Phoenix Q&A: Playing Cards

Shrouded Phoenix

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.

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-3-55-53-pm

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…
  • ThePatron 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.

 

Coming Soon to K-B.C…

illimat-keith

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

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 4.40.19 PM

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

IMG_1405

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

IMG_1350

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.

IMG_1357 (1)

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.

IMG_1353 (1)

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.

IMG_1356

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.

IMG_1358 (1)

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!

Phoenix and GenCon 2016!

EPSON MFP image

First of all, PHOENIX IS IN THE WILD! If you’re on Twitter, let me know (@Hellcowkeith) when you get your copy! For those of you who didn’t back the Kickstarter, we’ll be bringing Phoenix to Gen Con 2016! If you want to find Phoenix at Gen Con, here’s a few opportunities.

  • Blackbox will be selling Phoenix in the Kickstarter Room (Room 143, near the Exhibit Hall). Supplies are limited!
  • You can play a two-hour demo of Phoenix. This is a short scenario using pregenerated characters, but it’s a chance to dive in and give it a try.
  • You can create a character. This is a one-hour event that takes you through the process of developing a character and a wing. Character creation is one of my favorite parts of the system, and you get a Phoenix notebook as a takeaway!
  • We’re holding a seminar about Phoenix on Friday. We’ll be talking about the system, the setting, and the three-year journey to get it out!
  • And finally, I’ll be talking about Phoenix at the Q&A with Keith! This is a casual conversation, so I’ll also be talking about Eberron, Gloom, and what’s in development!

I hope to see you there!

Gloom Digital on Kickstarter!

Gloom Kickstarter Image

It’s been almost thirteen years since I invented the card game Gloom in my basement in Boulder, Colorado. As a longtime fan of Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, Lemony Snickett and others, I wanted a game about telling the most miserable tale. Over the years a number of new versions of Gloom have emerged. In Cthulhu Gloom you want your family of investigators to go mad and come to an unhappy end. In Fairytale Gloom you want to find the unhappiest end to your tale. And in Munchkin Gloom, you want to describe the worst dungeon adventure in history. I love playing them all, because I love seeing the stories that emerge from each game.

Now, Skyship Studios has taken to Kickstarter to create a digital version of Gloom. Initially, they are developing the game for the PC; if it is successful, they will develop a tablet version. The game will support both single player and online play, allowing you to craft your gloomy stories with friends across the globe.

Gloom Gameplay

Creating a digital version of Gloom is a tricky business, since storytelling is an integral part of the Gloom experience. But every medium has something to offer. In Skyship’s Gloom, the characters themselves will come to life (before tragically dying). The characters will be animated and speak for themselves, providing their own take on the misfortunes that come their way. Beyond this, Skyship is continuing to explore ways to bring the flavor of Gloom to the digital experience.

Just to be clear: I’m not part of Skyship Studios and I’m not running this campaign. However, I am thrilled that Skyship is working to bring my game to life in a new medium, and look forward to playing it.

So if you like Gloom, please check out the Kickstarter here!

Dragonmarks 7/11/16: Druids

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 3.12.08 PM

We’re closing in on the release of my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command, and Jenn and I are working to organize the events we’ll be running at Gen Con. But I’ve been promising to answer questions about Druids in Eberron for a while, so here goes! As a side note, the image above is actually a Devoted Phoenix, but as a Grimwald shaman he’s SORT of a druid. Anyhow…

PRIMAL MAGIC

In the previous Dragonmark, I wrote about the difference between arcane and divine magic. As I mentioned there, I prefer druidic magic to be an entirely separate path as opposed to a subset of divine magic – taking the 4E approach of making druids and rangers primal casters. If you believe the myth of the Progenitors, arcane and divine magic both draw on the power of Siberys, while primal magic is the power of Eberron – the world itself. This reinforces the idea that druidic magic is natural magic, and fundamentally different from either arcane magic or divine magic.

So… How is it different? Arcane magic is about manipulating mystical energy through scientific methods. Divine magic uses faith and willpower as a method to tap divine power sources. What’s involved in primal magic? In my opinion, it walks a path between the two. Power is present in nature, and it comes in many forms. You have the direct elemental power of wind and storm; the power of animal archetypes; the life force of the world; and more. Primal magic involves touching and channeling one of these forces. In my opinion, this is like lucid dreaming – something anyone in theory COULD do, but something that in practice few people master. Another example would be Naming in Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. To generate lightning, a wizard will use a formula that alters the laws of physics. A cleric will call on the power of the Sovereigns. The druid simply understands the storm and knows how to ask it to do what she wants. This doesn’t require any particular belief, nor does it unlock every secret of nature at once. A ranger may have learned how to tell the world to leave no trace of his path, but that doesn’t mean he knows how to talk to the storm. With that said…

HOW DOES YOUR DRUID CAST SPELLS?

Primal magic doesn’t require belief to function… but that doesn’t prevent humans from layering belief on top of it. Each druidic sect has its own approach, and ultimately it’s up to you to decide how your primal caster operates. When you perform a spell, what do you do? Here’s a few approaches.

  • You invoke the spirits of nature. You speak to the storm and ask it to strike your foes. You call to primal spirit of the Hawk and ask it to lend you its wings.
  • You know secret words and rituals that let you channel natural forces – one word that calls the storm, another that gives you skin of bark. There’s more to this than just the word itself; it’s about understanding the storm and the tree. Nonetheless, you don’t actually talk to the storm; you simply know how to make lightning strike your enemy, the same way a farmer knows how to plant a seed so it will grow. You understand nature in a way most people do not, but to you this isn’t magical; it’s natural.
  • All things are connected through Eberron. You are already connected to the hawk and the storm. You don’t invoke them with secret names or address them as spirits; you simply reach through that connection and draw on the power you need. When you heal someone, you are helping them draw on their own connection to the primal lifeforce; when you hurt them, you are reaching through that connection and channeling disease.
  • You are a champion of Eberron, empowered by the world itself to protect her. She created the storm and the hawk, and she gives you dominion over them. You are the hand and the voice of the Wild.

In a sense, primal lies between divine and arcane, and the question is which end of the spectrum you fall under. Do you interact with spirits the same way a priest might speak to angels? Do you believe that you are a champion of the world as a paladin is a champion of the Silver Flame? Or do you believe that nature simply is, and the magic you perform is no more “magical” than a tree growing from the seed – you just know how to make natural things happen on demand?

WHAT ABOUT RANGERS?

Rangers serve as the warriors of the Eldeen druidic sects. They are primal characters in 4E and use druidic magic in 5E. Thus, as a whole, they fit the concepts presented above, and rangers from the Eldeen sects will follow the belief framework of their sect. However, it may be that you have an idea for a ranger that doesn’t really fit any of these. You want to be an awesome hunter, but you don’t really see your character thinking about “the balance of nature” or anything like that. If you want a not-so-druidic ranger, here’s a few approaches.

  • You can characterize your ranger’s spells as being more “tricks” that they’ve picked up. Perhaps you cure wounds using a salve you’ve learned to make, or create a fog cloud with a smoke grenade. Your hunter’s mark or jump could simply be driven by skill, and detect magic an innate sense of things. Mind you, all of these things WOULD still be magic, and could be dispelled, detected, etc – but it’s more that you’ve jury-rigged things that produce magical effects as opposed to having a deep connection with the power of nature.
  • Personally, I’d have no objection to a ranger who wanted to define his spells as arcane (reflecting a scientific approach to magic) or entirely divine (tied to his faith to Arawai or Balinor, for example). I wouldn’t change the spell list, as that’s part of the class balance, and because they can choose spells that fit what they are looking for – but I’d be happy to consider their magic to be arcane or divine instead of primal for any magical effects that relate to such things.
  • You can simply play a ranger who doesn’t use spells; one version of this was presented in this Unearthed Arcana article.

DRUID SECTS

To date, most of the focus on primal magic has been on the druidic sects of the Eldeen Reaches. Aside from the primary setting guide, you can find more details on these sects in the Player’s Guide to Eberron and Faiths of Eberron. Each of these sects is primarily concerned with a different aspect of nature. Here’s the very short version.

  • The Wardens of the Wood are about balance. They help people live in harmony with nature, and act to protect both the innocent and the wild. They are the largest of the Eldeen sects and the one that gets the most new recruits, as they actively work to help and protect the people of the Eldeen Reaches.
  • The Gatekeepers are about protecting nature from the unnatural. They fight the forces of Khyber and Xoriat, and maintain the seals that hold the Daelkyr at bay.
  • The Children of Winter are about the cycle of life… and death. They believe that civilization has thrown this cycle out of balance and use disease and other means to test and thin the herd. They further believe that there will come a time when an apocalypse cleanses the world, clearing a path for its rebirth. Some of them believe the Mourning is the first stage in this disaster… and that it should be welcomed and accelerated.
  • The Ashbound oppose civilization. They despise agriculture, cities, and all the ways in which civilization seeks to control or abolish the natural world… but they are especially opposed to those who warp the natural order with unnatural magic. They are the most zealous and dangerous of the sects. This sect includes a significant number of barbarians along with rangers and druids.
  • The Greensingers are ambassadors to the Fey. They linger in areas that are close to Thelanis, and often travel between the planes. While they are most strongly connected to the Fey, some Greensingers are more broadly interested in traffic with all of the planes.

The critical thing is that these five sects are NOT all of the druids in the world! To begin with, we’ve said that there’s around a dozen active sects in the Eldeen Reaches (which obviously means that there were thirteen, but one’s gone missing). We have never described the other Eldeen sects, because this is part of “There’s a place in Eberron for anything in D&D…” We intentionally left those other sects open so DMs have an easy place to drop in new sects of their own or interesting sects from other settings or sourcebooks. It’s possible we will add others in future material; I have an idea for a shifter sect with a focus on shapeshifting and living among the beasts of the wild, which hasn’t made as much of an impact as the others because its members are largely invisible within the woods. But the point is: These five sects exist to give you hooks to play with, but they are not intended to cover every possible sect.

Beyond this, within canon we’ve already presented a number of other druidic sects.

If I had the time to go through every sourcebook, I’m sure I could find more examples of druidic sects. The five named sects are those with the greatest impact on the Five Nations, and have been cast into the spotlight by the Eldeen secession. But you’re not limited to these five choices when you make a primal character of your own.

What do the Ashbound and Children of Winter think of the Undying Court, to the extent they are aware of each other? Have the Followers of the Broken Path had any significant contact with the other druid sects? Do the Gatekeepers nowadays a connection to the Wordbearer Dhakaani?

I’m merging all these together because they are all variations of the same question, which is how much contact do the Eldeen sects have with the rest of the world? The answer: not much. There’s a reason we call them the ELDEEN sects. We’re used to a world that is filled with information, where TV and internet keep us in constant contact with the entire world. Not only does Eberron lack these things, but the druid sects – especially the Ashbound – largely avoid the tools that do exist; the Ashbound aren’t going to go use House Sivis speaking stones or pick up the latest chronicle. The Wardens of the Wood rose up to protect the people of the Eldeen Reaches during the Last War; but during the thousand years Galifar was unified, they rarely left the Towering Woods.

With that said, some of the sects have taken an interest in the wider world recently BECAUSE of the Mourning. Children or Winter have ventured east to study the Mourning and to bring Winter to the great cities of the Five Nations. Some Ashbound believe they must strike deeper at the heart of civilization; some Gatekeepers want to reach out to find help in their struggle. These are things you can expand upon to meet the needs of the story you want to tell. But BY DEFAULT the Eldeen sects have little knowledge of or contact with the world beyond the Towering Woods. Among other things, this means that as a player character from one of these sects, you may be a trailblazer. The Gatekeepers haven’t been in contact with the Wordbearers or joined forces with the Kalashtar to fight the Dreaming Dark… but YOUR Gatekeeper might be the druid who restores the ancient alliance with the Dhakaani or negotiates new ties to the Kalashtar. This ties to the general philosophy of Eberron: YOU should be the people at the heart of events that change this era. There are many groups that share common interests with the Eldeen sects… but it’s up to you to establish those ties.

THE CHILDREN OF WINTER

It’s not so clear to me what’s the goal of Children of Winter. Do they want to kill any human life?

From Dragon 418:  When Eberron created life, she also created death. She gave the asp its venom and set plagues loose in the world. All these things have their purpose. Now you have pulled the serpent’s teeth and leashed the plagues with magic. Our mother will not be mocked, and her wrath is coming soon.

This is in the voice of one of the Children; a later section is clearer.

Although they surround themselves with vermin and the trappings of decay, the Children see themselves as champions of life. They believe that all natural things have a purpose, even those that seem malevolent. Death clears the way for new life. Disease weeds out the weak. The Children work to preserve this cycle. 

The Children despise the undead and destroy them whenever they encounter them… and if they WERE aware of the Undying Court, they’d despise it as well. Positive or negative energy means little to them; the simple fact is that these elves have placed themselves outside the natural cycle, and no good can come of it. And while they aren’t as dedicated to it as Gatekeepers and have no specialized spells, the Children will also fight aberrations or similar unnatural threats if they encounter them.

So why do the Children kill people? What’s their real goal? Let’s look back to Dragon 418: Like most druids, the Children see Eberron as the source of all life and the spirit of the natural world. They believe that she had a grand design for nature, a purpose yet unfulfilled. And they believe that if humanity strays too far from the path of Eberron’s design, she will wipe the slate clean and start again.

It’s not simply that the Children believe that people are “breaking the rules” with their medicine and their Undying Courts; they believe that these things THREATEN EVERYONE, and that if we don’t get the population under control the WORLD WILL BE DESTROYED. By spreading disease, they are using the tools nature designed to weed out the weak and reduce population. A significant number of Children believe that the Mourning is the harbinger of this “Winter” – the apocalypse Eberron will use to wipe the slate clean and start again. This has created a subsect whose members welcome this; this world is too far gone, and they want to bring down the Winter and reset the world. However, other Children oppose this and still believe the current world can be saved.

Are the Children of Winter aware of all the cosmic threats like Daelkyr, Lords of Dust and so on? Do they care?

No more than most people. WE know about the Lords of Dust because we have a cool book that spills all their secrets – but they are a conspiracy that has successfully remained hidden for thousands and thousands of years. The Children fight aberrations when they encounter them, but in short, the Daelkyr haven’t been a serious threat for thousands of years and the Overlords haven’t been a threat for tens of thousands of years. They’ve GOT a thing that they know about that is a real serious issue, and that’s what they worry about. Side note: Back in the day, when Bel Shalor was almost released… to the degree that the Children of Winter were aware of the troubles of Thrane, they might have considered THAT to be a possible harbinger of Winter.

THE GATEKEEPERS AND DRAGONS

As I understand the Gatekeeper sect, most of it’s knowledge came from Vvaraak’s teachings a long time ago. And most of it is lost today, especially the underlying magical principles of the seals and the annual ritual. They merely follow rituals they don’t understand any more, at least not in the fullest. So, in my understanding, they would not be able to repeat the ritual they used to seal the Gates to Xoriat – right?

That is correct.

Are the gatekeepers aware that Vvaraak was/is a dragon? If need be, would they try to find her today or seek help from another dragon?

Vvaraak taught the first Gatekeepers sixteen thousand years ago, and dragons aren’t immortal, so Vvaraak is long dead… plus, there’s a decent chance she was assassinated by the Eyes of Chronepsis for her actions in Khorvaire. The Gatekeepers have no easy way to contact Argonnessen and even if they did, the dragons wouldn’t help them. As called out on page 11 of Dragons of Eberron, Vvaraak’s actions were a betrayal of draconic customs:

A true child of Eberron, Vvaraak foresaw a disaster that would wound the world itself. The Conclave had no interest in this struggle; just as the dragons had stood aside while the giants of Xen’drik battled Dal Quor, the elders of the Conclave told Vvaraak that they would act when a clear threat to Argonnessen existed, and not before.

As a whole, the dragons aren’t your friends. They aren’t here to help. They stood by and watched as the Xoriat Incursion tore apart the Empire of Dhakaan. They did nothing during the Giant-Quori War. Heck, they attack Aerenal on a regular basis just so the kids can earn their wings. The one time they took decisive action was when the giants were preparing to do something that would threaten Argonnessen… and they dealt with that by utterly destroying giant civilization. Vvaraak was an extremely rare individual who truly cared about the lesser races – but that’s not a common thing.

I read that the gatekeepers have friendly connections to the Chamber and sometimes their scholars (known as dragons?) come to converse with the druid elders. If that’s true, why not simply ask a visiting dragon what to do if something with the seals/Daelkyr threat is … threatening? Or how to repeat the ritual properly?

It is true that over the centuries the Chamber has established Siberys Observatories in the Shadow Marches. But you’re making the mistake of thinking of the Chamber as “good guys” who would help if the people needed it. The Chamber monitors the Prophecy and ensures that it remains on the approved path. The only way to monitor the Prophecy is to have agents across the world. Essentially, the Chamber is using the Gatekeepers to collect data, which they can periodically pick up. The Gatekeepers don’t fully understand what they are doing, and I don’t think their Chamber contacts identify themselves as dragons. Even if they did, they would only help if it was part of the approved path of the Prophecy. It’s entirely possible that a Daelkyr Uprising IS part of the approved path, in which case not only would the Chamber not help them stop it, they’d actively mislead them to keep things on track.

Generally speaking the Chamber is better for us than the Lords of Dust, because their endgame doesn’t involve the release of demonic Overlords. But they are not our friends. Vvaraak broke with the Chamber when she taught the Gatekeepers.

What do the Gatekeepers think about the prophecy? Do they have druids specialized in deciphering the prophecy? Is it incorporated in their daily life somehow?

Yes and no. There are Siberys Observatories in the Shadow Marches, and the Chamber has got the Gatekeepers monitoring these and collecting the data they need for occasional pickup. This data MAY be useful in the short term at predicting events within the Shadow Marches, and the Gatekeepers undoubtedly believe that it will give them advance warning of a Daelkyr resurgence. However, they are not capable of monitoring the Prophecy as a whole from one location, and the scope of the Prophecy goes way beyond the Marches. It takes a group like the Chamber, Lords of Dust, or Undying Court – immortals with vast resources and power – to be able to put together the bigger picture.

So there are druids who specialize in using the Observatories, and in using them to predict local events and monitor the seals, but they aren’t concerned with the wider scope of the Prophecy.

The Gatekeeper community getting smaller with every generation, so it gets more challenging to maintain the seals. Are there seals all over Khorvaire or are they all located in the Shadow Marches/Eldeen Reaches/Demon Wastes? 

It has been established somewhere that the location of the seals doesn’t correspond to the physical location of the imprisoned Daelkyr. With that said, in MY campaign many of the seals are highly portable. There are a few seals that are vast buried stones, but a seal could also be a pendant, or a ring, or embedded in a staff. In this case it is possible that prophecy dictates where a seal must go; it could be that to function, one of the seals needs to follow a particular path or visit a series of locations. All of this is a great foundation for a Gatekeeper PC who is assigned to carry one of the seals, and who must take it to certain dangerous places to maintain its power.

How many seals do the Gatekeepers maintain? Somehow I recall that there are 6 (or7) Daelkyr left in this world and I assumed that therefore there are 6 (or 7) major seals as well, probably accompanied by smaller ones. Is this defined in canon material? And if not, how would you do it?

There are six Daelkyr that have been called out by name, however the Player’s Guide to Eberron states “These are undoubtedly among the most powerful of their kind, with abilities beyond those presented in the EBERRON Campaign Setting.” So there are as many Daelkyr as you need for the purposes of your story, and the same holds true for the seals. Given that you’re talking to ME, obviously I would say that there were thirteen seals, but one has already been destroyed in the past, and many believe that this is why the Daelkyr are stirring now.

Do you have some ideas what special relics back from the Daelkyr war the gatekeepers might have right now or have legends about? (beside Vvaraak’s tears)

Not off the top of my head. It’s certainly a topic I’d love to explore if Eberron gets unlocked for the DM’s Guild!

THE GREENSINGERS

Am I right in thinking that you wouldn’t really have creatures of Thelanis considering themselves Greensingers or druids?

You are correct. With that said, the Greensingers themselves are the least “druidic” of the Eldeen sects. We’ve already noted the fact that they sometimes multiclass with arcane classes (typically bard)… and as far as their druidic magic goes, they are much more in the model of “I know the secret name of the storm, so I can ask it to smite my enemies” than “I am a servant of Eberron.” Shapeshifting is also a common strength of Greensingers, in part in emulation of the fey who aren’t bound to a single form.

It’s hard for me to imagine the native inhabitants of Thelanis or Lamannia taking up druidic traditions per se – even if it weren’t “the magic of Eberron itself”, Thelanis isn’t the same kind of natural world that druids care for.

First of all, I wouldn’t include Lamannia in this equation. The Greensingers have strong ties to Thelanis, largely derived from the presence of the Twilight Demesne. They have no particular attachment to Lamannia. Aside from that, the Greensingers themselves don’t care for the natural world in the way that most druids do. The Greensingers look at what nature COULD be. They see the story. They imagine that the wind is singing a song, that the tree truly dances in the wind… because in Thelanis, it does. If you wanted, you could decide that Greensinger magic is actually slightly different from that of other druids… that rather than drawing on pure nature, they are temporarily imbuing the world around them with a touch of Thelanis. A dryad isn’t a natural part of Eberron, but it could be that a Greensinger temporarily creates a dryad in a normally natural tree.

Even if you don’t go that far, that’s how the Greensinger sees it. They see the world as a magical place, and it becomes more magical around them.

THE WARDENS OF THE WOOD

How are the Wardens of the Wood inserted in the geopolitics of the Reaches? Since they were a very active part of the independence, and there is very little about how the region is organized.

From page 97 of The Player’s Guide to Eberron: 

When the plains folk seceded from Aundair, the Wardens trained their militias and fought at their sides. In their gratitude, the folk turned to the study of the druidic mysteries, and this helped make the land remarkably fertile. Today, Warden rangers patrol the entirety of the Reaches, fighting bandits, poachers, and other interlopers.

And from page 172 of the Eberron Campaign Setting: 

Long dominant in the forest, the Wardens have spread out into the plains to ensure order throughout the region. Each village has a druid counselor (of anywhere from 1st to 7th level, depending on the size of the community) who provides magical assistance and spiritual guidance, and who advises the leaders of the community. Councils made up of representatives from each farming family govern each of the communities. Bands of Warden rangers patrol the forest, responding to threats as they arise. 

As a side note, some of these druid counsellors might be gleaners. But the short form is that the Wardens advise and protect, but do not rule. Also note that while the Wardens patrol the entire region and settle any disputes between villages, each village does have its own mundane militia – trained by the Wardens, but not made up of primal-classed characters.

THE ASHBOUND AND THE MOURNING

What do the Ashbound think of clerics and their divine magic?

That it’s the unnatural result of trafficking with alien spirits. At the end of the day it’s manipulating the same energy wizards do, and they have no love of it. It’s possible a priest of Arawai or Balinor would meet with their approval if he SEEMED primal. But generally, if it’s not natural magic, it’s UNnatural magic.

Finally I am thinking on a campaign focused on the Ashbound. In that campaign they behave like real terrorists. They are fundamentalists, but they are right. Mourning happened because too much of magic has been used. So, here comes the question: if THAT is what caused the Mourning, who should know that? Lords of Dust, Chamber, the Twelve, a daelkyr, someone in Daanvi? How should they react?

The idea that the Mourning was caused by the extensive use of war magic is one of the popular theories within the world, and it is a primary reason for the Treaty of Thronehold: the fear that continuing the war will simply cause the effect to spread. As for who would KNOW THIS WITH ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY? That depends on where you want to go with it.

  • The Twelve are a weird choice, but not out of the question. You could say that Cannith knew that the extensive use of war magic was a danger but concealed this information because hey, their business is about selling war magic. If this is the case, it can be argued that THEY CAUSED THE MOURNING. That’s an interesting plotline to me, because what are you going to do about it? This is especially true if it was known to the Twelve – if the leadership of all of the houses were complicit in hiding this information and continuing to push the world closer to doomsday.
  • The Lords of Dust or the Chamber work if you want to say that the Mourning was foretold by the Prophecy. If it’s the Lords of Dust, I would argue that the Mourning is in fact the visible manifestation of weakening the bonds of the Overlords, and that at least one Overlord was released on the Day of Mourning and now lingers in the Mournland as it regains its power. So the action was caused by overuse of magic, but there is worse still to come.

Assuming that it was the result of human action, another twist on the Twelve being behind it would be to have the information shared or revealed by the Dreaming Dark, who have plucked it from the dreams of one of the Twelve conspirators. What’s their angle? I don’t know. But if you want to bring in another faction, that’s an option.

GENERAL QUESTIONS

Are the druid sects a religion? If so, the vast majority of “druids” and “rangers” are really not classed individuals, and don’t have the capabilities of a class level PC. It seems to me this distinction is always reinforced by you with wizards (most are magewrights) and clerics (most are even adepts) but is never touched with druids.

This is really two different questions, so I’ll address them in order. There is a spiritual component to the beliefs of the different druidic sects: live in harmony with the world and your surroundings. Some – on an individual basis – take this further and see themselves as champions of Eberron; but other members have a more pragmatic view, and that’s fine. Again, primal magic doesn’t REQUIRE belief the way divine magic does. A sect provides guidelines for how a person should live their life, but it doesn’t necessarily tell them what they must believe.

As for your second point, there’s once again multiple answers.

  • Every sect generally has a large number of common people who share their general beliefs and approach to life. This is especial true of the Gatekeepers. When talking about the Shadow Marches we say that a significant portion of the population follows the Gatekeeper traditions. This doesn’t mean they are druids, that they know anything about the seals other than ancient stories, or that they are ready to fight aberrations; it simply means that they tell the stories of the Gatekeepers, respect their traditions, and would welcome and honor an actual Gatekeeper druid who shows up. The same is true of the Wardens in the Eldeen Reaches. There are many commoners who are ALIGNED with the Wardens, but they wouldn’t actually CALL themselves Wardens of the Wood. Further, for every classed Warden, you might have a half dozen initiates struggling to master their skills, or working to help the sect in support roles.
  • With that in mind, when we say “Wardens of the Wood” or “Gatekeepers”, we are generally referring to the elite core of that sect – the people who do have primal classes, and who actively pursue the goals of the sect. Now, most of these people would top out at first or second level, but this IS remarkable; this one reason the Reaches were able to secede and why they still haven’t been reclaimed. It’s why groups like the Ashbound and Children of Winter are serious threats even if each may have less than a thousand active members: they are small groups of exceptional people.
  • With THAT said, part of the issue is that core D&D doesn’t have a primal NPC class – an equivalent of an adept or magewright. Which is why I made one. Years ago I made a primal NPC class called The Gleaner. This was posted on Giant In The Playground, but hasn’t been used elsewhere. It is precisely what you’re looking for here, and yes, for every full druid in the Wardens of the Wood you have a number of Gleaners who travel the Reaches and the woods helping those in need. While D&D doesn’t have a system in place for someone “evolving” from one class to another, I would personally say that many druidic sect initiates begin as first level gleaners and then evolve into rangers or druids once they fully master their skills.

In general, do how the sects see each other? Are druids of different Eldeen sects more friendly to each other than a random person they meet? Do they all pay some respect to Oalian?

This is addressed on page 57 of The Player’s Guide to Eberron: 

Despite their differences in belief, Oalian supports all the druids, since each sect embraces an aspect of the natural world. In return, most druids respect Oalian as the ultimate spiritual authority in the region, and they gather at The Greenheart for important conclaves and rituals.

Beyond that, I’d say that in general the active members of the sects will treat primals of other sect with respect, and they might work together to resolve certain problems; they joined forces during the Eldeen Secession, and members of any sect would join together to deal with undead or aberrations in the woods. But that won’t prevent Wardens from opposing members of other sects who are endangering innocents; there have certainly been many clashes between Wardens and Ashbound in the past.

If the druid sects would be aware of the Aundarian plans against the reaches, could they start a war against Aundair? Would it become a new global war?

In thinking of the capacity of the Reaches to wage war, bear in mind that they are not a normal nation. They are a collection of villages and small communities, and the closest thing they have to a single leader is a tree. They don’t have a strong industrial base to create weapons of war. Their population is a fraction of Aundair’s, let alone the other nations. One of their greatest strengths is their strong bond to the Towering Woods and their ties to the manifest zones and magic of the woods; once they lead an army into hostile territory, they lose that. And if they were to invade Aundair, what would victory look like? Would they try to actually occupy it in some way? It’s not like the people of Fairhaven are suddenly going to adopt the lifestyle of the farmers to the west.

So no: I don’t see the Eldeen Reaches waging a full-scale war against Aundair. With that said, I could certainly see them engaging in GUERILLA warfare. If Aundair begins building up forces in preparation for reclaiming the Reaches, they could definitely launch targeted strikes to take out caches, depots, or research facilities. Part of the point is that the Reaches don’t have either the infrastructure or the numbers of Aundair… but what they do have is a small but elite force. If it came to a straight-up war, Aundair simply outnumbers and outguns the Reaches. But with an army of rangers and shapeshifting druids, the Reaches are well-suited to covert strikes before disappearing back into the woods.

The Eldeen sects are so named, as you say, because they’re native to the forests of the Eldeen Reaches. Do you think their particular philosophies or concerns are tied to that location, or are they the sort of thing that might have arisen independently in other regions and/or taken root there if brought by a rare wandering druid?

Geography definitely plays a role. The Greensingers largely came about because of the Twilight Demesne, while the Children of Winter have a connection to the Gloaming. Proximity to Aundair is definitely a factor for the Ashbound.

With that said: I believe that the mechanical elements of the sects reflect different ways to focus druidic magic, and that you could see other sects adopt these same practices even if they don’t share the same name or precisely the same beliefs. The Seren Dragonshard linked to above notes that most Dragonspeakers follow the paths of the Wardens of the Wood or Gatekeepers… which is about them MECHANICALLY following those paths, not that some of them say “We’re Gatekeepers!” So in creating a new sect, if you don’t want to create entirely new mechanics, you could certainly say “Which of the five is it most like in its purpose?”

This is particularly relevant to the Greensingers. The Eldeen sect has a strong connection to the Twilight Demesne. But if you’re using the 4E story, I’d say that you could have similar sects in any of the regions where Feyspires manifest – essentially, anywhere that has a strong, ongoing connection to Thelanis. These would share similar traits – fey ambassadors, blending druidic and bardic paths – but they wouldn’t necessarily call themselves Greensingers. WITH THAT SAID… you could just as easily say that the Greensingers began in the Twilight Demense, entered Thelanis, and from Thelanis spread out to such places… and thus make them all part of the same sect.

You’ve mentioned previously that each sect tends to fight one enemy, Aberrations for Gatekeepers / Undead for Children of Winter, is there a sect setup to fight the Lords of Dust? or Demons / Devils in General?

The Overlords aren’t bound by a natural force; they are imprisoned by the SIlver Flame. Thus they are primarily opposed by forces that channel the SIlver Flame, like the Ghaash’kala orcs. So no: at present there is no canon druidic sect that focuses on fighting demons. On the other hand, I’d think EVERY sect WOULD fight demons if they encountered them.

Tied to this: the sects often have one foe they are most concerned with, but they’ll still fight the others. The Gatekeepers are focused on aberrations and the Children despise undead. But the Gatekeepers will definitely destroy undead and the Children will hunt down aberrations that cross their paths. It’s just that these things aren’t a focus of their daily lives.

How do the different druidic sects and the Church of the Silver Flame tend to perceive each other? 

Personally, I think there’s very little interaction between them. The Church can’t possibly monitor every single sect or cult that exists in the world, and the druids aren’t especially interested in interacting with them; they’re doing just fine, thank you. WE know what the Gatekeepers are doing is vitally important, but to the world at large they are obsessing about something that hasn’t been a threat since before humanity came to Khorvaire. With that said, I’d think that they would have a generally positive view of the Wardens of the Wood, who likely assisted templars during the Lycanthropic Purge, and  a generally negative view of the Children of Winter and Ashbound, both of whom take actions that can threaten innocents… and the Ashbound in turn will see the Church as channeling unnatural energy. Meanwhile, the Gatekeepers live in the shadows and don’t believe that they need the help of some human outsiders.

WITH THAT SAID: In the last 5E Eberron campaign I’ve been playing in, the players include a Ghaash’kala paladin, a cleric of the Silver Flame (well, technically, Jaela Daran), and a Gatekeeper druid. We work together well because we do all share a common goal of protecting the innocent from evil, and we’ve been happy to pursue each other’s personal issues. But we’re still playing it that our respective organizations really don’t know a lot about one another.

Furthermore, if primal magic does not require belief… could a druid believe in and follow the Silver Flame?

The question I’d ask is why they become a druid in that case, instead of becoming a cleric. But other than that, there’s no reason they couldn’t. You could easily CREATE a sect of Silver Flame-inspired druids in the Eldeen who adopted the faith after fighting alongside templars in the Lycanthropic Purge.

Are there any druidic traditions amongst the Blood of Vol?

The Seeker tradition is largely urban and druidic traditions generally develop in the wild. Further, the goals of the Seekers are fundamentally TO BREAK THE CYCLE OF NATURE; combined with their affinity for undead, this would brand them as abominations in the eyes of the Children of Winter, if not most sects.

When it comes to druids, are there any sects that tend to utilizing the feat from 3.5 “Assume Supernatural Ability”? Does it fit with any specific sect’s view on the world?

Nothing particular comes to mind… but I don’t have time to go through and figure out a) what shapes a druid could take where this would come into play and b) the level that would be required to do so, which would affect how much it could really be central to a sect. You could certainly make a new sect around the idea.

And are there any sects that use “Draconic Wildshape”?

Sure: the Seren Dragonspeakers.

Are there any druidic traditions amongst the merfolk and sahuagin? What are some druidic traditions of the Vulkoorim drow of Xen’drik?

I’m certain that there are aquatic druidic traditions. The Qaltiar drow have a tradition involving primal spirits, as seen in The Shattered Land and Gates of Night. But neither of these are things I have time to explore in this format. Once Eberron is unlocked for the DM’s Guild, I’d love to explore this in depth (or see what other people do with it).

Is there any more information about the druid(s) that awakened Oalian and Kraa’ark Lors?

Not at present.

Life in the Lhazaar Principalities revolves around the sea. What’s the possibility of there being a druidic sect in that area who focus on the sea life of the region; ensuring fishermen get bountiful catches, ensuring whaling ships don’t hurt the creatures unnecessarily, and predicting the hurricanes off the Sea of Rage?

It’s a logical role for druids or gleaners, and something that has been suggested in passing; in particular, it’s been noted that Cloudreaver priests of the Devourer may develop druidic abilities, and the Wind Whisperers are a powerful force. With that said, we haven’t presented druids as a defining pillar of society in the Lhazaar the way we have in the Eldeen Reaches, so if I was writing for canon Eberron, I probably wouldn’t make them the secret masters of the Reaches. However, I could see adding in a gleaner sect that does exactly the sort of thing you suggest – ensuring bountiful catches, predicting storms, preventing overfishing. As a Gleaner sect they could exist without DOMINATING the culture; some respect them, some curse them as annoying busybodies. But they aren’t as dramatically powerful as the Cloudreaver druids or the Wind Whisperers.

As a side note on the Wind Whisperers: In theory, their power comes from a connection to the Mark of Storms. In practice, I might give a powerful Wind Whisperer NPC druid, warlock or sorcerer levels with storm/lightning related magic reflecting a deeper connection to primal storms unlocked by the mark. So the power that makes them a force to be reckoned with is more than just the base abilities granted by the mark.

What’s the tie between the Prophecy and Primal Magic? Aren’t both a direct expression of Eberron?

Eberron may be the source of Primal Magic, but she’s not the sole source of the Prophecy. There are many different theories about the origin and nature of the Prophecy; the dominant view in the Chamber (as called out in Dragons of Eberron) is that “The Prophecy is a reflection of the ongoing struggle between Khyber and Eberron. The Progenitors shaped reality at the beginning of time, and the Prophecy reflects their divergent desires for their creation.”

If dragons know primal magic and druidism for millennia, should we suppose that a sect of very powerful, high level dragons/druids exist and take care of the equilibrium of Eberron?

Powerful draconic druids do exist. The Child of Eberron is one of the core archetypes of the religion of Thir, as covered in Dragons of Eberron: All natural life sprang from the progenitor dragon Eberron, and the child of Eberron honors the Great Mother and defends her works. However, the vast majority believe that this is a task fit solely for dragons, not something that the lesser races should be involved in. There may be a few Children of Eberron acting within Khorvaire, but they aren’t working with lesser druids (whom Vvaraak should never have taught!) and are generally dealing with primal problems we don’t even perceive. Humans are like ants to them: part of the natural world, capable of forming communities, but of no directrelevance to their actions… and if you have to wipe out a bunch of them to do something important, they’ll recover from it. The critical example of this is Xen’drik: when the giants were about to take action that seriously threatened the equilibrium of Eberron, the dragons acted and utterly destroyed their civilization.

The good news for us is that the Children of Eberron are generally only concerned with SERIOUS threats to the equilibrium of Eberron, like “destroying a moon.” Things that are just going to wipe out a bunch of human nations aren’t that big a deal… again, when you look at things from a perspective of millennia, they’ll grow back. With that said, I suspect the Children of Eberron are concerned with the Mourning, and could potentially be allies in a plot that seeks to solve this mystery… but again, if the answer to the Mourning is “humans did it” and there’s a chance they could do it again, there is a very real risk that Argonnessen would decide that human civilization should go the way of the giants.

If primal magic is the result of invoking the primal spirits, using the secret names and rituals to channel natural forces, or tapping into the interconnectedness of all things through Eberron, how do druids and other primal casters use magic when they travel to other planes? In theory, primal magic is the domain of Eberron herself, so when traveling away from her, wouldn’t a primal spellcaster be cut off from their magic?

Good question. The same problem applies to Divine and Arcane magic, which are fundamentally drawing on the power of Siberys; shouldn’t going to another plane separate them from this source? The short and simple answer is that no, it doesn’t. The Progenitors created all the planes, and all of the planes are connected to Eberron. The creatures of Eberron live and die, know peace and war, dream and go mad. This is because Eberron is touched by all of the planes. The same process works in reverse. Dal Quor may not have a direct connection to Thelanis, but it DOES have a connetion to Eberron, and this allows your caster to draw on the power of Eberron or Siberys.

Now, if YOU had more time, it would certainly be interesting to change the way that primal magic works in Thelanis or Lamannia, and it’s something I might explore if/when I have the opportunity to develop Planes of Eberron. But the simple out if you don’t have time for such tinkering is “Eberron touches all the planes.”

My next few post will be about Phoenix: Dawn Command, but I will be posting another Eberron Q&A sometime in the next few weeks; the topic will be Thelanis and The Fey. Post your questions about Phoenix or Eberron below!