Dragonmarks: Fens and Marches

Last week I posted my first Imperial Dispatch article, delving more deeply into the world of Phoenix: Dawn Command. While I can’t create new material for Eberron, I want to look at what the Fens have to offer if you’re running an Eberron campaign.

The Fens are a region of deep swamp. The exist on the fringes of Ilona, one of the most civilized regions of the world; while they have cultural ties to Ilona, they are generally thought to be backwards. There are two distinct subcultures within the Fens; the Myrai seek to live in harmony with nature, while the Barochai see the natural world as something to be brought to heel and exploited. The noble families of both subcultures derived power from their House Gods, powerful spirits that took mortal avatars within their houses; many lesser families had bond beasts, animals serving as hosts for spirits. Both types of spirits were banished centuries ago when the first Phoenixes came to power, but their cultural influence remains. Meanwhile, in the present day dark powers are at work. Restless dead rise in the shadows. Corrupted bond-spirits merge with beasts and produce twisted monstrosities. And new creatures never seen before are appearing, as if the world itself is trying to make something that can survive the Dread. The greatest city of the southern Fens has been lost, and the Myrai people of the south seek shelter in the Barochai communities.

The Shadow Marches are the simplest match in Eberron. They too are a swampy region whose inhabitants are often considered backward; a region with two distinct traditions rooted in a past conflict, where cults still cling to those ancient traditions. For purposes of this conversion, I’m going to match the Myrai to tribal orcs that generally adhere to the traditions of the Gatekeepers, while the Barochai are a closer match to the blended clans – and especially to House Tharashk itself, as the Barochai are focused on industry and wringing a profit from nature. So I’ll be referring the Myrai as “the tribes” and Barochai as “the clans.”

We’ve never delved too deeply into the environment of the Marches, beyond “swamp.” As such, you could easily incorporate the most distinct physical feature of the Fens into the Shadow Marches. These are the Titans: trees which once grew up to a mile in height, but which were struck down in some ancient cataclysm. Their wood is infused with magic that prevents decay. So although the trees are long dead, but they form the physical foundation of the swamps. If you embrace this idea, the clans and House Tharashk carve their cities into the stumps and trunks of the Titans, while the tribes generally live atop them or make use of natural cracks and crevasses in the surface of a Titan. Both groups harvest lumber from the Titans, though the tribes approach this in a more industrial manner; this process is more akin to quarrying stone than the work of the traditional lumberjack. In d20 terms, the wood of a Titan would generally be considered to be Densewood, with veins which if harvested and treated properly can yield Bronzewood (both materials described on page 120 of the 3.5 Eberron Campaign Setting). In canon Eberron these rare woods come from the forests of Aerenal, but it’s not particularly unbalancing to give these resources to the Shadow Marches… and it justifies Gatekeepers having ancient bronzewood weapons and armor dating back to the Xoriat incursion. While you could make this one of House Tharashk’s industries, I’d be inclined to have Tharashk keep its focus on finding rarer things. Densewood-grade lumber could be an industry that the clans focused on before the rise of Tharashk, while Tharashk uses the Mark of Finding to locate the rarer veins of Bronzewood.

Aside from creating an additional industry for the Marches, this has a few effects.

  • The clans live in fortified communities, carved into the natural shelter of the Titans. Tribes or more isolated families will live atop Titan trunks or in natural “caves.”
  • The people of the region use wood for things that would be made from stone or steel in other places. If a building isn’t carved into a trunk or stump, it will be made from wooden blocks. Wooden spears are very common — used both for defense and as walking staffs — and knives and swords are typically made of Bronzewood.
  • The fallen Titans create a network of islands in the swampy morass. In heavily trafficked areas, bridges connect these islands; beyond this people generally use small boats to get from place to place.
  • The Titans add a vertical aspect to the landscape, especially as people generally live atop them or in their trunks. Bear in mind that the Titans fell thousands of years ago, and many have layers of soil and vegetation that have built up on their trunks.
  • In the Marches/Fens, the Titans have all fallen. However, in Eberron it is possible that living Titans can still be found. The most logical location for this would be the so-called Towering Wood in the Eldeen Reaches. You’d have to decide if the trees of the Towering Wood are full-sized Titans, or perhaps a similar but smaller variant. If you do have Titans, the next question is if one could be awakened. A human is essentially an ant to a Titan, which would make interaction with a Titan difficult. Even speak with plants might not bridge that vast difference of scale; if the Titan noticed the druid they could understand them, but they are still a tiny speck with a tiny voice. Given this, it could be interesting to have a single awakened Titan that’s wandering around the Reaches. Humans have no way to speak with it, but if necessarily Oalian himself might be able to communicate with it.

So to begin with, blending the Fens with the Marches adds an interesting physical element to the Marches in the form of the Titans. The city of Baroch is a fortress carved into the trunk of a Titan. You could use this concept to reimagine Zarash’ak, Tharashk’s capital city; or you could imagine Zarash’ak as a city suspended between a number of Titan stumps.

The Fens are defined by their relationship to the House Gods and bond beasts. While these things don’t exist in Eberron, some of the ideas are still relevant. The Myrai have some easy overlap with those who follow the Gatekeeper traditions… while the Cults of the Dragon Below could pick up the idea of the cults of Zaria or Taeloch. Bear in mind that there’s nothing saying that the members of a Cult of the Dragon Below couldn’t be vigilantes who are actually fighting evil people; it’s simply that they’re doing so because they believe a divine force is telling them to act. The Cults aren’t always evil; they’re just crazy. Meanwhile, you could explore the concept of bond beasts in Eberron. This could easily be a tribal tradition involving animals awakened by Gatekeeper druids; having each major tribal family have its own talking beast could add interesting culture for PCs who leave the cities and deal with the tribes.

With all that said, the Fens are shaped by their current troubles. This is tied to The Dread, the supernatural threat that is the foundation of the story of Phoenix: Dawn Command: a pervasive wave of terrors manifesting across the known world, with no clear rhyme or reason. if you wanted to explore this in the Marches, here’s some easy ways to adapt the threats of Phoenix.

  • The Bones are the corpses of dead soldiers, risen to continue the wars they fought long ago. In the Shadow Marches, these could be the corpses of the early Dragon Below cultists who fought for the Daelkyr in the Xoriat incursion. Alternately, you could have the bones of ancient Gatekeepers and Dhakaani goblins; even though they fought the Daelkyr in the past, that was long before humans, half-orcs, or other common races came to the Marches, and the Bones see all such creatures as invaders. Depending on the level of the PCs, you could use stats for Karrnathi undead for these Bones; with that said, the Bones use the tactics and techniques they used in life, and Gatekeeper Bones would employ druidic magic (perhaps twisted to add flavor).
  • The Fens are dealing with creatures warped by corrupted bond-spirits. This is an easy analogue to an increased surge in aberrations manifesting throughout the Marches, and you could decide whether these aberrations are “naturally” occurring, or if this is about mundane creatures being twisted into aberrations… which certainly was the hallmark of the Daelkyr back in the day.

The current situation in the Fens is driven by the mysterious loss of the great city of Myrn and by the idea that the Myrai are being driven north into the Barochai communities, which is causing overcrowding and tension. If you want to explore this idea, the concept would be that a surge in the appearance of undead and aberrations are driving the tribes to seek shelter in the clan communities. While Tharashk has some roots in the tribes and would likely show some sympathy for their plight, most of the clans consider the tribes to be willfully backwards and wouldn’t be happy with this surge of refugees, especially if people are worried about this rising supernatural threat. And what exactly is causing it? It is a resurgent Daelkyr, which is likely what the Gatekeepers would assume? Or could it be an Overlord rising — a twist that the aberration-focused Gatekeepers might not be prepared for? Either way, this could make an interesting saga for the PCs, especially if one of the PCs has roots in the region; cant they figure out what is behind this rising power before the Shadow Marches are consumed by darkness?

Now let’s look at a few questions…

Would the Titans be naturally occurring behemoths in the Marches, or would their growth be the result of Manifest Zones from ages past?

In Phoenix the idea is that the Titans are organic relics of the Old Kingdoms, and were brought down in the cataclysm that ended those civilizations. In Eberron, I’d mirror this with the story that the Titans were created by Eberron herself when the world was first formed and were brought down during the apocalyptic battles of the Age of Demons. Perhaps it’s literally true, or perhaps the first Titans were the product of a particularly powerful coterminous period/manifest zone interaction with Lamannia… or the work of an Overlord or similar benevolent spirit in the first age of the world. But to me, the idea of the Titans is that all that is left are their corpses. If you were to add them to the Towering Woods, I’d still consider the idea that those are smaller cousins, maybe a thousand feet in height – still huge, but leaving the idea of the Titans as something truly primordial.

Do you have any ideas beyond serpents and alligators (crocodiles?) that could be used as bond animals for a particular tribe? Or any animals added to the gleaner list for the Shadow Marches region?

Wolves, deer, raccoons, bears, beavers, muskrats, and various sorts of birds can all be found in swamps, and you can easily adapt such creatures to a fantasy environment (start with crayfish, end with a chuul) and that’s not including creatures that humanity could have brought over from Sarlona. In the Fens I’ve added the idea of the Fen-Cat, and the idea that humanity brought various sorts of dogs into the Fens with them. But there’s a fairly wide range of swamplife to choose from.

There really isn’t a physical border between Droaam and the Shadow Marches. Presumably the Daughters have their reasons for not invading, but I doubt the people of the Marches know what those reasons are. Have any arrangements been made between both nations?

There’s a number of factors here.

  • Droaam has only been a nation for a decade. The work the Daughters have done to unify the warlords and disparate elements is impressive, but they’ve still never fielded a true army and are working on maintaining discipline and order within their own borders.
  • House Tharashk is the greatest single power in the Shadow Marches. They already have close ties with Droaam, and this is important to Droaam because it’s their one channel for peaceful communication and integration with the Thronehold nations; while for Tharashk, Droaam is a source of a unique resource (monstrous mercenaries).
  • The Shadow Marches are an inhospitable environment with a very diffuse population that knows the environment better than anyone in Droaam. And it’s an environment that may be filled with hostile aberrations.

The critical point: What does Droaam have to gain from conquering the Shadow Marches? They’d get control of its resources, but in the process they’d shatter their ties with Tharashk and make an enemy of the Twelve, which would severely curtail any possibility of peaceful expansion of power into the Five Nations. As a side note, the Marcher orcs were never conquered by the Dhakaani Empire because the Marches had nothing that would make the difficulty of the conquest and occupation worth the trouble of doing it.

Are there still Daelkyr ruins in the Shadow Marches? What does Daelkyr architecture look like?

When the Daelkyr first came to Eberron, they established themselves in Khyber. No one knows exactly when they arrived, for they certainly spent a period of time capturing and altering local creatures to create their armies before unleashing those forces on Dhakaan. But from the start, they struck from the depths. One reason they were easily sealed in Khyber is that for the most part they were already there; the Gatekeepers simply bound them in the depths.

So the Daelkyr didn’t build cities on the surface; where they had strongholds above ground, they were existing structures that they captured. As far as “ruins” go, these would generally appear to be ruins from the original culture, and the differences would be things you’d only spot on closer examination (and largely relate to what unpleasant creatures or magical effects might linger in such places, as opposed to physical architecture).

As for what Daelkyr structures in Khyber look like, they are like the Daelkyr themselves: deeply alien and often inexplicable. In my opinion, they would also be extremely unique; there’s no one Daelkyr style. The halls of Dyrrn the Corruptor might have the biomechanical look of HR Giger. Belashyrra’s citadel could be a massive gibbering creature — a living fortress, every surface festooned with eyes. Orlaask’s fortress is inside a massive gargoyle that wanders the depths of Khyber. Whatever the appearance, the design should feel illogical. You might have a spiral corridor that corkscrews into a dead end, stalactite-like structures that project from the walls for no apparent reason, pools of luminescent liquid scattered around. These things may all have practical value – but if so, it shouldn’t be immediately clear to the human observer.

Almost nobody knows of the Daelkyr invasion. Is that right?

The Xoriat incursion predates human arrival on Khorvaire by thousands of years, and as noted above didn’t leave a lot of obvious physical remnants on the surface (aside from fallen Dhakaani cities). When humans arrived, most assumed that the Goblin civilization had collapsed in civil war, which was partially true; others assumed that the Dhakaani ruins were obviously too advanced to be associated with goblins, and were the work of some other advanced race. In the present day, the people of the Shadow Marches are familiar with stories of the Daelkyr and the ancient incursion, and scholars across Khorvaire are familiar with the theory, but most of the people of the Five Nations know nothing about it.

If you have questions or ideas, post them below!

 

Imperial Dispatches: The Fens

Over the last three years I’ve developed Phoenix: Dawn Command with my friend Dan Garrison. This fantasy RPG is now available, and in the weeks and months ahead we’re going to be producing new material for Phoenix. I’ll keep you posted about the availability of new missions and cards. In the meantime, I’m going to be posting a variety of Phoenix material here. This is the first installment of Imperial Dispatches. This series will delve deeper into the world of Phoenix, providing insights for players and GMs alike; GM-only tips for using the Fens can be found here. I hope that this material may prove useful even if you’re not playing Phoenix, and you can find ideas for adapting the Fens to Eberron here.

Without further ado, let’s explore to the Daylit World…

You live in a sunlit valley, surrounded by butterflies and songbirds. You think that the world is a good place, and you don’t understand how the terror that haunts you now could possibly exist.

My family lives in the bones of giants, and we scrape those bones to earn our bread. We tell our children stories of the sun, for they have yet to see it with their own eyes. And we warn them not to stray too far from the paths, lest they be consumed. This Dread is new to you, but I have lived with it all my life. And I will drive it back to the shadows where it belongs.

The Fens are a marshy peninsula in southern Ilona. Sunlight struggles to penetrate the dense canopy, and venomous reptiles and blind leeches flourish in the shadowy swampland. But the most remarkable feature of the Fens are the Titans. These are ancient trees, stretching over a mile into the sky… at least, back when any of them were standing. The Titans fell before humanity settled in the Fens. No one knows what brought them down, but their stumps are jagged and suggest tremendous force. It’s been thousands of years since they fell, yet the Titans remain. Some primal magic infuses their wood, preserving them from the ravages of time and the elements.

The fallen Titans form the foundation of the Fens, forming a stable platform in the otherwise inhospitable swamp. The Fenfolk have raised villages on the stumps of the Titans, and the great city of Baroch is carved into the largest Titan in the Fens. Over the centuries vegetation has taken root on the trunks of Titans, and Fenfolk tend gardens on the trunks even while they carve lumber from elsewhere on the same tree. Titan wood is a valuable commodity, prized across the Empire for its durability. The Fens are also home to leeches with remarkable medicinal properties; Fen leeches cleanse infected wounds and help calm patients. Despite these precious resources, few people choose to immigrate to the Fens. It’s dark, dank, and filled with dangerous creatures. The Fenfolk are generally seen as backwards and ignorant.

So what drew people to the Fens in the first place? Another rare resource: gods. In the days before the Empire, the Talu families of Ilona maintained their rule through the power of their House Gods. These powerful spirits were bound to both location and bloodline, and an enterprising group of scholars theorized that the key to gaining power was to find spirits that had yet to bond to any bloodline… which meant searching in the least hospitable lands that they could find. They found what they were searching for in the Fens. The greatest of these became the House Gods of the Bar Talu and the Myr Talu. But even beyond this, the settlers found there were many lesser spirits in this land. These spirits bond to living creatures, enhancing their power and strength. This was one of the dangers of living in the Fens, as these bond-spirits produced unnaturally fierce beasts in the wilds. But occasionally one of these spirits could be drawn to aid a family, binding to a hound, cat, or snake that would assist its keepers. The Talu families wielded the greatest power, but lesser folk took pride in the spirits that bonded with their lines.

When the first Phoenixes conquered Ilona, the Fens were the last region to surrender. Between their knowledge of the environment and the power of their gods and bond-beasts, the Fenfolk were difficult to dislodge. Ultimately the Devoted Legion broke the power of the House Gods and banished the bond-spirits, and the Fenfolk were forced into the new Empire. But they never embraced its ways. The House Gods may have been trapped in the Dusk, but many Fen families held to their old traditions, offering sacrifices to the gods and honoring their bond-beasts. The Fens were one of the strongholds of the Humanists before and during the Civil War, and they rejoiced when Justice finally fell. Given this, the actual rise of the human imperium was something of a disappointment. Many Fenfolk dreamed that the downfall of the Phoenixes would mean the restoration of their gods and spirits. As is, most see the human Emperor as little better than the Phoenixes… Just more arrogant people from soft green lands telling them what to do. Cults of Baroch and Myrn flourished, preachers swearing that the time was nigh when the spirits would return to the people. Instead of this — and some wonder, could it be because of it? — the Dread came. The Dread has indeed brought bond-spirits back to the Fens, but they have been twisted by the darkness. Rather than being loyal guardians of the people, these spirits turn the creatures they bond with into savage monstrosities. The great city of Myrn was brought down by warped beasts. The dead have risen from the depths of the swamps to prey on their descendants. And some say nature itself is fighting back against the Dread. Whatever the truth, most of the Fens have fallen. Baroch is the last great stronghold, with a few stumptowns remaining in its orbit.

GEOGRAPHY

The true foundation of the Fens are the roots of the Titans, now supplemented by mangroves and other wetland vegetation. Rivers and streams wind through mazes of tangled vines and branches. These are punctuated by the fallen Titans and their jagged stumps, which can have a diameter of up a third of a mile. The Titans add a vertical element to the landscape; many are overgrown with lesser vegetation, cracks or gaps in a broken trunk can serve the same roles as caves in stone; many creatures make their lairs on or in the Titans. The people of the northern fens generally make their homes in stumptowns, densely packed fortress-villages built onto or carved into the stumps of the Titans. To the south, the Fenfolk lived in more broadly dispersed towns… which may be one reason they fell more quickly to the Dread.

There is one main road that runs through the Fens, with titanwood bridges providing passage across the rivers and through the worst of the mires. But the simplest way to get around in the Fens is by boat, and every community has a collection of small boats available.

CULTURE

The Fens are part of Ilona, and Ilonan culture can still be seen in the Fens. The Talu families form the core of the major communities, and even those who live far from the great cities consider themselves to be tenants of one of the great lines.

The Barochai

The Barochai are the people of the northern fens, aligned with the Bar Talu. Baroch is the name both of the greatest of their House Gods and of the fortress city that serves as their seat of power. The Barochai are lumber miners, and they see the Fens as an enemy to be tamed and used. They live in stumptowns, densely populated communities carved into the stumps of Titans. The Barochai are grim and stoic people; they believe that everything worth having must be fought for, and that the world is always waiting for you to let down your guard. Yet if presented with the opportunity to live in a more pleasant land, a Barochai would scoff at the idea. Everything worth having must be fought for, but it’s the fight that makes it worth having; the plenty of the green lands makes the people weak and complacent. Given this, the Barochai have largely taken the Dread in stride; the world has always been against them, and they will simply continue to fight.

While there is a general sense of cultural unity, Barochai generally put their own families ahead of their community; charity and compassion for others aren’t as important as ensuring the survival of one’s own kin. Every major Bar family has a bond-beast that serves as the heraldic symbol for the family, and that is often the source of the family name. This doesn’t reflect any sort of harmony with nature; the Barochai earned the allegiance of their bond-spirits through strength, bending the spirits to their will. While the bond-spirits were banished centuries ago, families still keep mundane animals of the same type as their bond spirits as symbolic representatives. There are many stories of Fen cults who perform sinister rituals and even human sacrifice in order to strengthen their bond-spirits or call on the favor of other spirits of the Fens, but most of these stories are exaggerated.

The Bar Talu rule the northern Fens, and every stumptown is built around a Talu keep. They enforce justice, and while they generally abide by the letter of Imperial law, justice is swift and harsh. The Barochai respect strength, and they fear military leader Jonan Baragius… and they expect no less from the man they believe can protect them from the dangers of the Fens. Even in the face of the Dread, most of the Barochai aren’t looking for Phoenixes to save them; they believe Baragius will keep them safe.

The Bar Talu are based in the city of Baroch, a sprawling fortress carved into the trunk of the largest Titan yet to be discovered. It has spread throughout the trunk of the ancient tree, and towers rise up from the swamp around it. Baroch bears the scars of many sieges, and so far it has survived the predations of the Dread. It’s also the trade hub for the Fens, and has always supported a transient population of farmers, fisherfolk and leech-harvesters bringing goods that the Bar Talu deliver to the rest of the Empire. This transient population has swelled dramatically with refugees from the south, along with northerners who fear that their stumptowns offer insufficient shelter from the Dread. This crowding is a source of growing tension, and many northerners feel that the Myrai should be driven out of the city and left to fend for themselves.

The Myrai

The Myrai are the people of the southern fens, aligned with the Myr Talu. Myr is the chief House Goddess, and the city of Myrn is her seat of power. The Myrai are primarily fisherfolk, farmers, and leech-harvesters, and they ask Myr for good fortune and bountiful harvests. Legend has it that when the House Gods were banished, Myr remained by tying her spirit to a vast water serpent. The Myrai say the divine serpent sleeps in the deep waters where no Phoenix can find her, but even in her slumber she hears the prayers of her people. The Dread and the loss of Myrn has certainly shaken this faith, but many maintain that the serpent will soon wake from her slumber, and Myr will rise to save her people.

The city of Myrn was the seat of the Myr Talu and the largest city in the Fens — not so well fortified as Baroch, but spread across a wider area. It was renowned for Myr’s Fountain; built by the goddess in the days before the Empire, the waters of this well have remarkable restorative properties. Myrn was the center for the fishing industry and for leechcraft and healing, or at least it was until the city was lost to the Dread one year ago. Some say that it was overrun by a horde of twisted creatures; others say that a curse fell upon the city and turned its people into warped monsters. So far there are no known survivors of the fall of Myrn, and the exact details and fate of the city remain a mystery. The Dread has spread throughout the southern Fens, and the Myrai have been driven north where they are seeking shelter in the stumptowns of the Barochai.

Where the Barochai see the Fens as an enemy to be defeated and brought to heel, the Myrai seek to live in harmony with their environment. Their villages are generally spread out across Titan trunks instead of being carved into the wood. They’re at home on the rivers and farming fingal gardens, and take care not to over-fish a region. They take pride in their long-banished bond spirits, but they see these spirits as allies whose loyalty was won by their ancestors, not beings forced into service. The Myrai have a strong sense of community that goes beyond family, and this has helped them in their recent exodus; most Myrai will do what they can to help anyone in need, though some limit this compassion to other Myrai. There are stories of cults among the Myrai, who have also sought to call back the spirits of the Fens. However, such cults are rarely violent, and are more about continuing ancient rites that are supposed to strengthen the spirits and preserve the balance of Dusk and Daylight.

More than any other Talu lines, the Myr Talu always sought to aid their tenant families and put the overall good of the region ahead of their personal wealth and power. The leaders of the house were lost in the fall of Myrn and the survivors are scattered with the other Myrai refugees, though many continue to act as community leaders. Vesta Myrasa guides a large group of refugees in Baroch and seeks to mediate disputes with angry Barochai; meanwhile, Valius Myragi negotiates with the Bar Talu, trying to convince the nobles of the north to show compassion for the refugees.

IF YOU’RE FROM THE FENS…

  • Where are you from? Were your roots in Myrn or Baroch? Did you harvest lumber or work on the water? Do you view the natural world as an ally or an enemy?
  • What’s your connection to the Talu? Were you a noble, directly tied to the Bar Talu or the Myr Talu? Were you a member of a lesser branch of the family? Were you a simple tenant, and if so did you respect your ruling house or despise it? Or were you independent, a farmer living far from any town or a fisher who called a boat home?
  • Do you respect any of the House Gods? A few of the House Gods are described below, and you can develop others. While the House Gods were banished in the Conquest, many in the Fens still respect the old ways and gods. Do you believe you have a connection to one of the gods? How does this affect you?
  • Did your family have a bond beast? Even if the spirit was banished long ago, a bond beast reflects the values and history of a family. Did your family have a bond beast? What was it, and what does it mean to you?
  • How do you feel about the Empire and the Phoenixes? The Fenfolk were the last Ilonans to be conquered and the first to rebel, and many have little love for Emperor Dolanti. Do you believe in the Empire and want to restore it, or are you only concerned with protecting the Fens? Likewise, in all the Empire it’s hard to find a place with less love for the Phoenixes. How did you feel about Phoenixes in your first life, and has that changed since your rebirth? You wouldn’t have made it through the Crucible if you weren’t willing to work with Dawn Command and to fight the Dread… but have you embraced the Phoenix cause, or do you go along with it because you believe it’s the only real chance to defeat the Dread?
  • What do you miss? Fen cooking involves a lot of fish and fungus, along with eels and leeches. The thick canopy of the Fens filters out much of the sunlight, and bright days and broad fields are equally unnatural for you. Serpents, hounds, and swamp-cats are all common pets, and a few Fenfolk keep lizards. In the Fens you’re never far from water, though that comes in the form of shallow pools and rivers as opposed to the vast sweep of the Inner Sea.

HOUSE GODS AND BOND BEASTS

In the days before the Empire, the Talu families of Ilona ruled through the transcendent power of their House Gods. The House Gods are spirits possessing tremendous magical power, but unlike the Fallen Folk of Skavia they cannot manifest on their own. In order to interact with the world they require mortal hosts – children from their Talu lines. The hosts are still mortal, and when a host dies or becomes unsuitable the spirit moves to a new host. For centuries the House Gods were the champions of the Talu lines. During the Conquest, the Devoted Legion perfected a ritual for exorcising and banishing the House Gods. It has been centuries since a House God has manifested in the Daylit World, but with the rise of the Dread the walls between the world and the Dusk are growing thin and it’s possible a House God could return. More information about the House Gods and their capabilities can be found on page 205 of the Guidelines for the Newly Inducted Marshal.

Each of the Fen Talu had about six gods in their pantheons. While the gods could only affect the world through their avatars, the Talu encouraged their tenants to think of their gods as all-seeing and capable of affecting any action within their sphere. Many tenant families pledged loyalty to a particular house god, and believe that the god still watches over them or guides them today, even though it has been centuries since any of the gods have manifested.

Bond beasts are a lesser form of the bond-spirits. Instead of merging with a human, a bound beast is a spirit that inhabits the body of a particular type of animal. In many ways, bond beasts served as the House Gods of the tenant families that possessed them. According to legends, some bond beasts were fully sentient and could advise and guide their family. Others were simple paragon examples of their type. The Orlan Hound was an unnaturally large and powerful dog, and whenever the Hound was slain a new one would take its place.  

Here are a few notable House Gods and bond beasts from the history of the Fens, but as Marshal or player you can expand this list to meet the needs of your story.

Barochai House Gods

  • Baroch, The Bringer of Fire. Chief god of the Bar Talu, said to have carved the foundations of the city that bears his name. He rewards innovation and industry, granting strength to those who make sacrifices in the name of progress. His name comes the principle that one must burn wood to release fire; one must be willing to pay the cost of progress.
  • Xaria, The Huntress in Shadow. Where Baroch encourages his followers to bend wood and stone to their will, Xaria teaches them to bring down the beasts of the wild. She is also the chief war goddess of the Bar Talu, though she advocates victory through stealth and guile; it’s said that her cult of assassins still operates in the shadows of the Fens.
  • Seval, The Keeper of the Forge. While Seval is another industrious Barochai god, he focuses on defense of the homestead — on making any sacrifice necessary to protect your hearth and family — which plays to the isolationist element of the Barochai character.

Myr House Gods

  • Myr, Bringer of Fortune. The primary goddess of the Myr Talu, she is responsible for all the bounty that comes from the waters — fish for food, leeches for health — and in general for restoration, fertility and health. She is a merciful goddess who shares her bounty with those suffering from hardship.
  • Taeloch, The Serpent in the Water. Taeloch ensures that justice is done, especially to those who prey on the weak or helpless. Taeloch’s punishments often involve drowning, either literally for those whose crimes call for execution or simulated as a form of discipline. A cult of Taeloch might take vigilante action against those who wrong Myrai refugees.
  • Lassia, The Merciful Mother. A lesser Myrai goddess, Lassia oversees healers and midwives. She inspires healers to find new solutions to difficult problems, and provides safe and painless births. With that said, she is a goddess of the Fens, and the Fens are a harsh land; part of her portfolio is granting a merciful and painless death to ease the suffering of those she cannot heal.

Bond Beasts

  • The Orlan Hound. This mighty beast was the guardian of a Barochai tenant family. Once the spirit took hold of the hound, it grew to the size of a pony. While the hound couldn’t speak, it could sniff out any deception. The last incarnation of the Orlan Hound was slain by a Durant Phoenix during the Conquest.
  • Salassa. This bond beast took the form of a small serpent, and was noted for its wisdom instead of its might. It coiled around the neck of the head of its family and would whisper secrets and advice into the bearer’s ear, warning them of deception and dangers. Salassa could detect lies, and while she protected her family from those who would deceive them, she also demanded that they live an honest life; in her last incarnation, she throttled her bearer when he betrayed his family for personal gain.
  • The Count of Shadows. The Fens are home to wildcats with mottled black fur that renders them almost invisible in the shadows. The Count of Shadows was such a cat, and it claimed to know all things seen by every cat in the Fens. The Count advised its family, guiding them through cunning schemes that could bring them great fortune if they were willing to take the associated risks. It’s said that during the Conquest, the Count faced off against a Shrouded Phoenix. Some say the Phoenix killed the cat; others say that the Phoenix helped it escaped, in exchange for the Count’s pledge to aid all future incarnations of the Phoenix.

POINTS OF INTEREST

Baroch and Myrn are the largest cities in the Fens. There are a host of smaller communities — the densely populated stumptowns of the Barochai and the smaller farming villages of the south. Here are a few other locations familiar to every denizen of the Fens.

The Bloody Mire. This is one of the largest areas of pure swamp, with no Titans providing a foundation for structures. The greatest Talu victory in the Conquest came when a joint effort by Myr and Bar drove Imperial forces into the mire. Both sides suffered terrible losses in the conflict, and it’s said that the area is still stained with the blood of the fallen… though in fact, it’s microorganism that gives the shallow waters the distinct crimson coloring. The Bloody Mire has important symbolic value for the Fenfolk, but even before the Dread it’s always been said to be a haven for hungry ghosts and forlorn spirits; most Fenfolk appreciate the idea of the Mire, but keep their distance. Should the Dread take root in the region, the Bloody Mire is a likely source for Bones and other restless dead.

The Deadfall. Typically the Titans are widespread, and it’s rare to find two in contact. The Deadfall is formed from five fallen trees. Over the course of thousands of years, layers of vegetation and sediment have formed a maze of passages between the trees. The Deadfall has always been close to the Dusk, and in the past families would travel to the Deadfall to try to earn or claim the favor of a bond beast. The Devoted Legion placed wards in the region, but the Deadfall is still a favored gathering place for Fenfolk who hold to the old ways. With the Dread, it’s possible that the bond-spirits have returned… though who can say what this means?

Deep Wells. For the most part, the waters of the Fens are relatively shallow. However, there are a few places where the waters deep… so deep that the Fenfolk say these wells have no bottom. Legend maintains that the deep wells are home to massive water serpents and other monsters. There are legends of such creatures, but none have been seen in living memory and most maintain that these are merely stories.

Sentinel Holt. The Titans were all felled long ago… all save one. The Sentinel is a tree that towers over the region; over a mile in height, it stretches high above the canopy around it. The Myrai established a community on the tree, making their homes on its vast branches and knots. There’s been no contact with Sentinel Holt since the Dread overtook the southern Fens, but it’s possible that the tree-folk have been able to hold out against the Dread and are in need of assistance…

TITAN WOOD

The Titans are an important resource in the Fens. The wood of these ancient trees is infused with magic that gives them the general strength and durability of stone or even steel. Beyond using Titanwood to construct their homes, the people of the Fens use this wood for many things that would be made of other materials elsewhere in the Empire. Weapons and armor are a notable example. Knives, swords and shields are generally made from Titanwood. Short spears are common within the Fens, used both for protection and as useful walking staves. Titanwood is general very resistant to flame, but if prepared and treated properly can burn — even then, a Titanwood block can burn for days. All of these things make Titanwood a useful commodity beyond the Fens, and the major industry of the Barochai. Harvesting Titanwood is more akin to quarrying stone than to the work of a traditional lumberjack; blocks are removed from the vast trunks of the Titans, and shaped into the forms that will prove most useful in the world beyond. In general, when dealing with the Fens stop any time you’re dealing with something that would normally be made of metal or stone and consider if it could be made from wood, and how that would change the flavor.

Follow this link if you’re a Marshal looking for ideas about how to use the Fens in your campaign. If you’re playing Phoenix and would prefer to be surprised, you might want to stop here. If you have questions about Phoenix or the Fens, ask below!

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!

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 Q&A 7/5/16

IMG_0701

Dan Garrison and I have been working on Phoenix: Dawn Command for the last three years. We’ll be releasing the game in August, and it seems like a good time to start talking about it! If you missed the prior post, here’s a link to the events we’ll be running at Gen Con. Meanwhile, if you have questions about the system or the setting, ask away!

You once mentioned how magic in a setting should truly affect the world. How does it affect day to day life of the world of Phoenix?

In Eberron – and D&D in general – magic behaves in a scientific manner. It is reliable: as long as you don’t get punched in the face while you’re casting it, your fireball will always work. One wizard can teach a spell to another. Eberron was thus based on the idea that if magic behaved like science, then it should be incorporated into the world just as science has been.

Phoenix works from a completely different core assumption. Magic isn’t reliable: it is mysterious, powerful, and very dangerous. Humanity has dabbled with it for a long time, but never truly mastered it. Each region has its own magical traditions… the Grimwald shamans invoke natural spirits, while Skavi warlocks bargain with the Fallen Folk and the Talu families draw on the power of their House Gods. Or at least, they used to. Again, while powerful, all of these practices were dangerous and unpredictable. When the Phoenixes established the Empire, they drove the Fallen Folk into the Dusk and banished the House Gods. The practicing of magic was forbidden, and much arcane knowledge was lost. This continued throughout the Phoenix Imperium. Following the Civil War, the Phoenixes themselves disappeared. In the following centuries, some people have begun to dabble with these dangerous arts once more… but it remains an obscure and hidden practice. And now we have the Dread. Are the Fallen Folk returning? Could the Talu reclaim their House Gods? Could the Dread itself have been caused by such foolish dabbling with forces best left alone? Of course, all of this is deals with the personal use of magic. There are also magical artifacts in the world. The Bulwark cities of Skavia are built around powerful such relics… and some of the cities ARE such relics, such as the remnants of a massive bridge now known as Hafsbridge. In a sense, you could look at this as similar to manifest zones in Eberron: People have found an ambient magical effect and settled their to take advantage of its power.

So Phoenix is a setting where magic exists and IS part of the world… but where humans have very little understanding of it. In Phoenix, investigation is part of the story. Defeating a threat is obviously important – but understanding what it is and why it has appeared is even more important, if you hope to turn the tide.

There is one approved form of magic, and that is Ash Sorcery – an art that deals with the Imperial Flame and uses the final ashes of Phoenixes for major workings. But that’s explained in more detail in the book. Intellect-driven Phoenixes can choose to dabble in one of these old paths of magic, and Skavi or Talu Phoenixes could have ties to their ancestral traditions. But again… these are things that have been buried as opposed to being embraced. Even Phoenixes are now considered legends; as one of the new generation of Phoenixes, you are bringing magic back to the Empire.

Phoenix Trio

I had the impression that heroes are more “guys with superpowers” than traditional fantasy heroes, and that these powers don’t look like magic. Did you considered this aspect? Do you think this make the world of Phoenix more similar to the fantasy of Japanese anime than traditional european/american fantasy?

Well, let’s take a look at three Phoenixes. Shepherd (left) is a Durant Phoenix, a tough warrior who faces her enemies with sword and shield. She draws on her power to survive injuries that would bring down others, and to give her the strength to protect her allies and bring down her enemies. Elegy (middle) is a Shrouded Phoenix, whose magic shrouds her in shadow and allows her to learn the secrets of her foes. Drake (right) is a Devoted Phoenix. The light of his flame strengthens his allies and heals their wounds. A shaman in his first life, he knows the ways of the spirits and can exorcise the restless dead.

Phoenixes are, in a sense, superheroes. They are mortals reborn and infused with mystical power. No one can just decide to become a Phoenix; you have to be chosen and you must endure the tests of the Crucible. So that is very different from the typical d20 character. With that said, Shepherd is a warrior who goes toe to toe with her enemies, Elegy makes devastating attacks from the shadows, and Drake is a healer who strengthens his allies; in terms of story roles, not SO different from a fighter, a rogue, and a cleric.

With that said, YOU decide exactly how your Phoenix’s powers manifest. This also ties to the Traits you select in character creation. Drake selected the Trait Shaman; as a result he decided that his magic involves calling on natural spirits. One Elemental could say that his Talon is a spellbook, and that he conjures his flames by reading from its pages; while another could take an Engineering specialty and present his Elemental as an artificer, saying his Talon is a makeshift flamethrower and that his attacks use this and grenades of his own design. One Durant could explain her resistance to damage by saying that she is just exceptionally good at blocking attacks with her shield, while another says that he’s actually just a massive suit of armor.

So the ROLES of the characters are familiar: Warrior, healer, rogue. But how their abilities manifest is up to you. A wing of Phoenixes could look exactly like a typical D&D party… or they could be considerably more exotic.

Have you ever considered to use the d20 system for Phoenix? Do you think you could project an adaptation for that system?

Making a new system isn’t something to do lightly. There’s a lot of good systems out there; why make a new one? When Dan and I first started working on Phoenix: Dawn Command, we considered the possibility of driving it with the d20 engine. In some ways, it would be a relatively simple conversion. Start PCs at second level, and each time they die they gain three levels. The Phoenix Schools translate fairly easily to d20 classes: Bitter (barbarian), Durant (fighter or warlord), Devoted (cleric or druid), Shrouded (bard or thief), Elemental (sorcerer or warlock), Forceful (ranger or monk). In Phoenix you have a pool of energy – Sparks – that let you push beyond your limits; you could represent with an expanded version of the Action Point system.

But there are other elements of the system that don’t translate so easily. When an enemy attacks you, does it hit you and how much damage does it do? When you attack it, are you successful? How much damage do YOU do? When they cast a spell on you, do you resist it? In d20, these things are determined by random die rolls. In Phoenix, all of these things are in the hands of the player – literally, in their hand of cards. It’s not simply a question of what cards you have in your hand, but how you choose to play them. In Phoenix you may well decide to be struck by an attack you COULD avoid… because you’d rather save your best cards to do something amazing on your next turn. You can push beyond your limits with Sparks, but you die when you run out of Sparks. Is this the right time to use that power?

Essentially, when you fail or die in D&D it’s typically because random events didn’t go your way. You fail a saving throw. Your enemy rolls a critical hit. In Phoenix, as often as not, when you die it’s because you CHOOSE to die… because with your sacrifice you were able to do something important. You use the last ounce of your power to hold the door against the horde of zombies or strike the mortal blow against the ultimate enemy. You may die, but quite often it feels like a triumph, not just a bad roll of the dice.

Another way to look at this: Your paladin is facing the Lord of Evil. He makes a grand speech swearing to avenge the demon’s innocent victims. He uses his mightiest attack. And then… he rolls a one, the attack fails, and your turn is a dud. There are times when this can be hilarious and fun, but from a dramatic perspective that’s not how you wanted the scene to go. In Phoenix, you can look at your hand and your Sparks and know before you make that speech whether you can pull this attack off. It’s possible you have a crappy hand and you simply CAN’T perform a successful attack this turn. But if that’s the case, you know it and you can try to figure out what you CAN do with the cards that you have. Hold that big speech and attack for your next turn; this time, save the victim on the altar or grab that scroll in the corner.

So you could make a VERSION of Phoenix using d20. But unless you substantially change the system, it won’t feel the same as actually playing Phoenix.

 

I’m a little bit skeptical about the whole “accessible to non-roleplayers” thing. Have you actually tested that claim with some random friends or relatives that have never gamed before?

I understand your skepticism! We’ve been testing across the country over the last three years, and I’ve played with a lot of people who aren’t my friends or relatives… including quite a few who haven’t gamed before. One of my favorite sessions involved three generations of a family, in which the grandparent had never played before and the youngest member of the group had played games like Pokemon and Magic, but never an RPG. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who’s not at least interested in trying an RPG, but as long as they are up for trying it, there’s a number of things that make it easy to learn. As a player, everything you need to know is in the cards that are in front of you and in your hand. There’s a minimal amount of terms to pick up – you’re not dealing with dozens of stats and game terms, and you don’t have to look up rules during play. The core mechanic is very straightforward: tell the GM what you want to do, and they’ll tell you what you cards you need to play. That same mechanic underlies attack, defense, and noncombat actions… so once you’ve got that down, you can do anything.

The GM needs to understand the rules. But it’s an easy game as a player. It’s NOT a good game for someone who likes complex simulation or lots of fiddly rules. With that said, there are strategic decisions and optimization choices that give more experienced gamers something to play with. Complexity also varies by School – Durant is one of the simplest Schools to play, while Devoted and Forceful are more complex.

At the end of the day, it’s an RPG, and there will be some people who will always be intimidated by that. But I have played with many non-gamers over the last few years, and as long as someone is interested in giving it a try, it really is easy to pick up.

Are there are plans for Supplements? Of what Kind?

Certainly. The Marshal’s Handbook only has room for a high level overview of the setting. I’d like to delve into the regions and cultures of the Empire; the manifestations of the Dread; conspiracies and other threats beyond the Dread itself; additional mission arcs; and of course, more Challenges for GMs and more Lessons, Traits, and Talons for players. In the long term, I’d be interested in exploring other periods in the history of the Daylit World. I’ve also been playing around with Phoenix fiction. Essentially, all the things I can’t currently do for Eberron. However, the scope and form of this support will of course depend on the success of the core game; at this point, we don’t know what the demand will be.

Do you think Phoenix will be translated in any language different from English?

This is entirely dependent on how successful it is and whether there’s a demand for it. Right now, it’s to early to know.

Did Dragonlance Saga had any influence on this work?

No – I’d never even heard of Fifth Age until over a year after we’d been working on Phoenix, and I’ve still never actually played it. From skimming the rules, I think there’s definitely some overlap – both use cards to remove the random factor of dice, and both encourage a more freeform approach to skills and magic. However, there are some fairly substantial differences. In Phoenix, each character has a unique deck that reflects the abilities and traits of their character; in FA people draw from a common deck and combine the cards with a separate character sheet. I believe that FA uses hand size as a reflection of health, while Phoenix uses tokens to track health. Phoenix has the resource of Sparks, which allow you to push beyond your limits… but you die if you run out of them. And, of course, in Phoenix death is how you grow stronger.

They’re both card-based fantasy RPGs, and there’s bound to be some overlap. But it’s coincidental rather than intentional.

Regarding the PDF download: I hoped we would get some NPCs write ups, specially for the Marshals… There are conflicting reports about the manner of a certain character’s death in the front and back portions of the book. I assume that’s intentional?

The PDF that has been sent to backers doesn’t include the 200-page mission arc that’s included in the physical book – we just wanted to give backers a chance to familiarize themselves with the rules. The mission arc gives a much deeper look into the world, and includes descriptions of many NPCs and locations. It also explains the discrepancy you’re asking about, which is indeed intentional; during the missions, the players have an opportunity to learn secrets that have been hidden from history.

The missions have some sort of timeline occurring besides the one the players will be doing? Do have a sense of all the success and failures of the Command in the world, and lessen the “we are the only group doing something around here” feeling?

The missions focus on the player characters. However, there is a bigger picture going on. The Bones are moving north. Cities may fall to the Chant. This is something that is conveyed in interludes, stories that are told between missions. Interludes generally don’t require gameplay; it’s an opportunity for players and GM to address other events in the world. As part of this, players are encouraged to create a rival wing – another group of Phoenixes that are out on missions at the same time as the players. Now, these Phoenixes don’t actually HAVE to be rivals; they simply serve to emphasize that there ARE other Phoenixes out in the world, and during interludes the GM may report on their actions. “While you were fighting the Chant in Ilona, the B-Wing was dealing with skinchangers in the Grimwald. Badger and Cutter were killed, but Mercy was able to banish the possessing spirits and save Talmouth.”

About number of players, the game is supposed to be played with 3-4 players, is possible to play the missions with just one or two?

It is definitely possible to play with fewer than three or more than five. However, it’s not ideal. Phoenix is designed with teamwork in mind, and many situations require sacrifice for victory. So a single player is going to lack all the skills required to handle most situations, and will be in a bind if faced with a situation requiring sacrifice. Conversely, in a 5-6 player game each player has less time in the spotlight and there’s less of a sense of limited resources. So 3-4 is definitely the magic number… but once the game is out we’ll post advice on running for other group sizes.

About NPCs, the rules are very much us against them, how can we handle friendly (and helpful) NPCs? Like very capable humans, wizards, other phoenix.

The focus of Phoenix is defending the innocent, and you’ll often end up in situations where there are mortals who need your help. With that said, even an exceptional human is extremely fragile next to a Phoenix; further, many mortals simply have no defenses against the threats that Phoenixes can resist (possession, the Chant, etc). Phoenix uses a mechanic called the Buddy System, whereby a Phoenix teams up with one or more mortals and is responsible for keeping them alive. Capable mortals will enhance the Phoenix they are teamed with.

None of the existing missions involve teaming the wing with NPC Phoenixes. Essentially, there just aren’t enough Phoenixes in the world for Dawn Command to be able to spare more than one wing for anything but the direst of threats. A situation that did call for multiple wings – for example, a group of Devoted working together to exorcise a mass haunting – would likely be done as an abstracted skill action as opposed to tactical combat. We could certainly expand the system to include Phoenixes as allies in combat – there’s a future mission I want to write that would involve it – but it’s not the primary focus of the system.

How can we proceed when a player misses the game night? In other systems the DM can play for him, or another player assume at least the control of the mechanical decisions. Is this situation, how do we proceed? Just handwave the actions of the absent player?

The simplest answer is to come up with a reason for the character’s absence. Provided you’re starting a new mission, come up with an alternate assignment for the missing character: a Forceful was sent on a vital scouting mission, a Devoted had to go help with a mundane plague, a Durant is organizing a militia force. For whatever reason, they aren’t at Pyre and can’t accompany the wing, and the group will just have to make do without them. This ties to the difference between Phoenix and d20. No one character is absolutely vital. A Devoted is useful, but not having a Devoted isn’t the same experience as not having a healer in another game… because death isn’t the end of the story. The mission is there, and if you have to take it on shorthanded, you’ll have to push yourself even harder to succeed. You may not all make it. But death is how you advance, and if you never fall, you’ll never rise to greater heights.

The situation is more awkward if you’ve split a single mission into multiple sessions and a player drops out in the middle of a mission. Even there, I would be more inclined to come up with a reason that the character has to leave than to have them tag along without a player. While the system is simple, there’s a lot of decisions about how to best use your resources, to justify your traits, and simply engaging with the story – it’s much more involved than just saying ‘Well, the fighter would make a Power Attack.” You certainly COULD play two characters or have the GM control a character, but it will be more complicated than it would be in a system like d20, and it would be far cleaner to simply drop the character from the scenario. If there’s absolutely no logical way to justify it, the simplest answer is to come up with something that kills them; they can be reborn once the player returns.

With all that said: I believe the game is optimal with 3-4 players, and the core set only has enough cards to support four players at a time. But if you have a group of players who often can’t make every session, you can have six players come up with characters… and simply only have four of them play in any one session. So the Durant can’t make it this session? Great, it’s time to call in the Bitter. This is an approach I’ve used with many other systems. In Phoenix it works well because most missions do begin with a reset on Pyre – so the current roster is whichever four members are in Pyre when the call goes out.

A similar question – do you think it would be possible to play without physically being around a table? For example, if I had the game, and my friends lived in other cities, how crazy would it be to try to play via forum post, or skype, or something like that?

I’ve never tried it, but I believe it could be done. As it stands, the issue is that each character needs deck of cards. If each player had a deck – whether because each player owned a copy of the game, or because you broke up your copy and sent the character decks out to each player – then you could play over Skype, provided you trusted your players to be honest about the cards in their hands. It’s a narrative game, so play-by-post isn’t actually weird at all; it’s just again a matter of the player having to have their character deck, and you trusting them to be honest about the draw.

Again with NPCs, in the missions we will have other phoenix, besides the Rival Group and the Marshals?
There are a few other Phoenixes that appear in the missions, yes. But again, bear in mind that Phoenixes don’t have time to just hang out and socialize. There’s less than a hundred Phoenixes in the world. They can be instantly sent into danger, but they have to make their own way back to Pyre before they can be sent out again… and there is a constant stream of new threats every day. So as a Phoenix you’ll be lucky to have a few hours at the Grand Aerie before you’re back out in the world. But certainly we will be presenting additional Phoenixes over time – including the iconic characters we use in our demos and the Phoenixes created by our Tragic Backstory and Portrait backers.

Rules Question: Speed. So, the Challenge acts after X Speed player turn has passed. So a reduction of the Speed value is good, and a increase is bad. So why when a challenge is Stunned it has it’s speed REDUCED?
Drat – that is a mistake that slipped through. Your analysis of Speed is correct, and yes, when a challenge is Stunned its speed should in fact be increased by one – since the EFFECT of this is to make it act less often. We’ll make sure to have this in the errata when the game is released.

What else would you like to know?

Phoenix: Dawn Command

EPSON MFP image

As a Phoenix, death is not the end of your story. 

You have passed through death and returned stronger than before. Now you are the last hope of a world besieged by nightmares. To defeat the Dread you will have to unravel ancient mysteries and overcome terrifying threats. You have seven lives to save the world: make each one count. 

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a fantasy roleplaying gaming coming out in August 2016. Phoenix’s card-driven system puts the skills and strengths of the character directly into your hands – an intuitive system that’s accessible both to longtime gamers and those who have never played a roleplaying game before. For the GM, the system facilitates collaborative storytelling with a minimal amount of prep time… and the basic game comes with a seven-mission story arc ready to run out of the box.

Daniel Garrison and I began working on Phoenix: Dawn Command almost three years ago. I like to say that it’s a bridge between Eberron and Gloom. Like Eberron, it’s a fantasy setting with an intriguing story to explore. Like Gloom, it’s a card-driven game that encourages storytelling… and in which you eventually want your character to die. It is a world where the stakes are high, where your missions matter, and where victory often requires terrible sacrifice. You have seven lives, and you grow stronger each time you die… but each time you come closer to your final death. Death isn’t the end, but neither is it trivial… and I love the stories that you can build with this foundation.

Phoenix: Dawn Command will be released in August. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing more about the setting, the rules, and answering any questions that you have. I’ll be doing my first Phoenix Q&A later this week, so if you have questions, post them in the comments or contact me directly. If you’re a Kickstarter backer (at the $45 level or above), you should have already received a link to download a pdf of the sourcebook; if you haven’t, use the contact me button to let me know and we’ll see what we can do.

For now, here’s a few things you might want to check out.

  • Twogether Studios will be demoing Phoenix at Gen Con. Here’s a schedule of our events. 
  • Last year, playtester Richard Malena posted a series of YouTube videos explaining various elements of the game, including Character Creation, Skill Spreads, and Combat. Bear in mind that Richard made these a year ago, so he’s using prototype materials. The mechanics are sound, but this isn’t what the final game actually looks like.

Post your questions about Phoenix: Dawn Command in the comments below!

Where Have I Been?

IMG_0363

This is my first post of 2016. What gives? Well, it all began in January, when I was kidnapped by the Hairy-Handed Hoogleworts from Under-the-Bed and forced to dig for nightmares in the Dream Mines of Tangleskell Junction. After escaping that, I found myself on the Train of Thought headed to the Hectic Hills. And then…

Actually, it was more about reaching the end of a journey, which is to say finishing Phoenix: Dawn Command. Dan Garrison and I have been working on Phoenix for almost three years. From June to October of 2015 I was pretty much getting up and working on Phoenix until I went to sleep, and most of my social activity for the last two years has been playtesting. It has been a thrilling journey and I can’t wait to share the game with everyone, but it was also somewhat exhausting. After I turned in the final manuscript, I ended up getting pneumonia and being out of circulation for a month. Between the crunch to finish writing and being sick I fell off social media, and once I got back on my feet I’ve been too busy to get back online.

Busy doing what? Well, just because I’m done writing Phoenix doesn’t mean its journey is over. The Twogether crew has spent the last few months dealing with print and layout issues; that’s not my personal specialty, but I’ve been doing the best I can to help with the process. Beyond that, I’m working on four new board and card games. One is a new set of Gloom, which I’ll discuss in more detail in an upcoming blog post. The other three are unfortunately all under wraps right now. I’m excited about all of them, and I’m looking forward to revealing more when I can. And along the way, I managed to sneak in a contribution to Widow’s Walk, the upcoming expansion to Betrayal At House On The HillBetrayal is a long-time favorite of mine, and it was great to have a chance to lend a hand.

I don’t want to go on too much farther, but I am going to do my best to keep the site updated more regularly moving forward. Here’s a quick summary of a few important topics.

When will you see Phoenix: Dawn Command? After a variety of delays, Phoenix is finally going to press. The printer predicts that the game will be ready to ship on May 30th. After that it still has to make it’s way across the sea, fight through customs, and then get from us out to backers. So I can’t yet say exactly when you’ll be able to order it or find it in your FLGS, but it will be sometime in summer. As we get closer to that date, Dan and I will be doing more posts about the world and the game. One of the most exciting things for me is to have a new world that I can explore without any restrictions; once the core game is out, I’ll certainly be developing it in more depth.

What’s up with Eberron? I don’t have any concrete news for you at this time, but I remain optimistic. The DM’s Guild has recently unlocked Ravenloft as a setting, and I am certain that Eberron will eventually get the same treatment; it’s a question of when. If you want that to be sooner rather than later, it never hurts to express your wishes to WotC on social media(say, at on twitter). There’s a lot of topics I am keen to explore as soon as it is possible to do so – so fingers crossed that it won’t be too long! In the meantime, I will be getting started with new Eberron Q&As here, starting within a week.

Where am I going? I have a few appearances locked in at the moment…

What am I backing? It’s a big month for crowdfunding.

  • Acadecon. Hosted by the RPG Academy, with a great line-up of potential guests.
  • Pyramid Arcade. I’ve been playing games with Looney Pyramids for over twenty years, and this is the ultimate Pyramid package.
  • Tak. I had the opportunity to play Tak on the JoCo Cruise, and it’s a great abstract strategy game. Plus, if you lose, you can always sneer and say “Yes, but that wasn’t a beautiful game.”
  • Unknown Armies. I’ve never actually played the original Unknown Armies, but I’ve heard many good things about it… so I definitely want to check out the new edition.

If you know other things worthy of attention, post them in the comments!

That’s all for now, but I’ll be posting an Eberron Q&A next: ask any questions below!

Guest Blog: Phoenix Is On The March!

Big news: Phoenix is in layout! It’s been a long stretch of writing and editing, and I’m going to be off the internets for a little while. In the meantime, we wanted to let you see Phoenix through the eyes of some of our playtesters and developers… starting with Rich Malena of the Going Last Podcast.

FullSizeRender (1)Hey folks! I’ve been given a chance to give you all a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of Phoenix: Dawn Command. For the last two years, I’ve been fortunate to sit down at the table and learn the game from both Keith and Dan, and see the eventual changes in the Phoenix system, the Schools, and the missions over the course of the game’s development. As we grow ever closer to the final release of the game, I wanted to share a couple of these new ideas that I just can’t stop talking about.

One of my favorite progressions to watch is the evolution of the Schools. The core concepts of each School remains consistent, but the lessons and traits have been repeatedly refined and improved. From the beginning, many of the Schools—Bitter, Shrouded, Devoted, and Durant—felt solid and uniquely tied to the mechanics of the game. Devoted could easily use their cards to assist their friends to a unique degree. The Shrouded master skills and can add important conditions to their enemies as they strike from the shadows. The Durant is an unstoppable defensive powerhouse and the Bitter gleefully uses their wounds to strengthen their vicious attacks. If you played any of these four in demos this year, you’ll be happy to see how their roles have been tightened up while keeping true to their original design.

However, our latest playthrough this summer featured the newest versions of the Elemental and the Forceful. Since these two Schools weren’t sent out with the demo set, most playtesters haven’t had the chance to see how they work. Let me see if I can help!

The Elemental is a whirlwind of arcane forces, who uses their very life force to make their powers even more devastating. In game terms, the Elemental has the ability to wound themselves to gain Sparks, which then fuel Lessons and abilities. Unfortunately, since healing is rare in Phoenix, this cycle often ends with the Elemental burned away before the end of the mission. The surge of power is amazing to watch, but being too careless often leaves a Wing without one of the most potent weapons in an important situation.

However, if they’re lucky, the Wing may also have a Forceful along to help make up for it. The Forceful is a master of motion, with a unique ability to cycle through their deck and can sometimes play half their cards on a given check. The Forceful feels fast. The Forceful can also gain momentum throughout a Mission, slowly ramping up to ever more powerful levels. When they’ve reaching maximum capacity, a Forceful is a sight to behold.

The thing that continues to amaze me about Phoenix is that the Schools play so differently. The simple mechanic—familiar to anyone who play’s deckbuilders—leads to an enormous amount of variability in playstyles. Even within Schools, there are plenty of opportunities for choice. My Shrouded is mainly focused on Skill spreads, but that’s because I intentionally decided to play more of a scholar than an assassin. But I could have certainly decided to go the other way. Seeing all the ways people are choosing to play Phoenix makes me really excited about leaping in and trying a new School someday soon!

It’s also been a ton of fun to see the growth of the Missions that are included in the core set! The story is tightly woven together to create an outstanding narrative arc that leads you through the world. I really don’t want to give away any of the secrets and surprises you’re all preparing for, but believe me, the story is going to be worth it. A lot of early ideas have been reimagined and given new mechanics to ensure that every Phoenix needs to be on their toes and ready for brand new experiences.

From the beginning, Phoenix has been a game about telling stories. Stories of sacrifice in the face of the terrifying Dread. Stories of heroism when everything is on the line. Stories of choices and consequences. Every single mechanic in the game is built with this narrative in mind. Even after two years of playing Phoenix, I still can’t help but tell stories when I act. I never get tired of talking about how my character moves throughout the Daylit World, or listening to my friends describe their own actions in our fight against the Dread.

As we get closer to the day when everyone has the chances I’ve had to play Phoenix: Dawn Command, I can’t help but feel so very excited for all the stories that are about to be told. After seeing the art, the rules, the descriptions, the challenges, and most importantly the care that is going into making this game a reality, I’m certain that no one is ready for all of the surprises in store.

Best wishes, future Phoenixes!

Rich Malena shows you why you need advanced mathematics in your life, and is basically as close as you can get to a real Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. Rich also can’t shut up about games on GoingLast.net, at youtube.com/RichardMalena, or on Twitter @rmalena.

Latest News and Eberron Q&A!

EPSON MFP imageI’ve spent much of the last few weeks sick with the flu, but I’ve finally bounced back. I’m continuing to work on Phoenix: Dawn Command, and I’m excited about how the adventures are coming together. I’m still not 100% certain what we’ll be doing at Gen Con and whether there will be full demo sessions, but at the very least I’ll have a get together to discuss the game and show you how it works. The above image is from one of our stretch goals – a challenge created by the amazing Jason Morningstar.

In other news, Fairytale Gloom is out in the wild… though it doesn’t seem to have reached all stores yet. I’m keen to hear what people think. If you’ve had a chance to play and have any questions or comments, let me know!

And finally, I wanted to dig a little deeper into the vast backlog of Eberron questions. I’m afraid I still have no concrete information about 5E Eberron development; I’m hoping there will be news of some sort at Gen Con. Today’s questions focus on warforged, the Silver Flame, and the devious daelkyr…

A very interesting point in my opinion is the conflict between the ideals of the Flame and the corruption and racism of the Church. For example about warforgeds. How are the lives of warforged living in Thrane?

This is a complicated issue. To begin with, let’s talk about racism in Thrane.

The 3.5 ECS says nothing about endemic racism in Thrane. This is a concept that was introduced in Five Nations, a book I didn’t work on. It’s not a concept I personally endorse. There’s nothing in the core beliefs of the Silver Flame that sets humanity apart or above other races. At its ultimate core it is about defending the children of Eberron and Siberys from the children of Khyber. Broadly interpreted it’s about protecting the innocent from supernatural evil… not “innocent humans.” ALL noble souls can strengthen the Flame after death, and it was originally kindled by a noble sacrifice made long before human civilization existed. Many sources feature nonhuman Thrane clerics of the Silver Flame, and one of Tira Miron’s most trusted allies was an elf avenger. Aundair doesn’t have a human majority, yet Thrane’s templars put themselves in harms way to defend Aundair from the lycanthropic threat. If anything, I would expect Thrane to have LESS racism than the other Five Nations as it is grounded in a faith that is driven to protect all innocents. So speaking personally: I didn’t come up with the idea of excessive racism in Thrane and it’s not something I embrace at my table or in my writing.

WITH THAT SAID: If I were to embrace Five Nations’ depiction of racism in Thrane, I would say that it is a relatively recent development that seems to be getting worse every day… And that it is in all likelihood a manifestation of Bel Shalor’s growing power. The Shadow in the Flame thrives on drawing out the darkness inside of people, and this would be a logical manifestation of that. I’d call out the fact that it IS in opposition to the principles of the Flame, and have a few notable voices (such as Jaela) trying unsuccessfully to steer people back to the light.

The warforged are a special case. The Church doesn’t accept that Cannith could artificially manufacture souls. Thus warforged don’t fall into the category of “innocents to be protected.” A warforged is like a sword: a tool to be used in the battle. The Treaty of Thronehold gave the warforged freedom, but it can’t give them souls… and thus, in the eyes of the faithful, they remain things. What’s been said before is that Thrane warforged often end up in various forms of indentured servitude. They are seen as tools, and the Treaty hasn’t changed that.

In my campaign one of the players is a warforged paladin and most of the hierarchy doesn’t even look at him as a living being. As my players are growing up to mid-high levels, I’m thinking: what if keeper of the flame would create him a cardinal? How would the hierarchy react? How the people? Would it be a playable role?

Certainly. In MY campaign, you can’t decide to be a paladin; you have to be called. Cannith couldn’t build a paladin. Thus, the warforged paladin is proof to those with eyes to see that warforged DO have souls and can be part of the Flame. It would be something many Thranes would have difficulty accepting, but it could ultimately cause change across Thrane… or it could trigger a hostile backlash, especially if natural doubts were fanned by the Shadow in the Flame. And as such, it is an extremely playable role.

One thing I am curious about is why did the Treaty of Thronehold include the destruction or disassembly of all of the creation forges? Why do that when you’re also including in there that all warforged are considered individuals rather than property? The way I see it, it’s like neutering an entire race…

The fact that the Treaty of Thronehold helps the warforged is incidental. Its primary purpose was to limit the power of both the Five Nations and House Cannith. At the end of the war, every nation had warforged armies of various sizes. Disbanding these armies was a symbol of standing down from military footing. In my opinion, the original draft of the treaty ordered that all warforged be destroyed; shifting this to freedom for the warforged took a serious amount of lobbying on the part of sympathizers who’d worked with warforged over the wars. But the primary intention was eliminating standing armies, and I doubt that even many of the sympathizers considered this “the birth of a new race.”

Meanwhile, the destruction of the creation forges was a way to rein in the power of House Cannith. Left unchecked, Cannith could produce armies of warforged. Already there’s reason to question if the Five Nations truly have the power to enforce the Korth Edicts; no one liked the idea of Cannith being able to field an army of its own.

So both of these actions were about the balance of power in Khorvaire, not a grand vision of the sanctity of warforged life; in all likelihood, it was a near thing that the warforged weren’t destroyed along with the forges.

Maybe the Keeper could create cardinal a paladin orc?

This seems far less likely to me. I’m actually playing an orc paladin of the Ghaash’kala in a 5E Eberron campaign (a home game run by a friend). One of these days I’ll post some of what I’ve written about the Ghaash’kala over the course of the campaign. The short form is that my paladin would have no interest in being part of the hierarchy of Thrane. He comes from a completely different culture and a different tradition of the Flame. The excessive hierarchy and traditions of the Church seem frivolous to him; he is a warrior used to being on the front line of an endless war. I could see Jaela doing something to more officially acknowledge the Ghaash’kala as comrades in faith – but I don’t think appointing one of them to be a cardinal in Flamekeep would work out well for anyone involved.

Do you think the Lord of the Blades could have some connections with an Overlord? Maybe the mourning was caused by the freeing of an Overlord; or maybe the Becoming God is nothing but a living machine for channeling the energy of an Overlord. Or maybe he is trying to create with warforgeds something like Elves did in Aerenal.

All of these things are certainly possible if it’s a story you want to tell. The Lord of Blades could have connections with an Overlord. He could even be a Lord of Dust who’s only masquerading as a warforged. Try this on for size: We’ve never said where warforged souls come from. This is because warforged souls are tiny, tiny fragments of an Overlord, tiny enough to slip through the binding of the Flame. The Becoming God is a vessel that will ultimately absorb all the souls of the warforged and recreate the Overlord. So once the vessel for the Becoming God is completed, the “Lord of Blades” may start setting up situations to kill warforged – because when they die, their spirits are sucked into the vessel of the God. The trick is that each individual soul is innocent and unique, as long as it can keep from being reabsorbed. So a warforged PC is thus a part of a great evil – but by staying alive, they are preventing that evil from being reborn and turning its power to a good purpose.

I remember somewhere you wrote that it COULD exist a good Daelkyr, even if it still would be somehow crazy. Have you ever played something like that? Could the Daelkyr join the Silver Flame? Do you think Gatekeepers would fight him anyway?

I touch on this in a reply to a comment in my blog post on The Daelkyr And Their Cults. The critical point of the issue is that you could have a “good daelkyr” in the sense that its overall agenda is intended to help the people of Eberron. However, that doesn’t mean that agenda would appear to be good to everyone else. Daelkyr are as alien as alien gets: their idea of doing good might be to change all humans into changelings, to spread a linguistic virus that transforms Khorvaire into a group mind, or something like that. In the long run this might actually promote world peace and harmony, but it’s not likely to be something the existing cultures welcome. Even a daelkyr who simply wants to protect Eberron from other forms of supernatural evil – so one that serves the same purpose as the Silver Flame – would be likely to do so in a way that’s inexplicable to humans. One option I’ve thrown on the table is the idea that the daelkyr created Dragonmarks; perhaps that’s their way of trying to help humanity against other evil forces.

The main thing is that I personally wouldn’t have a daelkyr show up in Flamekeep and have a rational discussion with Krozen and Jaela (or the PCs) about how they can join forces to fight evil. If I wanted to do this with some traditional force of evil I’d use a Lord of Dust or a Quori. The Lords of Dust are native fiends of Eberron and the Quori are tied to human dreams, and as such there is a basic foundation for understanding. While in my mind what defines the daelkyr is that there is NO foundation for understanding. The mere presence of a daelkyr causes confusion, and if it focuses its attention on you it can inflict permanent mental damage. To me this is a side effect of the fact that it’s a powerful telepath whose thoughts are so innately alien that the telepathic broadcast breaks human minds. If you touch its mind, you will go insane. To quote the ECS…

The mind of a daelkyr is a labyrinth that can swallow the thoughts of lesser creatures. Any creature who attempts to read the thoughts of a daelkyr or otherwise study its mind must make a DC 29 Will save or suffer the effect of an insanity spell.

Note that this isn’t an active power. It’s not something the Daelkyr CHOOSES to do. It is simply what happens to any creature of Eberron that touches the mind of a daelkyr.

And for all these reasons: Yes, a Gatekeeper would fight him anyway. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter what his intentions are. He’s a fundamentally alien entity who doesn’t belong in Eberron, and who innately spreads madness and corruption simply by virtue of his presence. Which may be a tragedy if he means well, but there it is.

So I’m certainly open to a story about a daelkyr who’s trying to help the people of Eberron… but I’d make his help enigmatic and potentially dangerous, not some sort of simple “creepy ally.”

Is a human mind as alien to a daelkyr as a daelkyr mind is to a human, and if not, why not? Do daelkyr suffer similar problems if they read the mind of a creature from Eberron?

No. In general aberrations are alien creatures, but you can use detect thoughts on a dolgrim, beholder or mind flayer without getting your brain fried. It’s not simply that daelkyr are alien; it’s that they are primal immortal entities who ALSO happen to be indescribably alien. So a daelkyr looking at your thoughts will going to find them very alien and puzzling… but so incredibly tiny and insignificant that it doesn’t really have a big impact.

Personally, I would put the relationship between human and daelkyr as much like the relationship between a fruit fly and a human. From your perspective the fly’s life is trivially short and relatively meaningless. Look at a single fruit fly: can you tell me what it’s thinking or the purpose behind its actions? Do you believe it feels emotions or has dreams or thoughts as you do? Meanwhile, do you think the fly understands YOU? You’re so vast that all it can really perceive is your foot or the finger descending to kill it; it doesn’t even have a full picture of what you are. Comparing lifespans you are essentially immortal. And again, do you think it understands WHY you do what you do? Perhaps you’re a scientist running an experiment in genetics. Perhaps you’re a bored child pulling the wings off insects for the fun of it. Perhaps different daelkyr represent these different things… so Belashyrra is pursuing a vast experiment (one that will take many, many human generations to show any results) while Dyrrn the Corruptor is simply the child frying ants with a magnifying glass. This allows the one daelkyr whose actions, however bizarre, do involve a vast scheme – and the other whose cruelty is purely pernicious.

Now if you WANT a daelkyr to take a personal interest in a PC as part of a storyline, go ahead. It happens that they’re a particularly remarkable fly and the culmination of a particular experiment and it’s actually keeping an eye on them to see how it plays out. But it still doesn’t understand or empathize with them; they are still just insects, even if they happen to be interesting ones.