Sun Tzu’s Art of RPG Combat: Attack By Stratagem


One thing that really bothers me are when DMs who don’t put any effort into running their combat encounters. They fill their campaigns with monsters that act more like vending machines for XP and treasure than real opponents. Intelligent monsters rush headlong into combat against the group without any hint of a combat strategy. This is unrealistic and it makes for boring combat. DMs don’t need to be retired generals in order to run great combat, but learning some military strategy can really benefit them. To this end I want to look at one of the most well-known texts of military strategy, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and highlight the lessons that can be applied to RPG combat.

For anyone who is unfamiliar with the book, The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that is divided into thirteen chapters. It is required reading for most military professionals, but even businesses have adopted it to try to gain an edge. While not all of what Sun Tzu wrote benefits RPG combat there are some good strategy lessons in there. This post will cover three passages from Chapter III. A good part of the chapter deals with the futility of prolonged siege combat and how a general can hamper his own army, but we will be looking at the areas regarding superior and inferior forces.

It is the rule in war, if our forces are ten to the enemy’s one, to surround him; if five to one, to attack him; if twice as numerous, to divide our army into two.

Monsters often enter into combat in greater numbers than the party. When these numbers are grossly mismatched the monsters should attempt to overwhelm the party. If the terrain allows the monsters should surround the party and attack from all sides. These attacks should go in order from magic to missile and finally melee. If the monsters’ numbers are only twice as much as the party divide them in two. One half of the monsters should make up the initial assault while the other half is kept in reserve. The first half will absorb much of the initial damage from the party especially the magical attacks. The reserve can then enter the battle when needed.

If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers, we can avoid the enemy; if quite unequal in every way, we can flee from him. 

Groups of monsters will always attack an equal or inferior group of PCs so long as they have a motivation to do so. This motivation could be predatory behavior, defending territory or simply being hired on as evil henchmen. What monsters should never do is attack a superior force unless they have an extreme motivation to do so. A cornered or starving wolf will attack a party, but a pair of kobolds would not perform a direct attack against a four person party. The DM must remember that most monsters are not robots programmed to attack everything. They must be played with a basic survival instinct. Outnumbered or overwhelmed monsters should always attempt to flee no matter how many morale checks they pass.

Hence, though an obstinate fight may be made by a small force, in the end it must be captured by the larger force.

At first glance it would seem that RPG combat seems to dispute this statement. Small parties of PCs often prevail against monster with superior numbers. However, I think this statement highlights the lack of strategy from DMs. Outnumbered parties are always going to win out in the end or else the game is no fun, but they should have to fight their asses off to accomplish this. If the DM provides monsters that challenge the party and aren’t just cannon fodder the players will feel that they accomplished something when they are triumphant.

Next time: Chapter VI Weak Points and Strong

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