Phoenix Friday: Manifestations of The Dread

It’s Phoenix Friday! If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our new website for Phoenix: Dawn Command. We’ve just submitted the test run of our first Phoenix expansion – we’ll have more news on that soon.  Meanwhile, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the force that threatens the world of Phoenix… The Dread. 

The Dread began slowly. Over the course of months, stories began circulating around the Empire. People murmured of savage beasts attacking travelers on the road, and caravans disappearing. There were reports of sudden plagues and strange weather. But these tales weren’t taken too seriously…until 591 IC, when the Bone Legion sacked the city of Westergate and began its inexorable march along the Summer Shore. Without the Phoenixes, news traveled slowly across the Empire. By the time the Emperor heard about the fall of Westergate, there was another, closer catastrophe: The town of Dulacia had fallen to the Chant, a form of infectious madness. It was at this point that the enemy was given a name. The Emperor assured the people that the Dread now gripping the Empire would not last, that order would soon be restored.

Thus began three years of escalating terror. The Imperial Army has done its best, but mortals cannot face these threats. The Army has been powerless to stop the advance of the Bones along the Summer Shore. When a town falls to the Chant, all anyone can do is ensure the curse spreads no further. Fortified cities provide shelter against many threats, and refugees have flooded the largest cities…but many manifestations of the Dread can strike anywhere. The Emperor has done his best to give the people hope, but in truth, there’s little he can do…and in their hearts, the people know it.

The most critical point in understanding this threat is that The Dread is a name the people have given to this wave of horrors. It gives the sense that they are facing a single foe that could potentially be engaged. But the Dread is anything but monolithic. Is the Chant related to the Bones? Do either of them have anything to do with the reports of Fallen activity in the north, or skinchangers in the Grimwald? No one knows. While missions in Phoenix often involve battling some manifestation of the Dread, investigation is equally important; the long-term goal is to unravel the mystery, not simply to kill a few monsters. The Chant is a contagious curse: someone starts chanting and attacking the people around them. Suddenly others are chanting and fighting. Within hours it can engulf a city. But… how does it spread? Are mortals afflicted when they touch chanters, or is just hearing them enough to spread the curse? Is there a way to cure those afflicted without killing them? Beyond that, how and why does it begin… and what does it have to do with the Bones, or other major manifestations? If you encounter a Chant outbreak in a village, containing it is a start… but uncovering the answers to these questions is the real challenge.

What does this mean for Players?

You become a Phoenix by dying, making your way through the Crucible, and returning to fight the Dread. In thinking about how you died and what drove you to come back, consider if you encountered the Dread — and if it was the Dread that killed you. What manifestation did you encounter? Was it your first interaction with the Dread, or had you dealt with other aspects of it? How will you react if you encounter it again? If you were killed during a Chant outbreak, are you terrified of the Chant, or are you determined to find a cure? And as you face the Dread in play, think about how your character conceives of it. Do you believe the Dread is a single force that can be fought, or do you think it’s the end of days? Are you shaken by the things you’ve seen, or does it just fuel your conviction to somehow bring an end to it?

What does it mean for GMs?

Whether you’re developing your own stories or using the mission arc in the basic set, keep the scope of the Dread in mind. The Bones and the Chant are major threats. But the Dread manifests in hundreds of lesser ways, and part of what’s terrifying about it is that no one knows where it will manifest or what form it will take. It’s as if nightmares are bleeding through into the world. Not every manifestation is deadly or even dangerous. But they are happening with increasing frequency and that is part of the fear that grips the Empire: dealing with a seemingly endless parade of terrors, never knowing what will come next.

Lesser Manifestations of the Dread

The Chant, the Bones, the Fallen Folk — these are major manifestations that can threaten cities. But not every face of the Dread is so epic in scope. Here’s a list of a few lesser manifestation of the Dread. If you’re a marshal, this might give you some ideas to add color to a scene or an interlude; if you’re a player, perhaps one of these could fit into your backstory.

  • Unnatural Weather. It’s summer, and the Phoenixes are approaching a village in one of the green valleys of Ilona when the snow begins to fall. The chill could soon prove deadly to mortals… and are there strange shapes out there, obscured by the fallen snow? Whether it’s a freak blizzard, rain of blood, a fog that won’t lift, unnatural heat or devastating storms, the Dread can create any sort of localized weather you can imagine.
  • Blighted Crops. An unnatural blizzard could ruin crops, posing a threat of famine and ensuing panic and chaos. Plants could grow, but in unusual forms. What will happen if anyone (human or animal) eats this strange fruit? Crops could appear normal, but be tainted and cause hallucinations in those who come into contact with them… or simply become incredibly toxic. Or perhaps the fruit of a plant bleeds when you cut or bite into it, and the plants scream in pain when cut.
  • Afflicted Animals. The Dread can turn wild beasts into monsters, transforming them into fearsome and unnatural forms. Animals – even herbivores – could begin craving blood or meat. Animals could be warped in ways that don’t make them a threat, but simply disturbing: loss of all hair; twisted limbs; animals with no eyes, who somehow still seem to be able to see; strange coloration; beasts that speak or sing in a language no one knows, but that don’t respond to attempts at communication. Maggots could spontaneously manifest, or hordes of vermin or insects could be inexplicably drawn to locations. Non-migratory animals could nonetheless migrate in large numbers. Phoenixes could come upon hundreds of dead animals of a particular species, all of which apparently dropped dead in an instant. What does it mean?
  • The Dead Rise. The Bones are the corpses of warriors who have risen to continue the battles they fought in life. The Bone Legion in the south is the most visible manifestation, but Bones can rise anywhere there’s been great violence. Bones don’t have to be human; the core set includes the Carrion Birds, and you could easily have other animals. These things are challenges to be fought, but death can be broken in ways that are eerie as opposed to deadly. Imaging a pack of ghostly wolves – entirely insubstantial – that stalk travelers but can’t actually touch or be touched by them. Ghosts of lost loved ones could dog the steps of a Phoenix, or you might have a town where such spirits haunt the inhabitants… or perhaps they just scream and wail. Phoenixes might come upon a farm whose inhabitants were killed by a plague… but their corpses continue their daily tasks, mechanically going through the motions. On a less direct level, strange footprints or handprints could appear with no explanation. Menacing graffiti could appear on walls. The haunting spirits could be known to the locals, or they could be from a distant past and be angry about the strangers in their homes.
  • Mass HysteriaEven without supernatural influence, people are terrified of the Dread. This is exacerbated by the fact that many people have been driven from their homes. There is panic, scarcity of resources, anger and suspicion that turns people against one another. Add the unnatural influence of the Dread to the mix, and things get worse. People could be haunted by terrible nightmares — threatening visions of a possible future, images of betrayal by friends or neighbors, or bizarre dreams depicting alien worlds. Large groups could be afflicted with collective amnesia… or perhaps their bodies are seized by hostile spirits for brief periods, and they can’t remember what happened while they were possessed. Groups could be gripped by burning anger, crippling despair, or deep ennui. People could find themselves speaking in languages they don’t understand, suddenly unable to communicate with one another. Can the Phoenixes calm those afflicted? Is this the work of spirits that can be exorcised, or something else?
  • Breaking Natural Laws. Be it on a small or large scale, the Dread can simply break the way the world works. Reflections or shadows threaten those who cast them. In a particular body of water, nothing will float. In a particular region, wounds won’t close… or perhaps people die, but their bodies won’t rot. Glass dissolves into sand. Water turns into acid. There’s a smell of rot in the air, though there’s no source. When people breathe, the exhale smoke or foul odors. Combustion won’t occur in a village; candles and hearths alike are cold, casting the people into darkness.

These things may not have a direct effect on the action of the game. They aren’t as dramatic as a pack of hungry Skinchangers or the arrival of the Harvester of Fear. But details like these can add interesting flavor to a scene, and emphasize the fact that the Dread is entirely unpredictable… you never know what’s going to happen next, and we don’t know why all these things are happening now.

if you have questions about Phoenix or the Dread — or favorite supernatural disturbances of your own — add them in the comments!

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