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 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!

Phoenix Friday: Origin Stories

Welcome to the second installment of Phoenix Friday! Every week in June I’m going to be posting material for my new RPG, Phoenix: Dawn Command. Phoenix is now available for sale, either from Amazon or directly from me through Twogetherstudios.com. If you have any questions about Phoenix, please post them in the comments below. If you’d like to see Phoenix in play, you can check out the livestream PDC game on the Saving Throw network — the final episode of Season Two will be streaming Saturday, Jun 10th at 12:30 PM Pacific Time! 

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a war story. Your world is under attack by a host of supernatural terrors. The dead prey upon the living. Ghosts howl with the wind. Skinchangers and stranger beasts lurk in the wilds. Entire cities have been lost to a chant that turns those who hear it into killers. As the game begins, we know we are at war with the Dread, but we know almost nothing about it. Why are these things happening? How are they related to one another? Can they be stopped, and if so how?

As a Phoenix, your character is someone who died and was given the chance to return to life with the power to fight the Dread. But that power didn’t come easily; you went through spiritual and physical trials to earn the right to return as a Phoenix. So when you are making a character, there are questions we want to answer.

  • Who were you in your first life? How did you die, and how long were you in the Crucible before you were reborn as a Phoenix?
  • What are you fighting for? What gave you the strength to overcome the trials of the Crucible?
  • What do you have left in the world? Do you have relatives or descendants? The town you grew up in, or failing that, a homeland? What do you care about?

In some RPGs, these things don’t really matter. But Phoenix is a game where you may be called upon to lay down your life — more than once — for the things you care about, and it’s going to be a much more satisfying experience if you actually care about something. With that said, this is a tall order to drop on a beginning player who knows nothing about the setting. What concepts are even possible? Where could they be from?

If you want a quick start, you can download a wing of pregenerated characters from the Twogether Studios website. Meanwhile, here’s a set of backgrounds that explore some of the more exotic possibilities of the setting. As a Phoenix, you might have been a child; a former Emperor; or even a very bad dog. These ideas are intended to be inspiration — showing what’s possible within the setting. If one of your players would like to play one of these characters, that’s great. But they could also take a piece of the idea and change it. Perhaps they like the Old Soldier, but they want to have fought alongside the Phoenixes in the Civil War instead of having opposed them. Or they like the basic concept of the Ship’s Cat, but want to be Bitter instead of Forceful. That’s great! The goal of these pieces is to give you an idea of what’s possible; what you do with them is entirely up to you. And if you don’t use any of these ideas, you might want to use them as members of the Rival Wing, as described on page 145 of Guidelines for the Newly Inducted Marshal

 

THE SHIP’S CAT: FORCEFUL

What’s over there?”

To be clear: you weren’t an actual cat. But you were born on a ship. Your people — the Wynderi — are the best sailors in the known world. Your family believe that the land first rose from the water, and that some day the waters will rise and reclaim the land. As a result, they sought to spend as much time on the open water as possible, and you almost never set foot on solid land. They called you the Ship’s Cat because you were small and endlessly curious. You were always climbing in the rigging and looking for new things on the horizon, and whenever you encountered another ship you’d sneak aboard and poke around. As it turned out, your parents’ conviction that it was safe on the water was misplaced. One day you were beset by fog. A new ship closed with you, and you naturally boarded and began to poke around. You were surprised by the rotting wood and torn sails, and too late you realized that it was a ghost ship crewed by corpses. The ghostly sailors pursued you, and you tried to get to the rigging and make it back to your ship, but you weren’t quite fast enough; the moldy ropes slipped through your fingers, and you’ve blocked out the details of what happened next. But instead of dying, you found yourself in the Crucible, with the promise of endless adventures ahead. Your optimism and your curiosity carried you through the trials, and now you’re back in the world and faster than ever. You’re on a grand adventure, and you’re going to stop the Dread and save the world.

You died as a child, and while you spent what seemed like years in the Crucible, you still maintain the essential optimism, curiosity and enthusiasm that you had in your first life. You spent your life on a boat, and now you’re getting to explore the entire world! However grim and horrifying a situation is, you’re always looking at the bright side of it. You’ve never seen a swamp before! Or a hungry ghost! What’s it going to do? Why? You want to help people — you’re a hero, and that’s exciting — but you also are just thrilled to be out in the world and on an amazing adventure.

  • You’ve blocked out exactly what happened when you died. You don’t actually remember if your family escaped or if they were killed by the ghost ship. Your life is full of new adventures and there’s a lot of distractions and things you have to deal with right now. Are you excited when you see Wynderi? Do you want to find out if your family are OK? Or are you intentionally trying to ignore the Wynderi to avoid thinking about your family?
  • Everything is new to you. You’ve never been in a big city or a forest. You’ve never fought a werewolf. It’s all extremely exciting. You generally look for the best in everything, as reflected by the Never Gives Up suggested Trait… but at the same time, you’re not an idiot and you’re not going to try to hug a zombie. Probably.
  • As a Forceful, your greatest strength is your speed and mobility. You hate to stand still, and you’re always looking for the next interesting thing. You want to be a hero, so try not to cause too much trouble for the rest of the wing with this — but what happens if you poke that thing over there?  

Suggested Traits: Crude But Effective, Small & Quick, Never Gives Up, Untouchable

 

ADVENTURING ARCHAEOLOGIST: SHROUDED

“That belongs in a museum!”

You’re one of the Shadovar. Your people were driven from their homeland centuries ago, before the first Phoenixes formed the Empire, and today they are nomads who travel from place to place. Superstitious people accused the Shadovar of being necromancers who traffic with the spirits of the dead, and there is some truth to this; there are skilled mediums among your people. But this is simply because you choose to honor the dead, because if you preserve the memory of those who have come before you, they never truly die. For you, this principle applies to the past as a whole. You’re intrigued by the heroes of the Empire — both the Phoenixes who founded it and the humans who took it from them. You’re equally fascinated by the cultures that existed before the Empire. And most of all, you’re fascinated by the Old Kingdoms — civilizations so old that we don’t even know if their people were even human. There are a only a handful of ruins and relics of Old Kingdoms still in existence, and they are often imbued with tremendous magical power. You believe it’s possible that the Imperial Flame itself — the force that empowers all Phoenixes — could be a relic of the Old Kingdoms. You love exploring these mysteries. And the Dread is the greatest mystery of all! It began three years ago… what caused it? How are the various manifestations of the Dread related? Is there a purpose to the Dread beyond simply destruction?

You died pursuing these questions, and you refused to remain dead while this mystery threatens to destroy all that you love. You were a great scholar in your first life, and you used your time in the Crucible to hone your skills even further. If you use the suggested Traits, Seen This Before and Brilliant Deduction may reflect your experiences in your first life, but it could also tie to your extensive training in the Crucible. You may not have actually seen this before, but you read an account of it in the endless library in your Crucible; and your brilliant deductions about the Dread may be tied to your extensive research between lives.

  • Your primary concern is unraveling the mystery of the Dread — and in so doing, saving the entire Empire. With that said, superstitious people have always blamed the Shadovar for trouble, and in the present day there are many who think the Shadovar are tied to the Dread. Do you want to help the Shadovar, if you can?
  • Is your family still alive? The Shadovar are traveling people, so even if they are alive you have no idea where they might be right now. But are they important to you? If so, which living family member is most important to you?
  • You are fascinated by history. What period of history intrigues you the most: the golden age of the Empire? The time of the first Phoenixes? The first known human civilizations — the time before the Shadovar were driven from their homeland? Or the mysterious Old Kingdoms, about which almost nothing is known?
  • You died pursuing secrets. What was it you were trying to discover? Were you killed by a manifestation of the Dread — undead soldiers, a terrible curse — or did you die in a more mundane way?
  • As a Phoenix you will be fighting to protect people from the manifestations of the Dread. But you want to always be looking for answers. You’re never content just to stop a threat; you want to know why it happened and how it relates to the Dread as a whole. And meanwhile, keep an eye out for other interesting connections to history!

Suggested Traits: Brilliant Deduction, Makes It Look Easy, Seen This Before, Superhuman Reflexes

 

OLD SOLDIER: DURANT

“I built this Empire, and I won’t let it fall.”

Two centuries ago, a civil war split the Empire. The first Phoenixes had formed the Empire by conquest and forced its people to join together. While that may have served a greater good, in time the people grew weary of being ruled by immortal overlords. Humanist forces challenged the Phoenixes, and after a long and bitter war the Phoenixes stood down, turning control of the Empire over to humanity. The first Emperor was Mikan Dolanti of the Dol Talu — your family. You were a general in the civil war, and your military expertise helped usher in the golden age of humanity. You clung to life for as long as you could, and after your death you lingered in the Crucible… until you eventually felt the suffering of your people. You fought your way through the trials and now you have returned as a Phoenix yourself. But you will never be a tyrant. In your first life you saved the Empire from a supernatural threat; as a Phoenix, you’ll do it again.

You’re from Ilona, and as far as you’re concerned it embodies all that is good in the Empire. It’s a place of fertile fields and green valleys. Its cities are havens for culture and education. Ilona is sustained by the noble houses of the Talu, and your house — the Dol Talu — is the noblest of all. Almost two hundred years have passed since your death, and while you care deeply about the Empire, the modern world may be strange to you. Consider the following…

  • What was your exact position in your family? You served as a general in the war, but did you hold a high place after the war? One possibility to consider: you could actually be Mikan Dolanti, the first mortal emperor. It would be up to you to decide whether you announced that or kept it hidden; as a Phoenix, everything about your appearance (even gender) can change upon rebirth, so it wouldn’t necessarily be obvious that you were the first emperor.
  • Are you an idealist who truly cares about the entire Empire? Or are you primarily concerned with protecting your family — which includes the current Emperor?
  • You’ve been dead for two hundred years. Setting aside the Dread: Are you happy with the state of the modern world? Are you thrilled with everything your descendants have accomplished, or are you a curmudgeon who feels that everything was better in your day?
  • You fought against the first Phoenixes after they became tyrants. You are now part of Dawn Command, but in addition to saving the Empire from the Dread, you’ll want to make sure that these new Phoenixes don’t abuse their power.
  • You were a great military leader in your life. If you use the suggested Traits, this is what Noble and Commander reflect; you can give bonuses to your allies by offering strategic guidance.

Suggested Traits: Noble, Commander, Seasoned Veteran, Superhuman Strength

 

WARLOCK: ELEMENTAL

“Heed my words, spirits of the Dusk, and let your flames consume my enemies!”

You were born in a crumbling farm on the barren plains of Skavia. Your family was poor and struggled to survive, though in the distance you could see the great bastion city filled with the rich and powerful. When you were young, a mysterious masked figure stepped out of the shadows and told you that it could change your family’s lot and give them wealth and comfort… but you would have to perform a service in the future, with no questions asked. You agreed, and the very next day a messenger arrived. Your mother, it turned out, was heir to a fortune; you moved to the Bastion city and lived there in comfort. As you grew older you learned about the Fallen Folk, the enigmatic spirits that lingered in the shadows of your homeland. In the past, warlocks gained great power by bargaining with the Fallen. But the first Phoenixes banished the Fallen Folk when they established the Empire. By all accounts, the Fallen were just a myth, and any interaction with them forbidden. Needless to say, you were fascinated. You studied the legends and learned the basics of Duskcraft. Most of the spells you found no longer worked, as the Fallen were banished and bound in Dusk, but the potential was intriguing.

When the Dread began, you were fascinated and concerned. Before you could delve too deeply, your masked benefactor returned. It told you that it was time for you to make good on your promise. You were to leap to your death from the top of a high tower. But the Fallen Prince promised that you would not die; you would have the chance to be reborn, imbued with great power. You could use that power to fight the Dread, and to save the world… but in the process, you must help the Fallen Folk return to the Daylit World. Most Fallen aren’t evil, or so your benefactor says; they wish to be free from their prison, and to help your people once again. Your patron promised to protect your family from the Dread if you honored your arrangement; and it pledged to destroy both you and your family should you refuse. It was your duty to die, and so you did.

As an Elemental Phoenix, your powers are tied to your studies of Duskcraft. You learned about the art of fireshaping in your mortal life, but it is only as a Phoenix that the flames began answering your call. Your astonishing luck reflects minor Fallen helping you when you are in need, and your Charming trait reflects the beguiling power of the Fallen. All this power is a great gift that can help you protect those in need. But will you honor your pledge? As you fight the Dread, will you also seek to restore the Fallen and bring them back to the Daylit World?

  • Your bargain with the Fallen gave you the power you need to try to save your world. But how do you feel about it? Are you reluctantly going along with this because it’s what you need to do to protect your family? Are you excited about the idea of bringing back the Fallen Folk because of the power they could give you… do you hope to save the Empire so that you can rule it? Or are you hoping to find a way to renege on the deal and banish the Fallen you’ve been bargaining with?
  • What do you know about your Fallen patron? What does it look like? Sound like? Is this reflected in your Elemental powers at all? Are the flames you conjure normal flames, or are they an unusual color? Are they flames at all, or are you actually conjuring lesser Fallen spirits that attack your foes and then vanish? Is your patron a spirit known in popular stories, or has it hidden its identity from you?
  • Your Fallen patron is protecting your family, and has promised to destroy them if you betray the Fallen. How big is your family? Who’s your favorite relative, and why?
  • Skavi warlocks traditionally wore half-masks covering their lower faces. Do you wear such a mask? If so, what’s the design?

Suggested Traits:  Astonishing Luck, Charming, Master Plan, Warlock

 

BAD DOG: BITTER

“I’m going to chew you up and spit you out.”

Once upon a time, you were a good dog. You lived in the swampy Fens with a big family and you loved them very much. Then one day bad things came out of the water. They smelled rotten and sour, and though you bit them and fought them they crushed you and killed the people you loved. As you died you were consumed with anguish and loss… and filled with hatred for the things that killed your people. And somehow, that hatred carried you into the Crucible. Somehow you knew that if you fought long enough and hard enough you could return with the power to destroy the things that hurt your family. Finally you made your way through the big fire and into the world. Along the way you’ve learned many things. You’ve learned how to speak as people speak. You’ve learned that you have a new pack, or “wing” as they call it, that will help you take revenge. You aren’t going back to fight the specific things that killed your family — not yet — but you will hunt down these bad things wherever they appear and you will make them pay.

You’re a dog who has somehow returned as a Phoenix, something that’s never happened before. The Fens have stories of remarkable bond beasts, and perhaps such a creature was in your lineage. Nonetheless, here you are. Your intelligence has been enhanced in the process of becoming a Phoenix, and you are as smart as any human; you also have the power of speech. Your exact appearance is up to you — you could resemble a domestic hound, or you could be a enormous wolf with coal-black fur and burning eyes — but you are huge, strong, and you have a collar made from Pyrean steel; this is your talon, and marks you as a Phoenix. Your appearance is largely defined by the way you see yourself, and when you die and are reborn you could chose to be reborn in a humanoid form — whether as a werewolf-like hybrid, or in a purely human form. For now, you don’t have hands… but you don’t need weapons to fight, and your strength is sufficient to overwhelm most enemies.

  • The wing is your pack. Is it important to you to be the alpha? If not, you may want to pick a member of the wing who takes the place of your lost family for you… whatever else happens, you are fighting to protect that character.
  • You have intelligence on par with a human, but you’re not human. Many aspects of Imperial civilization make no sense to you, and you may interpret the actions of strangers in ways that fit the logic of a dog.  
  • Do you have the excited enthusiasm of a happy dog? Or are you entirely consumed by your quest for revenge on the Dread?
  • Do you want to be human (which could eventually lead to assuming a human form upon rebirth)? Or do you consider the canine form and life to be superior to that of humanity?

Suggested Traits: Hunter, Vengeful, Terrifying, Too Big To Fail

 

GODSPEAKER: DEVOTED

“Let the Merciful Mother ease your pain.”

You were born into the Myr Talu, one of the noble families of Empire — though admittedly, you’re one of the noble families of the Fens, so your people are princes of the backwater swamp. Nonetheless, you were born into wealth and luxury, and you lived as hedonistic a life as was possible in the Fens. You had a lot of good times. And then something unexpected happened. You were having a mushroom party with your friends — there’s a lot of mushrooms in the Fens — when a pack of twisted beasts came crawling out of the water. You’re not sure what came over you — something in the mushrooms, perhaps? — but you ordered your friends to run and charged the beasts yourself. You were torn apart, but you bought enough time for the others to reach the boat and escape. And instead of just dying, you found yourself in the Crucible… and you weren’t alone. Your ancestors founded the Myr Talu using the power of their House Gods — mighty spirits that bound themselves to your bloodline. The House Gods were banished to the Dusk in the first days of the Empire… but now you found yourself face to face with the gods of your people, and they told you that you have a destiny to fulfil. The Dread threatens to wipe out the Myr Talu and all the people of the Empire. They will not allow that to happen, and since they cannot return to the Daylit World, you must be their hand.

You’re not the smartest person in the room. But your gods can offer your guidance, and if you use the suggested Traits, this is what Extensive Training and Smartest Person In The Room represent; when you need to do something beyond your personal talents, you can draw on the Myr gods for inspiration. Beyond this, you can channel their power to inspire others; this is reflected by your Inspiring trait and by the Core Devoted Lesson that allows you to add your cards to the spreads of your allies. When you use this ability, call on one of your gods… “Merciful Mother, give my friend the strength she needs to survive this.” Existing Myr Gods include Myr, the Bringer of Fortune, chief goddess and general source of prosperity and wisdom; Taeloch, the Serpent in the Water, the aggressive bringer of justice; and Lassia, the Merciful Mother; but you can expand this pantheon if you have an idea for a particular god that can expand the pantheon. At the moment, the gods are imprisoned in the Dusk; while they have great potential power, at the moment they can only affect the world by acting through you.

  • What is your relationship with the gods? You were a slacker in your youth. Has this divine revelation inspired you and made you yearn to be the best person you can be? Or are you still somewhat reluctant, a hero only because the gods constantly drive you and demand that you be better than you are? Do you praise your gods, or do you consider them to be annoying aunts and uncles?
  • Do you have a special relationship with one god in particular, or do you interact with them all as a group?
  • Most Phoenixes don’t interact with gods in the Crucible: they only interact with the spirit of a previous Phoenix. Are you very open about your relationship with the divine, or do you keep it secret? It was the first Phoenixes who banished your gods to the Dusk, when your ancestors abused their power; some might fear that your gods are in league with the Dread.
  • Your family, the Myr Talu, were the leaders of the southern Fens and the protectors of its people. The Dread has overrun the Fens and the Myr Talu have been driven from their homes. The gods have urged you to work with Dawn Command; defeating the Dread is the only way to save the Fens. But do you yearn to know if your family has survived? Do you want to help your scattered people? Or are you solely concerned with your divine mission?

Suggested Traits: Extensive Training, Inspiring, Misspent Youth, Smartest Person In The Room

That’s all for this week! Post questions —or YOUR character concepts — below!

Worldbuilding 101: Taverns

There’s a lot of exciting things in the World of Keith. Phoenix: Dawn Command is now available on Amazon. The price is the same as getting it at your FLGS or from our website, so if your FLGS carries it that’s your best option. However, if you can’t get it locally, Amazon provides a way to avoid the high shipping costs that have been a problem in the past. I’m writing new Phoenix material right now, so you’ll see more of that in the months ahead!

But on to today’s topic. A few weeks back, someone said It’s easy to make Eberron feel like Eberron in the big cities. How do I do the same when visiting a tavern, or hamlet?” 

I addressed the main question in this Dragonmark article, but taverns are an interesting topic and I wanted to take the subject beyond Eberron.

A tavern can serve many functions in a campaign. Traditionally, it’s a place for adventurers to meet mysterious strangers in order to acquire quests. But there are many other ways to use an inn. In Casablanca, Rick’s Cafe is a neutral ground where people from all walks of life mingle; “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” While also in Casablanca, The Blue Parrot is where you go if you want to make a deal with underworld boss Ferrari. Consider…

  • GOODS AND SERVICES. Are you looking for a pilot? You’ll find the best in the cantina in Mos Eisley. Smugglers, traveling merchants, mercenaries, spies… Anyone without a legitimate storefront may sell their services in their favorite watering hole. And the choice of tavern tells you a little something about that person.
  • ONE NIGHT STAND. Your adventure may be taking you to Mordor, but a night at the Prancing Pony can add color and complications to the journey. It’s easy to gloss over travel, taking the “red line on the map” approach. But a night in an interesting inn can be a memorable scene. How do you spend the evening? Do you hide in your room? Sing an old Brelish song with the captains in the corner? Gamble with those mercenaries? When the tinker offers to sell you a lucky charm, do you take it or do you tell them to get lost?
  • DEN OF THIEVES. A tavern can be a home base for a particular group of people. It could be neutral ground: if you want to negotiate with the Boromar Clan, have a drink in Callestan. Or it may be that you’re taking your life in your hands when you go inside, and you’d better be prepared to fight your way out. The party’s rogue may have a bar where she meets fences or negotiates with higher-ups in the guild. In my last CCD20 adventure, the party is pursuing a war criminal who’s holed up in an inn in Graywall; can they dig him out without angering the locals? Cottonmouth’s club in Luke Cage is a good example of this.
  • HOME FROM HOME. A tavern can be a great base of operations for a group of adventurers, especially if they are freelance agents. This could be a location that develops organically over time, or it could be something you work into the initial backstory. It could be a family business associated with one of the player characters, perhaps operated by a parent or sibling. It could be owned by a friend, perhaps a soldier who fought alongside the adventurers during the war but retired from the adventuring life due to injuries. It might be simple business; the innkeeper provides the adventurers with free room and board in exchange for them dealing with any troubles that arise in the bar while they’re around. It could even be that the inn belongs to one of the PCs… consider Kote in The Kingkiller Chronicles. Having a set base of operations can help the players feel a stronger sense of attachment to the world, and you can work with them to develop details about the inn. What’s their favorite meal? What’s an interesting detail about the server? What’s the most unusual feature about their character’s room? And of course, once the players are attached to the location, it becomes a thing that can be threatened to generate dramatic tension…

SETTING UP SHOP

So you’ve some ideas of what to do with your tavern… now you need to describe it. Start by considering the following elements.

PURPOSE. Typically, the general purpose of a tavern is to provide a comfortable place for people to gather over food and drink; if it’s an inn, add lodging to the lineup. Does your establishment have any other purpose? Is it a casino? A brothel? A recruiting center for mercenaries? Is it operated by a church or other organization, and how does that affect decor and services?

CLIENTELE. Does this establishment serve the general population, or does it serve a more specialized niche? While this could be something like mercenaries or criminals, it could just as easily cater to fans of a particular sport, people who work at a nearby business (a quarry, a mill, a shipyard), or members of a particular faith. This decision can help you envision what sort of people might be around on a typical afternoon. If it serves a particular niche, do they welcome outsiders or drive them away? Will the hrazhak fans teach you the sport, or give you the cold shoulder? If you’re planning to use the place more than once, come up with names and descriptions for three regulars people can usually expect to find here.

STAFF. Who runs this place? Is the innkeeper or bartender the owner, or are these separate? Is there live music? Is there a single weary barmaid? A host of goblin servants? Bound spirits that handle domestic tasks? How does the bartender maintain order… a shotgun or wand behind the bar? A scary bouncer? The general love of the clientele?

DISTINCTIVE FEATURES. What makes this inn stand out? Why is it in this particular location in the first place? Who founded it? Is the bartender a former celebrity of some sort? Is there something remarkable about the structure? Is there something that serves a particular purpose… a fighting ring? A stage for performances? What about food and drink? In Eberron, there are Zil waterhouses that only serve water flavored with prestidigitation… what does this place serve, and why?

LOCATION. Why is there a tavern here? In a big city it might be one of a dozen, but if it’s out in the wilds it’s a valid question. Is it on a major trade road? Does it cater to pilgrims on their way to a nearby shrine? Is it the last outpost of civilization on the edge of a mystic wasteland?

Here’s a few examples to consider…

  • The Labyrinth. Located in the monstrous city of Graywall, the Labyrinth is built into an old quarry. A vast awning keeps rain from flooding the quarry, and customers descend a spiral ramp to get down to the common room. A medusa manages the bar, and the statues scattered around are a warning to those who might cause trouble. Goblins and gnolls surround the central firepit, cheering for the harpy performing mesmerizing torch songs. The rooms for rent are part of a vast network of caves that stretch below the quarry.
  • The Quill. Known as a refuge for authors and wizards alike, The Quill is named for the writing implement of a legendary mage, which is ensconced above the bar. The Quill serves the students and faculty of the nearby college of magic, and this is reflected in its fixtures; the rooms are lit by continual flames, and there are a number of unseen servants that perform menial tasks. Most of the servers are students themselves, while the bartender is a retired alumni who prefers mixology to magic. Nonetheless, it’s an excellent place to hear gossip or trade for rare components. Brave mages can compete in the creative cantrip competition that occurs every week.
  • The Crooked Tree. This inn is on the only road that runs through the deep forest. It’s built around the trunk of a gnarled tree, and while she lets the innkeeper handle business, the owner is the ancient dryad bound to this tree. It could be that most customers are mortals who use the main road, or it could be that the inn primarily caters to the fey that lurk in the shadows of the wood; if this is the case, you might have to pay for a drink with a secret, or pay for your room with a promise; gold is worth nothing beneath the Crooked Tree.

These details are great for building random scenes. Even if you’re just using the inn as a one night stand, is there an event going on when the players arrive? Is it a competition a player could take part in? Give that bard a chance to do what they do best! Or if it’s on a trade road or pilgrimage route, will a caravan roll up while the player characters are dining, and will it bring trouble?

Should a fight break out, these details can also add a lot of flavor. In games like d20, combat can sometimes feel very clinical… I rolled an 18 and did six points of damage. OK, but what did you DO? Think about bar fights in any movie. Are you hitting someone with a barstool? Tossing them through the window, or back into a rack of bottles? What I like to do in this sort of situation is to provide the players with a 3×5 card with a list of notable things in the bar… A Roaring Fire; A Barstool; A Plate Glass Window; A Chandelier; A Barmaid With A Tray Of Drinks. If the player can explain how they are using one of these elements as useful part of their action, they gain a benefit. In This is a core principle of Phoenix: Dawn Command, but it’s something you can use in any system; for many players this sort of prompt really helps them visualize the environment and get more creative with their actions. In Phoenix, using an environmental element lets you draw a card. In d20, a good use of a prop could provide advantage to a roll… or in the case of the Roaring Fire, shoving someone into the fire might add a little fire damage to the attack instead of advantage to the roll. Using an element doesn’t remove the element from the environment – the fire doesn’t go out, and people can still do things with it – but the advantage only goes to the first person to make use of an element.

PASSING THE TIME

So: the adventurers stops in the Chattering Skull en route to the Mournland. It’s a Karrnathi bar, and the animated skull of the original owner rests on the bar. They’re there for the night. As GM, what can you do to make it interesting?

  • Games. How do the locals pass the time? If you feel so inclined, you could take a pause to actually play a game you feel resembles something people might play in the region. If you prefer to keep things short, you can use a few quick rolls to resolve the outcome. A bluffing game would be a test of Deception and Insight. A game like darts could be a series of opposed attack rolls; the person who makes the three best ranged attacks wins. Armwrestling? Sounds like a Strength/Athletics check. Drinking contest? Constitution/Endurance. With any of these, don’t rely entirely on the die roll; describe the game, and give a player a bonus for an entertaining description. Typically, the amount of money normal people would wager won’t be significant for PCs, but it can still be a good story and help PCs connect with the locals.
  • Entertainment. Is there entertainment at the tavern? A traveling bard could share local news or a stories of the region… either of which could potentially be useful if the actual adventure takes place nearby. if one of the players is an entertainer, they could be asked to fill this role themselves. Or there could be a competition, whether musical or magical!
  • Stranger Danger. You’re enjoying your dinner when a group of loud, arrogant Emerald Claw soldiers show up and start throwing their weight around. They aren’t here for a fight, and technically they aren’t breaking any laws. Are you going to be the one to engage in violence, potentially bringing harm to the innkeeper? If not, this can be a fun opportunity to interact with people who are usually villains in a non-violent context.
  • Mysterious Opportunity. A traveling peddler offers a good luck charm or an ancient map. A stranger approaches and says something that’s clearly a code phrase, and hastily backs away when the PCs don’t know the right response. A smuggler offers rare goods at a low price – the PCs don’t need the goods now, but do they want to miss the opportunity? A fight breaks out between two strangers at the next table… will the PCs interfere? A stranger – secretly a spy – suddenly collapses from poison. Will the PCs get involved? And there’s always the possibility for romance…
  • Ask The Players. A simple answer is to ask your players what happens. They’re spending an evening in a tavern… what do they think should happen? This gives the players an easy opportunity to shape the story… whether to introduce a new plot thread or simply to describe their armwrestling victory.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EBERRON? 

The original question was about taverns in Eberron. The first issue is definitely location; looking at the examples above, The Labyrinth is in Droaam; The Quill is near Arcanix; and The Crooked Tree is in Thelanis, though you could drop it in a manifest zone. Everything that I’ve said up to this point applies, but you want to answer specific questions tied to Eberron. How does magic apply? What impact has the war had? Is there a warforged bouncer? Did the bartender lose his arm during an Aundairian bombardment? Is there a way to involve a magical beast – the hearth is in a gorgon’s skull, or there’s a giant owl who’s taken up residence there? If there’s shifters in the region, are people arguing about the shifter sport hrazhak? Perhaps the bartender is a changeling, who has different faces for different moods… Max is always up for conversation, but when you see Mildred at the bar, just order your drink and don’t ask questions?

And as long as we’re talking about taverns in Eberron, we have to discuss the GOLD DRAGON INN. While Ghallanda licenses inns of all sorts, the Gold Dragon is their primary franchise operation. Just like in our world, the whole point of the Gold Dragon is that people know exactly what to expect when they go into one. So play that up. Add your own details about what defines a Gold Dragon Inn, and make sure to highlight that every time the players stop at one. Here’s a few I’m literally making up right now.

  • The Gold Dragon Inn has a mascot, Goldie the Dragon. Every GDI has a mural inside of Goldie wrapped around the inn, looking down at you with a wink and a grin. Some inns have a Goldie costume – which involves three halflings – that they bring out on special occasions.
  • The Gold Dragon Inn always has a greeter, typically a halfling barmaid who says something along the following lines. “Welcome to the Gold Dragon Inn, where our guests are our greatest treasure! Would you like a tankard of our Copper Egg ale?”

Basically, any time the players are wandering around and happen to stop for the night, what do you know, it’s a Gold Dragon Inn! With the exact same greeter speech! And friendly, helpful staff who are happy to provide you with useful information about the region! The place is amazingly clean, as the staff uses a minor dragonmark focus item that ties to the Mark of Hospitality, using a prestidigitation effect to wipe away dirt and grime with the wave of a wand. And then, once people have gotten used to it, have them end up in a bad part of Karrnath where there’s no Gold Dragon Inn. The tavern they end up in is grimy and there’s holes in the roof from Thranish air raids (“Never had the gold to fix ’em,” the owner says. “Don’t worry, I moved the bed out from under.”). The owner lost a forearm in one of those raids but has a skeletal prosthetic. He’s probably not going to kill you in your sleep. Probably.

JT: Are there any major inns or taverns that operate without Ghallanda’s backing, or as open competition to the House’s industry?

SD: Dragonmarked’ makes it seem like other establishments certainly exist, but if they’re not at least sponsored by the Hosteler’s Guild, they’re regarded in the Five Nations as second-rate or questionable. If an exception existed that posed a serious threat to Ghallanda interests in an area, unsavory repercussions might occur.

I’m including SpoonDragon’s answer because it hits the nail on the head. The Dragonmarked Houses dominate their fields, and have established and maintained that dominance over the course of centuries. But that doesn’t mean every inn is a Gold Dragon Inn. You have three classes of business, as established in Dragonmarked: businesses directly run by the house; businesses bound to the house, which are essentially franchises like the Gold Dragon Inn; and licensed business, which pay a percentage and agree to meet the industry standards established by the house in exchange for being able to use the house seal. MOST inns and taverns are licensed. The critical thing is that this isn’t just a scam run by the houses. They DO establish and enforce industry standards, a role that is usually handled by the government in our world. A tavern has to pay Ghallanda for the license, but it ALSO has to meet the house standards for hygiene and health, and that’s the real VALUE of the license: potential customers know they can trust it. That shabby Karrnathi inn described above COULDN’T be a licensed business, because it doesn’t meet the standards. So a really successful and well-established business – like The Oaks in Sharn – could run without a license, trusting in its established reputation. But it’s sort of like posting a sign on your door saying “We’ve never had a health inspection.”

Generally the houses won’t act against lone businesses that choose to operate outside their scope. However, if someone truly poses a serious threat to their market dominance, they will take steps to deal with it… starting with negotiation, then negative propaganda, then more severe methods. A Ghallanda Black Dog (from Dragonmarked) can poison food or drink just by looking at it; this is a handy person to have in your back pocket when you want to give a rival restaurant a reputation for food poisoning.

I have always wondered about Gold Dragon Inns, starting with the price point. Are we talking Super 8, or Hamton, or Hilton, or Fairmont, or what? How big is the common room (in terms of area or number of patrons)? Is there both a tavern and a restaurant? What sort of food is served? How many rooms? How many of those rooms cater to small creatures like gnomes and halflings? Are there any other services provided? What sort of security is present – for valuables, or common areas, or private rooms?

This was cut for space from Dragonmarked, but addresses this a bit…

Two Ghallanda-licensed taverns in Sharn may have nothing in common beyond the house seal. But the Hostelers Guild maintains a number of bound businesses with outposts across Khorvaire. These strive for uniformity, and a traveler knows exactly what he can expect when he goes to a Gold Dragon Inn. 

          The Gold Dragon Inn. A home away from home for the frequent traveler, the Gold Dragon Inn provides reliable (if not exceptional) services at reasonable rates. Every Gold Dragon Inn possesses a heavy safe secured with arcane lock, and a soundproofed back room that can be rented for private events or important negotiations. House Ghallanda works with House Thuranni and House Phiarlan, and a Gold Dragon Inn will always have some sort of guild-licensed entertainer on hand.

            The Drum and Lyre. These taverns specialize in spicy Talentan cuisine, and serve as venues for music and dance. Three nights of the week are reserved for halflings performing traditional Talentan works; three nights are filled by performers from House Phiarlan or House Thuranni; and one night is held for amateurs and independents, which can be an opportunity for PC bards to hone their skills and make a little silver. Occasionally musical performances are set aside for athletic events, including sporting matches between miniature clawfeet and other Talentan beasts.   

As I’ve said before, the Dragonmarked Houses essentially set the industry standards, which is to say the prices in the rule book. So if you look on page 158 pf the 5E Player’s Handbook, the Gold Dragon Inn generally would be considered Modest accommodations (5 SP/night) while the best suite in a GDI would be Comfortable (8 SP/night). I generally think of the GDI as having a simple tavern attached, but some might have a full restaurant (perhaps a Drum & Lyre!). The size and number of the rooms will be based on the expected clientele; a GDI in Zilargo will have lots of rooms for small guests, while one in Breland will be predominantly designed with medium guests in mind. A GDI could have six rooms or a hundred rooms, based on the logical ability of the region to support it and the needs of your story.

Now, as noted above, the GDI is not the only sort of inn Ghallanda runs. It’s a known quantity, but many Ghallanda heirs prefer to run their own unique licensed business. The house itself runs a number of more luxurious inns, such as the Twilight Palace in Graywall; these would be in the Wealthy to Aristocratic class of lodging, and include services provided by other Dragonmarked houses – a Sivis message station in the hotel, an Orien courier on call, etc.

HOW ABOUT PHOENIX?

I can’t create new material for Eberron, but I can create anything I want for my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command. I think this post has gone on long enough, but I’ll do a follow-up next week that highlights the role of the tavern in Phoenix, with a few different locations you could use in your campaign.

Phoenix Q&A: Playing Cards

Shrouded Phoenix

Twogether Studios officially released my new RPG Phoenix: Dawn Command in the beginning of August. Currently, it’s only available through our website, but we intend to get it to retail soon; if your FLGS is interested in carrying it, have them reach out to us at info@twogetherstudios.com. We’ve got lots of plans for ongoing Phoenix support, and I’ll unveil these as soon as the details are ironed out. For now I want to start with some simple Q&As for people who are running or playing Phoenix: Dawn Command. Today I’m going to take a look at the core mechanic.

Phoenix: Dawn Command is a card-based roleplaying game. Each player has a deck of action cards that represent the capabilities and unique traits of their characters. At any given time, a player will have a hand of 5 or 6 cards, reflecting what they are capable of in this moment. There is a random element to this, because you are going through your deck and any given draw might be especially good or bad. But IN THE MOMENT you can look at your hand and know what you’re capable of… so unlike rolling a die, you know when you have a good hand or a bad hand, and the question is what you can accomplish with the resources that are available.

Long ago, Rich Malena posted two videos about Skill Spreads and Combat Spreads. These were done with prototype cards and contain one critical error, but they are still a good basic (and visual) grounding in how the system works and I suggest you take a look at these. The following questions are all dealing with specific aspects of making spreads – but these videos walk you through the basics. So if you aren’t familiar with Phoenix, click on the links and check those videos out. I’ll wait.

Back? OK, let’s get on with the questions.

I’m confused about the basic timing of a spread. Say I play a Trait in the spread that lets me draw a card. Can I then add that card to a spread? Can I exchange this new card for a card that I’ve already played in the spread? 

When playing a simple spread, you may just lay down all your cards at once. If you’re making an Attack spread and planning to play Str-3, Str-2, and Gra-4, you can just say “Attack Spread, 9 points!”… because there are no complicated timing issues. However, if there’s any question or timing or choice, you actually want to play your cards one at a time. Here’s how this works.

  1. When you make a spread, you start by declaring the action you wish to take. The GM approves the action and tells you what type of spread to make and what suits you can use in that spread. This is also a time to figure out the base value of the spread due to any bonuses from Skill Specialties or Lessons. (“I want to lift a heavy rock. Because I have the Athletics specialty, I’ve got a base value of 5.”)
  2. Declare the first card you are using in the spread. Once you do this, that card is committed to the spread and cannot be swapped out. Now resolve any effects of that card: If it’s a Trait, how are you justifying it? Will the GM increase its value? Does it allow you to draw an extra card? Continue until you have resolved every effect associated with THAT CARD. (Playing the trait Never Gives Up: “We’ve been through a lot, and I’m not going to let this boulder be the thing that keeps us from reaching our goal. I’m never giving up until I lift that rock.” The GM approves this justification and increases the value to 3; it’s appropriate, but not as perfect a match to rock-lifting as, say, Superhuman Strength. In addition, Never Gives Up says “Draw 1 card when you use this in a spread” – so you do that now.)
  3. Declare the SECOND card you’re using in the spread and go through the same process: does the card have any special effects? Does it need to be justified? (Playing a Strength-4 card… perhaps the one you just drew! Nothing special here.)
  4. Continue this process until you have played as many cards as you are allowed to play in the spread. Note that any justified Trait doesn’t count towards the limit of cards you can play in a spread, so you can play any number of Traits in a spread, as long as you can justify them.
  5. Determine the final value of the spread and determine the result.

So: Once you have committed a card to a spread, you cannot remove it or swap it out. However, if a card in the spread lets you draw a new card AND YOU HAVEN’T HIT YOUR CARD LIMIT you can add this new card into the spread. This is a mistake in Rich Malena’s Skill Spread video: he draws a new card and swaps it for a card already in the spread.

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If a player is using a Trait to enhance a spread, the only thing that matters is the name of the Trait, not its mechanical effect, right? They only need to explain why “Superhuman Strength” helps in this situation to get its advantage in a narrative way; the fact that I can use the card to stun an opponent doesn’t matter when I’m not using it in a Skill Spread. 

This is correct. A Trait has three components.

  • Suit and Value (Grace 1)
  • Descriptor (Commander)
  • Power (You may discard this card to add 3 to a wingmate’s spread)

A player can use the Trait for its base suit and value without providing any justification; they can always just play Commander as a Grace 1 card. They can also use its POWER without any justification; they don’t have to explain how they are adding +3 to a friend’s spread, because that’s just what the card does. However, if they can explain how the descriptor is relevant to what they are doing, they can add it to a spread regardless of suit and without counting against the limit of how many cards you can play… and in a Skill Spread, you as the GM may increase its value based on how appropriate it is and/or the quality of the justification.

traits-web

I feel some “card names” are quite universal like “Seen This Before”, what if a player uses it to any monster, claiming he’s seen this before and know how to inflict Brutal damage to it? Should I decide as a DM that whether it makes sense or not? 

First off, it is always up to you as GM to approve the justification of a Trait and to decide what benefit the Trait provides. And it’s only when used in a Skill Spread that a Trait may get an increased value for a good justification. In a combat spread, the only benefit is that you can add the card in regardless of suit and that it doesn’t count against limit. The POWER of the card may help in combat. So the Trait Killer Instincts does allow the player to get Brutal Damage on an attack, and it’s intentionally pretty easy to justify adding it to an Attack spread, making it a free play. On the other hand, it’s not that broadly useful outside of combat. Meanwhile, Seen This Before is potentially quite universal – but there’s no way a player could use it to get Brutal damage, because it doesn’t do that. When used in a Combat spread, it’s only worth +1 to the spread value. Easy to justify, but not that big of a deal.

Now, in SKILL spreads, justification matters. Based on the strength of the justification, you can decide to increase the value… generally to 3 if the Trait is fairly useful, and to 5 for an extremely good justification. If it’s the absolute perfect Trait for the task – Superhuman Strength when you want to lift a rock – you may decide that they can simply discard the Trait without even making a spread.

So Seen This Before is almost always valid in a Skill Spread… but the strength of the justification still matters. WHERE has the character seen this before? If they’re fighting Chanters and the player says “I dunno, I saw Chanters somewhere” I’d probably let them use it, but only for the +1. If they say “In my first life, I was in a village that got hit by the Chant; I lost my brother in that outbreak” I’d give them at least a +3, assuming that fits with their backstory. If the character says “I got killed by the Chant LAST GAME, remember?” I’d definitely make it a +5, because it’s hard to be closer to the Chant than that. But as the GM, you are always the final judge; the player can’t DEMAND a bonus.

With that said, another critical example here is Makes It Look Easy. This is intentionally an incredibly easy Trait to justify in a spread. Whatever you’re doing, you can always make it look easy. But in Attack or Defense, all it does is give you a +1. And in a Skill Spread, it’s automatically worth +5… which means that the justification doesn’t really matter. Essentially, Makes It Looks Easy is the perfect card for the player who’s NOT good at coming up with justifications, because they don’t have to; the card just hands them the bonus. On the other hand, Seen This Before is one that is easy to justify with a good story and can usually get 3-5 points… and it ALSO has the power of being a strong boost to an ally’s spread. So Seen This Before is a card I encourage storytellers to take, and Makes It Look Easy is one I’d push on a shy player who has trouble justifying things.

If you have more questions about the core mechanic, ask here. You can also get answers to questions on the Phoenix: Dawn Command group on Facebook!

Phoenix Q&A 8-10-16

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Phoenix is out in the world! We just got back from running demos at Gen Con. If you’re looking for a copy, you can buy it on the Twogether Studios website. We are working on making it available to brick and mortar stores, and if you are a retailer who wants to be kept appraised of this, email us at Info@twogetherstudios.com. If you want to see Phoenix in action, you can check out this broadcast from Saving Throw, which will be a continuing weekly series!

This is a very exciting time for me. I’ve been working on the game for over three years now, and people are finally able to play it. At the same time, I’m very nervous. What did we miss? Will everything make sense to people? With any project of this size, it’s inevitable that something will slip through the cracks. Eventually we’ll have a FAQ up at Twogether Studios, but for now, here’s some questions from the Phoenix Dawn Command Facebook group. if you have questions, post them below!

 

GENERAL QUESTIONS

Do you plan to publish expansions and to develop the world further? 

Absolutely. One of the main reasons I’ve wanted to create a new world is to have the ability to explore it as deeply as time allows. There are a number of different things on our radar…

  • Exploring the world in more depth, providing more material and hooks for GMs who want to create their own stories.
  • Additional player options: more Traits, Talons, Lessons, and the like. We also may provide a way for players to get their own decks.
  • Additional GM tools: Challenges, missions, and more.
  • I’m also playing around with ideas for Phoenix fiction.

These are all things we could do, but we’re a small company – so we’re limited both by time and resources. In days ahead we’ll be polling the player base to see what you want. Would you prefer more premade missions? Or would you rather have more information about the provinces and cities of the Empire? Let us know in the comments below! Beyond this, our ability to support the game will definitely be linked to the number of people playing it. So if you like it and want to see more, please spread the word.

What movies/tv shows/novels do you think best represent the Dawn Command game? I’m having a tough time putting my finger on it, combining elements of magical swordsman, swashbuckling, and Roman legion.

I’m not personally aware of a show or book that perfectly captures all the aspects of Phoenix. Here’s a scattershot of things that touch on some of it.

  • Rome (TV) focuses on a pair of soldiers in a classical setting. If your Phoenix party of the Imperial Army in your first life, or just from Ilona, there’s a lot to like here.
  • Game of Thrones (book/tv) isn’t a great match overall because it’s largely focused on people ignoring an existential supernatural threat and engaging in petty politics. But the plotline of the Night’s Watch specifically has some overlap with Phoenix: a small unit of soldiers with limited resources standing against a seeming unstoppable mystical foe.
  • Lord of the Rings (book/movie) includes a number of scenes of heroic sacrifice. In my mind, Moria is a perfect model for a Phoenix mission. You’re sent to the mines to find out why there’s been no contact from the dwarves. You find that the outpost has been massacred. Investigating, you encounter orcs… but you’re Phoenixes, you can handle orcs. You encounter a troll… a tough battle, but you can handle it. Then you find the balrog. Now you know the source of the evil, but you can’t handle it. Unless someone does something, you are all going to die. Who will hold the balrog at the bridge so the others can escape?
  • Aliens (movie) is science fiction, but deals with a small unit of soldiers facing a mysterious and deadly threat. The imagery may be completely wrong, but the tone is appropriate.
  • Likewise, Pacific Rim (movie) is the wrong genre, but deals with a largely united world facing an inexplicable alien threat that mundane forces simply can’t stop. Replace jaegers with Phoenixes and there’s some useful tone notes here.
  • On a more specific note, Tanith Lee’s Night’s Master (novel) inspired our view of the Fallen Folk, and is generally a good source of inspiration for Skavia.
  • My co-designer Dan Garrison also recommends Glen Cook’s Black Company books and Steven Erickson’s Book of the Fallen as mission oriented military fantasy.

If YOU have a thought about a show, book, or movie that you think captures the mood of Phoenix, post it below!

The Bitter didn’t exist in the Phoenix Imperium, meaning there were only five schools. The Devoted symbol has 6 points on it, which represent the Schools. Did it change when the Phoenixes begin to return? What were the Marshals’ reactions to the first Devoted with an altered symbol, let alone the first Bitter to appear?

Excellent question! The trick is that the Empire didn’t create the School Symbols; they are artifacts of the Crucible. So the Devoted symbol has always had six points and always been seen as “A group joined together” – even though the points don’t quite add up. The question is: assuming the six points of the Devoted symbol do represent six Schools, was the six School ALWAYS Bitter, and simply unrecognized in the Dawn Legion? Or was there a different School that never showed up, which was in some way corrupted or warped to become Bitter? Or crazier still… is Bitter NOT a School at all, and there’s still some other sixth School waiting to be seen? And if so, what are the Bitter Phoenixes? Some scheme of the Fallen? A corruption of the Flames?

As for the Marshal’s reactions, this is something we’ll explore in more depth in the future. The Marshals are working with limited resources and will essentially use whatever resources come their way. You can be sure that some of them – specifically, the Durant Marshal Honor – are very concerned about Bitters, while Winter is likely fascinated by them and studying them very closely.

Are Elementals really the only Phoenixes who can ranged attack? A Shrouded can’t use a bow or throw a knife?

The Elemental is the only School whose core combat style allows ranged attacks. But there’s a variety of ways to make ranged attacks. Most of these rely on the Talon. Mundane weapons aren’t especially effective against most manifestations of the Dread. A dreadknight is solidified fear; there’s nothing for an arrow to hit. A Talon is a conduit for the Phoenix’s supernatural power, and can bring down things that can’t be dealt with by normal weapons. With that in mind, here’s a few ways to make ranged attacks.

  • Any Phoenix can burn 1 Spark to make a ranged attack using their Talon. This is covered on page 124 of the Marshal’s Manual.
  • When a Phoenix reaches Rank 2, they choose an additional power for their Talon. The base set include six Talons. Two of those – Epitaph and Thoughtcoil – allow their wielders to make ranged attacks at no cost.
  • Often a Phoenix can make a ranged attack by using an environmental element. Is there something you can throw? Or collapse on an enemy?

So if you have a vision of a Forceful archer or a Shrouded who throws knives, define your Talon as that ranged weapon and choose Epitaph or Thoughtcoil at Rank 2. For your first life you’ll have to burn a Spark each time you make a ranged attack, but it only takes one good death to get your concept to work.

 

TRAITS AND SPREADS

First of all, I’d like to clear up something that seems to be a common point of confusion. A Trait has three elements.

  • A suit and value… “Intellect 1”
  • A descriptor… “Seen This Before”
  • A power… “Discard this card to add 3 to an ally’s spread.”

You can always use the Trait as a normal card of its suit and value… just adding it to the spread as an Intellect 1. You don’t have to explain anything or tell a story. However, in this case it counts towards the limit of cards you can play in the spread, and the suit has to match the limitations of the spread.

If you can narratively explain how the descriptor fits the action you are performing – where you’ve “Seen This Before” and why that experience will help you now – you may add the Trait to your spread as a bonus card. It adds its value to the spread, but does not count towards the card limit, and you can play it regardless of suit.

You may use the power of a Trait any time you use it in a spread, in addition to adding its value to the spread. Certain cards have powers triggered when they are discarded – this is NOT the same as adding the card to a spread.

Can I play 2 traits in a Row, as long as I can explain them in the narrative?

Yes, you can play any number of Traits as part of a spread. If you can give a narrative explanation, they’re bonus cards; otherwise they count towards the card limit.

My three person wing has a hard time getting 15+ for skill checks. What’s a good way to increase skill spreads for low rank Phoenixes?

The critical answer: TRAITS. Here’s a quick breakdown of the elements of a Skill Spread.

  • Base Cards. You get to play three cards in a Skill Spread. with a decent hand, a Phoenix can typically hit a value of around ten.
  • Skill Specialties. A relevant Skill Specialty adds +5 to the check and may allow the player to use an additional suit for the base cards. So at this point we are hovering around a value of fifteen.
  • Traits. If a player can narratively explain the relevance of a Trait, the GM may increase its value in a Skill Spread. My rule of thumb is that if a Trait seems somewhat appropriate it should be worth +3; if it’s clearly very appropriate, it should be +5. A number of Traits – such as Extensive Training, Makes It Look Easy, and Intuitive – provide a +5 bonus to a Skill Spread without requiring any justification, which can be good for players who are uncomfortable with improvisation.
  • Sparks. Each Spark a player burns is worth +1 to the spread. One of the main uses of Sparks is to let Phoenixes push beyond the limits of the cards to perform truly amazing actions – if they are willing to pay the cost!
  • Player Action. Depending on the situation, the player themselves may be able to get a bonus through creative action. For example, if the action is making a speech, I might give a bonus of up to +3 to a player who actually makes a bit of the speech… or if the player simply presents an exceptionally good plan.
  • Other Characters. A Devoted can discard a card to improve an ally’s spread. This is weak at Rank One, but becomes very powerful over time. With a good narrative explanation, a player can discard a trait and add its value to an ally’s spread; if it’s an excellent explanation and a very appropriate Trait, I’ll potentially increase it’s value to three. A number of Traits – such as Commander and Absolute Conviction – allow you to improve an ally’s spread without requiring narrative justification.
  • Thoughtcoil. The Talon Thoughtcoil allows its wielder to burn one Spark to add +5 to a Skill Spread – a powerful tool for someone who wants to be a skill user.

Essentially, fifteen is close to the limit of what you can do with no help and no special abilities. Hitting a thirty is something that will require some effort, both on your part and potentially on the part of your wingmates. If you can do it, it should feel like a triumph.

When putting a trait in a wingmate’s spread, do you still get to draw a card if the trait says “draw a card when you use this in a spread?”

No. Technically, you never put a Trait in a wingmate’s Spread – you discard the card to add its value to the Spread. This means you don’t trigger effects that say “When you use this in a Spread” because that’s not what you did – you discarded it, and in so doing you gave the person making the spread a boost.

 

REBIRTH

Regarding adding cards to a player deck upon rebirth: if they are adding a “5,” that has to come from the school tied to their original death … but if they are adding a trait card, that has to come from the school associated with their most recent death. Is that correct?

That is correct. New action cards are always draw from the suits of your core School, while new Traits and Lessons are drawn from the School of your most recent death.

When a Phoenix advances and picks a lesson from a new school, are they limited to the lessons available depending on if that other school is in play, i.e. I’m playing a Durant, but die a Bitter death. Can I take a Bitter lesson that’s already in play or can I only take Bitter lessons that are still in the box and not attached to the Bitter player?

With the default set, the idea is that you can only take the Lessons that remain… and if there are no Lessons available (because other players have taken them all) you can take a Lesson from your Core School. With that said, this is largely an artifact of the limited card set. It is our intention to make additional Lessons and additional copies of the existing Lessons available in the future, and I’m fine with a player simply writing down the details of a particular lesson and having it on a “virtual card”. With that said, the Core Lessons are only available to someone who dies their first death in that School. I’m fine with two people having the Shrouded Shadow Dancer Lesson, but your Forceful can never get one of the Shrouded Core Lessons.

How do you balance the experiences of the wingmates, if one character dies more often than his wingmates? 

This isn’t actually as significant a problem as you might think. A higher-ranking Phoenix has more power, but a lower-ranked Phoenix can push themselves to hit high values by burning Sparks… and they can afford to be more reckless with their resources because hey, they’ve got more deaths to work with.

With that said, sometimes it’s no fun for a player to be the odd duck who doesn’t die, and whose friends are all tougher than they are. This issue is addressed on page 143 of the Marshal’s Manual: If a character just isn’t dying in missions, you can always work with the player to come up with a satisfying story of how they died between missions.

Beyond this, Reward Cards (Page 153) are a way to strengthen Phoenixes who just won’t die, so they can still feel a little special… assuming that they’ve done something worthy of reward!

 

LESSONS

Which challenges count as living for the Devoted ability Share Pain?

The only Challenges that are immune to Share Pain are those listed as “Undead” (look on the back of the Challenge card). These Challenges generally use a grey color palette (versus blue for mortal and purple for Fallen). So Chanters are still alive and Share Pain works on them, but Whisperers are undead and immune to its effect.

Do the bonds that specify turns work out of combat? The Durant Bond allows the player to burn a spark to let another play draw a card. If my wingmate is trying to make a grace skill spread out of combat, but has mostly Intellect cards, can I use my durant bond to let them draw another card? Similar question with the devoted bond (and any other similar bond), can I return a committed spark to the devoted out of combat to draw two cards to take two sparks? 

Yes on both counts. The player making a spread is the active player and it is their turn – even if it’s out of combat and you aren’t tracking turns. So that player can draw on the Devoted Bond. What this means is that you can only use it once per spread; essentially, any time you take a significant action out of combat, it’s “your turn.”

This ties to the fact that you redraw cards immediately after resolving an action outside of combat… as if you took a turn and reached the end of it.

 

That’s all for now, but post additional questions here or in the Facebook group!