Improve Your Game with The Art of War (Part 3)

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is an ancient military treatise that has since been applied to fields as varied as business, sports and personal relationships. This past month I’ve discussed Chapter 1: Laying Plans and Chapter 2: Waging War and how these can apply to your Dungeons & Dragons. This week continues with Chapter 3.

Part 3: Attack by Stratagem

Sun Tzu says:

In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact. To shatter and destroy it is not so good… Hence, to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence. Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. Thus, the highest form of generalship is to balk the enemy’s plans; the next best is to prevent the junction of the enemy’s forces; the next in order is to attack the enemy’s army in the field, and the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.

Common sense would dictate that kick-in-the-door style play is best in D&D. Sun Tzu tells us that this isn’t necessarily so. Victory may bring treasure and experience points, but it’s usually at the expense of resources: hit points, spell slots, uses-per-day abilities. Thus, actual fighting should take place only when the enemy cannot be stopped by other means.

For example, an enemy can be tricked, reasoned with, bribed, cheated, intimidated, coerced, blackmailed, captured, poisoned, disabled, convinced to mutiny or made to flee. Fight smarter, not harder! Remember that an enemy overcome still provides experience even if you don’t kill it outright.

There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army. One, by commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called ‘hobbling’ the army. Two, by attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. … Three, by employing the officers of his army without discrimination, in igorance of the military principle of adaptation to circimstances.

While a D&D player has only one character under his control, each character has an army of powers at his disposal. Thus, having limited resouces, he must take care to use them wisely. To begin with, he must not use an ability which cannot succeed; as mentioned later in this chapter, to do this he must both know his enemy and know himself. Do not waste the use of spells or weapons which will be ineffectual.

Consider also the circumstances of combat and adventure, rather than the ideal conditions; equip yourself with the current adventure in mind. Finally, always be sure to select the best tool for the job. In third edition D&D, for example, Power Attack may be excellent against low-AC creatures such as oozes, but it’s often too risky against well-armoured opponents.

There are five essentials for victory. One, he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. Two, he will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. Three, he will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks. Four, he will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. Five, he will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign. Hence the saying, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Winning a battle is broadly the same whether you’re fighting in the Forgotten Realms, ancient China, or a modern-day urban battlefield. Sun Tzu states that there are five points which must always be adhered to.

First, know whether or not you are able to fight. In D&D we largely expect to fight swarms of weaker enemies, but it’s preferable to avoid combat when clearly outmatched. Second, know how to handle superior and inferior opponents; earlier in the chapter Sun Tzu counsels to fight if the enemy can be overpowered, to flee if they cannot, and in doing so to avoid loss. Third, the spirit of teamwork must not be underestimated; working together toward a common goal is superior to each man doing his own thing in anarchy.

Fourthly, to be prepared oneself and launch attacks when the enemy least expects it, while being immune to unexpected attacks oneself, confers a great advantage. Make use of stealth and deception to ensure that your enemy doesn’t fully know what to expect. The fifth point is less relevant since a player controls his character’s actions directly without interference, but it remains to suggest that a player who has ability and can be relied on without prompting from other players or books will succeed.

Part 4 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.