The Blood War: Too Big, Too Small, or Just Right?
Animated by Meagan Kenreck (@meagankenrekt)
The Blood War is the greatest conflict of the D&D Multiverse, but it’s hard to use in a campaign. For some, it’s too big—how do player characters get involved in a multiplanar conflict between the endless legions of the damned? For others, it’s too small—why hasn’t this massive war drawn in other planar factions and embroiled the entire Multiverse in war? Let’s find a way to make it just right for your game.
What the Hell is the Blood War?
The Blood War, as described in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, is a nigh-apocalyptic conflict that has raged for eons across the Lower Planes. Demons clash against devils in an endless conflict for dominion over the Abyss and the Nine Hells—and eventually all of the cosmos. Because of the cataclysmic consequences of an end to the Blood War, all major powers in the Multiverse desire to see that it is a war waged eternal, lest the victor set their sights on conquering the rest of existence.
Meta-textually, the Blood War was first introduced to the story of D&D in 1991, in the Monstrous Compendium: Outer Planes Appendix for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. The Blood War quickly became a crucial component of the Planescape campaign setting—and was a core aspect of the cult-classic video game Planescape: Torment—which itself gave rise to the “D&D Multiverse” we know of today.
Why did the Blood War begin? If there ever was a reason, it has long been forgotten. The Archdevils and Demon Lords care not why the war began, they strive only to end it, and claim primacy over the Lower Planes.
The Scourge of Scale
How big is too big? The answer is: when the player characters can’t meaningfully affect the world around them. And in a conflict as far-reaching and monolithic as the Blood War, most characters cannot change its tide, no matter how much they try. Even ignoring their phenomenal cosmic power, there are ten Archdevils and eight Demon Princes in Tome of Foes alone, each with their own armies of hyper-powerful fiends. No group of PCs can affect meaningful change in such a conflict; all they can do is fight to survive.
Depending on what kind of campaign you want to run, you may love this feeling of powerlessness… or you may hate it. In my experience, Dungeon Masters tend to be the ones who enjoy survival games, while players find the constant struggle for survival to be just a little too similar to trying to survive in the real world. Unless you’re playing D&D with people you’ve played with before, it’s a safer bet to play a game focused around escapist fantasy rather than one of gritty survival. Unless you’re trying to be really depressing and avant garde, a story that starts with brutal, oppressive warfare, should end with a heroic victory at the end, as the 20th-level PCs finally storm the Nine Hells and kill Asmodeus outright, and then swoop into the Abyss to trap Demogorgon in an inescapable demiplane.
The trouble, of course, is that most campaigns peter out before that glorious victory can take place, leaving an unsatisfied taste in the mouths of both player and Dungeon Master alike.
But this need not be the case! The Blood War is a conflict of overwhelming scale, but there are ways to explore its vastness as either a heroic Star Wars-style fantasy adventure, or as a brutal Saving Private Ryan- or This War of Mine-style campaign of suffering. Don’t forget that victories occur even in brutal stories and even heroes have setbacks. People die in both, often en masse. Remember Alderaan?
What’s most important to the tone of your brutal or heroic story is whether or not it has an optimistic or pessimistic outlook. People have hope in heroic stories, even in hopeless situations. But in real war, hope is fleeting. Every day of survival only prolongs the suffering. Which tone works best for your campaign?
Here are two plot hooks for each mood that will help get your campaign off the ground.
Low-Level Brutal: Lost Souls
The characters awaken in darkness, submerged in icy water. They burst from the water, gasping for breath, and pull their bodies onto the bank of the river. They can remember nothing of their past lives… only that they are dead, and they have crawled from the water of the River Styx. Their souls were bound for the Lower Planes, but they were knocked from their ferry when their merrenoloth ferryman was killed in the crossfire of a Blood War skirmish.
The Blood War has granted them a second chance, an opportunity to save their souls from the Lower Planes, but they must struggle upward from the Styx, making deals with mercenary yugoloths, sneaking through shelled-out extraplanar battlefields, and making grim deals with devils to find a way back home and escape this foul war.
High-Level Brutal: Endless Legions of the Victorious Damned
Asmodeus is dead, and the other archdevils are soon to follow. Chaos is spreading throughout the Multiverse in the wake of their defeat. The characters first hear of this dire victory in Sigil, the crossroads of the Multiverse, when the city is instantly engulfed by demons. A legion of undead bodaks emerge from Sigil’s monolithic Mortuary, led by a balor under the direct command of Orcus himself, and surge into the streets of the City of Doors to claim it in the name of the Abyss.
Thus beset, the PCs have no choice but to save as many people as they can and retreat to a safer location. Perhaps if they save the Kolyarut from the Hall of Concordance (see marut for more info), they can take shelter for a time on Mechanus, the plane of absolute Law. Even there, they can only cling to order for so long before the chaos of the Abyss stops the gears of Mechanus dead in their tracks.
Low-Level Heroic: The Great Tanarukk
Orcs are always scary, but orcs possessed by demons are a nightmare given flesh. When a tribe of marauding orcs led by a tanarukk lays siege to their city, the PCs must decide whether or not to fight the orcs directly—and face certain death—or follow rumors of a demon cult of the Baphomet within the city. By following these leads, they learn that not only are the crime lords of the city worshiping demon lords, but that the city’s nobles are devil-worshipers!
If the war between the Baphomet-worshiping criminals and Mammon-worshiping nobles continues, creatures like the demon-possessed orcs will constantly arise to terrorize the town. The only way to save this city is to weed out the corruption from within.
High-Level Heroic: The Harrowing of the Nine Hells
The Nine Hells have gained an unacceptable advantage in the Blood War. The archmage Mordenkainen personally approaches the characters and offers them a magnificent reward if they undertake a quest that he claims will save the Multiverse from utter annihilation at the hands of Asmodeus. They must venture into the Nine Hells, starting with the first circle of Avernus, and slay Mephistopheles, the greatest wizard of the Hells. Mephistopheles’s realm of Cania is the last line of defense before Asmodeus’s realm of Nessus, and destroying the great wizard will strike fear into Asmodeus’s heart. He will surely withdraw his armies to protect himself from harm, giving the beleaguered forces of the Abyss time to regroup and mount a renewed offense.
Wait, is that All?
Maybe the Blood War isn’t too big. Maybe it’s too small!
Why haven’t the devils teamed made a treaty with Primus, Lord of the Modrons and Being of Supreme Order to crush the demons? Why haven’t the demons sought out a way to unleash Tharizdun, the Chained God and Avatar of Entropy to wipe out their enemies once and for all? There are so many mighty creatures looking for a leg up in the Multiverse that it seems impossible that this powder keg hasn’t exploded yet. Not everyone is as preoccupied with the cosmic balance as Mordenkainen, surely at least one or two of the great powers of the cosmos have given into greed and thrown their lot in with an Archdevil or a Demon Lord to gain a place in the New Planar Order.
By this perspective, the Blood War is cast as a sort of mundane Balkan conflict when it should really be fantasy World War II! Why hasn’t the entire Multiverse taken up arms in this war? Why hasn’t the terror of this cosmic cataclysm spread to Waterdeep or Neverwinter?
This is the problem that keeps me from putting the Blood War front and center in my campaigns. Actually, it’s why I prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist when running D&D, even in published settings. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth to suspend my disbelief that such an all-consuming conflict could remain so isolated. If you’re able to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the Blood War for what it is, I envy you! It’s a very cool storyline, and I love the way the Balance of the Multiverse requires the engine of war to constantly pit cosmic evils against each other. It’s ultimately just not my cup of tea.
However, if the idea of a Multiverse embroiled in total war appeals to you, the Blood War is a perfect catalyst. Orcus has escalated the war into an arms race by discovering a way to unleash the Elder Evil Tharizdun upon the Multiverse, and Asmodeus has retaliated by enlisting the aid of Primus to put a check on the Demon Lords’ power. Meanwhile, archmages, gods, and demigods from across the Multiverse convene in Sigil and other, more secret locations to figure out how to keep the planes from being torn apart at the seams as more and more creatures and societies pick a side—mind flayers, the githyanki and githzerai, the Princes of Elemental Evil, metallic and chromatic dragons—all creatures have thrown in their lot in this ever-expanding War to End All Wars.
Or is it a War to End All Life?
By its very nature, this sort of all-encompassing story requires very high-level player characters to make it work. And these characters’ players need a deep understanding of the lore of the D&D Multiverse in order to comprehend all of the plots and motivations flying around in this ambitious crossover event.
The Blood War in Your Game
Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is packed full of schemes, plots, and plans for the Archdevils and Demon Lords that will keep the eternal Blood War raging for centuries to come. But will it make an appearance in your home D&D game? Is it worth it? Is it still too big (or maybe too small!) to be worth featuring in your campaign? How will you use the most enduring conflict in the Multiverse?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in a five-room apartment/dungeon in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two fiendish kitties, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.