Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column

Clausewitz On Gaming – Lines of Retreat


Clausewitz “On Gaming”
Lines of Retreat

As long as we’ve spent some time talking about moral forces and the frustrations of retreating monsters, we should look at our own lines of retreat as well. I know that personally, I have a tendency in MMOs to push the envelope and hunt in areas where I’m not particularly safe. I often tackle monsters that quickly turn out to be beyond my reach. So when I first read Clausewitz’s thoughts on retreat, these experiences leapt immediately to mind. He states that “…the rear being endangered makes defeat more probable, and, at the same time, more decisive. From this arises, in the whole conduct of the War, and especially in great and small combats, a perfect instinct to secure our own line of retreat and to seize that of the enemy.” And “The risk of having to fight on two sides, and the still more dangerous position of having no line of retreat left open, paralyse the movements and the power of resistance.” (Book IV, Chapter IV, page 313). So, as far as retreating is concerned, there are two topics at issue. First, the danger of being attacked from behind and, second, the ability to withdraw from a threatening position.

Interestingly, the first consideration appears to have diminishing impact in gaming. I have vivid memories of the danger of an enemy attack me from behind in Asheron’s Call. I spent a lot of time soloing the Olthoi Horde Nests there. I found the bugs to be good quarry and a fun way to pass a bit of time. But they also kept me alert. As anyone who has played the game will tell you, an Olthoi behind you (which happens quite often on respawns) leads to your avatar shrieking in pain and, if you can’t fix the situation, a quick death. Battle in the nests quickly became a campaign of using corners and bottlenecks to keep all the olthoi in front of you where your shield kept you much safer. Ironically, backing into a corner to survive is the opposite of what Clausewitz preaches, yet, I think both have validity. In an MMO, conservation of forces isn’t nearly as pressing a matter as in wars of the real world. Then again, once you are pinned into a corner by a dozen screeching olthoi, there can be only two outcomes: you defeat all of them, or they kill you. Escaping from the corner once you are set is a very rare and difficult task.

On the other hand, this phenomena of the dangerous back attack seems to have become largely a thing of the past (with the exception of the ever popular rogue backstab). To test out this premise, I engaged an enemy in WoW and then promptly turned around. The rate of damage I sustained was unaffected by the direction I faced. My experience in LOTRO was the same. I can’t help but suspect that this is a by-product of the shift away from location based protection like AC had to just a flat armor level. It is a much simpler system and as such has its clear shortcomings. While I recall the frustrations of the hodgepodge armor of AC, there should be limits to this generality. Shields should only provide protection to front facing attacks and back attacks should be much more severe. It doesn’t take a rogue to know that bashing someone in the back of the head is much easier and more potentially damaging than the front.

The second and larger part of the Clausewitz quotations above address the more specific idea of lines of retreat. This already has some natural applications in MMOs. Recently in WoW, I undertook a grand quest to enter a naga cave to fetch some mushrooms critical to the survival of all humanity (or something like that). Unfortunately, the naga had the tendency to run whenever their health dropped below a certain point and rally reinforcements (see article from May 26). Furthermore, they were also on a quick respawn. I was very aware of my line of retreat out of the cave and, unfortunately, had to use it far too many times, often escaping by the skin of my teeth. Anyone who has done much WoW dungeon delving no doubt has similar experiences. WoW applies this threat much more strongly than LOTRO does, because their spawns tend to be denser with faster respawn rates that make breaking safely out of immediate combat much more difficult.

So there is no doubt that player lines of retreat are a very real consideration. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply to monsters. This may appear natural. After all, we enter monster lairs, not the other way around. But the concept of lines of retreat applies even on the smaller scale of individual combat. If I am battling a naga at the mouth of its cave and I’ve maneuvered such that my back is to the cave, then I’ve sacrificed my own line of retreat while cutting the naga’s as well. If he needs help, he will have to run past me. Likewise, if I need to break off, I’ll have to run past him. Unfortunately, applying this concept is not a simple thing. Perhaps the easiest methodology would be to give larger parting shot penalties when one of the combatants retreats. Another technique would be to make it less likely for the monster to break at all. If his line of retreat is cut, it would be more prone to chose to die in place.

In current MMOs, concepts like lines of retreat are built into any cave, fortress, or dungeon combat, especially in situations where a large number of monster spawns make safe havens few and far between. However, there seem to be few, if any, penalties when one is attacked from behind. Nor do monsters suffer any penalties if their lines of retreat are cut. “Even the smallest troop will not throw itself upon its enemy without thinking of its line of retreat, and, in most cases, it will have an eye upon that of the enemy also.” (Bk IV, Ch IV, p. 313).

Citation for all quotes: Clausewitz, Carl. On War. London: Penguin Group, 1968.

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