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?"

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter VII, Manoeuvre

It is hard to believe that an entire year has passed since I wrote the last chapter in this series, but the first six chapters left me burned out and in need of a break, and this post has been sitting as an unfinished draft since last April.  In the intervening months I've come to realize that although an interpretation of The Art of War for dungeon delving is a fascinating and damned useful undertaking, the chapters are really too long to make for practical blog posts.  I know that I have a hard time reading and absorbing long posts, particularly when material is mentally challenging, and a blog simply isn't the right medium for this series.  Consequently, this will be the last chapter of The Art of Dungeoneering that I will post here.  Instead, I intend to revise the first seven chapters, finish off the remaining six chapters then publish it as a book, which is probably the approach I should have taken from the start.

I began this project back in the fall of 2010 as I was re-reading The Art of War when it occurred to me that it was full of useful advice for my players who were struggling with the difficulties of old-school dungeon delves.  Since I've recently had the opportunity to sit in, as a player, in Greg Gillespie's Barrowmaze campaign I've realized that we can all benefit from Sun Tzu's advice on planning and strategy.  So, I believe that The Art of Dungeoneering will not only be an invaluable strategy guide for newcomers to old-school play, but also a useful refresher course for old hands as well.

1. Normally, when the army is employed, the general first receives his commands from the sovereign.  He assembles the troops and mobilizes the people.  He blends the army into a harmonious entity and encamps it.

2. Nothing is more difficult than the art of manoeuvre.  What is difficult is to make the devious route the most direct and to turn misfortune to advantage.

3. Thus, march in an indirect route and divert the enemy by enticing him with a bait.  So doing, you may set out after he does and arrive before him.  One able to do this understands the strategy of the direct and the indirect.

4. Now both advantage and danger are inherent in manoeuvre.

One factor to consider when exploring dungeons, particularly famous dungeons containing legendary treasures, is the competition of rival adventuring parties.  The last thing you want is to hack your way through a tribe of riled hobgoblins only to find the fabled treasure hoard already looted by rivals who have left you to face the consequences of their perfidy.  The solution?  Do it to them first.  There is no honour among thieves, and resorting to dirty tricks is one way to out-manoeuvre your rivals and make sure that you, and not they, are the first to loot the treasure hoard.  Consider drafting a phony treasure map that you arrange to fall into their possession.  Perhaps this map leads not to treasure, but into a nasty trap or room fool of angry monsters.   Alternatively, it could lead to an area that you have salted with minor treasure, with the aim of making your rivals waste valuable time by searching for the trove that doesn't exist, while you proceed expeditiously to the big score.

Thus, you can turn your past misfortunes to advantage by luring others down the devious routes that have thwarted you previously.  These tactics can also be employed where rival monster factions exist within a dungeon.  Lure one side into the other's territory, and hopefully to battle, leaving lightly guarded or unguarded treasure for the looting.

5. One who sets the entire army in motion to chase an advantage will not attain it.

6. If he abandons the camp to contend for advantage the stores will be lost.

Simply put, progress will be slow when you are encumbered by an entire dungeon expedition.  Equipment, stores, treasure, and hirelings combine to impede progress and can make you forfeit advantage when time is a factor.  On the other hand, abandoning encumbrances to move more swiftly and efficiently runs the risk of losing them altogether.  Once again, previous advice to establish well-guarded outposts in defensible positions within the dungeon recommends itself.  If sufficient men-at-arms have been employed, supernumerary personnel and and supplies can be left safely in their care, allowing lightly equipped parties to make short forays into new areas quickly and efficiently.

Having well-guarded outposts also creates defensible fall-back positions should the party be forced to retreat.  This allows such retreats to be made in good order instead of a panicked route, which could be disastrous.

7. It follows that when one rolls up the armour and sets out speedily, stopping neither day nor night and marching at double time for a hundred li, the three commanders will be captured.  For the vigorous troops will arrive first and the feeble straggle along behind, so that if this method is used only one-tenth of the army will arrive.

8. In a forced march of fifty li the commander of the van will fall, and using this method but half the army will arrive.  In a forced march of thirty li, but two-thirds will arrive.

9. It follows that an army which lacks heavy equipment, fodder, food, and stores will be lost.

I believe that the previous three points are an excellent metaphor for pushing too far in a single day's exploration of the dungeon.  Most of the catastrophes that I have observed have resulted when the party is running low on hit points and nearly out of spells, but decides to check out 'just one more room.'  This is the dungeoneering equivalent of a forced march that leaves your troops strung out and easy to defeat.

While it is certainly possible to push on if necessary when you are low on resources, the decision to do so must be made with the understanding that casualties that will almost surely result.  Thus, the players must determine whether the gains justify the risk involved in doing so.

If time is not an important factor, it may be better to retire early and recuperate than to continue on in a weakened condition.  However, when circumstances dictate that the party must continue, the players must be prepared for losses and so forewarned, be prepared to take steps to mitigate against them, such as adjusting the marching order to place the characters that are currently best able to survive an attack at the front.  This may mean placing the fighter who has been reduced to 3 hit points behind the thief who has 6.  The thief now has a better chance of meeting an attack and surviving, allowing the fighter to strike back from relative safety.

10. Those who do not know the conditions of mountains and forests, hazardous defiles, marshes and swamps, cannot conduct the march of the army;

11. Those who do not use local guides are unable to obtain the advantages of the ground.

The importance of scouting cannot be overstated but, in my experience, it is seldom employed.  Having a stealthy character explore and map areas of the dungeon in advance of the party allows the players to make informed choices when laying their plans for how to proceed, instead of plunging ahead into the unknown.  Traps, ambushes, and dungeon layout can all be more easily ascertained by a single stealthy character, preferably one who can see in the dark.

Performed improperly, solo scouting can be a death sentence, but even still, losing a single character to trap or ambush is preferable to losing the entire party.  But by taking adequate precautions, the hazards of scouting can be mitigated to the extent that the rewards greatly outweigh the risks.  Invisibility potions and spells can be employed to great effect to allow a lightly armoured character to quietly explore the dungeon unobserved, but they are all too often squandered for a mere one round combat advantage.  The main party can also follow along slowly, just out of sight, but close enough to come to the scout's aid if needed.

By having a good idea of the layout of the dungeon and the concentration of foes, the party can plan surprise attacks instead of just blundering into the monster's lair, and may also be able to plan alternate escape routes should things go wrong and the primary path of retreat gets cut off.

Adventuring parties should also be prepared to capitalize on local knowledge.  Captured monsters can be an excellent source of information, particularly when subjected to a charm  spell.  A charmed creature makes an excellent guide.

12. Now war is based on deception.  Move when it is advantageous and create changes in the situation by dispersal and concentration of forces.

13. When campaigning, be swift as the wind; in leisurely march, majestic as the forest; in raiding and plundering, like the fire; in standing, firm as the mountains.  As unfathomable as the clouds, move like a thunderbolt.

14. When you plunder the countryside, divide your forces.  When you conquer territory, divide the profits.

15. Weigh the situation, then move.

16. He who knows the art of the direct and the indirect approach will be victorious.  Such is the art of manoeuvring.

I used to play in a lot of D&D tournaments when I was young and my friends and I learned early on that the key to victory was to act boldly and not dither.  Make plans quickly and decisively and then act on them.  Don't spend half an hour debating every possible course of action - that is just asking for wandering monsters to come eat you.  Implementing a plan of action boldly, even if it isn't a good plan, is almost always better than standing around and arguing.  It's easy to correct mistakes on the go because the other side will be reacting to what you are doing instead of taking initiative themselves.  Once you lose that momentum, however, you will be forced to react to your opposition's plans, and that is a situation to avoid.

17. The Book of Military Administration says: 'As the voice cannot be heard in battle, drums and bells are used.  As troops cannot see each other clearly in battle, flags and banners are used.'

18. Now gongs and drums, banners and flags are used to focus the attention of the troops.  When the troops can be thus united, the brave cannot advance alone, nor can the cowardly withdraw.  This is the art of employing a host.

It is not a bad idea to organize prearranged signals within an adventuring party.  Hand signals and flags may be gainfully employed to pass information when silence is necessary.  Also, such signals become very useful when a silence spell has been cast in the area, rendering verbal communication impossible.

Likewise, audible signals, like whistles and claps, can be used to pass information and execute plans without alerting enemies to your intentions.

19. In night fighting use many torches and drums, in day fighting many banners and flags in order to influence the sight and hearing of our troops.

Banners, flags, and drums have long been used to bolster the morale of friendly troops and steady their courage.  They can also be used to strengthen the resolve of hirelings, making them less likely to flee in the chaos of battle.  Flags may also be used to mark rally points where the party is to fall back to and regroup in the event that they do become scattered.  Leaving some men-at-arms behind to guard a rally point can help to prevent a retreat from becoming a route.

20. Now an army may be robbed of its spirit and its commander deprived of his courage.

21. During the early morning spirits are keen, during the day they flag, and in the evening thoughts turn toward home.

22. And therefore those skilled in war avoid the enemy when his spirit is keen and attack him when it is sluggish and his soldiers homesick.  This is control of the moral factor.

Whenever possible, time assaults to suit yourself and discomfit your enemies.  Many subterranean creatures suffer penalties to attack in daylight, whereas surface dwellers will be at a disadvantage when fighting in darkness.  Plan your attacks accordingly.

If guarded objectives need to be captured, it is best to delay until the guards have been on duty for several hours and have become bored, complacent, and inattentive.  This may help you to achieve surprise, enabling you to take your objective quickly and with minimal opposition as opposed to attacking when the guards are fresh and alert.  This is another example of how scouting and gathering intelligence can pay dividends.

23. In good order they await a disorderly enemy; in serenity, a clamorous one.  This is control of the mental factor.

Historically, disciplined troops have triumphed over undisciplined troops.  The unwavering shield walls of Roman troops and the unflinching firing lines of the British infantry during the Napoleonic Wars won many battles against numerically superior foes.  Hirelings under the control of an experienced leader may receive a morale bonus that could make the difference between standing firm against a foe that may be more likely to fail its own morale check.

24. Close to the field of battle, they await an enemy coming from afar; at rest, an exhausted enemy; with well-fed troops, hungry ones.  This is control of the physical factor.

25. They do not engage an enemy advancing with well-ordered banners nor one whose formations are in impressive array.  This is control of the factor of changing circumstances.

26. Therefore, the art of employing troops is that when the enemy occupies high ground, do not confront him; with his back resting on hills, do not oppose him.

Take care to fight your battles at a time and place that is advantageous to you.  Pick a defensible location and make the enemy come to you; do not initiate an attack against a prepared and well-disciplined enemy on their own ground.

27. When he pretends to flee, do not pursue.

28. Do not attack his elite troops.

29. Do not gobble proffered baits.

In other words, be careful not to fall into the very same traps that you are laying for your enemies.

30. Do not thwart an enemy returning homewards.

31. To a surrounded enemy you must leave a way of escape.

32. Do not press an enemy at bay.

The most dangerous foes are the ones who have no choice but to win or die.  Leaving them an avenue of escape plants the idea that there is an alternative to death, making it more likely that they will choose to flee when the battle turns against them instead of fighting to the last man.  The vagaries of luck dictate that the longer you fight the greater the chance that improbable dice rolls could turn a sure victory into a defeat, so let a broken enemy flee and save unnecessary casualties on your own side.

When the enemy is trapped and at bay, with no possible avenue of escape, offering them a chance to surrender may also end the hostilities early.  This is riskier than allowing the enemy to retreat, because they may not trust you not to slaughter them once they surrender.  So you may need to allay their suspicions, and a past reputation for killing captives will only work against you in these situations.

33. This is the method of employing troops.


Black Vulmea said...


Sun Tzu would run a hell of a campaign.

Sean Robson said...

Thanks, Vulmea. I wonder how Sun Tzu would have fared in The Tomb of Horrors? Hmm...that sounds like the basis for a cool new show, pitting the greatest warlords of history against old school dungeon adventures. Kind of like Deadliest Warrior only cooler.

Shane Mangus said...

Wow! That is one hell of a post! Great overview of adventure strategy, and also preview of the upcoming book, which I feel will be a significant release for the OSR. Great stuff here, Sean! Let me know what I can do to help the process along.

Sean Robson said...

Will do, Shane. Thanks for the kind words. I'm currently working on revising Chapter One.