Keith Baker Talks Phoenix: Dawn Command, Eberron and More
We had a chance to pull Keith Baker of Twogether Studios away from his work to ask some questions about Phoenix: Dawn Command (which we covered in a previous story), gaming, Eberron and his hat. Phoenix is “a game where death not only makes you stronger, it defines who you become“, has a Kickstarter that has already been funded and is starting to hit stretch goals with around a week to go.
How did you first get into Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop RPGs?
I first encountered D&D when I was nine years old. I loved Tolkien and all manner of myths and folklore, and here was a set of books that would let me create my own epics. It was a year or two between when I acquired the books and ran my first game, but from ten on I was off and running. By the time I was sixteen I knew game design was what I wanted to do with my life… and here I am today.
I fell in love with the Dragonlance setting after reading the Chronicles Trilogy and playing the modules with my friends. Many of our readers had a similar experience with Forgotten Realms and Eberron.
Is there a world created by someone else you really enjoyed reading about and playing in or did you always play in completely original worlds?
I loved all manner of fantasy, and I also read the Dragonlance books… but I still usually made up my own worlds. I’d buy modules – including the Dragonlance modules – and read them to see what people were doing, but I liked making up my own ideas. That’s why I always emphasize that people should feel free to change anything in Eberron (or Phoenix) – canon should serve as a source of inspiration for stories, not restrict you from telling the story you want.
With that said, back in my early days I did develop skins for a Star Wars RPG (before such a thing existed) and for Stephen Brust’s Dragaera novels. I’m looking forward to seeing John Harper’s official take on Brust’s work (Blades of the Jhereg).
Do you have any advice for rookie world builders?
Far more than I can squeeze into this space! One of the reward levels for Phoenix includes me doing a two-hour online workshop on worldbuilding, along with a handout – I’ll be trying to squeeze as much advice in there as possible. But just to throw out a few basic things…
- Why does your setting need to exist? What is the question it answers that’s never been answered (or answered well)? What is a story you can tell here that you can’t tell elsewhere? This question is less important if you’re just designing a setting for your friends, but it’s a very important question if you’re working on a commercial product.
- Look for inspiration in our world and lore. I don’t mean directly copying – “This land is just like Egypt except they have octogons instead of pyramids” – but understanding why some nations and religions prosper and others fall, why wars start and end, etc can help you make your world feel real. The Last War in Eberron draws in part on the Hundred Years War, in part on WWI and in part on WWII. It’s not just like any of those things, but those events help inform the impact it has on the world and the setting.
- In terms of “How Deep Is Too Deep” – whether in geography, history, or anything else – a good rule of thumb is whether for any element you’re creating you can think of at least three ways it could have an impact on stories in your world. If you can’t think of any way that your list of a hundred kings could every affect play, it’s probably not necessary.
How did you first come up with the idea for creating the Eberron setting?
I’d been lead designer on a Pulp-themed MMORPG called “Lost Continents” for the three years prior to the setting search, which ended up being cancelled. So I’d been watching pulp movies and serials for the last few years… and I’ve always loved film noir. Meanwhile, the fact that magic in D&D generally behaves in a scientific manner (reliable, repeatable, magics can share spells and create new spells) yet never seems to be incorporated into society in a scientific manner has always bothered me. Eberron merged those two ideas together.
In 2002, Eberron won Wizards of the Coast’s Fantasy Setting Search, beating out 11,000 entries. How different was your winning entry from the Eberron that was published in 2005?
The Setting Search went through multiple stages. The 11,000 entries were one-page entries. Eleven of those were selected, and the authors expanded them out to ten pages; three of those were selected, and each author expanded it to one hundred pages.
It’s hard to compare final Eberron to the one-page concept, that one page was incredibly high level. Eberron wasn’t a pre-existing world; I developed it for the setting search, and built it out as I went through the stages. Looking from the 100-pager to the final product, there are some significant differences. Once WotC selected it, I went out to Seattle for a week of intensive work with the R&D team. At that point they were able to call out the things they liked and didn’t like, and together we honed it to its final form. A lot of good things came out of that process. For example, the halflings were always nomadic… but it was in that process that we decided that they domesticated dinosaurs. The number of nations in the world was cut down, which was definitely a good decision; as is, we haven’t had the time to develop the existing nations in as much depth as I’d like. But the core ideas have certainly remained the same.
Back in March we saw the release of free Eberron material for D&D 5e including support for Artificers and Warforged. Are there any house rules would you’d adopt for a 5e Eberron campaign or do you find the rules a good match as is?
The Unearthed Arcana material released for Eberron was a draft for playtesting, not final material. I think it’s good for exploring ideas, but I’d want to continue development on it if and when Eberron is fully developed for 5E. With that said, my design time over the past year has been focused on Phoenix, so I haven’t developed Eberron rules that I’m satisfied with (although you can find my early thoughts on warforged and artificers on my website, Keith-Baker.com.)
If you get a chance to work on Eberron for D&D 5e what are you most excited about doing with the world?
There’s always been interesting parts of Eberron that have never been explored in detail. I’d like to see more development of both Darguun and Droaam. And I think there’s a lot of interesting points in the history of Eberron that would be interesting foundations for one-shots or campaigns. Personally I’m not interested in advancing the timeline beyond 998 YK, but I’d be happy to explore earlier periods. And I’d certainly like the chance to write new Eberron novels.
Aside from those you’ve created, what are some of your favorite tabletop RPG or card games?
When I was younger I did a lot with the Hero System. In more recent years I’ve really enjoyed Over The Edge, Lady Blackbird and Fiasco. In terms of card games, most recently I’ve been playing Machi Koro and Gentleman Thieves, and I just backed Boss Monster II.
What was the inspiration for you and Jenn Ellis to create Twogether Studios?
There’s a few factors. The first is simply that we both love games, and we want to create games that help people have fun together – so we’re not going to be creating games that end up with one player flipping the table. Beyond that, it’s obviously been frustrating for me to be unable to continue to develop Eberron material... so I wanted to create a new setting that I could explore in as much depth as I choose. Originally I was developing a system-neutral setting, but the system Dan Garrison and I developed for Phoenix is particularly going at telling the sort of stories that drive Phoenix.
You are currently working on Phoenix: Dawn Command at Twogether Studios. Can you tell us a bit about the game and the Kickstarter campaign?
In some ways, Phoenix is a bridge between Eberron and Gloom. Like Eberron, it’s a fantasy RPG with a setting that lends itself to a different sort of story than many settings. Like Gloom, it is driven by cards that encourage storytelling… and ultimately, you want your character to die.
In clearer terms, Phoenix: Dawn Command is a fantasy RPG that uses cards to resolve actions instead of dice. Your world is under attack by a host of nightmares. Your people are at war with an enemy they don’t understand, and they are losing. Normal humans can’t defeat these threats… but you’re not a normal human. You have returned from death imbued with supernatural power. You will be facing unknown dangers and you may not live through the night, but death just makes you stronger. You’re a Phoenix, and you have seven lives to save the world.
Why did you decide to use cards instead of dice to resolve outcomes for Phoenix: Dawn Command?
In Phoenix, you are fighting to save your people. The stakes are high and the odds are against you. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to succeed without at least one of you making the ultimate sacrifice. While you will return stronger, you don’t return right away. If you all die during a mission, you will surely fail that mission… and that can have dire long-term consequences. Essentially, you can’t afford to throw your lives away casually – but there will be times when a sacrifice is worthwhile.
By using cards instead of dice, Phoenix places far more narrative control in the hands of the players. From round to round there is a random element – what cards do you draw? But within a round, you know exactly what your character is capable of. You don’t get the scenario where your warrior makes a dramatic speech invoking the spirits of his ancestors, uses his mightiest attack… and rolls a one and misses. In Phoenix you can look at your hand and see whether this is the time to make that dramatic speech – or whether you need to find a less dramatic action you can accomplish with your weaker hand while you wait for your better cards. Beyond this, your character has a pool of magical energy that you can use to boost an action. Which means that if you are determined, you can push beyond your limits… but when you run out of this energy you die. Which means you often find yourself with a choice: how important is it to accomplish this thing you’re trying to do? Is it worth burning your best cards or your limited pool of energy? Is it worth dying for?
Essentially, while there is still a random element to cards, they provide a player with a much greater degree of control. And given that the odds are against you, you need that control; we don’t need to greater randomization of dice to add tension. Phoenix is about making choices, and the dice help you do that.
What new play experiences does Phoenix: Dawn Command offer a gamemaster and players looking for something new to try?
One of the primary new experiences is the card system itself. While this still has a random element, it provides a greater experience of telling your own story. It’s a simple, flexible system and we’ve found it to be very easy for people with little or no RPG experience to pick up; the main things you need to know are all contained within your hand.
The second is the fact that the approach to death lets you do things you’d never do in another game. You can hold the bridge to save your friends from the balrog, or throw yourself on the bomb to save the innocents. It lets us raise the stakes and put you in situations that simply wouldn’t be fair in another system. Beyond that, the nature of your death determines the manner in which your character improves – so over time, your experiences really do shape your character.
All in all, it’s just a very different experience from the typical die-driven RPG.
It’s hard to find a photo of you without your hat. Is there a story there or do you just like your hat?
My “Hat Phase” really began in 2009, when I was traveling the world doing Have Dice Will Travel. It’s a very functional hat: waterproof, good in all weather, and can be stuffed in a bag. Since then, it’s basically become my work uniform. It’s easy to recognize, so it’s good when I want people to be able to find me at conventions and such… and if I take it off, I’m basically Clark Kent.
Keith, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. All the best with the last week of the Kickstarter and many fans like myself would love to see work on Eberron for 5th edition start right away (or at least when you aren’t so busy with Phoenix).
Visit Keith Baker’s website at keith-baker.com