Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 2)

This month I’m discussing how your game can benefit from the ancient advice contained in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Last week I discussed Chapter 1: Laying Plans. Today I’m covering the second chapter of the book and picking advice.

Part 2: Waging War

When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardour will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength. … Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays. There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare.

Sun Tzu begins this chapter with a warning against taking one’s time in combat. Fighting is costly and exhausts your resources, and a long fight without victory in sight leaves people disappointed. In D&D, your resources include finite equipment (scrolls, potions, gold, charges of magic items, and spell components) and renewable attributes (hit points, spells and abilities limited per-day). Further, the players themselves will get bored if you don’t hurry the game along at a resonable pace.

It’s thus usually to your advantage to hurry to the next battle and aim to finish the enemy off as quickly as is reasonable. An unnecessarily lengthy combat can drain your hit points and waste spell uses, while a quick offence can deny your opponent the time and people he needs to make use of all his abilities. Remember also that a wounded creature fights equally well in D&D as a fresh one, making it to your advantage to finish off weakened opponents first in order to save hit points.

Hence, a wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy’s provisions is equivalent to twenty of one’s own… Our own flags should be substituted for those of the enemy, and their chariots mingled and used in conjunction with ours. The captured soldiers should be kindly treated and kept. This is called, using the conquered foe to augment one’s own strength.

Using your enemy’s strength to augment your own is nothing new to D&D players, who quickly celebrate each fight by looting the bodies. A quick victory ensures that they do not waste scrolls, potions or charges of items before you can use them. Better yet to steal and disarm mid-combat, providing this doesn’t draw out the combat or make it more costly in the long run.

More significant, perhaps, is the benefit to be gained by literally using conquered foes against them. Mind-control spells are the most obvious method of controlling a captured enemy, but this can also be achieved by trickery, bribery, intimidation or blackmail. Truly ruthless mercenaries or cowardly creatures can be quickly convinced to change allegiance. Enemies who refuse to fight their former allies directly may still help you indirectly by revealing pieces of intelligence, such as their defences, numbers, purpose, motivations, and weaknesses.

Another fantastic way to quite literally use the enemy’s strength against them is to raise the fallen bodies as undead. Depending on character class, you may have ability to create and control skeletons, zombies or something more powerful. Consider yourself to be at a disadvantage without a full complement of undead minions. Even if they drop after a single hit, that’s one hit you and your allies aren’t taking. You can also use them to set off traps, distract the enemy, and so forth. In essence, you’re using the enemy’s resources to save your own, and that’s the point Sun Tzu is making here.

Part 3 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.

Comments (1)

Zaratustra (February 28th, 2008)

One issue I have when GMing is that it’s often clear that the players will win halfway through the combat and it’s just going through the motions from then on. I usually have the enemies explode on contact them, but I suppose that’s not good storytelling.

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