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

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.

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.