• NOW LIVE! -- One-Page Adventures for D&D 5th Edition on Kickstarter! A booklet of colourful one-page adventures for D&D 5th Edition ranging from levels 1-9 and designed for a single session of play.
log in or register to remove this ad

 

Worlds of Design: The Ways of War

I’m going to briefly describe the two major strategic doctrines of warfare, which can be oversimplified to “fight vs maneuver,” then try to apply them to the mostly-tactical nature of many RPGs.

warfare.jpg

"Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver, the less he demands in slaughter." -Sir Winston Churchill (and others before him)
There are two fundamental ways to conduct war: the Direct method and the Indirect method. The Direct method tended to be used by the Romans, typically by medievals, and by 20th century Americans, among many others. The Indirect method was used by the English in their time of dominance, the Athenians, the Byzantines, probably Charlemagne, and many others. But Direct is much more common.

Direct​

The Direct or decisive method involves going straight at the enemy and crushing them—or trying to. You accept casualties as part of getting the job done. Attrition is acceptable. It has two sub-styles.

The melee style is “smash-mouth” in-your-face. In pre-firepower times this meant melee and short range, where you can “see the whites of their eyes,” analogous to American football’s “4 yards and a cloud of dust”—the team that rushes the ball constantly and just overwhelms the defense. This is the muscular style, to put it another way, and was more common before the firepower era.

The second style possibility for the Direct method is the long-range style, that is, hit them from a distance. It is primarily a firepower style, but the Mongol horse-archers used it, and in a magic-heavy environment, spell-casters can use it. Napoleon, an artillery officer, relied on artillery to defeat the enemy.
“God is on the side of the bigger battalions” (Napoleon)

Indirect​

The Indirect method involves avoiding fighting whenever possible, with a preference for one-sided fights. You attack the enemy where they are weak and avoid all out battles. This can be called elegant or highly efficient, or perhaps “nibbling” if you want to be a little pejorative. Don't fight unless you have to. Use stealth, deception, stratagems.

What’s a stratagem? “A plan or scheme, especially one used to outwit an opponent, or achieve an end." This is often favored by naval powers, such as Athens or 17th and 18th century England.

Charlemagne conquered much of Europe, but fought as few as two big battles. Among other things, he had superior organization and logistics, but it was also a choice, because virtually every experienced general in medieval times knew that a big battle was a very chancy affair.

Battles can be chancy in RPGs, too. Why take unnecessary risks?

A Matter of Time & Risk​

The Byzantines went to an extreme, almost always preferring methods other than battle—such as bribes/tribute. They replaced attrition with the non-battles of maneuver and political action. They were not favored by geography, other than in Constantinople itself, which was a wonderful fortress. They had enemies on the Asian side, enemies on the European side, enemies in the Mediterranean, and there were regularly new enemies coming in from the steppes, so from their point of view, “there will always be more enemies” and “today's enemy could be tomorrow's ally”.

The Indirect method is not the same as guerilla warfare or terrorism, but those forms both necessarily use the Indirect method because they lack the strength to use Direct methods. You can see that the Indirect method might appeal to mercenaries. Glen Cook’s famous fictional “Black Company” relied heavily on Indirect methods.

All this takes time. The Indirect approach is favored by those who have time on their side. When time is of the essence, Direct methods are much more likely. One way for a GM to try to force PCs into battle is to set some kind of time limit, so they don’t have time to use Indirect methods.

Tactical Applications​

What about applying this tactically? In tactical situations many options of the Indirect method are unavailable. Direct/Indirect is primarily strategy (what you do other than battle), not tactics (what you do during a battle). A goal of the Indirect is to avoid battle, except where the odds are prohibitively in your favor.

If you use “theater of the mind” for RPG combat, rather than a board and pieces, then this changes how these methods can be used and the options available to your players. It’s much harder to use the Indirect approach if maneuver is impossible or insignificant. Games with no hidden information (like fog of war) don’t allow for the deception and misinformation that is part and parcel of the Indirect method.

A simple and probably simplistic summation: you can see this as battle versus maneuver, but it's not only that. Or you can see it as attrition versus incremental stinging successes not involving attrition. The Direct are often willing to trade man for man, Indirect are not.

Your Turn: Which method of warfare does your campaign favor?
 
Last edited by a moderator:

log in or register to remove this ad

Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
This is notably the indirect approach:
1*ln0XsLa0zep9yItvIKLEMw.jpeg


I used this recently on players and they were defeated, and I think they knew what was happening to them, except could not let go of the frontal assault, eg "tanking" it as their primary form of combat. It sort of was depressing, to get so far into the campaign, and their intransigence in changing their primary tactic felt like challenging me to merely kill them.

Edit tried to link to a blog about the seven classic maneuvers in battle, but the forum software is rather broken, and will not accept the link.
 
Last edited:

Ace

Adventurer
I’m going to briefly describe the two major strategic doctrines of warfare, which can be oversimplified to “fight vs maneuver,” then try to apply them to the mostly-tactical nature of many RPGs.


Your Turn: Which method of warfare does your campaign favor?
Interesting topic .

Till 5e's changes my main D&D /GURPS world had a very magic centric style of warfare that vaguely resembles modern infantry warfare with mostly medium infantry in small units supported by spell casters. Its basically slow maneuver warfare with weak signal capacity (whistles and horns)

This is because the D&D math favored offense by a huge amount and normal tactics like polearms formations are too vulnerable to wands of fireballs and mounted cavalry charges were too vulnerable to death magic.

Large scale warfare was also fairly uncommon do to this risk of epic level wizards and spells like "colorless rain of fire" . This meant mostly warband scale warfare , skirmishes, raids and monster defense to avoid yet another apocalypse.

This essentially put PC parties smack in the roll of "spec ops." which worked out fine.

My alternate world is more feudal and resembles earlier medieval warfare with some occasional fantasy elements.
 

pemerton

Legend
@dragoner's picture prompted me to post this one from my Prince Valiant campaign:

Battle of Manzurt.png

It was close to dawn when eventually the PCs came upon the Huns they were looking for, revelling in a village they had assailed. The PCs had a -1D penalty for having wandered through the Anatolian hills all night. I described the situation - the PCs had crested a hill with the red glow of dawn just visible on their right, and below them to the north a village and a stream - and the players came up with their plan of assault, splitting their forces into 3 units - foot, heavy cavalry (= K for knights) and light cavalry - to be commanded by the 3 PCs.

The PCs' plan worked - they rolled well on their various Battle checks, routed the Huns (who had a -1D morale penalty) and took their leader (Totilla the Hun - I was using the third of the Hun episodes from the Prince Valiant rulebook) captive, although that did require two PCs: at first Sir Gerran gave chase (suffering a -1D penalty for pushing himself and his horse so hard) but Totilla jumped from his own horse to Sir Gerran's and dragged them both to the ground, where he had and continued to gain the advantage. But with a successful Riding check Sir Justin was able to catch them up, and Totilla could not take on both knights and failed in his attempt to escape on horseback. As well as their captive, the PCs also took possession of Totilla's fine arms, armour and warhorses (though only two of the latter - Sir Gerran killed the third as part of the thwarting of Totilla's escape attempt).
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
For the record, the indirect style was the dominant one in the Middle Ages, at least in military manuals. Medievalists debate exactly how dominant this 'Vegetian' style of warfare was in actuality (Vegetian comes from Vegetius, the late Roman author/compiler whose treatise Epitoma rei militaris was the most popular manual of the Middle Ages), but medieval strategists generally advised not risking battle unless you could be virtually assured of overwhelming advantage. They felt it was just too risky otherwise.
 

pemerton

Legend
For the record, the indirect style was the dominant one in the Middle Ages, at least in military manuals. Medievalists debate exactly how dominant this 'Vegetian' style of warfare was in actuality (Vegetian comes from Vegetius, the late Roman author/compiler whose treatise Epitoma rei militaris was the most popular manual of the Middle Ages), but medieval strategists generally advised not risking battle unless you could be virtually assured of overwhelming advantage. They felt it was just too risky otherwise.
I believe there are multiple instances of battles initiated by the Crusaders in Anatolia, Syria and Egypt that suggest this doctrine was not strictly adhered to.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
I believe there are multiple instances of battles initiated by the Crusaders in Anatolia, Syria and Egypt that suggest this doctrine was not strictly adhered to.
For sure, no doctrine was strictly adhered to. And of course mistakes.can be made. I was just speaking generally.
 


lewpuls

Adventurer
Hurin88: Literacy was rare. Perhaps Charlemagne, given his position in Europe and support for learning, had access to Vegetius (though he could not read any language, a cleric might have read it to him), but most in his age would not.

Early Middle Ages, "Dark Ages," refers not only to our lack of knowledge of what happened, but the lack of information available for anyone including rulers. Later Middle Ages would have been more, um, civilized about learning.

I know Britain best (pre-Norman conquest), and there they tended to line up and charge, may the best men win, Briton, Scot, Anglish, or Viking. Kings were right in the middle of it, and died fairly commonly in battle; they had little control over battle. (There was at least one ambush, however - by the Picts.)

Think also how poorly the French did against the English in 100 years war.
 

Hurin88

Adventurer
Lewpuls: No one is suggesting that the average Viking was pulling out Vegetius, so I don't think we're that far apart. As historian Timothy Reuter put it, war was 'a practical rather than a theoretical art.'

But I think it is unfair to say that tactics consisted of 'line up and charge'. In the Battle of Maldon, for example (the great poem about a Viking raid on England), you can see evidence of tactical thinking and planning. Byrhtnoth instructs his men where to stand and how to fight. The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings debate the issue of the causeway, with Byrhtnoth eventually letting the Vikings come across so that he can confront them. Both sides try to maintain a shield wall. Other sources talk of a 'boar's head' formation designed to break the shield wall. etc. That's a lot more complicated than line up and charge.

We also know Charlemagne had military treatises sent to him of course. Hrabanus' Maurus' De procinctu Romanae militiae was specifically such a gift.
 

I'm not clear on whether or not the original post is asking what is most common in the campaigns I have witnessed or if it asking what I personally prefer to use.

If it's asking personal preference, I would say that I lean more toward indirect, but my overall strategy uses a combination of both.

Still, I think, in the context that the OP is using the terms, I would likely be someone who uses a lot of indirect tactics. For example, I typically do not play "blasters" when I choose a magic class. I find it more effective to use battlefield control, manipulation of the enemy's logistics, and various other things.

Though, I would also say that it's rare that I play with a group which is patient enough to not want to rush into slugging it out.
 

rmcoen

Explorer
The methods used in the campaign vary by player, by GM, and by character. The dwarven priest, played by a "kill them all and let their gods sort them out" player, prefers Direct. The player's other PCs (in other campaigns) are a dwarven berserker, an elven sniper, and a gnome wizard/evoker. Same approach, even if it changes from melee to ranged to ranged magic.

The changeling rogue's player prefers Indirect, and in the previous campaign was a "controller" wizard that was 75% focused on staying out of a fight, and 25% focused on keeping enemies out of the fight. Prior to that he played a "rogue" who ended up the party cleric by virtue of being the only one standing after every fight - having run away while his companions stood and died.

It is a rare player who switches between strategies based on story and character, I've found.

As a GM, I usually like to give the players two targets: a Direct-focused threat, and a "special twist" Indirect threat. And apparently I'm too consistent in that now - like a Law & Order episode - such that they always consign the Direct target as the lesser, and always watch for the Indirect...
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
5e, IMO anyway, tends to be very direct. Consequences for players are pretty low and the power level is high. OSR games tend to index a more flexible approach, as the consequences for PCs tend to be much higher and more abrupt. I think that pattern probably holds true for a lot of games, the deadlier it is the more thought players will put into options other than charge.
 
Last edited:

pemerton

Legend
I think it's interesting that over the last few posts the topic has drifted from warfare to the small-scale combat that is more typical of D&D and similar FRPGing.

Does that mean that there is not a lot of warband leadership going on in people's RPGing?
 

Ace

Adventurer
I think it's interesting that over the last few posts the topic has drifted from warfare to the small-scale combat that is more typical of D&D and similar FRPGing.

Does that mean that there is not a lot of warband leadership going on in people's RPGing?
I've never seen it in decades of play. The largest party I've ever seen was 12 but this was a gang of rogues and there were actually 12 players, Never again.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
I think it's interesting that over the last few posts the topic has drifted from warfare to the small-scale combat that is more typical of D&D and similar FRPGing.

Does that mean that there is not a lot of warband leadership going on in people's RPGing?
I think there's definitely a tendency in TRPGs to focus on matters of tactics, rather than matters of strategy, if nothing else because that's more likely to be on a scale where individual characters can make a difference.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think there's definitely a tendency in TRPGs to focus on matters of tactics, rather than matters of strategy, if nothing else because that's more likely to be on a scale where individual characters can make a difference.
In warband-vs-warband conflict, individual characters can certainly make a difference - realistically/technically, through tactical skill, and a bit more thematically/emotionally, through their charismatic and inspiring leadership.

But many RPGs seems to lack a clear mechanical framework for making this happen, other than just reiterating the system for person-to-person combat. And of course scaling that up to 20+ figures on a side (i) sucks time, and (ii) sucks attention away from the key characters (ie PCs), and therefore (iii) sucks.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I'm not very clear on what the actual point of this article is. It seems to be talking to what kind of warfare exists, presumably independent of the PCs, in the setting of the game you play. That's not a terribly interesting topic, though, as it doesn't really matter much to the setting if you have Rommel or Pickett as the exemplars of the setting armies. This is because most games aren't going to deal with this, or, if they do, they will focus on the PC's actions and not the decisions of the war at the larger scale.

Even when warbands might be present, this question isn't one of much use, at least as posed in the OP. Warband play is usually (as shown in the examples in this thread) tactical, not strategic. Real strategic depth of play requires a rather particular set of mechanics -- logistics, morale, maneuver, etc -- that aren't really part of any RPG I'm aware of (although one might exist). These usually only show up in detailed wargames -- SFB had some modules that allow this, and Axis and Allies has some elements, although there's no question where or what the fight is.

I'm not saying this duality, even so drastically simplified and magnified in as in the OP, isn't of any interest, but I'd much rather see an article that actually looks at implementations or advice for implementation of mechanics to address it rather than a "here's an idea I had, done."
 

pemerton

Legend
Warband play is usually (as shown in the examples in this thread) tactical, not strategic. Real strategic depth of play requires a rather particular set of mechanics -- logistics, morale, maneuver, etc -- that aren't really part of any RPG I'm aware of (although one might exist).
The only RPG experience I have where warbands matter a great deal is Prince Valiant. It's not a coincidence that this is a system with rules for resolving PC-led mass combat!

(In our 4e game at one point the PCs had command of a troop of Drow armed with hand crossbows; that was resolved as a ranged AoE that required a minor action (ie the spoken command!) to use, and maybe had a recharge requirement of some sort. So really like a magic item in mechanical terms, and not an ongoing part of play.)

Logistics is not a big thing in Prince Valiant, though morale is.

Burning Wheel allows logistics to come into things, but I've not actually experienced that in play. In mechanical terms I would envisage it generating linked tests that feed into the resolution of Range and Cover resolved using the mass combat variant in (from memory) the Adventure Burner.
 

Visit Our Sponsor

Latest threads

An Advertisement

Advertisement4

Top