The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Backing Phoenix: Dawn Command and Shadow of the Demon Lord on Kickstarter was easy. I’ve long admired the work of Keith Baker and Rob Schwalb. They have brilliant perspectives on games and surround themselves with amazing people. Their contributions to the game of D&D (and other games) cannot be overstated. And, they genuinely care about our hobby, its industry, and gamers.
Both of these games exceeded my high expectations. I won’t review them fully here, though I will add some links to reviews and actual play in the Notes section below. These RPGs are really good, and you should own them.
As I play these games, I am finding them to be transformative. They are helping me to see other games and adventure writing in new ways. I want to share some of that, as well as how you can bring these elements into your current RPGs. In part 1 we looked at SotDL. In part 2, let’s turn to Phoenix!
D&D organized play campaigns would on rare occasions feature threats so dire that the players had to consider sacrificing their PCs. It might be a fight so hard that many PCs were likely to fall, or a situation where only a PC giving all of their life essence could stop some great evil. Such moments were truly epic and memorable.
In Phoenix: Dawn Command, each adventure is one of those epic moments! The PCs are heroes who died in a memorable way, and have been reborn as Phoenixes. They can die a total of seven more times and have superhuman capabilities – they would barely take a scratch from fighting off threats that would fell a mortal. However, they face the supernatural and overwhelming threat of the mysterious Dread. Nearly each adventure features challenges so epic that one or more PCs are likely to die. Instead of worrying about whether you might die, here you worry about making each death truly change the course of the apocalypse.
PC death is built into the game. With each death, you level up. The game is, interestingly, played with cards. Each character type has rules for the types of cards you can use and the benefits you gain with them. Special cards are chosen as you level. You get stronger until you reach your final death and are no more.
Phoenix feels different than most RPGs, even while it has some familiar aspects. It isn’t about the cards (these tend to quickly become second nature as you play) as much as it is about the story aspect of the game. Each adventure is a vital mission with important choices. Adventures are written to highlight these and create a strong collaborative narrative. Players are often asked to define aspects of the adventure so as to make them memorable. The game box includes an absolutely incredible campaign, where the secrets of the apocalypse and how it might be stopped are slowly revealed. So much of this game is groundbreaking and amazing, but here are a few of the aspects we can learn from:
Adventures prompt the DM to periodically ask the players to define something. For example, they might meet an older Phoenix who is about to send them on a mission. What is their gender? What age do they appear to be? What are some distinguishing characteristics? What rumors are spoken about them? The adventure also provides a default (and really cool) answer to these, should the players feel a bit reticent or need help. The next time the PCs meet them, the gender and other maleable characteristics are in bold, so the DM can update them. The campaign regularly takes these factors into account.
This also happens in other situations, such as deciding what weapon a foe uses (and it will come up later as a key plot point), what a magic item looks like, what their mentor in the fire of rebirth (known as the Crucible) is like, or the bonds between different NPCs. In one scene, they get to decide which memories they will lose due to an effect, and why that matters to them. Having players define these factors makes them memorable and gives them a personal stake.
How to use this: Any RPG can benefit from this approach. Let players detail NPCs, providing memorable features. The foe has a tell… what is it? The character notices the NPC has a disability… name it! The village is known for growing something… let the players choose! And, of course, write it down and make it matter later on!
The world of Ilona is not particularly big, with a few major regions. Adventures are steeped in regional flavor, and the text prompts the DM to ask whether players are from that region and about the connections they have with it. Being from the wild forests of the Grimwald means that PC has insights into the tribes, shaman, and other cultural aspects. The adventures provide benefits to checks and often just grant key information to them, letting the PC (and the player) shine. Sometimes it can get really personal. In one adventure the land is about to fall… does a PC from there want to say goodbye to relatives or help them escape?
How to use this: Find out the lands from which the characters hail. When you place adventures, have some of them be in these lands or connect to them, so their background becomes important and helpful. With 5E, you can extend this to backgrounds. Each background has a special benefit which is often story rich and deserves to be woven into the narrative.
How you died determines your class, and each Wing (party) of Phoenixes has only one person of each role. This makes your class an iconic and critical element. If you died trying to be tough, you come back as a Durant, a tank-style character focused on defending the wing. The Devoted is a healer, who could have a shamanic or similar background. If you died pursuing a secret, you come back as a Shrouded, who is an investigator, lore scholar, or assassin. If you died in failure, you come back as a Biter, who gets stronger as they take damage.
Adventures often highlight your role. A Durant might notice something about a castle’s defenses, while a Devoted with a shamanic background might automatically know information about a spirit. And, certain cards offer big bonuses or even automatically grant success. Cards are a bit like normal playing cards with a suit (Grace or Intellect, for example) and value (1-5 for the starting values), but some also have a trait. Playing a card with Commander might automatically convince a guard, while Seen This Before could provide a big bonus because you know what to do in this situation.
How to use this: D&D surprisingly doesn’t take class into account very often. Realistically, NPCs should recognize class and react to it. Farmers could side with a druid, and guards with a fighter. A small bonus, or even advantage, for a PC based on their class could be nice periodically. Tying it into background makes it especially pertinent. “As a rogue with a criminal background, you actually know the following about the gang’s leader…”
Foes in Phoenix have a speed, which determines how often they go in combat. A speed of 2 means the monster would go after every 2 PCs act. This predictable rhythm drives the combat’s pressure. Foes are often very tough, so the players naturally begin to plan about how they can deal with the foe before it acts yet again in the initiative cycle.
How to use this: Consider using this system for really special encounters. Instead of acting on a specific initiative count (15), they might act after every two players. Let the players know up front, perhaps describing to players that this threat is really fast and will act again very soon. It can be a nice alternative to legendary actions, and is harder because the monster acts fully, with all of their actions and options available. A rhythmic initiative can also be excellent for environmental factors (a hot geyser erupting with scalding water) or traps (a hidden turret firing after every two PCs have acted).
Encounters sometimes use an extended skill spread, where a very high number is needed for success – higher than a PC could achieve in one turn. This forces one or more PCs to continue to work on the problem across the encounter. It can be as simple as climbing, where PCs must get a certain combined score to reach the top, or could be a ritual requiring many possible skills to force a spirit to depart. When combined with combat, this creates a great sense of pressure. This is especially true in Phoenix, where PCs can attempt many actions in a round but cannot draw cards to fuel the actions until their end of the turn. They can climb and fight the raptors attacking the party… but it is harder to do both and this slows the progress.
How to use this: Consider having a very high DC for a task, but allowing everyone to add their total until success is achieved. In 5E, many skill uses would take up an action, but you could allow players to make both a skill check and an attack… but what if they have to pick one of them to be at disadvantage? That could be an interesting choice.
One of the great parts of this game is that the challenges are tough, but the party has a lot of say in how to handle them. Many times, it is a decision whether to take a wound and save cards for a big attack, or spend the cards to dodge a blow. Exciting scenes often have many great uses for cards, and that leads to the chance to fail. Maybe you have to save an NPC… but there is a chance to banish a spirit… and there is the opportunity to learn something about the army of bones that no one has ever learned before! What do you choose? Doing even two might require a sacrifice, because death often comes by burning your life essence to boost the cards you play, or skimping on defense to boost skills or attack spreads. Sometimes you might die and the type of scene puts a new card into your deck. It could be good or bad, or maybe reveal itself fully later. Or, failure to save the NPC might have a totally different implication than failing to banish the spirit. The adventures really rock this, making such choices agonizing fun for the players and DM!
How to use this: We can make it so key scenes have some choices due to timing, distance, or focus. We might need to get the wizard to this spot to open the portal… but they have to be on the other end of the room to decipher the magic writing. Revealing the effects of those choices over time, as rich developments that matter rather than obvious hooks that actually have very little impact, is a game changer for campaigns.
We can also bring in other Phoenix aspects. Sometimes you can’t save NPCs. Here’s something Phoenix does: if the trap goes off, it kills an NPC… and the players choose which one. Or, it might do X damage and the party decides how to allocate it, including on NPCs. If a PC goes unconscious, they could receive a vision of an old mentor… what information the mentor shares could be up to the DM, or perhaps the player.
Scenes come with a custom Torch card, used to track initiative. You “pass the torch” to the next person after your turn is done. But, the torch also lists interesting things in the room. A weapons rack, a flask of oil, the imperial banner, an NPC assistant. On your turn, you can choose to use up one of these elements, and provide a rich description of how you use it as part of your action. You are rewarded with a bonus and the element is used up or no longer grants a bonus. This makes the rooms more dynamic and encourages players to create vivid descriptions that actually take place in the scene.
How to use this: The idea of a turn order card with room elements is worth stealing. It’s a great way to get kids or new players to really see where they are and use the terrain. It can also encourage the DM to be more creative. Using an element could grant advantage… and maybe in some rare cases a monster can use an element up as well!
Pick up Phoenix: Dawn Command directly from Jenn and Keith Baker at their Twogether Studios site, by clicking on the “Add to Cart” button. This is a fantastic boxed set. The book is a tome, with 460 really useful pages. It includes an excellent campaign, all the cards, foes, tokens, and more.
Here are some reviews and links for the two games.