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?"

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Art of Dungeoneering: Chapter III, Offensive Strategy

This chapter contains some excellent advice on maximizing your gains while minimizing your losses.  A lot of Sun Tzu's advice in this chapter is obviously applicable to gaming and much of it doesn't require a lot of creative interpretation.

1. Generally in war the best policy is to take a state intact; to ruin it is inferior to this.

2. To capture the enemy's army is better than to destroy it; to take intact a battalion, a company, or a five-man squad is better than to destroy them.

3. For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill.  To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.

This statement nicely illustrates the difference between old school versus contemporary play styles.  The ultimate goal in old-school dungeon adventures is to get the treasure horde and get out alive.  To quote Sean Bean's character, Spence, from the movie, Ronin: "Got the swag, kept the money. It's a job well done, a job well done. That's a fact."  If you can get the swag without having to bleed for it, all the better.

Remember, too, that you want that swag intact.  Big battles in the treasure room can put your investment at risk.  Indiscriminately hurling fireballs and lightning bolts everywhere can melt the gold and potentially ruin any magic items that are in the area of effect.  All in all it's best to dispose of the guardians without engaging them in protracted battles and decrease the chances of damaging the treasure horde you've worked so hard to find.

4. Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's strategy;

5. Next best is to disrupt his alliances;

6. The next best is to attack his army.

7. The worst policy is to attack cities.  Attack cities only when there is no alternative.

Try to avoid getting drawn into unnecessary battles, and above all don't go charging headlong into the Big Boss Lair (TM).  BBL's are deathtraps just waiting to kill unwary adventurers.  You can be sure that the Big Boss ain't in there alone - he'll have minions and all sorts of nasty surprises.  Moreover, he's probably got a prepared and rehearsed plan for dealing with intruders.  So don't give this guy the home-court advantage.  Instead, try to be such a pain in his ass that he is tempted to come out and fight you on ground of your choosing.  This is a tactic I learned from playing WAY too many hours of Civilization IV; when an opponent's city is heavily defended I find that rampaging around the countryside destroying his tile improvements will provoke him to send his troops out from behind those city walls to fight you on open ground.  The same tactic can also work in the dungeon.

But better, even, than fighting your foe on your terms is not fighting him at all.  Look for opportunities to force him out without battle at all.  If you can cut the Big Boss off completely, isolating him in his lair you may be able to negotiate a surrender, allowing him to withdraw, leaving you free to ransack his treasure horde without ever having swung a scimitar.

Another possibility is to look for rivalries within the dungeon and exploit them to the best of your ability.  Getting two rival factions to fight against each other while you sit back, watch the show and eat popcorn is an opportunity not to be missed.  Then you can mop up the survivors and possibly loot two treasure hordes.  Job well done.  That's a fact.

8. To prepare the shielded wagons and make ready the necessary arms and equipment requires at least three months; to pile up earthen ramps against the walls and additional three months will be needed.

9. If the general is unable to control his impatience and orders his troops to swarm up the wall like ants, one-third of them will be killed without taking the city.  Such is the calamity of these attacks.

10. Thus, those skilled in war subdue the enemy's  army without battle.  They capture his cities without assaulting them and overthrow his state without protracted operations.

I fondly remember a recent dungeon adventure wherein the players decided that it would be more efficient to split up and search three different areas at once.  One character all by his lonesome came upon the goblin king's throne room.  Seeing the goblin king sitting by himself on his throne, the already-dead-but-didn't-know-it fighter charged in and was ambushed by a whole lot of elite goblin warriors who had been hiding out of sight waiting for some hapless adventurer to charge in by himself.  Losing even one player character weakens the party considerably - representing 20%, or more, of your fighting force, just like the ill-advised city assault that Sun Tzu warns us about.  So don't get buck fever and throw your character away in a suicidal attempt at glory.  Stay frosty and stick to the plan.

11. Your aim must be to take All-under-heaven intact.  Thus your troops are not worn out and your gains will be complete.  This is the art of offensive strategy.

12. Consequently, the art of using troops is this: When ten to the enemy's one, surround him;

13. When five times his strength, attack him;

14. If double his strength, divide him.

15. If equally matched you may engage him.

16. If weaker numerically, be capable of withdrawing;

17. And if in all respects unequal, be capable of eluding him, for a small force is but booty for one more powerful.

I think these points are all pretty self-explanatory, but line #16 is worth emphasizing.  Adventuring parties are almost always numerically inferior in dungeon settings so be certain, whenever possible, to leave yourself a path to retreat in case you find you've bitten off more than you can chew and are in over your head.

Small, weakened bands of adventurers are excellent sources of treasure and magic items that no evil warlord can pass up.

18. Now the general is the protector of the state.  If this protection is all-embracing, the state will surely be strong; if defective, the state will certainly be weak.

My interpretation of this is that a party is only as strong as its weakest link.

19. Now there are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:

20. When ignorant that the army should not advance, to order an advance or ignorant that it should not retire, to order a retirement.  This is described as 'hobbling the army.'

Just about every single party-wipe I've experienced in the last few years has been due to the party advancing when they were out of spells and low on hit points, but couldn't resist going 'just a little further.'  This is when you are most vulnerable to the vagaries of fate - a few bad dice rolls can spell the end of the party.  Likewise if you are still in good shape it might be better to push on and keep the opposition back-pedaling rather than retreat and allow the enemy to regroup and consolidate his losses.

21. When ignorant of military affairs, to participate in their administration.  This causes the officers to be perplexed.

This is a mistake I see in the workplace all the time: micro-managers who insist on 'managing' things they don't understand, causing no end of confusion.

In the game, I have often seen dominant players dismiss excellent suggestions made by quiet players who allow themselves to be over-ruled.  These dominants then go on to lead the party to defeat.  If you have a 'type-A' personality alpha-dog among your players make sure that he or she doesn't dominate the group to the exclusion of others.  Some players, particularly shy or quiet ones, have excellent ideas that they sometimes are afraid to voice or defend strongly enough in the face of a strongly confidant player who shuts them down.  I've don't know how many times I've heard brilliant but diffident suggestions, that would certainly have succeeded,  over-ruled by strong willed players who act without thinking.

22. When ignorant of command problems to share in the exercise of responsibilities.  This engenders doubts in the minds of the officers.

23. If the army is confused and suspicious, neighbouring rulers will cause trouble.  This is what is meant by the saying: 'A confused army leads to another's victory.'

In a D&D tournament I played in back in the mid-eighties, our group managed to do exceedingly well during the first round of play, winning every single point that was possible.  Looking at the score sheets at the end of the day we saw that our lead was so commanding that only the next highest scoring group had even the smallest chance of winning, and then only if they did very well the next day and if our group got no points at all.  Our victory was assured.

During the next round of play the following day, our group's well-oiled machine fell apart during the very first encounter, as we became confused and started arguing amongst ourselves.  Unbelievably, we wiped without scoring a single point while the second place team did very well that day.  They snatched victory from almost certain defeat and won the tournament (each receiving a very spiffy replica sword for first place), while my group had to be satisfied with second place.

My friends and I learned a valuable lesson that day about not fighting amongst ourselves; it only leads to confusion and defeat.  We realized it would have been better to pick a course of action - any course of action - and execute it as a unified group all pulling together.

24. Now there are five circumstances in which victory may be predicted:

25. He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.

26. He who understands how to use both large and small forces will be victorious.

27. He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious.

28. He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.

29. He whose generals are able and not interfered with by the sovereign will be victorious.

30. It is in these five matters that the way to victory is known.

31. Therefore I say: 'Know the enemy and know  yourself'; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.

32. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal.

33. If ignorant of both your enemy and yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.

I can't think of any better advice for dungeoneering than this.  Know what your enemy is capable of  and understand what you are capable of.  Knowing yourself also means monitoring the status of every member of the party, which sometimes gets forgotten.  All too often players whose characters are low on hit points don't speak up, assuming that everyone else is good to go and don't want to be a party-pooper.  If every party member is running low on go juice and if no one speaks up then the party is in real trouble.

As I delve into Art of War and closely study its lessons for gaming, I'm coming to appreciate the value of nominating a party leader.  Such a leader can be responsible for monitoring the status of each of the characters and keeping an overall eye on the total party fitness, thereby enabling him or her to decide when to retire and rest or keep going.  A leader can also serve to cut short argument and debate that carries on too long, and force the group to make a choice then follow through without dithering.  And finally, the leader can make sure that every player is being heard and that one strong player is not dominating the game.  I believe that this leadership should come from among the players and not the DM, who needs to remain neutral because it can become far too easy for the DM to start leading the party if he becomes involved in player management.

Next up: Chapter IV, Dispositions


Kiltedyaksman said...

I'm enjoying these. I need to reflect on them.

Aaron E. Steele said...

The first several pieces of advice are very interesting: why not take the orcs' gold and make them your vassals, rather than killing them...?

Sean Robson said...

I'm really enjoying doing them. Writing these up makes me really think hard about the lessons from Art of War.

There are certainly a lot of interesting alternatives to having to kill all the denizens to get the treasure. I really like the idea of adventurers setting up their own little fiefdom, like Kurtz did in Joseph Conrad's, The Heart of Darkness or it's cinematic interpretation, Apocalypse Now.