Sunday, 29 April 2012

fabian strategies

This month's RPG Blog Carnival courtesy of Exchange of Realities is about avoiding combat.  Having already held forth on adventures without violence by exploration and politics, let's talk about how to win a battle without even needing to land a blow.  There will be times when the foe is too much to handle in a straight fight.  One approach is to pile on the advantages then wade in and hope for the best.  Then there's making the prospect of battle unthinkable or at least exceptionally troubling for the enemy.

The proverbial exemplar of these strategies was Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, dictator of Rome during the Second Punic War.  Facing no less a foe than Hannibal who had just dealt Rome two heavy defeats at Trebbia and Lake Trasimene, he realised head-on confrontation with a confident, skilled force (with elephant support) would lead to further defeats.  Instead he chose indirect attacks, attrition of scouting parties and forcing Hannibal to over-extend his supply lines.  Though the plan was working, it was politically  unpopular, and Fabius was replaced.  Ignoring this approach led to defeat at Cannae and in other battles. Eventually a battered and wiser Rome adopt these strategies to drive Hannibal out.

Picking the battlefield: Choosing a battleground that negates your enemy's tactical advantages is smart thinking.  Fabius chose to keep his forces in the hills, foiling Hannibal's cavalry and engaging in hit-and-run and set pieces against Hannibal's scouting parties.  Sun Tzu notes the merits of various battlefields and how they can transform a battle.  By shadowing your enemy with your own forces, you prevent them from taking advantage of open terrain merely by your presence.

Psychological warfare: Persuading your foe battle will be fatal, harmful or even protracted can be enough to persuade them not to go there.  The use of fear and intimidation sometimes cows foes into submission or rout.  The Romans forced Hannibal's surrender by a campaign of misinformation and blackmail culminating in the Roman victory at Zama.  The Mongols were past masters of this, inflating their numbers by stories to their enemies.  This survives in the meaning of the word 'horde' - an overwhelming mass of individuals in European languages but to the Mongol, it means an encampment!

Sabotage: By damaging vehicles, bridges or equipment (e.g. armour, weapons) a foe may be encouraged to leave the field.  This requires preparation and stealth although the magically-endowed can find quicker routes to this goal.  When bows and pikes are twisted like ginger roots and the battlefield a morass of mud, soldiers get selective about their fighting.  Cutting supply lines is as old as Sun Tzu but the past masters of this were the French Resistance in World War II who managed to inflict three times as much damage to locomotives as the Allied bombers between January and March 1944.

Scorched earth policy: If you are retreating, destroying any tactical advantage offered by what you give up means the foe must provision themselves without foraging or pillaging.  This tactic, though recently named is ages old, having been used against the Romans by the Gauls and Persians.  It was also used against the armies of Napoleon in Portugal and more famously, in Russia.  The impact of this approach on the civilians is horrific, it is suspected as many Russians died from the deprivation as French troops.

Avoiding combat need not be a peaceful affair and can be dramatic.  Commando-style sabotage offers plenty of opportunities for Michael Bay-esque explosions and scorched earth can lead to awful horrors and redemption by good deed.  Fearful whispers of a foe's prowess or numbers can turn the screws in a siege situation and the presence of an enemy army, waiting on unknown instructions, holds a sword above the heads of player characters.


  1. Of course, some of the ways of avoiding combat are really just warfare by different means.

    1. Absolutely. Avoiding combat is not always peaceful - sometimes, the violence is implicit, other times explicit as an example to others.

      War by other means is something we need more stuff about - imagine a campaign based around sabotage and psych ops instead of overt combat?


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