DM Tip #5: Bad, Not Dumb
We have all seen movies or television shows where the bad guys are nothing more than cardboard cut out villains. They stand there being evil, but they don’t feel real at all, their only purpose is to wait around until the hero kills them. You can do better in your game.
Good villains have some smarts. Sure, the average kobold isn’t all that much smarter than a pair of old socks, but that half-orc that organized them and some goblins into a threat to trading caravans didn’t get where he is just by being stronger than them (though that certainly didn’t hurt his cause). He got there because he used some amount of gray matter. He will use whatever means are at his disposal if it means living another day.
I can’t count the number of times as a player I sat in awe as we looted the dead after another triumphant run through the dungeon. I mused, usually to myself, Man, it sure is a good thing that ogre chieftain didn’t use that magic axe he had in a chest. Or, Imagine how tough that fight would have been if the evil mage had used those healing potions he had stashed behind his throne. Sure, that may mean a bit less loot for the adventurers, but maybe it will teach them a little subtlety. That bad guys can’t be all that prepared for a final showdown if the characters aren’t loudly rampaging through their hideout.
This leads to another way to make villains smarter, and thus a better challenge for the players, the ambush. If there is one thing any villain would be aware of, it is that at some time there will be some do-gooders that show up and try to stop them. Why on earth wouldn’t they prepare for that? Have guards and maybe routine patrols. If the heroes have been waltzing their way through the dungeon, slaughtering all the minions with ease, a decent villain will set up some surprises for them. A handful of goblins aren’t much a threat normally, but give them some prep time, a couple of short bows and something to hide behind, and suddenly those heroes are resembling pin cushions more than people.
Now, some of you might be saying, “But I thought we weren’t competing against the players!” That is true, you aren’t. But, you also want to make the game challenging and more believable. Just smashing bottles with a bat when they are all lined up in a row gets tiresome after a while for most people. Make the players earn their rewards and it will all feel that much sweeter in the end.