For the last month or so I’ve been trying out Phoenix: Dawn Command, the very innovative RPG from superstar game designer Keith Baker (Eberron, Gloom). This is one of those games that I’ve been dying to get my hands on. In fact, I got a chance to play the game in a pre-release form more than a year ago and it’s had a reserved place on my bookshelf ever since.
Phoenix: Dawn Command is one of the more hotly anticipated games this year, not just because of its illustrious creator, but also because it’s strikingly unique. It’s a full-on tabletop RPG with ostensibly no character sheets, no dice, and no experience points. In fact, the only way to level up in Phoenix: Dawn Command is to die. Yeah, that tends to catch people’s attention. Lets check it out:
THE WORLD AND ITS CHARACTERS
True to form, Keith Baker has created an incredibly detailed world for Phoenix: Dawn Command (for ease of conversation let’s say “P:DC”) with a whole slate of cultures, monsters, magics, and all the trimmings. The key points include the following: the world of the Dalean Empire is in chaos as an ancient evil (“The Dread”) has returned to wreak havoc and generally ruin peoples’ day. Thankfully, there is hope, a group of 100 people called Phoenixes. A Phoenix started out as a regular mortal until he or she died a remarkable death and was brought back with extraordinary powers. The players are a small team, or “wing,” of such Phoenixes.
Between their first death (keyword: “first”) and becoming a Phoenix, each person goes through a “crucible,’ a series of metaphysical tests and trials. When they are reborn they come back with supernatural powers. These powers come from lessons learned during their crucible and a sort of response to the nature of their death. For example, someone who died protecting others might come back as a “Devoted” Phoenix, which is essentially the Cleric. Another who died because they weren’t fast or strong enough might come back as a “Forceful” Phoenix which is sort of like a monk or a ranger.
There are six classes (called “Schools”) of Phoenix, of which any game contains four. A unique four, I should say, as no wing or group of players has more than one of the same school. So one of you is the Devoted Phoenix, another the Elemental Phoenix, and so on. The game is very teamwork heavy and no single Phoenix can handle all the challenges put before them. Generally two characters focus on intelligence/skill based abilities and two on strength/finesse based abilities.
When you choose your class, you take number of cards from that school’s deck which represent your basic abilities and essentially act as your character sheet. Some of these sit in front of you at the table, the rest form your deck.
SPEAKING OF CARDS
Unlike some other RPGs, (ok, most other RPGs) Phoenix: Dawn Command uses cards instead of dice. These are custom cards too, not just re-skinned regular playing cards. Each player has a deck of cards that represent their abilities and they play a number of cards at a time to perform actions. Some cards are simply numerical with larger numbers being better. Other cards have special abilities or tie to particular aspects of your character, called traits. As you develop your character, you choose a number of traits and add them to your deck. As you progress in levels you gain more cards, sometimes you remove earlier weaker cards in order to fine tune your deck and provide you with abilities you might want on your turn. In this way, P:DC almost feels like a very slow-form deckbuilding game.
Using cards instead of dice removes some, but not all, of the randomness from the game, which makes it feel much more story driven than chaos driven. I say “some not all,” as there will inevitably be times where you draw a hand of cards that simply won’t let you do what you might otherwise have done. Fate still plays a part. Still, it’s a long way from choosing an action then crossing your fingers as you roll a D20.
Here’s a video by Keith and the team that show the gameplay in action:
The cards actually function as their own limitation on actions too. How much you can do on a turn is determined by how many useful spreads of cards you can produce. As you only draw up to your hand limit at the end of your turn, each action has a real cost in terms of what you can manage to do. If you spend too many cards defending, for example, you may not have enough to do much in the way of attacking. This makes sense if you imagine your character doing everything they can to avoid damage, but not saving anything to return the attack. In contrast, you can choose not to spend cards defending, walk through a few attacks, and take damage but hit hard in return. What’s the worst that could happen, you die?
YOU LIVE, YOU DIE, YOU LIVE AGAIN
Phoenix is not the first diceless RPG, but it may be the first that focuses player advancement on dying. In P:DC, each time you die you come back stronger. It’s essentially the mechanic for leveling up. Each time you die, you learn more lessons, then you come back with new abilities (in response to how you died) and you get a little more powerful all around.
This is the point where most D&D players ask the inevitable: “If you level up by dying, what reason do you have to avoid death at all?” That’s not an unfair question. The easiest answer is that each Pheonix can only come back 7 times. So if you want to play fast and loose with your lives, you might find yourself uncomfortably close to your last incarnation before you know it. The broader answer is that resurrection takes time. Sure you come back, but you come back the next morning. That means you leave your wingmates without your help in the meantime.
In a world where death is not the end, the mission becomes the most critical aspect. Often this means finding a way to survive so the bad guys don’t finish up their dastardly plan before you have an opportunity to resurrect. More importantly, the big key to Phoenix: Dawn Command is the storytelling — and being dead makes it much harder to contribute.
THE STORY AND FINAL THOUGHTS
Phoenix plays most like a sort of hybrid game. It’s very much an RPG with most of the trappings you’d expect from Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun. Its also, in many ways, a deck building game with very slow versions of mechanics like hand management and drafting. Finally and most importantly, it’s a storytelling game in the vein of Fiasco or Dungeon World. Story matters, characters matter, and roleplaying all those elements around the table matters. It’s that dedication to story that pushes Phoenix: Dawn Command over the line from simply innovative to great.
Having played quite a bit with varied groups of players I think this game will win over audiences with its mix of deceptively easy gameplay and surprisingly deep storytelling. It can be a little intimidating but trust me, it’s easy to learn and once you do I think most people will come to the realization that all of my playgroups did: The rules get out of the way very quickly and let you just live in your character. You can make story choices that make sense in the moment and the cards make it work. You can control a lot about your character without much math and that leaves the rest up to you, including your next death. Will you sacrifice yourself to save your wingmates or just go in aggressively and damn the torpedoes? The game leaves it up to you and it plays that way… and it’s a good thing.
Is the idea of a diceless RPG scary or exciting? What about dying to level up? Give us your thoughts on the world of Phoenix: Dawn Command in the comments!
Images care of Twogether Studios, used with permission. http://twogetherstudios.com/