Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 1)

Few ancient books are as well known nowadays as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, a 6th century Chinese text on armed combat. It’s surprisingly relevant even today, since the nature of conflict hasn’t changed all that much in 2500 years. Given fantasy roleplaying’s origins in wargaming, it’s not hard to apply this ancient wisdom to both playing D&D and the art of Dungeon Mastering.

I don’t intend here to bend the meaning of The Art of War to fit the game, as I’ve seen done in the past - D&D isn’t 100% true to life, so not all of it applies. What I’ll do is to take some important sections and explain how that can be applied to your gameplay.

Part 1: Laying Plans

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy; feign disorder and crush him.

D&D characters often win by sheer combined strength, but according to Sun Tzu, this is not enough. In order to gain advantage over your enemy you must deceive him into making poor choices. Stealth can fool the enemy into assuming he is safe from an attack, and approaching in magical disguise may have him underestimate or overestimate your strength or misjudge your motive. Spreading misinformation about yourself may fool a villain about your intents or capabilities.

The effectiveness of rouses like these are limited by the Dungeon Master’s judgement, since your opponents’ tactics are not limited by game rules. However, a good Dungeon Master should appreciate your tactic if you describe it up front. For example, “I’ll use an illusion spell to disguise us all as orc raiders. I’m hoping the evil wizard will underestimate us and only use his weak spells at first, and by the time he realises we’re powerful adventurers it’ll be too late.”

Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat. How much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can forsee who is likely to win or lose.

Preparedness is key: fight smarter, not harder! As a player, I never take on any adventure before considering tactics in advance. What enemies are you fighting, and in what circumstances? If you’re a spellcaster, what will you need to fight the enemies you expect to face? If you’re a fighter, what equipment do you need to stock up on? If the monsters lose it’s because they’re not prepared for your arrival or the abilities you’ll bring to bear. If you lose, it’s because you were overconfident and didn’t plan ahead yourself.

This relates to perhaps the most famous Sun Tzu quote, which states that in order to avoid failure, you must know your enemy and know yourself. Knowing too much about your opponents in D&D can be considered metagaming (at worst, cheating), but failing to understand your character’s strengths and limits is a fatal flaw. Whether by divinations or guesswork, your adventuring group should find out as much as possible about their mission before they undertake it, and rather than simply relying on brute strength, make preparations to gain the upper hand.

Part 2 next week

I’ll update periodically by examining how the other twelve chapters of The Art of War can help you improve your game. Until then, 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.