One of the arguments that gets weighed against the Dynasty Warriors series is that it’s premise is silly. These high ranking generals would not be out in the center fighting off hoards of enemies so effortlessly. In fact, in our modern age, it seems strange to think any of them would be anywhere near the battlefield.
While it is certainly romanticized for gameplay purposes, the idea that Later Han era generals would not be in the thick of the battle is a misconception. Later Han era politics were tied to military rank, so an officer or general who was not skilled in martial combat was practically unheard of in this period. This is evidenced most obviously by Liu Bei and his sworn brothers. The three joined the fight against the Yellow Turbans and later against Dong Zhuo forces with as a volunteer and guest force respectively. Liu Bei and company only rose through the ranks due to their prowess on the battlefield and Liu Bei’s family distant family ties to the Han emperor.
Therefore, Dynasty Warriors isn’t being as ridiculous as maybe if first seems. So what other gameplay elements are actually based in Later Han / Three Kingdoms era military tactics. One obvious one comes from Dynasty Warriors 4 — the duel system.
Dueling in the Later Han Era
Duels was one of the ways many of these generals would use their trained skills on the battlefield in this era. Generally, when two armies met on the battlefield, an enemy officer would challenge the another to single combat. This was typically mounted combat with spears or swords. The two competitors would ride toward each other, exchange a few attacks, before riding back out, similar to jousting in someways. It was a way to test each other’s skill as well as their mettle. The idea was to boost the army’s morale by showing their commander’s strength in battle. Afterward, the armies would either fully engage, or stand off if no winner was clearly determined.
There was one problem with duels, which became more and more apparent as the Han period began to wane, and it also explains why it fails as a game mechanic as well. If your officer died in a duel one of two things would happen — a) the army becomes so frightened by the officer’s death that other officers cannot hold against the emboldened forces, leading to a route, or b) the army is left without a leader at all, resulting in confusion and an inevitable route. The duel, while honorable, becomes a high stakes gamble depending on who you’re up against.
This is how Lu Bu became such a well known warrior in this age, as he could not be bested in single combat, in so much as dueling him was practically suicide. It took Liu Bei, Zhang Fei, and Guan Yu fighting him together to put him at a disadvantage. Lu Bu’s rise in rank and stature had everything to do with his strength and skill, and little to do with tactics or leadership, which will was evidenced as the chaos continued and as dueling became less and less the norm.
While dueling is heavily prevalent in the early pages of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, it slowly begins to subside as the new era wears on. This is a result of three major changes, which would effect Chinese military tactics and appointments until the formation of the Qin dynasty.
1) Battle at Guan Du
The battle at Guan Du is the first major battle where strategy and tactics wins out over a significantly larger force. Granted Guan Yu’s prowess is a significant boon in this battle for Cao Cao. However, he would likely still have been overrun by Yuan Shao’s forces had Guo Jia’s strategy to destroy Yuan Shao’s supply lines failed. Guo Jia’s strategies continued to prove useful as Cao Cao continued to decimate the Yuan family’s territory, despite their numerical advantage.
2) Execution of Lu Bu
This may be the most obvious of the three to be sure. After Lu Bu captured Xia Pi from Zhang Fei while Liu Bei was away, Liu Bei had to beseech Cao Cao to take the city back. While Lu Bu is a fearsome warrior, he was simply overwhelmed by Cao Cao’s army’s size and tactics.
Once captured, however, Cao Cao chose to end Lu Bu’s life rather than induct him into his own force. There are multiple reasons for this, Lu Bu’s penchant for treachery amoung them. However, at this point in time, being a strong and skilled warrior was starting to become less desirable. Intelligence and fealty were deemed far more admirable qualities. This is evidenced by Zhang Liao’s induction to Cao Cao’s force, despite his willingness to be executed alongside his master.
3) Liu Bei recruits Zhuge Liang
Zhuge Liang, despite his presence in Dynasty Warriors, was not a military hero or a renown warrior at the time Liu Bei came to him. He was a scholar and man of learning. He lived on his family farm, and was prone to wander off on his own for days — one of the reasons Liu Bei had to visit him multiple times. At a time when Liu Bei’s force was little more than an itch Cao Cao would eventually have to scratch, Liu Bei spent a great amount of time trying to recruit a hermit.
Nevertheless, this proved to be the single greatest decision Liu Bei ever made. Zhuge Liang’s guidance gave Liu Bei the edge he would need to face the far more powerful forces he was faced with in the Three Kingdom’s era. Zhuge Liang’s position was critical despite never specifically engaging in battle himself. His tactics would send Cao Cao’s large fleet fleeing from Chi Bi, snag the Jing province from under Zhou Yu’s nose, and bewilder Lu Xun’s forces while in hot pursuit of Liu Bei following defeat at Yi Ling.
The True Purpose of Duels
Dueling wasn’t completely done away with, but in the Three Kingdoms era proper, battles won solely from a series of duels was uncommon. Dueling was intended to be an honorable way to engage in one-on-one combat in order to gauge one’s strength in battle. It was used appropriately at Tian Shui, as Jiang Wei proved to be a match for Zhao Yun’s spear. He would prove later to be comparable to Zhuge Liang in terms of strategy as well.
In a game like Dynasty Warriors 4, however, the dueling system has no particular place. The player is not testing his skill by choosing to duel, as the player will already know if they are of high enough level or skill to take on the challenge or not. Going into a duel a player cannot win does not effect his honor, and allied morale plays little role when one can wade through enemy forces on one’s own regardless.
I applaud Koei’s attempts to bring elements of the story and atmosphere of the era into the games, but they have to make sense from a design standpoint too.
I do not own Dynasty Warriors or any Koei properties mentioned here. I am also not an expert on Chinese history or military strategy. All research for this topic was taken from my own experience reading the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and related material.