Making High Level PCs Fulfill Their Worst Enemy’s Plans

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0827

Here’s a quibble with high-level characters, and it runs contrary to advice I posted years ago.

My recent Musing on how to challenge high-level PCs received a lot of excellent feedback. Thanks!

A common response was to give the PCs more roleplaying challenges. “The PCs are so tough now they roll over their foes. So you should challenge them with just RP encounters.”

There’s a problem with that, and an opportunity for you right now.

The problem? Taking this approach changes the game.

All campaign long you’ve been throwing foes at the PCs and your players have been having a blast. Literally.

I mean, just look at the character sheets. What’s the focus there? What stats got buffed and why? What’s on the equipment lists? What’s on the loot lists? And what spots have all the scratches and eraser marks?

If your analysis is that combat has been dominant play till this point, then consider how unfair it might seem to your players.

Your group finally reaches high level. Their characters can do awesome things if given the chance.

But at this point, you pull the carpet out from under them.

“It’s a different campaign now guys. All those combat stats you’ve been buffing to survive my encounters? You don’t need’em. We’re ROLEplaying from here on.”

It’s not fair to your players.

It’s like playing Monopoly and suddenly the guy who’s losing says, “Hey guys, we’re changing the game. Best puns win!”

If your players are cool with the switch to basically an entirely new campaign premise (you’re running guilds now / we’re roleplaying instead of combat / you’re playing underlings instead) then great. Hopefully, you’ve at least chatted with them about it in advance and earned consensus.

But if I’ve struggled to bring my barbarian shaman all the way up from the dirt to the mountain top, and now I can’t bring his awesome, hard-won abilities to bear, I’m upset.

So that’s my quibble.

Here’s the opportunity.

Do you want more roleplay? More factions and politics? More dilemmas? Then start doing that stuff now.

You don’t need to wait until high level to run great roleplaying encounters. You don’t have to put off into the future what you can play at any level.

Chat with your players. Play the game you’ve always wanted, today.

And when high level play does come, you change the constraints and the stakes. Not the premise or basis of gameplay.

And as I learned with my Murder Hobos campaign, you should start out at first level with this in mind so you aren’t painted into a corner when high level does come.

Graphic of section divider

The Big Con

From Emmanuel (France)

Hello Johnn,

In a high-level swashbuckler campaign, the PCs were put against a horrific boss, The Cardinal of Richelieu (of course).

He was upset on them because they had destroyed a clever plan of his to have the King be King of England too.

He never tried to have the players assassinated (er, well he did, but only dozens times, and only under straw men, never directly) until I figured out he could USE the players.

Instead of having their jugulars ripped opened, he asked them to be on his service. He made great efforts so the King would agree.

The players were very afraid but couldn’t step back. Not an inch. So they became employees of their worst enemy.

And he sent them on the most dangerous missions. Spain, Italy, England, Lebanon, Egypt, New France. Even Jerusalem.

It worked well for him, in 49 or 50 games. And all but two of the PC died. Believe me, they were incredibly powerful fencers, both the characters (in levels and all) and the players (tactically speaking).

Nobody even understood that the Cardinal was their enemy.

They doubted, there were cues, but he showed so much respect for them. They felt so superior. They were fed the delusion that now he respected them for being such great characters.

In the end, the two remaining ones (De La Chapelle & de La Houlette) were revealed that in fact the Cardinal had been their arch enemy for two years. One tried to attack him instantly. The cardinal fled. The King knew and the PC was executed. The last one had to hide for the rest of his life and fled to America.

Nobody complained about me being personal or a player killer. I’ve laid proofs, they all fitted together and shown the same direction. It was just that they were so hypnotized by their own strength they could not imagine an enemy could use it for his purpose at the cost of their lives. In the end, everybody agreed they had been conned.

If your high-level PCs were proposed or ordered to work for someone that gives them great rewards, could they refuse if that guy is so genuinely helpful to them, paying ransom and raise dead and all?

If at one moment they have in their heads the idea that they are so powerful that even their enemy respects them, it is so much of a cheesecake to make their exploits be somebody else’s benefit.

It is in making high-level PCs fulfill one of their worst enemy’s plans that makes them vulnerable.

Graphic of section divider


From Mike (Hamilton, New Jersey)


It’s much easier to challenge two high-level characters than it is to challenge four. And it’s more likely that in the end the players get to keep their characters (alive). Win/win!

So to deal with high-level characters, I try to split them up because at higher levels we can take advantage of their durability and breadth-of-skill.

Furthermore, the party has the conundrum of how to split up, as they’ve likely mastered a given role in a situation.

It’s a nice way to shake things up and take them out of their element. The players are forced to expose their characters themselves instead of the DM targeting their weak points, which supports good table morale.

I often split PCs by villain preparation:

  • Attacking a secondary target with a pet or goon squad
  • Setting off a catastrophe necessitating a rescue (of NPC or even PC)
  • Splitting up to flee (or illusory double)

For example, during an investigation the party got only enough intel to narrow down to a few locations, so they had to split to cover the potential targets. In this scenario, the plan was to alert the rest of the team upon confirming enemy presence, so they were only alone for a time (usually fighting) until their allies arrived.

Hopefully you can use/share my response. As always, thanks for your continuation of your newsletters and dedication to the craft.

Graphic of section divider

Change The World


Hello, Johnn!

Dealing with powerful PCs is quite tricky. On one hand, they expect to be able to deal with any type of foe, which might turn combat unexciting (and we wouldn’t want that).

On the other hand, ramping up the difficulty and making all of their enemies exploit their weaknesses would undermine their power levels and make the players feel cheated out of their might.

In my own campaign, I provided the heroes with the ultimate enemy. The King of their land ascended to divinity and decided to unite all of the world under one banner of prosperity, good, and justice.

Not only the morality of such a conquest was questionable, the heroes also found out via divination that the ruler would ultimately lead their world to ruin, whether knowingly or inadvertently.

With the King nearly immortal it made direct confrontation or combat out of the question.

The players have spent a great many games making their way to their goal, sometimes showing off the full potential of their might, sometimes being forced to hide it.

They’ve changed destinies of entire nations, both helping and hindering the forces of the King to forge uneasy alliances and to turn some of the royal generals and lieutenants against their god.

In the end, with every bit of power spent and with every last favor pulled, they faced the divine tyrant in act of ultimate sacrifice. The people of this world may never learn what saved them, but it is something that my players will not forget.

In short, I believe you have to let players tangibly affect the world on a global scale and have them act in that capacity, exceeding that of their familiar roles. Thank you for the amazing tips!