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?"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Introduction

It has become something of a trend to write "cover-to-cover" analyses of old school game books beginning with David Bowman's D&D Cover to Cover, later followed by James Maliszewski's Blue Book Cover to Cover, and Jeff Rient's Arduin Grimoire Cover to Cover.

Well, there's no band wagon I won't jump on and I've decided to write my own "cover to cover" analysis; not of a game book, but of Sun Tzu's classic treatise, The Art of War.  Written in the 6th century, B.C., The Art of War was introduced to the west in 1772 by J.J.M. Amiot, a Jesuit missionary to Peking.  There have been many subsequent interpretations published, which have applied Sun Tzu's rules of warfare to various other realms such as business and management.  The last time I flipped through my copy of The Art of War it occurred to me that the advice it offered was also relevant to the planning and execution of dungeon expeditions.  This was driven home by an excellent recent post by Greg Gillespie, on Discourse and Dragons, about PC Death. One of Greg's quotes struck me as particularly incisive: "Players need to understand that DMs don't kill PCs, players kill PCs - and PCs die by two means: 1) stupid or reckless play, 2) Fate (dice)."  This statement ought to be enshrined as a fundamental principle of gaming.  It is zen-like in its simplicity and profound depth.  After thinking about it, I realized that every character that I've ever had die, died because I was reckless or overconfident; even when it was bad dice rolls that killed my character that was because I was pushing the envelope and taking risks.  In my own campaign, every single time the party wipes it happens when they're out of spells and low on hit points, then decide to check out "just one more room."  Famous last words.  By adhering to Sun Tzu's classic advice players can eliminate factor 1 of Greg's statement, and heavily mitigate against factor 2 by stacking the odds in their own favour.

One thing that I've noticed about traditional Asian teaching methods is that knowledge is seldom imparted in a straightforward and unambiguous manner; the student is always required to actively study the material in order to understand it and find its deeper meaning.  I've been a student of traditional Karate for many years, and I've found that its katas are living "textbooks" of the art's techniques.  Many martial arts practitioners erroneously regard katas as prescribed sequences of attack and defense and dismiss them as irrelevant to practical combat, but such attitudes demonstrate ignorance and shallow understanding and miss the point of kata entirely; it is up to each student to study the katas deeply to understand the many different ways in which techniques can be applied.  So, too, with The Art of War.  The first time I read it, I dismissed the advice as being self-evident.  But I've come to believe that there is a lot of wisdom hidden in its seemingly simple principles and each subsequent reading has given me a greater understanding of Sun Tzu's principles.  This is the great thing about The Art of War: you need to intellectually engage with this book to fully grasp it and, like martial arts katas, discover the various ways in which its principles can be applied.  Not at all unlike the Little Brown Books of OD&D, you need to read carefully and think deeply to find your own truth.

My forthcoming series will discuss each of the thirteen chapters of The Art of War with my own interpretation on how they can be applied to dungeon delving.  These will, of course, be completely subjective interpretations and each person might read the original text and find completely different meaning in it.


Kiltedyaksman said...

I've never read The Art of War, so I'm keen to read your synthesis.

Objectivity is tasteless and boring (and doesn't exist in my ontology), so bring on the subjectivity! :)

Daniel "Theophage" Clark said...

I think I'm really going to enjoy this series. Can't wait!

nykster said...

I read a "coles notes" version of "The Art of War" that I happened to find on my wife's iPod.
It was very informative and I am looking forward to seeing your reviews, and hopefully using them to the benefit of my character.

As a little side note, when a PC dies, it's totaly the fault of the player. The player is the one who makes all the decisions, to continue, or not build a fire when camping etc etc. But a player dosen't want to blame himself for his bad choices, so he blames the GM as it was the GM who put that trap there when the PC who only had 1 HP left tried to open the door.
The thing is though, that trap was there long before the PC lost all his HPs, as will the next one.

Lord Gwydion said...

Definitely looking forward to this, too. I've read Art of War a couple times, and always find it full of interesting insights.