Guest Blog: Phoenix Is On The March!

Big news: Phoenix is in layout! It’s been a long stretch of writing and editing, and I’m going to be off the internets for a little while. In the meantime, we wanted to let you see Phoenix through the eyes of some of our playtesters and developers… starting with Rich Malena of the Going Last Podcast.

FullSizeRender (1)Hey folks! I’ve been given a chance to give you all a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of Phoenix: Dawn Command. For the last two years, I’ve been fortunate to sit down at the table and learn the game from both Keith and Dan, and see the eventual changes in the Phoenix system, the Schools, and the missions over the course of the game’s development. As we grow ever closer to the final release of the game, I wanted to share a couple of these new ideas that I just can’t stop talking about.

One of my favorite progressions to watch is the evolution of the Schools. The core concepts of each School remains consistent, but the lessons and traits have been repeatedly refined and improved. From the beginning, many of the Schools—Bitter, Shrouded, Devoted, and Durant—felt solid and uniquely tied to the mechanics of the game. Devoted could easily use their cards to assist their friends to a unique degree. The Shrouded master skills and can add important conditions to their enemies as they strike from the shadows. The Durant is an unstoppable defensive powerhouse and the Bitter gleefully uses their wounds to strengthen their vicious attacks. If you played any of these four in demos this year, you’ll be happy to see how their roles have been tightened up while keeping true to their original design.

However, our latest playthrough this summer featured the newest versions of the Elemental and the Forceful. Since these two Schools weren’t sent out with the demo set, most playtesters haven’t had the chance to see how they work. Let me see if I can help!

The Elemental is a whirlwind of arcane forces, who uses their very life force to make their powers even more devastating. In game terms, the Elemental has the ability to wound themselves to gain Sparks, which then fuel Lessons and abilities. Unfortunately, since healing is rare in Phoenix, this cycle often ends with the Elemental burned away before the end of the mission. The surge of power is amazing to watch, but being too careless often leaves a Wing without one of the most potent weapons in an important situation.

However, if they’re lucky, the Wing may also have a Forceful along to help make up for it. The Forceful is a master of motion, with a unique ability to cycle through their deck and can sometimes play half their cards on a given check. The Forceful feels fast. The Forceful can also gain momentum throughout a Mission, slowly ramping up to ever more powerful levels. When they’ve reaching maximum capacity, a Forceful is a sight to behold.

The thing that continues to amaze me about Phoenix is that the Schools play so differently. The simple mechanic—familiar to anyone who play’s deckbuilders—leads to an enormous amount of variability in playstyles. Even within Schools, there are plenty of opportunities for choice. My Shrouded is mainly focused on Skill spreads, but that’s because I intentionally decided to play more of a scholar than an assassin. But I could have certainly decided to go the other way. Seeing all the ways people are choosing to play Phoenix makes me really excited about leaping in and trying a new School someday soon!

It’s also been a ton of fun to see the growth of the Missions that are included in the core set! The story is tightly woven together to create an outstanding narrative arc that leads you through the world. I really don’t want to give away any of the secrets and surprises you’re all preparing for, but believe me, the story is going to be worth it. A lot of early ideas have been reimagined and given new mechanics to ensure that every Phoenix needs to be on their toes and ready for brand new experiences.

From the beginning, Phoenix has been a game about telling stories. Stories of sacrifice in the face of the terrifying Dread. Stories of heroism when everything is on the line. Stories of choices and consequences. Every single mechanic in the game is built with this narrative in mind. Even after two years of playing Phoenix, I still can’t help but tell stories when I act. I never get tired of talking about how my character moves throughout the Daylit World, or listening to my friends describe their own actions in our fight against the Dread.

As we get closer to the day when everyone has the chances I’ve had to play Phoenix: Dawn Command, I can’t help but feel so very excited for all the stories that are about to be told. After seeing the art, the rules, the descriptions, the challenges, and most importantly the care that is going into making this game a reality, I’m certain that no one is ready for all of the surprises in store.

Best wishes, future Phoenixes!

Rich Malena shows you why you need advanced mathematics in your life, and is basically as close as you can get to a real Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. Rich also can’t shut up about games on, at, or on Twitter @rmalena.

Latest News and Eberron Q&A!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the Keeper could create cardinal a paladin orc?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doom, Gloom and Eberron Q&A


Since the Phoenix Kickstarter campaign ended, I’ve been working hard on finishing the writing for Phoenix and that’s going to be my focus for the next few months. However, I don’t want to completely drop off the face of the earth, and I’ve got a big backlog of Eberron questions to get to.

First, news: Fairytale Gloom comes out this week. I’m very happy with the game and I look forward to hearing what people think of it. One thing I like is that you’re working with characters you already know – which makes it easy to come up with a new story. Furthermore, Fairytale Gloom doesn’t use preset families; instead you assemble a family from the cast of 20 characters. So you can assemble the cast of a classic fairy tale… or you can decide that Snow White, Red Riding Hood and Cinderella are secret agents working for the mysterious “Granny.”

Beyond that, there’s big news in the world of Kickstarter. For those who aren’t familiar with The Doom That Came To Atlantic City, in 2012 a guy named Erik Chevalier licensed a game I’d designed with my friend Lee Moyer, and went to Kickstarter to raise the money to produce it. He raised four times the amount he was asking for; told everyone that he was making the game; and a year later revealed that he was out of money and had never actually gotten around to making the game. Here’s my post from when I received this news. Because Erik had broken his contract, the rights to the game returned to Lee and I. We worked out an arrangement with Cryptozoic where they made the game and game everyone who backed it a free copy. It wasn’t an ideal solution – Erik had promised many things that Cryptozoic couldn’t provide, especially since they were doing it entirely as a gesture of goodwill to the people who’d been robbed – but thanks to Cryptozoic the game exists and made it to the backers. For the last two years there’s been no further news… until yesterday. The FTC has leveled a $112K judgment against Erik Chevalier as punishment for his duplicitous practices. Supposedly he’s also enjoined to honor his pledge to refund backers. It’s of limited effect as Erik is apparently broke – but I’m glad to see SOMETHING done about this. Crowdfunding is an amazing thing. Thanks to people who have put there faith in me I’m producing Phoenix  a game I could never have produced on my own. It’s a chance to bring things in the world that might never exist otherwise, and I hate seeing that trust abused.

So, that’s the short news here: I’m still working on Phoenix, Fairy Tale Gloom will be on shelves any day now, and there is finally some degree of justice for Doom backers.

I have a big slush pile of Eberron questions that I’ll get to as time allows… here’s a few to get the ball rolling again. At this time I have no news about any developments with 5E Eberron. Rest assured, I’ll share news if and when I have any. Now on with the questions…

The Mourning is the big obvious “no canonical answer” Eberron mystery. Any others in the setting that you particularly like?

Where do warforged souls come from? What do the Daelkyr want? What were the Quori of the previous age like? What exactly are aberrant dragonmarks, and why are they starting to appear again after lying dormant for so long?

When running Eberron, what is the single most important thing to remember? How does Eberron differ from other settings?

I don’t think there’s one answer that covers all Eberron games. If you’re more on the pulp end of the spectrum, then you want to look for ways to make the PCs feel remarkable. Never have a fight on solid ground when you could have it on the back of a moving lightning rail or an airship plummeting from the sky. Emphasize the villainy of the villains and the stakes of the conflict, and make sure your players feel like big damn heroes. All of this changes when you go to the noir side of the spectrum. In the mean streets of Sharn, things aren’t so clearly defined. It’s hard to tell the heroes from the villains. Stories don’t always end well – and sometimes it’s best when they don’t. In a noir campaign your want hard decisions and difficult revelations.

But there are a few things that can apply to any Eberron game, and these are things I try to call out when I’m creating an Eberron adventure for a convention or charity event. One of these is the war. Khorvaire is just two years out of a horrific war that ended with the utter destruction of nation. How did the war affect the player characters? Who did they fight for, or why didn’t they fight? How can its impact be felt in the adventure – whether it’s the scars of the conflict or the tensions of the current cold war? How about the impact of industrialized magic… how can you show magic being used as a tool within society?

When running con games I call out elements of the setting that are especially unique. In previous games I’ve used parties of Dhakaani goblins; monstrous agents of the Daughters of Sora Kell; and a Blood of Vol undead equivalent of the A-Team. It’s a way to immediately impress on people that things aren’t what they’re used to – that monsters aren’t always bad guys and that the bad guys aren’t always monsters.

Eberron is a world that is waiting for heroes. Do you think it’s a world with a place for a campaign for high level evil characters? Beside that forces of evil look already preeminent, I am worried that a ruthless high level cleric or mage could easily overpower any human institution.

This question comes up a fair bit. There’s a lot of different ways to answer it. But the first question I have is what’s the experience your players are looking for? In choosing to be evil, what do they WANT their story to be like? In my opinion, RPGs are about building a collaborative story. As DM, your challenge is to build out that story, to make it challenging and interesting. In choosing to be evil, do your players want to simply achieve wealth and personal power? Do they want to create a criminal empire? Do they want to depose rulers and take over Khorvaire? Each of these stories builds room for different sorts of opposition. An equally important question is what they want the tone to be… is this story more pulp or noir?

Personally, I see an “evil” campaign as leaning more towards noir. The typical noir story has very few heroes… but deals with the fact that villains will happily prey on each other. In a noir story, I’d reveal that the world is a lot darker than anyone realizes. I’d play up the number of organizations that are secretly controlled by the Lords of Dust, the Aurum, or the Dreaming Dark. I’d work in the extremely ruthlessness of organizations such as the Trust, the Citadel or the Chamber. I’d have my villainous PCs constantly on edge for the threat of betrayal, assassination or dangerous revelation. Sure, that institution LOOKS like an easy target… but that’s because you don’t realize that the “low level cleric” running the temple is actually an epic level rakshasa or an Inspired. In short, in a noir villain campaign, I’d pit the PCs against other villains who are every bit as powerful as they are – or more so – and in a far better starting position.

On the other hand, perhaps the players WANT a pulp-style evil campaign in which they are the worst villains the world has every seen. In that case, I’d play down the Lords of Dust and Dreaming Dark; if the players WANT to be the coolest villains around, it’s not so much fun to be constantly tripping over older evil conspiracies. Instead, I’d create heroes. Eberron is intentionally designed as a world in need of heroes because the PCs are expected to fill that role. If the PCs instead choose to play villains, as DM I’d create the heroes that would usually be PCs. Let’s have Tira Miron reborn as a new crusader of the Silver Flame. Trade out the Lord of Blades for a heroic warforged uniting his people into a force for good… a Professor X instead of a Magneto. Perhaps the Twelve assemble a team of dragonmarked champions as their own answer to the Avengers. For that matter, you could bring in any of the protagonists of the Eberron novels; the reason novels aren’t canon is because we don’t want these heroes treading on the toes of the PCs, but if the PCs don’t want the part, why not? Alternately, you could have a truly powerful group of heroes – heroes who always seem to come back no matter how they are defeated or destroyed. The ultimate revelation is that these champions are actually shapechanged dragons – agents of the Chamber acting to preserve their preferred path of the prophecy. They always return because even if killed, a new dragon can assume the role of the fallen champion.

Basically, the default assumptions of Eberron assume the PCs are heroic. If they aren’t, change those assumptions. Create what you need to create to present the challenges the PCs want to deal with. And don’t be afraid to LET the PCs disrupt existing organizations, if that’s the story they want to be part of. LET them throw Kaius out and take over Karrnath… because once they’ve got territory to control, you’ve got a lot more hooks to work with.

That’s all for now!



What Phoenix Means To Me

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

A World Without Limits

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

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

A Different Sort Of Story

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

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

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

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

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


Phoenix: Dread and Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




The World of Phoenix

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apocrypha, Phoenix and Dreams


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Creating A Phoenix: Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Videos and Online Seminars

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 9.06.43 AMThere’s lots of things in the works at the moment, but the biggest thing in my life right now is Phoenix: Dawn Command. I’ve been working on this RPG for over a year, and now we’re closing in on our goal on Kickstarter. Needless to say, I’m thrilled about this. Phoenix uses a number of innovative mechanics – including a card-based resolution system and the fact that death is how your character grows stronger – but beyond that, it’s a fully formed RPG and a new setting that I love. I look forward to getting to delve deeper into this world myself… and just like Eberron, I look forward to seeing what other people do with this world once they have their hands on it. To be clear, while Phoenix uses cards, it’s a game where you can create your own adventures and threats.

Anyhow: There’s a few new places to get information on Phoenix. Playtester Rich Malena has just posted a new video that walks you through one of the core mechanics of the game, showing how cards are used to resolve non-combat challenges. Rich is working with early prototype materials, so this is not what the final game will look like! In addition to this, Twogether Studios is putting together a gameplay video so you can actually see what Phoenix looks like in action; that should be out in a few days. It uses Elegy and Wolf, and I’ll be blogging about the remaining two characters over the course of the week.

photo(78)In addition to this, I’m currently posting on an AMA thread on ENWorld. If you have any questions about Phoenix – or Eberron, or Gloom – this is a great place for questions.

Finally: One of the advanced backer levels for Phoenix is the Shrouded Phoenix level, which gets you access to a series of online seminars with myself and co-creator Dan Garrison. I wanted to provide a little more information about these, so you can decide if it’s interesting. While the pledge level only mentions three sessions, there will actually be four – two general-interest sessions before the game is released, and two Phoenix sessions afterwards. Each one will have a handout summarizing the main points – and people will have an opportunity to send in questions ahead of time. The seminars are:

Seminar #1: Creating Worlds

Creating a setting is an important step whether you’re developing an RPG, a computer game or a work of fiction. But where do you begin? Where do you find inspiration? How much information is too much information, and should you avoid well-established tropes or embrace them? Eberron creator Keith Baker will cover these subjects and more in this two-hour workshop on creating worlds.

Seminar #2: At The Table

Between them, Keith Baker and Dan Garrison have decades of experience as game masters. In this one-hour session they share their tips on adventure design and practical advice for GMs.

Seminar #3: Advice For Marshals

Once Phoenix: Dawn Command is released, creators Keith Baker and Dan Garrison will host a one-hour session offering advice to Phoenix GMs. The session will cover how to get the most out of the system, background on the world, and advice on creating your own adventures and challenges in Phoenix.

Seminar #4: Advice For Players

This one-hour session covers the unique aspects of Phoenix: Dawn Command from the player perspective, looking at character creation, developing ties to the setting, tactics, teamwork, the value of each life and more!




Creating A Phoenix: Wolf

EPSON MFP imageIn Phoenix: Dawn Command (now funding on Kickstarter) you normally build your character from the ground up, choosing your School, your Traits, and your lessons. You answer questions about your character: Who were you in your first life? How did you die? What gave you the strength to come back? You can watch a video overview of this process here. However, we also provide a set of pregenerated character in case you want to get started right away. Each of these character provides a glimpse into different aspects of the world. Over the next few days I’m going look at a wing of Phoenixes, and these characters will be featured in the gameplay video we’re releasing later in the campaign.

Yesterday I presented Elegy, the Shrouded Phoenix. Today we’re looking at the Bitter Phoenix, Wolf. Each School is defined by the nature of a death and the lessons you take away from it. The Bitter died in failure, and they are driven by vengeance. The Bitter gains strength from being wounded, and a Bitter is most powerful when close to death.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.02.48 AMThe Bitter school is driven by aggression and force. Wolf’s Endless Rage allows him to enter a berserk state that increases his power at the cost of his defense. His Reckless Trait lets him ignore defense entirely to launch a strike at a would-be attacker. His other Traits – which aren’t innately tied to his School – still reflect his aggressive nature. This list doesn’t include the core lessons common to all Bitter Phoenixes, so there’s a little more to a character than you see here.

Wolf comes from Skavia, the northern region of the Empire, but there’s a twist: when Wolf died, the Empire didn’t exist. Phoenixes gain their powers in a spiritual limbo known as the Crucible, and time has no meaning there. Wolf died hundreds of years before the current events of the game, and he is now returning to a new world. This is noteworthy because the old Skavi people use to make bargains with the supernatural beings known as the Fallen Folk. The Phoenixes drove the Fallen from Skavia when they brought it into the Empire, and abolished these traditions. To most people in the modern age the Fallen are merely legends; but Wolf knows the reality.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.11.40 AMOur Wolf is fairly straightforward. He was a mighty warrior in the past, but underestimated the Phoenixes. Shamed by his defeat, he seeks to die a truly worthy death… which is a good match for his Reckless and Death Wish Traits. But he still cares about his homeland, and he won’t let it be consumed by the Dread.

This Wolf has avoided any sort of connection to the Fallen Folk. Another Wolf could have played up that angle, in which case they’d need to work out the details with the GM. Again, in the modern world the Fallen are simply legends; the idea of an unfulfilled bargain could make for an interesting long-term story hook.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.16.42 AMWolf is a fierce warrior, but everyone’s afraid of something. Our Wolf didn’t have any dealings with the Fallen, so he takes the Phoenix who slew him as his greatest fear. Meanwhile, he finds a connection with Elegy.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 9.18.56 AMThe Skavi have a tradition of masks, which was particularly important in Wolf’s time; you never want the Fallen Folk to know your face. His Talon is his default weapon.

Wolf is ready for action… Bitter, vengeful action. Tomorrow we’ll take a look at his opposite number: the Durant Shepherd.