“What if you had a game where death was the way a character grew stronger?”
It was the summer of 2013, and my friend Dan Garrison and I were playing around with a game design. Dan put this question on the table, and the more I thought about it the more intriguing it became. Death is rarely a satisfying experience in games. Often it’s trivialized; if resurrection magic brings you back without a scratch as soon as a fight is over, it’s basically a trip to the penalty box. If death is final it becomes a thing to be avoided at all costs… or if it’s final and common (hello, Tomb of Horrors) it keeps players from ever really forming a strong attachment to a character. It’s rare to see a moment like Gandalf holding the bridge at Khazad-dûm, because no player wants to throw their character away… and yet these are wonderful dramatic moments.
The idea of Phoenix: Dawn Command evolved from this simple seed. We needed to find a way to keep death and rebirth from feeling trivial; if a character knows they will return, then a sacrifice wouldn’t really be a sacrifice. Over time we developed the follow elements.
- Players are special individuals – Phoenixes – who have the ability to return stronger from death. This isn’t an innate trait; it’s something you earn after your first remarkable death. Thus, part of character generation is exploring your first death – who you were, how you died, and what gave you the strength you needed to return.
- Phoenixes grow more powerful with each rebirth, but they can only return a certain number of times. Thus life is a limited resource – but it’s one you can choose to spend.
- You don’t return from death immediately. Most missions in Phoenix are time sensitive, and thus the fact that you can return from death doesn’t entirely eliminate tension from a scenario. If you all die you will fail your mission – and because you will return, you will have to deal with the consequences of that failure.
- Your character evolves based on the lessons you learn from each life and death. Thus, the reasons for your death have a concrete impact on the abilities that you gain. This means that in the long term, your character’s abilities reflect your triumphs and defeats… and also, that if you have a particular set of abilities in mind you will want to choose the circumstances of your death carefully.
Each of these steps moved us in the right direction. Death isn’t the end, and sacrifice is a viable option… but at the same time, you don’t want to throw your life away casually.
This is also tied to the fact that Phoenix is driven by an underlying story. It’s not a sandbox where you’re seeking wealth or power for its own sake; instead, you are the last hope of a world facing an existential threat. Your missions matter, and again, you don’t want to throw your life away if it doesn’t help the cause… but sacrifice is a choice that you can make. Death isn’t trivial, but neither is it the end of the story. And the circumstances of each death will shape the character you become.
This likely raises more questions about the game than it answers. What happens after your character dies their final death? When a Phoenix dies, what does the player do for the rest of that session? Exactly how do the reasons for a death affect the returning character? I’ll touch on all of these and more in upcoming posts! Meanwhile, Phoenix is on Kickstarter right now!