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 25, 2010

Assault on Angelis: 1st Interlude

Dark Angel Transport Ship Redemption inbound to Angelis Prime, 1420 Galactic Standard Time
Belial, commander of the Dark Angels 1st company - the Deathwings - studied the grim-faced soldiers arrayed before him in the briefing room.  How many would survive the crucible they were about to enter and how many would die honouring their oaths to the Emperor like so many of their battle-brothers before them?

"We caught a break this time.  A Rogue Trader surveying the galactic eastern fringe was about to enter the warp when the Tyranid hive fleet entered the Angelis sector.  The trader was able to escape and bring word of the invasion before the bugs masked the region with their warp shadow."

"We are the only chapter with a ship near enough to inderdict and try to prevent Angelis from being scoured clean, like Tyran.  Our mission is to drop into the capital city, link up with the imperial garrison and, once we get a briefing from the planetary governor, hold the line until Imperial Guard reinforcements can be sent.  Questions?"

There were none, and Belial noted with satisfaction that his men remained imperturbable and maintained stoic discipline in the face of the upcoming trial.

"Right, prep for action.  Equipment check in thirty minutes."

Governor's Palace, Corona City, Angelis Prime, 1505 GST
Lord Azrael tossed the Governor's corpse aside with contempt and wondered, not for the first time this day, if one of the Chaos Gods was against him.  For more than fifty years he had been searching the galaxy for the long lost Golden Eye of Tzeentch.  It was the most damnable luck to have finally traced it to Angelis, only to find the planet infested with a Tyranid swarm.  He had managed to get to Corona City ahead of the advancing brood and interrogate the governor, but the groveling fool had never even heard of the Golden Eye.

One of his men entered the chamber and saluted, "My Lord, the Ork raiding party from the Kill  Cruiser Black Tooth is on planet.  As you predicted, they were lured by the rumours we spread about a 'hidden Imperial weapons cache,' and they've landed on the coordinates we sent them - right in the thick of the Tyranid swarm."

Azrael smiled.  Finally, something was going right.  With luck the savage brutes would slow the Tyranid advance long enough for him and his men to find the Eye of Tzeentch and escape.

"My Lord," called out his man on the sensor array,"long range scanners have detected Imperial drop ships entering the upper atmosphere.  IFF signature reads Dark Angels."

By all the demons of the warp, what else could go wrong?  Azrael strode angrily to the balconey and searched the sky.  Already the dropships' tell-tail contrails were visibile and converging on Corona City.

"Assemble the men and prepare for battle," Azrael commanded his lieutenant, "let us welcome our former brethren to Angelis."

Plains of Gagarin, NE of Corona City, 1510 GST
Warlord Ghazbag's irritation was piqued as he watched the Tyranid horde swarm towards his landing craft.  There was no weapons cache, and no swag meant no pay.

"Well, boyz, looks like dem Chaos lads was pulling our teef," he growled.

"Mebbe, boss," said his chief mek, Lugnutz, "but them shootas da Chaos boyz has got are dead killy and dos spiky tanks dey drive, I bet I could make 'em go even fasta.  What say we go find da Chaos bunch, bash der heads and take der stuff?"  

"Aye, but first we got a nice little scrap brewin' to warm us up." Ghazbag watched a gigantic Carnifex in the distance tearing apart a refinery with its crab-like appendages.  The thought of killing such a monster in hand-to-hand combat excited him so much he absent-mindedly snapped his prosthetic power claw, cutting off the hand of the grot that was oiling it, which elicited gales of laughter from  his personal guards.

"Awright boyz!" Ghazbag roared, "Time for some fun.  Let's kill some bugs!"

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Assault on Angelis: A Prelude to War

My Swords and Wizardry campaign is on temporary hiatus for the next few months as our group has decided to take a break to run a Warhammer 40K campaign.  I'm pretty excited by this as my usual miniature gaming consists of pick-up games against random opponents at the local game store, which lacks the context of an ongoing series of battles with the continuity and story line that is only possible in a campaign.  It also gives me a strong incentive to get my Ork army painted.

For those unfamiliar with Warhammer 40K, it is a game of gothic sci-fi horror set in the 41st millennium, and emulates the cinematic action of such movies as Aliens, Pitch Black, The Chronicles of Riddick, and Starship Troopers.  Mankind has spread across the galaxy, a founding a vast empire ruled by the Emperor on Terra, who has occupied the Golden Throne for over 10,000 years - kept alive only by his supreme force of will, his broken, decayed body maintained by stasis fields and psi-fusion reactors.  But mankind teeters on the precipice of extinction, assailed on all sides by enemies - from the ravenous and horrific Tyranid Hive Fleets, the rapacious and warlike Ork hordes, and the treachery of Chaos,which seduces and twists even the Emperor's most loyal subjects.

The antagonists in our campaign:
The Dark Angels (Garth Bowman) are one of the founding chapters of the Space Marines.  There are one thousand space marine chapters consisting of one thousand men.  This works out to about one space marine for each inhabited world in the Imperium.  The product of genetic engineering, brutal training, and the most advanced weaponry known to man, the space marines are mankind's ultimate warriors.  Each marine's battle armour provides the armament and protection of a modern tank.  Picture a cross-between the Imperial Sardaukar troops from Dune, and the Mobile Infantry from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and you've got the picture.  The space marines are humanity's first line of defense, endlessly pitting their skill and courage against insurmountable odds.

Space Marines from the Crimson Fists chapter

Chaos Space Marines (Jordan Nykolaishen) are apostate space marines who have become corrupted by the taint of chaos and have forsworn their oaths to the Emperor; they now serve the dark gods and their own twisted desires.  Betrayers and traitors all, there can be no greater stain on the honour of the space marines than their fallen bretheren.

Chaos Space Marine
 (picture shamelessly swiped from Google Images)

The Tyranids (Steve Snaz) hail from beyond the outer reaches of our galaxy and travel through space their Hive Fleets consuming all biomass in their path, leaving nothing but barren, lifeless worlds in their wake.  Most tyranid broods are mindless killing machines whose actions are psychically controlled by synaptic link to the inscrutable and horrific hive mind; they are protected by chitinous exoskeletons and armed with teeth, talons, and biomorphic weaponry.

Tyranid Hormagant of Hive Fleet Cthonian

Orks (Sean Robson) are the most warlike alien race in the 41st millennium, and they adhere to single over-riding principle: the weak are ruled by the strong. There is no corner of the galaxy free of the ork menace - they roam the space ways in drifting hulks and fleets of Kill Cruisa's, looking for new worlds to conquer and dominate; they don't much care where they go as long as there is something to kill when they get there.  If the orks were ever to unite under a single banner they would over-run the galaxy with a green-skinned tide.

Ork Nob with prosthetic power-claw

I'll be posting periodic campaign synopses and battle reports detailing the struggle for control of Angelis Prime, which should be of interest to the participants at least, if no one else.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter II, Waging War

This is quite a long post because I've chosen to cover all of Chapter 2 at once.  This is quite a short chapter and is focussed upon the necessity of acting quickly to gain swift victory, which is necessary to maintain morale and ensure that supplies do not run out prematurely.

1. Generally, operations of war require one thousand fast four-horse chariots, one thousand four-horse wagons covered in leather, and one hundred thousand mailed troops.

Clearly, such requirements are fluid and depend upon circumstances, but whatever man-power your expedition requires don't forget the logistics to support them.  Each hireling in your party will also need to be fed, so be sure to bring enough food and drink to see them through the trip.  This will add up to a lot of provender for even a medium-sized expedition for  just a couple of weeks, so you may need to invest in a wagon train to carry food and equipment (not to mention transporting all your loot back to town) and the horses or mules will also need food and water.

2. When provisions are transported for a thousand li expenditures at home and in the field, stipends for the entertainment of advisers and visitors, the cost of materials such as glue and lacquer, and of chariots and armour, will amount to one thousand pieces of gold a day.  After this money is in hand, one hundred thousand troops may be raised.

Suffice it to say that there can a significant expense in properly equipping and outfitting an expedition, which might be beyond the means of low level adventurers to front.  At first level most characters don't even have enough cash to properly equip themselves with the weapons and armour they want, let alone hiring and equipping NPCs.  In a lot of cases, low level characters either forgo the proper preparations and tackle the dungeon with their own limited resources, or take a few odd jobs to raise cash before undertaking a dungeon expedition.  My current campaign began this way, with the characters checking the bounty board at the Flaming Faggot and rounding up notorious bandits for the reward money.  But if you're eager to hit the dungeon there is no reason to let limited funds delay the expedition.  Consider soliciting wealthy investors to supply the capital for the trip.  As expensive as outfitting an expedition is, it pales in comparison to the potential rewards and if you have a solid plan of attack there is no reason why a well-organized party couldn't convince wealthy patrons to front them the cash in exchange for a share in the profits.

3. Victory is the main object in war.  If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale depressed.  When troops attack cities, their strength will be exhausted.

Delays in a campaign can certainly result in decreased morale as troops become bored and restless.  In military campaigns one's force can also suffer attrition due to sickness - how many soldier's died on Salisbury Plain while waiting around to be shipped to Europe?

But over and above considerations of morale, speed can be a valuable offensive tool.  Moving quickly can keep the opposition off balance, forcing them to attempt to react to your actions rather than giving them time to mount a counter-offensive of their own.  "Dungeon blitzing" is a strategy that I found to be especially effective in tournament play when time is also a factor.

While a dungeon blitz is a very effective offensive strategy there is a risk that your reach can overextend your grasp and it is important to keep an eye on your resources lest you find yourself pushing too far and leaving yourself vulnerable.  I am reminded of games of Risk when I went on huge offensives, conquering half the world in a turn, only to lose all of my gains the following turn when my opponent got reinforcements then rampaged through my strung-out army.  Likewise, rampaging through the Death Star, chasing stormtroopers worked really well for Han Solo until the stormtroopers turned around and realized that he was all alone.

Perhaps the best way to execute a dungeon blitz is to launch a limited fast assault on an area of the dungeon then consolidate your victory by resting and securing the area before commencing the next blitz.

4. When the army engages in protracted campaigns the resources of the state will not suffice.

Eventually, even the best-equipped party is going to need to resupply, and the bigger the dungeon, the more often supply runs will need to be made.  For this reason it is important to loot some treasure troves early on so that sufficient funds will be available to resupply and keep the expedition moving forward.

It is important to keep pressure on the dungeon denizens to prevent them from repopulating the areas that you've already cleared, so you may want to consider employing hirelings simply for the purpose of delivering supplies from town at a regular interval.  A supply line of food and ammunition can help you keep the offensive going and clear that level without having to reconquer previously held territory.

Sooner or later, though, the hirelings and probably even the PCs are going to want to hit town for some well-deserved R&R.  You may want to consider rotating the hirelings by giving some of them "leave" to go to town and unwind.  This is actually to your benefit.  Once a hireling gets gold in his purse, perhaps more money than he's ever had in his life, he might start to wonder if perhaps it's time to call it quits and retire with his riches.  Allowing your hirelings regular opportunities to gamble, drink, and whore will ensure that they will be back once they've blown their swag on the irresistible vices that towns have to offer.

5. When your weapons are dulled and ardour damped, your strength exhausted and treasure spent, neighbouring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act.  And even though you have wise counsellors, none will be able to lay good plans for the future.

Quit while you're ahead because the bad guys will always kick you when you're down.

6. Thus, while we have heard of blundering swiftness in war, we have not yet seen a clever operation that was prolonged.

Further to point 2.3, a bad plan that is swiftly and audaciously expedited will trump a brilliant scheme that never gets off the ground.

7. For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefited.

8. Thus those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so.

9. Those adept in waging war do not require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning.

I think this is Sun Tzu's way of re-emphasizing the need to plan ahead and bring everything you need for your campaign, then not waste your resources by dithering and delaying when action is called for.

10. They carry equipment from the homeland; they rely for provisions on the enemy.  Thus the army is plentifully provided with food.

I've never seen an adventuring party yet that didn't help themselves to the dungeon's armoury for resupplying themselves, nor break open the ubiquitous wine or beer casks that are invariably scattered around dungeons.  One does tend to shy away from the questionable provisions that orcs eat, but other than that using the dungeon itself to resupply your expedition is very efficient.  Your investors will applaud your frugality.

11. When a country is impoverished by military operations it is due to distant transportation; carriage of supplies for great distances renders the people destitute.

Clearly, the further your dungeon is from a town, settlement, or keep, the more difficult it will be to resupply.  For adventuring in remote locales it may be worth dedicating a party of hirelings solely to hunting and gathering food.

12. Where the army is, prices are high; when prices rise the wealth of the people is exhausted.  When wealth is exhausted the peasantry will be afflicted with urgent extractions.

Dungeon delving often results in economic inflation, particularly if a famous set of ruins or dungeons is drawing many groups of explorers.  Just like in gold rush towns in the 19th century where prospectors might expect to pay $1 for a single egg, the massive influx of treasure can wreak havoc on the local economy as merchants raise their prices to suit.  Not only must adventurers be prepared for inflated prices, but they might also be subject to hostility and resentment from the local populace who are no longer able to afford the inevitable price increases.  On the up side this might make it easier to recruit hirelings from among the locals, who have no other way of earning the kind of money they now need to live.

13. With strength thus depleted and wealth consumed the households in the central plains will be utterly impoverished and seven tenths of their wealth dissipated.

A small town can only support large numbers of dungeon expeditions for so long before the economy collapses entirely, destroying the settlement as effectively as a band of marauding orcs.  When the dungeon is finally cleared and the adventuring bands all move on they will leave nothing but a ghost town in their wake.

This is actually an intriguing idea and the aftermath of dungeoneering might make for some interesting spin off adventures.  What happens when large bands of hirelings are paid off at the end of the quest and have nothing left to return to but an impoverished and destitute community with no jobs.  Does the area now become infested with lawless bands of dungeon-hardened veterans turned road agents, bandits and highwaymen?

14. As to government expenditures, those due to broken-down chariots, worn out horses, armour and helmets, arrows and crossbows, lances, hand and body shields, draft animals and supply wagons will amount to sixty percent of the total.

15. Hence the wise general sees to it that his troops feed on the enemy, for one bushel of the enemy's provisions is equivalent to twenty of his; one hundredweight of enemy fodder to twenty hundredweight of his.

Once inflation afflicts the base town it might, indeed, be cheaper and easier to rely upon enemy provisions for resupply.

16. The reason troops slay the enemy is because they are enraged.

This statement seems out of place with the rest of the chapter and doesn't seem to belong.  Nonetheless, this advice could be used in two different ways.  When the morale of the hirelings is waning and they've lost the will to fight, arrange for the enemy to perform some sort of atrocity, such as the desecration of the corpses of their friends, that will inflame the men with the will to fight.

Likewise, if you wish to avoid prematurely provoking attack by enemies, be careful not to do anything to enrage them and make such a fight inevitable - don't go looting shrines unless you want to fight its guardians.  Conversely, if you wish to draw an enemy out to fight when and where you wish, consider performing some atrocity that will force them to act, preferably recklessly and without thought.

17. They take booty from the enemy because they desire wealth.

As previously discussed, the promise of loot, and the prospect of gaining even more loot, is the key to inspiring hirelings to fight.  Allow your hirelings to loot the bodies of the enemies that they slay - this will encourage them to fight all the harder in order to win more bonus loot.

18. Therefore, when in chariot fighting more than ten chariots are captured, reward those who take the first.  Replace the enemies flags and banners with your own, mix the captured chariots with yours, and mount them.

"Yeah, incentives are important.  I learned that in rehab."  - Captain Ron

Consider offering bonuses to hirelings for exemplary performance, such as whoever makes the first kill, whoever kills the most enemies, whoever finds the first trap, locates the secret treasure trove, etc.  This turns each and every hired hand into an active participant doing his very best instead of standing around with his thumb up his butt waiting to collect  his daily pay.

19. Treat captives well, and care for them.

This is something that I've seldom seen adventurers do.  I've seen captives threatened, bullied, tortured, and executed, but never treated well.  Doing so can pay dividends.  It may be possible to turn intelligent captives to your side, thereby gaining additional followers with insider knowledge.  Failing that it may be possible to exchange them for captives taken from your party members.

20. This is called 'winning a battle and becoming stronger.'

21. Hence what is essential in war is victory, not prolonged operations.  And therefore the general who understands war is the minister of the people's fate and arbiter of the nation's destiny.

This last statement nicely sums up the the major points of this chapter: execute your campaign expeditiously and gain swift victory.  Little can be gained by indecisiveness and delay.  It is almost always better to do something; doing anything, even if it is the wrong thing is better than doing nothing.  This way the enemy is forced to react to you rather than have leisure to make his own plans.

Next: Chapter III - Offensive Strategy.  So far we've talked broadly about the need to achieve victory.  Now we will begin to discuss how win that victory.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hammer Studios Back in Action!

Fans of classic horror, rejoice!  Hammer Films is back after a 30 year hiatus.

Migilleto from The Grumpy Old Troll posted the news earlier this afternoon.  Here's the BBC News story.

This is exciting news, indeed, and I can only hope that the new Hammer movies have the same feel and emphasis on good story telling that the originals did.  After suffering through the spate of contemporary Hollywood suck-fests I'm craving some good old classic horror.

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.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter I, Estimates (part 1)

This chapter pertains to preliminary planning.  It is one of the longer chapters in the book, which shows how important Sun Tzu considered initial planning to the success of the campaign.  Passages in italics are direct quotes from the text, which I follow up, where appropriate, with discussion of how they apply to dungeon adventures.  Because the chapter is quite long, I've broken it into two parts, the first dealing strictly with the 'five fundamental factors' of planning.

1. War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin.  It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.

Substitute the words 'war' and 'state' with 'dungeon delving' and 'adventurer' and the meaning here becomes clear.  It is important for a character's survival that he approach each new venture with professional competence and prepare thoroughly for the task at hand.  Dungeon exploration is the chosen vocation of most player characters and, as such, is incumbent upon them to to take a professional approach to each expedition.

Show of hands: how many of us have run off half-cocked at the first hint of an adventure hook or unconfirmed rumour of treasure in the long-abandoned ruins.  Players should attempt to gather as much information about the ruins as possible in order to make logical and necessary plans.  Learn a bit about the background and history of those ruins to get a hint about what sorts of dangers you might have to face.  The local populace can be a great source of information, albeit sometimes biased by perspective.  Ask questions of the grizzled one-armed man in the corner of the tavern.  This may prevent you from becoming a grizzled one-armed man who drinks alone in taverns.  Keep in mind that different sources may have different information, or none at all, so be sure to investigate various logical sources of information.

2. Therefore, appraise it in terms of the five fundamental factors and make comparisons of the seven elements later named.  So you may assess its essentials.

3. The first of these factors is moral influence; the second, weather; the third, terrain; the fourth, command; and the fifth, doctrine.

4. By moral influence I mean that which causes the people to be in harmony with their leaders, so that they will accompany them in life and unto death without fear of mortal peril.

Here, we need to consider recruiting for an expedition.  If the party is considering hiring guards, porters, torch bearers, etc., it is worthwhile to find motivations beyond the silver piece per day or threat of punishment to motivate commoners to risk their lives on a dungeon expedition.  Consider the local economy; if it is depressed and most folks live meager existences, then promising a big bonus to surviving expedition members might help set them up for the future.  A 100 gp bonus would go a long way towards your torch bearer buying a small piece of land to farm.  This sort of incentive will make it worth his while to stick by your side when the going gets rough instead of cutting and running.  He is now personally invested in the expedition's success.

While financial incentives are the most common way to ensure employee loyalty, don't disregard the power of psychological motivation.  Someone whose family was killed by a marauding beast might well leap at a chance to accompany a well-armed expedition to the monster's lair and help slay it.

The last thing you want is for your torch-bearers and porters to run away with your light source and your gear when you're in the middle of a fight with a scary monster, so take the time to find out what motivates them and give them personal reasons to see the adventure through to the end.

5. By weather I mean the interaction of natural forces; the effects of winter's cold and summer's heat and the conduct of military operations in accordance with the seasons.

Here, of course, Sun Tzu notes the importance of accounting for the environmental conditions, and while this seems obvious, history is replete with examples of leaders that failed to do so.  The Royal Navy was particularly stubborn in its refusal to equip their crews with cold weather gear when exploring the arctic and searching for the Northwest Passage.  The Franklin Expedition is a prime example of what happens when you don't plan for the weather.  So, pack your long undies if you're adventuring in cold areas, and bring lots of water and shade if you're in the desert.  Also, if you're planning an expedition into areas with extreme environmental conditions, it might be well to schedule the trip for the appropriate season.  Heading into the mountains in the dead of winter adds extra levels of difficulty and hazard to an otherwise dangerous journey.  Likewise hitting the desert at the height of the hot dry season is just plain bad timing.  Unless there is a time factor involved, those ancient ruins will still be there to plundered next season so consider waiting a few months and start the trip during a more favourable time of year.  You can use the time for extra planning, recruiting, and research.

Another aspect of environment to consider is the possible conditions within the dungeon itself.  If you're heading into a dungeon called the Temple of Elemental Evil, or The Lair of the Ice Queen, it is probably worth taking some precautions to ward against anticipated environmental dangers.  Make sure your spell casters have spells like Resist Cold, Resist Fire, or Control Weather (subject to availability in the rule set being used).

6. By terrain I mean distances, whether the ground is traversed with ease or difficulty, whether it is open or constricted, and the chances of life or death.

It is important to know, beforehand, the conditions of terrain.  This is something that I find is all too often overlooked, and players only discover what the terrain is like as they encounter it.  It's great to have horses and wagons to haul your gear and treasure, but they become a logistical nightmare when when you discover that your route takes you through a vast expanse of swamp land.  This very thing happened in my game recently.

It is worthwhile to get a hold of some maps of the area to get an idea of what the terrain is like, and if maps aren't available, take some time to scout the route out before embarking with the whole expedition.  If you are travelling through potentially hostile areas inhabited by monsters or bandits, look out for choke points that would make ideal ambush sites and plan your route to avoid them if possible - or at least be aware of them if they can't be avoided.

Terrain can also be affected by weather and seasonal conditions.  Easily fordable rivers might become impassable during the rainy season.

7. By command I mean the general's qualities of wisdom, sincerity, humanity, courage, and strictness.

Wisdom is reflected by the party's ability to recognize changing circumstances and respond quickly and appropriately.  No matter how thoroughly you plan, you always encounter the unexpected.  Good parties will roll with the punches and act decisively.  Bad parties will dither and waste time bickering amongst themselves and make a bad situation even worse.  I used to play in a lot of D&D tournaments when I was younger and this factor was usually the one that separated the winners from the losers.  Don't hoard your resources: use them when ever they are helpful, but don't squander them needlessly.  Don't fret about things going wrong; act quickly and decisively and stay one step ahead of the crisis so it doesn't overtake you.

Efficient, decisive action also inspires confidence in your hirelings and may reduce negative morale modifiers from creeping in.  Indecisive parties scare the hell out of the help and they are more likely to run when danger rears its ugly  head.  Combining wisdom with the courage to seize the day and take advantage of opportunities, along with fair treatment and the knowledge that the boss won't spend their lives needlessly all contribute to positive morale in hirelings that will help keep them in the fight when the situation becomes chaotic.

8. By doctrine I mean organization, control, assignment of appropriate ranks to officers, regulation of supply routes, and the provision of principal items used by the army.

I interpret this to mean having standard operating procedures (SOPs) that are understood by all levels of the expedition's chain of command.  This can be something as simple an understanding between the PCs of what to do if someone becomes separated from the rest of the group, or perhaps a standard room clearing procedure, but it is even more important if you have a large expedition with many hirelings.  For example, you may wish to establish a base camp outside the dungeon, or within a cleared and secure area of the dungeon where the party can return to rest, resupply, and drop off treasure.  The base camp should be well-guarded and commanded by a henchman or trusted senior hireling.  SOP's can be established for a variety of circumstances, such as what the base camp leader should do if the party fails to return at the scheduled time.  If you do set up a base camp and fail to appoint a trusted NPC to command it, with SOPs to guide him, when you get captured by the bad guys, instead of knowing that a rescue party is on the way there is a good chance that the camp guards have scarpered off back to town with your loot.

9. There is no general who has not heard of these five matters.  Those who master them win; those who do not are defeated.

10. Therefore in laying plans compare the following elements, appraising them with the utmost care.

11. If you say which ruler possesses moral influence, which commander is the more able, which army obtains the advantages of nature and the terrain, in which regulations and instructions are better carried out, which troops are stronger;

12. Which has the better trained officers and men;

13. And which administers rewards and punishments in a more enlightened manner;

14. I will be able to forecast which side will be victorious and which defeated.

15. If a general who heeds my strategy is employed he is certain to win.  Retain him!  When one who refuses to listen to my strategy is employed, he is certain to be defeated.  Dismiss him!

16.  Having paid heed to the advantages of my plans, the general must create situations which will contribute to their accomplishment.  By 'situations' I mean that he should act expediently in accordance with what is advantageous and so control the balance.

So, to sum up, the five fundamental factors to consider when planning a dungeon expedition are:
1. Moral influence
2. Weather
3. Terrain
4. Command
5. Doctrine

Incorporate these factors into your plans and you're well on your way to beating the dungeon.

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.