Let Slip the Dogs of War, Part II

This posting is the second in a three-part series which explores how a Dungeon Master (DM) can apply accepted axioms of war to enhance the structure and mastering of combat encounters in a Dungeons & Dragons game. These axioms, and the historical examples used to illustrate them, are drawn from the writings of military historian Bevin Alexander, such as those found in Rules of War.

The first post in this series can be found here.

While not every monster in a D&D game will be familiar with all of the tactics described in this series, those who are intelligent or have intelligent leadership will certainly employ them if the need arises.

The first part of this series descibed the tactic of striking at enemy weaknesses; this part will discuss the maxims of defending, then attacking and occupying the central position.

Defend, Then Attack

Typically, attacking forces believe themselves to be stronger than defenders, and defenders generally consider themselves weaker than attackers (if the defenders perceived themselves to be strong enough, they would attack, or so goes conventional wisdom). This maxim surfaces when a commander chooses to defend, even though he is strong enough to attack.

The maxim is employed when a commander is aware that he has a better weapon or tactical system than his foe. The superior weapon or tactic would enable his troops to defend so well that the attack would certainly fail, thereby demoralizing and/or scattering the attacking force and enabling the defending commander to immediately counterattack while the enemy is disorganized.

Perhaps the best historical example of this tactic is seen in the accomplishments of the Byzantine General Belisarius. When Byzantium was faced with a Gothic invasion in the early sixth century, Belisarius employed a superior weapon – mounted archers – to devastating effect. When the Goths attacked a fortified Byzantine town, they would be driven off by archers on the walls, ballistae, and catapults. As the Goths fled, Belisarius would give chase with the horse archers, peppering them with arrows and inflicting enormous casualties until the Goths could regroup. When the Goths reassembled, the Byzantines would go on the defensive again, retreating to the walled city, where the Goths would be attacked from the walls and the entire process could begin again.

While monsters traditionally have substandard weaponry, they may have superior tactics or natural abilities that can enable the inspired defense required for this maxim. Imagine a creature that is immune to non-magical weapons, or one that can only be harmed by weapons made from a specific material.  When the heroes invade its lair, the creature may well know that the party is unable to physically harm it, but it may wait for the heroes’ assault so that it can inflict greater damage as the party flees.

A tactical example could involve a band of goblins that attacks a PC party with missiles from a position of strength, perhaps from atop a high ridge or even from behind a crude log palisade. When the party retreats from the barrage of missiles, the goblins could give chase on worg wolves that can use their superior movement rate to catch up with the party, tearing into the retreating heroes.

Occupying the Central Position

At the start of the Italian campaign in 1796, Napoleon drove his army between the Piedmontese and Austrian armies in the Apennines west of Genoa, thereby permitting him to defeat one enemy force before having to deal with the other.

The two armies facing Napoleon together numbered 56,000 troops, compared with Napoleon’s army of only 37,600. Undaunted by his inferior numbers, Napoleon decided to use his army as a wedge between the two enemy armies. This was largely accomplished after a few days of fighting at Dego, from which the two enemy armies retreated in opposite directions.

Napoleon pursued the Piedmontese, defeated them at Mondovi and knocked Piedmontese forces out of the war. He then turned his attention to laying siege to Mantua, driving off no fewer than four Austrian armies sent across the alps to relieve the city. Eventually, he drove south against Papal forces – gaining victory with the Peace of Tolentino – then turned north to Austria herself, and as his armies threatened Vienna, the Austrians agreed to the terms of the Preliminaries of Leoben, making victory complete.

This maxim translates easily into a fourth edition (4e) D&D combat situation, and into legacy editions of the game with somewhat more difficulty.

Legacy editions of the game tended to have more heroes in a typical adventuring party, making it more difficult for monsters to defeat a divided party in separate parts. The 4e game, however, emphasizes smaller party size and clearly-defined player character (PC) roles, so it is comparably easier for monsters to split a party and defeat its members in detail.

As an example, consider a tribe of kobolds facing a party of five 4e heroes. The kobolds have a wyrmpriest, a few dragonshields, several minions and slingers with special shot. When the heroes advance, with defenders approaching shoulder-to-shoulder and strikers and controllers behind the defenders, many DMs would rush the dragonshields head-on at the line of battle, while trying to use the largely useless minions to flank and using the slingers and wyrmpriest to pepper the party with missile fire whenever possible.

Dungeon Masters employing this maxim, however, would try to divide the party. To do this, the kobolds might split into two groups themselves: the wyrmpriest, sligers and a couple of dragonshields on one side, with the rest of the force at center, spread far enough apart so that there are insufficient kobolds adjacent to each other for the heroes to benefit from ranged powers on multiple targets.

If the kobolds hang back – possibly behind cover – while the slingers  and wyrmpriest blast away at the party, the PC defenders will probably charge in. If the players leave even one square between their defenders and the other chracters in the second line, the DM can move the kobolds from the center toward that space, eventually forcing their way in and possibly surrounding PC strikers and controllers. Combining the poor armor classes of these heroes with the kobolds’ Mob Attack ability, these support characters can be brought down quickly; the kobolds can then turn their full attention toward defeating the PC defenders, who won’t last long without support.

The third and final part of this series wil be published tomorrow.

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2 comments on “Let Slip the Dogs of War, Part II

  1. [...] While D&D villains cannot view a heroic attack in metagame terms (“I’ll deploy these troops first, and get them to spend their healing surges early.”), they can certainly observe how a few fights can soften up a player character (PC) party. High-level villains will almost certainly know this, from having fended off heroic invasions multiple times in the past. An experienced or especially wise villain, then, might opt for a defense in depth of his lair, seeking to wear down the heroes’ readiness to defend. If the heroes begin to withdraw from the lair, such a villain could use a reserve force to defend, then attack as discussed in this post. [...]

  2. [...] If he or she hasn’t done so already, the Gentle Reader may consider reading Part I and Part II. [...]

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