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GM tactics and stratagems

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

7. Create something from nothing​
8. Openly repair the roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang​
9. Watch the fires burning across the river​
10. Hide a knife behind a smile​
11. Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree​
12. Take the opportunity to pilfer a goat​

3. Stratagems for attacks

13. Stomp the grass to scare the snake​
14. Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul​
15. Lure the tiger off its mountain lair​
16. In order to capture, one must let loose​
17. Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem​
18. Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief​

4. Stratagems for confusion

19. Remove the firewood from under the pot​
20. Disturb the water and catch a fish​
21. Slough off the cicada's golden shell​
22. Shut the door to catch the thief​
23. Befriend a distant state and strike a neighboring one​
24. Obtain safe passage to conquer the state of Guo​

5. Stratagems to gain distance

25. Replace the beams with rotten timbers​
26. Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree​
27. Feign madness but keep your balance​
28. Remove the ladder when the enemy has ascended to the roof​
29. Decorate the tree with false blossoms​
30. Make the host and the guest exchange roles​

6. Stratagems for dire situations

31. The beauty trap​
32. The empty fort strategy​
33. Let the enemy's own spy sow discord in the enemy camp​
34. Inflict injury on oneself to win the enemy's trust​
35. Chain stratagems​
36. If all else fails, retreat​

So let's begin...
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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)
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
I love this a lot! I am currently planning a campaign that's inspired by the movie seven and my main villain will be a former military general with extensive tactical training that will start off the campaign by surrendering himself to the players and leaving everything else to his previous planning and his similarly trained henchmen.
4. 以逸待劳 Wait at leisure while the enemy labors
This stratagem focuses on energy. While you preserve energy, troops and assets, you let the enemy expend its energy, troops and assets or actively try to sap energy, troops and assets. You take the initiative on energy preservation like Sun Bin did in 342 BC when he fled with this army (stratagem #36) from the enemy troops and gradually reduced the number of fireplaces to create the false impression that his troops fled his command. The enemies shifted to a lightly armored cavalry to overcome the small army faster, but were themselves defeated when they were trapped by an army in waiting as strong as before.

GM examples:
  1. Let's say, the PCs managed to escape the wrath or judgement of the townsfolk and pledge to get their revenge by killing all goblins in the area. Goblins reproduce quite quickly and always with a bunch of goblin children, so the area will be repopulated with goblins very soon. Some months later, our goblin shaman Zhuge Liang is in constant conflict with the PCs trying to protect the goblin settlings from rampaging heroes. But the goblins are no match for the PCs. Zhuge Liang develops another stratagem against the PCs. A long time plan:

    He chooses 12 of his fastest goblin riders on boar back and deploys them to attack nearby, unprotected villages near water streams (by this also deploying stratagem #2 and protecting the goblin settlements). But, and this is important, everytime only 4 of them attack the village, while the others rest (he preserves their energy). The attackers are ordered to secretly dump poison into the wells (rotting cow tails e.g.) (to gradually sap the strength of the villagers), and then simultaneously fire flame arrows onto the roofs of the villages to create confusion (to sap concentration and time) and cut the tails of cows for further use as above (to sap assets). Before fleeing on their boars they are ordered to leave their mark in the village: a bloody palm print of a goblin, Zhuge Liang's new banner he created while unifying the goblin tribes.

  2. Now, when the PCs arrive, they will only hear about a small handful of goblins who attacked the village (an important deception). The goblin marauders are said to come in the night and fire flame arrows at the village. But those are soon extinguished. It will take a while for the villagers and PCs to realize that the wells also were poisoned, and in case the PCs replenish their waterskins, they will find out later that the water is bad when they feel it in their stomachs (by this sapping the PCs' strength). But the fact that the goblins cut off cow tails (and such) is a real nuisance to the villagers as the bound cows can't defend themselves and most of the cows die within a week (reducing the villagers' assets). This also weakens the village itself and the whole area. And finally, the villagers tell that as quickly as the goblins had arrived, they were gone again. Sometimes, an axe was missing, sometimes an arrow found a villager, but no animals were taken (to not slow down the fleeing goblins).

    The PCs will soon come to identify the bloody hand symbol to be related to goblins and they probably think that if they ride hard, they can follow and kill the goblins (just like in the original story). They will feel themselves lucky everytime they come to a water stream but don't loose the trail. This is exactly what Zhuge Liang wants them to believe. Actually this is where the tired goblins move downstream to rest and rested goblins take their place and move on to the next village. It will take the PCs a while before they will get suspicious, he hopes.

  3. The PCs will surely follow the trail from one village to the next and always need to decide between resting in the village or in the saddle (meaningful choice). If they want to catch the goblins, they will be hard pressed to move on and not make many stops for food or drink or sleep (thereby expending their energy). And even when in the villages they will feel that their time is ticking and that they need to make haste. On the other hand, the distressed villagers want to tell the PCs everything in detail and how they tried to fight the goblins and how cruel they were and such. For the villagers, this is an event of a lifetime, while for the PCs this is just another village harrassed by goblins. Will the PCs reject the villagers' nice offer of a bed and evening meal, some village girl's or boy's romantic advances, or will they "rudely" try to follow the coldening trail of the marauders?

  4. The PCs will surely wonder why the goblins do this and why they can't even be faster on horseback than the goblins on boars (beside the fact that boars can move quickly in dense forests and horses can't, which Zhuge Liang foresaw). In case, the PCs haven't made progress, there might even be rumors after a while about the small goblin band that is evading the heroes. This is intended to further irritate the PCs sapping their concentration and thoughtfulness luring the PCs to rash action instead. And the less rest they have, the less spells and special abilities they will replenish (Zhuge Liang hopes that they underestimate the goblins and don't maintain their energy and assets). The PCs might even need to exchange horses in villages or buy potions (thereby expending even more time haggling prices or finding the right ones).

  5. Meanwhile, Zhuge Liang and some fast riders will follow the PCs and analyze the PC's fireplaces to identify how exhausted they have become and what else he can learn about the PCs, even if they left behind heavy assets (like armor, wood to make fire, chests of gold etc.). If they do - and they should need to if they switched to untrained village horses - they are playing directly into Zhuge Liang's trap.

  6. After the fifths village, Zhuge Liang believes the PCs will have figured out which will be the next village and try to make up with pure speed around the forest. He will have no spy near the PCs, so he doesn't know for sure, but will lay in waiting for the PCs to arrive at the last village exhausted to the final village.
    Everything is still when the PCs arrive and they might believe themselves lucky to have made it in time. Zhuge Liang will then order an attack by 4 goblins as before (but not using the flame arrows yet) and will have the PCs take action, when they see goblins move through the village. He wants the PCs to believe that this is the climax. But once in position where Zhuge Liang wanted them to be (right in the middle of the village surrounded by buildings that block their sight and filled with innocent bystanders), he will flank them from all sides with a much greater troop than was expected. He will have advantage by number, rest and assets, as he will not only arrive with these 12, but has long moved all his troops to the area.

  7. The first attacks are again with flame arrows to lighten up the scene for further arrow fire at the PCs (sniping). Not only will it be harder for the PCs to see the goblins in the dark outside the ring of fire, it will create confusion and villagers will try to leave their homes to escape or to stop the fire from spreading. The PCs need to decide then and there whether to protect the villagers, stop the fires or go around the buildings to fight the goblins. As the attack will be from all sides there might be the chance that the PCs will spread and Zhuge Liang managed to divide and conquer. He will attack them by numbers from all sides.

  8. Finally, when he believes himself winning, Zhuge Liang will scream at them and damn them (in his bad common tongue) for killing his siblings and friends in that cave in the past and robbing their treasure and tribe loom from the chest. He believes himself more intelligent than the PCs and will "need to" explain to them what he did and that they have fallen into his trap as stupid humans usually do. He even used the same stratagem as in the beginning when he took away their rations and horses before the PCs reached the cave. This is his revenge! (And finally, he even saps the PCs' moral and endurance after hearing that he planned this all along and they realize where they missed to see through his stratagem and decided wrongly in the past)
    Let's see if the PCs can manage to escape his wrath...
Have fun!
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I edited the text above for clarity on how this stratagem was involved so many times and even added some new parts. I hope it is easier to read now.
5. 趁火打劫 Loot a burning house
This stratagem is one of opportunity like strategem #12, but unlike #12 which is based on luck, it can only be used under the condition that the enemy is already in trouble, his country beset by internal problems like diseases, famine, corruption, and crime, or when your foe has evidently become weak. This is the time to strike! When troubled with internal problems and himself in chaos, your foe has not enough resources (attention, assets, time) to properly react to your attack. Information gathering about your opponent is a prerequisite to notice the right timing to strike. On the other hand, you can of course always create this condition of trouble and chaos beforehand, to use it for this stratagem.

GM examples:
  1. The above fight ensues and the heroes are engulfed by the chaos of war. The goblin shaman Zhuge Liang grimaces angrily as he realizes that the party of heroes is exactly that: true heroes who fight like young gods. If this goes on, they really might turn the scales and win. But their attention is fixed on the current opponents and they don't have attention capacity or otherwise to deal with him and the rest of the army. The perfect chance for his next stratagem. So he first orders the archers to concentrate fire on the weakest of the heroes: the healer or wizard. While he used stratagem #2 before in that cave in a similar way, the attack on some of the party members now is not to prevent the heroes to attack him, but to kill those who are weak. The quick-witted mage might instantly realize that he is again target of that same stratagem that Zhuge Liang used before and orders the party to attack the shaman instead, while he creates a magical barrier to protect himself from the arrows.

    But Zhuge Liang doesn't stop the attack this time. Instead he relentlessly gives the signal to increase the attack. Now the mage is not only harrassed by some arrows, but by a multitude of them and many of them are burning with hot flames. More and more strike their target. In addition, the ones repelled by the magical barrier drop to the ground and enflame the dry grass around the mage. In mere seconds the mage is dropped to the ground and his magical barrier flickers and dies.

  2. Zhuge Liang yells at the rushing party and points behind them: "Concentrated fire can also be used by goblins, you idiots!" Thus, he enrages the party which is left and throughs them into emotional turmoil. Again, he saps their attention for his plans and lets them fixate on their own problems. Some of them never noticed the pitfall in their way to him and fall into the deep pit. Due to time limits they are not spiked, but filled with shards of broken glass, goblin poo and/or snakes.

  3. Let's assume, that the falling heroe was able to hold onto some kind of branch, but is hurt or in danger of getting hurt. Now, the target of additional arrow attacks is not only the one who fell into the pit, but also the ones that are trying to help him or her. They are again weak in the sense that they cannot dodge or parry, because they are trying to hold onto the branch within the pit or the arm of their companion outside the pit. A volley of arrows weakens them even more.

  4. Using the time the PCs need to get their companion out again and trying to protect themselves from the arrows, Zhuge Liang orders his boar riders to attack. Again, the PCs are weak. This time, they have bad footing. The ground is muddy and their backs are against the pit. From the sides the boar riders rush at them and try to push them back or to the ground. The tusks of boars are very dangerous when the PCs are prone and the force of their attack might even through the PCs into the pit, while the boars themselves know that kind of footing very well and are excellent jumpers.
From the above 4 paragraphs (or even before) you may already have noticed, that each of the stratagems has several aspects which need to be considered to really understand a stratagem. I try to make them really clear with these examples, but in case you don't see the difference, please comment here and I will make it even clearer. In addition, several stratagems seem to be applicable to the same situation at first glance. This is the tricky part, as each stratagem has a different agenda, so the same actions could be explained by different stratagems depending on the long-term goal. The next stratagem might show this even better.
6. 声东击西 Make a sound in the East, then strike in the West
This stratagem is all about surprise. You manipulate the enemy to focus their resources somewhere, before attacking elsewhere that is poorly defended. A all too typical example is in a duell, when the opponents make feints, or the all to catchy "Careful! Behind you!" that even children like to use. The stratagem hides the real target. While stratagem #2 was about protecting oneself by endangering a front of the enemy, this stratagem is about making a killing blow or at least to penetrate defenses.

GM examples:
  1. The sly goblin shaman Zhuge Liang strokes his fine goaty and smiles sinister as he claps his lieutenant on the shoulder. *Good work, Zeceree Scar! Prepare the retreat." While the party of heroes frantically fends off the goblin boar riders and occasional arrows, they do not notice that the wind had changed. As the remaining goblin boar riders retreat, the party hears a whistling sound of a dozen slings at the top of the hill Zhuge Liang occupies. *Ha! Slings!" the Barbarian jokes and points at the tiny goblins. Only, when the ammunition flies towards them and he realizes that they are not hurling stones but burning flasks, does he realize his mistake. All about them glass shatters and burning oil splatters the party and the dry grass. In mere seconds the whole hill has cought fire and the wind is blowing it towards the party blocking their way to the bulk of the army on top of the hill.

    Zhuge Liang waited for the right time to make his plan work knowing that the wind was going to shift and that the grass was dry. A master of weather knowledge and a keen observer for his surroundings, he more than made up for his lack of power. Further, he cruelly sacrificed dozens and dozens of goblins to give the heroes the impression that that was the real fight and that the goblin boar riders and the pit were his master plan. They were so wrong!

  2. "Great workz, shaman masta. Now we canz keel everyone of them with fire!" grins Zeceree Scar.
    "Wrong. Guess again," says the shaman.
    *Er... we keel them when they get out of fire? When weak?"
    "Better, but still wrong. Now we get our spoils of war!"
    The bulk of the army disperses. Many goblins lost their lives in this battle. Some villagers. A few cows and pigs. And within the burned village there lies the mage of the party.

    Let's say, the party survived of the whole battle and even the storm of fire. And maybe the cleric is even able to rescue or ressurect the mage. Shockingly, they realize that Zhuge Liangs true target has never been the villages (or cow tails for that matter), nor the party itself. The goblins used the distraction of the fight to rob the mage clean of any of his possessions. All the magical artifacts, potions, scrolls, gold, books and even his clothing. In addition, they took the horses with the rest of the parties possessions.

    At first, it seems outright confusing. Of course, the party catches up with several groups of goblins thereafter, but they never catch Zhuge Liang. Many months later they will learn that Zhuge Liang retrieved some of his goblin artifacts, but even more important, he retrieved a powerful magical artifact that the mage had in his possession and the ability to wield it. Their arch villain has become a mage by himself. (He has always been called shaman, but only as a title, not as a magic user. Now he has become one. And he will use the powerful magical artifact on a city and on the party in the future.)
Although these were only two examples for this stratagem, I think the gist became clear.

(Just a side note: don't really kill the mage! The player would be really shocked if you did. And don't really take all their possessions, but make it hurt the party nontheless. Important is, that Zhuge Liang acquired one powerful magical item that the party just secured and that he also acquired a means to study magic, preferably a tomb of (some) spells.)

This concludes the first six stratagems. This group is called stratagems for winning or stratagems of winning or superior stratagems. Each of those is to be used on the condition that one is not surprised and has a high ground (of perspective) aka a superior position by securing the initiative.

At this point, you more than created a super villain that is hated by the party. Let's continue with the next block of six stratagems. Stratagems for negotiations or confrontations with the enemy.
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After the first fights with lesser goblin guards, the cunning goblin shaman appears.
Just a short notice: introducing a villain may be a difficult thing to do. Many GMs like to introduce the villain of the campaign early on.

Matthew Colville suggests in his Running the Game #15 to introduce a high-level villain when the party is still in his early levels, thus making absolutely clear that they will have no chance of defeating him, while still being able to present the villain as a bad person. In case the PCs nevertheless attack the villain, the villain doesn't need to kill the PCs. He is above such notions. He easily defeats them but doesn't kill them. He wants others to know that he is powerful.

I didn't want to go in that direction. I presented the goblin shaman Zhuge Liang as just another goblin, sly but not that powerful. I wanted the PCs to face a villain who is NOT powerful, but still succeeding. I wanted them to know that if they land a hit, they will seriously damage if not kill the goblin. I wanted them to get frustrated knowing that and still not being able to do it.
Often, my players tend to overdramatize situations with villains believing them all-powerful when they are not. This frustrates me and results in me gradually describing less power when introducing villains. With Zhuge Liang, I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted them to know that he is an easy target. Further, this makes it more personal. Sometimes, I let the villain get hurt early on to show that he is not invincible. And with the goblin shaman, I wanted them to pursuit this villain right from the start, a constant rivalry, not a long-time goal to defeat the overlord.

And by the way, if he had been killed in the first session, I would have just switched the role of the villain to his angry son/nephew/grandson who had learned a lot from him and could also be sly, but was motivated to get revenge. No problem here. I try not to pull out a trick then. But maybe the son etc. were able to flee, maybe they just turned back and saw how the PC killed him. I would switch the perspective here to show the situation from the other side.

But then again, there is another suggestion from Matthew Colville, which I always wanted to try: The villain is defeated too easily. The diety of that villain appears and his loud voice booms through the halls: "No! I'm not finished with you yet. Rise!" and he reanimates the villain to a more powerful undead version, or revives him and whisks him away to another plane to recuperate, or even banishes the PCs to another place (or time!).

Just a short brainstorming: So the deity decides to send the PCs to another time. Just shortly before the PCs arrive, so that the villain just left the hideout when the PCs arrive. Of course they will not loose their memories. They know they had defeated him, but now they have to find him again. And until they do, he will have become stronger...
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...
elegant, beautiful
so totally stealing :)
I never mentioned it so far, but besides this orderly fashion to present stratagems, you can see an example of how I confront the problem of overpowerful PCs and presenting the villain early on in Javalen's Adventure Building Master Game Plan. Maybe this is also a helpful illustration.
the link is broken.

i noticed you reference the stratagems with their total running nr instead of their chapter+1subchapter, so until i copy paste and assign new numbers i have a hard time going back to see which one you are referencing :) eg 35,3,28

that said i'm gonna dig into to this for sure :) much appriciated!!
Sorry, the link is not broken, but in a restricted area only for Wizards of Adventure (patreons). I didn't notice. Please find an abstract here:
There might be other ways for her to appear and not seem over-powerful. For starters, she could appear to them in a cave system. She steps out of a tunnel entrance and onto a small plattform some 15m above the cave ground where the PCs just found the items. Maybe one of the learned PCs will recognize her from a picture in a history tomb. First, she will thank them for finding the items. The PCs had been very useful. This is to show her own motivation, while simultaneously showing that she used them (and making her a villain). Then, she rapidly calls the item to herself with telekinetic force. Maybe as an answer a ranged attack by the PCs comes through (showing that she is not all-powerful, which is important). She then raises her hand (maybe swiftly elongate to claws to already allude to the fact that she is half-dragon, which the PCs will notice later when they think back) and slams it into the wall to the side of the tunnel entrance with magical energy crawling and crackling over her fingers. A loud crack later, the wall splinters into shards and a massive gush of water rushes at the PCs. All they can do is to try not to get crushed against a wall or stalagmite, while staying afloat and not drown. Some fearful moments and fighting for life later, the subterrainean river will flow out of the cave or subside. But Erandis Vol is gone.
Thank you for pointing out, that the numbering is confusing. I thought it would probably not be any problem and used the automatic numbering of the chat. Realizing though, that this is not the best, I amended the first post and renumbered to represent the official numbering (#1 to #36). The 6 categories were later additions, and frankly may even be changed again in the future by the experts, but the currently official version is the above.
Well, let's start with the next arc of our stratagem campaign.
While the first 6 were to put the strategist into a better position from where to achieve a position of power, the next 6 are for confrontation, or so it says.

7. 无中生有 Create Something from Nothing.
Also called the illusion stratagem, it is about false impressions, a blatant lie, and to make your opponent believe that there is something where there is nothing, or vice versa in order to create an advantage or make the opponent choose something you like. The typical everyday untruthfulness and almost truths are taken right from this stratagem.

GM examples:
  1. After having been defeated by the goblin shaman Zhuge Liang, the heroes face a completely changed playing field. Let's move ahead some months to give the impression of what effects that one failure had. People talk and the PCs are in no status of honor or awe anymore. On the one hand, the name of the heroes got blemished, which is part of the stratagem and which was an intended result. All the good the heroes did, is forgotten. One failure alone is blown up like the metaphorical mosquito into an elephant. And Zhuge Liang's few contacts within the city are helping increase the rumors. Bad rumors. There is e.g. a poor and downtrodden family coerced into colaboration by means of abduction of their youngest child. And there is the corrupt mercenary suddenly having a lot of money. Just to name a few. But beware, not to stress this part of the stratagem too much, else it will ruin the fun of your players. A failure in itself is bad. A ruin of a complete legend is even worse. But if you walk the fine path of failure and consequence with a glint of hope that they can redeem themselves, you are creating a great, convincing and engaging story. So it is absolutely necessary that the PCs soon notice that the rumors are not just rumors, but an indirect attack. The eldest son of the family might walk right to the PCs and ask them for their help. His parents won't do anything but that way, his brother/sister is going to be eaten for sure. Someone has to do something! And on the other hand, the PCs either know the corrupt mercenary (or maybe it is even a guard!) from past experiences, or they hear about his strange "finding" from someone jealous enough to talk about him to the PCs.

  2. Now, there is still a lot more about this stratagem, but let's stick to rumors for another round. Not only are there bad rumors about the PCs, there will now definitely be rumors about Zhuge Liang himself. Here are some examples:

    "A mere goblin seems to be amassing an army. He must be a leader or king of a sort."
    "I hear, he can do magic. His army cannot be detected by the king's forces. He must be a powerful wizard."
    "A mere goblin attacks and poisons the surrounding villages. I hear the people are already afraid to drink from their wells."
    "A mere goblin is halting trade routes and prevents us from getting any food. Is he trying to make us starve? I will prepare for the worst and buy all the food I can get before my neighbor does."
    "I hear, the Blood Claw Tribe is gathering all kinds of reinforcements. There are orcs, trolls, and even ogres among its rows. May the gods protect us! This will become a war of extinction!"
    "Zhuge Liang they call him. And he not only defeated the King's army, but he outsmarted them! Who is this goblin??"

    Zhuge Liang accomplished to make a name for himself. The name Zhuge Liang is born and spreads like wildfire. Of course, the rumors soon exaggerate. He has no mighty army yet and he is by no means a master strategist better than all the human strategists combined, but that plays right into his agenda. First, the common people fear him, then the rest will follow! And the more they fear him, the less they act rashly. Time for rash acts are gone. The battlefield has come to a halt and it is time for bluffing. And Zhuge Liang has a great poker face!

  3. Even monsters hear his name. Some fearful creatures flock to him for protection. Others out of interest. Even others he can convince that he will lead their joint people to a new era of civilization, free from those "stinking humans". The more his name spreads, the more monsters he accumulates. The more monsters he accumulates, the safer it is getting for him, and the more sightings of monsters there are, the more humans fear him. A dangerous circle. His focus is getting drawn more and more towards controlling all of these monsters. But he is a sly goblin and knows how to speak to the masses, especially if they are stupid. In town on the other hand, guards freely talk about sightings of groups of goblins, orcs, even rampaging ogres and trolls in the distance. More and more of those wear the Bloody Palm Banner and skirmishes are becoming ever more common. The town prepares by rationing provisions and improving the walls. People become restless as if they were already under siege.

  4. Then, people are mustered and heroes flock to the town. Some will want to talk to the PCs to hear how they failed and will brag how they will succeed instead. Luckily for the PCs though, the adventuring group Dragon Cresters will try and march out of town with trumpets, only to return badly wounded and defeated. They might talk about a group of three massively regenerating trolls working together while being assisted by arrow shooting orcs not caring for hitting the trolls also, and even goblins carrying buckets of water to prevent the heroes from using fire against the trolls. The longer the fight endured, the worse the situation got.
    But the stratagem behind this tactic is another all together: The monsters cooperate, but the humans will notice that they will not. Pity arguments of the past prevent towns to cooperate or even nobles within the same town. The common people loose trust in their leadership.

  5. And then, these leaders make their biggest mistake: They fear to be overcome by the Bloody Palm so badly, that they will protect their town with any means possible. They will disregard the unrest. They will disregard how people in villages surrounding the town will become unprotected. They may even prevent villagers to flock to the town for protection.
    At the right moment, Zhuge Liang will lead a more controllable group of the Bloody Palm to surrounding, unprotected villages. So he will definitely not take any trolls. He will come when dusk is falling and sounds travel further. His goblins in the woods will carry improvised torches and each hand and even strap them to some higher branches. Finally, there will be a huge torch high up in the trees, which will give the impression of a giant at least. All just to make another false impression. So he will not have lead his whole army hear, but just a bunch of prepared many. He knows, he wouldn't have been able to control a whole army and not let them plunder or devastate the area. But that is not his intention. After he has left, more rumors will start. Apparently, he now even has a giant in his army! And what's more interesting to the generals and tacticians and PCs (!) who might hear of this, when they investigate the village, is the fact that he has seemingly extraordinary control over his minions. Just be careful as a GM to not make him seem as too powerful for them to overcome. Let them investigate the forest afterwards and make them find evidence that there was no giant at all, but a huge burnt club bound to a tree. You want to make sure to the PCs that this is a ruse, but that they cannot control how fast false rumors are spreading.

  6. Now to Zhuge Liangs main agenda in that village. He offers them a deal in his broken common tongue. Every other night, his troops may come and collect. His troops need food and lust for plunder. But he is not a cruel goblin and will protect those of them, that draw his Bloody Palm on their doors. Of course, this is a total lie. He will neither be able to nor is he willing to protect humans. But it will have a strong effect: Paint the palm on your door and you will be spared. And this will spread from village to village to merchant cart to houses and shops in town itself. The king's men wil try to abolish this nonsense, even call it treason, but the people try to protect themselves. As you see, these are already several instances of Stratagem #33 (Sow discord in the enemy's camp) in addition to false promises. And to push it over the edge, he might even have his army attack and kill some daring merchants, only to loot and share a part of the goods with the "loyal" village. They might even live better under the goblins than they did under the king. It may be only once that he brings goods, but it changes their perspective. And they will not know that he had all the human merchants killed for it. And he will have killed them even if they drew the bloody palm on wagon (they will think they are safe, but Zhuge Liang will use this as a surprise attack). Maybe, a guard was able to flee and will later talk about it to the PCs, so that they know that the promise is only fake, but they will have a hard time convincing the desperate human villagers.
(to be continued...)