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Worlds of Design: Stratagems

Use of stratagems goes back at least as far as Odysseus and the Trojan Horse. Fans of Glen Cook's "Black Company" series about a fantasy mercenary company will recognize their preference for stratagems over a straight-up battle.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

"Bravery conquers by means of the sword; but superior generalship prevails by skill and stratagem; and the highest level of generalship is displayed in those victories that are obtained with the least danger." Polyaenus, 2nd century CE

Direct vs. Indirect Warfare​

In warfare you can use a direct approach with fighting as the main method, or you can use an indirect approach, trying to avoid combat in favor of other methods of success. I wrote about this from a strategic point of view in "The Ways of War.”

Indirect tactical methods usually involve stratagems. A stratagem is “a plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent or achieve an end.” In the military meaning of the word, it's assumed the stratagem is something other than a typical plan for conducting a battle.

Use of stratagems goes back at least as far as Odysseus and the Trojan Horse. Fans of Glen Cook's "Black Company" series about a fantasy mercenary company will recognize that the Black Company always tried to use stratagems rather than fight a straight-up battle. They wanted to minimize their casualties while getting a job done.

A Roman senator and general of the first century CE, Sextus Julius Frontinus, wrote works about the military (and a more-famous book about aqueducts!), but one that survived (unlike many other ancient works) to be well-known to us is “Stratagmata” (Latin for "Stratagems").

The Stratagmata​

The author divides stratagems into many categories, then describes more than 500 historical examples. He assumes that the reader is very familiar with ancient military history. I am fairly familiar but no expert, so even though I don't know what specific occurrence he references, it's usually clear what the stratagem was. The free-download translation I found online (by Bill Thayer) includes notes intended to clarify the specifics, but this may still be Greek to most readers.

Where does this connect with RPGs? While many role-playing games involve only tactical combat (where stratagems are actually more likely to be used), others also include battles and wars where strategy is ascendant. Frontinus' book is about large scale tactics and lower level strategy.

Some campaigns (and even some rulesets) treat combat in RPGs as sport, some as war (see RPG Combat: Sport or War?). Where combat is kind of like a sporting event, stratagems will be rare, might even be seen as "unsporting.” But where combat is war—"if you're in a fair fight, you're doing it wrong," and "all's fair in love and war"—stratagems are central to action.

The dozens of categories of stratagems in the book encompass many subjects, though especially morale. I'm surprised how many stratagems depended on religious beliefs and omens. An entire category is devoted to the latter (and is fairly amusing). Some examples seem more like typical smart battle tactics than "clever schemes", but there may be something from more than 500 examples to stimulate your creative juices whether player or GM.

Conceal, Surprise, Distract, Deceive​

Most stratagems depend on concealment, surprise, distraction, deception. They take advantage of what the enemy expects to see. Some examples amount to what modern military people would regard as simply standard procedure, e.g. sending men to capture an opposing soldier in order to gain information about enemy arrangements. (The Romans used torture, of course.) Keep in mind, Frontinus says, for centuries "shrewd methods of reconnoitering were still unknown to Roman leaders," so he was teaching such shrewdness. Some interesting ones:

During the war with the Cimbrians and Teutons, the consul Gaius Marius, wishing to test the loyalty of the Gauls and Ligurians, sent them a letter, commanding them in the first part of the letter not to open the inner part, which was specially sealed, before a certain date. Afterwards, before the appointed time had arrived, he demanded the same letter back, and finding all seals broken, he knew that acts of hostility were afoot.

Another:

The Carthaginians, on one occasion, when defeated in a naval battle, desiring to shake off the Romans who were close upon them, pretended that their vessels had caught on shoals and imitated the movement of stranded galleys. In this way they caused the victors, in fear of meeting a like disaster, to afford them an opportunity of escape.

And finally:

When Antiochus was besieging the fortified town of Suenda in Cappadocia, he intercepted some beasts of burden which had gone out to procure grain. Then, killing their attendants, he dressed his own soldiers in their clothes and sent them in as though bringing back the grain. The sentinels fell into the trap and, mistaking the soldiers for teamsters, let the troops of Antiochus enter the fortifications.

This last is a common kind of trick in fiction. There are several examples of this kind of deception in Stratagemata, which can remind cynical moderns that it really can work.

Frontinus wrote about 44,000 words, and with the notes it amounts to a small book (50,000 words). Keep in mind, ancient books had to be written (and reproduced) in longhand, so tend to be much smaller than modern books.

Polyaenus, a 2nd-century CE Greek author, also wrote a book of Stratagems, his only preserved work. This is much less well-known than Frontinus' smaller work, perhaps because Polyaenus was not a military man. It's online at Polyaenus: Stratagems - translation.

Your turn: What is the place of stratagems in your campaigns? Please describe a really cool one you've seen (maybe you'll give other readers some good ideas!).
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Ixal

Adventurer
Sadly stratagems are hard to use in a D&D environment because the game is geared towards direct battle only and downplays everything else.
Supplies are handwaved away or its simply said "there are spells for that". Feeding an army is actually rather difficult, but which D&D game has ever taken that into account?

It doesn't help that the FR (and to be honest, most RPG worlds) are not build with any kind of consistency so there are not even supply lines to cut.
And the stark level differences in D&D also make using stratagems either impossible or unneeded. No form of deception can succeed when the enemy has a high level advantage. And even if by a miracle you do manage to infiltrate the camp, what do you expect to accomplish when thanks to the level difference no amount of surprise can help you achieve victory and any kind of damage is magically repaired after a day.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
Sadly stratagems are hard to use in a D&D environment because the game is geared towards direct battle only and downplays everything else.

Where does this come from ?

Supplies are handwaved away or its simply said "there are spells for that". Feeding an army is actually rather difficult, but which D&D game has ever taken that into account?

D&D, apart from the original OD&D, has had little to do with large scales battles, apart from the BECMI War Machine which was completely integrated (For port to 5e, see here), but in any case, D&D was never meant to be realistic, just simulate what happens in books and movies. Did you see the Rohirrims worried about supply lines in LotR ? No, because it's not exciting, so as for me I'm perfectly happy to handwave it for our groups.

It doesn't help that the FR (and to be honest, most RPG worlds) are not build with any kind of consistency so there are not even supply lines to cut.
And the stark level differences in D&D also make using stratagems either impossible or unneeded. No form of deception can succeed when the enemy has a high level advantage.

But why would he ? Of course, if you unbalance the situation too much, it will be unbalanced. But like every fight, unbalance it just enough so that it becomes interesting to be clever about it.

And even if by a miracle you do manage to infiltrate the camp, what do you expect to accomplish when thanks to the level difference no amount of surprise can help you achieve victory and any kind of damage is magically repaired after a day.

It does not have to be. Clerics and healing are limited. You can't massively resurrect dead troops, etc. Or you can strike at a commander's tent, kill him and make him non-raisable, for example.

As for our groups, stratagems are used all the time, even at small scale, in particular because our games are mostly run around story and role, and we do our best to avoid battles in general.

In the last larger scale battle that we had on Avernus, there was a force of were creatures besieging Maggie's Knucklebone fort. The PCs did a lot of scouting about the enemy force, hid infernal warmachines outside the fortress to ambush the ground troops of the were creatures, did not display their own troops on the battlement to keep their strength hidden, etc.

That being said, they still had trouble dealing with the larger infernal war machine of the enemy (a Profanator, new type of machine), so in the end they invited it to crash onto the main gate, because the Profanator itself blocked the passage almost as much as the gate, ground troops had been winnowed by the previously hidden machines, and this allowed the Profanator to be immobilised at the entrance of the fortress, which allowed the PCs to infiltrate and assassinate the driver, etc.

It's perfectly feasible to allow and even encourage subterfuge.
 

JohnnyZemo

Explorer
I'm confused by this article and the response. A stratagem is "a plan, scheme, or trick for surprising or deceiving an enemy." (Feel free to look it up yourself if you don't believe me.) Schemes and tricks have existed for as long as intelligent life has existed. The author of the original article seems to think the word only applies to military schemes, plans, and tricks, but that's not true. So, I strongly disagree with the idea that D&D discourages stratagems. Virtually every D&D encounter could involve a plan, scheme, or trick. :)
 

Stormonu

Legend
So, Sun Tzu's Art of War?

On combat: For a long time, combat was the result of a fail state to navigate a challenge in D&D*. Combat gave poor XP, and you got most of your advancement from gold - whether or not you fought/faced an opponent. Around 3E, this started to change as monsters became the primary source of XP - it became expected PCs would fight their way through challenges, rather than attempt to circumnavigate them. This peaked in 4E, and has been pulled back somewhat in 5E with milestone advancement.

* This was true for OD&D & 1E; 2E started the trend to favor "completing the story", but combat XP was still a poor way to advance.
 

Stratagema are an essential part of our games and the inability to use them effectively in 4e was a reason to stop playing it.
That is no general critique on 4e, but just the fact, that 4e was very concerned with balance in combat and so it leaned heavy into "combat as sports" while we definitely prefer "combat as war".
 

MarkB

Legend
I'm confused by this article and the response. A stratagem is "a plan, scheme, or trick for surprising or deceiving an enemy." (Feel free to look it up yourself if you don't believe me.) Schemes and tricks have existed for as long as intelligent life has existed. The author of the original article seems to think the word only applies to military schemes, plans, and tricks, but that's not true. So, I strongly disagree with the idea that D&D discourages stratagems. Virtually every D&D encounter could involve a plan, scheme, or trick. :)
Yeah, "stratagems" is pretty much the default play style in D&D in my experience. You sneak, you scout, you buff, you prepare contingencies and fallbacks.

About the only time a group in D&D goes into a fight head-on without any attempt to gain advantage is if the enemy ambushes them or they're under extreme time pressure. And even then, that's the result of stratagems - on their opponents' part.
 

payn

Legend
One of my favorite stratagems is luring two groups into fighting each other. Finding a good way to cat's paw a foe into enemy territory and allow them to do all your dirty work. Enemy of my enemy is my friend... Just mop up what's left of the foes after they wear each other out.
 

MarkB

Legend
One fun one that came up recently was when the players took shelter on a mountainside during a blizzard and found that they'd accidentally set up camp on top of the blind old ancient white dragon who hung out in the region. They appeased her by offering a wild boar for her to chase down - one drawn from a Bag of Tricks.

By the time she'd hunted it down only for it to disappear in her maw they'd made themselves scarce - a good stratagem.

But they did find when they got to the base of the mountain and went to retrieve their mounts that at some point she'd tracked down the mounts by scent, and frozen them as they stood.
 

payn

Legend
One fun one that came up recently was when the players took shelter on a mountainside during a blizzard and found that they'd accidentally set up camp on top of the blind old ancient white dragon who hung out in the region. They appeased her by offering a wild boar for her to chase down - one drawn from a Bag of Tricks.

By the time she'd hunted it down only for it to disappear in her maw they'd made themselves scarce - a good stratagem.

But they did find when they got to the base of the mountain and went to retrieve their mounts that at some point she'd tracked down the mounts by scent, and frozen them as they stood.
Just goes to show, that stratagems are risky and can have unintended consequences.
 

Ixal

Adventurer
One fun one that came up recently was when the players took shelter on a mountainside during a blizzard and found that they'd accidentally set up camp on top of the blind old ancient white dragon who hung out in the region. They appeased her by offering a wild boar for her to chase down - one drawn from a Bag of Tricks.

By the time she'd hunted it down only for it to disappear in her maw they'd made themselves scarce - a good stratagem.

But they did find when they got to the base of the mountain and went to retrieve their mounts that at some point she'd tracked down the mounts by scent, and frozen them as they stood.
Thats hardly a stratagem, thats the DM playing an enemy dumb to give the PCs a breather.
 

Puddles

Explorer
Thanks for the article and the link. It is a fascinating resource!

For me a stratagem in D&D is when the players making a witty and unconventional decision. To empower that sort of decision making in your games you need to provide tidbits of information about the enemy to spark their imagination. I would start with having a spy or scout report to the party with information they have gleaned about the enemy (maybe there is a roll to determine how reliable and their information is). This could be anything from positions of enemy soldiers to rumours about the mental and physical health of the villains to the expected weather.

Once you start giving information like this it gives the players a tool to use to make smart decision making. What’s nice about having a spy or scout, is if they want to know extra information (such as where the supply lines are), you are not put on the stop. Instead you have time to plan it out while the spy is out in the field.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
The biggest bane to this sort of play has been the embrace of Hollywood style set piece battles and big reveals. Lateral decision making requires an information rich environment and a willingness to embrace anticlimactic action.
 

So, Sun Tzu's Art of War?
Same concept, but different source. I'm partial to the Book of Five Rings myself.
On combat: For a long time, combat was the result of a fail state to navigate a challenge in D&D*.
Back in the day a phrase I'd heard was "if you have to roll for initiative, you screwed up." If you had to face a monster, you wanted to have every possible advantage going in, since combat was much more deadly. Poison and flaming oil were popular for this reason, since you might be able to rig up a trap to kill it before combat even begins. In 2E you might also have accesses to explosive powder, which was even better.
 

The biggest bane to this sort of play has been the embrace of Hollywood style set piece battles and big reveals. Lateral decision making requires an information rich environment and a willingness to embrace anticlimactic action.

It also has a strong tendency to favor a very small number of players directly engaged with it, either by inclination or by practical realities (the "too many cooks" problem). As such, its actually not something that serves a pretty large number of players, and that fact has largely counterselected for it.
 

Your turn: What is the place of stratagems in your campaigns? Please describe a really cool one you've seen (maybe you'll give other readers some good ideas!).
You've missed the single most interesting issue with strategems and RPGs - they take skill for the DM to be able to respond to interesting ones.

Let's take the Trojan Horse as an archetypal strategem and imagine that you are a complete newbie of a DM.

Players: We want to make a large wooden horse, pretend it's an offering, hide ourselves in it, have them invite us in, get out at night and slaughter them when they're semi-conscious from feasting.

New DM: WTF? How am I meant to handle that? What would it mean to build a wooden horse? How hard is a wooden horse to build? How likely are they to take the horse in to the castle? So I break this down into steps? First step: get the wood? That would be ...?

And then we very frequently follow it up with The Compound Math Issue (that many RPG rulebooks even actively steer the DM into). If you break a strategem into a collection of parts (which is about the only way you have to do it) and say that they all have to go right then the plan is very likely to fail. If you've a good (7/10) chance of success on both rolls that are part of the plans it's just less than 50% of passing both - and the four step plan is less than 25%. If a naive DM starts requiring multiple successes with no failures for a plan then such plans just won't work and players will learn not to do it.

This is why some tables avoid strategems. They take DMing skill to handle on the fly - and few RPGs provide you with tools to do it or even good guidance (especially regarding the Compound Math Issue).

The only exceptions I can think of that really help new GMs evaluate strategems are 4e (which had the tool in skill challenges, but the guidance was awful), and Leverage and its successor game Blades in the Dark (Blades is basically a mix of Apocalypse World and Leverage) with things like flashback mechanics.
 

Stratagema are an essential part of our games and the inability to use them effectively in 4e was a reason to stop playing it.
That is no general critique on 4e, but just the fact, that 4e was very concerned with balance in combat and so it leaned heavy into "combat as sports" while we definitely prefer "combat as war".
First there is no inability to use strategems effectively in 4e. If anything I'd consider it the easiest D&D to cope with strategems - rather than simply having Magic Solves All.

Second "combat as war" is risible for any D&D. You don't actually take injuries - you simply lose hit points and are at 100% effectiveness until you go down. And all hit point loss can be fixed by rest. You aren't in a war - you're in a paintball game where you may be taken out but are at basically zero risk of lingering wounds, amputations, or other consequences including death spirals - and where you have superhuman powers. Instead you're protected by a nice aura of consequence free hit points and the only thing you suffer is being taken out of the game (which can be reversed by resurrection). D&D players talking about "Combat as War vs Combat as Sport" is paintball players sneering at laser tag players and demanding discounts for being veterans thanks to their time playing paintball against enemies that aren't going to actually injure them, merely make them wear a different mask at most.
 

First there is no inability to use strategems effectively in 4e. If anything I'd consider it the easiest D&D to cope with strategems - rather than simply having Magic Solves All.

Second "combat as war" is risible for any D&D. You don't actually take injuries - you simply lose hit points and are at 100% effectiveness until you go down. And all hit point loss can be fixed by rest. You aren't in a war - you're in a paintball game where you may be taken out but are at basically zero risk of lingering wounds, amputations, or other consequences including death spirals - and where you have superhuman powers. Instead you're protected by a nice aura of consequence free hit points and the only thing you suffer is being taken out of the game (which can be reversed by resurrection). D&D players talking about "Combat as War vs Combat as Sport" is paintball players sneering at laser tag players and demanding discounts for being veterans thanks to their time playing paintball against enemies that aren't going to actually injure them, merely make them wear a different mask at most.
And my understanding of combat as war too. I actually don't really understand what you mean actually. But I give you mine: combat as sport: you do fights for fun, and expect it to be fair.
Combat as war: you try not to fight if it is possoble and if you need to, you do your best to decide the outcome before you actually engage.
Both have its place in DnD. In 4e the possibility to get an unfair advantage to make a fair fight unfair was actually too slim for our tastes.
 

heretic888

Explorer
So, Sun Tzu's Art of War?

On combat: For a long time, combat was the result of a fail state to navigate a challenge in D&D*. Combat gave poor XP, and you got most of your advancement from gold - whether or not you fought/faced an opponent. Around 3E, this started to change as monsters became the primary source of XP - it became expected PCs would fight their way through challenges, rather than attempt to circumnavigate them. This peaked in 4E, and has been pulled back somewhat in 5E with milestone advancement.

* This was true for OD&D & 1E; 2E started the trend to favor "completing the story", but combat XP was still a poor way to advance.

Just to clarify, in 4E you also earned XP from skill challenges and quests and there was also a bit about XP for roleplaying "vignettes" in the DMG2. This wasn't an incidental amount, either: the XP from major quests and high-complexity SCs was just as much, if not more, as those awarded from N+0 combats.

Also, unlike 5E, 4E didn't assume over a half dozen battles a day to maintain intraparty balance. Because something like 80% of the characters' resorce suite was per encounter the system supported infrequent combats just fine.
 

And my understanding of combat as war too. I actually don't really understand what you mean actually. But I give you mine: combat as sport: you do fights for fun, and expect it to be fair.
Combat as war: you try not to fight if it is possoble and if you need to, you do your best to decide the outcome before you actually engage.
Both have its place in DnD. In 4e the possibility to get an unfair advantage to make a fair fight unfair was actually too slim for our tastes.
And I've yet to see anyone want a fair fight in any version of D&D. The players always want fights where they have a >95% chance of winning the fight without losing a single person - and this is expected for when D&D combat actually happens. The only people who want fights to actually be fair with the NPCs having a significant chance are non-roleplayers because treating combat as a sport the way you describe it means deliberately walking into a room where you have 50% odds of survival again and again.

In short the Combat As Sport/Combat As War as you have presented it is nothing short of an edition warring strawman arguing that those people who play Combat As Sport want something that would cause RPGs to have a ludicrous death rate.
 

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