Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter I, Estimates (part 2)

The second part of the chapter on planning deals with broad principles of strategy to be used when engaging the enemy.  This is an abrupt shift from the previously discussed factors of planning, but I believe that Sun Tzu included these forthcoming strategies in the Estimates chapter because they are universal in their utility and don't depend on variable circumstances that affect most strategies.

17. All warfare is based on deception.

I think this might be one reason why the Illusionist was one of my favourite classes when I was young.  Deception is a powerful tool, indeed; simple illusions can be more devastating than a fireball.

18. Therefore, when capable, feign incapacity; when active, inactivity.

19. When near, make it appear that you are far away; when far away, that you are near.

20. Offer the enemy a bait to lure him; feign disorder and strike him.

Two words: dancing lights - best spell ever.  There is no better way to trick dungeon denizens into thinking that your party is where it is not.  This can be great fun as you lure them into traps and ambushes.  If your magic user doesn't know dancing lights or if your rule system doesn't allow it, you might have to hand torches to some hirelings and sweet talk them into acting as distractions and monster bait.

21. When he concentrates, prepare against him; where he is strong, avoid him.

It should go without saying that it is unwise to charge into a large room full of orcs and try to fight them head on.  Likewise, it is best to avoid physical confrontations with creatures that are too powerful to be defeated by strength of arms.  If there is no need to defeat these foes try to circumvent them.  If they must be defeated, or possess such treasure to make defeating them worthwhile, try to devise a strategy that will play to your strengths and their weaknesses.

22. Anger his general and confuse him.

23. Pretend inferiority and encourage his arrogance.

I have an anecdote that illustrates this perfectly.  Several years ago I was running a campaign in which several groups of adventurers were competing to recover a lost artifact.  The PC's managed to retrieve it first in a remote locale, but as they were leaving they were confronted by a rival band led by an arrogant nobleman they had run afoul of before.  The rival band demanded the artifact or it would be taken by force.  The PCs were all 1st and 2nd level characters.  The rival band were around 6th level.

My friend, Warren, who was playing a fighter named Rothgar the Red, immediately realized that it would be impossible for PCs to win a pitched battle against such a high level party, but it would be possible, albeit unlikely, that he might be able to beat the nobleman in single combat.  This reasoning is akin to a gambler betting everything on a single roll of the dice.  If the odds are against you the more rolls you make the more likely you are to lose.

Rothgar used the nobleman's arrogance against him, goading him into a one-on-one fight for possession of the artifact and both parties agreed to abide by the outcome.  Now, a 2nd level fighter vs. a 6th level one is hardly a fair fight, but the gods favour the bold.  Rothgar made a couple of very lucky to hit rolls, including a critical, without being hit in return and managed to win the fight.  He quite literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by angering the rival leader and counting on his arrogance to make him overconfident and give up his unassailable advantage of numbers.  It worked spectacularly.

24. Keep him under strain and wear him down.

Simply put, don't allow the enemy to rest or get reinforcements.  Force them to expend resources until they are depleted.

Most of the strategies discussed here cut both ways, but none more so than this.  Probably the most practical use of this rule is making sure that it isn't employed against you.  If the denizens of a dungeon level are alert to your presence they can make life very difficult for you if you attempt to rest in the dungeon.  By launching attacks throughout the night they can ensure that the party cannot rest and therefore gain no natural healing, nor replenish spells.  This way they can gradually deplete the party's resources.  Once the PCs are low on hit points, out of spells, have used up all their healing potions and are starting to run low on ammunition their situation has become very grim and risk utter defeat.

For this reason it is usually best to retreat to the base camp to rest and resupply.  Here is where having NPC hirelings in reserve can really pay off.  They can guard you as you sleep and ensure that you are able to get a full night's rest before renewing the incursion.  The down side to retreating is that you take the risk that previously cleared areas of the dungeon might be reinforced, but better that than allowing yourselves to be worn down to the point where defeat is certain.

25. When he is united, divide him.

26. Attack where he is unprepared; sally out when he does not expect you.

As with line 1.21, do not attack a strong and unified enemy head on.  If you have to tackle that large room full of orcs, don't go charging in and face them all at once.  Try to draw them out and defeat them piecemeal rather than en mass.  When doing so it is important to have a good understanding of the layout of the dungeon so that the enemy doesn't turn the tables on your ambush by outflanking you and hitting you from several sides at once; scout the area and map it out prior to tackling that big room full of orcs.  Choose your line of retreat carefully and try to string your pursuers out so that they can be more easily defeated.

If, during your explorations, a dungeon level should be alerted to your presence and its denizens on guard against you, it would be foolhardy to continue.  To fight against a prepared and fore warned foe in their own lair is a tricky proposition, but there is no such thing as eternal vigilance, and even the best of troops will let their guard down after a time.  So, if the party finds itself arrayed against vigilant and prepared enemies, consider retreating for a few days and allow boredom to set in.  Consider, also, that many dungeon inhabitants are undisciplined rabble and will quickly lose interest in guard duty if not constantly supervised by their bosses.  How often have we caught goblin guards asleep, or drunk, at their posts?  Use this to your advantage.  Consider leaving some flasks of wine or choice bits of food behind when you retreat and you may not have to wait long at all to catch the blighters unawares.

27. These are the strategist's keys to victory.  It is not possible to discuss them beforehand.

It is impossible to plan for every contingency since you must often respond to unexpected enemy action, but try to keep these principles in mind and look for opportunities to employ them.

28. Now if the estimates made in the temple before hostilities indicate victory it is because calculations show one's strength to be superior to that of his enemy; if they indicate defeat, it is because calculations show that one is inferior.  With many calculations, one can win; with few one cannot.  How much less chance of victory has one who makes none at all!  By this means I examine the situation and the outcome will be clearly apparent.

Thus, Sun Tzu tells us, estimates are the most critical key to the success or failure of a dungeon expedition, and the outcome should be apparent before you ever leave the tavern.  As Archimedes once said, "give me lever long enough and a fulcrum upon which to place it and I shall move the world."  Your plans and estimates are your lever; your courage and will, the fulcrum.  If you have prepared thoroughly no dungeon should be beyond your means.

Thus ends Chapter I.  Next up, Chapter II: Waging War.


A Paladin In Citadel said...

It's like the old-school guide to player-skill-based dungeon delving

Sean Robson said...

Exactly! I've found that after playing 3E for so many years these skills have atrophied. Slowly, but surely I'm sharpening them up. It's a tough slog for players that have never played anything but 3E or 4E though, so hopefully this guide will inspire new ideas for playing strategically instead of focusing entirely on tactics in melee.