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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?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Interesting enough, a Slavic Knyaz's (prince) warband was called a Druzhina or Fellowship.

Tactical is rpg level, operational or strategic seems better for war- or boardgames, which are great fun too.
 

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pemerton

Legend
Tactical is rpg level, operational or strategic seems better for war- or boardgames, which are great fun too.
In BW, at least, the logistics would be handled abstractly - Resources and Logistics tests would generate augments (or, if unsuccessful, debuffs) that feed into subsequent checks.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
In BW, at least, the logistics would be handled abstractly - Resources and Logistics tests would generate augments (or, if unsuccessful, debuffs) that feed into subsequent checks.
War comes down to logistics, while tactical superiority means one can clear their battlespace, it doesn't translate to operational or strategic superiority. Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton by Martin van Creveld, is often cited as a good intro to logistics. Medieval stuff, armies lived off the land, and that is why siege stuff was big, Europe in that era is literally tens of thousands of castles. In cities like Vienna one can still see the walls in the Ringstrasse also.

Do you like the logistics game, even in abstract? I don't know if I would, I have a tendency to run games like television series, and just cutting to the action, drama, or comedy.
 

pemerton

Legend
Do you like the logistics game, even in abstract? I don't know if I would, I have a tendency to run games like television series, and just cutting to the action, drama, or comedy.
I've never actually run it, so I don't know. I think it could be interesting, in BW, because of what might be established in the fiction if a check fails.

In Traveller, on the other hand, it would turn into a hideous accounting-fest!
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I've never actually run it, so I don't know. I think it could be interesting, in BW, because of what might be established in the fiction if a check fails.

In Traveller, on the other hand, it would turn into a hideous accounting-fest!
I think that is my feeling as well, too much spread sheet work, which I do in real life, so I am not a fan of it at the table. In Traveller I often don't even look at the credits too much, as the players are usually trying to buy contraband items like combat armor or gauss rifles, so it is more dealing with the black market and using carouse and bribery skill with underworld type NPC's.

Not that another game could not make logistics fun, I just don't know of any. On the surface the idea does seem to drift towards "hideous accounting-fest" which in my experience gets back loaded onto the GM.
 

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