Second mission - balancing question

Hello Legionnaires and Cinder King survivors,

I’m in a somewhat unique situation that’ll require a smidge of explanation, but the TL: DR is that I need to figure out the best way to balance out having to play any mission taken (obviously not any 3rd missions, but perhaps not 2nd missions either if we say secondary missions aren’t a thing).

Why:
I’m a teacher in an alternative setting from mainstream school and, to help students practice social skills, I’ve been running various TTRPGs for about six months now. While it’s been super postive for those who’ve opted in, we’ve got an influx of new students who are having a hard time ‘opting in’ - possibly because the groups are somewhat set by now.
After consulting with colleagues, I’ve decided to run Band of Blades as a school-wide game. (Our school isn’t huge, though - about 60 students, maybe 40 of them regular attendees.)

How:
I have a core group of volunteers who a) have time and b) have been playing BitD with me for the last few months. They’re going to take on the Core Roles. I have others who are keen but don’t have the time who will be ‘deputies’ and ‘advisers’.
We have six sessions a week when ‘regular’ classes run (usually 3 - 10 students in the room with 3 staff at any given time, 2.5hr blocks). Each of these sessions will either choose or be allocated a squad; I’ll run groups of 2 - 5 people depending on the work they’re doing, who is present, whether they played in another session recently, etc.
This squad will play a mission when the Marshal allocates them to one (Tuesday morning might be Grinning Ravens on an assault mission, then we might do Campaign Phase and the next mission might go to Monday afternoon’s Star Vipers, or whatever).
The Marshal will decide which squad is playing out the mission/s, +/- specialists, then it’ll go onto my desk until the appropriate session when the people who are there on the day will get to play the mission. They’ll then debrief with the Marshal/Commander/Quartermaster/Lorekeeper/Spymaster. Some back-at-camp fun will be had and then I’ll go back to my core team and we’ll roll up the next missions. (The core team will also have their own squad so they will get to play as well as plan.)
Progress will be tracked on a giant war-map style setup, with a Legion Notice Board being the job of the Lorekeeper to update.

So, my problem is this:

If I just roll an engagement roll secondary mission as usual, then I’m going to have students who are upset that people in their squad died without them having a say in it. (Note: I’m working with a lot of students with trauma background; losing autonomy is a big deal. Also, they’re teenagers!) I would rather risk unbalancing the game than having people walk away from it because it isn’t fair.

I’m going to begin GMing a game for funsies and practice in about a week so I’m hoping to get some additional insight, but I thought I’d throw this conundrum out for you veterans.

Should I:
a) not run “secondary missions” and just always have them fail everything that isn’t primary?
b) let them play out both primary and secondary, but reduce the rewards on the secondary? (Fictionally how can I justify this?)
c) Reduce rewards on all missions (but by how much?)
d) always give them a third mission that they have to fail and make sure the consequences of this are high? (perhaps with deaths at camp, ie “Blighter poisons your water supply” or some such - which doesn’t really fix my problem)
e) something else clever that has just occurred to you.

At this point I’m leaning toward a), for simplicity and for flavour - but I’d probably keep an eye on their resources and nudge some dice here and there to make sure they don’t automatically just die horrible deaths.

Any input and/or wild speculation is appreciated!

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So, you have up to 40 players, with 3-10 playing at any one time, 6 times a week?

I have a bunch of wildly unbalanced suggestions that might help scaling things up to match from having 3-5 players:

Have your deputies and advisers “belong” to one of the command staff, and let them ‘vote’ on the big board for missions/whether to advance (Commander), whether to spend resources (QM) and who to allocate to missions (Marshal). Let the deputies live up to the name and be able to step up to the roll and make the choices if for some reason their commanding officer is away for a period of time greater than a week.

I’m not sure from the above whether you have 3-10 players (!) playing in any one session, but if you do and even vaguely want to keep lethality, you could simply scale everything up. Lift the cap on 30 soldiers to 40, increase the starting Specs so more people get to create one.

Scale up enemy numbers to match, and if you ever have more than 4 more players in a session, say that two squads get to go on a mission instead of one. Otherwise, nearly every character on the mission will be a player, and that will make consequences and damage much harder to run without targeting players. Stress pools are going to be very high at these numbers anyway, so you can afford to go hard on them as long as you spread around who resists things or protects or leads group actions.

Regardless of whether you do have the bigger legion, I’d say go for it and play the secondary mission. It’ll let you get two sessions of play out of each Campaign Phase, which at 6 games a week (!) could extend this Game As Big As The World from 8-12 missions to 16+.

If the issue is around autonomy rather than lethality, I wouldn’t bother reducing rewards on the Secondary mission. Just keep the effect of it by averaging difficulty and consequence to around 2 PCs or NPCs (depending on preferred flavour) dying every mission, and ensuring its seen as ok for the squad to fail. Maybe even some small reward for mission leaders abandoning missions (5 abandoned missions also gets you a story from the Lorekeeper, maybe?) when the odds are too high, to make it feel like a choice.

If the issue is that fairness here requires them to be able to save most of the people most of the time, that’s different. In that case, I’d accept their ability to grow the Legion, strip out new soldiers as a mission reward and let the QM manage recruitment exclusively, and create a new Morale roll where the Marshal rolls (on similar odds to the engagement, and can be boosted by… some resource. Supply? Food? Probably Food) to see if a couple of rookies break their oath every phase.

I dunno, just spitballing.

Appreciate the spitballing! I edited the original post for clarity - I’d run a group of 2 - 5 students per game (depending on their workload, how recently they’ve played, how they’re feeling on the day, etc).

The Legion size is an issue I hadn’t considered and I think I do like they idea of removing the ‘caps’ on how they can skill up their Squad.

Woops, not six games a week - if the Marshal sends the Grinning Ravens on a mission, and the GR’s are in on a Tuesday morning, we’d wait til that was played and then go back to the Campaign Phase, reroll new missions. The Marshall might send out the Star Vipers next, who are Wednesday afternoon, or the Shattered Lions, who are Monday morning - so in this way it’ll be determined by schedules.

I think the other teachers might lose patience with me if all we did was play BoB for the next few weeks haha.

This was my initial thought to be honest, but (having played Blades with some of these folks) I’m pretty sure they’re going to be resourceful AF and I am probably on the gentler side when it comes to GMing so I don’t know if I can actually pull this off. The idea of abandoning missions and being not totally punished for it is an interesting and new idea, thank you!

That seems a bit more manageable!

Still, I’d give some thought to how long you want this to run for. If you assume 2.5 missions per location and two missions per week, you get roughly 11 weeks of play. Increase or decrease to runway/taste.

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I’ve got an 11 week term :wink: and my senior students will be finishing up classes in a few weeks. I’m hoping I’ll be able to get them to GM some games! So I’ve got the length of the campaign roughly planned.

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My advice is: instead of Specialists getting killed on a secondary mission due to a bad engagement roll, the player can choose to either take 4 stress or mark a level 2 harm. Those are pretty nasty consequences that will take more than just 1 campaign action by the Quartermaster to alleviate. But not quite as nasty as “you’re dead.”

Another option I would consider: let the squad doing the secondary mission roll the engagement roll. Players are a lot more forgiving of bad consquences when they are the ones who rolled the dice.

You could even take this further and start a secondary underground economy where each squad had the opportunity to gain or trade illicit supplies which they could then spend to help themselves on the engagement roll (but can’t use to equip regular missions or spend on campaign actions or whatever - they only apply to secondary missions.) That way they could juice the roll a little bit but would still be exposed to consequences.

Tom has some great suggestions here.

First recognize this: The game simply isn’t designed to have every squad be played. So no matter what you do, there’s going to be trouble in terms of the economy. There is no simple solution.

That said let’s talk solutions:

Honestly tweaking rewards to be lower overall (you’ll have to change death penalties because again, someone has to die) is the best I can suggest. I can help with some math.

Here’s the overall though.

Forget “balance”. You’re helping kids and doing a cool thing. If they finish with the highest score in the world and the QM is bathing in resources, it’s better than not doing this for “balance”.

That said I’m pro “challenge”. So let’s see what we can do to even out the scores and keep things challenging. But let the kids play. Your heart is following the right path imo.

I think that just lowering the rewards by 1 across the board will probably get close. But that gets tricky with religious missions and the like. Let me stew on this.

–Stras

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Thank you to everyone who’s read and considered, and particularly responded to, my dilemma. I value your time and energy, particularly as this is a unique problem born from making the game do something it isn’t supposed to do.

Tom, I love the idea of taking stress and harm instead of death and the idea of an underground currency is super cool. I’m not sure how I’d go about it (even just physically - a lot of my students don’t actually cross paths with one another, and social anxiety is standard) but your idea got me thinking about using resources in a non-cannon way. Its a super cool creative option but I feel the logistics of it would be super problematic for my cohort.

I suspect if I handed the squad responsible for the secondary mission the dice to do the engagement roll and told them that was it, they’d instantly switch off. Buy-in and excitement is what I want and while my core group could probably deal with just rolling the engagement, too many of the others would see it as a “hey, you kind of like this thing? Too bad it’s gone now”. I agree it’d go down better than doing it cold and telling them about it, and maybe some of them wouldn’t mind, but their buy-in is too precious for me to risk. I’d much rather they become invested in a character, in their squad, and in the game, and TTRPGs, and their community. I’m not trying to be a nay-sayer, but most of these folks have solid reasons to have problems with connection, and unfortunately that extends even to fictional relationships (even the relationships some of them have with items can be tricky.) I think running the mission and upping the lethality (perhaps threat +1 for damage?) would go down better - I’m pretty sure that, given the array of tools the PCs have to manage situations, that when they die in-game we can make it okay. I hope.

So, Stras, the way you talk about it being maths got me thinking too.

What if:

In the place of the “none” in the penalties charts I put “one Specialist dies”?

(Not sure what I’d do in the recon chart - perhaps QM resource penalty? Pressure? Time?) My reasoning is: I’ll have more rookies promoting, and Specialists belong to the Legion, not to individual students. No foul there. They can die gloriously defending camp! If there are some bad mission rolls the penalties could be hefty, but hey, just succeed and it’s fine.

I’m also trying to figure out how to basically increase failures. What if I have an additional chart for mission creation;
on a 1 - 3 they can only safely do one mission and are forced to fail the other one or two, the undead are too powerful/their position is too precarious to spare the people.
On a 4 - 5 they can do one mission, and then use a resource to “unlock” a second mission (fictionally they might spend horses to scout an area, blackshot to arm their perimeter guard for potency, etc, freeing up an extra squad. These resources would not count toward the engagement roll).
On a 6, Shreya is in camp/their position is relatively safe and they can send out two squads on missions.

So, with the above chart, some missions might not net them additional resources - maybe they spend horses to get horses! - but they’d avoid penalties (which with the above suggestions might be significant) and they’d still get exp.

The idea of doing less missions sometimes also increases the challenge due to increased time/pressure increments, but might get us to Skydagger faster. Perhaps accounted for by putting +time penalties on the recon missions in the place of +dead?

So… I’m completely wrecking a finely tuned system, I know. I’m hoping the end justifies the means!

So using Stras’ ideas of reducing all rewards by 1 (which I didn’t do if the rewards actually were 1) and ramping up the morale punishments for failure, and also murderising Specialists in the place of Rookies, but trying to keep it as simple as possible, I put together some tables like:

Assault

Type (unchanged)
Rewards 1 +1 Morale
2 +2 Morale
3 +3 Morale
4 +1 Morale +1 Supply
5 +2 Morale +1 Intel
6 +1 Morale -1 Time
Penalties
1 +1 Pressure +1 Time
2 +1 Time
3 -1 Supply
4 +1 Pressure
5 +1 Pressure
6 +1 Pressure

and

Recon

Type (same)
Rewards
1 +1 Intel
2 +1 Intel
3 Asset +1 Intel
4 Asset or troops +1 Intel
5 +1 Intel -1 Time
6 +2 Intel
Penalties
1 -1 Time
2 -1 Specialist
3 -1 Specialist
4 +1 Pressure
5 +1 Pressure
6 None

Supply missions I just reduced by 1 and made it so only one of the six options was without penalty (one extra -1 morale - because less people are probably dying, but I still want them to feel a sense of loss mechanically). I didn’t modify the Religious missions except to put slightly heftier costs to failing them.

Does this feel okay?

I’m running session 0 today. I also have people asking if they get through their work if we can run another mission tomorrow. (I’ve let them know this is still in draft form.) We’re not supposed to officially “start” until after the holidays. :sweat_smile:

Hello Legionnaires,

Just wanted to provide some quick feedback on the offchance that anyone else is keen to use Band of Blades in their classroom.

TL; DR - it went great. Highly recommend.

I ended up going with playing both primary and secondary missions, halving the rewards (except religious missions, which I more or less kept as is), and almost doubling most of the consequences. Recon consequences which called for Legionnaire deaths I replaced with specific specialist deaths as autonomy was a serious focus. This all meant that when things went wrong, they were really wrong, however it didn’t happen too often.

My feedback was overwhelmingly positive. As part of a long-term project:
Group 1 was targeted due to attendance and high risk of disengagement. Four students who continued from Jan to November with us from this group started the year (Jan - Mar) with an average of 90 minutes of contact hours per week. In November, the four average at 11.5 contact hours per week.

I can’t put a number on how engaged students are, however! I can tell you stories. Our room used to be silent. Students would work disconnected from one another. They’d come in, sit down, speak to the teacher. The bolder ones would get up to use the bathroom or make a hot drink. Now, students come in, plonk down beside someone, chat about the weekend. Making toasties is now a social activity. In the early days of Band of Blades, they’d come up to me and chat about what was going on with the game and ask when their next mission was, and if they’d get blackshot on this one. (The poor QM was much maligned!) With some extra nudges, those conversations involved the Commander, Marshal and Quartermaster. They broadened to chatting about how terrible Fortnite is and what people had done on the weekend and all of the ‘normal’ stuff.

There was a Ghost Owl who had only ever spoken to his teacher. For years, this chap suffered from selective mutism. I invited him to join us and on his second mission, when the medic died, he was put in charge of the squad and was forced to take charge. And he did. He was able to follow the games’ structure and what the fiction demanded and communicate with his peers for the first time in years. And, damn it, they were successful, too–and they blew up the Doctor’s camp for bonus points. Apparently looking back at explosions is now the cool thing to do? I hear if you don’t look back you’re cringe.

I have one student who’s very high-risk in terms of his interactions with others. (We had another student leave our service entirely after engaging with this chap.) Recognising these are maladaptive coping mechanisms is fine but this high-risk student rolled an Officer on the first mission, and would you believe that Blue Striking Iron is the best when it comes to having peoples’ back? He’s been to Officer school, he knows the drill. He gets folks organised and throws out assists like no one’s business. And now he’s doing it in real life. He made a batch of brownies today and just shared them out, quietly, no fuss, then sat down with another student and started talking about Minecraft. All positive, normal stuff. From a student that we had to basically isolate. His mum is reporting that things at home are significantly better. He’s spending more time in the room and less time outside blowing off steam. He looks relaxed. He has connection.

We had a new student this term with trauma/anxiety who was having serious issues getting in. He did a few sessions but didn’t have great attendance so missed some, too. One day we were about to go on a mission and they rolled a desperate engagement as my coworker silently showed me that she’d just got a message from this boy’s mum. He’d made it into the car and to the carpark but couldn’t physically leave the car. I told her to pass on that we needed Red Echoing Wind to do and that we’d just rolled desperate and things were bad. He came in two minutes later, led the squad to victory, and has not missed a session since.

Each time I try to get a summary of all the amazing changes I’ve seen in the students I just get overwhelmed because I can’t. Like you can’t measure it. There are so many little snippets of conversations and so forth. But it’s been amazing. I’m scaling it back at the start of next year - one of my folks with high level social anxiety is GMing a campaign! He’s already practicing! - but I’d love to run it again with what I know now. I’m also speaking at a national teachers’ conference in a few days where I really hope I can encourage other people to step outside their comfort zone and have a go at this, too. Oh, also literacy stuff is good too.

Band of Blades is an awesome teaching tool.

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That’s awesome and really fascinating. Good luck for the next missions – in the field and in your school!