Latest News and Eberron Q&A!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the Keeper could create cardinal a paladin orc?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Phoenix Means To Me

Phoenix TrioAs I write this, there’s seventeen hours left in my first Kickstarter campaign. We’re closing in on a thousand backers, which is an amazing experience. I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on why I’m so passionate about this project and why I’m so grateful to everyone who’s put their trust in me.

A World Without Limits

I’ve created a lot of worlds you’ve never seen. Collectively I’ve spent a decade developing worlds for MMORPGs that have never seen the light of day. As I don’t own any of those ideas, they’ve slipped into the IP tar pits never to be seen again. Eberron was my first opportunity to share a world on a wide scale, and it’s been an amazing, life-changing experience. I hope there’s a future for Eberron, but it’s out of my hands. I’ve supported it as far as I can on forums and on my site, but there’s many things I’d like to do that I can’t.

Phoenix is a chance to share a world without those limits – a world that can be explored as deeply as time and interest allows. I’ve probably done it a disservice by focusing on the unique mechanics of the game – card-driven resolution and advancement through resurrection – as opposed to the world itself. Phoenix has a simple premise that can be summed up in a sentence, but the world itself is filled with layers and mysteries. It’s a world without easy answers, with room for both intrigue and action, and I’d love to develop it further in both games and fiction. And like Eberron, it’s a world I want to share. I’ll give you my answers to its mysteries, but I want you to be free to come up with your own – to take any inspiration it offers and run with it.

A Different Sort Of Story

You could separate the setting and system of Phoenix if you wanted. With some work, you could translate it to D&D or use the Phoenix system in Eberron. However, the system excels at telling a certain sort of story – and the setting is built around those stories. It’s a setting where the stakes are high, the odds aren’t in your favor, and where your missions are more important than your lives. I’ve run over ninety sessions of Phoenix over the last few years, and I’ve killed a lot of characters – but I’m amazed how often those deaths feel like triumphs instead of failures. My co-designer Dan Garrison wrote a piece about this, using examples from actual play sessions.

I could write pages and pages, but the key is that I love both the world and system of Phoenix: Dawn Command. Thank you to all of you who have made this possible, and who are taking a chance and exploring this new world with me.

This is going to be my last blog post before the campaign is over, so for anyone who’s just learning about it for the first time, here’s a few things that might be useful:

  • Rich Malena has made a series of short videos that walk through the mechanics of Phoenix, including Character Creation, Skill Spreads and Combat.
  • The OneShot Podcast has a full play session where I’m running Phoenix for Will Hindmarch and the rest of the OneShot Crew. Here’s part one and part two.
  • You can find lots of posts on my website – and a series of design diaries from our artists at the Twogether Blog.

That’s it! If you have any questions please ask, otherwise I’ll see you on the other side.

 

Phoenix: Dread and Empire

Map-FinalUp to this point I’ve mainly talked about the story of Phoenix: Dawn Command at the highest level: The Empire is fighting the Dread (and losing). This is a good one sentence description of the concept. A group of nations is facing a terrifying supernatural threat. But it’s a statement that implies a clash of monolithic forces and paints a very simplistic view of the setting – and I want to dig a little deeper. Because both the Empire and the Dread are anything but monolithic or simple.

Over the last three years the people of the Empire have suffered a wave of attacks and supernatural terrors. They refer to this as The Dread. But really, “The Dread” means “Anything we don’t understand.” Part of the terror of the Dread is that there’s no logic to it – no obvious connection between its many manifestations.

  • The Bones are the skeletons of soldiers from past wars who have risen up to fight the living. They retain the skills of the former lives and fight with military discipline. In the south, a legion of Bones has been steadily advancing and slaughtering everything in its path… and no one has found a way to stop it. Smash the Bones and they just rise again.
  • The Chant can start anywhere. Someone begins chanting and trying to kill those around them, and this behavior spreads rapidly. That’s about all that’s known. How does it spread? Is it from physical contact or hearing the Chant? How does it get started?
  • The Fallen Folk are figures from Skavi folklore, mysterious and powerful beings who dwell in the Dusk and bargain with mortals. Some feed on greed or fear. Others can offer great power to a clever warlock. The first Phoenixes drove the Fallen from the world and forbade any dealings with them… and now the Fallen have returned.

These are just three manifestations of the Dread… and the only obvious thing they have in common is they’ve all appeared (or re-appeared) in the last few years. The Fallen don’t work with the Bones. Neither Fallen or Bones appear to have anything to do with the Chant… or the skinchangers… or the hauntings… and so on. As a Phoenix you will be fighting manifestations of the Dread, but the most important thing you can do in any mission is to understand the enemy. Stopping a particular outbreak of the Chant is a minor victory if you can’t understand why it’s happening in the first place or how to help mortals deal with the next outbreak. Likewise, we say that one of the major drives of the story in Phoenix is to solve the mystery of the Dread. But it’s not a mystery with a single answer; you won’t finish one adventure and know EVERYTHING. Instead, it’s a puzzle with many different pieces, one that could take multiple story arcs to completely unravel. The seven-mission adventure path that ships with the game deals with a particular subset of the Dread, and you can solve that particular puzzle… but you’ll still be a long, long way from a complete understanding of the Dread.

In a way, it’s a Lovecraftian scenario. This is a world where magic exists, and yet it is something that has been buried and forgotten. It is a dangerous force that often causes great harm to those who delve into its secrets. And now the stars are right and terrible things are happening across the world… and you need to investigate these threats and deal with them before your world is destroyed. It’s simply the case that those threats are actively in the process of destroying the world – and you’re an investigator with tremendous personal power and seven lives.

Next up: The Empire. This conjures an image of a tightly unified civilization with a monolithic culture. In fact, the name is quite deceptive. Centuries ago the nations of the Daylit World were divided. Each practiced different forms of magic. Many fought each other, or simply preyed on their own people. The first Phoenixes put a stop to this, using their power to systematically conquer and unite the disparate nations, and to end injustice and the use of magic. They called this the Pyrean Empire. But it didn’t last. Resentment grew and eventually many people rebelled against their immortal leaders. The civil war that followed was bloody, and in the end the Phoenixes abdicated to bring an end to the destruction. They wouldn’t rule the Empire; they would simply protect it from the sidelines. And so they did, for a time. But the new Empire no longer needed them, and they stopped returning from death. Their numbers dwindled and faded. Many of the changes they had instituted stayed in effect. Magic remained abolished. The peace between nations continued, by and large. The Empire was a loose alliance, but it lasted through two centuries of relative prosperity… until the Dread.

So we call it the Empire, and there is an Imperial Army, Imperial roads, and other unified services… But every province retains its distinct culture, and some cleave more tightly to Imperial customs than others. Meanwhile, as of a few years ago the Phoenixes had become legends. Now they are finally returning, but they are few in number and opinions are divided. Are they heroes of old and the only hope against the Dread? Or are they themselves harbingers of doom, would-be tyrants, or manifestations of the Dread itself? Your actions over the course of the campaign will determine the role that Phoenixes will play within the Empire. Will you try to re-establish the order imposed by your predecessors? Will you stop other Phoenixes if they follow this path?

The upshot of all of this is that there’s nothing simple about “The Empire fighting the Dread.” This is the conflict that will drive your initial missions… but it’s a setting with a great deal of depth and complexity, and there are many stories to be told. And just like Eberron, this is your world as well as mine. Dan and I are creating a foundation to work with, but it’s always up to you to decide what to keep and what to change… and quite often we’ll offer suggestions as to changes you can make. We want our setting to inspire stories, not to limit them.

We’ve got five more days left in the Kickstarter campaign and we still need your help to reach our stretch goals – especially the mark that will let us add 40 pages to the sourcebook! Take a look.

 

 

 

The World of Phoenix

Map-FinalThe Dread began three years ago with the rise of the bone legions in the south. Since then it has spread across the known world, a waking nightmare that takes hundreds of horrible forms. Ghosts howl in the night. Skinchangers lurk in the wilds. Fallen soldiers rise to slaughter the living. Entire cities fall to a Chant that turns all who hear it into mindless killers. We don’t know why this is happening. We don’t know how to stop it. All that we know with certainty is that we are fighting a war and we are losing. Over a third of the Empire has been lost to the Dread, and each day brings new horrors.

In this dark time we have one hope: Phoenixes are returning. Every citizen knows tales of the Phoenixes, champions who can face death and return stronger than before. In the centuries following our brutal civil war the Phoenixes have become legends… and now you are one of them. Whoever you were in your first life, you have overcome the challenges of the Crucible and returned to the daylit world with the power to face the forces of the Dread. Go forth. Complete your mission, discover what you can of the enemy, and don’t place too high a value on your own life. Die well and you’ll return stronger than before. Just make certain that you make each death and each life count.

We’ve got just over a week to go in the Phoenix: Dawn Command Kickstarter campaign. We’ve hit our initial funding goal, and now we’re working towards stretch goals… including story elements designed by Jason Morningstar, Ken HiteRobin D. Laws and more! If you want to see (or hear) more about how the game works, you can check out Richard Malena’s videos on Character Creation, Skill Spreads and Combat, or listen to a full session of play on the One Shot Podcast (part one and part two).

Phoenix: Dawn Command is more than just a game. It’s a new fantasy setting. Dan Garrison and I have been developing it for the last 18 months, and we’ll continue to explore it in years to come. The game includes a guide to the world of Phoenix which gives you all the information you need to develop stories of your own.

When I develop a world, one of the first questions I ask is what sort of stories the setting supports. What are the questions it asks and answers? What makes it interesting and different from other worlds? Eberron was designed to have a very different flavor than traditional high fantasy, and Phoenix is just as unique. It is a world facing a threat so dire that sacrificing your life to accomplish your mission feels justified… and a system that gives you greater control over your actions than generally comes from the roll of a die.

Magic exists in the world of Phoenix. But it’s not a tool that has been harnessed by civilization. Instead it is a powerful and dangerous force, still largely unknown and unmastered. Every culture has dabbled with magic in different ways, and these practices produced both wonders and terrors. Because of the danger, the first Phoenixes abolished these traditions when they conquered the Known World and established the Empire. The shamans of the Grimwald still revere the forces of nature, but it has been centuries since they’ve bound primal spirits to their warriors. While the Shadovar respect their dead, few among them have preserved the old paths of necromancy. Skavi warlocks are forbidden from bargaining with the Fallen Folk, though some still believe that their families are bound by ancient pacts. The power is still there, but the people of the present age know little about its potential… or its dangers. This means that normal people largely live in a world without magic. The fastest way to travel is still horse or boat. Long distance communication is very limited. This means that it’s very difficult for people to respond to the challenges posed by the Dread. When there’s an outbreak of the Chant in a village, but the time people in the next village over even hear about it, it’s too late to do anything. Even if speed wasn’t an issue, the Imperial army simply isn’t equipped to handle spirits of vengeance or skinchangers. Essentially, this is a civilization without magic that is now facing myriad mystical threats… and it doesn’t have the tools to deal with them. Some people are turning to the old ways in the hopes of finding effective weapons, but this often ends up creating more problems than it solves.

So magic exists in this world… but at the moment it is more threat than a positive tool. This ties to the fact that mystery is a big part of what drives the story of Phoenix. There is an underlying logic to magic… but the people of the Empire don’t understand it. There is an explanation for the Dread, something  that can explain why this is happening and how these diverse threats relate to one another… but you’ll only be able to piece it together by facing these dangers head-on. As of three years ago, Phoenixes were a thing of legend. Now you are a Phoenix and can face the forces of the Dread. But there is still much you don’t know about the Phoenixes themselves. As a Phoenix, you can respond swiftly to threats. You can be dropped into danger with enough time to face the challenge. But merely defeating a monster won’t solve your problems. Simply putting out a fire won’t help if you don’t understand why the fire began, or even what fire is.

This is part of what drives the story of Phoenix. It’s not simply about the action, about what sacrifices you’ll have to make to overcome the terrifying threats you face. It’s a question of whether you can unlock ancient mysteries in the process… whether you can learn the rules of magic and the secrets of the Dread.

Unlike the Mourning in Eberron, in Phoenix there are answers to these questions. The nature of magic and the origin of the Dread are critical parts of the setting. With that said, I am a firm believer in the idea that a setting should inspire stories rather than restrict them. The Marshal’s Guide provides an in-depth exploration of the world and its secrets… but it will also provide ideas and hooks for diverging from the core story and making the setting your own. We’ll provide you with everything you need to play with no effort at all, but we’ll also give you the tools you need to create your own stories and to take things in different directions.

One of the constant questions of world design is How much is too much? When you’re delving into history and geography, how deep should you go? Should you come up with a list of ruling families stretching back a thousand years? How many cities and countries should you create? My answer is always to look at the idea you’re working on and to see if you can think of three interesting stories that you could build from that element. Whether you’re creating fiction, an MMORPG or a pen-and-paper campaign for friends, can you think of any way that a particular idea could be important to your final audience? Could there ever be a reason a player/reader will need to know about that list of ruling families – a mystery hidden in the past or a bitter vendetta – or are you just filling a page with details no one will ever need? Looking to cities and villages, I don’t want to put every single settlement on a map, because I always want there to be space for a gamemaster to add something new if their story demands it. I want to make sure I provide enough concrete points to for a GM to work with… but I also like to leave space for the unexpected. Likewise, adding in dozens of countries or cities often means quantity at the expense of depth. Phoenix is a small and focused world, a play where we explore a few regions in depth instead of spreading ourselves thin. With that said, people often assume that “The Empire” is a bland, monolithic force. In truth, the Empire is largely just an idea. Long ago the first Phoenixes conquered the nations of the Known World and established the Empire. But in practice Phoenix rule didn’t last long before civil war drove the Phoenixes from power and into the realm of legend. The Empire has long been a loose alliance at best, and each province is culturally unique. As a Phoenix, one of the long-term questions you need to face is the role Phoenixes should play in the world… whether you will follow in the footsteps of your ancient predecessors and seek to rebuild the Empire of old, or whether you want the new generation of Phoenixes to walk a different path.

I could fill a book with more information about the world of Phoenix… and I plan to! For now, the critical things to know are that magic is a powerful force in the world, but one that’s largely a mystery to the people of the present day; that the world is facing an existential threat whose origins and nature are largely a mystery; and that you are a mystically empowered champion, but there’s still much you don’t know about your own potential and the origin of your power, let alone the nature of the Dread. Phoenix is a game of action where you will be thrown in harm’s way to protect the innocent. But it is also a game of discovery… and unlocking the secrets of the world is part of the fun.

Apocrypha, Phoenix and Dreams

EPSON MFP image

It was just a dream. Yet you can still smell the blood of the night watchman. You can still hear the raven’s whispers and feel the silver blade catching on bone. It was just a dream, but you knew he had to die and you had to kill him. It was just a dream. So why are your bedsheets covered in blood?

– Artwork from Rich Ellis & Grace Allison for Phoenix: Dawn Command; text from the Apocrypha Adventure Card Game.

I’ve always been fascinated by dreams and the idea of dreams intersecting with reality. The first piece of RPG work I had published was “Dreaming on the Verge of Strife” in Forgotten Lives by Atlas Games (a sourcebook for the RPG Over The Edge). This piece introduced a conspiracy of people who had no dreams of their own, instead inhabiting the dreams of others when they slept and engaging in subliminal manipulation… essentially Inception, though predating it by a decade. Following that I developed an MMORPG called VR1 Crossroads, a game about warring conspiracies fighting over an intersection between dream and reality. I first explored this idea in the d20 system with my section on Oneiromancy in Occult Lore. When I created Eberron I presented the plane of Dal Quor as the place where mortal spirits go when they dream… along with the Dreaming Dark and the Quori, the malevolent native spirits of that plane.

VR1 Crossroads was cancelled in beta due to Dilbertesque office politics. Eberron is currently in limbo, though I hope this is only temporary. And so I’ve started my own company Twogether Studios and I’m finally creating a game and world entirely of my own… Phoenix: Dawn Command. The connection between dreams and reality isn’t so clear-cut in Phoenix as in those other games, and yet the influence is still there. Phoenix is set in a world where nightmares are becoming real, and it is up to you to learn why this is happening and how it can be stopped. And of course Phoenix itself is a dream of mine – a new setting that I can support as fully as time and interest allow. As I write this, we’re very close to funding the project: I hope you’ll check it out.

But Phoenix isn’t the only card-driven game on Kickstarter I’m working on this month! I’m proud to say that I’m one of the guest writers on Apocrypha, in line to write the – surprise! – Book of the Dreamer memories. Here’s Mike Selinker’s overview of the Book…

The Book of the Dreamers introduces the Novem Nebuchadnezzar, whose sorcerers are unlocking their subconsciousnesses and loosing them on the world. What you see as nightmares, they see as weapons. When you are asleep, they mess with your brain; when you are awake, your brain messes with your reality. But it is Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams that are the most concerning. When he dreams of gold, the price of gold goes up. When he dreams of massive trees, forests tend to come down. So don’t sleep, and you’ve got a chance.

Mike Selinker is one of the most brilliant designers I’ve had a chance to work with, and Apocrypha is an epic project with an amazing team behind it… and I love any chance to explore the influence of dreams on a setting.

Apocrypha and Phoenix are very different products (something Mike and I discussed on the Side Project podcast). Phoenix is a story-driven RPG. It relies on a GM to create the foundation of a story and to fill in the empty spaces of the world – to control the challenges, describe the surroundings and play all the roles aside from those of the player characters. It uses cards in place of dice to determine whether a player can succeed at an action, and this provides players with a degree of narrative control over the story. By contrast, Apocrypha is a game where the cards shape the story and the world. You don’t need a GM, and you use dice to determine if your actions succeed or fail. Apocrypha is a game you could play by yourself, while Phoenix is driven by a story you create together. Beyond that, Apocrypha is set in the modern day in a disturbing reflection of the world we know… while Phoenix is a world of swords and sorcery, which we’ll continue to develop over time. While they are both games about supernatural conflict and both use cards, they are very different games.

I hope you’ll take a look at both Phoenix and Apocrypha – I’m excited to be working on both of them!

And if you act quickly, you can catch Mike and the Loneshark team on Reddit doing an IAMA interview (starting at 12:30 PST on 4/22/15)!

 

 

 

 

Creating A Phoenix: Shepherd

EPSON MFP imageThe Phoenix: Dawn Command kickstarter continues to move closer to our goal. A few new developments: The OneShot Podcast has posted the second half of the game I ran for the OneShot crew and Will Hindmarch. And if you haven’t already seen it, playtester Rich Malena put together a great video that explains the Skill system. Meanwhile, we’ll have a video of a game session up soon, and I’m continuing to profile the characters that appear in that session.

Phoenixes are divided into six schools. These are tied to the nature of your previous death and the lessons you learn from it. Your first death – the one that occurs before the game begins, when you first return as a Phoenix – provides you with a set of core abilities and skills. Over the course of a career you may die many different sorts of deaths and learn lessons from multiple schools, but those core abilities will always be the foundation of your character. Thus, when I say “Durant Phoenix” I mean a Phoenix who’s first death was Durant.

The heart of the Durant school is Survival. The Durant is a strong melee combatant who specializes in defense and shrugging off damage. While athletic and durable, the Durant is also trained in leadership and the arts of war; the Durant is the member of the wing best suited to commanding groups of mortal soldiers. Durant lessons focus on durability, defense of self and others, and enhanced leadership; other lessons and traits key off the Durant’s health, so a Durant is strongest when uninjured. Taken together, the Durant is one of the simpler schools to play and a good choice for a someone who’s not quite sure about Phoenix’s approach to character death. While outliving other characters can sometimes leave the Durant lagging behind other Phoenixes in pure power, some Durant lessons take advantage of this. The Durant Bond lesson allows your Durant to take the core powers of any member of your wing who dies and use them until your ally is reborn… so if you end up being the last one alive, you’ll have an arsenal of lessons to work with.

Today we’re looking at Shepherd, the Durant Phoenix. What I’m showing you here is a pre-generated character that I’m using in demo sessions; normally the questions posed below are entirely open-ended as opposed to being multiple choice. Shepherd is a fairly straightforward, heroic character – but you can certainly have a Durant with a darker outlook on life.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 3.08.42 PMShepherd’s story is a simple one. Ilona is where the Empire began, a fertile region with an ancient civilization. Shepherd began as, surprise, a shepherd and died defending her village. The traits she’s selected focus on courage, determination and the military training she’s gained in the Crucible. She’s a very team-oriented character; Commander and Absolute Conviction both allow her give allies a boost to their actions, and Seasoned Veteran lets her leap in front of an attack meant for one of her wingmates. Meanwhile, Valiant allows her to add her Health Levels to an attack, providing an incentive to avoid injury.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 3.08.50 PMShepherd organized a village militia and successfully beat back a threat, only to die due to the wounds she’d suffered. She is determined to uncover the mystery of the Dread and avenge those who have suffered, and she cares about the entire Empire. As such, this Shepherd will likely trumpet the virtues of the Empire and Dawn Command… whereas a Shepherd who only cared about her village could be more critical of the Empire and blame it for failing to defend her people from the Dread.

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 3.09.32 PMMany characters have deep fears that speak to their pasts or their deaths… but hey, some people just don’t like bugs. And that’s OK.

In upcoming posts I’ll look at the last member of this wing – the Devoted Phoenix Drake – and provide more information about the world of Phoenix.

Creating A Phoenix: Elegy

 

EPSON MFP imageI stared down the character sheet in front of me. There were no numbers, no dice rolls and modifiers. There were a list of traits, a name, a class… and questions. Weighty questions. – Playtester Morgan Hillsman

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a roleplaying game in which you play a champion who’s returned from death to try to save your world from a host of nightmares. When you play long-term, you build a character from the ground up, selecting your School and your Traits and then answering questions about this process. Rich Malena has created an excellent video that walks you through character creation, and you can see how that works here. However, when you’re playing your first session or playing a one-shot you may not have time to go through this process, or you may feel that you don’t know enough about the world to create your own story. To help with this, we provide a set of pregenerated characters so you can jump right into the game. However, one of the most important elements of Phoenix is having a personal stake in the conflict… so even with our pregens, we want you to answer a few questions. Let’s take a look at Elegy, our iconic Shrouded Phoenix.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.03.38 AMLessons and Traits are the things that differentiate Elegy from every other Shrouded Phoenix. Each Trait provides her with a special ability, and the Traits she possesses make her an excellent investigator and assassin. Sneaky enhances her natural stealth, Killer Instincts helps her find weaknesses in an opponent’s defenses, Brilliant Deduction reveals clues, while Seen This Before lets her assist an ally’s action. Psychometry is her unique Shrouded trait, and lets her burn her mystical energy to learn secrets about anything she touches. In addition to these powers, Traits can also enhance any action if you can explain how they are relevant to what you want to do. If the players are trying to understand a mysterious plague that’s overtaken a village, it would help if Elegy had Seen This Before. But assuming that she hasn’t actually seen it during gameplay, it’s up to Elegy’s player to come up with a story about WHERE she’s seen it before. Was it in her first life? Was it during her time in the Crucible, the limbo where she became a Phoenix? You don’t have to tell a story to use a Trait… but if you do, you can get more out of it.

Traits are cards that are in your Action deck, and you can only use them when you draw them. Lessons are ongoing abilities that you can use at any time. Elegy has a base set of Lessons that are common to every Shrouded Phoenix, but not every Shrouded knows Shadow Dancer. This makes Elegy an expert at stealth and lets her play more cards when she attacks from hiding… enhancing her talents as an assassin.

The paragraph that follows is a brief glimpse into the character’s past. When you make a character in Phoenix, the first question is always who you were in your first life – before you died and became a Phoenix. The Empire provides a number of cultures to choose from. Elegy is one of the Shadovar, a traveling people long distrusted because of their tradition of necromancy.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.04.10 AMWho were you in your first life? How did you die? Why did you come back? These are the critical questions of Phoenix. You don’t become a Phoenix by chance. If you live a remarkable life and die a meaningful death you have the chance to gain the powers of a Phoenix and return, but it is a long, harsh series of trial. What gives you the strength to make it through those tests? And why is it so important to come back? Returning as a Phoenix means you’ll spend the rest of your lives fighting the Dread; what made this bargain worthwhile for you?

Beyond this, how did you die is important because it is also a question of why are you a Shrouded Phoenix? Your choice of School is based on the reasons for your death and the lessons you take away from it. Shrouded Phoenixes die due to secrets, either in pursuit of secret knowledge of because a secret was revealed. Thus, Elegy’s options all deal with a quest for knowledge. As a Shrouded Phoenix, her investigative powers are dramatically increased.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.04.36 AMAs a Phoenix you are part of a Wing – a squad of up to six Phoenixes with a supernatural connection. Once you’re in a Wing you will serve together through all your lives. From the start, we want you to think about your connection to the other members of your Wing. Beyond that, we also want you to think about your fears. Your world is being consumed by horrors. No matter how brave you may be, no one is completely immune to fear. We want you to think about why you fight and who you care about… but we also want to know what gets under your skin.

The goal of these and all of the other questions is to help the GM develop details that will make a story feel personal to you. You aren’t just fighting the Dread because, hey, monsters; this is personal. This is a game where you may have to lay down your life to protect the things you care about, and we want to know from the start what some of those things are.

Screen Shot 2015-04-09 at 8.05.23 AMWhen you are reborn as a Phoenix, your appearance is essentially about your image of yourself. You might appear exactly as you did when you died, but any aspect of your appearance could change. Age, gender, race, build… anything could change. If you were an old man, do you still think of yourself that way or do you imagine yourself in your prime? If you were a child when you died, are you now the world’s scariest ten-year-old or do you re-imagine yourself in the image of one of your favorite legendary heroes? Aside from your overall appearance, there are two specific things you need to define: your Talon and your uniform.

Phoenix isn’t a game about acquiring loot, because sooner or later you will die and you can’t take it with you. But there are two things that do stay with you, things you carry through the Crucible and on into your next life. Your uniform is the basic clothing and tools you always have with you, the things you need to perform your basic skills; as a Shrouded, Elegy’s uniform can be assumed to include lockpicks and the equipment she uses to investigate. The question here calls on the player to think of something that particularly stands out… a defining element of her uniform.

Your Talon is a unique weapon – a tool you acquired in the Crucible and that you will carry throughout your lives. It is a relic that was used by all of the Phoenixes that have been tied to your particular Flame, but over the course of your lives it will evolve along with you. Thus, rather than finding a more powerful weapon, you will instead invest your Talon with greater power over the course of a campaign.

Phoenixes can use any equipment they can get their hands on. Between supernatural strength and speed a Phoenix can turn almost anything into a weapon, and part of combat is finding ways to use your environment to your advantage. But your uniform and Talon are always with you, and defining them is a way to help visualize your character.

At this point, you’ve got an Action Deck full of cards, a blend of your unique Traits and general actions such as “Strength 3.” You know how you died and what you’re fighting for, and you know the tools you use in that struggle. It’s time to get the story started.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is on Kickstarter right now. In future updates I’ll talk more about both the world and the mechanics of the game. If you have any questions, ask below!

 

 

 

 

Dragonmarks: Phoenix In Eberron?

I’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund my new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. I don’t have any news at this point about Eberron for 5E, though I still believe that progress is being made on that front. Which means it’s a good time to answer the following question…

How would you adapt Phoenix to work in the Eberron setting? I want to try Phoenix, but I can’t let go of the setting. Is there space in there for Phoenixes?

In Phoenix: Dawn Command you take on the roles of Phoenixes – champions imbued with supernatural power and the ability to return from death up to seven times. Death is actually how a character becomes more powerful; each time you die you learn lessons from your previous life.

The trick is that there’s more to Phoenix than playing a hero with seven lives. The game is set in a fantasy world facing a existential threat: a plague of supernatural horrors that mortal forces cannot overcome, and that have slowly but surely been consuming the known world. Part of creating a character in Phoenix is determining why you fight – what you’ve lost to the Dread, what you still care about – but Phoenix is a game about facing an enigmatic force that could destroy your world. This is part of what makes the seven lives structure work. In Phoenix, you regularly face unknown threats with terrible odds… and quite often it is more important to find a way to accomplish your mission than it is to survive. It is a setting that calls for heroic sacrifice.

So: it’s a trivial matter to insert Phoenixes into Eberron. The question is how you would provide that same sense of urgency that makes Phoenixes feel necessary – and where choosing to sacrifice your life to accomplish a task feels worthwhile.

One possibility would be to amp up the threat posed by the Mourning – to say that the Mourning is expanding, and that terrors are emerging to threaten people on its borders. Meanwhile, Phoenixes are something that first appear after the Day of Mourning; the first Phoenixes could be Cyrans who died in the Mourning, only to return with the power to face this threat. This would reflect the other aspect of Phoenix, which is that the threat is a mystery. As I mention in this post, it’s not just about whether you can fight the Dread, it’s whether you can unlock its secrets.

I could also see a high-tension game set around the Dragonmarked houses. Perhaps the Phoenixes are a creation of the Twelve – a joint project of Vadalis and Jorasco – who have escaped from their creators with knowledge of some sinister plan. Now they are fighting a shadow war against the houses while being constantly hounded by their other secret forces – sort of Dark Angel meets Shadowrun.

The main point of this: there’s more to Phoenix than the death mechanic. I love the Phoenix setting as well. It’s something I’ll reveal more about in the days ahead, and it’s something that is tied around the idea of Phoenixes. So you certainly COULD run Phoenix in Eberron, but I’d check out the new setting first!

And with that in mind, I’ll leave you with some of the threats you might encounter in Phoenix!

Challenge Trio

Phoenix Dawn Command: The Story

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

The Dread began three years ago with the rise of the bone legions in the south. Since then it has spread across the known world, a waking nightmare that takes hundreds of horrible forms. Ghosts howl in the night. Skinchangers lurk in the wilds. Fallen soldiers rise to slaughter the living. Entire cities fall to a Chant that turns all who hear it into mindless killers. We don’t know why this is happening. We don’t know how to stop it. All that we know with certainty is that we are fighting a war and we are losing. Over a third of the Empire has been lost to the Dread, and each day brings new horrors.

In this dark time we have one hope: Phoenixes are returning. Every citizen knows tales of the Phoenixes, champions who can face death and return stronger than before. In the centuries following our brutal civil war the Phoenixes have become legends… and now you are one of them. Whoever you were in your first life, you have overcome the challenges of the Crucible and returned to the daylit world with the power to face the forces of the Dread. Go forth. Complete your mission, discover what you can of the enemy, and don’t place too high a value on your own life. Die well and you’ll return stronger than before. Just make certain that you make each death – and each life – count.

This is the basic story behind Phoenix: Dawn Command. The original Phoenixes founded the Empire, and put an end to the dangerous magical practices of the First Age. Following the civil war, the Phoenixes relinquished control of the Empire, and over the generations their numbers dwindled and they became legends. For centuries the world was at peace… and then that came to a sudden and terrible end. No one understands the Dread. No one knows if the undead army advancing inexorably from the south has anything to do with the Chant that has destroyed cities or the vicious beasts ravaging the Fens. As a Phoenix you have the power to face threats no mortal could hope to defeat. But a single victory is worth little if you can’t discover why this is happening.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is driven by this core story. Every character has been touched by the Dread. In character creation you will determine how you died and what gave you the strength to return. What have you lost, and what do you have left to fight for? It’s not a story about searching for treasure; it’s about having seven lives to try and stop the horror that is destroying your world.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is on Kickstarter right now! To get the latest news, follow us at @Twogetherstudio on Twitter or go to Twogetherstudios.com to get on our mailing list. In my next post I’ll talk more about the card-driven mechanics of Phoenix; in previous posts I’ve explained What’s a Phoenix? and looked at the central element of Death and Rebirth.

Also: Dan Garrison and I were on the most recent episode of the Going Last Podcast talking about Phoenix. Take a listen!

 

 

Phoenix Dawn Command: Death and Rebirth

Untitled-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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