuck with the heads of the lowly piss boy – or worse, the beloved Hero of the People?


In this strategy game, players shape a board as they place their insect forces, achieving victory by surrounding an opponent’s Queen Bee. Each piece has its own unique move; for example, soldier ants can scurry to any position on the edge of the hive, grasshoppers leap over opposing forces, and beetles clamber over other pieces and immobilize them. It’s a simple and elegant game, and the pocket version is very portable – but it’s certainly a game that makes you think. A game of Hive generally takes 10-20 minutes.


In Jaipur you assume the role of a trader seeking to amass wealth through careful trading of goods and camels. On your turn, you can either claim goods from the market in the middle of the table, or sell goods from your hand… but you can only hold onto a certain number of cards at a time. Will you hold out to try to get the most valuable combinations, or buy and sell as quickly as possible? Will you invest in camels or ignore the mangy creatures? Jaipur is a simple, fast game but has enough strategy to make every round unique.


Looney Pyramids are a set of versatile tools that can be used to play a vast assortment of games. There’s even a handy searchable community wiki where you can find instructions for over 300 different two player Pyramid games that vary in complexity and length of play. With so many games to choose from, you’re sure to find something you enjoy! At It Takes Two, Kristin Looney taught people to play IceDice, Launchpad23, Treehouse, Pharoah and Pink Hijinks.


In Lost Cities two explorers compete to explore the farthest reaches of the unknown. The deck of cards is divided into five suits – one for each of five expeditions – and it’s up to each player to decide which exotic locales to explore. Every card has a value, and once you play a card of a particular expedition – a 5-point arctic exploration card, for example – you can’t play a lower value card. As such, it is a game of strategy and patience as you try to decide which expeditions you want to commit to, and how long you should wait for the right card before committing to a journey.


A “new classic card game,” Pairs is simple, fast and fun. It uses a unique deck, and beyond basic Pairs there are many variants you can try depending on the experience you’re looking for and the number of players you have available. At It Takes Two, designer James Ernest taught the two-player bluffing game Regent; you can find rules for Regent and nineteen other variations here.


A huge hit in the JCC5 game room, Splendor place you in the role of a Renaissance gem merchant struggling to gain prestige. Gather chips and invest in valuable mines as you hope to lure nobles to sample your wares. While Splendor supports up to four players, it is an excellent game for two.


This science fiction game blends the deckbuilding feel of Ascension with the direct conflict of Magic: The Gathering. Assemble and improve your fleet of ships and bases, and hold off your enemies until you have the power to crush them. It’s fast and simple, and each of the four factions within the game enhance a different style of strategy, allowing you to pursue different paths each time you play.

News From The Bermuda Triangle

I’m currently on a boat in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle as part of the JoCo Cruise. Jenn Ellis and I are demoing Phoenix: Dawn Command, and having a lot of fun with that. I’ll be writing much more about Phoenix once I’m back on dry land, but here’s a sneak peek at some of our art, courtesy of Grace Allison and Rich Ellis

(C) 2015 Twogether Studios, LLC

(C) 2015 Twogether Studios, LLC

Phoenix aside, there’s a lot of other things going on today… despite being out in the middle of the ocean, I felt that I had to assemble an internet server from twine to get the word out about them. So without further ado…


This week, I’m honored to join a long line of luminaries that artist Len Peralta has featured on his Geek-A-Week series. Geek-A-Week is a podcast with a twist – in addition to discussion, Len produces a trading card of each of his guests. Past guests include Neil Gaiman, Guillermo Del Toro, Molly Lewis and many more. Take a look and a listen here!


Wizards of the Coast has a new online feature sharing various ideas for D&D Fifth Edition, and the first installment deals with Eberron. The article includes possible ways to handle three of Eberron’s unique races, an option for implementing the artificer as a wizard subclass, and a way to implement Dragonmarks. I’m always excited to see any support for Eberron, but as you read the article bear in mind that this is draft material. Quoting the article itself:

These game mechanics are in draft form, usable in your campaign but not fully tempered by playtests and design iterations. They are highly volatile and might be unstable; if you use them, be ready to rule on any issues that come up. They’re written in pencil, not ink.

The upshot of this is that your opinion matters. These aren’t final mechanics – they are ideas. Do you like the artificer as a wizard subclass, or would you prefer to see something that is more closely modeled on the 3.5 artificer? Are you comfortable with warforged “wearing” armor, or would you rather see something like the old adamantine/mithral body feats? Post your thoughts, here or anywhere else, and let people know what you like or dislike; it could make a difference for the next stage in Eberron’s development.

And now I’m going to get back to the serious business of being on a cruise!

Phoenix: Dawn Command

Our world is under siege. You are among the few who can turn the tide. You have passed through death and returned stronger than before. You are a Phoenix, and you are our last and only hope.


Over the last decade I’ve worked with a lot of different RPG companies. I created Eberron with Wizards of the Coast. I helped develop the foundations of 13th Age. And I’ve done a wide range of freelance work for Atlas Games, Green Ronin, Goodman Games, Pelgrane Press and many more. Now I’m creating a roleplaying game on my own. I’ve been working on Phoenix: Dawn Command for over a year, and it’s time to start talking about it.

Phoenix uses a simple, flexible card-based system with hooks that encourage storytelling and shared narrative control. It’s a squad-driven game, and death is part of the character advancement process. Your team can accomplish great things, but you’ll be faced with difficult decisions and consequences. You’ll need to push to your limits… and beyond.

I’ve been testing locally and at conventions over the last year, and I’ll be expanding testing on the JoCo Cruise next week. In March I’ll be taking the game to Kickstarter. Over the next few weeks and during the Kickstarter, I’ll be posting more details about the game, the setting, and the team and history behind it. Here’s a few quick points to get things started.

  • What do you mean by “card-based roleplaying game?” Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game, with a gamemaster who develops and drives the story. However, it uses cards in place of dice or other randomizers. As a player you have a deck of cards that represent the attributes and abilities of your character, and your fate is literally in your hand. This gives you a certain degree of narrative control. When you make an attack, you know what it will take to succeed; it’s a question of whether you’re willing to expend the resources necessary to make it a success.

  • Death is the character advancement mechanic? As a Phoenix, you learn from each death and return stronger than before. It’s not just about death itself, but how and why you die – what your character takes away from the experience. However, you can only return seven times, and you don’t return immediately. Rather than trivializing the experience, it allows personal sacrifice to be an important choice; you need to determine how and when it’s worth laying down your life.

  • Who else is involved in the game? This is Twogether Studios‘ (my company) first release. The game is being produced by Jennifer Ellis. My co-designer on the game is Dan Garrison. Grace Allison and Rich Ellis are creating amazing art, and I’ll get a sneak peek of that posted soon!

  • How can I find out more? Sign up for our mailing list here.

  • Are you going on the JoCo Cruise? Sign up here for an a play test spot.

I’m proud of Phoenix: Dawn Command and thrilled to finally be unveiling it – more details in upcoming weeks!