Blades in the Dark Campaign Retrospective Part 1: Campaign Summary

Swords in the Absence of Light - composed one of the campaign’s players

My group recently wrapped up a 2-year campaign of Blades in the Dark. I was the GM and started planning the campaign in early 2020. Our first game coincided almost exactly with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, April 1st, 2020. We planned to play in person but ended up playing the first half of the campaign on Roll20.

Now that we’ve finished the campaign after 29 sessions, I thought I’d post a recap of the campaign and offer my thoughts on the system with the benefit of hindsight.

I’ve documented quite a bit of the campaign in past posts, but here’s a summary that includes the rest of the story.

Season One

The Ghost Bones were a gang of smugglers who rose to prominence in the Duskvol district of Crow’s Foot. The gang was founded by Weaver, a well-connected bike courier, Cuffs, a ruffian addicted to betting on boxing matches, Vey, a sneak-thief and disgraced Iruvian noble, and Grimesy, a Skovlander Unity War veteran and inventor. The Ghost Bones pushed in on the turf of the local Red Sashes gang and began running smuggling jobs on their safety bikes crafted out of human bones.

The gang quickly figured out they were too small and weak to directly fight the Red Sashes and the other local group of ruffians, the Lampblacks. So they did what would become a signature move and played them against each other. After a number of scores, they managed to get the Red Sashes to raid the Lampblacks headquarters and take them out, driving their leader Bazso Baz into hiding. Later on, they took out a Red Sashes lieutenant, delivered a strange cube-shaped tomb from the Deathlands to an unknown client, and eventually took out the Crows, toppling the rulers of the district and growing their turf. Along the way, they acquired some Rovers to help move cargo and started training some street urchins (Rooks), including two Skovlander refugees they rescued from the Fog Hounds. The rescued Skovlanders now lived in the Fog Hounds’ old hideout in the sewers of Crow’s Foot.

Our Roll20 main page after a few sessions
Our Roll20 main page after a few sessions

In later scores, the gang did some traditional smuggling jobs and started to get in trouble with the Hive, the mysterious alliance of Duskvol merchants secretly dealing in contraband. After taking some nasty hits from scores to repair their relationship with the Red Sashes and steal some banned art from the Hive, the founding members of the gang took a much-needed break. Vey took his break in Ironhook Prison after getting caught by the Bluecoats after one of the scores.

Season Two

So began season two of the game, where we followed the exploits of the gang’s urchins. The players made some new characters and we got to meet Clave, the hapless abandoned noble with a taste for ice cream and a preternatural ability to go unnoticed, Stev, a quick-talking Skovlander orphan who wanted to be Cuffs when he grew up, Magnus, a knock-kneed pickpocket with an alchemy set, and Asdis, his spooky older sister and the de facto leader of the kids.

Over the next several sessions we saw the urchins grow up, learning about the dangers and violence inherent to the underworld of the Dusk. However, we also found that their naivety and curiosity made them excellent criminals, as they quickly struck several powerful blows against the Hive. It became a bit of a running joke that the kids were much better ruffians than the adults.

A major narrative for the remainder of the campaign emerged when the kids decided to try to bust Vey out of prison. The crew hatched a plan to have Magnus brew a concoction to fake Vey’s death. After he “died,” Asdis would show up impersonating a Spirit Warden and bust him out.

Long story short, Asdis found it easier to be initiated into the Spirit Wardens rather than try to steal or fake one of their strange masks. The gang executed a score at Charterhall University to listen in on a lecture given by a Spirit Warden, using Grimesy’s Walky-Talky-Rocky (remote controlled sparkcraft listening device robot thing) to learn some of the Warden’s secrets. With these clues, she was able to learn about the initiation ceremony and sneak in. After proving her mettle by vanquishing a ghost, she uncovered a dark secret: the Spirit Wardens (and by extension, the state-run Church of the Ecstasy of the Flesh) had a pact with the water demon, Setarra. In exchange for fueling her desire for spirits from Duskvol’s deceased, she provided them with supernatural abilities. Asdis found herself compelled to accept this pact to rescue her associate. She accepted her unique Spirit Warden mask from the demon Setarra in the catacombs under the Sanctorium, forging a demonic connection she could not easily shake.

However, the Hive was onto the gang and pledged an all-out war to destroy the Ghost Bones. With this powerful group bearing down on them, a prison break was out of the question. The Ghost Bones turned their attention to the Hive, destroyed one of their pirate ships, and took over one of their Coalridge factories, stirring up a Skovlander worker revolt in the process. Asdis used her new connection to summon Setarra, whose tentacles and raging waters helped take the factory. However, Setarra wasn’t interested in leaving after helping out. She took over the factory and began converting Skovlander workers to worship her. One of the gang’s only allies, Ulf Ironborn and his Skovlander nationalists, turned into the Cult of the Drowned Ones, worshiping Setarra and fighting for the working class revolution in Coalridge.

In the background, Weaver’s spider web vibrated with murmurs of activity among some of the city’s most powerful occult forces. Lord Scurlock, the reclusive and suspiciously old noble, was making moves against his rivals. Rumor had it that he owned two of the three artifacts of the ancient mummified body of the sorcerer Kotar: his Heart and Hand. The ancient-worshiping Path of Echoes and the weirdo Dimmer Sisters (owners of Kotar’s Eye) were competing with him to control these powerful artifacts. If one group held all three, the balance of power in the Dusk was sure to shift.

Additionally, the gang’s old contact Bazso Baz reemerged as the leader of the Cult of the Empty Vessel, worshippers of a Forgotten God. They identified their Spirit Champion through arcane rituals, finding Jul the blood dealer (Grimsey’s rival) a fitting candidate. They were planning to sacrifice her to their god in the Deathlands when the stars were properly aligned.

Our Roll20 main page around the time we transitioned to playing in-person
Our Roll20 main page around the time we transitioned to playing in-person

The kids continued to fight the Hive and eventually carried out a devious score where they captured the spirits of Djera and Roric, the leaders of the Hive. They used the strange artifact Ulsud-Mi’s Gate, stolen from the Red Sashes in an earlier score. With the leaders captured, Asdis commanded her ghost frenemy Nyryx to possess Djera’s body and turn herself into the Bluecoats, initiating a massive police raid of the Hive. This hit, combined with an attack on The Royale, a train carrying the remaining Hive lieutenants, effectively neutralized the operation.

However, as the gang destroyed The Royale, Grimesy chose to sacrifice himself to ensure the success of the score and the safety of Magnus, his bomb-building accomplice. The Bluecoats took him to Ironhook and he started a branch of the Ghost Bones behind bars.

Season Three

Act 1: Flash Forward

With the Hive incapacitated and Grimesy in the clink, the Ghost Bones entered their third (and final) season. I’ll cover this one in more detail, as I haven’t summarized it in my previous posts.

We flashed forward a few years. The gang had a new hideout, an abandoned railcar in Coalridge, close to their only ally, Ulf Ironborn and his Drowned Ones. The urchins grew up a bit.

In this season the gang set their sights on Lord Scurlock and Asdis’ dangerous pact with Setarra. They learned through their information networks that this creepy occultist had acquired the third artifact of Kotar. With its power, he was taking the underworld by storm and threatened the Ghost Bones’ tenuous new position of power. The gang spent a few scores learning more about Scurlock and his plans.

They hit a fancy dinner party posing as caterers to eavesdrop and learned he planned to take over the City Council and threaten the power of the Governor. They stole some old smuggling routes hidden at the abandoned Weatherbottom Botanical Research Facility, fighting a vicious carnivorous dankblossom in the process. Clave accepted an invitation to Scurlock’s manor and viewed his disturbing art. Scurlock offered him great power and eternal life in exchange for cooperation in retrieving the tomb of Kotar, currently held by the Cult of the Empty Vessel. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang planted a dankblossom in the sewers underneath his estate. Setarra continued to push Asdis, helping the gang and the Skovlander rebels gain power, but requiring their obligation to her dark power.

Leading into the climax of the campaign, the gang concocted a plan to take care of Scurlock and Setarra in one blow. With some help from a new friend, Spinx the information dealer (played by a temporary “guest star”), and Clave’s expedition into the restricted section of the Charterhall University library, they found out Scurlock wanted Kotar’s tomb so he could destroy it. They also learned he had discovered a secret to eternal life, somehow using unrefined leviathan demon blood to sustain himself. If they could cut off his supply, they could weaken him enough for them to steal the artifacts for themselves and eliminate him as a threat.

They also learned Kotar was a mad wizard who managed to discover the secret to eternal life, but in the process caused the Cataclysm that broke the sun, turned the sea to a Void, and closed the Gates of Death, damning the world to deal with vengeful ghosts who could not pass into the afterlife. They also learned that both Kotar and Scurlock’s immortality was simply eternal life without aging, not immunity from death. Kotar could also be resurrected with the proper rituals. Perhaps he could help them defeat Scurlock and Setarra and help them open the Gates of Death… To take on such a massive challenge, though, they’d need help from his artifacts.

Act 2: Civil War in Duskvol

The gang set their plan in motion. Asdis researched a ritual to trap Setarra in her bloodstream (a demon of water must have a liquid substrate). She learned that in order to do that she must secure a large body of water and make a blood sacrifice. The “closer” (biologically and emotionally) the blood is, the more effective the ritual. She made the sad realization that Grimsey would be the perfect candidate. Binding Setarra would satisfy her need for revenge against the demon, whose water killed her biological parents when it flooded their town. It was also a possibility that Setarra would try to prevent the gang from undoing the Cataclysm, as she survived on ectoplasm harvested from ghosts.

The gang carried out a two-pronged epic score to plunge Duskvol into civil war. Asdis led a group of Drowned Ones cultists and summoned Setarra in the form of a tentacled beast with a giant armored turtle shell. The water demon destroyed the leviathan hunter ships in the harbor and feasted on the spirits of the dead sailors. The Duskvol Imperial Navy was dispatched, blockaded the harbor, and began shelling Setarra and the cultists. This chaos accomplished the gang’s goal of cutting off the city’s (and therefore Scurlock’s) supply of leviathan blood.

Over in Charterhall, the rest of the gang met with Ulf Ironborn and his Drowned Ones and convinced them to start a Skovlander revolt in the city. Spinx acquired a bomb through their contact networks, Stev distracted the City Hall crowd, and Magnus deftly planted the bomb in the boiler room. Stev disguised himself as Ulf and threatened the Mayor to force him to announce the Skovlander takeover of the city. They then blew up City Hall, leveling the block. This incited an international incident and threatened to restart the Unity War of Akoros against Skovland. A full-on Skovlander rebellion began in the city, centered on the Docks in the West and Coalridge in the East. Much of the city was on fire as the battle raged.

The next step was to get the tomb from the Cult of the Empty Vessel. Magnus overheard cultists mentioning the tomb was “installed” in their hideout in the sewers of Crow’s Foot. He tailed them and learned of a few entrances to the hideout, including the main larger tunnel they used to transport the tomb. There was also mention of a ritual involving Jul, their Spirit Champion, and the tomb; it sounded like it was going to occur soon.

The gang decided to tell Scurlock they knew where the tomb was and offered to take him to it. He accepted greedily and joined them in their expedition back to the sewers of Crow’s Foot, near where it all began. However, as they neared the Cult of the Empty Vessel’s hideout, Scurlock turned to Asdis and told her he knew what she was up to, flashing Kotar’s disembodied eye moving independently on a chain hanging from his inner breast pocket. He flashed into action and began murdering cultists and searching for the tomb. The gang joined in the fray and started fighting Scurlock as he was distracted by the cultists. He adopted a terrifying and increasingly bestial appearance, sprouting claws and scales as he fought viciously and with supernatural speed.

Stev did a flashback to acquire a bolas-like pair of throwing handcuffs and then used it to trap Scurlock’s hands. Stev managed to shoot the bound Scurlock through the chest and he collapsed on the ground. The gang continued to fight the cultists who were streaming in. They saw an angry Bazso Baz and a floating, glowing Jul coming down a sewer tunnel towards them. Spinx emerged from the shadows and went to search Scurlock’s body for the artifacts. However, as she got closer she noticed a glowing coming from the hole in his chest. Eventually, he sat up and said, “That tomb is mine!” Spinx saw a glowing metal heart embedded in his chest. One of Kotar’s artifacts saved him from certain death. He clambered up and was ready to continue fighting.

However, the gang then executed a series of very well-orchestrated actions and flashbacks, really showing the players’ maturity with the system: Spinx flashed back to research the layout of the sewers with her friend (and Weaver’s rival) Augus the architect Magnus blew up a tunnel to trap or kill Bazso and Jul Clave the newly-crowned Skrat Prince flashed back to have his skrat army gather ectoplasm in a sewer pipe, and then he opened it, covering Scurlock Asdis used her Tempest ability to blast him with lightning, melting his vampiric body and destroying his ancient spirit

Lord Scurlock was dead, but in the process, the gang also destroyed all of the artifacts he held. Despite this hiccup, the gang pushed onwards and found Kotar’s tomb installed in a vine-covered cistern. The Cult had obviously been trying to drill into it to open it for their own devices. Asdis was able to open it by commanding the ghosts of Kotar’s ancient followers to open the spirit lock that sealed his tomb.

The tomb opened, its obsidian slabs sliding along invisible joints, a hiss of steam spraying out as the pieces unfurled. The cube-shaped tomb turned into a pyramid with four columns at each base point. At the apex was an obsidian sarcophagus carved with the face of a middle-aged man, tattoos on his face in geometric patterns. Clave touched his face and the ice-cold sarcophagus also opened, revealing a desiccated corpse wrapped in rotten robes. He held in his hands a spirit bottle containing the spirit of Kotar. The corpse was missing pieces: his left hand, one eye, and a hole in his chest where his heart should be.

Asdis reached out and connected with Kotar. Stev spoke to him using Ghost Voice. Kotar replied in a creaking voice and assumed he was being greeted by his followers preparing to resurrect him. After clearing up some important topics, the gang learned that Kotar had died fighting demons at the Gates of Death. These immortal beings did not want a mere mortal to join their ranks. Setarra dealt the killing blow. He pledged to take them to the Gates of Death to help them undo the Cataclysm if they helped him defeat Setarra. Perfect.

The gang took Kotar’s spirit with them and left a replacement bottle with a screamer in it – the very banshee that haunted Asdis, freshly captured. They closed the tomb up and giggled thinking about one of their rivals – the Dimmer Sisters, the Path of Echoes, the Red Sashes – springing their booby trap. They left Kotar’s body, planning to either find him a different one or just keep toting him around as a spirit. He was easier to keep an eye on that way.

Later on, Asdis prepared for her ritual. She busted Grimsey out of Ironhook using a ghost door. She was injured by a rogue terror on the way, but Grimsey saved her and carried her back through the Field to the railcar. What a touching relationship… A short while later, Asdis confronted Grimsey about his relationship to the Drowned Ones, certain he had joined up with them in jail and worshiped Setarra. They had a fight but made up as he convinced her it wasn’t true. Then, during a beautiful reconciliatory hug, she stabbed him in the back and bled him for her ritual, apologizing as she did it.

We flashed to Asdis standing on the Dock in the midst of the raging civil war and summoning Setarra. She brought Kotar along as a spirit passenger. He tried to control her and seize the victory against the demon for himself, but she resisted. At least he got to watch. Using the blood sacrifice of her mentor, she completed the ritual, vanquished the powerful being, and trapped the power inside her own bloodstream, rising into the air and flashing bright light from her eyes and mouth. The new Asdis was colder and her hair waved around her as if she were constantly underwater. She also had a new ability to step into the Ghost Field at will, her humanity slipping away. She also felt a strange urge to the bottom of the Duskvol harbor, where three iron eggs lay bound in chains… (see ritual description in Extras).

Back at the railcar, Asdis spoke to Kotar and they developed a plan to get to the Gates of Death following his instructions. He needed a fresh corpse, two silver coins, and a blood sacrifice. We did a quick montage to see the crew gather the required materials. Clave and Magnus distracted a guard at the leviathan blood depot while Asdis turned into her new ghost form and snuck in, stealing some of the valuable blood. Then the crew decided to use Grimesy’s body for Kotar’s ritual.

Following Kotar’s instructions, they placed two silver coins over his eyes and wrote runes on the body with their blood. Kotar murmured in an unknown language. Lightning crackled above the body. A rip in space-time appeared above it, a strange cut through the air that revealed beyond it a black sky full of stars and a towering wall and door of bones. Somewhat dramatically, it was closed and barred with massive chains and locks. At its base, a huge group of spirits was milling around, banging against the door, weakly protesting their banishment, and mindlessly wandering around without a purpose.

Act 3: The Gates of Death and the Rising

After a moment’s hesitation, the gang jumped through. They briefly felt nauseous, their ears popped, and they passed into the Ghost Field. Everyone turned into the ethereal blue and green spirits. As they approached the door, they saw a towering figure rise up behind it, a shadowy outline with large horns. After a tense discussion, the Ghost Bones realized they were dealing with Oryxus, Demon of Darkness and Death. He closed the Gates as punishment for Kotar and the rest of humanity for meddling in its affairs of Death. He commanded that they convince him humanity has learned its lesson.

Asdis and Stev accepted the challenge and began debating him. Asdis tried to convince him that his quarrel was with Kotar, not all of humanity, while Stev claimed humanity had suffered enough in darkness. Eventually, Asdis got tired of the debate and drew Kotar out of his spirit bottle. He stood before them in his spirit form, matching the image on his sarcophagus. Asdis commanded Kotar to kneel before her, using the evidence of her superiority over this ancient sorcerer to intimidate Oryxus into accepting that humanity was ready for the afterlife again.

Meanwhile, some flashback research led by Magnus revealed a bit more about the Cataclysm. Magnus’ player failed their roll to learn more, so we justified it by saying that Magnus couldn’t actually read! He was only about seven and never went to school; he’s a professional criminal, after all. So we saw Magnus just doodling demons and wizards in his notebook. However, the player then resisted successfully, so we retconned that Asdis taught him how to read and write, but he developed his own idiosyncratic writing system that just looked like doodles to everyone else.

Magnus learned that during the demonic civil war, Oryxus triumphed over his eternal enemy the Demon of Light, Argaz. Argaz was going to prevent Oryxus from punishing humanity, so Oryxus imprisoned him and was able to destroy the sun and plunge the world into darkness. With this knowledge at hand, sneaky little Clave floated away in ghost form, following the edge of the bone wall searching for an imprisoned demon.

Eventually, he came upon a large wrought iron birdcage on a hill near the bone wall. Inside it was a dimly glowing large flame-colored bird. Clave deftly picked the demonic lock. With the lock removed, the phoenix form of Argaz stared up at him, let out a loud screech, and burst into a brilliant white light. Clave screamed in pain but curled up into a ball and hid his eyes from the blinding flash.

Back at the Gates of Death the debate continued. Eventually, Stev and Asdis were able to convince Oryxus that humanity had suffered long enough and had a newfound respect for the sanctity of death. Oryxus unlocked the Gates and the giant bone doors swung open. The gang felt a rush of air as the afterlife opened back up to the dead, and they had to resist being sucked in themselves. They were all successful, but as they pushed against the powerful wind to escape, Oryxus heard Argaz’s call and knew he had been freed. He turned to the party and began shooting up pillars of pure darkness out of the ground at them in anger. Asdis commanded Kotar to fight him and the two again became locked in arcane combat.

Argaz was flying free but seemed a bit aimless and was still weak. Stev grabbed Asdis’ lightning hook and hooked Argaz, pulling it with them back into the world of the living. Back in Duskvol the war continued to rage. Continuing to draw on Magnus’ scribbled notes, Stev knew that Argaz could relight the sun, but he would need to be much more powerful. Demons draw their power from the natural world and the elemental force they represent/are. Duskvol was still dark, but we all remembered an earlier conversation about how parts of the city were on fire… To relight the sun, Duskvol would have to burn.

The gang rallied the Skovlander troops and made a daring raid on the wealthy districts, setting them ablaze. The resulting conflagration generated enough light to power up Argaz, and Stev released the demon. It joyously flew through the flames, growing in size and brightness until it glowed so bright and hot all of Duskvol had to shield their eyes. Argaz streamed through the air and flew up into space, crashing into the sun and reigniting it in a flash.

And so, we ended our campaign with a new dawn rising over the Shattered Isles. It was a new world; not completely “fixed,” but certainly much better than before the Ghost Bones opened the Gates of Death and reignited the sun. The Void Sea was still dark and full of demons, but now spirits could properly pass on into the afterlife and crops would grow again. We had a nice scene where the entire city stopped, the war temporarily forgotten, soldiers lowering their rifles as the sun shone again and thousands of spirits streamed up into the sky and down into the ground to pass on to the afterlife. The gang saw the spirits of all the dead from the campaign floating by. Some (ok, most) like Djera Maha, Bazso Baz, and the Fog Hounds were angry, some like Nyryx, Asdis’ old frenemy, were mournful, and some, like Grimsey and Vey (oh, yea, he died in the fire!) were happy to briefly see their old gang again before their final rest. After the pain of the Cataclysm, this hopeful new event became known as the Rising. Eventually, a truce was declared and Duskvol gained an Autonomous Workers’ Skovlander Republic, a split city much like the Cold War-era Berlin of our own world.

We did a quick retirement summary where players described how their characters spent their remaining days. Clave took over Mr. Frakes’ locksmithing business but used it primarily as a front for his massive skrat burrow that lived below the building. Weaver opened up an official cartage and courier company, tired of the danger that came with criminality. Asdis took all of Grimesy’s wealth and had an entire cult worshiping her, but she was not happy. She spent more and more time in the Ghost Field, not comfortable with the messianic status bestowed on her by her cult, feeling guilty about Grimesy’s fate and haunted by her new demonic nature. Cuffs always felt guilty about his friend he let down during the Unity War, but he was offered a chance for redemption in retirement. He took a position as a combat instructor for the Skovlander rebels. Stev unfortunately fell further into drugs and ended up in the gutter at a young age. Magnus strangely inherited all of Vey’s coin (strange how that happens) and enrolled in the Skovland Army. He rose in the ranks and finally had a legitimage claim on the sweet, sweet, military hardware he coveted so much.

In my next post, I’ll reflect on the campaign and the Blades system.

Header image: Art by one of the campaign’s players