Sun Tzu’s Art of RPG Combat: The Nine Situations

imagesAt long last, the final installment of Sun Tzu’s Art of RPG Combat. You can check out the first three parts here, here, and here. This part will cover Chapter XI: The Nine Situations. The Nine Situations refers to the nine different types of ground that an army may find themselves on during war. It is slightly similar to terrain, but it has more to do with a commander recognizing his position on the battlefield and taking the appropriate actions.

Sun Tzu said: The art of war recognizes nine varieties of ground: (1) Dispersive ground; (2) facile ground; (3) contentious ground; (4) open ground; (5) ground of intersecting highways; (6) serious ground; (7) difficult ground; (8) hemmed-in ground; (9) desperate ground.

So there you have it. There are nine varieties of ground. I am not going to cover dispersive ground, facile ground, ground of intersecting highways, or serious ground since they involve the behavior of an army during an invasion. So really what you’re getting here is the Five Situations.

Ground the possession of which imports great advantage to either side, is contentious ground. 

On contentious ground, attack not.

Contentious ground can be any ground that offers a combat advantage such as an elevated position. Sun Tzu suggestion to not attack from this position refers more to a melee attack than a ranged or magical attack. The group holding contentious ground they would not press a melee attack because it would effectively give up their advantage.

What this means is that a group of kobolds is not going to charge an adventuring party from an elevated position. A dragon is not going to land just so some heroes can have a fairer shot at killing it. Strategic combat means never giving up a tactical advantage.

Ground on which each side has liberty of movement is open ground.

On open ground, do not try to block the enemy’s way.

Imagine a scenario where a party of adventurers spies a large group of ogres heading towards them on an open plain. The usual reaction to this development would be to prepare spells, set your tanks up front and wait for the fight to ensue. This is the wrong way to approach this situation.

On open ground it is foolish to sit and wait for an enemy to approach you or to head directly towards them. The smarter move is to break away from them and try to move into a flanking position. Achieving a flanking position opens up more targets to attack especially the fragile magic users that are being protected in the rear.

Mountain forests, rugged steeps, marshes and fens–all country that is hard to traverse: this is difficult ground.

In difficult ground, keep steadily on the march.

While it may be beneficial to avoid difficult ground during a war, RPG battles will be fought there. However, what is difficult ground for players may be perfectly normal ground for certain monsters. Hill giants will have no issues fighting on rugged steeps and lizardmen will feel right at home in a marsh. This ground is where they live and they should gain an advantage over the party because of this. Sun Tzu’s advice to “keep steadily on the march” may be better heard by the players.

Ground which is reached through narrow gorges, and from which we can only retire by tortuous paths, so that a small number of the enemy would suffice to crush a large body of our men: this is hemmed in ground.

On hemmed-in ground, resort to stratagem.

Hemmed-in ground is one of my favorite things to use in RPG combat. Forcing parties into narrow areas where only one or two of them are able to fight is a great way to get the players to think about strategy. This opportunity is also available for the DM and his monsters.

Intelligent monsters should not rush headlong on to hemmed-in ground without having a plan for how to survive. Monsters can use the same tactics that a party would such as softening up the defense with a ranged or magic attack and then pushing through with tanks. Don’t insult the players with wave after wave of mindless fodder pressing one by one through a narrow passage. Give them a fight that they will be proud to win.

Ground on which we can only be saved from destruction by fighting without delay, is desperate ground.

On desperate ground, fight.

Say a party stumbles across a band of orcs in a forest and a fight ensues. The orcs aren’t outnumbered or outmatched, but the tide of battle turns against them. The two or three remaining orcs turn tail and run and we all know what happens next; the party chases them down and kills them. So why would the orcs have chosen to retreat knowing that there was no means of escape?

An enemy that is engaged in combat must weigh their options at all times and decide their strategy. These options include whether or not retreat is possible. Sometimes, even in a losing battle, the best strategy is to stand and fight. This is what desperate ground is. Having the enemy attempt to escape when there is no possible way for them to succeed is nothing more than giving the players an easy kill. Let the monsters that find themselves on desperate ground go down fighting.


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