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Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 4)

posted Sunday, April 20th 2008 by Jonathan Drain
Player Advice

Today we’re back on our examination of ancient combat treatise The Art of War and how we can apply its lessons to our D&D game. Previous chapters cover laying plans, waging war and attack by strategem.

Part 4: Tactical Dispositions

Sun Tzu says:

The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy. To secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself.

The roman legions had this idea down pat. The iconic Roman soldiers fought in tight formation behind tower shields, leaving just enough room to stab with a spear or sword. It didn’t make them invulnerable, but this high-defence method often proved effective. Many modern martial arts follow a similar “defend first, let your opponent leave an opening” mantra.

The Dungeons & Dragons rules often encourage us to make direct, offensive attacks. Kill your opponent in two rounds and he won’t get a third chance to attack. Sun Tzu’s school of thought considers this reckless, especially when we ignore the famous rule: “Know your enemy and know yourself.” Having seen injured characters charge foolishly into combat, I think caution is too often overlooked.

How can you boost defence over offence? Depending on class and resources you can opt to invest in greater defensive capability rather than offensive. This is only really effective if you can acquire defensive ability easily enough to become especially well-defended.

Since D&D characters can often take quite a few knocks, the practical situation has to be taken into account too. Is it worth surviving two more rounds against your opponent if you could have killed him in two rounds earlier instead? As long as you don’t underestimate your enemy, offensive action is fine.

What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes.

Attacking a superior force may be brave, even exciting, but to do so unnecessarily is reckless. If you succeed you’re hailed as a hero, but as a D&D adventure often requires many battles, and taking injury now is only wasting resources that may be needed later.

Consider an adventuring party that stumbles onto a gang of trolls. The brave hero will launch himself into the enemy, hoping to take them by surprise. The clever hero will rest the night and return with more fire spells – the troll’s weakness.

That said, D&D is about excitement and risk. If you are confident that you can complete the adventure even with a suicidal attack on a bundle of trolls, why play it safe? Besides, I’ve previously complained about too much sleeping in dungeons – this isn’t ancient warfare, and when you take out most of the risk you take out most of the fun.

Part 5 Next Week

Stay tuned for the next part of this article in a week’s time. You can subscribe to this blog via the RSS feed, the Livejournal feed, or if like me you prefer the old-fashioned method, simply bookmark the front page.

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