Villains can learn a lot from Murphy’s Combat Laws

Most people are familiar with the humorous concept of Murphy’s Law: if something can go wrong, it will. And while this adage may not be mathematically possible, it holds true often enough for dozens of derivative “laws” particular to various industries or situations.

Of particular use to the dungeon master (DM) in this regard is this listing of Murphy’s Law of Combat Operations, containing more than 100 humorous observations about the not-so-humorous activity of actual warfare. Although most of the sayings presented there relate exclusively to modern warfare, several could be applied to how a Dungeons & Dragons villain might deploy his troops in combat encounters.

Some examples include:

No. 15:  The enemy invariably attacks on two occasions: (1) when they’re ready, and (2) when you’re not.

Obviously, monsters defending their lair should at least attempt to maintain a constant state of readiness, and invading heroes are probably in a state of readiness when they first set foot into a villain’s territory. Fortunately for villains, a heroic party’s level of readiness can change drastically after a combat encounter or two. This is especially true for the fourth edition (4e) of the D&D game; a comparatively small party of 4e heroes, low on healing surges and daily powers, can quickly find themselves in real trouble.

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.

No. 38: Make it too tough for the enemy to get in, and you won’t be able to get out.

It is tempting for a DM to create very secure lairs for villains. After all, no DM wants the heroes to circumvent five laboriously-designed combat encounters and head straight to the villain’s inner sanctum without having spent so much as a healing surge – why not make the only way in be the front gate, and force the players to fight their way past every hazard placed between them and the villain?

Obviously, D&D villains will make their lairs as secure as time and resources allow, but intelligent or well-advised villains will have at least one escape route planned, not only for themselves, but for their troops as well. Otherwise, there is nothing to prevent the heroes from collapsing the entrance to the villain’s lair in order to secure victory.

How can troops be deployed effectively to defend a lair with multiple entrances? One answer comes from team sports: the concept of zone defense. Rather than heavily fortifying a single point, divide the villain’s forces into smaller teams, each of which is responsible for the defense of a designated area, but can rally to specified points to reinforce other teams in the event of a heroic incursion.

No. 51. Mines are equal opportunity weapons.

Although land mines don’t normally appear in D&D adventures, similar damage-inflicting “booby-traps” do, ranging from pit traps to flame jets to pendulum blades. Villains choosing to install such traps in their lairs must be mindful of the potential danger to their own troops.

One way to circumvent this concern is to deploy monsters who aren’t affected by the installed traps. For example, a villain might choose to install poison gas traps in an area of her lair defended by skeletons, zombies, constructs or other monsters that don’t breathe. In this case, the danger can only affect heroes. Unfortunately, many traps truly are equal opportunity weapons, and clever players will try to force villainous forces into their own traps. In such cases, about the only thing a villain can do is train her troops to fight around the traps, and hope that the training remains at the top of the troops’ minds if combat occurs.

There are of course more of these maxims than could be discussed here, and the Gentle Reader is invited to peruse the list and draw whatever inspiration she or he can.

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3 comments on “Villains can learn a lot from Murphy’s Combat Laws

  1. Onion says:

    Thanks for posting! These can also apply to play-by-post games, and can create a rich and realistic story. They also add tense drama, for example “93. The crucial round is a dud.” – typical eh?

    Or “18. Five second fuses always burn three seconds.”

  2. [...] The busiest day of the year was January 31st with 457 views. The most popular post that day was Villains can learn a lot from Murphy’s Combat Laws. [...]

  3. [...] balancing concept for this idea not mentioned by Heneker appears among Murphy’s Combat Laws: make it too tough for the enemy to get in, and you won’t be able to get out. Imagine a [...]

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