The March to Skydagger: A Band of Blades campaign

So I’ve got a new Band of Blades game starting tomorrow evening on Roll20 (though we’re doing online for pandemic reasons, I’ve known all of these people for years now and I live with one of them). 4 players, all of whom have some Blades in the Dark experience, and myself running. Character creation is already done, so we’ll be tackling the first mission tomorrow. So far our starting Legionnaires are:

  • Alke ‘Red Axe’ Alikovna (played by D.): A tough/bold Zemyati Heavy, Alke is built to power through damage with whopping Prowess 4 right off the hop. Combined with her heritage traits, and the War Machine special ability, Red Axe is built to smash through the enemy lines.
  • Crimson Stalking Thunder (played by F.): An artisan/traveler Panyar Sniper, Crimson gets in quiet and secures his position, then guns down the enemy from hiding using the Ambush special ability.
  • Marque D’arl Antionetto Bennetzi (played by M.): A connected/stern Orite Officer, the Marque D’arl is less of a fighter and more of a leader. With his Lead from the Front special ability, squads under his command fight like twice as many men.
  • Onyx Flowing Wind (played by B.): A shrewd/traveler Panyar Scout, Onyx can get across any terrain quiet and quick. With his Like the Wind special ability, nobody moves faster.

The Legion is traveling with Shreya, and is being pursued by Blighter and Render. My players thusfar don’t really know anything about any of these three.

As their Chosen is Shreya, their first mission will be to blow Hozelbrucke Bridge. I’ll be playing it up that the Legion just crossed the bridge themselves, pushing eastward, leaving the four specialists and the Ghost Owls squad behind to prevent pursuit. Render’s forces, meanwhile, aren’t that far behind and are closing in fast.

Per the mission writeup I’ll be starting with a “bridge rigged to blow” 10-clock; once the clock is full the commanding officer can blow the bridge. Filling this in is pretty straightforward, except that action rolls to rig the bridge to blow will be limited effect at best (and probably only for rig or wreck or a really well justified other action). The reason is in previous games these players were a little gunshy on devil’s bargains/setup actions/using gear/trading position/etc. - they mostly just pushed themselves for +1d and that was it. So I want to create a bit of a tutorial that forces them to explore what the other rules offer them.

What’s forcing them to do that, instead of just taking their time, you ask? Two other special clocks: an “out of charges” 4-clock that gets ticked every time they plant a charge (and the alchemical charges have potency against the bridge), and a “vanguard arrives” 6-clock that gets ticked every time they do something that would eat up time, as well as being ticked by consequences as normal. Until then the only obstacles are some Hounds near the riverbank, the pouring rain, the slippery stonework, etc.

The plan is they’ll use setup actions to plant those charges in the perfect spots, use devil’s bargains or trade position to boost the effect, to fill that clock. There’s all kinds of abandoned materiel on the bridge from earlier battles - if they run out of charges, they’ll have to scrounge up (figuratively or literally, depending on how it goes) some barrels of gunpowder (which won’t have potency and will be more awkward to get into position) to finish the job.

Lastly, I’m going throw a curveball in once they get the bridge halfway(ish) rigged: I’m going to have some civilians, with a few soldiers escorting, from Karlsburg make a break for the bridge, with some Knights of the Black Oak on their heels. 100% bait. I’ll set up a pair of racing clocks, give the Knights a clear advantage. Mostly I want to communicate, somewhat harshly, that this is a dark grim world and that they aren’t heroes, they’re legionnaires. If they manage to bring these folk back with them, I’ll probably toss them a pretty badly-mauled extra Specialist (2 or 3 corruption and a level 3 harm) or something, as an extra reward.

Anyways, that’s the plan. I’ll come back after tomorrow’s session with an AAR.

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So I’m a little late posting this AAR, it’s been a busy week, but the session went off without a hitch this past Tuesday. We started with me presenting this intro to the adventure, which is really just a modified mix of some of the info from the book:

The Legion has been shattered and the Cinder King’s troops march east, bolstered with heretofore unseen horrors to fight humanity. You and your squad must secure a retreat for your comrades. To make it worse, Shreya has gone off on her own mission and left you to make do without her.

The Legion has marched across the Hozelbrucke Bridge - the only easy passage over the Tigeria River for miles - but the undead are ceaseless in their advance. Your mission is to blow the bridge with alchemical charges. The enemy must be delayed if the Legion is to gain enough time to advance and set up a defensive position closer to the mountains.

So I was pleasantly surprised how everyone just focused on the task at hand. I was really expecting a lot of “where did Shreya go?” and “who’s this Cinder King?” questions, but instead everyone fixated right in on the bridge. The questions were instead “is there a map of the area” (no) and “what does the bridge look like?” (I sketched a quick Roman-style arched bridge).

Like I said before, initial setup was a “bridge rigged to blow” 10-clock, a “vanguard arrives” 6-clock, and an “out of charges” 4-clock. Then I explained that the first mission skips the engagement roll (these guys have all played BitD, but not BoB before) and we were starting at a risky position, and we were off! It’s also worth noting I’d decided to use Render’s forces in this mission, though I didn’t tell the group that.

Onyx Flowing Wind started with a Scout roll (risky/standard) to get closer to the bridge and get as good a look as possible to figure out what they were dealing with. Unfortunately he biffed it: 2, 3. I didn’t want to start things off on too much of a down note, so I basically gave him the same information I’d already provided (the bridge was the scene of an earlier battle, lots of partial barricades and abandoned gear lying all over, no hostiles on in sight on the bridge itself); for consequences, I said that he had some issues getting there and back quickly, and ticked the “vanguard arrives” clock twice (risky position) to reflect the wasted time.

While that was going on, the other three specialists were discussing some approaches to placing the charges - most of which revolved around the climbing kit Onyx had brought with him. The Marq D’arl led a group Scout action (risky/standard) to lead the entire group stealthily into position - the plan was to break into two groups, with Crimson Stalking Thunder & Onyx Flowing Wind keeping back while the rest all moved up to the center. Crimson and Red Axe were each going to be lowered down to place a charge, hopefully saving on time by doing two at once. The group rolled a success with consequences (and the Marq took 2 stress); I put 1 more tick on the vanguard clock, and also put a scale 2 pack of hounds at the other end of the bridge, unaware of the group thusfar and mostly feeding on carrion near the road.

Since the group only had one climbing kit and was planning to lower two people at once, while they were stealthily moving toward the center of the bridge Red Axe made a Scout roll (risky/standard) to try and spot some rope or other material that might help her climb. With a 4/5, I said she was able to cut some rope free from an overturned wagon and bring it up to the rest of the squad, and then I gave the vanguard clock another tick (4 out of 6!) and also said she made some sort of noise, dropping out of sight just as the hounds looked up and started sniffing the air. Still not discovered, but now actively looking around the area for something amiss.

At this point I decided to describe the hounds in some detail, until now I’d just referred to some undead feasting on carrion on all fours. One thing I’m trying to do is make sure that I add one bit of unsettling detail or flare to each enemy type, to make it mine. So I said, as the hounds lumbered into view, that it was apparent they were the corpses of children - and they kept shambling, rising up on their hind legs for a step or two, before dropping back down onto their arms. Almost ape-like. The reason? It was pretty obvious that while their torsos (I think I used the word ‘frames’) were that of young teens and children, their arms or jaws were belonging to adults and had been bolted or grafted onto them. I specifically described a 12(ish) year old girl’s body with big, thick, muscled dock-worker’s arms covered in coarse black hair - the weight of these ‘additions’ keeps unbalancing the hounds, thus why they run around on all fours.

This skeeved my group out delightfully, which was the point. I’m also trying to feed this back into Render’s theme - the inhumanity of total war. He ‘uses every part of the murdered civilian’, and hounds are made when an adult body is too mangled to resurrect entirely so they graft the usable appendages onto the (otherwise useless) frames of smaller corpses. I went into a lot of detail about shambling movements and mismatched ‘parts’ which I learned after the session worked even better than I had hoped, and several players were suitably horrified. So that was great. Okay, back to our story.

On the eastern end Onyx set up his climbing kit and lowered Crimson down toward the first supporting column of the bridge. I let Onyx roll Maneuver (controlled/standard) to move Crimson into position (Onyx had the better Maneuver score), in retrospect I probably should have had Crimson roll, Onyx assist, and the climbing kit improve the position. Onyx succeeded with no consequences.

Crimson then rolled Rig (risky/limited); the alchemical charges had potency and Onyx’s Maneuver roll counted as a setup, and then Crimson spent stress to push himself for +1 effect - pushing that to risky/extreme. With a 4/5, Crimson marked 5 ticks on the “bridge rigged” clock (halfway there); I marked 1 tick on the “out of charges” clock, and said some masonry broke up above and while it didn’t hit Crimson, a bunch of water that had been pooling rushed down the side of the bridge slamming into him sending him scrambling along the wet column, spinning and flailing in the dark. I let him pick one utility item to drop into the river below (so long hand weapon!) and told him position was upped to climb out of there.

Up at the center, the Marq. decided to burn a Channels use to have a second climbing kit (he was worried about Red Axe going down with only a rope, after seeing what happened to Crimson). Yes, this made the Scout roll for the rope redundant, but they learned to rely on those specialist actions a bit. The Marq went to lower Red Axe down the side, though I told him those suspicious hounds were definitely going to spot them doing that. So he ordered (but didn’t personally lead, since he was manning the climbing kit) the Ghost Owls to move up defensively.

The Owls opened fire as the hounds rushed, the Marq rolled a 6 on a Marshall roll (standard/risky) so I described the Owls moving into position, a few dropping to one knee, and opening up with a barrage of musket fire. Their charge broke up and the hounds stalked backward down the bridge, shifting into a better position. At the same time, Red Axe was flying down the pillar in the climbing kit harness, hurrying to get in position: and rolled a 2 on her Maneuver roll (controlled/standard). She took level 1 harm (bruised ribs) when her foot slipped on wet stone and she swung out into the air, only to pendulum back right into the bridge; I also ruled the opportunity for a “get into position” setup action was lost. Red Axe made a Wreck roll (risky/limited) to place a charge - the charge’s potency boosted her effect to standard, and she rolled a 6 marking 2 more ticks on the “bridge rigged” clock, and 1 more on the “out of charges” clock.

Somewhere around this time I ticked the “vanguard” clock once to represent the passage of time.

Back to the eastern end, Onyx rolled a 6 Maneuver (risky/standard) to pull the soaking wet and spinning Crimson back up onto the bridge. After he caught his breath, Crimson hauled ass off the bridge - he used a flashback to have found a decent sniper’s nest overlooking the bridge; since this was crazy reasonable and he’d had time while Onyx was doing the initial scouting roll, I charged him 0 stress for that. On his way, Crimson dumped out all the oil he had near the end of the bridge, setting up a trap in case they needed to delay some undead while evacuating the bridge. I didn’t make him roll, saving that for when/if it mattered.

This is when that wagon full of civilians appeared on the road. This entire time I’d been describing the slow, ponderous, advance of the undead vanguard down the road from flaming Karlsburg. Basically it was pitch black (no moon, haven’t told them about what happened when Nyx was broken yet), so every now and then I’d describe a flash of lightning and the reveal that the undead horde was getting closer. By now they also saw the metal plating bolted and riveted to their faces, torsos, etc. I said that there was a narrow side road that merged with the main one, from the woods, and the wagon lurched out of there. It had a harness for four horses, but only had two in it - and they were lathered, sweating…I told the Marq that he was close enough to see, one way or another, those horses were going to be dead within the hour. They’d been ridden to utter ruin. Also on a horse was a man with a pistol, periodically firing at the undead in pursuit as he screamed and yelled at the wagon to keep moving and make for the bridge. Of course, in the dark, they had no idea anyone was there (much less rigging it to blow).

The Marq, still holding the other end of the rope Red Axe was dangling from, ordered the Owls forward. There wasn’t anything he could do if the horde caught up to the wagon, but he wanted the hounds pushed back. The hounds rushed in, and the Marq rolled Marshal (risky/standard) to push forward. 4/5: the hounds ate another barrage of musket fire, dropping them to scale 1 and sending them hustling back toward the western end of the bridge, but rookies Gallant Chiara Loprio and Amber Surging Storm were torn up by the hounds before they were driven off (I had the Marq decide their genders and heritages, then randomly generated their names, since we don’t have a Marshal yet).

With 1 tick until the vanguard arrived, Red Axe decided to take a gamble. She asked if she could jump from one column to the other with a Maneuver roll, saving time instead of climbing up then back down at a new location. Since she’s got the War Machine special ability, I told her I was fine with that if she pushed herself; but also that she’d need to disconnect the climbing kit harness to make the jump, meaning she’d have no safety net. She went for it (desperate/standard), and rolled a 6 - clinging to the broken masonry of the next column but otherwise no worse for wear.

Red Axe followed that up with a Wreck roll (risky/limited) - she took a Devil’s Bargain and burned her Wrecking Kit to use some acid to weaken the masonry, so she could plant the charge in the perfect position, for +1 effect. Crimson, who has the highest Rig in the group, flashbacked an assist where he gave her some pointers on the perfect way to prime an alchemical charge (I made him pay 1 stress for the assist as normal, and 1 more for the flashback to have done so). The Devil’s Bargain and the charge’s potency boosted the Wreck roll’s effect from risky to great, and the extra die from Crimson’s assist helped Red Axe get across the finish line, rolling a 4/5. She got those last 3 ticks on the “bridge rigged” clock, but her footing slipped while her arm was inside the column and she fell. I gave her a level 2 harm (“dislocated shoulder”) which she resisted, rolling a 5 and only paying 1 stress, changing it to her second level 1 harm (“pulled shoulder muscle”).

At this point, the Marq moved up to join the squad (since he was holding a rope with no one attached to it). I had that wagon just barely staying ahead of the vanguard, and had said more hounds had moved up from the riverbank to join the ones they’d driven off (restoring them back to scale 2). The Marq gave the order for everyone to line up shots but hold their fire - he wanted to open up on the hounds right when the wagon was about to hit them, because he wanted to make sure the hounds didn’t attack the horses. With his Lead from the Front ability, and now that he was actually leading a group action, I said the squad would basically function as normal (i.e. ignoring their losses, but not going up to scale 3).

Meanwhile, Onyx was hauling ass with his climbing kit to set it up on the other side and pull Red Axe back up onto the bridge. He pushed himself on the Maneuver roll (risky/standard), pushing himself for an extra +1d, and rolled another 6. We were all joking that Onyx is the king of clutch - he biffed that initial Scout roll but otherwise, I think it was all sixes all night long (and we were using the Roll20 roller, so there’s no way he was bullshitting us to be clear).

That’s when the wagon hit the line of hounds, and the Marq bellowed “fire!” Crimson joined in with his rifle from his sniper’s nest, and Onyx pulled out his fine bow as well. They rolled a crit on the group action, and nobody hit a 1-3, so no stress. Even though the wagon and civilians had been meant to be a “you’re gonna have to make sacrifices” lesson? They earned it as far as I was concerned, so the wagon poured through with that one soldier joining them while the hounds broke under sustained fire. The wagon was too wide to get past the makeshift barricades, and the soldier was pretty badly hurt; the Marq grabbed the soldier (who’d lost his sidearm and had been hacking at the vanguard with a cavalry sabre), who had blood streaming down from a piercing wound at his armpit, while ordering the remaining rookies to get the civilians out of the wagon.

Onyx came up to help with the evac, while Red Axe finally pulled out her namesake and made some pretty heavy sweeping attacks, aiming for knees and legs to slow the pursuit while everyone fought their way east. Crimson lay down some covering fire with black shot, and then blew the charges (it was getting late, so i sorta tossed in at the last moment “everybody good if Crimson has the detonator?”)

With the bridge blown, the mission was a success, and we called it a night shortly thereafter.

Favorite Moments

  • Red Axe lunging - I might be biased, since Red Axe is my girlfriend’s character, but her whole “we’re doing it live!” moment when she unhooked from the harness and lunged? I just loved it. I’ve since told her if she’d gotten a 4/5 it would have been level 3 harm where she still made it to the other column, but a 1-3? A level 3 harm and into the rushing river, in heavy armor. She’d have had one chance to fight the current, then I’d have washed her away. I probably would have put a rescue mission into place during a future mission selection (but not right away, let them think she was dead).
  • Crimson thinks about shooting out the wheel - no roll here. The Marq was bellowing orders, moving the rookies up to hold the bridge, while Crimson just sort of…mused…about shooting out the wagon’s wheel. The vanguard had nearly arrive, and he very specifically confirmed these people were soldiers but they weren’t legionnaires. If he took out the horses at range and the vanguard fell on the civilians, that would have bought the other legionnaires time to plant that last charge and bug out. He didn’t do it, but I loved the whole internal debate. I’m really thrilled my players are really getting into the “morally gray” nature of life in the Legion.
  • Crimson pockets the last charge - so they had 4 alchemical charges, Crimson took 2 and Red Axe took 2. Red Axe placed both of hers, Crimson only placed one. At the end of the mission he asked if he could keep it, just you know…not mention it to the quartermaster. I told him sure. No idea what’s going to come of it, if anything, but I’m really digging it.
  • The Details - the hound thing I already mentioned, but the other detail that came at the end was the alchemical charges. They didn’t explode - instead they transmuted all the stone in a 5 foot radius to glass, which sort of stayed put for a moment before shattering beneath the weight of the bridge itself. Then, with a 10-foot wide piece of those columns shattering, the bridge itself fell down on the remaining columns, fracturing apart, breaking the columns, etc. It’s these little details that are just weird and cool or unsettling, that communicate the setting (or, at least, my version of the setting) and the way my players are responding to them is great. Also several of these players really got into the terror of dangling off a bridge, in the dark; I really played up the “Onyx you hear Crimson cry out but can’t see anything down there” sort of stuff.

Lessons Learned/Mistakes

  • Onyx rolling Maneuver - Onyx has the best Maneuver rating in the group. Onyx is the one with the climbing kit. When I first allowed hm to roll Maneuver to lower Crimson, I didn’t think about long-term impacts. I just said he can roll, but the consequences will be felt by the person actually going down (and that person had to agree to that). In retrospect I should have had the person going down roll to Maneuver, with Onyx automatically improving the position (an automatically successful setup action, basically).
  • Marq rolling Marshall for the squad - When the Marq was in the squad, leading, him rolling Marshal for their firing was definitely the right call. When he was relaying orders at a distance, probably not so much.
  • Deciding who had the detonator - I should have just asked the group who had the detonator, rather than pushing for a quick solution. Honestly, this one was just it being late and us all having been pretty clearly ready to call it a night, and me wanting to wrap the mission before we did.
  • Devil’s bargains - Red Axe took a Devil’s Bargain to burn her wrecking kit for +1 effect. Technically Devil’s Bargains only give +1d. The vanguard was almost there, it was late, and if I’d let them go from 7 to 9 ticks and they’d had to do the whole ‘go to another column’ deal AGAIN? I think they’d have gotten pretty frustrated. It was the first session, I wanted to make sure no one left feeling negatively about the game.
  • Managing the pressure- Because the vanguard clock got ticked so much at the start, I eased off it later, meaning they only ever engaged with the weather/environmental hazards and the hounds. I actually think this worked, because they are really on edge now about the “terminator zombies” as we’ve been calling them, and also because they aren’t used to needing to worry about the wind being as much a danger as a monster, so hopefully that’ll school them. It worked for our session, despite not really being how I expected it to go.

Next session is our first campaign phase (due to time we’re doing one phase per session, so campaign nights are likely to be a lot more relaxed/chill and mission nights are going to be a lot more focused).

Nice and… veeeery detailed :upside_down_face:!
Some advice/questions.

  • Maybe, instead of the Heavy Red Axe rolling (and taking risks) to find a rope in the field, then your Officer wasting a Channels use, your Scout could have spent a Scrounge use to get everybody ropes and necessary material… much more efficient. Generally speaking, use Channels for bigger, more important things than just one kit.

  • Your Heavy (Red Axe) was in heavy load, right? So Red Axe had a Fine Wrecking Kit. You could perfectly have allowed him a +1 effect, plus a +1 dice for the Devil’s Bargain.

  • If you make people pay 2 stress for Assists in relatively simple flashbacks, they will be reluctant in the future to do so. IMHO you could consider that the flashback price was the assist price. No need to double on it.

  • Did the Officer roll Shoot on the group action there he lead? Normally everybody has to roll the same action.

Yeah, it wound up longer than I think I’d planned. I might cut some detail in the future.

Eh, I get what you’re saying here but I also think what you’re suggesting is a rules-focused approach that ignores the realities of the fiction. The Officer/Heavy were the ones who needed the climbing kit, the Scout already had one and they were in different locations. Also the Scout was reserving his Scrounge uses to find additional explosives in case they ran out of alchemical charges, which turned out to be a non-issue but they didn’t know that going in.

Good point. I forgot her kit would have been fine, and she forgot to mention it. I think I’d be more inclined to give two uses or something, than a double bonus, for a fine kit but that’s just a gut reaction. I’d have to think it over.

Disagree. The assist action requires you be present and able to assist in the action - in this instance Crimson Stalking Thunder was half a kilometer away, in the dark, while Red Axe clung for dear life underneath the bridge. Meaning a standard assist from that character wasn’t viable - given that Red Axe was all alone down there, a standard assist from anyone wasn’t really viable. I charged Crimson 1 stress for the assist action (as normal) and 1 stress for the flashback that opened up the option, as you do for a flashback that is an “unlikely opportunity”.

Nope, he rolled Marshal - as you do, when leading a group of NPCs. I know how you feel about it, we’ve argued about this before. I’m not interested in revisiting the topic.