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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
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.
I didn't say that the GM was. 1 vs 20 is under normal circumstances an unfair format. And a GM going to a kids' club where they know they will win a lot is far more unfair to me than simple unsporting conduct.

Meanwhile "All's fair in love and war".

Possibly we use language differently.
 

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I didn't say that the GM was. 1 vs 20 is under normal circumstances an unfair format. And a GM going to a kids' club where they know they will win a lot is far more unfair to me than simple unsporting conduct.

Meanwhile "All's fair in love and war".

Possibly we use language differently.
I can go to a kids club and can do sparring. And a kid would learn something. I am no grandmaster, but the difference would be high enough that it does not matter.
Kids will be happy to have the chance to play against a grand master, and losing is not always bad for a chess player.

It would be a problem if you as a grandmaster go to a turnament with a rating for players below 1200 ELO, use a different name and win easily. That is unfair.

Edit: do you actually play chess @Neonchameleon?
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
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").
And you might even have skill challenge mechanics to help the process of implementing an ambush and an escape attempt
Balance is information.
It's what fair means.
This... balance lets me as DM have more information. And CR being messed up in 5e is another imbalance issue IMHO.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
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.
This

And with skills in the latest game presented so completely mundanely with trivial advancement it feels back to MagicSolvesAll as the uber stratagem.
 

This

And with skills in the latest game presented so completely mundanely with trivial advancement it feels back to MagicSolvesAll as the uber stratagem.
Experiences may differ.
I do however agree, that nonmagical classes (rogue, fighter, barbarian, monk) could get a few more toys in 5e. They could get some more bonuses to skills and generally hit a bit harder without the use of magic or feats.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Experiences may differ.
Sure DM dependence kicks in, but a 4e DM has guidelines telling him (or implying) right off the bat in many ways skills are big things including with skill challenges where a skill check or ritual were considered comparable in effectiveness and also on the player side the players are shown skills have inherent power like effects (acrobatics reducing falling damage and arcana sense magic and others), later in the game (a short while relatively speaking) there came martial practices (one form theoretically of skills matching magic). Further read the martial power descriptions and headers about non-magic accomplishing comparable extraordinary things to magic. Still further along skill powers upped the anti explicitly saying skills can be just as big of thing as utility spells or class utilities. Numerically you also see large amounts of advancement that implies to me skilled actions and the things they can accomplish are fully not the same in paragon and epic either the numbers follow the flavor text well.

Skills granting things every bit as effective as class utilities and spells and rituals is all over in 4e... and where is that in 5e?

In the 5e the players handbook explicitly notes that adventuring without magic is 10 x more difficult. The non magical classes feeling less capable than magic ( in the broad impact way 4e covers with skills) really seems on purpose to me not an accident.

I do however agree, that nonmagical classes (rogue, fighter, barbarian, monk) could get a few more toys in 5e. They could get some more bonuses to skills and generally hit a bit harder without the use of magic or feats.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
One 5e spell enables instant party escape and go home perhaps taking a rescued individual with them, its not even considered a uber spell by most. Talk about a stratagem component and what skill or martial ability is going to look as overwhelmingly useful as that.

In 4e pulling off the most similar gambit would require time enough time for danger and more than likely the whole parties help guarding you while enemies try to interrupt and spending actual long term resources.
 
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One 5e spell enables instant party escape and go home perhaps taking a rescued individual with them, its not even considered a uber spell by most. Talk about a stratagem component and what skill or martial ability is going to look as overwhelmingly useful as that.

In 4e pulling off the same stunt would require time (ie danger and more than likely the whole parties help guarding you ) and actual long term resources.
You know I played 4e a lot and also defended it for many things.
But insta party escape belongs to dnd. That is something I missed, and yes, no martial character can do that and it is ok.
Maybe change casting time to 1 or 2 roundks) (I really miss that casting time), so the martials can use their abilities to defend the casters.

But I think your understanding of stratagem and mine are just differend. And it is ok.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
You know I played 4e a lot and also defended it for many things.
But insta party escape belongs to dnd.
Wizard did it lame assed easy solutions
That is something I missed, and yes, no martial character can do that and it is ok.
No martial ability does anything to scale with that I am not even saying it should do exactly that ... name anything approaching.

Maybe change casting time to 1 or 2 roundks) (I really miss that casting time), so the martials can use their abilities to defend the casters.
4e gives the party having to protect while the ritual is performed maybe off a scroll even.

5e just gives the easy out with negligible resource cost in comparison
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
In a 4e context dependent on location a skilled dungeoneer might by the way in a skill challenge fashion jury rig collapsing of large chunks of the scenery and arrange barring the enemy from following a normal escape or prevent approaching prior to the ritual being performed. It might only exclude most of the enemy from reaching the party or delay them sufficiently for only a few rounds of combat guarding is needed.
 

Wizard did it lame assed easy solutions

No martial ability does anything to scale with that I am not even saying it should do exactly that ... name anything approaching.


4e gives the party having to protect while the ritual is performed maybe off a scroll even.

5e just gives the easy out with negligible resource cost in comparison

I like the latter about 4e. I don't need an instant spell out. I would prefer higher casting times for teleport. Probably not 10 minutes... but a few rounds, so that it can become a tactic. I like martials having the ability to protect the spellcasters. I do not like the rest of 4e combat anymore.
But that is my preference.
Calling it lame ass is your opinion. Some people prefer that and it is ok.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
I like the latter about 4e. I don't need an instant spell out. I would prefer higher casting times for teleport. Probably not 10 minutes... but a few rounds, so that it can become a tactic.
Ten minutes or 5 minutes from a scroll or if you have a feat (which I would allow to change the scroll use time too) or for other rituals occasionally 1 minute and rarely the one action.

The general rule is plan ahead and its better (make strategic choices ahead of need)

And if the rest of the party delays enemy approach as I mention one big dungeoneering skill use example above.

The whole process becomes more of a story thing, ie escaping in my opinion should be.

I like martials having the ability to protect the spellcasters.
5e ones "can" with design effort, ok hmmm not as well as a 4e defender till near end game probably (Cavalier)
See also optional marking rule.
But that is my preference.
Calling it lame ass is your opinion. Some people prefer that and it is ok.
In context of supporting actual strategic thing which is the discussion here it is overwhelming easy even if you like it

Wizards and similar trivializing such a potentially large component of a task is to me a problem 4e fixed.
I argue "Wizard Did It" solutions go against the premise of Stratagems.
 
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Ten minutes or 5 minutes from a scroll or if you have a feat (which I would allow to change the scroll use time too) or for other rituals occasionally 1 minute and rarely the one action.

The general rule is plan ahead and its better (make strategic choices ahead of need)

And if the rest of the party delays enemy approach as I mention one big dungeoneering skill use example above.

The whole process becomes more of a story thing, ie escaping in my opinion should be.


5e ones "can" with design effort, ok hmmm not as well as a 4e defender till near end game probably (Cavalier)
See also optional marking rule.

In context of supporting actual strategic thing which is the discussion here it is overwhelming easy even if you like it

Wizards and similar trivializing such a potentially large component of a task is to me a problem 4e fixed.
I argue "Wizard Did It" solutions go against the premise of Stratagems.

Saying I like it does not change that.
Hmmh... I think we have some confusion between stratagem, strategy and tactic here. I don't object anything you say.

My problem with 4e was that combats dragged out too much and "everything did more or less just damage", so luring cratures into a trap and instantly disabling them was often impossible and still resulted in a fight.
I really would not object martial powers to instant disabling creatures if you can gain the upper hand before the fight.

So please, lets drop it here. You know I was a big fan of 4e for a while, for exactly the reasons you mention.
It is just that for us, 5e works a lot more smoothly.
I hope the revised edition will bring back some general martial powers now only reserved for the battlemaster.
 


Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Hmmh... I think we have some confusion between stratagem, strategy and tactic here. I don't object anything you say.
Strategy is long term choices (often done in advance of needs) and decisions (they may enable or require tactics to support them).

Strategic resources are long term resources, money is maybe one of the few in D&D land, but what rituals, or spells you choose to learn might qualify or even some in game world resources like reputation and political influence qualify.

Tactics are short term choices with significantly lower advance selection. Like If one can disintegrate or teleport us home using the same spell slot and can decide to do either in one round situationally then that is a tactic. (it barely takes any planning)

I see a stratagem as a strategic plan of action or composite of choices to achieve the task (see also strategy). Escaping I feel should be itself a task worthy of such a plan of action its potentially half of a full on rescue.

My problem with 4e was that combats dragged out too much and "everything did more or less just damage", so luring cratures into a trap and instantly disabling them was often impossible and still resulted in a fight.
I think what can be achieved via a skill challenge is as open ended as the DM and Players want I think.and one very definite thing they did was enable getting around a fight completely I assume you did not use them that way? The tools are there.
And experience point rewards and the like to boot if you played with those.

Additionally its the classic McGuffin activity where its telegraphed you cannot defeat enemy X without Y... the process of getting Y is not even optional to fighting the big bad. So yeah you might still get a fight.

I really would not object martial powers to instant disabling creatures if you can gain the upper hand before the fight.

So please, lets drop it here. You know I was a big fan of 4e for a while, for exactly the reasons you mention.
It is just that for us, 5e works a lot more smoothly.
I hope the revised edition will bring back some general martial powers now only reserved for the battlemaster.
I expect playing without magic will remain 10 times as hard.
 
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Snip (about strategy and tactic).

I expect playing without magic will remain 10 times as hard.
My google translator told me stratagem is "List" in German. Maybe the translation does not work out.
But as I understand a "stratagem" is used to gain an "unfair" advantage. 4e tried to make combat "fair".

I don't expect playing playing without magic items. They belong to my DnD game as do wizards and fighters. And yes, they help martial characters keep up with magic characters. If the rules are written so martial can get more out of magic items than inherently magic characters (actually in parts 5e does the job quite well, due to concentration and multiattack) I am fine with the rules.

Also, if magic is more potent if it is used to buff martial characters, I am also happy. And this is also at least partially true in 5e (invisibility does not make you good at sneaking, but just enables it, attack buff multiply their potential with extra attack.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
My google translator told me stratagem is "List" in German. Maybe the translation does not work out.
But as I understand a "stratagem" is used to gain an "unfair" advantage. 4e tried to make combat "fair".
No there is nothing fair or unfair mentioned in the definition of stratagem that is your bias. And nobody wants a fair combat in D&D land not a soul. They want winning odds one way or another. I think skill challenges are a fine tool for making the odds beatable better than a spell casters insta wins (yes most of those are gone but sleep really was a pretty done deal as were many others)

The McGuffin generally refers to a situation usually tied to an item needed to defeat but more generally any enemy so badass it needs extra arrangements to bring things down so they are beatable ie to unfairly beat the enemy. How that looks? the enemy would have been a level +7 encounter insane except for extreme optimizers... but your skill challenge either avoids or does things like bloodies the enemy or removes all the enemies minions they depend on or whatever makes it work etc.

What exact effects can be achieved by a skill challenge as I said are up to your game. Escapes (aka avoiding entirely are a classic SC) and if you literally said you couldn't avoid a fight it was the DM deciding that.

Skill challenges are really just a DM tool and I would say their effects are even on the table without explicitly using that tool but they provide general guidelines for reward worthy challenges that are not combat themselves. They are very open ended on purpose so your players and DM can decide what can be accomplished.

I don't expect playing playing without magic items. They belong to my DnD game as do wizards and fighters. And yes, they help martial characters keep up with magic characters.
So magic items made for casters are not helping casters very much?
Magic weapons are helping non casters because non-casters use them... seems like a no duh

Side effect ends up being with magic items are explicitly optional in 5e if non-casters according to you need them more then some campaigns will nerf martial types and the game says cool go ahead they are optional (aka martial types do not need to be significant)

It was common to have a low magic item campaign back in the day

I can do that low magic in 4e and nobody gets nerfed in fact I can do a no magic game without casters even (with no or very very extremely few monster differences).

Invisibility spells cast on stealthy characters preferentially are a 4e thing too ... just like Warlords preferentially targeting barbarians.
 
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