Smarter Villains To Challenge Tough Characters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0984

We wax a bit philosophical today. Last email I shared a session account of my Murder Hobos campaign. A few RPT GMs asked about the quasit incident. An invisible creature snuck out of a room to report to the stage boss that the PCs had arrived.

One GM asked if this was fair. Another GM asked why I did this instead of just hand waving the villain knowing. One reader asked if I was upset my big demon encounter was so easily foiled.

And one GM asked:

How would the PCs know the villain is spying on them, scrying them, or having an invisible spy on their scent?

If the PCs can’t know it, how/why would they find out?

Do you as the DM tell them they are being scried on? Or do they find out when the villain arrives and tells them he was watching the whole time?

The believability of it doesn’t make sense, seeing as the DM is omniscient anyways.

These are all great questions. Thank you to everyone who responded.

To me it comes down to fair play and my approach to challenging high level or tough PCs. Here’s why.

We’re playing D&D 5E. The party is 10th level. Every character has a bucket of cool powers and abilities from class features and magic items.

They’ve got the campaign-shifting spells now, like flying, curing diseases and curses, tracking foes and objects down from great distances, mass damage, and lots of information gathering.

They’ve also got numerous resistances and immunities.

At this power level, the foes of yesterday cannot compete. They’ve got to get smarter and more resourceful to not only survive but to achieve their evil goals.

One great way to be ready for the Murder Hobos is to gather better intel on them. A foe who wastes a fireball on their turn against PCs immune to fire just stepped closer to their own demise. A villain who sends minions to whack uselessly against a magical barrier just wasted a precious resource.

And when the Hobos enter your neighbourhood, the sand timer starts counting down the grains of your life. It’s a cruel world in Hoboland, but that’s the way of it.

So villains need to learn the Hobos’ strengths and, especially, their weak spots.

Now, I could hand wave all this stuff. As GM with huge narrative powers — and responsibilities — I could just rewrite the story and have villains fully informed and ready with wicked defences and tactics to beat down the PCs.

That’s not my style though, because it’s not fair. At least, it’s not fair for my players and their approach to the game.

My players like to think the game and make decisions based on what their characters have learned. In my style of story arc + sandbox campaigns, it’s important to plan and anticipate because actions have consequences.

The world has a logic, and the campaign has consistency, which my players rely upon to make decisions with.

There’s no point in making decisions when the GM arbitrarily changes the internal logic of the game to suit their purposes. If I changed something on a whim that broke game logic “to make it more challenging” then what’s the point from a player’s perspective in making thoughtful decisions?

If every action means the GM will arbitrarily counter so everything is always full of friction, then why bother? Play smart, dumb, aggressive, or quiet  — it doesn’t matter because the GM’s going to do what they’re going to do anyway.

This is also why I roll my dice in the open (except for rolls where players would not know the results, such as searching or bluffing).

Hopefully this doesn’t get misinterpreted. As GMs should tune the story for better gameplay at any time.

I’m saying I try not to break world logic and campaign logic to honour my players expectations that they can outsmart villains and gain advantages through better decisions.

For example, the villain placed a quasit spy near where the PCs would enter the villain’s demesne.

My players are smart. They often cast various detection spells when entering an area. Their PCs also have high passive perception scores. I positioned the quasit near the door, invisible, not moving. One detect magic though, and the gig was up.

So I needed a distraction. I used two.

First, I had to get the players out of their standard operating procedures of detections and perceptions. So there was an elf lady being attacked by demons. I hoped the party would focus on that.

Second, I called for initiative right away. That gets players focused on threats and individual options instead of clever teamwork. “Why waste a detect magic on my turn when there are dangers right in front of me?”

Initiative promotes that kind of individual character thinking. As a team, the players might have organized themselves, retreated, scouted, or planned. “How do we rescue the elf? Who’s watching the exits for second and third waves? Are there any traps between us and our foes”

Instead, initiative generally divides and conquers.

Anyway, it worked this time, but probably won’t next time. My players are smarter than me and it’s six against one. We’ll see.

The quasit told the goristro what it saw and the over-confident demon boss made his decisions accordingly.

I could have had the goristro know all the PCs’ abilities. I could have used my character sheet knowledge and played the encounter with him differently. But the goristro did not have this info.

The polymorph took me by surprise. And because of that, it was my favourite moment of the session. Future villains will need learn this tactic and have a counter for it.

However, in my world and campaign logic, this knowledge will not be instantly bequeathed to every NPC and monster. That’s not my definition of fair.

I want to play out this polymorph thing and see how the world responds. It kinda gives magickers a bad name, right? As word of mouth spreads, how will society and powers react?

Maybe faction leaders hire wizards with counterspells ready. Maybe NPCs start questing for magical defense items. Perhaps the church calls for an inquisition against all wizards of a certain power level.

Should be interesting!

Meantime, a couple of final thoughts on this.

In answer to how PCs could have known they were being spied upon, I had the quasit make a stealth check. While invisible, it still had to open a door and sneak through. The stealth check was under a couple of PCs’ passive perceptions, so I let them know they noticed a door opening and closing of its own volition.

If your players are new or less tactical than mine, and you want to play things this way, you can have spying and intelligence gathering become known to the PCs in other ways.

For example, you could have the spy get spotted. The quasit could have started visible and then turned invisible to make his escape.

You could also have players find documents about themselves as treasure. Sketches, observations, reports. This would alert them that they’re being spied upon and make them paranoid and watchful.

You could have rumours spread that the villain seems to always be one step ahead of the law. Rumours that give clues the villain has a crystal ball or can read minds. Clues that help players possibly identify and catch the villain.

In regards to my big demon being beat so easily, I was cool with that. Surprised at first, but then pretty excited. He was outwitted and then failed his saving throw. I could have fudged the roll and made him save. But to what end? How is that fun?

Keeping the demon intact would have extended the combat, knocked the PCs down a few hit points, and possibly even put a PC or two down. But we’ve gamed that dozens of times. This result was new and cool. Memorable. And it rewarded smart gameplay.

Why introduce friction (e.g. forcing the demon to make his save or directing the story to preserve my villain) when the game was already going in a great direction?

  • My two main goals with gameplay are for everyone to have fun, and to open up more gameplay as part of the Infinite Game.

In the infinite game the idea is to not end a game like Risk or Monopoly, but to keep the RPG campaign going with ever-more interesting facets and depth.

For Mr Goristro, for example, I now have several post-polymorph options available to me:

  • The goristro’s boss (Orcus) now knows where the Hobos are and can send new lieutenants after the party.
  • A demon killed in the world goes back to the Abyss. He could round up some allies there and they’ll go after the PCs.
  • The demon isn’t dead yet. He’s a rabbit. As soon as the rabbit takes damage or the spell ends the demon comes back in full form. What now, Hobos?
  • If others learn of this mighty deed they’ll want the PCs’ help or to manipulate the PCs to fight their enemy in this way.

This is the game within the game I find so fascinating.

Constraints imposed by campaign and world logic create opportunities for new gameplay if you let them.

That’s my approach. I’d love to hear yours. Drop a comment on the RPT FB page or shoot me an email. Have a great weekend!