Sun Tzu’s Art of RPG Combat: Terrain


We previously covered Chapter III and Chapter VI of Sun Tzu’s classic military treatise The Art of War. That means it must be time for Chapter X which covers terrain. Don’t try to figure out my system. Most DMs take terrain into consideration when running an RPG campaign, but we need to consider it as more than a tool for establishing the story setting. Terrain can also be turned into a weapon when running combat.

Although Sun Tzu peppers lessons about terrain throughout most of the treatise, Chapter X lays out his ideas about the six kinds of terrain.

Sun Tzu said: We may distinguish six kinds of terrain, to wit: (1) Accessible ground; (2) entangling ground; (3) temporizing ground; (4) narrow passes; (5) precipitous heights; (6) positions at a great distance from the enemy.

An RPG campaign isn’t going to feature these exact types of terrain, but we can still draw parallels to what will be presented in-game.

Ground which can be freely traversed by both sides is called accessible. With regard to ground of this nature, be before the enemy in occupying the raised and sunny spots, and carefully guard your line of supplies. Then you will be able to fight with advantage.

Most of the normal terrain that you will see in an RPG could be considered accessible ground. RPG worlds feature huge forests and endless plains for the players and their enemies to roam through. Neither side is going to have a distinct advantage in these terrains (with a few notable exceptions that we will cover later) so whatever force is occupying high ground has the edge.

This is important to note when the PCs camp for the night. If they make a note to say that they are camping on a hill the DM has to consider whether another group has already staked that claim.  Roving bands of goblins or orcs are just as likely to want to camp on that same hill. Roll a percentile die or flip a coin to see if the players or the monsters made it there first. If the players decided to camp before sunset give them the advantage on the roll. If they wait until after dark then they have the disadvantage.

Remember from the Weak Points and Strong post that monsters need to have a strong motivation to attack a superior party. The party having the high ground gives them an advantage which means attackers will need a stronger motivation to engage. Kobolds looking for a campsite are not going to assault a group that holds an elevated position. Animals and other non-intelligent monsters don’t factor into this. They attack from hunger or instinct and don’t care whether or not a party holds a better position.

With regard to narrow passes, if you can occupy them first, let them be strongly garrisoned and await the advent of the enemy. Should the army forestall you in occupying a pass, do not go after him if the pass is fully garrisoned, but only if it is weakly garrisoned.

Narrow passes may be encountered if the campaign wanders into a mountain setting, but they will definitely come into play underground. Whether the party is clearing out caves or dungeons everything is basically a narrow passage. Underground caves or dungeon corridors are natural bottlenecks that restrict how combat can be carried out. They limit the enemy’s ability to surround a party, but they can also reduce a groups able combatants to one or two PCs. If a corridor is only ten feet across only two people could realistically engage in combat with an enemy. Reduce the width down to five feet and half the amount of fighters.

The size of the combatants and their weapons will also come into play with how effective combat is in a narrow pass. If your fighter is six or seven feet tall and carries a broadsword or great axe he needs a lot more space to fight than an elf thief using daggers or a bow. The same is true for monsters. Bugbears, ogres or trolls are going to take up a lot more room than kobolds or dire rats limiting the number of them that can attack at one time. A narrow pass temporarily eliminates the advantage of a larger force, but the numbers are still important since a larger force can hold out longer.

Narrow passes are also an effective way of negating the benefit of magic users and ranged attacks. If your wizard is blocked from the enemy by his own compatriots there is little likelihood of her being a help in the fight. Most spells require a clear line of sight or a touch and a DM should enforce this during corridor combat. The same is true of archers. They must shoot through their own party to engage the enemy and that is no easy feat. Allow them to take the shots, but apply a penalty.

With regard to precipitous heights, if you are beforehand with your adversary, you should occupy the raised and sunny spots, and there wait for him to come up. If the enemy has occupied them before you, do not follow him, but retreat and try to entice him away.

This is really just reinforcing what we already covered about high ground, but that last bit of advice is interesting. If the party has a tactical advantage from occupying higher ground the DM can use the players’ own nature against them. Players aren’t going to resist the opportunity to kill some monsters to get XP and loot. They can easily can be drawn away from a position of strength using feints and retreats.

If you are situated at a great distance from the enemy, and the strength of the two armies is equal, it is not easy to provoke a battle, and fighting will be to your disadvantage.

Sun Tzu never lived in a world with magic and dragons. This is the exception mentioned earlier. The more fantastical elements of RPGs can take advantage of accessible terrain because of the ability to attack from a distance. Powerful wizards can stand well out of the range of conventional attacks and launch devastating magical attacks. Dragons can spiral out of the clouds dealing death and destruction with their powerful breath weapons. Giants can hurl boulders great distances turning PCs into bowling pins. There is no reason to hesitate with any of these attacks until the party reaches some arbitrary gentlemanly combat distance. If they are within range unleash hell.

Next time: The final installment Chapter XI The Nine Situations

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