The Elemental Phoenix has been assaulting the rotting colossus with bolts of lightning while his wingmates engage at close range, but finally the seven-story-tall giant turns its gaze to this distant irritant, ripping a house – a house! – from its foundations and hurling it at the Elemental. The Phoenix can’t get out of the way in time, and he’s buried under stone and beams, his lower body crushed and numbness crawling up his chest. Still, he weakly lifts his arm, his Talon-gauntlet glowing, and he spends the remainder of his Sparks to weave their energy into one massive, fiery explosion centered on the chest of the colossus, and its bellow is like an earthquake.
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The Phoenixes have reached the top of the tower, a flat rooftop where robed cultists celebrate around a bonfire in which bodies still burn. The necromancer cackles. “You’re too late, fools. I have harnessed true power, and my slightest touch is death.” The Durant Phoenix eyes her foe. “We’ve fought our way up… what… twelve floors?” She charges through the crowd and hurls herself into necromancer, and even as her heart stops beating, the force of the collision sends them both over the side of the tower, plummeting into the rocks below.

The Devoted and the Shrouded Phoenixes sink against the wall, grievously wounded, their wingmates already dead. “We won’t stand a chance, not in the state we’re in,” says the Devoted, matter-of-fact, “let me take your wounds.” The Shrouded’s breath rattles. “You’ll die, Drake. Look at yourself.” He shakes his head. “But I’ll still be with you.” He grabs her hand, and the last of his life force leaves his body for hers, sealing the ragged cuts on her neck and arm. She can feel his familiar presence in the back of her mind, his energy giving her new vitality.

The Phoenix cradles the still body of the baker’s child. “I’m so sorry. I said I’d save him, that I’d bring your son back. But I was too late. We killed the ones who took him, but when I found him he was already gone. I’ll go back to the Crucible – speak with my mentor. I will never let this happen again.” She sets down the body gently, and then she sits and releases her Sparks, and she feels her body burn and reduce to ash.

One of my favorite parts of running Phoenix is watching the Phoenixes die. I know, it’s a funny way to put it, but it’s one of the best parts of this system and setting. Each one of the stories above came from an actual playtest, and yes, each one of those Phoenixes died. (And came back later, leveled up!)

Players can see what cards they have in their hand and the Sparks they have left and it’s interesting what uncertainties they grapple with, even without the uncertainty of a dice roll – is this moment when my death can do the most good? How do I weigh the life of a mortal against my own, with five or six deaths remaining? Can I outlast this opponent or do I go out in a blaze of glory?

I’m always impressed by the ways that players find their own exits – deaths that tell us more about what makes their character tick, deaths that save their wingmates, deaths that are just plain awesome. Even though Keith and I brainstorm opportunities in each adventure for the Phoenixes to die, the creativity with which the players find their own unexpected ways to go has been so much fun to witness.
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Dan Garrison is one of the co-designers of Phoenix: Dawn Command, now on Kickstarter!