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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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(second part...)
  1. At that time Zhuge Liang will concentrate on attacking the town. Spontaneous raidings, Ogres throwing rocks over the walls or the occasional nightly attack. People will fear what is beyond the walls. The terrors of the night will last. But never long. The attacks seem erratic. And they are at first. And after the guards had been jumpy and the people fear the night and cannot sleep (stratagem #4 again), they will get used to the attacks and loose sight of the details. And they will anticipate them but care less and less. After a while, the watchmen will not even get their hopes up again that this time will be different, that this time the riders will catch them. And if they do, they only get a few straddlers or an ogre, but the masses, that stamp the earth in the nearby woods don't even come close. Of course, half of this is fake. Artificial footprints and constantly increasing smoke from the mountains, screams of war through hollow trumpet-like horns, just to make it louder and more convincing.
    And the half-hearted attacks will eventually be understood as to be just to demoralize the people. And the humans will feel superior understanding this. And at first they are just to demoralize. But later, the guards will probably not notice that they will become inattentive. The attacks have reached stage 2. Not erratic but to determine strengths and weaknesses of the wall and the overall defences. And they will be so loud as to drone out the noises of what is really going on (see stratagem #8).
    If the PCs investigate in detail and find proof of the artificial footprints though, it shouldn't be an easy success, because there will be many ranged goblins waiting for them. But if they do, they really have gotten grips on what is really going on. This is a reward in itself.

  2. Last time I said, that Zhuge Liang got hold of a magical item. Maybe it was only a spell. But either way, it should be something to get information, like communication or control of animals. I'm thinking of rats or bats. He will listen to the animals and have them spy. Although, this aspect is not at all necessary. It is even better if you could work without it. The "loyal" villagers might be prodded to spy instead.
    On the other hand, he might have control over some weather which will make the impression of his power even stronger, even if it is only a minor spell.
    Or, for a great climax later on, he might already teach other goblins this spell and have them use it simultaneously on the same subject to increase the effect. What if he somehow made this into a ritual so that 30 goblins were able to control a Bulette or Purple Worm, any kind of burrowing worm? Wouldn't it be cool, if he later attached a saddle and rode it into battle?! And even if by this 10-20% of the goblins are being killed, it is worth it. Maybe, the PCs even stumble upon such ritual circle in the mountains when they investigate the nightly growls and chanting. And they will find many goblin bodies in ritual feathers and such. And marks of a great creature. And they will wonder, what happened here... If it is a monster with acid or fire, you might even find a dead troll here. Just some ideas.

  3. The king's men will surely not wait and see, but once mustered forces they will want to attack and defeat the goblin army once and for all. Or they will even send assassins. Now, Zhuge Liang is not stupid as we have seen, so he will not take the forest as his homebase. A forest can be burned down, has little way of protecting against sieges, is great to hide as a small group or tribe, but bad for an army, and even armored human forces on horses can traverse its paths. No, Zhuge Liang will chose the mountains instead. Natural terrain for Ogres and trolls, and even goblins, orcs and many more of his army are accustomed to cave dwelling. Dangerous paths can be easily protected by scouts, hidden orcs with bows, and artificial avanlanches. But what's more, you cannot determine how many they are and how deep they have burrowed their tunnels. Men will fear the endless cave systems and will wonder at night, whether some tunnels even streach below the walls of the town right under their homes. And they are not wrong (as I said, I will illustrate this in the next stratagem).

  4. In addition, by choosing the mountains and making his army's presence there well known, he lets the humans concentrate their attention to specific locations, boosts what they expect to find there, and diminishes their attention on other parts of the country.

  5. And to put it to the extrem, what if he actually could enlist someone capable of creating illusions, magical ones, and he had him create occasional illusions of fire lances and loud bellowing in the night from that mountain? Would the humans think he actually had a dragon? The PCs would know for sure that if they thought back on all that they had experienced with him, half of what he does is with stratagem and not real. Will they be clever enough to figure out? Will the players have leveled up by now?
    And even if the human forces and PCs used magic, do not prevent it from having a tremendous effect. After all, he has not. Make it clear, that he is not all powerful because he is your villain, but because he is mundanely extraordinary at stratagems and planning. Some plans will fail. But the majority will probably work. Magic can defeat him, right, and it can see through many of his rouses, and it should be used to show to the PCs what he is really up to. Don't let the players be in the dark! Nevertheless, they now can't get a hold of him anymore. He has indeed collected an army of monsters and created a position of power for himself.
This was long. I hope, it showed several more aspects of how to use "lies" in our games.
 
I'm enjoying this thread. It really helps get my ideas flowing. One of things you mention a lot seems is the concept of the PCs reputations: this works so well, its amazing, every GM should do it. Players really tend to care how the game world perceives them. A good GM can really get players invested by yanking on this particular chain in so many ways. I've had local townsfolk start out suspicious of the PCs, then become more welcoming, then becoming deferential -- then they lose that or it is threatened -- or better yet, they get a bad reputation and now the wrong kind of people respect them.
 
are you really going the whole 36?? WOHOO!!
I'm really excited about the whole idea ... when I get home, I will take my suntsu from the bookshelf and read it for real :D
 
Yes, I plan to. But it‘s like juggling. Actually I have so many balls I constantly hold aloft that it takes a while to come back to some. The more people say „wow“ I show them that ball, or in this case I write more in that thread, roleplaying chat, and so on and on.
Happy you like it! I‘ll try to squeaze in some time for this thread soon.
 
I did a re-read the other day and i had a thought, maybe if the examples were converted into a more non-assumptive prep template?
if that makes any sense.

I realized that there is alot of assumptions about the pc's behavior in the examples, which works well as an explanation of how the strategems could play out at the table. But for prepping i was thinking we need less assumptions, the warrior might not go back to save his team mates because there is little he can do on his own versus 4-5 archers that his friends cannot do without him and he might opt "to go for the head".

Maybe how they can relate to the 5RD concept? :) Perhaps something as simple as grouping them by 5RD-Rooms?
 
Thank you for the comment, @BahneGorkDK. This gives me the opportunity to break down some expectations for this thread.

Stratagem Examples vs. Session Preparation
This thread is not intended as preparation for sessions. Although I try to make the examples interesting and linked to each other - I actually try to simultaneously tell a little story with them (just for fun) - the intention of the thread is to show which game situations are indeed which stratagems. To bundle them for easier recognition, I try to show several different aspects of the stratagem in one post. My plan is to show all stratagems and to make clear what their differences are. And only then, I believe, the GM has enough broad view insight into these to use them on the fly or in preparation. To use them though, you would need to look carefully at your group of players and PCs and plan accordingly.

I intentionally don't put my focus on the PCs here and rather "play them dumb". I think, no player group would be that dumb, actually, and there are a LOT of situations where the players would decide differently for sure (which could result in sidestepping the stratagem alltogether). But if I took that into account here, I would focus more on how to gamemaster and not be able to focus on the strategems.

Although it seems that I am showing how to prepare a session, it is not a session preparation thread. Although I like the 5RD concept very much, I will not try to actively change the posts to represent sessions.

Stratagems and 5 Room Dungeons:
Your idea of grouping them into 5RD is interesting though. Never thought about it. Well, thinking about it now, it is quite simple though:
ALL stratagems fall into Room 3: Setback, Complication, Surprise. They are mostly used in this stage, although they CAN be applied in other rooms, too. Illusion stratagems could already be in place in rooms 1 and 2 and only be revealed as false assumption in room 3. Likewise, they could culminate in room 4 for maximum effect and destruction.
 
8. 暗度陈仓 Openly repair the roads, but sneak through the passage of Chencang.
The founder of the Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD), Liu Bang, was in ancient times said to have suddenly started to repair a burnt wooden trail through the mountains. His enemies behind the mountains believed themselves safe, because it would take him a long time to repair that trail. Their attention failed them and they didn't notice that in truth Liu Bang used a completely different route to attack them.
This is one of the more difficult stratagems to accomplish, and thus, one of the more unusual ones. Like stratagem #6 (make a sound in the east, then strike in the west) it is based on misinformation. But this time the enemy's attention is not merely distracted with some fear or other intangible situation, but with physical decoys. There is a significant risk for the employer of this stratagem, as the physical decoys must be easily seen and can thus be attacked. But the intention is to present the physical decoys as something that doesn't need the full attention of the other party, like a project that takes a lot of time giving the other party plenty of time to react to, while in truth the time is not long at all. And this is the core of the stratagem. You give a false impression of safety by showing something obvious and although the other party understands the obvious approach they don't see the true intention. Therefore, the decoys must be very convincing in what they are about to do to avoid suspicion.
This stratagem can be used to obfuscate the direction of movement (or even speeches), the unusual intention, or the criticism behind common behavior and understandable actions.
(Nowadays, this stratagem is used for having an affair and pretending that everything is all right via business trips, company dinners, or the like)

GM examples:
  1. In stratagem #7 I alluded to this stratagem twice. This is how it can be used:
    While Zhuge Liang's trolls and ogres attack the town walls and flee whan harmed, numerous goblin diggers build a tunnel below the town walls. The sounds of battle (maybe accompanied by battle trumpets or drums) obfuscate the sounds of digging. The humans believe themselves safe as the ogres lack intellect to overcome the walls.

  2. Another version would be to change the direction of the attack. It could only seem that the attacks' intention is to overcome the walls when in truth some part of the wall structure is weakened every time, the riverbed prepared with stones for later damming (instead of throwing), a specific building in the center tried to hit (temple).

  3. Also, what if a goblin is taken hostage afterwards that seems like Zhuge Liang (but of course isn't) and what if that goblin is carrying a terrible desease? The intention of Zhuge Liang would be that the humans take him behind the walls so that the desease could fester and spread, the stones left by the ogres to block the exit out of town, not to open it. The situation would suddenly flip.
Not so much this time (because I see several uses of this stratagem in combination with other stratagems and don't want to start on those yet. I will later add more examples).
 
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