Sun Tzu’s Art of RPG Combat: Weak Points and Strong


Welcome to the second installment in our RPG combat analysis of Sun Tzu’s military treatise The Art of War. In the first post we discussed Chapter III, Attack By Strategem. This post will take a look at Chapter VI, Weak Points and Strong. This chapter advises generals how to exploit the weakness of an enemy and how to use tactics to turn strengths into weaknesses. This second part is especially useful when running monster combat since the party usually has a strength advantage.

 Sun Tzu said: Whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted.

Therefore the clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy, but does not allow the enemy’s will to be imposed on him.

By holding out advantages to him, he can cause the enemy to approach of his own accord; or, by inflicting damage, he can make it impossible for the enemy to draw near.

One advantage that RPG monsters have is that they are first in the field in most adventure situations. It is the party who has usually traveled great distances to explore a dungeon or hunt down orc bandits. But, there is rarely a situation where the PCs are at the point of exhaustion when entering into a fight. The clever DM needs to find other ways to demonstrate the benefit of the monster’s home field advantage.

Monsters can impose their will on adventurers by controlling where they are able to go within a dungeon or even in a forest. Traps can be placed to steer the party in a direction that is beneficial to the bad guys. Strategically barred doors in a dungeon or destroyed river crossings in a forest can be used to set a very specific path for the heroes right into the waiting attack by the occupying monsters.

The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points; and his forces being thus distributed in many directions, the numbers we shall have to face at any given point will be proportionately few.

For should the enemy strengthen his van, he will weaken his rear; should he strengthen his rear, he will weaken his van; should he strengthen his left, he will weaken his right; should he strengthen his right, he will weaken his left. If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will everywhere be weak.

Numerical weakness comes from having to prepare against possible attacks; numerical strength, from compelling our adversary to make these preparations against us.

Knowing the place and the time of the coming battle, we may concentrate from the greatest distances in order to fight.

The especially clever DM will lay out all the signs for an impending attack, but not follow through with it at the expected place. Most experienced players are going to feel that they are being led right into a trap and will naturally raise their defenses. If they are heading down a narrow passageway they will put the stronger characters up front to shield the weaker ones. Let the players arrange themselves in defensive formations and then launch attacks where the formation is weak. If the tanks are up front attack them from the rear. Or just wait to attack them for a little while longer.

Often times in an RPG the constant danger of attack can be more damaging to a party than a bunch of little, useless attacks. The Wizards and Clerics in a group will burn defensive spells in anticipation of fighting goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears. The Fighters and Rangers will waste potions to buff their skills. And, the Bards will sing songs or whatever it is that Bards do. These spells and potions are limited resources especially in an area where the monsters have control. Magic users have to rest in order to regain their spells and Amazon doesn’t ship potions to the local dungeon. A clever DM can force the players to exhaust their finite resources without ever launching an attack against them. And what does the DM do when the party stops to renew those resources by praying and relearning spells? They attack.

Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.

Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards.

So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.

Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.

He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.

This is probably the best advice that a DM can take with regard to combat tactics. What worked in one situation will not work in every situation. The tactic that I described above only works if a party relies on magic to defend themselves. You may run a game for a party that is all tanks. A clever DM will need to find another weakness to exploit. They could pit the party against a maze of traps to take advantage of a lack of Thief characters. Or exploit their lack of magic by throwing magic users at them. Also, don’t be afraid to scrap tactics that aren’t working mid-adventure and try out new ones.

Besides changing tactics just to match the makeup of the party, the DM should change up their tactics to keep the players on their toes. If you run games for groups of min/maxers and meta-gamers they are going to catch on to your tricks pretty quickly. Once they learn your new tricks you may as well just go back to throwing wave after wave of kobolds at them. It will be just as effective and interesting. Hone your tactics. Mix and match them. Play a few combat encounters straight just to mess with the players’ heads. Having a deep bag of tricks will keep your combat interesting, but I can’t guarantee your players will call you a heaven-born captain.

Next time: Chapter X, Terrain

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