Hail and well met my friends of fantastic imagination and an affection for the creatively monstrous! It is time again for another installment of This Old Monster.
Last week, as I often do, I asked for monster requests. Golems were mentioned, but that’s going to take some time. See, golems are some of my favorite monsters and I frankly really like them just the way they are. Plus, they’ve been re-imagined to hell and back in every d20 supplement ever. All bets were off once we got a stained glass golem.
Oh, we’ll get to golems, but I need to think long and hard before I can think up something more awesome than Rabbi Lowell’s creation, or the big dude from Monster Rancher.
But then we have the phoenix, another favorite of mine alongside the dragon (we’ll get to them—Ere dragons are awesome). The thing about phoenixes that made me jump at the idea of doing a TOM about them is this: you have probably never encountered the creature of legend actually called a phoenix in pop culture.
No. You haven’t. And I shall illustrate:
If the creature in question was both alive and appeared to be on fire…
It was the Slavic Zhar-ptica, a creature that is essentially a magic peacock with glowing orange and yellow feathers.
If it was a bad-ass super-pheasant with colored plumage and is a guardian of good/wisdom…
It was a Fenghuang or Ho-o, a mythical bird of East Asian tradition that is the embodiment of loyalty, honesty and just rulership. They hang out with Emperors and Empresses unless they prove unworthy of their company. Oh, and they have NOTHING to do with fire.
If it built is own funeral pyre which was also the nest for its young…
It was a Bennu, the Egyptian sun-bird whose design is actually based on a now-extinct species of heron, not the typical eagle of pheasant. (What is it with ancient Egypt and extinct animals? First the Set animal and now this? Did they kill them all?)
If it had a body part that heals you…
You were playing Final Fantasy or something created by someone influenced from it.
If it was a goofy-looking hybrid of goose and eagle/condor that was red and purple…
Now there’s a phoenix, extracted from Greek and Arab myth, these guys are… weird. You know the fire thing? That happens only after they die—when the molt their bird body, leaving only a burning worm that lights the rest of the body on fire and uses the energy to regenerate into a bird again.
If it was a red-head of questionable sanity eating galaxies and warping reality…
No Jean. Just No.
With that in mind, if the new phoenix that rolls out of our workshop here is going to be a crowd-pleaser, it’s going to have to draw from more than just the original phoenix’s mythology to do it; it’s going to need parts from the other source creatures.
So. What makes a good phoenix? What are the iconic parts?
Well fire is a given. Both the ‘true’ phoenix and the bennu light themselves on fire in some fashion and the zhar-ptica looks like it’s on fire and has some kind of magical continual light thing going on.
Along with fire, we have a rebirth-by-fire theme, though it should be noted that the newly hatched bennu aren’t the parent and so it really isn’t being reborn and isn’t immortal.
From the fenghuang, we get the concept that the phoenix is a being of good and wisdom (the colors of its tail pinions represent Confucian philosophies). This is almost universal. Even the Marvel Phoenix, which I used as a joke, is considered good until corrupted by human emotion (which sounds kind of zen in and of itself). I don’t do alignment stuff, but we can use this and make it cool.
The weird thing about phoenixes and related creatures is that there aren’t a lot of ‘tidbits’ to work with, like the griffin being guard animal for Solomon’s mines, or the unicorn’s inexplicable ability to survive falls. But no, phoenixes are really straight-forward but for all their after-market add-ons.
Oh, and Harry Potter fans? They don’t sing. None of them. I actually thought there was something about a phoenix’s cry or something because birds often get some kind of sonic attack in legend, but no—the phoenix song is all Rowling from what I can tell.
Back to fire and the ‘death and rebirth’ cycle… fire already has life and death, creation and destruction themes. Fire actually almost qualifies as a living thing, seeing as it respirates, metabolizes, locomotes under its own power, and reproduces. It’s really just missing DNA. (By the way, this was the seed of the idea of Maya Blumberg from Liedecker Institute—turns out fire actually is alive, and with sufficient psionic or extra-dimensional help, sentient if not sapient)
I usually look tot he base creature for additional inspiration, but that creature is ‘generic bird’. Not even like ‘murderous shrike’ or something. I could give them a song or something, but I think the fire and life themes are enough.
Let’s rock this.
My personal preference for phoenixes is not to actually make them completely sapient, but nnot make them Real Animals either. Instead, I like them as a kind of nature spirit. Kind of.
Where most nature spirits are embodiments of elements or natural concepts (fire elementals, spirits of riviers and trees, etc), the phoenix is the embodiment of Sacrifice—the selfless, heroic kind to be precise because that’s the good kind.
Well if you see fire and life as intertwined for the phoenix, then we can have the concept of a ‘fire of life’ be literal for the phoenix: they are animated by an inner fire that they can use, but if that fire is ever extinguished or burns too much too quickly, it goes out and the phoenix dies.
So it has this fire, which is can use as a breath weapon (think fire-bolts), or as a defensive cloak of flame, but if it uses too much, it burns out and dies. Like most animals, the phoenix usually uses this to protect its territory and young.
And being a good parent, it will burn itself out to the last cinder to protect its young…
…or power them up. Again, fire is life is power for a phoenix, and it makes sense that magic fire like its own buffs it to some extent. So if the danger in the area is to great, a phoenix will land on its nest of un-hatched or fledgling young and go nova, giving its young the power to grow quickly and fly away to safety while killing itself in the process.
Hence, it is a creature of Sacrifice, because it can use its powers to sacrifice itself for its next generation. Not that they’re necessarily suicidal—they’ll try everything else possible first, but when the chips re down, that option is always on the table if it means their hatchlings survive.
As a spirit creature, a phoenix is sentient, though probably not possessed of a human-level intellect. They understand the concept of ‘self’ and emotions, and their concept of right from wrong. They see their willingness to die to protect as good and feel the same way about similar altruism.
Because of this, if they observe someone demonstrating such values, they will often decide to help. And again, being a spirit creature, they can bond with another creature on a greater level than just a pet or animal companion—in particular, allowing it to grant people a portion of their fire in the form of healing (no tears or down here—your phoenix buddy sets you on fire to heal you).
Of course, betraying a phoenix’s standards doesn’t end well. They understand that people are fallible, but at a certain point, when their companion becomes too craven or cruel, it becomes too much for the phoenix. They will try to get things back on track, but eventually, they’ll have no choice but to abandon them.
Spending so much time in the presence of a being of warmth and life and then having that taken away leaves a hollow, cold feeling behind that one either seeks to fill or that drives rage and hatred. The greatest heroes and the worst villains are often people who had and then lost the loyalty of a phoenix.
The odd symbiosis of phoenix companion relationships can also become writ large when a flock of phoenixes take a liking to small, close-knit villages where everyone cares about everyone else. Gods and demons alike won’t be able to help the poor fool that tries to attack that place.
I toyed with making them minor predators, but then it hit me that phoenixes (and more directly, the bennu) are connected to the ultimate in fire technology: the sun. So they’re photovores, gaining their powers from Earth’s Yellow Sun like some kind of avian Superman (because let’s face it; if Superman existed in a world with fenghuang, he would be pals with all of them. Just him and Captain Marvel, chillin’ with some legendary birds). This energy is, of course, absorbed through the wings.
Now, the elephant in the room here is description. There are a lot of interpretations of the phoenix and other such birds. Discworld even had the phoenix being a shapeshifter that can become any bird. So what should the new and improved phoenix look like?
Well first, they’re going to be relatively small. Let’s face it: if a person has a phoenix companion, they want that bastard to perch on his shoulder and fan its wings out to look awesome. Not too small thought, because again, awesome. I would say they’re the size of a duck or pheasant, but weight less because they’re a spirit creature.
For the look, I’m thinking falcon as the base creature with the classic pheasant tail of the fenghuang, and a feathered crest. All of this in iridescent yellows, oranges, blues and whites—the colors fire most often burns at. Like the zhar-ptica, it glows as if constantly aflame and its plumage continues to glow after falling off. As its own creature, the color of the phoenix fits its mood; an orange phoenix is content, a yellow one is sick, a blue one is elated… and a white one is burning so hot it is about to end you.
Put it all together and you have no really a dangerous enemy, but a fun ally for valiant characters. The means by which a character acquires a phoenix can be a great establishing character moment.
One wagon from the caravan broke its axle. With a reputable caravan leader, this would have been a simple matter of a slight stoppage to replace it, then everyone would be on their way.
Not this caravan master. He cares only for the gold he’s already collected and getting to the city on time to pick up more warm bodies with gold to pay for the trip back. One missing wagon isn’t unusual—screw ’em. Few others in the group consider staying behind; they’re traveling as a group for protection and stragglers are apt to be picked off.
One of the guards thinks otherwise. After all, this wagon is carrying an elderly pair, who survived the pox… and the children of their own children who didn’t. They were defenseless and worse, in no position to fix the axle themselves.
Bending her back, she sets to work, levering the stricken vehicle up with a log and a stone as the broken family huddles off to the side. The old woman and the kids are preparing a thin stew as the old man tends the baby.
The first warnign of trouble is rustling in the underbrush. Wolves. Dire wolves. The guard curses her preference for a blade rather than one of those newfangled ‘firearms’. And she especially laments not having learned any serious magic.
She could run. Hells, she could catch up to the caravan yet while the wolves attacked the easier prey. But that never crossed her mind as she pulls her sword free and orders everyone under the wagon where it will be harder to reach them.
Skilled though she might be, however, a sword is little use against a trio of wolves the size of ponies. The dire wolves shy back from the first few cuts, but they’re just sizing up their prey, circling and testing her defenses before finding that perfect angle of attack.
But they never find it. The old, scarred alpha catches a scent on the air: burnt citrus and steam. It’s a smell it hasn’t scented in these woods in decades, but the bald burn scars on its shoulders remind it always of what comes with it. He snarls and searches the woods.
The light precedes it. So many years ago, it seemed like a beacon promising food like the lights in a human carriage. Now it knows better. It growls low, trying to impress upon its now-grown cubs of danger. They don’t understand. They don’t care. Hunger makes them stupid.
It’s the elder of the two cubs that learns first. A spark the size of one of the human’s eyes strikes him in the side, lighting up his fur. The wolf yelps and leaps back, trying to figure out where it’s coming from. It finds out soon enough.
Blazing yellow-white, the phoenix descends, letting out a piercing scream that the caravan surely hears. With wings outstretched, it falls with the gentleness of a falling leaf and lights upon the guard’s shoulder. Its wings extend, its crest rises, and the colorful pinions of its tail fan out behind her, shedding daylight across the forest floor whee even brightest noon is merely dusky.
Angry, half-starved, and no less stupid, the injured dire wolf lunges. There is a popping sound, then a roar, and the old alpha’s mind screams of a panic as fresh today as it has ever been. The halo of flame bursts into being, a ring that encompasses the guard as well as the innocents she sought to protect int is embrace. The charging not-quite cub hits the wall and his fur erupts into flames.
Wailing, he throws himself back, rolling in the moss, trying to snuff the flames.
The alpha’s other offspring doesn’t need to be told. He turns tail and flees into the forest. His sire watches to make sure his other cub is able to limp away before looking up at the bird. It’s not the same one, but that doesn’t matter.
He bares his teeth, keeps his head low, and creeps backward in retreat. He’s intelligent enough to put two and two together: if the guard returns to her old job, the phoenix will ever be by her side. The caravans will never again be a reliable source of food for his tiny family.
If they choose to brave them now, there will always be a chance that one of them will meet their end in fire and light or steel made more righteous by the spirit’s guidance. This is not their hunting ground anymore. Let the more stupid predators and bandits have it. He learned his lesson long ago. His cub learned this day.
The phoenix watched it go, making sure it was in full retreat before releasing the halo of flame. It crooned and slumped against her new partner’s head, nuzzling the hair.
Almost too much. She’d fended off a hungry drake that morning, and if she’d been forced to keep her fire going much longer, there would have been none left. Luck was with her though, and it hadn’t come to that. She cooed and sent her new partner impressions of a job well done.
Three dire wolves was something mounted knights were meant to deal with. To face them on foot and alone spoke well of this one. There could be greatness there, only in need of a bit of polish.
And she couldn’t wait to see it gleam.
And that’s the new phoenix. Like the griffin, this is probably going to be the ecology I use for them when I do monsters for WOED20. They would be the rare creature that doesn’t cast with spell points, but instead takes HM damage to activate its abilities. It would also be the rare creature that is available as an animal companion and a familiar. As a familiar, they would give you bonus SP to spend on flaer and vitae spells.
Tell me what you think in the comments or on the forum.
In other news, the newest Descendants Complete Volume: Magic and Machines (The Descendants Complete Collection, #2) is now out on most major outlets. It contains Issues 13-14, Descendants Special #2, Descendants Annual #2, and Character bios for the team circa the end of Vol 2.
For those who asked you about the #SadPuppies thing, you might get a short rant, but the long and sort of it is that Larry Correia and Vox Day are assholes given human form and have bought all the bullshit of #GamerGate to the world of Sci-Fi literature. There is a Germanic word of ‘A face in need of a fist’ and their pictures should be side that word in the dictionary. Besides, Chunk Wendig already said most of what I want to say. Ignore the dinosaurs, their time is over. Long live mammals.
Speaking of ol’ Voxy Lady though, next week, I talk about the latest thing that annoyed me in something I read: Superior Races: Why Elves Need To Shut Up.