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.

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.

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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.

Vow of Poverty, Revisited

One of my most popular posts of old seems to be my article on Vow of Poverty, a feat from Book of Exalted Deeds. It seems there’s still a strong idea in the D&D community that VoP, which sacrifices your equipment and magic items for bonus abilities, is horribly broken and overpowered. With a new edition on the way, I decided now would be as good a time as any to take a closer look and see if there’s any truth to the matter.

One of the biggest complaints about VoP is that no other feat grants you powerful abilities at every level. This is true, but we must remember that by standard, players are expected to have a certain power level of magic items commensurate to their level, which Vow of Poverty characters must give up. In order to make some sort of fair comparison, therefore, what I’ve done is to go through the average gold piece value chart and compare the values of the abilities gained. For reasons of time I’ve only taken four samples: levels, 5, 10, 15 and 20.

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Summoning Variant Rules

The other day I posted five house rules from my old Talen’s Forge archives. Another, more involved variant rule I used to employ involved monster summoning. The game rules as written are weak and often boring, but summoning exotic creatures should be interesting and involved! I decided it could use some livening up.

Preferred Summons: A spellcaster who is capable of casting summon monster or summon nature’s ally spells may choose one individual, named creature per caster level as a Preferred Summons. The caster is by no means limited to only summoning these creatures - he simply has a special rapport with each of them, who are above average members of their species. Each such creature gains the following benefits:

  1. Their ability scores and hit dice are rolled as if they were a player character
  2. The caster can choose the creature’s feats
  3. The caster can impart objects with the creature’s personal rune, allowing it to retain equipment across summons

Each time the character levels up, he may add one individual creature. It may be a creature he has summoned before, or a new one. Establishing a new Preferred Summons takes one hour. Additionally, each time the character levels up he may trade out one existing Preferred Summons for a new one.

A character with the feat Spell Focus (conjuration) treats as level as two higher for the purposes of Preferred Summons capacity. A caster able to cast both spells, such as a multiclass character, keeps two separate lists.

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Undead Are Our Friends

Back when I ran a D&D game with the group that first got me started playing, we had this one fellow who was a huge fan of undead. Originally he was disappointed at being roped into cleric, until he realised the benefits of playing “chaotic neutral”. In the long run, his strategy of undead use proved to be so popular, I’m almost surprised to find spellcasters without their own skeletal minions.

Starting from level 1, a cleric who channels negative energy - this does not have to be an evil cleric, merely a nongood one - can begin to command undead. Should you be lucky enough to encounter any, you can maintain control indefinitely over up to two human zombies or three human skeletons, or similar. Any undead with half your hit dice is vulnerable to control, and at any given time you can hold a total equal to your hit dice. However, the benefit of commanding undead is limited as you rise in level. As you rise in power relative to your minions, they become increasingly fragile and replacements are hard to find.

Luckily, there’s another option. At level 5 for a cleric, or level 7 for a wizard, our budding evil overlord gains access to animate dead, a handy spell that lets you create your own skeletons and zombies. Not only that, but you can create undead worth twice your caster level (instead of half) and automatically control 4HD per caster level indefinitely, on top of any undead you command. This spell is the mainstay of any undead user. At level 5 you can create a 10HD ettin skeletons and control two such creatures, and at level 9 some 17HD cloud giant skeletons. Its drawbacks are the cost and the level cap - 25gp per HD non-refundable, and skeletons/zombies are limited to 20HD.

The next spell up is create undead, available from level 11 for both cleric and wizard, allowing you to create ghouls, ghasts, mummies and mohrgs. However, this spell has two major drawbacks. One, it costs twice as much as animate dead - 50gp per HD. Second, you have to control the creature yourself by commanding undead. In other words, at 11th level you can control five ghouls, at 12 three ghasts, at 16th a single mummy, and actually controlling the mohrg you can make at level 18 is out of the question. At this point, you’re almost better sticking with animate dead.

Level 15 sees create greater undead, which lets you create a shadow, wraith, spectre or devourer. Although you won’t be powerful enough to command the devourer before level 24, the incorporeal undead you can create here are good value for money since they’re immune to many opponents’ attacks. A fifteenth level cleric can spend 750gp - a third of one percent of his total wealth - on three Strength-draining incorporeal shadows, while a 20th level cleric can own two level-draining spectres and one Con-draining wraith. Not exactly epic level power, but it fills up what at high level are useless command undead slots.

It may seem very cleric-biased here, but thankfully the sorcerer and wizard still have a few tricks up their sleeve. The second-level spell command undead gives you control over a single undead for one day per level, making it friendly to you - you can generally count on them as an ally for the rest of the adventure. However, undead tend to have high Will saves, and you don’t control them outright. Seventh level sees a spell which does afford you complete control for a shorter duration, control undead. It also affects multiple targets, with a hit dice cap of twice your level.

However, both command undead and control undead rely on you finding undead creatures. Although you can create them with create undead, you are at best spending a lot of gold pieces to create and control an undead for a single adventure, whereas a careful cleric can keep control of his own minions indefinitely.

In any case, for an additional investment it’s often wise to equip your undead with anything they’re able to use. Often you’ll find wondrous items that are only going to sit in a bag of holding until you get back to town, and some undead (skeleton and zombie warriors included) are proficient with weapons and armour. Even when they’re not, a full-plate clad human commoner zombie with a large shield can still act as an AC21 DR5 meat shield, or at worst a moveable barrier. Finally, you can always try to take a vampire cohort with the Leadership feat, and, if your DM is as malleable as I was back then, start building toward lichdom yourself.

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Character Background Made Easy

My last post described the tricky aspect of introducing new players to D&D. The simple method, like the origins of D&D, is to introduce D&D first as a kind of game played with dice where one player controls a dungeon full of monsters and the rest control adventurers who work together to beat the dungeon. With a good Dungeon Master, players soon learn that clever, out-of-the-box thinking can lead to innovative solutions and reveal the remarkable freedom of action that characterizes tabletop roleplaying games.

From here, we can move into more characterization and character development. This should come naturally as players build and develop their characters, and players in my game frequently start out with only the most basic of backstory which is filled in and even radically changed as the character progresses. Some players, however, might be short of that initial background idea that can begin to define a character as more then a set of numbers. For the “roll-players” that need an extra push, you can reward them with a minor bonus character ability that relates to the backstory they’ve chosen.

Behind the cut is a chart which you can use to generate backstories. Roll randomly or allow players to pick, DM’s choice.

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Protip: Nobody Cares About Your Character

Allow me to be a tad cynical in this post. Players: Nobody wants to hear about your character.

The Dungeons & Dragons blogging scene is really picking up of late. I could swear it used to be just Martin Ralya, myself and a few Wizards developers. A drawback to this new influx is that we’re beginning to see more low-quality material.

The number one rule of blogging is that people must be interested in what you write. Ask yourself the question: Will people want to read what I have to write? If you spend a lot of time writing about your own Dungeons & Dragons character, chances are it’s not going to interest a lot of readers. The cruel truth is that nobody in the world cares as much about your guy as you do. Only marginally more interesting is your campaign, the exception being other Dungeon Masters looking for general inspiration or advice on running a pre-written adventure.

Perhaps one of the worst patterns I see is when someone starts a public blog without any real topic at all. It updates for a while, then drags off. Some time later, the blogger posts about how he hasn’t updated in a while, and bestows some uninteresting facts on his personal life. This is the death knell for a weblog. If you can’t update regularly with content that’s interesting to other people, then what you’re essentially making is a personal journal.

Tomorrow we resume our regular dungeon mastery goodness.

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Top Five Fighter Feats

Fighters get so many feats that they can’t afford to. An awful lot of fighters simply start on the pure-buff Weapon Focus, when—and this will surprise some of you—there are standard feats in the Player’s Handbook that are even more powerful. The following is my top five of favourite fighter bonus feats.

In no particular order:

  1. Improved Trip: Tripping is quickly overlooked in the rush to pure melee bonuses, but it’s remarkably efficient. Not only can you trip whenever you could normally attack and do so with a +4 bonus on trip checks, if successful you immediately gain a free attack as if you hadn’t used your attack. Tripped opponents take a -4 penalty to AC, so you essentially gain a significant +4 attack bonus, and since standing from prone is a move action which provokes Attacks of Opportunity, a tripped opponent can’t make a full attack and you still have a free chance to trip him again when he stands. As a drawback, however, you need Combat Expertise and at least Int 13, so this can cost you two feats. It also doesn’t work so well on especially huge or beefy creatures.
  2. Spirited Charge: Although this costs three feats in total counting its prerequisites, it’s remarkably powerful - double damage on a mounted charge, if you can get your horse into the dungeon. The prerequisites themselves aren’t a complete loss, allowing you to save your horse from attacks and move again after your charge. The overall benefit of “spirited charging” is that while you lose around 2.5 points damage switching to a lance over a greatsword, you deal fully triple damage on a charge (after which you can switch to the greatsword), your base speed increases to fifty or sixty feet, and in any case you gain +1 to hit against unmounted opponents. Not to be sniffed at.
  3. Weapon Specialization: You can’t really argue with plus two damage on every hit. It’s sort of the fighter’s prerogative to take Weapon Spec. Doesn’t mesh too well with a fighter who regularly uses more than one weapon, though, and two points of damage becomes less significant as you level up.
  4. Cleave: Cleave’s prerequisite, Power Attack, is rarely used except on things with damage reduction you can’t beat and low-AC, high-hitpoint opponents like oozes. Cleave, on the other hand, is a completely free second attack that triggers every time you kill a guy. Drawbacks are that it’s useless against single large foes or very spread out ones, and at later levels the wizard may perform more finishing blows than you.
  5. Improved Critical: Provided that your weapon offers a significant critical threat range, doubling that range is a clear winner. The extra average damage output on a 19-20/x2 weapon extending to 17-20/x3 is roughly equivalent to a +2 to-hit, while a rapier extended to 15-20 is roughly worth +3. Not so good against opponents immune to critical hits or with extremely high AC, but even so still a very effective feat.

Honourable mentions go to the Point Blank Shot tree, without which ranged combat would be much less tidy, and the generic feats you can take with your non-fighter feat slots for a serious buff: Improved Initiative, and the three excellent “+2 to saves” feats.

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Doom Your Game

No, not fourth edition - bundle over to Enworld if you’re expecting the news on that. Lately I’ve availed of Steam’s id Games pack and I’m munching through the entire back catalogue of classic first person shooters in roughly chronological order. Right now, I’m halfway into original Doom. It’s got me thinking about the similarities between the game and D&D, which I’d be hard pressed to believe is fully a coincidence.

You, a lone soldier of unusual toughness, must traverse enclosed mazelike buildings, looting weapons, armour and supernatural enhancements to fight monsters and make it to the exit while negotiating locked doors, secret rooms, and the occasional trap. Sound familiar? Don’t expect me to cry “plagiarism!”, though - after all D&D itself can hardly claim it didn’t carve huge swathes of inspiration from the fantasy sources before it. What’s interesting about Doom is how, despite being over a decade old, its lessons can be applied to the D&D game.

Doom’s weapons are interesting in that different weapons actually work better against certain opponents. The shotgun is Doom’s equivalent to D&D’s greatsword - offensively powerful, downs weaker foes in one hit, but leaves your defences open if you miss. Naturally, just like in D&D, players use it regardless, relying on hit points, armour and defences to avoid damage. In Doom’s case an experienced player learns the monsters’ patterns and dodges carefully, something easily represented by a “defense roll” system as in Iron Heroes. In a first-person shooter, unlike an RPG, player skill traditionally substitutes for character skill.

You later acquire the chainsaw, a weapon designed as a more powerful “out of ammo” backup but which became popular in its own right. Surprisingly, it’s actually defensively superior against individual opponents since many can’t attack you when you use it - careful use of the chainsaw becomes a point of strategy, allowing you to conserve valuable ammunition. The similarly fast chaingun, which in an elegant design move uses the same bullet pool as the game’s otherwise obsoleted handgun, is of similar effect at longer range but spends bullets frivolously. Surviving when resources is depleted in this manner is likewise an interesting tactical part of D&D.

Unfortunately, the offensive/defensive weapon dichotomy doesn’t apply very much to players, at least in the current edition. Ignoring historical realism, the game doesn’t give much benefit to offensive/defensive choices. A shield’s bonus is rarely worth the reduced damage of wielding a two-handed weapon, so like shotgun-wielding Doom players, most D&D players decide that the best defence is a good offence.

What other lessons can be learned? For one, players don’t always know what lies around the next corner, and that’s interesting. It adds risk, and risk is exciting. Players may over-reach themselves or wander into an ambush. However, this can work against you if overused. Players begin to expect the unexpected, can leave them over-cautious.

Darkness is occasionally used to good effect in the first Doom, which can be interesting. Stumbling around, you suddenly see a massive pink demon inches from your face! Even with Doom’s now primitive graphics, it still makes me jump - perhaps because you know it didn’t just teleport in, it’s been here all along, and was watching you intently since you stepped into the room. Players have no time to prepare, and even switching to a more specialized weapon can take too long. Again, risk is exciting.

I mentioned secret rooms. These work just like in D&D and reward players for being perceptive. Usually - perhaps originally as a graphical limitation - the sliding panel is visible if you look carefully, or it’s in an obvious place. Nothing stops players in a D&D game from taking the time to search everywhere, however - a laborious and painstaking search attempt is reduced to convenient d20 roll. This is another spot where D&D and first-person shooters diverge. One interesting game feature, however, is the inclusion of a complete level map as “treasure” - In D&D, this can clue players into secret doors they didn’t bother finding. Even if you only describe the locations to your players rather than give a complete map handout, the dungeon map is as valuable a treasure as whatever you hid in secret compartments.

My top tactics for Quake 2 also work in Doom: Trick monsters into fighting each other, and lure monsters into traps meant for you. Monsters in D&D tend to be too clever to fall for either of these, but a clever plan should warrant a fair chance of success. More like D&D, however, is Doom’s enjoyably exploitable capacity for jamming monsters in narrow passageways in order to take them on one at a time. Creatures without ranged attacks are effectively taken out of the fight for several rounds, and even the ones who do risk firing on their own allies.

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