Welcome all to 2022! I took a little break around the holiday period from writing on my blog, but I'm back and looking to the future and what it may have in store for me. The Phoenix seems very appropriate for a new year as it is a representative of rebirth, new beginnings and change. I've also done a lot of wintery creatures over the last few weeks so its time to bring some FIRE. Most likely a lot of people will have heard of this famous mythical being. Known for being a large and beautiful bird made up almost completely of fire, it is particularly famous for the legend that surrounds its immortality! When a Phoenix dies it is said to resurrect itself, rising from the ashes and retaining memories of its former life while still becoming an entirely new being.
Similar to my findings in my previous post on the Sphinx, there is a little crossover with this creature in both Egyptian and Greek mythology. In fact, which one the creature originated from has caused a little debate among scholars! Many, including an Ancient Greek scholar named Herodotus, attribute the origin of the bird to the Egyptians and point to Bennu, the large heron-like sun deity that periodically brings itself back into being and represents creation and rebirth, as the origin point for this creature. Others however believe that the sources around the Bennu are vague and could well have been inspired by the classical Greek ideas of the Phoenix instead. As time has gone on, the Phoenix motif has spread and been retold by a variety of famous figures - Pliny the Elder, Ovid, Pope Clement I, and Isidore of Seville being just a few. Many of these are prominent Christian figures and the creature's association with renewal and rebirth has meant that it is commonly paired with the story of Jesus Christ's resurrection.
There are a variety of other mythical birds associated with fire or the sun in other cultures around the world, as is usually the case! In Slavic mythology, the Firebird is a magical, glowing bird of prophecy that often acts as the object of a difficult quest, the harbinger of doom for those that would capture it, or a blessing to a hero, dependant on the fairy tale. It is a beautiful, rare, coveted creature though certainly dangerous. The Iranian Simurgh is a benevolent bird of legend with many ties to the Phoenix, known for its divine and purifying nature. There are a lot of modern interpretations of the Phoenix that include this lore and have the creature as a source of healing. Other similar creatures include the Turkish Konrul that cyclically regenerates; the Anqa of Arabian mythology that also resembles a Heron Crane and leans into the destructive, catastrophic side of the Phoenix; or the Chinese Suzaku, otherwise known as the Vermilion Bird, which is a deity that represents summer and fire. Lastly, another Chinese mythical bird known as the Fenghuang is often referred to as the Chinese Phoenix. It is said to symbolise the celestial bodies (sky, sun, moon, planets, etc.) and is also present in Japan (known as Hō-ō), Vietnam (Phượng Hoàng) and Korea (Bonghwang).
Nowadays, the Phoenix can be found in a lot of different places! It appears in many crests and flags for sports teams, military regiments, cities, and countries. In the Harry Potter universe, they certainly exist as a magical creature and one named Fawkes has a large role to play. Pokémon takes a lot of inspiration from this creature - Moltres and Ho-oh are perfect examples of this. Fans of the Hunger Games universe will recognise the 'Mockingjay' on fire and this definitely will have drawn inspiration from the Phoenix. It is a recurring summon in the Final Fantasy series, the superhero name for Jean Grey in the X-Men series, and Mulan's guide in the live-action remake of the original Disney classic. These are just some of the MANY examples of the Phoenix appearing in modern day media and pop culture, and this is largely because the symbology of the creature resonates so well - with heroes looking to purify, heal and fight corruption, or villains that seek to destroy and then rebirth the world into a new era.
So - some stat blocks! Starting with Wizards Of The Coast there are already some great options!
Let's start with the Phoenix (Mordenkainen's Tome Of Foes, page 199).
I LOVE this stat block. First, it's a Gargantuan CR 16 Elemental, which means that it is a high level fight, and I think this creature type really suits the Phoenix as a being of fire. Looking at stats it will be a FUN encounter too - with a fly speed of 120 ft., Flyby, and Fire Form, escaping is nearly impossible from a creature like this and it has the ability to outpace the party should it be losing in combat. It also has both legendary actions and resistances which makes a lot of sense for a creature at that CR. My favourite aspect is the Fiery Death & Rebirth ability, which really draws from the original lore of the creature. This elder elemental doesn't lean into the healing, divine being that some cultures interpret it to be. Instead, it is a force of pure destruction and I adore that interpretation with no ties to evil or good, just serving its instinctual need to burn.
Another stat block form Wizards Of The Coast comes in the form of the Arclight Phoenix (Guildmaster's Guide To Ravnica, page 193).
Now this stat block shows a Phoenix with a little bit of a difference. It's a CR 12 (so still a pretty high level encounter) and still an Elemental, though this time Medium size. It is also not a bird wreathed in flames, but instead is made up of lightning. I kind of love this though, especially as the two elements are just pure destructive energy! A lot of its abilities mimic its fiery cousin but with some lightning flavour, however, I quite liked Grounded Lightning as it provides a creative way for players to combat this magnificent creature! Its Arclight Touch attack allows it to target multiple enemies as well, which is kind of cool!
Now, looking beyond and towards Kobold Press, the obvious choice is the Firebird (Tome Of Beasts, page 201). Look at the STUNNING artwork!
At a CR 4, this stat block feels a lot more manageable for a lower level party and could make for a fun encounter if you were going for a younger Phoenix vibe. I find the fact that it is a Small size a little sad as I always picture a Phoenix to be much bigger, but I do love that it is a Celestial? They've definitely gone down the route of the divine with the lore here and that, paired with its powerful Innate Spellcasting that allows it to access some pretty powerful healing magic, fits in well with the real-world legends symbolising healing and rebirth. If you wanted to go even smaller with your interpretation then might I suggest the CR 1/2 Aviere (Tome Of Beasts II, page 36)? The size of a Tiny songbird I actually think this is a very original take on the concept of a Phoenix - it has a lot of religious connotation, some small amount of healing power, and is really designed to be a variant familiar of a Cleric or Acolyte, or perhaps a sweet travelling companion. Definitely a good stat block for a baby Phoenix, should your party stumble across one! There are also some great Undead variants from Kobold Press for the legendary bird worth checking out - the CR 9 Ash Phoenix (Tome Off Beasts II, page 28) and the CR 12 Undead Phoenix (Creature Codex, 361).
Outside of these sources, I've found a ton of other fun choices! Dragonix's Monster Manual Expanded II offers a well-balanced stat block for a CR 10 Young Phoenix (page 116) so if you aren't looking at Tier 4 play then this is a good alternative to challenge players! On the other hand, if you want to swing into an even HIGHER challenge, then try the CR 21 Brassheart (page 21) in Mythic Encounters by Bryan Holmes, Steve Fidler & E.R.F Jordan. Again it takes the base stat block and ramps it up with mythic actions, so it definitely isn't an encounter to be taken lightly! I also really liked Dave Coulson's Aethon (Monsters Of The Infinite Planes, page 5) - it is essentially a Large CR 3 'fire eagle' and so would be awesome for a very low-level encounter, with plenty of Phoenix inspired flavour for your players to recognise and have fun with! Other options include some fun Reddit finds such as the Baby Phoenix stat block in hellocharliekim's Reddit post for a potential Companion or Familiar idea, or even a Warlock Subclass in WaffleTheFarmer's Reddit post which is an EXCELLENT idea. I would love to find some interesting stat blocks that switch things up - maybe an Ice Phoenix for example?
So we have some interesting ideas for stats and mechanics...but how do we insert this creature into our game? Check out these example plot hooks!
While travelling through the wilds of the Plane of Fire, the party are alerted by an almighty screech as a glowing inferno races through the sky towards them. There is no way to outrun this force of nature, they must either talk their way out of this...or fight.
The party stumble across a smouldering forest that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see. In the centre of a badly charred glade is a small, egg-shaped cinder. Every so often, it moves.
Visiting a temple of a god dedicated to the sun, fire, and/or renewal, the party find it surrounded by beautiful gardens in which red-feathered peacocks and golden songbirds sing within the grounds. One hops onto the shoulder of a party member and lets out a spark of flame as it sings.
Legend tells of a mythical bird whose feathers are rare and extremely valuable. The party are hired to obtain some of these feathers, but are warned that the creature is very dangerous.
You are visited by the spirit of a Phoenix in your dreams. They tell you that they have died and resurrected, but are vulnerable as a chick and need looking after until they have grown stronger. Perhaps this could introduce a new Patron, a new companion, or just be a temporary quest transporting a chick to a temple dedicated to looking after the legendary figure!
Have your players ever encountered a Phoenix? Was it positive? Or a challenging fight? Let me know!