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, 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.


Aaron E. Steele said...

This is good. Really good. I'm sure my local library has The Art Of War, i'm going to pick this up and read along.

Sean Robson said...

Cool! I'm glad you're enjoying it.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Sadly, no art of war at my local library. Calgary is notorious for its under-resourced library system. sigh.

Sean Robson said...

I'm surprised that a city as wealthy as Calgary doesn't have better funded libraries. Regardless, you could probably find a cheap used copy. It's worth having your own since its the sort of book that you refer back to often.

Dennis Laffey said...

If you've got a Kindle, Amazon's got it for free in their ebook format.

Text (trans. Giles) online here:

Original Chinese here:

Public Domain works are wonderful things.