Sunday, 5 November 2017

Phoenix Dawn Command - first thoughts

I had the opportunity last night to play in my first game of Phoenix Dawn Command, an interesting exercise accompanied by fantastic cake from my friend Kelvin, who also ran the game. It was accompanied by the usual gigantic mugs of team from host Ash.

PDC, as I shall refer to it, as a new game from Keith Baker, most widely known as the creator of the Eberron campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, which I believe emerged in about 2003 as the first campaign setting to be published after the launch of the 3rd edition of the game.

PDC is one of what I believe will be the next generation of RPGs, combining aspects of traditional pen and paper RPGs, with elements of successful card games like Magic the Gathering and board games. It seems to me as if the current boom in board gaming is bringing more people into the RPG hobby, at least a recent article in the New Yorker argues thus. And the outcome is likely to be more games like PDC.

This is no bad thing. PDC recognises that we have less time and shorter attention spans than we used to. It is competing against other forms of gaming entertainment. Emulation, therefore, is one ingredient of possible success.

The game's setting is very redolent of Exalted, in that the players are epic heroes who have returned at a time of need, when a crumbling empire faces crisis. They are possessed of superhuman powers and, more importantly, the ability to reincarnate. Each character, like in the 1980s RPG Paranoia, can reincarnate six times before they move on to a new arc in their existence. There is something of Buddhism in all this. Ultimately, you are out to save the world, but can die/sacrifice yourself with less punitive consequences than, say, in D&D.

Each character  - I think they are called Phoenixes - reincarnates the next day if slain, and they come back more powerful than ever. Rather than levelling up through experience to improve the abilities of your character, you need to die for this to happen. In addition, and more originally, the manner of your death can help to shape the abilities you return with.

The game relies on hands of cards you draw from your own personal deck. A character is partly defined by this, and it is a good way of moderating and expanding the power of PCs. Having played Faith already, I can appreciate this mechanic, and am considering something similar for my own home brew Viscounts & Vagabonds game, on which I plan to do more work over Christmas when things get a bit quieter.

PDC brings with it some interesting elements - specifying particular features/aspects of a combat in advance allows characters to then utilise these to gain an additional advantage, which I like, and may incorporate into the swashbuckling aspects of V&V. There are no combat grids here either, rather a list of things that define the battle - a water barrel for example - and it is up to the players to find a way to use these to gain bonuses. Once used, that particular feature cannot be re-employed in the battle..

There is no character sheet either, again an interesting design innovation that Faith also explores. Instead, players use a number of cards sitting in front of them, plus some counters. It does have me wondering whether the character sheet has had its day. Again, something else to add to the mix for V&V!

Do I have any criticisms of PDC? Overall I think it is a solid game and enjoyed playing it. The setting, perhaps, is almost too redolent of Exalted to be called completely original, and indeed you could easily transpose PDC rules into the Exalted setting. There is little to separate the Solars and the Phoenixes.

The emphasis of seeking an heroic death has one flaw, which is that once a character is killed, it will take until the following dawn for them to return. In the meantime, they can possess another character as a sort of advisory spirit, providing them with a limited amount of aid, and allowing the player to continue to participate, rather than go off to make the next batch of tea. BUT, if your scenario is written to be completed in a single day, then that player is left with a reduced role for that session regardless. It is probably less bitter than seeing your D&D character of five years' play die, but still, if you can only advance through death, it is a factor that needs to be considered, and is probably best addressed in scenario and encounter design.

Finally, there is the mental jump players need to make from thinking as normal player characters, to being true heroes. This is similar to a group moving from playing D&D to something more meaty like King Arthur Pendragon. PDC is about the creation of heroic legends, not a glorified fantasy Delta Force. Players have an instinct for self-preservation which, in my case, has been ingrained by over 30 years of playing RPGs. It is difficult to shake this instinct and GMs with more seasoned groups will need to be aware of this and coach their players towards these roleplaying goals.

Overall, I liked PDC and would play it again. There is a bit of a learning curve to grapple with, even for experienced gamers, but this is less to do with the complexity of the game than in its revolutionary aspects. I myself am grateful for the steer it has given me in my own thinking about my homebrew RPG.


  1. Good post and totally agree.

    Whilst the debate we had about the end part of the 2nd scenario was a valid one (we didn't believe more people could be saved) we should have gone back anyway having implored the commander to see reason. Oh well. Lesson learned!

    1. Difficult decisions are made in times of war!

      I think the mission-based structure of the game perhaps creates an impression that there is a way to "win" the scenarios, but that is not the case, and I think it's important to remember that it is an rpg so the potential outcomes are infinite. Some of those outcomes will be better than others.