Surprise and Subterfuge by Gary Hughes

Issue: 27

Surprise and Subterfuge
by Gary Hughes

No, not the latest in roleplaying games, but yet more thoughts on how to represent the element of surprise. The ideas are not new ones, but have been out of widespread circulation for a couple of years.

Many rules incorporate the element of surprise on an abstract basis, often as a sub-system of morale ("... roll 75% and the unit is surprised"), which covers the reactions of units, but there seem few easy ways of surprising the players themselves. This gives the players a distinctly unfair advantage; they know they are going to be ambushes, they can see all the terrain on the table, they know what troops they command and how best to use them, what could possibly surprise them?

Well, the following suggestions may present some possibilities for you to consider.

In many cases, the element of surprise will apply to only one side, such as ambush situations. However, most wargame ambushes are blatantly obvious, so is there any way that the defending players can be taken by surprise?

Visualise, if you can, a small convoy, a mere half dozen wagons, laden with valuable supplies, winding its way through the foothills of a range of mountains. The weather is clear and sunny, but there is a slight chill in the air, the season being late autumn. The convoy is to be met on the frontier at midday and will receive a new escort there. At present it is only lightly guarded, there are two armed men per wagon, but it is in safe territory, and the journey is a regular one, so there seems little cause for concern. As the convoy descends the hills and moves onto level road, the frontier gradually comes into sight. The frontier is a broad, swift-running river, spanned by a sturdy bridge and the meadows alongside it are flat and lush. The valley used to be farmed at one time, although the only indication now is the long-abandoned remains of a farmstead at the far side of the river. The farm is two or three hundred yards from the bridge and nestles invitingly into the picturesque meadow. The convoy reaches the bridge slightly ahead of schedule and some of the escort dismount to wait. It is only a few minutes before the new escort appear from the hills at the far side of the valley and travel down to the bridge.

We have now reached the point at which the scenery can be laid out for the player(s) charged with defending the convoy to see. Orders for the escort's next turn (or two) should be written before the figures are seen. Well, something is bound to happen, but so far you can only guess what it may be.

Time to get out the figures and give the defenders a surprise: this is the roaring twenties, the wagons are of the motor variety, and could probably be better described as lorries, the frontier is the border between the USA and Canada, and the convoy/'s escort are whisky runners, they have been met by more gangsters in a car from Chicago, and are about to be "raided". A unit of light cavalry is galloping down from the foothills behind the convoy, men of the Canadian Mounted Police. At an appropriate moment another four men will emerge from behind the farmhouse. Weapons vary - revolvers, shotguns, rifles and sub machine guns may be used by either side. The whole scene comes from the film "The Untouchables".

Although this in itself makes for quite an interesting/unusual scenario for a small skirmish, the main point about the exercise is the surprise which can be gained from a little subterfuge. Careful presentation of the scenario can act as a decoy without passing any false information - if you want to be mean, give some false information in with it. Either way, it will allow some surprise (or perhaps shock) to enter the game naturally instead of through the game's mechanics.

There are many other entertaining ruses which spring readily to mind: a column of regular infantry, amongst the finest in the world, well disciplined, well equipped, the cornerstone of the imperial might, with native auxiliaries and a few light cavalry scouting ahead crosses the border, in this case a wide river, on a punitive mission in search of a barbarian foe. The journey is slowed by difficult terrain, and the enemy elusively retreat before them. Until...

Given a list of units (listed as HI, MI, LI, etc) and a rough sketch of the table, the imperial command must write orders for deployment and general orders for each unit. Present this description to a group of ancient players, and you have the ideal opportunity to refight Isandlwhana or Rorke's Drift with the defenders being momentarily surprised. Equally, colonial players may be surprised to find themselves leading Roman legions through the Teutoberg forest.

A scenario describing "regular" troops fighting against swarms of irregular horse archers could easily lead to a variety of protagonists, Greeks vs Scythians, Byzantines vs Huns, Chinese vs Mongols, Napoleonic French vs Cossacks, or the US Army vs Sioux Indians. Waterborne raiding parties drawing their vessels onto a moonlit beach could be Viking raiders, Conquistadors putting ashore for supplies, Arab slavers, eighteenth century smugglers, commandos raiding France, or US Marines landing on Pacific atolls. A small isolated frontier outpost looking out across bleak snow swept hills, might feature as the opening for an action on Hadrian's Wall, Canada, the Khyber Pass or Finland in 1940.

The same applies equally well to sea games, "You command one of the largest fleets ever assembled, and are to proceed from your assembly point to meet with a carefully selected invasion army and escort them to..." The commander could have to cope with Greek galleys sailing to Troy, the Spanish Armada, the French/Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, or even the D-Day landings, but the real surprise would face his opponent. Yes, he expects invasion, but does he expect the right one?

If it takes the players a couple of turns to respond to the situation, then the ruse will have worked admirably - they will be faced with the same degree of surprise and associated delays in giving orders to troops that their counterparts may have faced. If the normal rules for surprise are left in force as well, this will further complicate matters and really make life difficult.

All depends upon careful wording of the scenario and availability of figures, but if organised as a club event there should be plenty of scope for large scale actions as well as small skirmishes.

But what use is this for Fantasy/SF actions? Well, just because we may not be historical gamers does not mean we cannot use historical scenarios, and as there are plenty of books, and more importantly films, giving full details of historical scenarios (forces, commanders, scenery & maps) it may make like a little easier for whoever is setting up the game, but it may also add a little to the fun. As suitable suggestions for Full Thrust players, how about taking the raids on St Nazaire or Zeebrugge as inspiration? or even the Spanish Armada...