Frustration with secondary mission failure

Both of my groups are now feeling really frustrated by the consequences of secondary mission failure. They recognize that it’s trying to emulate the capriciousness of war and the grim helplessness of having comrades die when you aren’t around. One group has previous experience with torchbearer and is willing to grind through. But one player in particular in three other group is finding it particularly hard, and we have narrowed it down to a few causes:

1 lack of control. There aren’t many knobs you can turn and most of the time you have no better than 75% chance of avoiding cruhsing failure.

2 failure is crushing. It takes three or four downtime actions to heal, recruit, and RnR back up to where you were. The players tend to agree that a slow leakage of casualties would feel better than suddenly losing three soldiers.

3 The narrative generated by the roll is pretty bare. This is partly because we run reasonably short sessions and one of the last things we do is the secondary mission which is a bit rushed. But the single roll doesn’t prompt that much fiction.

I’m not sure these are serious balance problems mechanically; they will have no trouble making it to skydagger, though they may be depleted and sad and hungry. But I am worried about player engagement. I’ve started noodling with alternative secondary mission structures with multiple rolls and decision points to make the deaths seem more spread out and meaningful. But I was wondering if other people had similar experiences and suggestions on how to handle this.

Well. We had kind of the same feeling for mostly the same reasons. Except it was worse since two (or three?) failed secondary missions in a row (in cluding one where we had “given all we got” and rolled with 3 dice…) brought our Legion to the brink of collapse, and there was a real risk that the whole Campaign would stop. It’s a vicious circle since deaths in a secondary will kill your morale, and then you don’t have the Campaign actions to heal the wounded and so on…

We even had to do a Rookies-only primary mission, since not even one Specialist was fit for fighting. But then we had two successes in secondaries, which gave us just enough ressources to make it to Skydagger… which is played… tonight!

So: I personally share the feeling that this randomness takes out the agency of the players and puts the whole success of the Legion in the hands of Fate alone. The players can be creative, play well, take risks, suffer and succeed, but the Campaign could stop abruptly even so. Also it means that some Specialists are not played for a third or a half of the whole campaign, because sometimes you just don’t have the ressources to heal them.

In my next Campaign as a GM I will clearly spell this out to the players in advance. My plan is the following:

  • begin by following the rules s written and see how it goes…
  • TRY to narrate/play a bit more of the secondary, maybe as your “noodlings”. But problems of time/tiredness at the end of session, and this could come at the detriment of free play.
  • Introduce in due time if necessary one of the two following houserules:
  • Either the 1-3 result on the secondary is treated just as mission failure (normal penalties, but no death/wounded and no possibility of choosing to “success with costs” as for a 4/5)
  • Or I decide that any Legionnaire who does not participate in any mission for a session has a chance to heal one dot, free (maybe a fortune roll with PROWESS to fill a 4-clock?) and clears one Stress.

Here are two other options, a simple one and a complex one:

  1. Give the players more knobs to turn: options include adding more special abilities that give +1d like the Officer’s Strategist ability; or offering +1d if multiple of the required specialists are on a mission (so you’d get +1d for sending both a Scout and a Sniper on the mission).

  2. Expand the secondary missions into three rolls, rather than just one. Sort of like how Battles work in Agon 2e: do Engagment > Action > Finale. I’m not entirely certain what each of these rolls would entail, but doing it this way would add a bit more PC involvement to the Secondary Missions and spread the failure around. while still keeping them zoomed out. Here’s a thought on how to do it:

Engagement: As normal, but it only determines the position of the Action roll, rather than the outcome of the whole mission.

Action: The GM narrates the broad situation of the mission. Each player takes a character and says how they are contributing to the mission, in a broad sense. They roll the relevant Action. Every one rolls at the same position, as determined by the Engagement roll. 1-3: Take Harm as determined by position. 4/5: Take Harm and add +1d to the Finale pool. 6: Add +1d to the finale pool.

Finale: The GM says how the mission comes to a crucial turning point. Then roll the finale pool. 1-3: Mission failure, 2 squaddies die. 4-5: Mission success, 1 squaddie dies. 6: Mission success.

That’s pretty quickly hacked together, and it would require playtesting, but I think something like that could work.

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Yeah, that’s exactly how they’re feeling. I’m not sure it is justified (they still have 17 combat effectives and enough morale to recruit) but they are definitely feeling bruised, and it leaked into some OOC arguments.

This was roughly what I was thinking. An infiltration roll, action, and exfil, with a chance of casualties at each step, but also the opportunity to scrub the mission if it starts going sideways.

Other option is roll for success as per normal, and then individually roll for the survival of each member of the squad.

I rather like the aspect of failure baked into Band of Blades, but I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a sucker for pain. My Legion just reached Skydagger Keep. On the way to Skydagger we lost 24 Legionnaires and came very, very close to ending the game for lack of squads at Fort Calisco.

Band of Blades is a game primarily about war, and when you send people off to fight in a war they die, often arbitrarily. That was as true for Greek hoplites as it was for soldiers in the American Civil War. In fact one of the things I really enjoyed about this game is that the game makes it very easy to have competent, strategic command staff, but the flipside of that is that competence is never enough in a war to keep your men from being killed. If people don’t die it’s not really a war, and in war, not everyone gets a Resist and a Flashback.

My players did their best to min-max their Secondary Missions. There strategies included:

  • They trained up two of their Specialists to have the Officer Strategist ability
  • Judicial and conservative use of Resources for secondary missions. Until the very end, we almost never spent Quartermaster resources on Primary missions.
  • The first Advance I took for the Horned One’s Chosen was Shapeshifter, which awards extra Intelligence every other successful primary mission. Once the Commander had 3 Intelligence, she began using Intel for mission rolls every two missions as extra intel became available.
  • They moved around Soldiers as they were promoted so that they could have a full squad of soldiers for the extra +1d.

Of course even when you’re rolling 4-5 dice it’s possible to fail. We lost 6 Soldiers and 14 rookies using this approach and every one of those deaths were felt by the group.

In terms of how it felt “narratively”, I did the following: Every Secondary Mission was given a 1-2 paragraph write-up just like I prepared for Primary Missions. Underneath my write-up, I would have a series of “endings” for the mission written up according the the final dice roll. For example if the mission was Assault, Greater Undead, +2 Morale, +1 Pressure if failed, I might write up the following:

Assault, Greater Undead, +2 Morale, +1 Pressure if failed
Breaker has unleashed her steed Silver, the Infamous Devourer, and is using the beast to capture refugees in Gallows Pass for conversion into undead and Hexed. Lay a trap for the beast and bring it down.
6+: The plan was perfect and Silver fell for it. By using one of the Squad as bait while the rest lay in ambush, Silver is caught unawares and brought down by rifle-fire. XYZ distinguishes themselves on the mission with their rifle-skills and is promoted.
6: While the plan to capture and kill Silver worked perfectly, both Specialists sustained minor injuries as they struggled to hold Silver in the net.
4/5: Fail: Silver was far more aggressive and dangerous than you could have imagined and her strength was enhanced by Breaker’s unholy blessings. Rather than risk injuries, the squad allowed Silver to escape.
4/5: Success: Silver was far more aggressive and dangerous than you could have imagined and her strength was enhanced by Breaker’s unholy blessings. Two squaddies died in the fighting and the specialists sustained serious injuries before she was finally defeated.
1-3: Silver is far too clever to be caught by so stupid a ruse. By the time you realize she was never fooled by your trap, she has melted the face off Blue Dancing Mushroom with her bile and flung two other squaddies off the mountain to their death. Your specialists sustained life-threatening injuries trying to protect the remnants of their squad.

Then I ask my players to respond to the fiction. Were there heroes even when the mission failed? Did Emerald Growing Weald, recipient of the Sword of Valor go to his death running or fighting? Did Einhart Meckler blow himself up on the bridge to give the Legion time to retreat? My players, especially when they are mourning a favorite Rookie typically respond very well to this kind of story-telling opportunity. During the back-to-camp scenes we also typically have a funeral which was another opportunity for people to make their peace with a favorite character’s death.


Pain is relative. We lost 37… (I just counted) I wonder if it’s really over the average? And I was even thinking our GM has been too lenient sometimes… I’ll see tonight how much more we lose at Skydagger’s Keep.

You seemed to have played the secondary missions game quite well, and I can only approve. But maybe that’s the problem: it’s almost another game, and one which is not really RPG any longer. It’s too abstract, it’s too much cold calculations and not enough “fling yourself in the battle with all your guts, even if sometimes unwise”. Of course I’ve been guilty of some calculations to try to improve the engagement roll, but I think the kind of effort your players displayed has taken time that I’d rather spend on something else.

“We lost 6 Soldiers and 14 rookies using this approach” : Are you saying that on a total of 24 Legionnaires lost, you lost 20 on secondary, and only 4 including Specialists, Rookies and Soldiers, on primary missions ? That seems strange.

That said, the way you prepared those missions on the GM side is something that I’ll use as an example later on.

Hey @Michael_Atlin

Here’s the thing.

This is not entirely true. Part of the game is learning what knobs you have here, planning for what you have and putting most of your resources into supporting the things you can control. That said as someone mentions later, even when you put 4 dice on that mission you can lose everything.

This is as intended.

War isn’t about perfect control. It’s not about constantly winning. Sometimes someone survives to the end only to take a stray bullet on a helicopter out. When you can control most things (primary missions) your stats look better. This is the other half of that.

A designers job is partially to add pieces to the conversation that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you want to win or have control it’s probably best not to play games with dice.

It should. When you lose a battle you lose morale. Heck it sounds like your table is taking a morale hit ^_~ Losing battles shouldn’t feel great.

That said, the probabilities are solid. Yes you can totally lose the game on a long streak of bad luck, but the math will back up smart play. If your QM is planning correctly, and your Commander is supplying your Legion you’ll make it. It won’t be pretty, but you’ll make it.

This is really on you and your group. I don’t have anything here. @Udachnik’s solution below is kind of great though if you have the time for it.


Here’s the thing. I get that some people play games for escapism. There’s nothing wrong with that. Not every game is for every group. And if folks want to win all the time there are better games for that (there’s a super popular fantasy one I’m thinking about). I designed this game to tell the sorts of stories you don’t usually see in Hollywood, and that reflect some stories of WW2 I heard as a kid. And it wasn’t all victories and predictable losses. War isn’t math. You CAN lose. Sometimes bad luck counters all the planning in the world.

I get what you’re saying to an extent, but if it’s not fun … call the game.

BoB is designed so that you CAN lose. We talk about a lot of this at the start of the book, and we definitely tell you to get your table on board before you play. That said sometimes you realize partway through that maybe this is not the case. It’s fine.

If it’s not a game for your group, that’s ok. There’s 100 different games out there about heroes winning and saving the day. If that’s what the folks want, I don’t judge anyone who goes to play one. But this is a horror game. You should worry about the outcomes of secondary missions when you pick up the dice. It SHOULD make you nervous (even if it’s 1 in 4).

And if you’re not aboard for some losses … I have nothing for you other than saying—you will lose people, it won’t feel great, but that’s fighting against odds, and I’m sorry… but it’s the game working as intended. This isn’t a game problem, it’s something you’ll have to square with your table, which is outside the purview of the rules.


@stras to be clear, this isn’t a critique of the game design. I’m confident it’s operating as intended!

It’s a description of a few players’ perceptions of an element of the game. I should have made that more clear. Like I said in the OP, we get what the mechanic is doing, and we like the tone. Some of the players are just feeling frustrated because they feel like they have limited ability to influence a perceived death spiral. I actually don’t think the death spiral is as severe as they fear it will be, and they’ve been aggressively keeping the odds good on secondary missions by spending resources, intel, and grouping soldiers into elite squads. I think they’ve got reasonable levels of system mastery.

I’m not sure it’s fair to suggest that the group’s not up for some losses; they’ve taken about 50% casualties so far; they’ve been sacrificing themselves in primary missions frequently; they’ve been choosing to take the casualties on 4-5 results on secondary missions to get a success; they’ve debated executing soldiers for disciplinary infractions in the slice of life moments. I think they’re really into the game, and are enjoying it a lot most of the time (they wouldn’t be this upset otherwise, as you point out), so we’re not going to stop playing.

I think what they’re maybe less up for is the loss of agency they experience when their efforts are dwarfed by that single roll. Which, I understand, is operating as intended. I definitely will be talking to the group to try to realign expectations.

The death spiral is carefully calibrated. If you’re within 1-2 standard deviations on your dice rolls overall and your command staff is playing decently you should have a better than average chance … but it’s made to FEEL worse than it is.

For example, we set up those time clocks to feel very scary. You start and the first one is practically HALF FULL when you finish location 1. Holy cow! Almost a third over and you’re not a third done with locations! How will you ever get to the end!? People really sweat and feel the pressure … … … actually if you count steps you’ll probably be ok especially if you take into account some stuff like the calisco pre-mission. But the design is there to make people feel pressure even though the math holds up.

If folks are really hit hard, have a sit down and look at the math with them.

If you send a squad on a mission you get 1d. If you get 1 piece of supply, you get another. So 2d (that 75% you mention). Ok, that’s not horrible. What’s next. Try to train up some rookies to officer (it’s not easy) but you can get a couple folks with +1d from Strategist. Saving intel spends for secondary missions gets you to 4. And if you have an all soldier squad for those can’t fail missions for a 5th die … it’s a thing (though losing soldiers to the 4-5 can hurt). Having goals and working towards them can sometimes give people direction and control and help.

Good luck.

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@stras Yeah, I’ve done all that analysis. It’s why I’m not super worried about the death spiral. I just want a way to help my players see it.

And yeah, they lost 3 soldiers from an all soldier squad. Which is why it hurt so badly. Thanks!

I love this write-up idea and am totally stealing it.

I actually kinda wish that Funerals were a built in part of the Lorekeeper’s responsibilities. I guess it’s kind there with the tales of the Legion, but I love the idea of having something more specific for the dead Legionnaires themselves.

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It’s a Forged in the Dark game which I think means it’s WAI. When the camera is on the players they benefit from the full range of Forged in the Dark defensive mechanics. On a good primary mission where no one ultimately dies, I still manage to hand out 4-6 100% lethal consequences on the way there. “Your experimental bolo works! Unfortunately, Ache the Infamous Heartless collapses on you, you are no longer a human, you are a red paste. Rank 4 harm.” “The Black Oak Knights fall for your oil trap and are now on fire, but they also manage to lethally shoot you.” “You have fallen off the cliffside and have enough time for a short prayer before you die.” Then I get to watch my players pull themselves out of death with all of the resources that a Forged in the Dark game has: flashbacks, armor & shield, special armors, resist rolls. The flipside of this, is that characters on Primary Missions typically end up more damaged and more stressed than their secondary mission compatriots which helps balance things out.

Thank you, please steal it!

We’ve done a bunch of funerals as the early back-at-camp scenes. Came up with a bunch of good rituals. In one of our legions, you are only discharged when you die; everyone who retires is just put on detached duty. The subtext is the discharging on death helps keep them rising from the dead to continue fulfilling their oath of service. Almost certainly just superstition. When bodies are unrecoverable, we treat one of their treasured personal belongings as a proxy.

I will echo the sentiment that you need to narrate, at least a little bit what happens on a secondary mission. Even if you do it over email between sessions it’s worth the effort. Our last secondary mission involved Shreya fighting Blighter in order to secure the body of a dead chosen so Blighter couldn’t make a new lieutenant out of it. I really assumed it was going to be the primary mission, but the players went a different way. With so much on the line, I was prepared to be extra cruel on a secondary failure and throw some damage on Shreya as well, but they actually rolled a crit and dealt Blighter a serious defeat. Over email we detailed exactly how when things looked dire, a brave rookie ran into the fray to save Shreya with some well timed grenades which earned him the free promotion you get from a crit secondary. I find players really enjoy the narrative freedom of occasionally just saying what cool shit happens once the dice have already been rolled and the type of outcome is known.

A lot of this is solved by acknowledging something that maybe isn’t as explicit in the book as it could be; the core rules are made so that the players can assess the risks before making the call. Make sure they make that assessment before deciding if and how to take a secondary mission. That way, you’re all on the same page before the dice roll. If they feel like the coll encompasses too many events that they would rather resolve one-by-one, maybe this mission should be a primary rather than a secondary. Then on top of that, as you say, narration is key for things to matter. If you feel you’re cutting it short, try to find a way to give it the time it needs, or consider leaving it out alltogether.

“before deciding if and how to take a secondary mission”

Unfortunately, this isn’t possible, because you don’t have the choice of how many missions you undertake or leave out.

The Commander is presented with a set of 3 (sometimes 2) missions. He has to take one as a primary and one as a secondary. If there is a third, he has to leave it out (except if the optional rule of “mission creep” is used. See page 439. This will bring even more risks to the Legion, in addition to the risks of the third mission itself which are the same as the second mission).

But the Commander cannot take just the most interesting one as a primary and leave both others out. He has to do at least two, except where indicated (arrival at Fort Calisco for example).

If you want to follow the rules you have to acknowledge what Stras said, accept the death spiral and do as much as you can to give yourself the best possible chances on the secondary, with the right resources allotment.