Tag Archives: strategy

The Strategic Value of Insight

How much benefit does someone fighting get if advised by someone who knows their opponents tactics or weak spots? As in could that bit of info really mean the difference betweeen win/loss or life/death? Would it help when battling an opponent much stronger than themself? Not all encounters are hostile but friendly sparring as well.

That depends on the information they’re given. The way these kinds of insights are used in fiction can be a bit artificial, but, potentially, there is some real value here.

A lot of the time, this is going to be a kind of deus ex machina plot device. Instead of it being an item (or, a literal god), it’s someone wandering in and saying, “oh, yeah, this is how you beat the villain.” This tends to get less flak than other forms of deus ex machina; probably because the protagonist, at least in theory, retains more agency, and the premise is broadly believable. However, when you start digging into it, problems become apparent.

You identified two different forms these insights can take; vulnerabilities and strategies.

In the real world, exploiting vulnerabilities is effective. Understanding someone’s weaknesses can confer enormous advantages. This can be as simple as knowing about an old wound, meaning a specific strike will have have significantly more effect than you would expect, it can be a design defect in a vehicle or weapon, it can be detailed psychological information that you can use to shut them down and get them to give up.

These insights can be given by another character, or they can be collected by the protagonists directly.

For an example: The Death Star Plans in Star Wars, are an inanimate MacGuffin, but that’s just obfuscating that they’re effectively an insight saying, “shoot here to blow up the incomprehensibly massive superweapon.”

These kinds of insights can also be time sensitive. Another example, from the same source, would be that in Return of the Jedi, the timing of the attack on the Second Death Star coincides with Emperor Palpatine’s tour of the station. And, of course, as that example shows, these kinds of time-sensitive vulnerabilities are excellent bait for traps.

If the villain was injured during a recent battle, and is currently in a vulnerable state, of course your protagonists would jump at the opportunity to strike.

In more sophisticated situations, the villains actions may have alienated former allies who approach your protagonists with an offer to work together to unseat them, only for that entire scheme to be a trap.

Vulnerabilities can go either way. When played straight, they can be a very kludgly, “shoot here to win,” solution. When they’re subverted, it can be an effective plot twist (though, it will be on you to sell the deception, and the machinations that went into it.) At the same time, there’s a very realistic element of having someone running surveillance on an enemy and then reporting to your characters.

So, reconnaissance reports are in the same category of, “reporting a vulnerability.” The way these scenes are put together is a little different. Usually, they’ll get the report, and then plan accordingly. This will often include the protagonists having to identify the vulnerability for themselves. From a character agency perspective, this is a huge difference, and it will further sell the idea that your characters found the solution for themselves. (Note that Star Wars isn’t an example of this, as the Death Star Plans are handed over, and an unnamed character, played by an uncredited extra, who identifies the design flaw, off screen.)

Understanding an individual’s preferred strategies can be useful, and in some situations it can allow you to develop an effective counter-strategy. However, in a lot of fiction, this is exaggerated, almost to parody.

Talking about a character’s preferred strategies can be a useful opportunity for worldbuilding. Especially if their strategies intersect with novel elements of the setting.

However, it’s important to be careful with this approach. Two things to keep in mind, first that the strategy must novel or unusual in some way, and second that if it has a transparent weakness, it only raises questions about how the character got to the point of being a legitimate participant in the current events.

On the former, I’ve literally seen cases where a villain’s, “secret,” strategy was to hold some units in reserve. I wish I was making this up. To some extent, my inability to remember exactly where I’ve run across this, gives me some hope that my memory is messing with me, and no one actually blundered into this. The problem with this strategy is that, ever semi-competent strategist will keep some forces in reserve to reinforce struggling troops.

Actually a specific example I can name from memory is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Remembering that it’s been 25 years since I read the novel, and it is intended for a YA audience, most of Ender’s “strategic genius” is understanding basic concepts like pickets. (It is a good example of worldbuilding through strategic analysis, but, the actual strategies employed by Ender are remedial at best. Also, as it turned out, Card is an ambulatory dumpster fire masquerading as a person.)

Unfortunately, if you want to avoid this, you’re going to need to do some research on your own. There’s an entire scholarly field (military history) that is deeply interested in analyzing strategies and tactics employed on the battlefield. This is a mandatory field of study for military officers, and if you’re wanting to stage out large battles, this is something you’re going to need to look into.

My best recommendations for the use of strategy remains the series Babylon 5. This has the distinct disadvantage of being a serialized TV series, and you’re looking at over 80 hours of material, with the vast majority of that being unrelated to combat and warfare. However, it’s one of the exceptionally rare cases where I can point to a fictional character who lives up to their reputation as a strategic genius. (And, no, linking to the second season was not an error.)

Another example of a strategic genius would be Grand Admiral Thrawn from Star Wars. This also comes with a caveat, the original version of the character has some very interesting (and plausible) rationale behind his methods. As other writers worked with Thrawn, his strategic insight degenerated into a superpower. There is a valuable lesson here though, writing this kind of a character is not easy, and will require a lot of work from you.

The old aphorism, “write what you know,” is in full effect. If you want to write a strategist, you’ll need to learn how to be one as well. You don’t need to be as good as they are, but you will need to learn how to become one.

-Starke

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P.S. As a quick aside, there is a reason I’m so focused on Sci-fi at the moment, there’s a much larger post in the works, and I’ve been pushing pieces of it live on the Patreon Discord over the last few days. I haven’t intentionally gone silent. So, keep an eye out for that.

I’m not quite sure if you can help me because my question is not about hand-to-hand-combat but warfare. Do you know how a medieval-like army would act if their enemies are hiding in the mountains? They Do not have to win immeadiately but they should be able to fight them.

In very
basic terms, your characters have two choices: Wait them out, or go in and try
to hunt them down. Which option is better will depend on a lot of factors.

Moving
military forces into mountains is rarely an ideal option. Even under the best
of circumstances, you’re looking at difficult to navigate environment that can
turn lethal with little to no warning. In some cases, it can actually prove
impossible to move forces through because the geography doesn’t allow passage.
This also means sending out scouts and trying to find navigable paths, which slows
progress.

Getting
above the snow line means dealing with harsh conditions that your forces may
not be prepared to deal with, and depending on the mountains in question, that may
be necessary for traversal.

If you’re
dealing with forces native to the mountains, then sending forces in will be
very costly. They’ll be in familiar terrain, have a better grasp of where the
natural chokepoints are, have a mobility advantage (because they’ll actually
know where the possible paths and trails are), and have time to cover their
retreat with traps.

If your
forces are familiar with the mountains, and the opposing forces aren’t, then
you can herd them into dead ends, and move through the territory far faster. If
there are friendly mountain settlements, they may help your forces know where
their foes have gone.

Of
course, the inverse makes this harder. If there are mountain settlements who
are hostile (openly or otherwise) to your forces, that will (usually) make life
easier for the foes they’re pursuing. This settlements could function as an ad
hoc picket, or they could actively support the attackers, while harassing or
attacking your forces.

Combat
in mountainous terrain is a mess, and heavily favors the side that can best
exploit the terrain. In a situation where one side knows the environment
better, they’ll be in a far better position to operationalize that. If they’re
being pursued, they will know when, and were, to stop and fight, for maximum
effect. Let’s take this out of abstraction, for a moment, and talk about
exactly how this works.

If you
have a sheer cliff face, and the only way up are via goat trails or some canyons
that cut into the side. This will create a natural choke point. You can
position a (comparatively) small contingent of melee forces to block the path,
and then let your archers open up on the assaulting force.

If you
have uneven terrain, you may be able to post archers overlooking any other
potential combat site, while the enemy cannot
get to them without trekking out of their way for miles.

Narrow
mountain passes allow you to (nearly) negate the difference in force size. Mass
melee combat is not decided by the side who brings more forces to the battle,
it’s decided by the side who can put more soldiers directly into combat. In
narrow spaces, where only three or four soldiers can stand abreast, the rest of
their forces are basically irrelevant. Put another way, you can’t overwhelm
your foes with sheer numbers, if those numbers are restricted to picking their
nose, and waiting in line for their turn to fight.

The
other option is to wait them out. Stay in the lowlands, where your forces can operate
effectively. Fortify potential targets for their future raids (such as towns
and villages). You will probably, also, want to send scouts into the mountains
to track their movement, and gather information about the size and location of
their forces. As they become more familiar with the terrain, it’s also possible
they could engage in some limited sabotage and harassment.

Depending
on how serious the threat is, and the available resources, it may also be time
to fortify the region. In the lowlands, that means constructing watchtowers. In
the mountains that may mean constructing fortifications along paths that your
scouts identify, to protect your forces from potential choke points (like the
ones I mentioned above).

At this
point, you have two approaches. First is to simply maintain the early warning
network, gradually reinforce the defenses, and wipe them out when (or if) they
come. The second is to carefully map out the region, identify their means of
getting around, and gradually boxing them in, either with standing forces, with
fortifications, or with some combination of both.

I
suppose another option would be to charge in and get wiped out. That’s,
probably, not quite the kind of story you were going for, but it is an entirely
plausible outcome, particularly if the lowland forces commander is overconfident
or too aggressive. So, that option is on the table. If the fighting has to
happen immediately, then that is the most likely outcome.

-Starke

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