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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
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.


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
That discussion is fruitless, as you seem too emotionally involved. My words seem to not convey the meaning. So bye.
 

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This was what i googled.... Stratagem plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent or achieve an end.
You left out the "outwit" part in your post above, which is essential for the meaning.

Edit: the definition I found for stratagema involved outwitting, tricks or manipulative actions.
The definition I found for strategy does not explicitely involve tricks, outwitting or manipulation, but instead refers to the general planning of an action while tactics are the actual aplication of your laid out plans and short term maneuvers.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
On the scale of martial abilities. If the DM has to introduce extra magical difficulties to make the teleport tactic not instantly undermine half of a rescue ... then what martial ability is so awesome it forces the DM to do anything like that?
 



Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Believe me, as a German native speaker, a "List" does involve it.
I was initially using the English definition lol, List looks like in German a word meaning cunning or cleverness when I put it into to a German to English translator, different in implications to a stratagem which is a plan of action which usually/especially involves cleverness to aid overcoming the adversary.
Yes definitely not identical.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
To bring it home perhaps the DMGs explicitly tell the DM to award auto successes in skill challenges when players offer appropriately clever plans of action.
 

I was initially using the English definition lol, List looks like in German a word meaning cunning or cleverness when I put it into to a German to English translator, different in implications to a stratagem which is a plan of action which usually/especially involves cleverness to aid overcoming the adversary.
Yes definitely not identical.

I was initially using the English definition lol, List looks like in German a word meaning cunning or cleverness when I put it into to a German to English translator, different in implications to a stratagem which is a plan of action which usually/especially involves cleverness to aid overcoming the adversary.
Yes definitely not identical.
So sometimes a subtle difference in meaning in different languages can make problems.
 


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