Six Questions: Daniel Garrison


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

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

I’ve been gaming for over twenty years. When I was ten years old I scored the early 80s Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set – the one with Keep on the Borderlands - from a garage sale. It was in pretty rough shape, with some of the pages and dice missing. My parents were a little skeptical if I was ready for it – the box back then said “ages twelve and up” – but there was no way they could have torn it away from me. Even with nobody else to play with (my brother and sister were too young) I must have read it cover to cover a million times.

From there, I think an embarrassing amount of Bar Mitzvah money went to all sorts of 2d ed AD&D books, and that’s when I tried my first abortive attempts at GMing with my brother and our friends – I was always running games because my friends just wanted to play characters. I went into a new high school where I didn’t know anybody – a science & tech magnet program where everyone was pretty nerdy – and gaming was a great way to make new friends, and it has been ever since.

You came up with one of the core concepts of Phoenix: Dawn Command – the idea of a game where death is what makes you stronger. What inspired this?
It was killing you, Keith! (evil GM laugh)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Phoenix Dawn Command: Death and Rebirth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Games at JCC5: It Takes Two

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

News From The Bermuda Triangle

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

(C) 2015 Twogether Studios, LLC

(C) 2015 Twogether Studios, LLC

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


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


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

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

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

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

Phoenix: Dawn Command

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dragonmarks 12/26/14: Under The Sea

Happy holidays, everyone! I hope that the end of 2014 finds you all well. Jenn and I have been tremendously busy doing work for our new company, Twogether Studios. For the last year we’ve been developing a new RPG called Phoenix: Dawn Command. We’re going to be launching a Kickstarter for Phoenix early in 2015, and I’ll be posting much more about it over the next few months. If you want to make certain you’re in the loop, go to the Twogether Studios site and get on the Mailing List! I’m very excited about Phoenix, and I look forward to discussing it in more detail. You can get a little taste of it by checking out my recent interview on the Tome Show’s Gamer to Gamer podcast.

But before I dive into Phoenix, I wanted to round out the year with one more Eberron Q&A. Currently, I don’t have any news on Eberron support in 5E D&D, but I am confident that there will be news in 2015, and I will definitely post it here. But today I’m going to deal with a subject that people have been asking about for a long time… the undersea civilizations of Eberron. As always, bear in mind that everything I post here is entirely unofficial and may contradict canon information: this is what I do in my home game, nothing more. With that said…

Are there any aquatic races other than the sahuagin that see non-hostile contact with land-dwellers? I may be doing a pulp game that’s heavier on the Sea Stuff™ than expected, and I imagine the political scene is just as busy below the waves as it is above. Especially curious about kuo-toa and aquatic elves, but anything you have helps.

I don’t believe that any of the aquatic races besides the sahuagin have been mentioned in canon Eberron sources. But I did come up with other ideas when I was developing the world, and I suppose I can mention those briefly. In my original draft I asserted that the two primary undersea races were the sahuagin and the merfolk, with a smaller but critical role for aquatic elves.

In this model, the sahuagin are a largely monolithic culture: a widespread ancient empire older than even Aereni civilization. In this you could see the Deep Ones of H.P. Lovecraft as a model; they worship a deity that others fear (the Devourer), and they have an ancient and sophisticated civilization that is almost entirely unknown to the people of the surface world. While I refer to this as an “empire”, my thought is that its borders have been stable for thousands of year; it’s not an especially aggressive power. With that said, if I was to bring in kuo-toa or locathah, one of the first places I’d be likely to put them is as subject states within the Sahuagin empire.

Now, how’s this work if you want savage or uncivilized sahuagin raiders? Well, while the sahuagin empire might be widespread, there’s always room for barbarians who’ve never embraced it. Furthermore, there’s a lot of room for Lords of Dust / Cult of the Dragon Below action among the sahuagin. Note that per City of Stormreach the sahuagin colonized Stormreach long before humans did, but pulled back after a terrible ancient force corrupted the settlement. You can easily introduce savage bands of sahuagin barbarians (literally) who revere the Overlords of the First Age and seek to restore their dominion.

Let’s move on to the Aquatic Elves. My thought here was that around ten thousand years ago, there was a movement among a number of Aereni lines to colonize the ocean around Aerenal. The original aquatic elves were created through mystical rituals, though they are a self-sustaining race. Thus, there is a significant undersea region around Aerenal that is under Aereni dominion. In my original model the populace was largely comprised of sahuagin, but you could add any other aquatic races you wanted; the main point is that these races adhere to Aereni culture, revering the Undying Court. My assertion was that there remained a long-standing bitter enmity between the Sahuagin Empire and the Aereni Territories. The power of the Undying Court makes it nearly impossible for the sahuagin to reclaim the region… but as that power is geographically limited, the elves can’t extend their dominion further. Thus you have the malenti, sahuagin mystically altered to appear to be aquatic elves; these are covert operatives used in acts of espionage and covert aggression within the Aereni Territories.

The rest of the ocean is dominated by the Merfolk. Where the sahuagin have a vast, monolithic and ancient culture, I’ve always considered the merfolk to be as diverse as humanity and less bound to a single ancient tradition. Thus my original model had multiple merfolk territories and a range of cultures.

In my model, the Sahuagin Empire was concentrated in the Thunder Sea, the region between Khorvaire and Xen’drik; thus you would deal with the sahuagin if you were going from Khorvaire to Xen’drik, and with the merfolk if you were going from Khorvaire to Sarlona. The merfolk are also the dominant race in Lhazaar waters. With that said, the merfolk of the western coast are quite different from those of the eastern coast.

Say you wanted to present sahuagin as a viable character option. Would you have any brief roleplaying tips, suggested classes, and what gods they might worship?
As mentioned about, when I look to a literary analogy for the Imperial sahuagin, I think of the Deep Ones of H.P. Lovecraft. Their god is the Devourer, the embodiment of the destructive power of nature; you see the Devourer’s hand in the tempest and the storm. He is a grim patron who strengthens the faithful through harsh trials; but survive and you will be the shark amongst the prey.
So one part of the Deep One analogy is that their god is a harsh and fearful deity who most people fear. The second is the fact that they are both wise and intelligent; per the 3.5 SRD, a typical sahuagin has an Intelligence of 14 and a Wisdom of 13. In my opinion they have an ancient culture, and have their own traditions of arcane and divine magic. So when it comes to classes, any combination of fighter, cleric and wizard make sense. As they have an affinity both for sharks and for hunting, ranger is another logical choice. From a racial perspective, their only weakness is Charisma… so I don’t see a lot of sahuagin bards or sorcerers.
Looking to roleplaying tips, one start is to look at places the sahuagin are mentioned in canon. Their religion is discussed in City of Stormreach
The doctrine of this sect holds that it was the Devourer alone who defeated the fiends of the first age, and that the force of this battle raised the lands above the sea. The faithful are taught to embrace the fury of nature, preparing for the time when the Devourer will scour the earth and draw all back beneath the waves.
A critical point is the description of the relationship between the sahuagin priests and human followers of the sect…

These priests consider humans to be flawed cousins, stripped of scale and weak of lung, but they pity these humans and consider it an act of charity to help them find the right path.

The key points here is that these Imperial sahuagin who regularly interest with the humans of Stormreach approach them with an attitude of condescension and pity. Compare a typical human to a typical sahuagin. Per the SRD, a sahuagin is superior in every ability score save Charisma; they are smarter, faster and stronger than their human counterparts. The sahuagin has significant natural armor (+5 natural AC bonus) and natural weapons… and again, an average 14 Strength and 14 Intelligence. By comparison, humans are weak, slow-witted and woefully unfit for battle. Add to this the idea that the Sahuagin have a remarkable and ancient culture under the waves that humans know nothing about (because your poor little lungs are too weak to endure it… while by contrast, a typical sahuagin can at least survive for 6 hours on land without magical assistance).

So personally, if I was playing an Imperial sahuagin character I’d emphasize the intelligence and ancient culture of the sahuagin and be somewhat arrogant and condescending to my soft-skinned, slow-witted mud-cousins… but that’s me.

Now, two more things you might want to consider. City of Stormreach also notes that “The holy texts speak of devouring the strength of fallen foes…” While this is a metaphor, I have always intended that certain significant sahuagin rituals involve the literal consumption of a thing to gain its strength. My idea of both the malenti and the four-armed sahuagin warriors is that these are accomplished through mystical rituals of devouring… that you become a malenti by consuming an aquatic elf.

With that said, following the model I outlined above, there’s two other paths for sahuagin characters. You could be a sahuagin from the Aereni Territories, who has fully embraced Elven culture and is a loyal servant of the Undying Court. Or you could be a savage sahuagin from beyond the Empire; this would be somewhat analogous to playing an orc cultist of the Dragon Below from the Shadow Marches.

Would you be sympathetic to a little more HPL in allowing “half-sahuagin” (or even half-aquatic elves, come to think of it) to emerge from humans who may or may not know of their ancestry a la “Shadow Over Innsmouth”?

Certainly. I think the most logical path for this would be the malenti. By core rules, malenti are sahuagin that are physically indistinguishable from aquatic elves. It seems reasonable to me to suggest that the offspring of a human and a malenti could produce a creature that appears to be a normal half-elf, but who develops sahuagin traits over time… eventually becoming a full sahuagin. I think you could easily place a village like Innsmouth along the southern coast of Breland.

If you fashion Sahuagin culture as imperial, have you ever given thought or description to the Emperor or Empress? Are they ruled by a singular monarch or a dynasty of imperial mutant families?

Personally, I see it as a dynasty with nobles reigning over different provinces. Incorporating the mutants into this is a very logical step; the four-armed sahuagin could be a particular noble bloodline, with other families having similarly distinctive traits that have simply never been seen by surface-dwellers.

And how many of the themes of Eberron do you think are able to be translated into an under-sea environment? Would you put submarines similar to airships under the sea or have things similar to lightning rails on ocean floors? Could there be aquatic versions of the warforged?

Some of these things already exist. Submersible elemental vessels have appeared in a number of sources, from Grasp of the Emerald Claw to my novel The Fading Dream. Warforged are capable of operating underwater, and The Fading Dream has a Cyran aquatic construct still patrolling the waters around the Mournland.

Looking to the lightning rail, I’m not sure whether you’re asking if humans have created such a thing, or if it might already be in use by aquatic nations. Addressing the first point, I don’t see such a thing happening any time soon… in part because the ocean floor is inhabited, and I don’t see the Sahuagin being keen on Orien running a rail through their homeland. As the Sahuagin are an ancient and sophisticated culture, they should have their own answers to long-distance transportation and communication, but these could take many forms. They could have harnessed or bred special creatures to assist in transportation… or they may have come up with their own techniques for binding water elementals. As it’s not something that was picked up in canon Eberron, it’s not something I ever explored in great detail.

Are there any long lost civilizations, perhaps currently unheard of in Khorvaire, whose remains are underwater? Apart from giants from Xen’drik, that is.

There certainly could be. In the conversion notes for Lords of Madness I suggest that the aboleths were a civilization that existed during the Age of Demons, so you could easily have ancient aboleth ruins holding remnants of powerful magic… essentially, the undersea equivalent of Ashtakala and the Demon Wastes. Aside from that, this could be an interesting path to take with one of the other aquatic races, such as the Kuo-Toa. Perhaps the Kuo-Toa were once even more widespread and powerful than the Sahuagin, until SOMETHING devastated their civilization; now they are savages and subjects of the other races, and their ancient cities are haunted ruins. If you want to get really crazy, you could have undersea explorers discover a region below the sea that is clearly analogous to the Mournland, suggesting that the ancient Kuo-Toa civilization triggered (and was destroyed by) their own Mourning millennia ago.

Eberron has a lot of interesting features on the maps of its *surface* continents. What sort of variation in environment do you think there would be across the seas and oceans of Eberron?

For a start I’d look to all of the interesting ocean environments that exist in our world, such as the Mariana Trench, the Sargasso Sea and the Great Barrier Reef. From there, I’d consider the fact that there are manifest zones below water as well as on the surface, and manifest zones can create both exotic regions and areas that would lend themselves to colonization or adventure. A manifest zone to Fernia could give you fire underwater, while a manifest zone to Lamannia could be a source of unusually massive sea creatures or dramatic growth of vegetation; I could see a Lamannia zone at the heart of an especially dramatic Sargasso region. Zones to Thelanis would produce regions like the Twilight Desmesne in the Eldeen Reaches, with aquatic fey and water spirits. And so on. Beyond this you could have any number of regions affected by the actions of the ocean inhabitants… such as the idea of a Kuo-Toa Mournland.

How do the Inspired feel about the merfolk or do they even realize they’re there?

I think the existence of a quori client state among the merfolk is a great idea. With that said, I wouldn’t actually connect them directly to the Inspired. The point of quori subversion is to work from within and create a structure within the target culture that supports their rule. So if they conquered Khorvaire, they wouldn’t actually try to impose Riedran culture on it; instead, they’d do something like instigate a brutal civil war that devastates the existing order and then have their own (secretly Inspired) saviors rise up to fix it. That’s how they came to rule Riedra to begin with – the Inspired brought the Sundering to an end. If this sounds like the Last War is a quori plot, it would make a lot of sense; the question is who they would use as puppets in Khorvaire.

So in other words, I think a merfolk-quori state makes perfect sense, but I’d have them be merfolk “guided by the Voice of the Ocean” or something like that… and it would take someone familiar with the Quori to say “Hey, they’re using psionics… I think they’re Inspired!”

That’s all for now. Happy New Year to you all, and I’ll be back in 2015 to talk about Phoenix: Dawn Command!

Phoenix Mailing List!

The last two months have been a very busy time for Jenn and I, so I haven’t had much time to post here. I will be writing more soon, in part because I want to start talking about the RPG I’ve been working on for the last year – Phoenix: Dawn Command. Phoenix is a card-based RPG with a strong storytelling aspect and a number of interesting twists, and I look forward to discussing it in more detail as soon as I have a moment. For now, if you want to know more, you can get on the Phoenix mailing list by going to Twogether Studios.

For now, you can hear a little more about Phoenix by listening to my recent interview on the Gamer to Gamer podcast.

I hope the holiday season is treating everyone well – more soon!


Dragonmarks 11/14: Warforged and More

It’s been a very busy month, from wonderful events such as Extra Life and ChariD20 to unexpected tragedies like the loss of my friend Mr. Pants. I’m also hard at work on Phoenix: Dawn Command and I hope to talk more about that soon. However, it’s been a long time since I’ve done a Dragonmark, and I don’t want to get rusty.

At the moment, I have no news about 5E Eberron support, though I am still optimistic that there will be news soon. As always, everything I write here is entirely unofficial and may contradict material in canon sources.

How would you emulate a warforged character using the 5E PHB?

I came up with one possible 5E interpretation of the Warforged with Rodney Thompson of WotC for Extra Life; you can find the stats I used here. There are other things I might try – one being the ongoing question of whether warforged should have inherent armor similar to the 3E feat-based armor or follow the 4E hermit crab approach where armor is a shell they attach. The version on my site takes the hermit crab approach; all I’ll say is that I had a fine time with Smith when I played him in Extra Life. Personally, I will continue to experiment with different approaches to the warforged as I continue to evaluate 5E – but I think the current model is a reasonable approach and definitely not overpowered.

What sort of culture is there among warforged? Also, now that the war’s over, how might one warforged from one nation behave around a warforged of a different nation?

Both good questions, but I think the answer is that there’s no clear answer. The warforged have only been free citizens for two years, and they are still creating their culture. The followers of the Becoming God and the Lord of Blades represent two hubs for warforged culture to build around, but any center for warforged population – such as the Cogs in Sharn – could be the genesis of a warforged culture. As for how warforged of different nations behave around each other, it’s the same issue: it’s going to depend on the cultural path they are following. Followers of the Lord of Blades have no loyalty to any human nation, and consider all warforged to be part of one family… while other warforged cling rigidly to national loyalty and military discipline as the only things that have given their lives any sense of meaning. Such a warforged could be very hostile to a ‘forged from an enemy nation. The interesting question is if the ‘forged would act the same way towards a human soldier of that nation, or if he holds greater emnity for rival ‘forged because he still sees them as essentially weapons.

But the ultimate answer is “there is no absolute answer.”

Have you ever used the Lord of Blades in a game? What backstory did you use, if so?

I originally planned for the Lord of Blades to play a significant role in The Dreaming Dark trilogy. WotC decided they didn’t want him to appear in fiction so early in the cycle of the setting, so Harmattan took his place. I developed the Lord of Blades during the original cycle, and he originally had stats in the 3.5 ECS in the same section as Demise and Halas Martain – and like both of them, he had multiple sets of statistics to allow him to evolve as PCs rose in level. He ended up being cut for space, and I think it was just as well as it let DMs take him in different directions. The only time I’ve personally used him in a session it actually ended with the idea that he wasn’t an individual warforged – rather, he was a shared identity created by a cabal of warforged at the end of the war. So in that storyline, it would have been possible for people to fight and defeat a Lord of Blades in one scenario and discover that he was simultaneously doing something elsewhere. It’s a little like saying that Doctor Doom always was a bunch of Doombots working together, who made up the story of “Doctor Doom.”

I suggest a number of other ideas in this Dragonshard - among others, the idea that he could just be Aaren d’Cannith wearing a suit of warforged armor – but I haven’t personally used any of those ideas in games I’ve run.

What pacts do you think work best for warforged warlocks? With pacts made before or after rolling off the creation forge.

That depends how you define a “warforged warlock” and “pact.” For example, in a number of games I have used warforged warlocks who draw their powers from the Mourning. But the idea of this wasn’t that these warforged had made a concrete bargain with a sentient aspect of the Mourning, like a traditional Infernal or Fey warlock; rather it was that they had been touched and twisted by the Mourning. If you are actually playing with the idea of a warforged bargaining with a supernatural entity in exchange for power, I think you could make a case for any pact. I think you could have a very interesting Infernal Warlock based on the idea that a human warlock died and made a bargain that resulted in his soul being inserted into a warforged body… with the underlying threat that the body could be taken away if he fails to live up to the terms of his pact.

Are there mindflayers who support Riedra or the inspired -or that are even inspired themselves? Given their psionic abilities?

As I first discussed in this Dragonshard article, Dal Quor and Xoriat are both common sources of psionic power. However, they reflect very different approaches to reality and the mind, and I don’t see the fact that they both channel psionics as being any sort of bridge between them; if anything, I’d argue that psions inspired by these two different sources are fundamentally as different from each other as clerics and wizards are when it comes to manipulating “magic.” This can be reflected by having Wilders be more commonly tied to Xoriat, but I think that you can have people from both paths use the same class and still have a very different flavor for it. I feel that the denizens of Dal Quor and Xoriat are equally far apart and would generally find very little common ground.

While the Quori are undeniably alien creatures, there is a very close bond between them and mortal dreams. Mortal dreams have an impact on Dal Quor, and the Quori themselves inspire and draw strength from mortal emotions. Tsucora draw on fear, Duurlora are spirits of aggression, and so on. Among other things, this means that emotions as we understand them are relevant to the Quori. It means that we can generally understand their motivations and outlook on the world. You then have the secondary aspect that the modern Quori are very strongly aligned behind a common cause – the perceived survival of their reality. The Quori are an innately Lawful force. They have a strict hierarchy amongst themselves, and in many ways they are fundamentally defined by the fact that they are enforcing order upon chaos. They SHAPE dreams and use them as tools. They create specific emotions and use them to accomplish their goals.

By contrast, the denizens of Xoriat are utterly alien… as alien to the Quori as they are to humanity. I’ll point you to this Dragonmark article on the subject for further exploration of this fact. But the short form is that Quori understand humans, which is what allows them to manipulate humanity; they don’t understand the Daelkyr or their servants. There is no order that can easily be imposed upon them, and they don’t even necessarily experience the same emotions that we do.

All of this is my personal preference, and you’re certainly welcome to take a less extreme position. But for me, what makes the Daelkyr, the Cults of the Dragon Below, and aberrations in general INTERESTING in a world that also includes Quori, Rakshasa, evil dragons, and more is the fact that the creatures of Xoriat are the most completely alien of any of these. A mind flayer such as Xorchyllic might appear to have motivations we understand, but when you delve deeper you may find that there’s things going on there that don’t make sense at all. The logic, emotions and schemes of Xoriat should be hard for us to understand, because their logic is our madness. It is inherently at odds with our vision of order, reason and reality.

So I might have an ALLIANCE between a mind flayer and the Inspired, but I would certainly expect it to be temporary… and I would emphasize that even the Quori don’t understand what the mind flayer is up to.

 How would you make Thrane sympathetic in a game set in Thaliost?

Interesting question. They are the occupying force, which is always a hard position to justify. One of the first things I’d do is to emphasize that the brutal governor of the city, Archbishop Dariznu, is actually Aundairian; he represents the extremist Pure Flame movement rooted in Aundair. The Thrane templars and priests in the city are under his authority, but I’d emphasize their disgust at Dariznu’s actions and have some of them doing what they can to mitigate them or to help people in need. Compassion is a core virtue of the Silver Flame, and I’d incorporate a number of Thranes – whether part of the occupying force or independent agents – who are providing compassionate assistance to the needy. I could even see a group of Thrane templars considering if they should defy the hierarchy and remove Dariznu from power. The essential point to make is that this isn’t a simple black and white Thrane vs Aundair conflict; you are also dealing with an ideological schism within the Church of the Silver Flame. There are Aundairians and Thranes on both sides of that schism, and definitely Thranes who believe in the validity of Thrane’s claim to the region while still despising the actions of the Governor. This is something I touch on in this Dragonmark.

How do you handle airships being damaged without making it feel like you’re punishing the players or taking away their stuff?

To me, the key issue here is the difference between punishing players and taking away their stuff. In my campaign, everything outside of the players themselves is fair game to suffer consequences player action. I want players to develop attachments to people, places and things precisely so I CAN threaten their airship, spouse, or home village – because all of these are ways to add a sense of tension and consequence to player action. But that also requires a level of trust on the part of my players that the actions I take aren’t simply malicious or capricious. One of the points on things is that they can always get replaced. If I destroy their airship as part of a Lost-like scenario that drives a campaign arc, they can always get a NEW airship when they get back to civilization… and if it’s not exactly the same as the old one, like I said, that’s part of what actually drives the story: things change, events have consequences, and heroes CAN suffer loss.

But I think the key point here – as with many things about good GMing – is about clear communication between player and GM, and about an understanding of the type of story that will play out. If the PLAYERS have a clear vision of the campaign as them flying around saving the universe in the Millennium Falcon and you randomly have it destroyed by an asteroid in the first session, just saying “But you get another ship later!” isn’t going to make that all better. Basically, I would never, say, make a PC lose a limb without having some form of consent that the PC is OK with that sort of story. If the airship truly is as integral to the concept of the PC as a limb, then I’m not going to casually remove it. But overall, my GOAL is for people to be able to develop attachments to people, places and things with the understanding that these things CAN be lost, and can even potentially be lost in seemingly senseless ways; it’s this understanding that helps people feel that their actions matter and that loss is a possibility.

The game I’m currently developing – Phoenix: Dawn Command – approaches loss in a very different manner, as death and loss are fundamental parts of character growth. But that’s a subject for a future post.

OK: That’s all I have time to discuss in detail. Which means it’s time for another lightning round for the remaining questions…

Did elements from Final Fantasy VI (opera, airships…) inspire some features of Eberron even slightly?

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have never actually played a Final Fantasy game or seen any of the movies. So any similarities are simply parallel evolution.

How common are wands among non-magical inhabitants of Eberron?

Not at all. Using a wand requires magical talent; even eternal wands require you to be SOME sort of spellcaster, even if you don’t have to be a caster with access to the spell in the wand.

Eberron suddenly becomes “mundane” -no divine/arcane power, no connection to planes. What happens instantly, a year, 10 years?

I explored this concept in the Children of Winter article in Dragon 418. One thing to bear in mind is that a lot of Eberron’s major cities take advantages of manifest zones or magic; remove those things and Sharn will immediately collapse, for example.

Can criminals avoid being convicted in spite of items as the eye of Aureon and pendants of mystic warning (from SharnCoT)?

Sure. FIrst of all, an Eye of Aureon won’t help you CATCH a criminal; it only helps you prove his guilt or innocence once he’s been captured. Eyes of Aureon are rare and “only found in the greatest cities of Khorvaire.” Beyond that, an Eye of Aureon is simply a zone of truth, and there’s lots of ways to get around those… from effects that shield you from divination to simply finding ways to mislead while speaking the literal truth. Meanwhile, a Pendant of Mystical Warning is an expensive item that can only be used by someone with arcane talent, and has all the same limitations as detect magic. So yes, I think there are definitely ways for criminals to avoid conviction. This sort of thing is a subject I delve into in considerable depth in the 3E sourcebook Crime and Punishment from Atlas Games.

If the worlds-traveling crone Baba Yaga were to visit Eberron, where would her hut reside?

Personally, if I were to use Baba Yaga in Eberron I would say that when she passes through Eberron she tends to use another name, and either make her Sora Katra or Sora Kell herself.

How evil are the daughters of Sora Kell? Do they have legitimate plans for Droam? Would you ever write a story focused there?

I have written stories focused there; I think Sheshka is actually the most popular character in The Queen of Stone. Beyond that, it’s a topic I’ve discussed in some detail in this Dragonmark, so I suggest you take a look at that and see if it answers your questions.

Does Flamewind have an androsphinx counterpart/sibling/mate?

Not in Sharn, and we’ve never detailed her private life before Sharn. Of course, if you’re referring to Flamewind as depicted in The Dreaming Dark, you have to ask yourself if she’s really a sphinx at all – or if she is some sort of manifestation of the Queen of Dusk. And speaking of which…

Will the new edition be advancing the timeline at all? Anything in the works for Daine, Lei, and Pierce?

I still have no concrete details on the plans for future Eberron support and whether it will include novels. Personally I would rather focus on the past or on regions of the world (or planes) that have been underdeveloped as opposed to pushing the timeline forward.

If a “Super Hero” team appeared in Sharn, how would Breland react to it? Would the local Dragonmark houses do anything?

Sharn’s a big place. The first draft of the setting actually included a pulp vigilante in Sharn – a kalashtar known as “The Beholder.” I’d only expect Breland to get involved if the group was somehow seen as a serious threat to royal authority; after all, it’s not as though Breland has stepped in to interfere with House Tarkanan or the Boromar Clan. Likewise, I’d only expect this houses to act if their personal interests were threatened. If anything, I could see the Twelve CREATING a superhero team as a PR exercise. Get your Cannith Iron Man, Vadalis super-soldier, Orien speedster, etc…

Are any of the moons inhabited?

They COULD be. We’ve intentionally left details on the moons scarce so that YOU can decide if you want to have a Moon Race game, an invasion from the moons, or even to just say that the moons are in fact simply portals to other planes.

Why did the Eldeen Reaches declare independence from Aundair? I can see why places like Mror or Zilargo got independent, but Eldeen?

For a brief exploration of this topic, look at this previous post. The short form is that the schism between Aundair and the Eldeen reflected significant cultural and economic troubles between the regions, and that the leadership of Aundair was focusing on the war with the other nations to the detriment of the Eldeen.

What were your plans for the undersea kingdoms of Eberron?

Someday I hope to explore this in more depth (get it?) but it won’t be today. One detail I will throw out is that Sharn originally had an undersea district with a section with a permanent Airy Water enchantment so people could make deals with merfolk emissaries.


Mister Pants

PantsBalloonsYesterday my wife Jennifer Ellis and I said farewell to our best friend and companion for more than a decade. I’ve never felt as close to a dog as I did to Mister Pants; he is a member of our family, and his loss is deeply felt.

We’ve posted a few of our favorite memories of Mister Pants here. If you ever met him, please take a moment to remember this wonderful pug – and feel free to share your thoughts below.

Back From ChariD20!


Elisa Teague, Kirk Thatcher, David Nett, Keith Baker, Jason Charles Miller, and Cig Neutron!

This weekend I was in Los Angeles for ChariD20, a charity roleplaying event raising money for Reach Out And Read. This is the fourth time I’ve developed and run an adventure for ChariD20, and it was the best year yet. The participants were fantastic, the games went well, and we raised twice as much for the charity as we did last year.

Each session was only two hours long, and it was an interesting challenge for me to develop a two-hour adventure that still felt like a complete story – especially knowing that many of the players wouldn’t be familiar with the rules. I’m happy with the outcome. Donors: I need to make a few edits to the adventure based on play and then it needs to be approved by Wizards of the Coast before I can pass it on to you. So it’s going to be a little while before you get it, but I hope that it will be in your hands by the end of the month.

John Rogers invokes the power of the Silver Flame!

John Rogers invokes the power of the Silver Flame!

If you’d like to see how it went down, the recording is online at the CCDD website. If you missed out, you can still donate until November 12th; if you donate at least $10 you can watch the sessions and get a copy of the adventure as soon as it’s approved!

Thanks as always to Satine Phoenix and Matt Mangini for organizing the event, to fellow DM Matthew Mercer for taking on my story, and to our awesome players: John Rogers, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Jessie Pridemore, Kyle Vogt, Grant Imahara, Dodger, Mandy Morbid, Zak Smith, Joseph Scrimshaw, Ivan Norman, Cig Neutron, Kirk Thatcher, Elisa Teague, David Nett, Jason Charles Miller, Orion Acaba, Marisha Ray, Jenna Busch and Neal Fischer. And most of all, thanks to everyone who donated to Reach Out And Read!