Phoenix: Dhakaani Command

The Empire faces the greatest challenge in its history. Alien horrors have torn through the walls of reality and even the legions of Dhakaan can’t stop these terrors. Madness is sweeping over cities and your kin are being transformed into monsters. No mortal can face the Lords of Xoriat in battle. But you’re no longer mortal. You’ve fought your way back from Dolurrh to protect Dhakaan. You’re a Phoenix, and you have seven lives to save the world.  

In the past people have asked me how I’d adapt Phoenix: Dawn Command to the Eberron setting. The trick is that PDC is designed to tell a specific sort of story: a tale of champions who may have to lay down their lives to defend the world they care about. The default Eberron setting of 998 YK is intentionally open-ended… there’s a lot of problems brewing in the world, but you don’t have the sort of existential threat that drives the action of Phoenix. But there’s a period in Eberron’s history that fits the bill nicely, and it’s a period I’ve always wanted to explore in more depth: the conflict between the Empire of Dhakaan and the forces of Xoriat, the Realm of Madness.

So look back through the ages, to a time before humanity set foot on Khorvaire. It is a golden age. The elves have been driven back to their foul island. The aggressive lizardfolk and savage orcs are confined to the barren wilds, lands with no value to the Empire. It’s an age of order and reason… and perhaps this is what drew the many eyes of the Daelkyr. Now Xoriat is unleashing its power against Dhakaan. The war takes many forms, each one more terrible than anything that’s come before. Armies of aberrations surge through gates and manifest zones. Soldiers fall beneath the gaze of the eye tyrants. Flayers feast on the brains of living prisoners, and their bodies are used to create new monsters. Dhakaan has the finest armies in the known world, but many of these threats cannot be fought with steel or adamantine alone. What army can triumph when madness turns allies into enemies? Defeating the Daelkyr will require champions who can venture into the deepest darkness and wrest the secrets from this foe. You may not survive the battles that lie ahead, but it won’t be the first time you’ve died and it won’t be the last.

SEVEN LIVES TO SAVE THE EMPIRE

The principle of Phoenix is simple. You lived a normal life and you died. You could have been a hero in your first life — a deadly assassin from the Silent Knives, a dirge singer, a chainmaster — or you might have been a simple farmer or bootmaker. But regardless of your achievements in your first life, you possessed courage and strength of will… and these things didn’t go unnoticed or unrewarded. Your spirit was pulled from Dolurrh and into a demiplane of Irian known as the Crucible. There, you went through trials to prove your courage and to hone your skills. You overcame every challenge you faced, and now you have been reborn. You’re infused with the power of the Eternal Dawn. You’re not immune to the corruption of Xoriat, but you can resist it and take on enemies that no mortal could face. If you die, you’ll return to the Crucible once more, and if you can overcome the trials again you will return even stronger. But there’s a limit to the power you can contain. You have seven lives to save the Empire; after that, you can finally rest.

HEROES OF DHAKAAN

One of the nice things about Phoenix is that the powers of a Phoenix overshadow racial differences. So as a Phoenix, the differences between a goblin and a bugbear are largely cosmetic… though easily represented by traits. As a goblin you might take Small & Quick; as a bugbear you could take Too Big To Fail. So let’s consider a wing of Phoenixes you could find in Dhakaan…

  • Maul is a Bitter bugbear. He was raised to be the fist of Dhakaan, and dreamt of dying in battle. Instead, he was caught in an outbreak of madness and torn apart by his own family. He’s filled with fury and yearns to unleash it against the Daelkyr. His talon is his spiked chain, and he is Reckless, Too Big To Fail, Crude But Effective, and Vengeful. However, his Death Wish may get him into trouble…
  • Dirge is a Devoted hobgoblin. In her time in the Crucible she studied with one of the first dirge singers, and she will use the knowledge she’s gained to guide her allies and the Empire. She’s The Smartest Person In The Room, The Heart Of The Wing, Inspiring and Noble… and she’s Seen This Before.
  • Grim is a Durant hobgoblin. He’s a Seasoned Veteran whose Absolute Conviction will help him resist madness, and a skilled Commander and Paragon whose martial skills make him all but Untouchable in battle..
  • Shiv is a Shrouded goblin. She won’t speak about her past, and no one knows if she was one of the Khesh’dar in her first life. But she’s Small & Quick and remarkably Sneaky… and when it comes to uncovering secrets, her Supernatural Senses and Psychometry can help her make Brilliant Deductions
  • Worg is a Forceful goblin. He always wanted to be one of the Tarka’khesh, but he was killed as a child; in the Crucible he ran with actual wolves and learned the ways of the wild. He’s a Feral Hunter with Killer Instincts, and when he strikes he’s a Blur of Motion that’s Terrifying to his foes. 
  • The final member of the wing is Ash, an Elemental goblin. In life he was a sapper and siege engineer; as a Phoenix he is a Pyromancer with the power to unleash pure elemental force on his foes. More often than not, his Astonishing Luck and Extensive Training are the only things keeping him alive. But trust him: he’s got a Master Plan and he Makes It Look Easy

This small unit can go places no legion could reach and face enemies that would scatter armies. The fight against Xoriat will take them into Kyrzin’s liquid labyrinths and toe to toe with the colossus of Orlassk. If you’ve ever wanted to grab a beholder by the eyestalks and hurl it into an army of dolgrims, this may be the story for you.

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

This is a high-level idea for a Phoenix campaign. If you have the Phoenix: Dawn Command core set, you could choose to set your story in the last days of Dhakaan instead of Dalea. Many of the existing Challenges can be reflavored to fit the storyline; the Chant is a contagious madness created by the Daelkyr, the Fallen lesser spirits of Xoriat or opportunistic spirits from other planes. The core story remains intact: you are the champions of the Empire, seeking to defend its people against supernatural terrors. Because of the nature of Phoenix you don’t need special rules for different goblin subspecies; the characters described above are all made using the standard PDC creation tools.

What I love about this is that it’s an opportunity to delve into an interesting period in Eberron’s past and to be on the front lines of an epic struggle. It could be an interesting parallel to a modern D&D campaign that’s also dealing with the Daelkyr; perhaps the Phoenixes in the past will manage to stall a threat that will finally become active again in 998 YK. But it’s well-suited to the things Phoenix does best: high-stakes action, suspense and mystery.

As Eberron remains under lock and key I’m limited in what I could do to support this… but there’s a lot that could be done without treading on Eberron’s unique IP. I couldn’t specifically incorporate the Shaarat’khesh or the Duur’kala, but I could write up some ideas about an empire of goblin assassins and hobgoblin bards facing an invasion of horrors from beyond time and space. If you’d be interested in seeing a PDF of PHOENIX: GOBLIN WARS, let me know below!

Phoenix: Dawn Command is currently available at the Twogether Studios website. The core set is currently $59.95 with free shipping in the US; this gives you everything you need for a gamemaster and up to four players, including a seven-mission adventure path (not set in Dhakaan, but it could be adapted…). If you have questions or thoughts, post them below!

I have a somewhat opposite question, a thought experiment if you will. Is it possible to run a game of Phoenix with the D&D system? What would be the main challenges?

It’s not as simple as it seems. PDC is designed around the idea of heroic sacrifice; D&D is a game where death generally means failure. Here’s a few critical design differences.

  • The reason PDC uses cards instead of dice is because it provides a player with more narrative control. There’s rarely any wasted action. From round to round there’s a random aspect – what cards do you have in your hand – but you know what you have to work with BEFORE you take your action. Essentially, you already know your die rolls – it’s a matter of what you’ll do with them.
  • Beyond this, you have a pool of magical energy – Sparks – that you can use to push your results beyond what you’re currently capable of – essentially, adding them to your die roll. So you can buy success… but when you run out of Sparks, you die. Again, this means that results often are about player choice as opposed to a random roll.
  • In D&D, the success of an attack is determined by my attack and damage rolls as DM and your potential saving throw as a player. In Phoenix, it’s a question of whether you want to use your cards for defense or save them — potentially suffering damage you could avoid because you want to conserve your resources to do something awesome on your next action. Sometimes you may not have the cards you’d need to avoid an attack, in which case there’s no choice – but even there, you know that you can’t dodge your enemy, it’s not a random thing.
  • Tying all these points together: In D&D you may die because the monster rolled a critical hit or because you failed a saving throw – all random things. You’re at the mercy of the dice. In Phoenixes, most of the time a PC dies by choice – because they’re burning all their sparks to do something amazing, or because they’re throwing themselves in front of an ally, jumping on the grenade, holding the bridge against the balrog.
  • Tied to all that: because of sparks and because death isn’t the end, it’s possible for characters of different power levels to work together far more effectively than characters of different level in D&D. The more times you die, the more power you have… but the more wisely you have to use it, lest you run out of lives and die your final death. The low-level character can be more reckless. They can hold the bridge against the balrog – an act that doesn’t take raw power, but rather just the courage to smash the bridge while you’re standing on it. And because of Sparks they can perform acts that are beyond their normal capabilities… it’s just that they may kill themselves doing it. But if they’re on their early lives, that’s OK. Essentially, a 2nd level D&D character may not have anything useful to contribute in a party of 12th level characters, while a Rank One Phoenix can still do something just as impressive as a Rank Five Phoenix – they just can’t sustain that level of performance without dying.
  • Beyond that, you have a lot of other little differences. Since D&D is built around the idea of not dying you have lots of forms of healing that simply eliminate wounds. In Phoenix, the primary method of healing is the Devoted, who can take on the wounds of others… but that means SOMEONE is still wounded. The Devoted can heal themself by inflicting their wounds on enemies – but it’s a weightier thing than just slugging a potion of healing.

Basically, Phoenix isn’t just like D&D but you level up when you die. D&D is built around the d20, a random factor with a wide variance. It has a lot of uncertainty. PDC is built around emphasizing player choice. You have your resources in hand and you need to decide how to spend them. You don’t die because you made a bad roll; you die because the thing you’re trying to accomplish is so important that it’s worth it to die if that’s what it takes.

New Phoenix Products

As of this morning, Twogether Studios has just released three products for Phoenix: Dawn Command on DriveThruRPG. I wanted to take a moment to discuss these so you know what they are.

THE MANUAL

First of all, we have released the Phoenix: Dawn Command Manual — AKA Guidelines For The Newly Inducted Marshal — as a PDF. After some consideration we decided not to break it up into a separate player and marshal book, so this is the entire core book, including the seven-mission Dark Omens adventure path.

To be clear: this is not a complete game. Phoenix uses a card based resolution system, and you need those cards to play the game. The core set — which is available at our website — includes all the cards you need for a gamemaster and up to four players. We’re releasing the book in PDF in case there are gamemasters or players who prefer to work with it in electronic form… but you do need the cards to play.

Of course, the core set includes cards for up to four players. But what if you have five or six players? That brings us to…

PLAYER EXPANSIONS

We’ve added two more products: the PDC Strength Player Expansion and PDC Intellect Player Expansion. Each of these provide you with the cards you need for the core Phoenix set to support an additional player. Each expansion includes twenty cards in total:

  • Eight Grace cards
  • Eight Strength or Intellect cards
  • Four new Traits to expand your Trait pool.

These expansions are print on demand through DriveThruRPG. They are tarot sized cards of similar quality to the cards included in the core set, but there are a few slight differences — notably the corners, which are slightly more rounded than the core cards. You can see a comparison of these cards in the image below. This doesn’t prevent you from mixing the cards together, but it can be a slight tip-off when you’re about to draw an Affliction.

The cards on the left are from the Strength player expansion; the cards on the right are from the core set.

If you have questions about these products, please post them below.

PDC: Bitter History

Was the symbol of the Devoted School different before Bitters were an acknowledged school? If so, when and how did it change? If not, what did the sixth point represent pre-Bitter School?

This came up on the Phoenix: Dawn Command Facebook group, and it’s a good question. The Bitter school is the darkest of the six Phoenix schools. A Bitter dies in failure, and is driven by anger and revenge. In the description of the Bitter school, it notes that “The origin of Bitter Phoenixes is a mystery. There’s no record of any Bitter Phoenixes in the Dawn Legion or the Phoenix Imperium; it seems the first Bitter Phoenix appeared after the Civil War. Some scholars fear that Bitter Phoenixes represent some sort of corruption of the Phoenix Flames; others believe the Phoenixes of the past were simply so arrogant they never saw themselves as failures.”

However, we also have the Devoted school, which has certainly been around throughout the history of the Imperium. It’s noted that The Devoted sigil shows six points around a circle. It represents the Phoenixes of a Wing and the greater whole of the Wing itself. As a Devoted, you know that unity is power—that a Wing working together can accomplish things no lone champion can achieve.

A wing contains one Phoenix from each school, and hence the question: If Bitter Phoenixes weren’t part of the Dawn Legion, did the Devoted symbol only have five points? Or if it had six, what did people think that meant?

First of all, this is a valid question for people to have in the world of Phoenix itself. There is some mystery around the Bitter school. Is it a manifestation of the Dread? Or is the Dread simply bringing it out in a way it didn’t come up in the Empire? Like the Mourning in Eberron, I don’t want to give you one single answer: I want each Marshal to be able to decide if the Bitter school is a corruption or functioning as intended.

With that said, in canon I will say that the Devoted symbol has not changed. The first Phoenixes didn’t design these symbols or create the schools; they inherited them from whatever power created the flames. I believe that scholars in the Imperium debated this question, likely arguing some of the following ideas…

  • The six points represent a group of people working together; it’s not specifically a wing of Phoenixes.
  • The sixth point represents the Empire, which is always with the Phoenixes.
  • The symbol could represent the Empire and its people: Ilona, Skavia, Grimwald, Wynderi, Pyre and the Shadovar.
  • There is a sixth school which for some reason we haven’t seen.

With that in mind, I also see a few ways a marshal could develop this.

  • The description says “There’s no record of any Bitter Phoenixes…” which isn’t the same thing as saying “There never were any Bitter Phoenixes.” The Dawn Codex used the Schools as a model for righteous paths citizens of the Empire should follow. It’s possible that one of the early Emperors – likely Aegis – decided that the Bitter school was a flawed school that cast the Phoenixes as a whole in a bad light and instituted a policy of obliteration to conceal this cancer from the Empire. Phoenixes are always reborn first in the Grand Aerie, and Bitter Phoenixes could have been immediately imprisoned or executed… though a few might have escaped, or somehow managed to be reborn elsewhere in the Empire. The Shrouded Empress Verity would certainly have ensured that there were no records of these renegade Phoenixes, but there could have been some out there; they might even have aided the Humanists during the Civil War.
  • Perhaps there was a different sixth school in the distant past, and the Bitter is a corruption of that previously unknown school. In which case, is it possible to find an ancient Phoenix of that school? Or could a Bitter find a way to cleanse their flame and be reborn as a member of this unknown school?

Mainly this comes to a question of how you want to handle the story of a Bitter player, and especially their mentor. One option is that a Bitter has no mentor; they are the first Phoenix of their flame to ever follow this path. They could seem to have no mentor, but discover a connection to a force seeking to corrupt the flames — a powerful Fallen, or perhaps the entity described on page 226 of the Marshal’s Guide. But a third option is that they have a mentor who lived during the Phoenix Imperium and opposed the Empire, a Bitter Phoenix whose actions were erased from history. Dawn Command isn’t the same as the Dawn Legion, but how will this affect the Phoenix’s decisions and relationship with the Empire moving forward?

If you have other questions about Phoenix: Dawn Command, ask below!

Phoenix: Dawn Command


“You shall not pass!” Gandalf facing the balrog is one of my favorite moments in a fantasy movie. A hero facing an overwhelming evil and ultimately laying down his life to save the rest of the party. But it’s not a situation I’d typically put into an RPG adventure. Usually, putting players in a scenario where the only way to prevent the death of the entire party is for one of the PCs to sacrifice themselves is a cruel move. And yet, that sacrifice — bringing down an impossible foe through an act of courage — is a compelling moment. How do you bring that to the table?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with the Eberron campaign setting I created for Dungeons & Dragons. What you may not know is that in the last year I’ve released an entirely new fantasy roleplaying game that I codesigned with my friend Dan Garrison. This is Phoenix: Dawn Commandand now that Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Card Game is out, Illimat is on a boat and Action Cats is at the printer I’m going to be putting more time into Phoenix. So I wanted to take a moment to tell you about Phoenix and why you should check it out. Before I get to deep in the details, I’ll note that you can get Phoenix from our website or from Amazon, with Prime shipping through Amazon and free shipping in the US from my site.

Phoenix is set in the fantasy world of Dalea. It’s a traditional RPG, in the sense that you have a gamemaster who guides the story and that it’s best in campaign play, where you have time to develop your characters and your stories. Beyond that, it’s what you might get if you stirred together Dungeons & DragonsCall of Cthulhu, and Exalted. Dalea is caught in the grip of the Dread. Across the known world all manner of supernatural terrors are crawling out of the woodwork. Mortals can’t fight these things… but you’re not mortal. You’re someone who died and managed to earn resurrection and the power of a Phoenix. You can face a mob of chanters or a Fallen prince. But Phoenix is about more than just taking on an undead army or dueling demons. You need to find out WHY the Dread is happening, to understand the nature of each of these threats and how they relate to one another. Can you find a way to lay the Bones to rest? Can you learn how the Chant begins or find a way to cure its victims? Phoenix is built on a foundation of over-the-top action, but to truly succeed you’ll have to channel your inner investigator and solve the mysteries of the Dread.

Mechanically, Phoenix has a number of distinct features. The first is the fact that death is how your character grows stronger. When you die, you are eventually reborn with greater power. This isn’t a trivial thing. Hearing about this, people often ask why their characters wouldn’t jump off a few bridges in order to level up. There’s a few things that play into this.

  • Lives are a limited resource. You return after death… but only up to seven times. Each rebirth brings you closer to the end of your story. In you first few lives you can afford to be reckless; but the more power you gain, the more careful you have to be with it.
  • The stakes are high. In Phoenix you’re not just dungeon-delving to get a new magic sword. You’re the last hope of a world that is losing a war against an unknown enemy. You can’t afford to waste even one life. Death isn’t the end, but you need to be sure you make every life – and death – count.
  • Time is of the essence. When you die you’ll be reborn… but not right away. At the earliest you’ll return with the following dawn. But rebirth is never predictable, and it could be far longer. Most missions in PDC are time-sensitive. If you’re in a city and there’s a Chant outbreak you might have two hours to contain it before it spreads too far to be contained. If you all die in those two hours, you will eventually return; the story isn’t over. But that city will have been lost, and you’ll have to deal with the consequences of that failure.

So death isn’t the end — at least initially — but neither is it trivial. Beyond this, the abilities you gain when you’re reborn are based on the nature of your death and the lessons you’ve learned from it. You don’t need to fear death, but you want to make sure that each moment counts.

Another unique aspect of Phoenix is that it uses cards instead of dice. In PDC each player has a unique deck of cards that reflects the abilities of their character and largely takes over the role of a character sheet. You have a hand of action cards; when you want to take an action you describe it to the gamemaster, and they tell you the suit and value you’ll need to play to succeed. Do you have the cards in your hand that you need to match or exceed that value? If not, you have a pool of mystical energy you can burn to push beyond your limits… but when you use it all, you die. So you can buy success in Phoenix, but the question is always if it’s worth it. This is one of the critical aspects of the game: presenting players with interesting and difficult decisions. There’s a bomb in a room full of innocent people. You might be able to disarm it, but you can’t be sure of the difficulty and if you try and failure it will detonate and kill everyone in the room. On the other hand, you could throw yourself on the bomb: you will certainly die, but everyone else will definitely survive. What do you do? Your fate isn’t determined by a random die roll; it’s a question of evaluating your resources and deciding which path you want to take. Beyond this, because you always know what you have in your hand, what you rarely have is wasted action. In a system based on dice, you’ll frequently attempt to do something and fail when the dice don’t go your way, and you accomplish nothing on your turn. In Phoenix, you essentially know your die roll ahead of time – you know what you have to work with in this turn. So if you have a bad hand, the question is can you find something useful to do with it, whether that’s taking on an easier task or burning sparks to push beyond your limits. But you don’t have that moment of trying to do something cool and rolling a two. Instead, you know you’ve got the two; what can you do with it?

If you’d like to know more about Phoenix, you can ask questions below. In addition, here’s a few things I’ve already written.

In the months ahead, I’ll be delving deeper into the world of Phoenix. Beyond this, we’re evaluating print-on-demand options for creating expansions, and we’re also looking into creating an OGL so people can post their own Phoenix missions. And for those who really want to cross wires, I’ll be looking at what it would mean to run Phoenix in Eberron.

PHOENIX Q&A

Could you explain the different types of Phoenixes briefly and why they have their unique abilities? Did certain types of death suggest certain abilities or Phoenix paths?

There are six Phoenix schools. Each one provides different abilities, and yes, each one is tied to the nature of your death and the lessons you take away from it. The Devoted Phoenix died for others, and their powers help them strengthen others and work as a group. The Shrouded Phoenix died because of a secret, and they excel at uncovering secrets and hiding from others. The Bitter Phoenix died as a failure, and their lessons are about anger and revenge. You can find deeper descriptions of the six schools here.

Thanks for reading. I hope you’ll take a look at Phoenix: Dawn Command. If you have questions — or if you’d like to share your own personal experience with Phoenix — post below!

The Endless Night

And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias

A sea of liquid shadows laps against black sands and basalt cliffs. A skull lies half-buried in the sand, empty sockets gazing into the roiling mist. The bone isn’t sun-bleached, for there is no sun here; only a faint glimmer from the deep violet moon that hangs in the sky. If you’re playing in Eberron, this is the plane of Mabar. If you’re playing Phoenix: Dawn Command it could be a realm of the Fallen in the deep Dusk. For now, set aside specific system and setting and consider the Endless Night.

Those who know little of what lies beyond common reality often assume that the Endless Night is the plane of “darkness” — that this physical trait is its defining concept. Though the plane is shrouded in shadows, this eternal gloom is just a symptom of the true nature of this place. Even the brightest day will eventually end in darkness, and the Endless Night embodies this idea. It is the shadow that surrounds every island of light, patiently waiting to consume it. This isn’t the place where the souls of the living go after death, but it is the plane of death itself — the hungry shadow that consumes both light and life. It is entropy, hunger and loss — embodying the idea that all things will eventually end in darkness.

ENVIRONS

Like many of the planes, the Endless Night isn’t one contiguous landscape. Rather, it’s layers of reality, each one a different vision of desolation and inevitable decay. In one layer a desert of black sand is broken by jagged obsidian peaks. In another layer, a once-fertile valley has wasted away; crumbling farms are scattered amid withered fields. Another layer is a single vast city. The fountains are dry, the walls are cracked, but rotting tapestries and chipped mosaics speak of an age of wonders. The critical thing to understand is that this cities has ALWAYS been a ruin. This is what Mabar is: the end of things embodied. When mortals pass through, the idea of decay may manifest dramatically – a bridge collapses, a floor gives way – but come back in a week and there will be a new crumbling bridge ready to fall. These layers are symbols of inevitable entropy and lost glory; the precise details may evolve and change, but the net effect remains the same.

While the stage varies — a desert, a ruined city, the withered remains of fertile farmland, or anything else you can imagine — the story is always about loss, entropy, despair, and death. Feel free to add anything that ties to these themes. A massive battlefield filled with the intertwined bones of dragons and giants. Ossuaries and catacombs. Crumbling memorials, with names just too faded to read. Barren orchards and dried riverbeds. And tombs… from tiny unmarked crypts to the death-palaces of fallen rulers, necropolises filled with traps and treasures. And this being the Endless Night, some of those dead rulers still dominate their domains, whether they take the form of undead or simply malevolent will.

These layers aren’t bound by the laws of physical space. They can be tiny, or they can be seemingly infinite. A desert may wrap back upon itself, and the alleys in a city could twist in impossible ways to always return you to the main square… or you could just come to an absolute edge, where everything falls away into an endless and all-consuming void. To move from one layer to another you must either employ spells of your own or find a portal that connects the two realms. Sometimes these are fairly obvious: a massive gate standing alone in the desert, a pit filled with swirling shadows. In other cases, the connection could be entirely abstract. If you are in the valley of the Bone King and you want to get to the desert of the Queen of All Tears, the answer is simple: all you have to do is sincerely cry, and the tears themselves will take you there.

Of course, if you want to explore the Endless Night there are problems you will face no matter where you go. The realm itself constantly consumes light and life. In 3.5 D&D terms it is minorly negative dominant. Unless you’re protected by some form of warding magics, the Night will continuously drain away your life energy, ultimately consuming your body and leaving nothing but a shadow. Even if you’re protected against this effect you must still deal with the darkness. All light sources in this plane are reduced to dim light. The radius of illumination doesn’t change, but no light can banish the perpetual gloom. Spells that use negative energy will be maximized (variable die rolls such as damage and healing have the maximum possible result; this doesn’t affect attack rolls or saving throws), while spells that rely on positive energy are minimized.

THE CONSUMING DARKNESS

Many of the layers of the Endless Night are purely symbolic. These ruins have existed for as long as the plane itself. Many… but not all. Most of the planes don’t interact with one another. The armies of the Battleground endlessly battle each other — they don’t lay siege to the Realm of Madness. The planes are self-contained and focused on their own slivers of reality. But the concept that defines the Endless Night is the hunger to consume light and life, along with the inevitable downfall of all things. And when all the forces align just perfectly, fragments of other planes can be pulled into the Endless Night. These fragments are caught on the edge of the night, the same way mortal dreams drift around the heart of the Realm of Dreams. Over time, they are drained and pulled closer to the core, until ultimately they are fully assimilated into the plane as a new bleak layer. Typically mortals will be transformed into shadows or other forms of undead; immortals might become yugoloths, or twisted into dark mockeries of their former selves.

The Drifting Citadel is just such a layer. This floating tower was once a library; in Eberron it was part of Syrania, while in Phoenix it was created by the Faeda Concord. Now it drifts through a icy void, grand windows shattered and books fallen from their shelves. Shadows of sages clutch at books with insubstantial fingers, never able to turn a page. The angelic librarians are now tormented spirits who hunger for knowledge, draining the memories from any creature unfortunate enough to fall into their grasp.

With this in mind, as you create layers of the Endless Night, consider the history of the layer. Is it a symbolic layer that has always been desolate? Or is it a place that once knew light before it was consumed by the Endless Night? Beyond this, you can also explore the fragments that are in the process of being consumed. Fragments of outer planes might understand what’s going on and be trying to find a way to fight it… but pieces stolen from the material plane may have no way to know what’s happening to them. So you could have a small kingdom ruled by a tragic lord who wields great power and yet is being consumed by darkness… an inescapable realm shrouded by mists, seeming cut off from the rest of the world. All of which is to say that this would be an easy way to add Ravenloft into a setting, as a piece of reality that is under siege by the dark powers of the Endless Night. In Eberron, the Mourning could be what happens when a piece of reality is consumed… in which case Queen Dannel could still rule over a version of Cyre that is being consumed by shadows. It could be that this wound will never heal, and that the Mournland is now a permanent part of Eberron; or it could be that given time restorative power will flow from the Eternal Dawn to restore the blighted land, creating a new Cyre. These unassimilated fragments don’t have the negative dominant trait, and can contain living creatures… but the consuming hunger of the Endless Night should always be felt in some way.

Overall, it might seem like this is something the powers of other planes would try to stop. But the it cannot be stopped, and they know it. It is part of the machinery of reality. The Endless Night consumes and fragments are lost. Those pulled into the darkness can fight against it, but the ultimate outcome is inevitable. Were it not for the Eternal Dawn, it would eventually consume everything. But as the Night consumes, the Dawn restores, and so balance is ultimately maintained. The question a GM must decide is whether the fragments that are consumed are random… or whether the Empress of Shadows has some discretion over this. It might not be possible to fight the coming of night… but it could be that planar emissaries come to the Amaranthine City to negotiate with the Empress of Shadows and turn the hungry darkness in a different direction.  

DENIZENS OF THE ENDLESS NIGHT

The most numerous inhabitants of Mabar are shadows. These semi-sentient spirits linger in places where you might expect to find people, forlornly pantomiming the roles of the absent inhabitants. You’ll find the shadows of children playing on the corner of a Mabaran street, or the shadow of a priest silently praying to an absent and unknown god in a shattered temple. Many sages who study the planes believe that these shadows are tied to mortals… that every sentient mortal creature has a shadow in the Endless Night, a manifestation of their darker impulses. These shadows don’t speak and are driven by impulse and instinct. They hunger for the lifeforce of mortals, and if planar travelers aren’t protected by magic they may be swarmed by hungry shadows.

The more desolate planes are home to nightshades. These powerful creatures are conduits of negative energy. In the obsidian desert, massive nightcrawlers lurk in the dark sands while nightwalkers lay claim to the ruins and rule over the shadows. Nightshades often attack fragments, feeding on the energy of the fragment and accelerating its assimilation. In these attacks, nightcrawlers may rely on raw force which nightwalkers may lead armies of undead. While intelligent, nightshades are more alien and primal than the yugoloths and rarely negotiate or converse with outsiders.

If the Endless Night has a heart, it would be the Amaranthine City… a metropolis that fills an entire layer. Nothing flourishes in this plane; banners are tattered and gardens are withered. But it is still wondrous in the scope of its cyclopean towers and grand fortifications. It is the capital of an empire in decline, and yet the hint of what it was at the height of its glory makes it wondrous even when faded. And it is no empty shell; it is a city alive with activity. This is the seat of the Empress of Shadows and her people; in D&D terms, these are the yugoloths. These are spirits of darkness, embodiments of hunger, despair and death. To all appearances, the yugoloths are citizens of a vast empire; they maintain that all things were once in darkness and eventually will be again.

Many yugoloths serve in the army. The Legion of Night lays siege to the fragments of planes that have powerful inhabitants of their own. The yugoloths do battle with angels and devils trapped in their doomed fragments, until the fragments are ultimately fully drained, assimilated, and their immortal inhabitants converted to a form more suited to the Endless Night. It’s questionable if these battles actually speed up the assimilation, or if they are simply a way for the fiends to pass the time; certainly, they enjoy these struggles.

Other yugoloths are gardeners… but what they cultivate is darkness. Most gardeners work with shadows. They search for promising shadows and use their abilities to strengthen a shadow in certain ways. It’s thought that this in turn feeds the darkness of the mortal tied to the shadow, potentially filling them with despair or driving them down dark paths. When the mortal eventually dies, the yugoloth can harness and refine the essence of the shadow, which can be used to create tools, elixirs, or works of art. While most gardeners work with shadows, some go into the fragments of the material plane that are being assimilated, twisting and tormenting the mortals trapped their in slow and subtle ways.

These are common paths, but there are many others. Some are philosophers and oracles who contemplate the nature of entropy and the way in which things will end. Some are artists and artisans, crafting shadow and spirit to create tools and weapons (which can cause death and despair should they make their way to the mortal world). And some serve seemingly menial roles in the Amaranthine City.

There are many other lesser inhabitants of the plane. Succubi are lesser spirits that embody emotional pain and loss. Some succubi are solitary and prey on mortals in fragments, while others live alongside the yugoloths and ply their wiles on them; the suffering of a fiend is just as satisfying to them as that of a mortal. Other succubi are gardeners, and some believe that a succubi can drain the love from a mortal heart by bleeding it from their shadow. And last but certainly not least, the Endless Night is home to undead. Most of the undead are symbolic: the endless skeletal armies of the Bone King aren’t actually the remains of mortal beings, and the Bone King himself, while he appears to be a lich, was likewise never mortal. Spectres and wraiths generally exist as predators, halfway between the Nightshades and the shadows. Some believe that when a vampire or lich is finally destroyed, its essence is pulled down into Mabar where it persists as a wraith… denied the eventual rest granted to other spirits of the dead, forever driven by the hunger of the night. Most are likely driven mad by this ordeal, but it’s possible that a vampire slain in a campaign could be encountered again as a spectral lord in the Endless Night.

TOUCHING THE MATERIAL: EBERRON

In an Eberron campaign, the Endless Night is the plane of Mabar. It affects the world in a number of ways: through manifest zones, coterminous periods, the actions of the plane and its denizens. Beyond this, some believe that Mabar is generally a source of despair and desolation, that it drains both emotional and physical energy from the world. While this is unproven, it is definitely the source of negative energy. Necromantic magics that sap energy or drain lifeforce draw on the power of the Endless Night. This is also the power that sustains most undead. Skeleton, vampire and wraith are all animated by the power of Mabar. This is the source of the vampire’s endless hunger and the draining touch of many undead. But even lesser undead innately draw life energy from the world around them. Typically this ambient drain is slight enough that there’s no mechanical effect; but this is why a haunted tomb will often be surrounded by dead plants and shriveled vines. The priests of Undying Court assert that negative undead are slowly destroying the world and that eventually this will cause irreparable harm; this is why the Aereni Deathguard seek to track and destroy Mabaran undead whenever possible.

One point here is the common confusion between Mabar and Dolurrh. Dolurrh is the realm of the dead, but it’s not the plane of death. Dolurrh is a place of transition. It is where the souls of the dead go after death, where the burdens of life are removed. So Dolurrh is where people go when they die; but Mabar embodies the idea of death, of inevitable loss and the end of all things.

COTERMINOUS AND REMOTE

According to the Eberron Campaign Setting, Mabar becomes coterminous for three days every five years. During these periods, there is a general increase in the amount of negative energy in the world. Shadows grow deeper and colder, and effects that rely on negative energy are strengthened. When one is alone in a dark place, this energy saps both strength and hope; solitary people are more likely to succumb to illness and despair. As a result, during these periods people generally come together to hold back the darkness. Communities gather around bonfires and sing or pray together; friends or families might gather into one abode for the duration, as bonds of love and friendship are a source of positive energy.

The Eberron Campaign Setting makes the consequences of the phase quite severe, stating “During the night and while underground, travel between the planes is much easier—simply stepping into an area where no light shines can transport a character from Eberron to Mabar, and barghests and shadows emerge from the Endless Night to hunt the nights of Eberron.” I consider this to be overstated for dramatic effect. Both of these things are possible, but here again, positive energy holds these effects at bay… and positive energy comes from light, life and love. So when Mabar is coterminous it is dangerous to go in the basement of the creepy abandoned house, or to wander alone on the moors at night. But if you’re in a house with your family and friends celebrating and singing around a roaring hearth, you don’t have to worry about being killed by a shadow when you go to the pantry. A child conceived during this period would have a chance to be born as a Mabaran tiefling… but in theory, if they child is conceived in love, that positive energy should prevent this.  

While it might be possible to be transported to Mabar by passing through a shadow in a desolate place during the coterminous phase, I wouldn’t have such an effect take you to the heart of Mabar, where the minor negative dominant aspect would kill a normal person within minutes; instead, I’d have them pass into a mortal fragment that’s currently on the edge of Mabar and being consumed. Which is, again, essentially Ravenloft. You go walking on the moors at night, pass through dark mists, and find yourself in a tiny and tragic kingdom besieged by despair.

On the other hand, when Mabar is remote effects that use negative energy are impeded; spirits are generally higher (though this effect is not as dramatic as a time when Irian is coterminous); and undead are often gripped with ennui.  

MANIFEST ZONES

All manifest zones to Mabar are strong sources of negative energy. Even if this doesn’t produce a direct mechanical effect, it is always the case that a Mabaran manifest zone is an excellent place to perform any sort of ritual that draws on negative energy. Other than that, here’s a few possible traits of Mabaran manifest zones.

  • Blighted or unnatural vegetation.
  • Low fertility and reduced resistance to disease. Creatures born in the region might be sickly, or you might get unnatural creatures (like Mabaran tieflings).
  • Psychological gloom: a tendency towards despair, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts.
  • Presence of shadows, wraiths, or other undead. While these can be shades of mortals slain by other undead, they are typically just manifestations of Mabar itself – embodiments of consuming darkness.  
  • Skeletons or zombies might spontaneously animate from corpses. Such undead don’t have any of the memories of the body and will typically seek to kill any living creatures they encounter.
  • Unnatural darkness; light sources could be reduced, so even the brightest source only produces dim light. You could even have an area that is permanently shrouded in magical darkness.
  • Spells and effects that rely on negative energy could be enhanced or even maximized; undead could be strengthened.
  • Shadows could take on a life of their own without becoming fully formed aggressive monsters. It’s not that they exist independently of the things that cast them, but they might move in impossible ways or respond to actions around them.

Most of these don’t sound like very welcoming traits, and few people would likely choose a Mabaran manifest zone as a place to build their town. But there are reasons for doing it. We’ve established that in Karrnath, Blood of Vol communities often build temples in Mabaran manifest zones and perform rituals that help to contain the negative impact of the zone — and that some of the terrible famines in Karrnath were the results of soldiers seizing these towns and temples and failing to maintain these rites, resulting in sudden and dramatic blights. Beyond that, unnatural vegetation or minerals infused with Mabaran energy could have useful effects. In The Thorn of Breland books I talk about nightwater — water infused with Mabaran energy — as a common component used in disarming wards and magical traps.

So a Mabaran zone could be occupied by people trying to contain its effect or by necromancers channelling it; but often, they’re likely to be shunned areas in the wilds.

SCHEMES AND ADVENTURES

Do the denizens of Mabar ever have schemes that reach into Eberron? How could it play an interesting role in an adventure? One of the simplest ways is simply to work a manifest zone into a story. A necromancer has a tower in a blighted grove, and this empowers their magics and undead minions. The PCs take on the necromancer and defeat him. But when they return they discover that the necromancer’s work was holding the power of Mabar at bay, and the blight is spreading. Can they find a way to restore the balance? What if someone has to stay in the tower? Does one of the villagers have the talent? Or do they need to find another necromancer willing to hold the post – and can they trust her with this power?

Manifest zones could inspire many stories or interesting encounters.

  • Shadholt is a small village hidden in the woods of Karrnath… a village populated almost entirely by Mabaran tieflings. The tieflings harvest vegetation and dragonshards infused with Mabaran energies and can make interesting elixirs and items. Perhaps they simply wish to be left alone… but an encounter with superstitious foresters could lead to a conflict with the local warlord. What side will the PCs take? Are the tieflings innocent, or are they using the powers of Mabar to prey on their enemies? Or is Shadholt the source of an addictive drug that’s been spread ing across the region?
  • Passing across a moor, the PCs are set upon by the shadows of wolves and hawks. The following dawn, they discover that one of the PCs is missing their shadow… it’s been lost in the manifest zone. Do they need to go back and find it? If so, how? If not, what does it mean that the character no longer has a shadow?
  • The PCs discover that House Thuranni is experimenting with the potential of the Mark of Shadows, seeking to channel the power of Mabar. There’s a research center in a Mabaran manifest zone. What happens if the experiments work? Are the elves in full control of their powers? Or are they consumed by their own shadows, leaving dark hearts cloaked in flesh wielding terrifying powers?

Overall, the denizens of Mabar have no interest in Eberron; they have everything they need in Mabar and its fragments. However, just like the Daelkyr or the Kalashtar Quori, you could have an individual or small group of spirits that take an interest in Eberron. Here’s a few possibilities.

  • A disguised succubus is a scholar of loss, subtlely engineering disastrous tragedies for the people of a small community in order to study their reactions. Alternately you could take the same concept but she could be targeting powerful, successful individuals — such as player characters — instead of a particular place.
  • A small group of Yugoloths are studying the world and choosing the next location that will be consumed by Mabar. The consumption will happen, even if the Yugoloths are defeated… but can the damage be minimized?
  • A yugoloth artisan crafts artifacts and sows them into Eberron to cause death and despair. A weapon forged in Mabar could be a literal demon — a battleloth — or it could possess great power but bring tragedy to the one who wields it. A villain could cause great havoc with this night-forged blade; once the villain is defeated, will a PC claim the blade or leave it be?
  • A nightwalker has broken through into Eberron, turning a Mabaran manifest zones into a gateway. The dead are rising in response to the nightshade’s call, and it has a force of nightcrawlers and nightwings. The Nightwalker has no agenda other than destruction, despair, and drinking in the energy of the world. Where is this gateway? What will it take to close it and contain this threat?
  • Queen Dannel’s Cyre has been pulled into Mabar. There’s no way to reclaim it and return it to Eberron, but the now-vampire Dannel has a bigger goal. In Mabar, everything must end… even the yugoloth order. Dannel believes that she can overthrow the Empress of Shadows and become the new immortal overlord of the realm… but she needs the help of epic-level PCs to do it. Will they help transform Cyre into the new heart of the Endless Night?  

The idea of the consumed fragments opens up another host of story possibilities.

  • Forced out into the wilds during a Mabaran coterminous period, the PCs find themselves in a strange land. This could be a familiar town that’s now suffering from dangers and threats; can the PCs figure out what’s going on, and if it can’t be stopped can they help friends escape? It could be a realm pulled out of history, time slowed by the process of assimilation — the last stronghold of Karrn the Conqueror or Malleon the Reaver. Or it could be something entirely new, like Ravenloft.
  • An angel of Syrania reaches out to the PCs. Something vital is trapped in a Syranian tower that was pulled into Mabar. If the angel goes to the fragment, it will be trapped there forever; but mortals could enter the fragment, retrieve the relic and escape. What is the relic? What else might they find in the lost tower?
  • Similar ideas could take the players into the heart of Mabar itself. What treasures are hidden in the tomb of the Queen of All Tears? What secrets lie in the scattered tomes of the Drifting Citadel?

All of these ideas are literally off the top of my head, and I’m sure you can come up with others. Share your ideas in the comments!

THE DEEP DUSK: PHOENIX DAWN COMMAND

Phoenix: Dawn Command doesn’t have the complex cosmology of D&D. The Dusk is the realm that lies between life and death, a realm of spirits and magic. When a Phoenix dies, they go to a crucible – a pocket realm within the Dusk where they can earn their way back to the Daylit World. But there’s more to the Dusk than most Phoenixes ever see. The greatest of the Fallen Folk may have their own domains within the Dusk, and there can be great mystical engines left over from the Old Kingdoms, or simply from the framework of reality.

Within Phoenix, there’s a few ways you could use the Endless Night. Perhaps the Phoenixes face a great force of darkness striking against a community of innocents — a Nightwalker leading a legion of hungry wraiths and animated corpses. Destroying this being requires the Phoenixes to join their power together, sacrificing all their sparks to drive it back into the dusk. But instead of waking in their crucibles, the Phoenixes find themselves in the Endless Night, pulled into it by the spirit they banished. Can they find a way to escape the Deep Dusk? And what happens if they die before they do?

You could also explore the idea of the hungry realm… to have a piece of the Empire pulled into the Endless Night while the PCs are defending it. The life is being drawn out of it, and shadows lash out at the innocent. Can they find a way to return this farm/village/city to reality? And again, what happens if a Phoenix dies in this place? Do they simply return to the Night? Are they seemingly gone forever… and if so, is this what actually happens or have they simply been returned to the Daylit World?

Another possibility is to explore the idea that the layers of the Endless Night are all pieces seized from the Daylit World. Perhaps the Endless Night was created as a way to avoid the doom of the Old Kingdoms, preserving communities in some fashion (albeit a dark one); now the threat of the Dread has brought this old magic back to life, and it’s going to start stealing cities anew.

Q&A

How do Mabar and the Plane of Shadows both exist in the same cosmology while remaining distinct? What is the difference in themes between these two Planes? Can the Plane of Shadows have its own Manifest Zones?

This is spelled out on page 92 of the Eberron Campaign Setting. The entire reality of Eberron — including its thirteen planes — is enfolded by the astral plane; the ethereal and shadow planes encompass the material plane but don’t touch the other planes. The easy way to think of this is that the Shadow Plane is the darkness that lies between realities. It has no meaning as Mabar does; it is simply a dark space outside of reality. Spells like shadow walk let you use it as a shortcut through space, or even in theory as a conduit to move between realities. But it isn’t part of the creation of the Progenitors. It has no meaning and it doesn’t shape reality. It’s not part of the planar orrery, and as such it never becomes coterminous or remote and it doesn’t create manifest zones; it simply is.

A minor qualm, but it seems that Mabar as portrayed here ultimately prevails when it exceptionally interacts with other planes, as Syrania in the post. Yet, using the same example, after night comes dawn…

That’s exactly the point. The night consumes every day… and the dawn eventually overcomes each night. The section on “The Consuming Darkness” calls this out: Were it not for the Eternal Dawn, (The Endless Night) would eventually consume everything. But as the Night consumes, the Dawn restores, and so balance is ultimately maintained.”

The Endless Night embodies the idea of despair and the inevitable end. But the Eternal Dawn — in Eberron, Irian — embodies the idea of hope and the indomitability of life. Anything Mabar can consume, Irian can restore… though both of these things take time. But yes, Mabar will ultimately prevail against any fragment it consumes because that fragment has been pulled out of its own concept and into the Night, which is defined by that inevitable defeat.

Is it possible for there to be Mabaran celestials, or good-aligned spirits from Mabar? For that matter, are there any Irian fiends, or evil-aligned spirits from Irian?

Certainly, in both cases. But the point is that any spirit of the Endless Night is about the concept of death, loss, despair. If you can find a way to make a being who’s a positive embodiment of these things, it could be good. For example, you could have Small Mercies — little spirits that kill those who are suffering unendurable torment. Technically they’re good; they are helping those who suffer. But their tool is still death. You won’t have a spirit in Mabar that seeks to prevent death, because that’s something that belongs in Irian. Look at Shavarath: you have noble celestials fighting vile demons, but they are all fighting; you’re not going to find a spirit from Shavarath that thinks peace is a good idea, unless it’s the peace that will come when we win our noble battle against the enemy.

So any spirit of the Endless Night will somehow embody death or loss, entropy or despair. If you can think of the positive aspects of this and personify it, that could be a Mabaran celestial. Conversely, Irian is about life and love, new beginnings and hope. If you can find a way that these things could be negative, you could have an fiend that embodies that. Perhaps there’s a spirit that spreads false hopes… though again, if its ultimate goal was to cause despair, it would belong in Mabar. Meanwhile, in a fragment of Irian being consumed by Mabar you can have the embodiment of hope that is struggling against despair; and within a fully consumed layer, it might still exist as the embodiment of crushed hopes and disappointment.

With all of that said: Bear in mind that just as celestials can fall, fiends can also rise. In the same way that an angel can become a Radiant Idol or rebel Quori can become Kalashtar, you could have a yugoloth who defies their nature and purpose. However, like the Kalashtar Quori and the Radiant Idol, if they want to maintain that identity they’d likely have to flee from Mabar.

If Mabar is indeed Death itself, then how to the Seekers argue their use of its powers. Logically, the Undying Court would be right; however, it is important to the role of the Blood of Vol that they too would have arguments. I like the idea that they do their part to contain the spread of Mabar’s power in its manifest zones, but why wouldn’t they agree with the Court that Mabar is basically a hostile plane and not to be meddled with?

It’s like fire, or nuclear power, or electricity. All of these are dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing; when harnessed by someone who understands them, they can be used to do good. An educated priest of the Blood of Vol would certainly agree that the power of Mabar is inherently dangerous — as shown by their working to contain the danger posed by manifest zones — but that’s exactly the point: they can contain that danger. They believe that their knowledge and understanding allows them to use this dangerous power in a positive way, just as we are comfortable using electricity and nuclear power in our daily lives.

Looking to the Undying Court’s assertion that all use of Mabaran energy is a threat to the world, Aerenal is a fairly isolationist country and they haven’t blanketed the Five Nations with this view. Even if they did, it’s a perfect mirror to the issue of climate change. Aerenal has logic on their side: it’s energy from the plane of Death and look at what it does in manifest zones — why use it? The Blood of Vol takes the role of people who say that cleaner coal is the answer to climate change: they know what they’re doing, they’re not going to throw away a useful tool because of some crackpots, and they don’t see any proof that things are as bad as the elves say. Plus, given that the Undying Court eradicated the line of Vol they CLEARLY have a vendetta against the BoV and this argument is simply driven by that vendetta; they’re making up excuses to persecute the BoV. Don’t be misled!

Short form: Any cleric of the Blood of Vol will tell you the power they wield is dangerous, but generations of their ancestors have learned how to master that power and wield it safely. And any arguments that it’s poisoning the world are ridiculous — again, generations of their ancestors have used it safely.

The Cost of a Life

Recently I’ve started a Patreon to help me justify spending more time on this site. The full Dragonmark/Imperial Dispatch articles take a significant amount of time and there’s a limit on how often I can post one of those, but I want to post more short articles. I’ve asked my Inner Circle of Patrons to pose questions about Eberron, Phoenix: Dawn Command, or game design in general, and I’ll be answering these whenever I have time. So, here’s the first one.

Regarding your Death and Resurrection post, what are some good dark bargains higher powers might want met in exchange for letting you go back?  

In my previous article on Death and Resurrection, I suggested that you could set a personal price on resurrection. This could be a bargain the dead character makes in order to return under their own power… or you could say that even if their allies use resurrection magic, the character’s spirit still has to make a bargain to benefit from the spell. Depending on the cosmology of your game, this could be a bargain with a deity, a demon, an inevitable, or something else entirely.

So… what might a powerful being demand in exchange for helping a mortal spirit return to the world? To me, the critical thing is to make this an interesting decision that drives story. Here’s a few ideas off the top of my head. I’ll note that many of these ideas carry the inherent threat that the character could permanently die if they don’t hold up their end of the bargain. If you aren’t willing to have that threat on the table, you’d need to come up with another consequence to give the threat of failure dramatic significance.

A Life For A Life. The entity will return the victim to life – but the PC must pledge to kill a specific person who has somehow cheated death. The PC has a set amount of time in which to accomplish this task; if they fail or choose not to complete the bargain, they will die for good. It’s up to you how many details the entity reveals about the target. Here’s a few different ways this could play out.

  • The target is a vicious tyrant. They’re a horrible person who deserves to die, but they have an army and a fortress. So morally the PC is on solid ground, but it’s going to be a very difficult task to accomplish.
  • The target is a fiend, a vampire, or something else that clearly IS cheating death or doesn’t belong here. Again, easily justified, but a difficult target to take down. In Eberron, you might have to find and destroy a lich’s phylactery (maybe Erandis Vol?) or even destroy one of the Deathless Councilors of Aerenal.
  • The target is a cult leader who’s sacrificed many innocent victims. This seems like a reasonable quest, but when the PCs track down the cultist they discover that he’s turned on his old faith and is seeking redemption by helping and healing the needy. The entity that resurrected the PC is in fact the cultist’s previous deity – and wants the cult leader killed as vengeance for his betrayal. Does the PC kill the cultist as punishment for his previous actions? Or spare someone trying to do the right thing, even if it means their own death? Together, could they find some other way to keep the PC alive?
  • The target is an adventurer, someone pretty much just like the PCs. Perhaps they have a checkered past, perhaps not; but they’ve certainly cheated death multiple times. Will your PCs execute someone who’s following the same path they are?

These are just a few examples of where you could go with this. The question is whether the challenge is primarily physical or moral, and if there are any long term consequences of fulfilling the bargain. There’s one easy long-term hook: At any point, the resurrected PC can be targeted by another group of adventurers… because one of their members was resurrected by the same entity and pledged to kill someone who cheated death!

Your Days Are Numbered. The entity will return the PC to life, no strings attached… for a set period of time, after which the PC will permanently die. This creates a different sort of tension: what can the PC accomplish in this time? Now their death isn’t a random thing: it’s an absolute, known fact and the question is what they can do to make their last days mean something. You can always introduce a path for them to escape the bargain, but it can be more interesting to hold them to it and make them really think about how they’d face this known death. And, of course, you could always decide that if they face it well the entity might grant them more time… or that they will die, but achieve some form of spiritual evolution or apotheosis after this second death. In some ways, this is the basic premise of Phoenix: Dawn Command; players are reborn after death, but they know they will permanently die after their seventh death.

A Lease On Life. A combination of the two preceding ideas. Every job the PC accomplishes buys them another (month) of life. This works best if the people the PC is being sent to execute are generally bad people… but this is an opportunity, after the PC has killed a bunch of scumbags, to suddenly introduce an apparent innocent. Does the player trust that the Entity would only target people who deserve to die? This bargain doesn’t have to involve killing; it could be that the PC must save a life each week, or something like that.

Everyone Loves A Good Host. The Entity can resurrect the PC – but only by imbuing them with part of its own spirit, incidentally making them a vessel for it to act in the physical world. This could be a very specific arrangement: The entity gets to use the PC’s body for one hour out of every day, or for one day out of every week. It could be that the PC becomes an NPC during these times, or if the player’s up for the challenge, you could tell them what the entity is like and have them play the entity-in-the-PC’s-body at those times. Alternately, the Entity could be present in an abstract way; perhaps exercising magical powers around the PC… which could potentially be very useful, but in a way that’s entirely uncontrolled and unpredictable. So when the PC has a conversation with a rude innkeeper, flames suddenly burst from the PC’s eyes and burn the arrogant innkeeper. This would be sort of like becoming a warlock, but the PC doesn’t have any control over the warlock abilities.

Another approach on this path is to have the arrangement initially appear to be benign, but every time some specific trigger occurs – say, any time the PC kills someone – the Entity takes more possession of the host. The PC might even gain new abilities as this process continues, but they also start having blackout periods or personality shifts and know that this will eventually give the Entity full control of their body.

The Orpheus Gambit. The PC is returned to life and will remain alive as long as they DON’T do something… but if they break this rule, they permanently die. This could be a common action: the PC will remain alive as long as they don’t kill anyone else, but if they take a life they’ll die. 5E helps this by stating that a PC can decide the fate of someone reduced below zero HP, so its easy for a player to spare their victims… but what do they do when there’s someone who truly needs to die? The prohibition could be more specific: you can’t ever return to Sharn, you can’t see your one true love ever again, you can’t conceive a child. Needless to say, this should be something that seems reasonable on the surface… but as time goes on, there should be a host of compelling reasons to do that thing.

Start A Movement! The resurrected PC could be called on to start a movement on behalf of the entity. If the entity is a deity, the PC might have to resolve a schism in their church or bring down corrupt leadership. It might be a forgotten deity that wants its faith revised. In either of these cases, the PC could gain some divine benefits – but it could be that the PC doesn’t have to have faith, they just need to inspire it in others. However, this could also involve something mundane. Rally an oppressed population. Revitalize a secret society. Crush a cult or overthrow a government oppressing a region the entity cares about. The main thing is that this will require leadership on the part of the PC.

If You Build It, You Will Live. The PC might have to create something on behalf of the Entity: a monument, a temple, or something else. Rather than spending 5000 GP on a resurrection spell, they need to spend that money acquiring land and labor. Alternately, they could have to cleanse a temple or stronghold overtaken by dark forces – which is to say, go on an epic dungeon crawl!

WHAT ABOUT PHOENIX? 

One of the core elements of Phoenix: Dawn Command is that the PCs can die and return stronger after death, up to seven times. A Phoenix has to earn each new life by enduring a series of trials in a pocket limbo known as The Crucible. By default this isn’t a bargain as such. However, you can certainly add a bargain into the story, if both you and the player like the story. There’s a few ways this could work.

A Mentor’s Demands. A Phoenix has one guide in the Crucible: their Mentor, the spirit of a previous Phoenix who’s been through all seven lives. Normally a mentor helps with no strings… but you could say that the mentor has set a price on their help. The simplest approach is that the mentor has unfinished business they want the PC to complete for them.

  • The mentor wants a message delivered to a loved one or someone else they left behind.
  • The mentor wants the PC to resolve a grudge or vendetta against another Phoenix. This could be one of the Marshals – in which case the PC’s mentor might know a dark secret about the Marshal in question. Is the PC willing to disrupt Dawn Command at this critical time? Are they sure they can trust their own mentor? Alternately, the vendetta come be with a dead Phoenix – the mentor of another member of their wing.
  • A Shrouded mentor could have any number of unfinished schemes left in motion. They need the PC to be their go-between with a network of mortal agents. But does the PC understand exactly what they’re becoming part of?

The Fallen. The Crucibles exist in the Dusk, a realm between life and death. But the Dusk isn’t empty; it’s inhabited by the Fallen Folk. It’s possible that one of the Fallen could appear in the PC’s Crucible and offer a bargain. This can mirror any of the ideas presented in the first part of this post. If you take the Vessel approach, you could represent this by adding an Affliction card to the player’s deck. Every time the Affliction card comes up, the Entity takes an action or takes over briefly. As described above, it could the that the PC actually gains new powers – that the Entity can do something useful or powerful when it acts – but it’s something that the PC can’t predict or control. Given that Phoenixes normally don’t HAVE to make bargains to return, if this is an inconvenience you’d need to balance it with an obvious benefit. This could be something that benefits the PC directly – a new trait or lesson, for example – or it could be story driven. If the PC will act as a host for the spirit, they will send their minions to protect the player’s family.

In Eberron, what sort of powers exist that could make these sorts of deals? 

Well, if the character is being raised by divine magic, the answer is easy – whatever force is raising them. If you’re being raised by a cleric of the Undying Court, your spirit might be called before the Court for judgment and negotiation. If you’re being raised by the power of the Silver Flame, a couatl might speak for the Flame… or perhaps Tira Miron. A manifestation of the Sovereign Host will depend on your view of the Sovereigns, but if you don’t want an actual encounter with a Sovereign, you could use an angel acting on behalf of a Sovereign. With the Blood of Vol, you might be dealing with the priest’s divine spark – which could be a separate consciousness from the mortal awareness of the priest. Essentially, the cleric’s raise dead spell invokes the divine power and requests that you be restored… but there’s nothing stopping that power from demanding a personal price.

Another option is The Keeper. Mythologically, the Keeper snatches souls on their way to Dolurrh. Most stories say that the Keeper hoards these stolen souls, but there are those – notably the Watchful Rest – who maintain that the Keeper takes these souls to preserve them from Dolurrh so they won’t fade and be lost… and so that they can be returned when they are needed. THIS interpretation of the Keeper would be exactly what you’re looking for – something that could choose to spare a soul and negotiate for its return. In MY Eberron, BOTH of these Keepers – the greedy hoarder and the noble preserver – would exist, but neither one is actually a Sovereign. Instead, both would be mighty inevitables, among the most powerful spirits of Dolurrh. The preserving Keeper could fill much the same role as the Raven Queen in 4E… while the hoarding Keeper is a darker and more selfish force. Beyond this, you can always assert that there are other entities with the power. There are certainly spirits of Irian and Mabar that can restore life, though they’d usually do this through the medium of undeath.

Anyhow, this ended up being longer than planned, so I’m going to stop here. If you’ve got ideas for life-or-death bargains, share them below!

Gameplay: Death and Resurrection

I’ve just started a Patreon to fund additional content for this website. Thanks to everyone who’s contributed so far! In days ahead I’ll be continuing to post Eberron Q&As, material for Phoenix: Dawn Command, and ideas that apply to any RPG… like this one. I’ll be polling patrons to help determine the subject matter of future articles. And thanks to John Wick and Gwendolyn Kestrel – our recent panel at DragonCon inspired this article. 

Whether you’re seeking your fortune in the depths of a dungeon or trying to save the world from a dire threat, many roleplaying games incorporate an inherent threat of death. Whether you run out of hit points or fail a saving throw, any adventure could be your last. As a gamemaster, this raises a host of questions.

  • How do you build suspense without resorting to death?
  • Should you fudge results to avoid trivial deaths?
  • What do you do if access to resurrection makes death itself trivial?
  • What is the impact of resurrection on a setting?
  • If a character permanently dies, what’s the best way to introduce a new character?

IS DEATH NECESSARY? 

One question that’s worth asking from the onset: Is death necessaryDo you actually need player characters to die in your campaign? Roleplaying games are a form of collaborative storytelling. We’re making the novel we’d like to read, or the movie we want to watch. Do you actually need to the threat of permanent death in the game? Removing death doesn’t remove the threat of severe consequences for failure. Even in a system that uses hit points, you could still have something else happen when a character reaches zero hit points. Consider a few alternatives.

  • Misfortune.  The character doesn’t die – but they lose something that’s important to them. A beloved NPC could be killed or crippled. An ally could lose faith in the group. A precious object could be lost. This could be directly tied to the incident and a way to explain survival; an NPC could leap in the way of the blow, or the paladin’s holy avenger might expend all its divine power to save the paladin’s life; it’s now powerless until he can find a way to restore its energy (thus driving a story). But as long as the players know it’s coming, you could also have the consequence be misfortune that has nothing to do with the fight and it could be a while before this loss is realized; the players simply need to know that their failure will have unfortunate consequences. Another option is to have an immediate consequence tied to the story. If the PCs are repelling a bandit attack on a village, every “death” could mean the loss of an important resource or villager. This is the principle behind the Buddy System in Phoenix: Dawn Command, where it’s up to the players to keep important NPCs alive.
  • Scars. A character may not die, but every critical failure has lasting physical or psychological consequences. A character could lose an eye, or have a hand replaced with a hook. A character could come back with aggressive tendencies, translating to a bonus to Intimidation and a penalty to Diplomacy. Someone nearly killed by undead could find that they start seeing ghosts others cannot see – spirits that trouble them or beg for help. Ideally these scars should be interesting and potentially create new challenges for a character, but they shouldn’t flat-out make the character mechanically worse. If a character simply loses a point of strength every time they “die”, it means that they’ll never be as effective as a pristine character, and for a player who’s concerned about mechanics that can be worse than death. So even with something like loss of a hand, I’d primarily make it interesting – the fighter’s found a way to effectively use a shield (or even a two-handed weapon) with his hook with no penalty, and while I might give him a penalty on an action absolutely requiring two hands, I’ll also give him a superior unarmed attack with his hook. And two words to remember: magic hook. Ultimately, this is the Phoenix approach: death changes a character, but it doesn’t necessarily hurt them.
  • Group Fate. When a character “dies,” they are out of the scene. If at least some people in the group survive the scene, everyone can recover. If the entire group is defeated there will be consequences. Will they be robbed? Imprisoned? Held for ransom? This could potentially just be the bridge to the next adventure; perhaps they’re taken to the villains’ lair and actually end up closer to their goal, though they’ll have to start by breaking out of prison. Or perhaps – if the players are up for a change – this is a chance to change the direction of a campaign.

The point to me is that these sorts of effects can make defeat feel interesting – MORE interesting than death and resurrection. In one of my favorite D&D campaigns, my party was wiped out by vampires. The DM ultimately decided that a wandering cleric found us and resurrected us, and essentially erased the incident from the record. I hated this, because there was no story; we had this brutal fight, we lost, and then nothing happened. I argued that we should have our characters return as vampire spawn, forced to serve the Emerald Claw until we could find a way to break the curse. It would have COMPLETELY changed the arc of the campaign, to be sure. But it would make our defeat part of the story and make it interesting – giving us a new goal. And when we finally DID break the curse and find a way to return to true life, it would feel like an epic victory.

Generally speaking, even if I’m using another consequence for death, I will generally keep it that a character falls unconscious when “dead” – it may not be permanent, but they are out of the scene. However, even that could depend on the scene. Taking the idea of the village attack where “death” means an important element of the village is lost, I might say from the outset that any time a player drops to zero hit points something major is lost to the attack… and that the player will immediately regain 10 hit points. This is not a scene where the players can die unless the entire village is wiped out first; the question is how much of the village will be left when the battle is done. But it’s important that the characters understand these consequences from the start of the battle; you can’t build suspense if the players don’t know the consequences.

All of this comes back to that question should I fudge the dice to avoid a player dying a lame death? If death is truly the end of the story, it IS lame to lose your character to a random crappy saving throw or a wandering monster that scored a critical hit. But if you don’t have death in the game, and players know that, you don’t HAVE to avoid that death – you can just scale the consequences of the “death” to fit the circumstances. If it truly is a trivial thing, then have a trivial scar or minor misfortune as the consequence – the character literally has a minor scar to remember it by, and they’re back on their feet. And in my experience, scars and misfortune can actually generate more suspense than simple death. Character death is binary. It’s boring. You’re dead or you’re not. But the potential for loss or a lingering scar – you never know what you might be about to lose when you drop to zero HP, and that’s much more disturbing.

SOMETHING TO LOSE

The critical thing about the idea of misfortune or scars is that the character needs to have something to lose. They need to care about SOMETHING beyond themselves – something that can be threatened by misfortune. If your campaign is based in a single location, it could be about the place: a favorite bar, a beloved NPC. It could be something useful you have given to them, whether it’s a useful object or a powerful ally or patron. It could be something the player has created themselves: family, a loved one, a reputation that’s important to them. Following the principle that this isn’t about punishment but rather about driving an interesting story, misfortune that results in loss of character ability could be temporary. Take the earlier example of the paladin’s holy avenger expending its energy to save him; this isn’t simply punishment, it’s now the drive for a new branch of the story.

In Phoenix: Dawn Command this is actually part of character creation. In making your character you need to answer a number of questions. As a Phoenix, you’re someone who died and returned to life. What gave you the strength to fight your way back from the darkness? Who are you fighting for? What do you still care about? And what are you afraid of? All of these things are hooks that give me as the gamemaster things that I can threaten to generate suspense. But you can ask these sorts of questions in any campaign.

Now, sometimes players will have a negative reaction to this: I’m not giving you something you can use against me! The critical thing to establish here is that it’s not about using things against them. As a GM you and the players aren’t enemies; you’re partners. You’re all making a story together, and you’re asking them if I want to generate suspense, what can I threaten? You’re giving them a chance to shape the story – to decide what’s important to their character and what they’d fight to protect. I don’t want to read a story about a set of numbers; I want to read a story about a character who has ties to the world, who cares about something and who could lose something.

This ties to a second important point: failure can make a compelling story. Take Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His defeat within the first ten minutes of the film creates tension that builds to the final resolution. Inigo Montaya’s story in The Princess Bride begins with defeat and is driven by his quest to avenge that loss. This is why I wanted to become a vampire spawn in the example I gave above – because embracing that defeat and following the story it created would be more interesting than simply being resurrected and continuing as though nothing happened.

Which brings us to the next topic…

WHAT ABOUT RESURRECTION?

In many D&D settings, resurrection is a reliable service available to anyone who can pay a price. This also becomes the case once the party has a caster who can perform the ritual. I hate resurrection without consequence. I’d rather have a character not die at all than have them just casually return to life with no story attached to it. The original Eberron Campaign Setting includes the Altar of Resurrection, a focus item that lets a Jorasco heir raise the dead (and it’s specifically resurrection, not just the more limited raise dead). Confession time: I hate that altar. I didn’t create it, and in many subsequent sourcebooks (Sharn, Stormreach) I pushed explanations for why it wasn’t a reliable service. Essentially, resurrection is a useful tool for player characters if you’re running a system where death can easily and casually happen. But not only is it a boring way to resolve a loss, it’s something that should have a tremendous impact on a society – and Eberron as it stands doesn’t account for that impact. If Jorasco can reliably resurrect, then they hold the keys to life and death. They’d presumably offer insurance policies, where nobles and the wealthy (criminal masterminds, members of the Aurum) can be assured of resurrection should they unexpectedly die. And someone else holds those keys as well… because resurrection, even via altar, specifically requires diamonds. So whichever nation is sitting on the largest diamond reserves suddenly has a new source of power and influence. Beyond this, casual resurrection kills a lot of stories. Murder mysteries aren’t as compelling if it’s just a matter of shelling out 10K GP to get the victim back on their feet. It’s hard to explain the death of a noble by any means other than old age. The Last War began when King Jarot was assassinated – so, why wasn’t he resurrected?

There’s lots of ways to explain this without removing resurrection.

  • The Keeper’s Fang weapon quality specifically exists as a way to counter resurrection. Jarot could have been killed with a Keeper’s Fang.
  • A victim has to WANT to be resurrected. Perhaps the paranoid Jarot didn’t want to come back.
  • Dolurrh itself quickly wipes out memories. Once the victim can’t remember who they were, it’s easy to say they don’t want to come back. So you have a limited window for resurrection.

But even with all that, I don’t like casual, reliable resurrection. I don’t feel a need to remove the spell from the game, but I always establish that resurrection only works if the character has an unfulfilled destiny. Essentially, resurrection generally only works for player characters or recurring villains. In the sourcebooks I mentioned, I emphasized that most religions don’t encourage use of the spell: the Sovereigns have called you to their bosom or your soul is joining the Flame, and that’s what’s supposed to happen. I also presented the idea that Jorasco resurrection can have unexpected consequences – Marut inevitables trashing the Jorasco enclave, ghosts coming back with (or instead of) the intended spirit – and that Jorasco adepts will perform an augury ahead of time to determine if resurrection is in fact possible. So I didn’t REMOVE it from Eberron – but I’ve suggested a lot of ways to limit it. With that said…

Making Resurrection More Interesting

If you’re dead-set (get it?) on using death and resurrection, one option is to make it interesting. Resurrection is never free – and I’m not just talking about a pile of diamonds. Consider the following:

  • In the first stages of the afterlife, the spirit of the slain character meets with something. If your setting has incarnate gods, this could be a god. If not, it could be a powerful outsider – an Inevitable, perhaps, or a fiend or celestial. This entity offers the opportunity to return… for a price. This could be a task the character has to fulfil, and if you want to make it interesting set a time limit; they have one month to kill (insert challenging foe here) or they will die again, and this time it’s personal. Or it could be a price – a misfortune as described above, but the player gets to choose if that cost is worth their life. If you want to keep it interesting, make it a price someone else will pay. The fiend will return the player to life, but every month someone from their home town will die in their place. Can the player find a way to break this deal without dying for good?
  • There’s no bargaining, but as the player returns to life they have a clear vision of the future – of them performing a difficult task (killing the Dark Lord!) or doing something they don’t want to do (killing a beloved NPC!). This feels incredibly real. Is it just a prediction, or is this the price of the character’s resurrection? If they turn from this path, will they die again?

A critical point here: you could use either of these options with or without a resurrection spell. Taking the first option, you can say that a cleric casting a resurrection spell doesn’t AUTOMATICALLY return the character to life; rather it’s the casting of that spell that has allowed the bargain to occur. If the player turns down the bargain, the spell will simply fail. Alternately, you can say that this bargain is offered independently of any magic, which is a good option for low-level characters. Everyone THINKS the character is dead… and then suddenly they pop back up, with a new mission!

You can also find a path between the two, and the best example of this is Thoros of Myr and Beric Dondarion in Game of Thrones. When Beric dies, Thoros can resurrect him. But generally speaking, Thoros doesn’t have the powers of a high-level priest; nor is it implied that he can resurrect just anyone. But he can resurrect Beric, which seems to be evidence that Beric has some sort of destiny to fulfill. You can easily say that the party’s first-level cleric discovers that he can resurrect the party fighter. But again, the question now becomes why he can resurrect the fighter. Will this work forever? Can he resurrect other members of the party? Or is it only temporary until the fighter achieves some specific goal, and then he’ll die once and for all? And is there another price being paid – every time the cleric performs a resurrection, is someone innocent dying to take their place? There’s a lot of ways to make this a compelling part of your story, and not just consequence-free failure.

INTRODUCING NEW CHARACTERS

You don’t want to try any of this crazy stuff. You want old-fashioned, classic death. And you’ve had a PC die. How do you bring a new character in without it feeling utterly bizarre that the group just gels around this stranger? Here’s a few quick thoughts.

  • Try to build a few NPCs into the story that can easily become temporary PCs. If the players are all hobbits and Frodo dies on the way to Weathertop, that player can immediately assume the role of Strider – a capable NPC who’s already on the scene. This gives you and the player time to come up with a new character and a good story… and that character can be introduced at the next logical point, such as when they reach Rivendell and he’s assigned to help them destroy the Ring.
  • Is the character supposed to be an old friend? Take a break and run a one-shot in the past. Drop all the PCs back to 1st level and run a session during their old war days when they held the game with their old buddy Sir Character-About-To-Be-Introduced. This doesn’t even have to involve all the current PCs; you could say that the cleric used to be friends with this incoming paladin, and run a short session where the other three players take on the roles of OTHER characters in that story… which means that THEY can die without consequence, but also that if they survive, they could show up in the present day as important NPCs, whether as allies or traitors.

WHAT ABOUT PHOENIX: DAWN COMMAND?

I’ve recently released a new fantasy RPG called Phoenix: Dawn Command – and in Phoenix, death is how your character grows stronger. Part of the point was to marry one of the worst things that can happen in an RPG (death) with one of the best things (leveling up). How’s that work with everything I’ve said about casual resurrection?

  • In Phoenix, resurrection isn’t casual. You don’t come back right away and you don’t come back where you died. A great example of how this works is Gandalf in the Mines of Moria. He sacrifices himself to stop a threat that would otherwise have destroyed his entire party. But he’s out for the rest of the adventure. He doesn’t come back for a few chapters – and when he does return, he’s stronger.
  • A point here is that Phoenix is typically driven by high stakes and time pressure. Bedfordshire is dealing with a zombie outbreak. If you can contain the outbreak within two hours, it doesn’t matter how many of you die in the process. But if you fail – either due to a TPK or simply a failure of containment – within two hours it will have spread too far to be contained, and whether you lived or died, you’ll have to deal with the fallout. Bedfordshire is lost, and aside from the innocent deaths, it was the primary source of grain in the region – now we’re going to start to see famines.
  • Beyond this, each time you die we look at the nature of that death and what your character learns from it – and that is what determines the powers you gain in your next life, essentially the class you level up in. So as I suggested with scars, your character abilities directly relate to your deaths – you don’t need to fear death, but you need to make sure that you die in a way you can live with. Each death concretely builds your story.
  • Finally, you can only come back seven times… and there’s no way around that final death. Which means that players can be reckless initially, but eventually they have to start being more conservative. And I won’t pull punches to avoid that final death, because even that is part of the story. Once their character truly dies, it’s time to make a new Phoenix just starting off on their first life… and because of the nature of Phoenix, it’s possible for that first-life Phoenix to adventure with others on their last lives and still have something to contribute (even if that’s the ability to die!).

All of this also comes back to the fact that in Phoenix, players have more narrative control then in many other systems. Phoenix uses cards instead of dice, so a player knows what they are capable of at any time. They also have a pool of energy they can burn to push beyond their limits – but when those sparks run out, they die. Nine times out of ten, a Phoenix doesn’t die because of some random chance; they die because they’re making a choice. It’s not that you failed a saving throw, it’s that you threw yourself on a bomb or used every last spark to get the strength you need to bring down the villain. In Phoenix deaths are often one of the most awesome and triumphant moments of a session, not a disappointment.

That’s all I have for now, but post your thoughts on death and resurrection and what you’ve done in your games!

Dragonmarks: The Mourning and the Dread

Last Friday I wrote about Manifestations of the Dread. That article focuses on my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command, but Eberron players and DMs may find another use for this material, because the effects of the Dread aren’t entirely dissimilar to one of the defining elements of Eberron: The Mourning.

The world of Phoenix: Dawn Command is dealing with an unfolding supernatural threat. The Dread can strike anywhere in the known world, and it takes many forms. The dead rise to prey on the living. The laws of nature are broken. Communities fall prey to mass hysteria, or to malevolent spirits banished long ago that have now returned. Essentially, the entire world of Phoenix is slowly becoming the Mournland… but it’s happening piece by piece.

By contrast, the Mourning happened suddenly and is contained. It consumed the nation of Cyre… and then stopped expanding. Fear of the Mourning is what brought about the end of the Last War. No one knows what caused the Mourning, and until there is an answer, people are afraid to keep fighting… because one possibility is that it was the extensive use of war magic that triggered the Mourning, and that continued conflict could cause it to expand.

Where the Dread is scattered, the effects of the Mourning are contained in a particular region, the Mournland. This area is enclosed by mist: a wall of fog that rises over a hundred feet in height and that covers the entire region from above, preventing direct sunlight and any form of observation. Combined with the considerable danger involved in exploring the Mournland, the result is that very little is known about the region. Everyone knows that it has been transformed, and that living creatures caught in the Mourning were either killed or transformed. Stories say that wounds don’t heal in the Mournland, that dead bodies don’t decompose and that there are battlefields where blood still seeps from the wounds of the fallen. War spells have taken on a life of their own, and massive crabs cover their shells with corpses.

From a design perspective, the Mourning serves a number of purposes. It provides a central mystery. It’s a foundation for the cold war. But beyond that, it takes a region that’s been civilized for centuries and turns it into the world’s biggest dungeon. On some level it’s hard to justify wild monsters and mysteries in Galifar; why weren’t they dealt with by the heroes of previous ages? But the Mourning is a NEW problem. And aside from the things that can be found in its borders, the things that leave the Mournland — both living and otherwise — can be a source of adventure.

With this in mind, my vision of the Mournland was always that it is unpredictable. No one rule should apply to the entire thing. The idea that corpses don’t decay and that wounds won’t heal is an iconic image and may be true in much of the Mournland. But for every village filled with perfectly preserved corpses, you might find another where everything organic has been disintegrated or turned to glass, or a village where animated skeletons carry out a pantomime of their former lives. Some of these things are dangerous, like the shard storm Thorn encounters in the ruins of Ascalin in The Fading Dream. But others may just be strange, and this is where last Friday’s article comes into play. All the things I’ve suggested as manifestations of the Dread could also be symptoms of the Mourning.

For a DM, the value of this variety is the ability to spawn a multitude of unique adventures. The Mournland is the size of an entire nation, filled with cities, villages, fortresses, forgeholds and more… and each one the adventurers visit may present new threats. And rather than having to justify why an ancient ruin is full of treasure, the Mournland holds treasures because until four years ago, it was a prosperous nation. Cyre was the seat of House Cannith, and if you want to find powerful magic, where better to look than a Cannith forgehold? And aside from purely material wealth, the Mournland holds religious relics, sentimental keepsakes, the secret strategic plans of Cyre’s military, and anything else once of value… any of which could be reason for an adventure.

As a player, the Mourning can provide you with a wealth of story hooks. If you’re Cyran, how did you survive the Mourning? Did you just barely escape, or were you away when it struck? Who did you lose to the Mourning, and have you ever wondered if they might still be alive beyond the mists? Is there anything you lost that you’d like to regain, whether of actual value or purely sentimental? Did you lose your extended family, or are they now refugees – and if the latter, where are they? Beyond this, most people lost in the Mourning were killed or lost… but perhaps you were affected by it but survived. Here’s just a few ways you could be affected.

  • Cosmetic Transformation. Your skin or hair might have an unusual color or texture. Perhaps you lost an eye, and your remaining eye glows when you are angry. Maybe your hair is alive; you can’t control it, but is slowly moves of its own accord. These things don’t have any mechanical effect, but can add color to a character. And because they’re so rare and unique, they don’t carry the immediate stigma of an aberrant mark; they’re just strange. 
  • Exotic Race. In one 4E campaign I played a character who was mechanically a deva. But I said he was a normal Cyran peasant who’d been caught in the Mourning, and who was now channeling hundreds of ghosts of others who’d died in the Mourning. The deva is defined by having memories of a thousand lives; in my case, these were the memories of other people, all being channeled through me. You could take a similar approach to any unusual race that you don’t want to fit into the world on a large scale. Tabaxi could have an entire civilization in Xen’drik… or, you might say that Tabaxi are shifters who were caught in the Mourning and transformed, and there’s only around a dozen of you in Khorvaire.
  • Mechanical Powers. My deva character was technically an avenger, but I explained his powers as coming from the spirits he channeled as opposed to divine devotion. City of Stormreach presents the Storm Hammers, a gang made up of Mourning survivors who have manifested unnatural abilities; mechanically they’re sorcerers, warlocks, and barbarians, but the concept is that these are dark gifts of the Mourning as opposed to learned skills. You could similarly explain your class abilities as being tied to the Mourning. Or for a less extreme effect, 5E includes the Magical Initiate feat, which grants use of two cantrips and one spell; this is certainly sufficient to reflect a strange gift of the Mourning. If you go this route, the next question is how this manifests. My deva’s powers were the work of the spirits for which he served as an anchor. The Storm Hammers draw their powers from a dark source, possibly the power of the Mourning itself — and this connection may be driving them mad. Perhaps you were in a Cannith forgehold when the Mourning struck and a bundle of wands fused with your left arm; you channel your magic through the wand-tips protruding from your stump. Or you could have been fused with a demon, an agent of the Lords of Dust that happened to be in the area; as your character level increases you can access to more of the fiend’s powers, but are you also becoming a demon?

SO, CAN YOU TELL US WHAT CAUSED THE MOURNING? 

If I don’t address this, I’m sure someone will ask, so let’s get it out of the way now. I can tell you some things that could have caused the Mourning…

  • The Ashbound and the Children of Winter are on the right track: The Mourning was the natural consequence of the extensive use of magic during the Last War. Ending the war has temporarily stopped it, but the Children of Winter believe that the damage cannot be healed: the only way the world can be restored is to go through the winter to reach the spring that lies beyond. If they are correct, the Mourning will eventually spread until it covers the world. But perhaps they’re mistaken, and there’s a way the damage can be undone… but it would still mean that the people of Khorvaire would have to be careful about overuse of magic in the future.
  • House Cannith was developing a weapon. Something went disastrously wrong. Questions that remain: could this weapon be restored or duplicated? Do any of the current Cannith leaders know about this project? Presuming the forgehold developing it was in Cyre, what happens if the Lord of Blades or someone else discovers it?
  • One of the Overlords of the First Age was bound beneath Cyre. Due to the machinations of the Lords of Dust, the fiend was partially released. The Mourning is a reflection of its influence. At the moment it is building its strength; there is one more step that is required to fully release it. If that occurs, its power – and the Mournland – would spread.
  • The Lord of Blades was behind the Mourning, an attack targeted against the heart of House Cannith. This may have used an epic artifact or eldritch machine — which could potentially still be tied to an Overlord or to the Daelkyr. Generating the Mourning drained the weapon of power… but the Lord of Blades is working to restore its power.
  • The Mourning was actually caused by dragons of the Chamber, as part of a necessary chain of events to prevent the release of an Overlord — for sake of argument, let’s say Tiamat. The Mourning can be reversed, but reversing it will unleash Tiamat, who will corrupt Argonnessen, and set into motion an epic conflict with the dragons.
  • In The Fading Dream, the Eladrin present a theory of what caused the Mourning and how it could be reversed. I won’t spoil it here, but hey, it’s possible.

That’s just off the top of my head. OK, you may say, these things could have caused the Mourning… but what didI don’t know. In MY campaigns I’ve never felt a need to solve the mystery. What I like about the Mourning is the effect it has on the world: driving the cold war between the nations, holding the Last War at bay, creating a giant dungeon in the middle of things. If the mystery of the Mourning is solved, one way or another, it paves the way for the Last War to start anew. That’s not a story I’ve wanted to explore… so I’ve left in unsolved. Which means that I’ve never needed to choose between the host of possibilities. If I decided to tell that story, I’d pick one. But as it stands, I’m happy leaving it as an enigma.

That’s all I have time for, but let me know if you have questions about the Mourning and the Mournland… and share your favorite answers for the Mourning or manifestations of the Mournland!

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!

Phoenix Friday: New Website!

It’s Phoenix Friday, and to celebrate we’re unveiling our new website for Phoenix: Dawn Command. In addition to providing a portal to purchase the game, this will be our nexus for information and support, including downloads and videos. Please take a look and share it with anyone who might be interested!

This is a major milestone for me and for Twogether Studios. We’re a small company and Phoenix is our first product, but we’ve got big plans for what we want to do for Phoenix. I’m currently working on a new mission arc, and we’ve got a number of things in development — including an easy solution for groups that want to play with five or six players. With that said, the more people who know about Phoenix, the more we’ll be able to do for it. If you’ve played it and enjoy it, please help spread the word. If you haven’t played it and you have questions, ask in the comments below. And if you’re planning to run Phoenix at a convention, let me know so Twogether Studios can send you some swag!

Thanks to everyone who’s joined me on the journey to this point. Join me next Friday as I delve deeper into the mystery of the Dread!