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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
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.
I think we don't have anything to talk about as you clearly don't want an opinion and just dismiss another ones experience as a strawman.
Not a nice trait.

Edit: and I never talked about "those" people, but our group. So get your things straight.
 

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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.
Indeed. In 4e there were multiple XP sources - and RAW I've run games where we were tracking XP and there wasn't a fight for an entire level. This was all but impossible in 2e other than for walking stereotypes, was basically impossible in 3.X, and only works in 5e through milestone levelling.

The other thing to note about 4e is that incidental fights are dull and tedious. 4e does epic fights exceptionally well, but no one wants to spend 45 minutes dealing with an entirely predictable fight. It actually rewards less combat than other editions when flowing properly.
 

I think we don't have anything to talk about as you clearly don't want an opinion and just dismiss another ones experience as a strawman.
Not a nice trait.
But you aren't talking about your own experience. You've said you prefer "combat as war". What you're talking about is the tastes of others.

What I am denying existing is the group that you claim prefers "combat as sport" and "fair fights". This isn't your lived experience - you have explicitly presented yourself as in opposition to this. When you say you want unfair fights I believe you. I believe you about your own experience. I don't believe you when you characterise the tastes of others.

In an actually fair fight both sides have a 50% chance of winning. I do not believe anyone wants this in a remotely D&D style RPG - and all you need to do to demonstrate otherwise is produce someone who says "Yes, I want my tabletop RPGs to be fair so the NPCs have a 50% chance of winning in every fight and I need a new PC literally every other fight."

I don't believe that this is part of your lived experience, and I don't believe you can do this. If you can all you have to do to prove that this isn't a strawman is produce such a person and have them explain why.
 

TheSword

Legend
I’ve always thought Bernard Cornwall was brilliant for including stratagems in his books. His characters, Sharp, Derfel, Thomas, and Uhtred, rarely have a fair straight up fight. It makes things very interesting.

Here’s the problem with stratagems I see in the game. If players use them the game can get ridiculously easy. So my natural inclination is to make encounters harder so the PCs achieve something amazing… though then if they don’t use a stratagem they get royally naughty word. It’s a quandary.

You don’t want to lead the PCs. By the nose so I guess the solution is to give a lot of detail and a lot of options so they can make plans. I totally agree that balance in fights is poison to stratagems. It may take some adjusting though for players not used to the inherent unfairness. Worth it if they can make the transition.
 
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I think we don't have anything to talk about as you clearly don't want an opinion and just dismiss another ones experience as a strawman.
Not a nice trait.

Edit: and I never talked about "those" people, but our group. So get your things straight.
You set up the strawman dichotomy of "Combat as War vs Combat as Sport"

So you're now saying that no one wants Combat as Sport? So why do you think Combat as War exists in opposition to something you now say that you don't think anyone wants? "Like every other D&D player I prefer to play D&D where we don't have a 50% loss rate in every fight". How does that say anything about any game?
 

But you aren't talking about your own experience. You've said you prefer "combat as war". What you're talking about is the tastes of others.

What I am denying existing is the group that you claim prefers "combat as sport" and "fair fights". This isn't your lived experience - you have explicitly presented yourself as in opposition to this. When you say you want unfair fights I believe you. I believe you about your own experience. I don't believe you when you characterise the tastes of others.

In an actually fair fight both sides have a 50% chance of winning. I do not believe anyone wants this in a remotely D&D style RPG - and all you need to do to demonstrate otherwise is produce someone who says "Yes, I want my tabletop RPGs to be fair so the NPCs have a 50% chance of winning in every fight and I need a new PC literally every other fight."

I don't believe that this is part of your lived experience, and I don't believe you can do this. If you can all you have to do to prove that this isn't a strawman is produce such a person and have them explain why.
What?
I experienced 4e as I have played it from the beginning up to the playtest DnDnext and my experience was that setting up an ambush was not rewarded well enough for example (edit: of course for our tastes) . And my understanding of the 4e encounter setup rules was that the fight should play cinematic and tactical, and should take some time.
Actually the later books changed the monster formulas to make the game a bit faster.
Now you are just making things up in your head that I talk about other people. I am still only talking about us and my observance and my definition of cas and caw. So whats up with you?
 
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TheSword

Legend
You set up the strawman dichotomy of "Combat as War vs Combat as Sport"

So you're now saying that no one wants Combat as Sport? So why do you think Combat as War exists in opposition to something you now say that you don't think anyone wants? "Like every other D&D player I prefer to play D&D where we don't have a 50% loss rate in every fight". How does that say anything about any game?
I think you’re misrepresenting @UngeheuerLich . Balance in combat isn’t about having a 50% chance of losing. It’s about trying to pitch the difficulty of encounters that players find them challenging but not a cake walk. The expectation is that they should win, just that there is a reasonable chance of death. The CR system and pretty much every published adventure is based on this.

Combat as war is based on the idea that the chance of loss is much higher… unless the PCs lie cheat and fight for every edge. It might make an overwhelming fight into a balanced one, a balanced one into an easy one or avoid the need to fight altogether. The idea of fair play goes out of the window and the PCs fly by the seat of their pants.

Your talk of 50-50 chances isn’t really what anyone expects.
 

I’ve always thought Bernard Cornwall was brilliant for including stratagems in his books. His characters, from Sharp, Derfel, Thomas, and Uhtred, rarely have a fair straight up fight. It makes things very interesting.

Here’s the problem with stratagems I see in the game. If players use them the game can get ridiculously easy.
And this is the corollary to the issue I mentioned here. Working out how tough to make complex series of rolls isn't easy and games don't help much. I concentrated on the bad side of compound math and DMs accidently making things too hard is a problem. Making them too easy is another problem.
 


TheSword

Legend
And this is the corollary to the issue I mentioned here. Working out how tough to make complex series of rolls isn't easy and games don't help much. I concentrated on the bad side of compound math and DMs accidently making things too hard is a problem. Making them too easy is another problem.
I agree with your post. Good link. They definitely require a lot of DM skill.

They also require DM will. I must confess when players have used a trick… particularly an easy or low cost one, I’ve been tempted to have the foes overcome it or render it moot, because I want to preserve my encounter. That’s an urge that I think DMs need to fight. It’s hard when you’ve put a lot of thought into the foes but it just dis-incentivizes players from doing anything other than charge.

I think a good solution is to present the challenge as something with great necessity or reward (Like Bernard Cornwall, or John Wick’s impossible task) give a lot of detail and then see what the players come up with. They’ll probably surprise you.
 

What?
I experienced 4e as I have played it from the beginning up to the playtest DnDnext and my experience was that setting up an ambush was not rewarded well enough for example.
In short your One Unique Trick For All Situations was strong rather than devastating.

Meanwhile my experience is that 4e ambushes are effective without being devastating - but other strategems, like pushing monsters into their own pit traps are only rewarded sufficiently in 4e. Things like Bull Rush actions require giving up your entire attack - but 4e has a lot of forced movement. There is no reason to be sporting.
And my understanding of the 4e encounter setup rules was that the fight should play cinematic and tactical, and should take some time.
Indeed. You use tactics to win. Tactics aren't fighting fair. And no one wants a fair fight.

If you were to have said "Combat as strategy vs combat as tactics" I'd not have had a problem. 4e is more tactical - and 4e and 5e both have lower ambush success effects than earlier editions.
Now you are just making things up in your head that I talk about other people. I am still only talking about us and my observance and my definition of cas and caw. So whats up with you?
You're making up what people want when you say anyone wants CAS - or it's even a dichotomy.

What's up with me? I tend to react badly to naughty word edition war phrases. Why do you use them?
 

What's up with me? I tend to react badly to naughty word edition war phrases. Why do you use them?
I didn't think about edition war. That is probably something that triggers you and disables your ability to read properly.

I can talk about my personal experience in a forum. I even said it was no general critique. I own nearly every 4e book. We played it for a very long time. I defended it quite a lot. And still that was my experience. Calling it edition warring is disingenious, dismissing other's experience is rude and building up your own strawman is also rude.
Also: you again laid words in my mouth I never said.

Edit: If all your post should have just been: "please don't use "combat as sport" and "combat as war" because I feel that was used to much in edition wars", why did you just not say so?
 
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I think you’re misrepresenting @UngeheuerLich . Balance in combat isn’t about having a 50% chance of losing. It’s about trying to pitch the difficulty of encounters that players find them challenging but not a cake walk. The expectation is that they should win, just that there is a reasonable chance of death. The CR system and pretty much every published adventure is based on this.

Combat as war is based on the idea that the chance of loss is much higher… unless the PCs lie cheat and fight for every edge. It might make an overwhelming fight into a balanced one, a balanced one into an easy one or avoid the need to fight altogether. The idea of fair play goes out of the window and the PCs fly by the seat of their pants.
And this is precisely how I run both 4e and 5e. If you don't play smart and look for edges you're in a whole lot of trouble. The session before last my PCs through good ambush tactics and grabbing advantages my level 2 party managed to stomp a level 5 boss fight by bursting the whole thing down in surprise rounds. (The session before that as they were newbies I had to warn them "If you do that you'll have cut your escape route and probably TPK").

Balance is information.
Your talk of 50-50 chances isn’t really what anyone expects.
It's what fair means.
 

Indeed. You use tactics to win. Tactics aren't fighting fair. And no one wants a fair fight.
Never did I deny that. But 4e was concerned about roles (as it was written explicitely in the rules), for players and enemies, just like in a team sport.
Also HP were quite high and damage comparably low, so a fight took a few rounds and it was hard to take someone out with a single round of actions. That is what I mean with "fair".
Ambushes (one example, not the only tactic) only gave a very slight advantage because of the reason mentioned above.

Also the adventures were broken down into tactical combat encounters which were fun for us as players (like a friendly sports match), as we use all available positional abilities (which 4e has plenty of) . But they took too much time for our groups to resolve and thus advance in the story.
You said, such fights were boring and only meaningful (epic) fights should be played out. That is not how we played it.

So. That is my last post, trying to explain how our experience was and how to understand my post. If you still don't understand it, feel free to put me on the ignore list.
 

I didn't think about edition war. That is probably something that triggers you and disables your ability to read properly.

I can talk about my personal experience in a forum. I even said it was no general critique. I own nearly every 4e book. We played it for a very long time. I defended it quite a lot. And still that was my experience. Calling it edition warring is disingenious, dismissing other's experience is rude and building up your own strawman is also rude.
Also: you again laid words in my mouth I never said.
The term itself was literally invented as an edition warring term in the days of the anti-4e whaaargabl. You didn't invent the words or the phrase and it was invented to edition war.

You can talk about your personal experience. I haven't said anything about the part that is actually your personal experience - wanting ambushes to be more devastating. But you created a dichotomy in which you were on one side and there was an equivalent other side. That's the implication of the vs.

And what words did I lay in your mouth? I made up that you talked about a dichotomy between Combat as Sport vs Combat as War?

Anyway this grows tedious. Fair fights aren't what anyone wants in D&D - they want the success rates approaching the Harlem Globetrotters vs the Washington Generals. The question isn't whether the fights should be fair - it's how the PCs get their edges.
 

It's what fair means.
No. It can be fair even if chance are not 50 - 50.
When you talk about a fair coin, yes.

When I talk about playing fair, I can play chess against someone 200 points higher and still win fairly, although my chances are lower. In DnD I want to just take away his queen, if he looks away.
 

That's the implication of the vs.

And what words did I lay in your mouth? I made up that you talked about a dichotomy between Combat as Sport vs Combat as War?
That I said anything about playing differently is wrong.
And I never talked about 2 sides.

And I was there when the terms popped up. But I never understood them as edition warring. They always helped me to understand two different approaches to the game, I experienced.
I like the terms because they were shorthands I could use to describe the approaches.
There is no denying that 4e combat has a lot more tactical options and the structure to use them and have fun with it.
We just noticed, that we actually stopped having fun with those options after a few levels.

Edit: thinking about my first post again. Maybe I should not have mentioned 4e in that post. It just came to my mind when I read it, because it was really a very frustrating experience for us, when we suddenly realized that we don't have fun anymore with a game we liked, and why.
 

No. It can be fair even if chance are not 50 - 50.
When you talk about a fair coin, yes.

When I talk about playing fair, I can play chess against someone 200 points higher and still win fairly, although my chances are lower. In DnD I want to just take away his queen, if he looks away.
But if you are a grandmaster and go to play chess with a local kids club is that fair? I'd have said no and it was very unsporting.

D&D only works because the players have a ridiculous and unfair advantage over the NPCs - if the PCs were to not have overwhelming and positively unsporting advantages over the NPCs the games would normally fall apart with a ridiculous death rate. What's under question is where these advantages come from.
  • Is it a pre-battle thing where the PCs are expected to gain advantages?
  • Is it tactics and using the environment in ways the NPCs normally don't?
  • Is it the PCs being just stronger because they are superhuman?
  • Is it action economy and a beatdown?
The win rate PCs have over NPCs is proof positive that the game is unfair and intended as such.
 

D&D only works because the players have a ridiculous and unfair advantage over the NPCs - if the PCs were to not have overwhelming and positively unsporting advantages over the NPCs the games would normally fall apart with a ridiculous death rate. What's under question is where these advantages come from.
[... ]
The win rate PCs have over NPCs is proof positive that the game is unfair and intended as such.
Never denied that. And you can try and search the forums and realize that I actually said the same elsewhere.

As the grandmaster: yes it is fair. Rules are the same. It is only that you don't expect them play 1 vs 1, but rather 1 vs 20. (Simultanschach). And there might even be a kid who actually wins.
Every kid has a fair chance of set up properly.
It would be unfair, if a kid moved pieces irregularily when the grandmaster is at another board. If it is for life and death, I would expect the kids to do so at every opportunity.
 

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