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GM tactics and stratagems

Stephan Hornick

Faster Combatant
Adventure Builder
Dear fellow GMs,

Do you know the feeling that you want to do something spectacular that the players don't expect? To surprise, fool or trick them with a great tactic or strategy?
Some of you find it hard. Some of you might already have a list of tactics which came from creativity or experience. I am far from being an expert, but I know a bit about tactics and strategies.

Some of you know about the 13 tactics of Sun Tzu's The Art of War (孙子兵法), others have heard about Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince (Il principe) or The Art of War (Dell'arte della guerra), and some even know about The Book of the Five Rings (五輪書) by Miyamoto Musashi or Carl von Clausewitz' On War (Vom Kriege).

Although their intent was all different and they do not contain the same strategies, I find all of them are in a way contained in the Chinese 36 Stratagems about warfare and civil strife. That is why I got my master's degree in Ancient Chinese (specializing on the 36 Stratagems) by THE man who introduced them to the Western public and who is still the expert on this topic, even in China, Prof. Harro von Senger.

Since ancient China's Eastern Zhou dynasty (403-221 BC) there has been a tradition in China to collect strategies for war and outside of war and categorize them into similar strategies. Since the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) these were submitted to a reform and formulation and published, later known as Stratagems. Nowadays there are 36 Stratagems (based on a proverb by General Wang from around 500 BC), of which I believe we can use many if not all in our games to really plan and understand strategies to trick, fool, or even surprise the PCs.

Now, in the coming days I want to discuss one stratagem at a time and give examples of its use for us GMs in our games. I hope you like it.

For a short overview, let me shortly list the 36 Stratagems.
  1. Stratagems for improved position
    1. Deceive the heavens to cross the sea
    2. Besiege Wei to rescue Zhao
    3. Kill with a borrowed knife
    4. Wait at leasure while the enemy labors
    5. Loot a burning house
    6. Make a sound in the east, then strike in the west
  2. Stratagems for confrontation
    1. Create something from nothing
    2. Openly repair the roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang
    3. Watch the fires burning across the river
    4. Hide a knife behind a smile
    5. Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree
    6. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat
  3. Stratagems for attacks
    1. Stomp the grass to scare the snake
    2. Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul
    3. Lure the tiger off its mountain lair
    4. In order to capture, one must let loose
    5. Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem
    6. Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief
  4. Stratagems for confusion
    1. Remove the firewood from under the pot
    2. Disturb the water and catch a fish
    3. Slough off the cicada's golden shell
    4. Shut the door to catch the thief
    5. Befriend a distant state and strike a neighboring one
    6. Obtain safe passage to conquer the state of Guo
  5. Stratagems to gain distance
    1. Replace the beams with rotten timbers
    2. Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree
    3. Feign madness but keep your balance
    4. Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof
    5. Decorate the tree with false blossoms
    6. Make the host and the guest exchange roles
  6. Stratagems for dire situations
    1. The beauty trap
    2. The empty fort strategy
    3. Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp
    4. Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust
    5. Chain stratagems
    6. If all else fails, retreat
So let's begin...

Stephan Hornick

Faster Combatant
Adventure Builder
1. 瞒天过海 Deceive the heavens (= the emperor) to cross the sea.
This is a stratagem of accomplished fact to camouflage the target and disguise the course. The emperor is to be tricked into crossing the sea against his will by inviting him to a house by the sea that is actually a ship. This was used in 700 AD (Tang dynasty) to get the emperor aboard a ship to attack Koguryo (a part of former Korea). All soldiers already knew that the emperor would attack Koguryo, so it was an accomplished fact and the emperor couldn't back out again without loosing his face, as they say in China.

GM examples:
  1. The PCs are asked by the renowned Zhuge Liang to pick up a parcel for him in a better neighborhood. The PCs go there, meet a nice guy handing them over said parcel and they bring it back to Zhuge Liang. He opens it in front of the PCs and retrieves a very nice necklace. He thanks them and gives them their surprisingly good pay. The next day, the town is ablaze with the news that the royal necklace has been stolen and huge sum is awarded to anybody with clues. The PCs realize that they did the deed without knowing it. They have been tricked and they are now criminals realizing that people are asked to describe anybody near that place.

    This is all, but we could spin it on: Now, Zhuge Liang meets them in public (for his own safety) and asks them to do him another favor or else he will tell that they are criminals. He doesn't have the necklace anymore and the PCs can't prove a thing, but he has leverage due to his status and can produce witnesses.
    (stratagems 35, 3 and 28)

Stephan Hornick

Faster Combatant
Adventure Builder
2. 围魏救赵 Besiege Wèi to Rescue Zhào.
In case the enemy is too strong, this stratagem advises against attacking head-on, but rather attacking his weakness elsewhere. This should result in the enemy's retreat and will exhaust him. At the battle of Guiling (354 BC) a Wèi army lay siege on the capital city of the State of Zhào. Zhào asked the State of Qí for help. But Qí didn't attack the Wèi army, but instead went all the way back to Wèi's capital to attack the unprotected city. On hearing this, the Wèi army broke the siege and rushed back to protect their city, only to be defeated after exhausting itself in the rush.

GM examples:
  1. The PCs are suddenly ambushed by some swift goblin archers after setting up camp (I love goblins!). When the party rushes to intercept them, they have disappeared into the windy mountains. The party is not prepared to follow just yet. But when they come back to the camp site, their horses/food/bags/protection against cold and wind is gone. The cunning goblin shaman let his goblins "attack" the PC's unprotected assets. Let's call him Zhuge Liang. Even better if they notice that something like this happens (a horse neighs loudly) and they need to rush and exhaust themselves, maybe even stumble on a stupid root.
    Unprotected against cold and in the mountains, he could even attack the PC's by having his goblins throw sow blubbers filled with water against them. On contact they rip and splash water over the PCs. The hardened PCs will fear acid or such, but after all, they are only goblins. It is only water. In the cold mountain area though, this freezing water is still dangerous to the party and will not only create slipping ground (beside a deep gorge this could be hazardous), but also sap the PC's energy or lead to catching a cold when not prevented by a warm fire. Zhuge Liang will gradually sap the PC's energy und exhaust them (even if it is not in game terms and the PCs have enough magic and assets to deal with this, it will create the right mood).

  2. The group of adventurers find and enter the goblin cave. After the first fights with lesser goblin guards, the cunning goblin shaman appears. He notices that he has no chance against the party if he sends his troops head-on against them. So after carefully setting the distance, he challenges the strong warrior and insults him. When the warrior rushes to attack (he has seen that the goblins are weak), he leaves the squishy rest of the party unprotected. This is when the grinning Zhuge Liang goblin shaman orders his concealed goblin archers to attack the rest of the party from behind or from the sides. The warrior reaches the goblin shaman but needs to decide whether to attack the magically boostened shaman (which would end the farce with stratagem 18, but would gravely endanger his friends), which could take a while, or to protect his party. Let's say he opts for the protection of his party. But when he rushes back and finds his party wounded, the goblin archers flee. Angry that he could do nothing, the warrior sees his chance now and rushes back to the shaman. But again, another concealed group of goblin archers appears and attacks the rest of the party (who said there was only one group of concealed goblins?). Hopefully, the warrior will not dare to rush head-on towards the shaman anymore.
    The shaman could use this as preparation for a big fight or to buy himself enough time to bring their most valued treasure to safety or to give their strongest fighter enough time to arrive. Either way, it was a success for the goblin shaman and the players will notice this.
    Just for brainstorming: I would let the shaman always get a little more distance between himself and the party to ensure that he is out of reach. Only on the third time, he walks slowly over a squeaking hanging bridge. He is over the bridge and the party is not far behind him. The players expect the shaman to cut the ropes and he even takes out the knife to do this, but when the players aim with their bows and crossbows and such, he drops the knife and flees. Now the PCs believe themselves sure that the bridge will hold and rush over. Either it's their additional weight that lets it collapse or even scarier a giant octopus reaches up from the waters below to grab the loud intruders, the players have again fallen for Zhuge Liangs trap (stratagem 15).

  3. Let's use the same rouse as before. It is the standard example. When the villain, shrewd goblin shaman Zhuge Liang, fears that the PCs will walk away with the big and bulky treasure, he orders his remaining minions to capture the most squishy of the party and lets them hop onto a raft on the underground stream. The rest of the party members could just ignore this and try to secure the treasure, but I believe they will want to rescue their party member. Maybe they find another, even more badly constructed raft on the underground shores that might keep them afloat when they follow the other raft into the dark corridors. An underground raft chase could be very cool. Especially when the ceiling is not very high (goblins will be able to sit/stand upright and shoot back at the party (of course they miss and they will lose their balance and fall into the rushing river screaming, but they are goblins after all!). And of course the party will get to their comrade, even if it is by swimming because their raft broke at a sharp turn where the goblins' raft only splintered, but the big goblin treasure and the shaman are gone by this time (stratagem 36).
Whatever the case, look for unprotected weaknesses and exploit these instead of attacking head-on, in order to have the PCs try to protect them instead of attacking your NPCs and enemies.

Ronaldo Lima

Adventure Builder
Hey @Stephan Hornick, just want to let you know that this is REALLY good and useful content! I am enjoying a lot!
The post #1 had great examples, but this second one has even better ones!
It's the formation of a very rich pool of ideas to give my players the feeling they are facing an actual mastermind!
Thank you and, please, keep up with this amazing work!

Stephan Hornick

Faster Combatant
Adventure Builder
Thank you for commenting. Means a lot to me. If you PM me an overview about your group (or send me a link to your summary in one of your threads), I can adjust the examples to fit even better to your style of play, group constellation and possible problems you face to make it challenging for them.

Stephan Hornick

Faster Combatant
Adventure Builder
3. 借刀杀人 Kill with a borrowed knife.
This stratagem uses a third party to attack one's enemy while reserving one's strength, momentum or identity, or to have a third party do something dangerous for oneself.

GM examples:
  1. Let's continue with our goblin shaman Zhuge Liang. After fleeing the PCs a while ago he decides that the PCs are too strong to fight head on. His spies tell him that they are resting in the next town. He wants his treasure back, so he gives his newfound allies, a band of renegade orcs some incentives to attack the party. He talks about the PCs tactics and how they slaughtered his family. Zhuge Liang has no coin or other to offer as he was robbed by these "murderers", but he offers to help them in planning the attack and taking for their own all that the PCs possess except for that chest ("a mere family loom"). The orcs agree and are up for revenge.
    The next time, the PCs leave town, they are soon after ambushed by this renegade band of orcs shouting for revenge. The surprised PCs will find that they have made enemies without knowing and don't know what the orcs are talking about. But the orcs' tactics are profound and untypically organized. Confronted during combat, the orcs will insult them for being children slaughterer and mention the goblin cave. This is when the PCs should realize that not the orcs went out of their way for revenge, but that they are used by the goblin shaman who is still lurking somewhere (maybe watching this fight unfold). A great chance for the PCs to either fight the orcs to the end or talk them out of it claiming that the goblins started this whole feud.
    An attentive PC might notice a reflection on top of a cliff. A movement later and the hiding spot of Zhuge Liang with his madeshift telescope might have been spotted. The PCs give chase.

  2. But Zhuge Liang is anything if not clever. Unknown to the orcs he has also talked to a small group of kobolds in this forest. He says, he doesn't like humans, elves and orcs, and they agree. "These big folks are always taking what they want, so now we are getting back at them", he says. The kobolds are instantly intrigued. He says, he will play them against each other (this is also stratagem #3). "And when the humans and orcs have fought, we will take down the survivors with poison." Zhuge Liang knows his mushrooms and soon creates a potent poison. Of course, he doesn't know a kill-instantly poison, but he doesn't need to point this out to the kobolds. They are also just tools for him. So when the PCs give chase they are again ambushed by the kobolds who hit the PCs with poisoned arrows. The kobolds are overrun, still not knowing why the poisoned arrows haven't taken down the PCs. Zhuge Liang instead used the struggle with the kobolds to flee once again. The next days (on pursuit?) the PCs are getting weaker and weaker. They might think that they have catched some kind of illness, but no spell works. It is a shrewd kind of poison. This will not kill the PCs but slow them down enough. Eventually, they will go back to the town, either still weak from the poison or exhausted from their travels.

  3. But again, Zhuge Liang likes to chain up his stratagems (stratagem #35). After the PCs left their camp site, Zhuge Liang plants evidences of their unmoral behavior. This might be a bag of human ears (from the orcs that he refills into a human-made bag), or he kills one of the human children that were enslaved by the kobolds and who he lured to the site before killing it with a human knife still sticking from its body when found, or he draws symbols and runes into the ground as if the PCs are from an evil cult. Whatever the case, he will then lure a passersby, or a group of guards, or even another group of heroes to the site. These lawful folks will believe themselves to be the heroes of the story and follow the trail to the next town. The PCs will be accused of horrible things and again Zhuge Liang uses the "knife" of somebody else to "kill" the PCs. At this stage, the PCs should really hate that goblin shaman because it becomes evident that this is his doing. Again.
Have fun!

Ronaldo Lima

Adventure Builder
Thank you for commenting. Means a lot to me. If you PM me an overview about your group (or send me a link to your summary in one of your threads), I can adjust the examples to fit even better to your style of play, group constellation and possible problems you face to make it challenging for them.
Hey Stephen, yes man, I will accept your offer to get more personalized advice... I've just been off of the RPG world for a bit, while transitioning jobs and organizing to get the group back playing after even tighter restrictions in our city related to the pandemic... but thank you very much, anyways!