Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A reflection on Phoenix: Dawn Command

This past semester, I ran two sessions of Phoenix: Dawn Command, a recently-released tabletop RPG from Twogether Studios (Keith Baker and Dan Garrison). It was the product of a successful Kickstarter, but I didn't hear about until well after it was funded, when I subscribed to Keith Baker's blog. I found myself enthralled with the idea of death as character advancement—glorious death as a boon rather than the ending it is in most games. Another defining mechanic of PDC is that it uses cards rather than dice for action resolution, and this also piqued my interest. When I mentioned these ideas to my game design class, the students were eager to try this for themselves. I bought the game through the Twogether Studios online store and had it in hand a few days later.

The Materials

The free 12-page Player's Handbook is pleasant to read, giving a vivid image of a fascinating foreign world; indeed, reading this was instrumental in my decision to purchase the game. It is also a great resource for game organizers that this is a free download, since I could have all my players read this ahead of time to ensure they had some initiation into the world. Twogether Studios also provides four iconic characters, which we used for our games. These character sheets are brilliant: the mechanical decisions of school and card selection are already made, but the player still gets to customize their character's story through four simple multiple-choice selections. All the choices are compelling, and this format ensures that the character design meets the unique flavor of the PDC world.

The PDC box includes a 450+-page rulebook, a few token sheets, and a lot of large-format cards. The rulebook is softcover and printed on high-quality glossy paper. The writing and worldcrafting are excellent: if the Player's Handbook is a teaser, it's a great preview of the full experience. The world of the Phoenixes places them as the last stand against The Dread, a collection of supernatural, evil forces that are overtaking the empire.

The Sessions

/* I describe two sessions in some detail here, and so there are some spoilers. I have tried not to expose secrets about the story, but I do describe the arc and rhythm of the scenario. Skip this section if you want to remain pure and play the game yourself. */

The first session was attended by four players, including three from my class and one friend to round out the party. They took a few moments in the prelude to introduce themselves and to ask a few questions of the primary quest-giver, and then they proceeded into the adventure proper.

In the first battle, the Bitter began by becoming enraged, and then was exposed, meaning he had no defense against attacks. He also was carrying one wound. In the enemy's next action, I turned to have it attack the Bitter—a natural decision, since the Bitter was attacking it—then realized this would have killed him before he even had his second hero cycle. That's really too brutal, so the creature inexplicably attacked the Durant instead. [Update: I shared this post with Keith Baker, who kindly pointed out a rules confusion here. I misunderstood the damage cap on the enemy, so it really couldn't have killed the Bitter on one attack; there would have been at least one chance to realize that this tactic was dangerous and that he should change tack.]

In the climactic scene, three of the characters died heroic deaths: the Bitter exerted himself to inflict serious damage on an opponent, even though he knew it would leave him open to being killed. The Shrouded overcame her fears and sacrificed herself to save the land from being overcome with a deadly curse. The Devoted absorbed all the wounds from the Durant, sacrificing himself so the Durant could continue. Indeed, the Durant was the only one to walk away from the scene. Critically, both the Bitter and the Shrouded became attendant spirits of the Durant, and they burned the last of their sparks so that the Durant could succeed—the Durant surely would have failed otherwise! This was a brilliant ending to the scenario, with three of the Phoenixes dying heroic deaths, and the Durant making the long walk home alone.

How a character advances in PDC depends on how they interpret their own deaths, colored by the six Phoenix Schools (Durant, Bitter, etc.). Even though we were not going through character advancement, I asked the players to make a choice here and describe it to the table. This was a great ending to the session, as it gave each player a last chance to explain how their character fits into their imagination and the game world.

The second session went quite differently. The group had only three players who were all students of mine; a fourth non-student was planning to attend but backed out due to an impending deadline. This group ran straight into the first combat after their introductions, and unlike in the first session, they did not take any opportunity to learn about their environment or surroundings. I had a sense that they were playing the game more like a video game than a tabletop RPG, running from scene to scene without any real consideration that the setting itself may hold information or clues. They also made it to the final scene, but even there, no one really knew what they were doing or why.

The second group had no Devoted, which means they had no means for healing themselves. All three made it to the final scene, in part because I was more cognizant of the combat system's brutality after nearly killing the Bitter in the first scene of the first session. I was more intentional about spreading the damage around the party, even if the purpose behind it strained the imagination.

The second session's final scene ended with a thud. The Bitter fell in combat, but this death did not gain the party anything substantial. The Shrouded successfully sneaked his way past the enemies to position himself to sacrifice himself to stop the curse, but remember that at this point, the party didn't really know the stakes. He second-guessed himself and, instead of stopping the curse, made a sneak attack against the enemies—an attack that was entirely fruitless and drew their attention, and so they killed him and the Durant in the next action.

The epilogue in which the players described how they interpreted their deaths stood in startling contrast to the first session's. Their descriptions were relatively pedestrian. One of them chose to interpret his death in what I considered a strange way, not at all in keeping with what actually happened. He explained that there was a particular school he wanted to advance in, so he was coming up with a weak narrative connection in order to achieve it—even though this group would never get together and actually advance their characters and continue their adventures.


As a gamesmaster ("Marshal" in PDC) and a scholar, I wanted to understand why these two sessions were so different. My own role was much smoother in the second session: in the first one, I had to spend a lot of time cross-referencing both systems and narrative elements. The second session, I was much more comfortable with the rules, the scenario, and the dynamics.

We had all invested quite a bit of time into PDC—I much more so than anyone else!—and so we took some class meeting time the following Monday to debrief. I had each group describe their adventure to the class, in the same order in which they played. In the discussion, the students were able to confirm with me one of my suspicions: the majority of players in the first session are regular tabletop players, whereas none were in the second session. This contrast showed up in how they played and also how they reflected on the experience. For example, one of the players in the first session had originally been trying to keep all of her information private, because she plays in a D&D group that is fraught with internal party conflict. (Why someone would want to play a game this way, I don't know, but different idioms for different folks I suppose.) For her, it was a revelation to see how a tabletop RPG could be so thoroughly cooperative that not only did everyone share a goal, but they could all speak openly about their cards, plans, and tactics. It is telling that she was the Shrouded from the first session! She picked the character because of its connection to death, spirits, and secrets, and in the end, she sacrificed herself for the good of the party. This is an amazing transformation of perspective in one three-hour game.

However, it's not the case that the second group didn't enjoy themselves, but their reflections were much more elementary. They enjoyed being together as a band of heroes facing the darkness, trying their best even if they failed. That is, they were reflecting on the fundamentals of any non-dysfunctional tabletop RPG. I am glad they had that experience, although I still couldn't help but be a little disappointed, since I think they missed the beauty and nuance of this system in particular.

I also want to briefly mention that in PDC, there is a "torch" card that lists environmental elements, and players can use these to gain small bonuses. During this session, the players made creative and clever use of the environmental elements to enhance the story. Indeed, they enjoyed this aspect of the game so much, they used the elements more for the collective narrative than for the systemic bonuses! The second group was much more perfunctory and pragmatic about these environmental elements, using them much moreso than how the other group incorporated them.

Conclusions and Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned above, the materials and story around Phoenix: Dawn Command are marvelous. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Marshal's Guide and feeling like I was part of the world crafted by the designers. It could go alongside The Clay that Woke on my shelf of "RPG rulebooks that are beautiful to read by themselves," but I'm glad it went into the category with Feng Shui 2 that adds "and I actually got to play."

While two sessions do not provide scientifically sound measurement, I do have a sense that this is not a game for novices. A friend of mine teaches Dungeons & Dragons in her games-inspired seminar on interactive fiction. That's an approach I've never used in part because I'm kind of cold on D&D as a means for storytelling, since so much of the system is really about fighting and treasure: a good group adds the rest, but it's also perfectly legitimate to run a game in the hack-n-slash fashion. However, I wonder if I should do something like this in the future for students who have had little or no exposure to tabletop RPGs, to show them the bare essentials in a very mainstream way... well, mainstream for this hobby anyway.

This inspires a brief digression. Over a year ago, I got some friends together to play one session of D&D 5th Edition from the Starter Set. We didn't get all the way through the first scenario, and the reason may be very simple. I was playing with relative tabletop novices, who were new to the idea of being able to do anything in a fantasy world. In the meantime, I played the world as being real, the monsters forming believable tactics around what they saw and knew—not just sitting in their rooms waiting to be killed. Thinking about that now, maybe this was another example of dissonance between my desire for realistic narrative and new players' desire for vanilla heroism?

Bringing that digression back into the fold, my final thoughts are about my involvement with the tabletop RPG hobby. I used to play all the time in my youth, starting with Marvel Super Heroes and Dungeons & Dragons, moving into games like Shadowrun and then building and running my own games, with custom rules and worlds—which is a very natural progression for a gamesmaster, in case those outside the hobby are wondering. Now, I occasionally read books like The Clay That Woke and The Burning Wheel and fantasize about getting a group of friends together for regular games. I do host the odd board game night—usually with short notice and correspondingly small turnout, but I very much enjoy it. RPGs take more investment though: even a short campaign requires significant commitment, and I would want to play with like-minded players, people who also want to enjoy a compelling story in a system with interesting rules. But, that's a lot of work, especially for the person running the game, and we have jobs, kids, spouses, responsibilities. It's hard for me to consider how to reconcile these interests, and even how to separate interest from nostalgia. A good game session can be very very good; a bad game session is not worth the effort!

Phoenix: Dawn Command is definitely on my list of games I would love to run with a small group of interesting friends. I would like to see how the story plays out, how deaths are interpreted, how power and challenge escalate in a rather dark and brutal world. Writing about PDC ended up with me writing about myself, but isn't that where tabletop RPGs are really at their best?

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