Although not labeled as such in its RPGGeek listing, FGU's Year of the Phoenix roleplaying game (hereinafter Phoenix) falls into the 'post-apocalypse' genre. However, refering to Phoenix as a post-apocalyse game does a disservice to its premise. Phoenix' focused and elaborate premise is its most endearing feature; it is also the reason Phoenix is condemned to obscurity.
Phoenix embraces the Reagan era fantasy of a Soviet invasion of the United States. It was published in 1986 (the same year as Fortress America), between the motion picture Red Dawn (1984) and the televison mini-series Amerika (1987). To the extent that an invasion of the U.S. was likely at all, your humble host felt that the Chinese were a more plausible culprit (doubtless due to the influence of Heinlein's Sixth Column and “Free Men”).
A Soviet-occupied America – without further elaboration – is a sufficient premise for a role-playing game (see Freedom Fighters, also published by Fantasy Games Unlimited, also in 1986). However, Phoenix is not content to stop there. The following excerpt appears on the back of the box:
It is 1997. You are a soldier of the United States Space Command, a member of the warrior elite. Backed by the most powerful nation on earth, your job is to protect our interests in space.The back of the box also states:
But tragedy strikes. During a rescue mission at the space station America, a freak explosion tears you from your Shuttle and plunges you through a time warp.
Stranded in the future, a future where our great nation fell to the enemy over two hundred years ago, you and your surviving crew vow to continue your fight for freedom.
“Welcome to Amerika, comrade...”
Unique in the roleplaying experience, players are as shocked and unprepared as their characters when this tragedy hits.Of course, that's only true for players who happened not to read the back of the box and who otherwise avoided exposure to information about the game. The 'unique experience' was viable in a playtesting context, but it was hardly feasible to maintain such a pretense in a published product line. Even if it were so, it would not necessarily be desirable; someone eager to play a 'space commando' may not relish the expected setting turning into an 'underground resistance' campaign.
Phoenix includes a four page Player Handout, a forty-eight page Training Manual (covering chapters one through eight of the rules), and an eighty page Adventure Guide (covering chapters nine through fourteen of the rules, along with three connected adventures). The handout and manual do not betray the secret that the player characters will be transported to a future, occupied America; that information is in the guide, evidently intended only for the gamemaster. Phoenix also includes a gamemaster screen; one side is for the gamemaster to view and the opposite side is for the players. Among other things, the players' side displays weapons tables that provide information such as 'Year of 1st Manufacture.' Many of the listed weapons have dates after 1997 – the year in which the game supposedly takes place. Phoenix doesn't make it easy to keep the secret.
Phoenix was created by Martin Wixted (1962 - 1994), who contributed to various projects for West End Games, including The Price of Freedom – another game about a Soviet invasion of the United States, also published in 1986. The table of contents page of the Adventure Guide makes reference to “The Epic Game Series” and credits Wixted, along with Scot Fritz, for the design of the “Epic Rule System.” Wayne Shaw and Curtis M. Scott are listed as providing 'Developmental Assistance.' (Curtis Scott, like Wixted, died at the young age of 32.) The idea of Phoenix' rules as a 'system' is fascinating; an idea we shall explore in future installments of Thoul's Paradise.
Most of the art for Phoenix, including the cover shown above, was provided by David Dietrick. His efforts were uneven in Phoenix, spanning a spectrum from poorly executed to charming. Patrick Zircher supplied the art for two pages of vehicle counters.
[This paragraph contains spoilers.] In Phoenix, players create characters who are part of the United States Space Command in 1997. For their first mission, they travel to the space station America (via the 'military' Space Shuttle Phoenix) in order to liberate it from Libyan terrorists. (The aptly named station is a metaphor that Wixted employs to foreshadow circumstances that the player characters are fated to experience.) Before they can confront the terrorists, “the characters are thrown through time and space.”* Of course, the PCs are not supposed to immediately realize they have travelled to the year 2197. In the intervening two centuries, a 'cataclysm' occurs. “The exact nature of it is uncertain,” Wixted states on page 7 of the Adventure Guide, but it provided the opportunity for the Soviets to invade. Thus, although the back of the box says “over two hundred years ago,” as of 2197 it would be less than two hundred years since the occupation began. Given the current state of affairs, the PCs are expected to “vow to continue [the] fight for freedom.” As such, the Phoenix symbolizes a renewed America rising from the ashes of Soviet domination. Had Wixted gone with communist China as the invader, Year of the Phoenix could have taken on another level of meaning.
The last page of the Adventure Guide describes supplementary products for Phoenix which were never published. Liberty the Fugitive! would have continued the 'storyline' of the introductory adventures provided in the Adventure Guide. Surf's Up! would have been a distinct adventure module. Also planned was the Year of the Phoenix Sourcebook. Evidently, official Year of the Phoenix metal figurines were to be produced by Frontier Miniatures.
Wixted put a great deal of effort into Phoenix and it would seem to be a labor of love. Sadly, the focus was too narrow to be commercially viable and the topic ceased to be timely a mere handful of years after publication. Year of the Phoenix remains available for purchase from FGU. An electronic version may be obtained at RPGNow.
* On page 46 of the Adventure Guide, Wixted states that “if there are enough requests, FGU may publish a Campaign Pack for adventuring with the Pegasus in the year 1997.” (The Pegasus is the sister ship of the Phoenix.)
Edited on 11/04/12 to clarify that Curtis Scott passed away.