I’ve been preparing to run a game of Phoenix: Dawn Command this weekend and I have to say it’s brilliant. This RPG from the mind of Keith Baker is a beautiful merging of story and mechanics that encourages teamwork, roleplaying, and heroics from the players. Here’s a quick description of the game from its website:
In Phoenix: Dawn Command, you don’t gain power by killing others; you gain power by dying. After each death, you add additional cards to your deck representing the lessons you learned from your previous life. However, there’s a catch: you can only return seven times. So each death makes you stronger, but it also brings you closer to the end of your story. In addition, you don’t return right away and you don’t return in the place where you died. This is what drives tension: most missions are time-sensitive, and should you and your friends all fall without completing your task, you will fail… and when you return you’ll have to deal with the consequences of that failure. Because death isn’t the end, the odds will often be stacked against the characters; players are encouraged to take risks and to be prepared to make sacrifices. Death isn’t the end, but you want to make sure you make every life count.
Even if you’re only ever going to play Dungeons & Dragons, Phoenix is worth purchasing for the ideas and new mechanics it will bring into your game. In today’s post I’m going to show how you can steal a few ideas from Phoenix and apply them to D&D. If you like this post, you might like another post about stealing mechanics from other games.
If you want evocative, original story ideas, this game is full of them. Much of the game’s rulebook is devoted to the setting, Dalea, and goes into great detail about the world’s history, cities, and cultures. One entire section of the book unravels the mysteries of the Dread (an evil phenomena that is overtaking the Dalea). The final pages of the book detail an entire campaign that can be run, complete with amazing encounters, compelling villains, and interesting NPCs. In true Keith Baker fashion the text is sprinkled with plenty of interesting open ends and alternatives that are worthy of entire campaigns. Many of these ideas you can be stolen straight-up. Most others require the smallest of tweaks to apply to D&D. I could go on, but I don’t want to give too many of the game’s juicy bits away.
In addition to the lore within this game, there’s a lot of great advice about running Phoenix that can be applied to ANY roleplaying game. The book discusses encouraging players to take risks and roleplay, what to do when you don’t have a full table, how to create interesting encounters, and more. The lore plus the advice make this thing worth the price of admission and we aren’t done yet.
In Phoenix every combat encounter has a list of interesting environmental elements that can be used in an attack’s description. For instance a battle in a tavern might have a chandelier, fireplace, keg of ale, mounted moose head, and a shelf of bottles. In Phoenix, a card-based game, when a character uses one of these elements in the description of an attack, they get to draw an extra card. The element is then crossed off the list, not because it cannot be used in another description, but because it cannot be used to gain the bonus card benefit again.
It’s easy to bring the same idea to D&D. You can write a list of elements right onto a battle mat, paper, or index card. If you’re a lazy DM, ask each player to come up with one and write them down. When each is first used in an attack’s description, allow the character to gain advantage on the attack roll. If advantage seems too powerful, give another benefit, like an extra d4 damage if they hit.
We’ve all been there. One hour into a four-hour session a T-Rex bites the head off the druid and now Katy has nothing to do for the rest of session. Phoenix, a game that somewhat encourages players to die, has a solution for this. When a PC bites the dust, their soul can bond to another hero as an attendant spirit until they are reborn. This attendant spirit can communicate telepathically with the host and speak to others through the host’s voice when the host allows it. In addition, the spirit can spend unused resources to aid the host.
To bring this idea over to D&D, we can think about the dead PC’s unspent resources. Maybe the spirit can spend unused hit dice to instantly heal the host, gift unused spell slots (of 5th level and below) so the host can cast more spells, or give away some other resource. Once the resource runs out, the spirit passes into the afterlife or waits to be raised from the dead.
Death As Advancement
Of course the big idea behind Phoenix is its most brilliant. When a hero dies, they level up, but their seventh death is permanent and final. This creates a great tension in the game because players want their characters to die, but not too quickly!
You could easily create a mechanic in D&D that eliminates the usual come back from the dead spells (revivify, raise dead, reincarnation, resurrection, and true resurrection) and experience points, and has characters return at dawn after their death, now one level stronger. If you decide to play this way, I recommend setting a cap to the number of times a PC can return before they are dead for good. 7 works well for Phoenix, but you could pick 3, 5, 10, 20, or whatever you thinks works best for your game. (For more hacks and advice in dealing with death, checkout these posts: Death and Returning Modules, and When Death Isn’t (Always) The End.)
The PCs in Phoenix have a limited amount of Sparks that can be used to add +1 per Spark burned to any Skill or Attack Spread. Once a Phoenix uses all of their sparks, they die. Sparks do regenerate, but rather slowly.
With some caution you could add a similar mechanic to D&D. If you’re using death as a tool for advancement, I’d say simply give your characters 5 Sparks per level and allow them to be burned to add bonuses to ability checks and attack and damage rolls. Characters regain 1 Spark x character level at the end of each long rest. If you run out of sparks, you die.
If you’re not using death as advancement, this becomes far more tricky to balance. I’d say each character gets 1 Spark x 1/2 character level (rounded down) per day that can be used to gain advantage on any ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.
Or Just Give Phoenix A Try…
If you’re loving all these ideas why not give Phoenix: Dawn Command a chance? All I did was steal what was already there!
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