The Gamemaster Is Satan

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The Gamemaster Is Satan

It's not easy being God, but it's even harder being the other guy.

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Thanks man. I'm really trying to get into DnD and I think seeing it from the DM's mindset is a great way to prepare yourself for playing even if you're not going to be DMing.

Also, hats off to all the DMs for pulling so many duties at once and making it fun for the rest of us.

I find it so ironic, using biblical parable to explain how to DM. Suck on that, Crazy Christian Right!*

*(I am a christian and am therefore allowed to mock the Crazy Chrisitian Right. Suck it bleeding heart liberals!**)

**(I am also a bleeding heart liberal most of the time, and therefore allowed to mock bleeding heart liberals. Suck it jerks on the internet!***)

***(I am a jerk on the internet and therefore allowed to mock other jerks on the internet. Suck it trolls!****)

****(No one gives a shit about trolls. I can say whatever the hell I want)

This is a great series and is a brilliant resource for new DMs. I'll be referring my mate here I think, he's just decided to write a campaign in D&D.

Personally I favour the explanation that the villain is unaware of the party and hint that they really wouldn't want him to be, it forces them to consider their actions in terms of whether they can risk notice.

Well at the moment my players are hunting the current big bad and the reason she hasn't come after them is three-fold.

1. She doesn't actually know if she would win or not and so decides that attacking outright is a mistake.

2. She has no idea where they are exactly and so unless she wants to go charging around looking for some people who she only has a vuage idea of what they look like she hasn't much of a choice.

3. She is currently in the middle of preparing a ritual to summon a bunch of powerful Daemons and failing to prepare properly will have the Chaos gods tear the soul from her body and feast on it for eternety which is an idea she is not to fond of.

Should the players foil her plans she will be coming after the players in order to enact revenge. In Dark Heresy the situation is slightly different though, as far as she is concerned the main enemy is the groups Inquisitor and they are simply his minions sent to stop her. She has plans to deal with the Inquisitor (that have worked rather well) who is an individual that she respects but she couldn't anticipate the players because she had not encountered them before.

Her plan after she learnt of their envolvement has been to carry on and hope she can finish before they arrive and if they do get there to foil her then she is there waiting for them to defend her plan instead of out searching for the faceless protagonests. She set up some counterplans that she hoped would eliminate or slow the group down but she did not underestimate them.

I do think that saying that the Villian is otherwise engaged is a bad reason for them not quashing the players is wrong. If someone is busy completeing their evil scheme it may be impratical for them to run out just to fight the players.

It actually presents them as rather idiotic that they would drop everything they are doing to go and fight the people who are trying to kill them. Should they fail they lose everything whereas if they continue on their plan, as far as they are aware they might suceed and never encounter these pesky PC's who are trying to thwart them.

The assumption is that the advesery is someone who could deal with the players at any time but chooses not to rather than someone who may be able to beat the players but either doesn't know if they could win or doesn't know where the players are. Ok in D&D that may the case but in most other games the antagonast will not be able to automatically locate, teleport to and destroy the player.

In more realistic settings locating the players could be a massive challenge in itself and getting to them even more difficult. Sometimes these articals can be annoyingly D&D centric, assuming that things that are true in D&D are true for all RPG's.

Other than that I actually agree with most of this article, the GM should nominally seek to challenge the players but hope they suceed, I say nominally because sometimes you just need to kill a character off for the good of the group and not make it obvious.

Kaihlik

Kaihlik:
It actually presents them as rather idiotic that they would drop everything they are doing to go and fight the people who are trying to kill them. Should they fail they lose everything whereas if they continue on their plan, as far as they are aware they might suceed and never encounter these pesky PC's who are trying to thwart them.

The example I used was specific to Sauron, as his very existence depended on finding the Ring. Nothing was more important. So in that case, an 18th level Wizard would be stupid to not find and destroy the ring-bearer... But in general, there is a tipping point where the villain is aware of the party and should be seeking their destruction.

Consider Empire Strikes Back: Luke Skywalker is much lower level than Darth Vader, but Vader is still actively hunting him. An 18th level Magic-User would have found, captured, and turned Luke with considerably less effort than Vader had to use. Vader is clearly less powerful than an 18th level magic-user.

My point is not that Darth Vader and Sauron were wimps or should have behaved differently, only to take a serious look at the powers you give your villains.

Sometimes these articals can be annoyingly D&D centric, assuming that things that are true in D&D are true for all RPG's.

Fair enough! It's just the most mainstream RPG. I did try to be clear that it was a problem specific to D&D and games like D&D, such as Mutants & Mastermind. In general, I think RPGs do encourage us to create characters who are more powerful than their fictional counterparts.

Archon:

Fair enough! It's just the most mainstream RPG. I did try to be clear that it was a problem specific to D&D and games like D&D, such as Mutants & Mastermind. In general, I think RPGs do encourage us to create characters who are more powerful than their fictional counterparts.

Go Mutants and Masterminds!

My Girlfriend's villain Kogan was an excellent example of this. His stats were roughly third or fourth level but he could not be permanently killed. His deity "Fate" would invariably being him back to life mere hours after his death, and sometimes after only minutes.

He stayed roughly where he was, level-wise, but gained in political power and equipment with each encounter. And defeating him was never a permanent solution. It worked great.

Actually, I find there is another possibility to make the adversarry "God" while keeping him from killing everyone right off the bat. I recently watched the animated movie Summer Wars, and in it, the Villain, long story short, has the capacity to bring the world to its knees, destroying civilisation. But he doesn't. He uses his capacity to really screw with society to play games; to him, it is a game, played with lives. Keeps him powerful, but with a semi-solid motivation for not just killing everyone.

I find that authority and political power are not always mounted on the head of a villain with the most capabilities, and really 3rd edition as a whole had issues with making the entire universe a meritocracy giving those individuals in charge the most mechanical power rules wise.

I have run games where in the monster in charge is incredibly inept and not powerful, he has skills and is of use to the group he heads, but really he is "in charge" because he is the best public speaker, not because he can teleport.

Also, expensive high level spells are not always the best way to spend money when it comes to killing the group of PC's. I am not a micromanaging super villain, I delegate to my most trustworthy lieutenant and he delegates to his minions.

Rarely would the main man even be aware of the heroes, only in the "One Ring" instance does this come up, and the "One Ring" instance can be solved in its own way:
The object is intelligent but doesn't want to announce itself it wants to subtly guide things, hence it can't be divined for but can be searched for by mundane means.
Anything of that sort of MacGuffin level importance would have special rules to keep such a story event from happening.

I like this perspective on game function, but for some reason I never seem to come across these problems myself, maybe I lack a level of creativity.

Excellent article. I fully agree with ways of having a powerful villain unable to deal with the player characters. My favorite example why many evil overlord tropes can valid come from the game Evil Genius. As the game ramps up you simply have too many things going on worry about a few pathetic agents snooping around. After all, I have minions and traps to deal with them most of the time and 99% they work.

I also fully agree with the need to reduce divination and teleport's effectiveness. I never really played 3.5 (although everything it seemed to change were things I had abused myself) but it always shocked the DM (they were used to 2ed version) when my transmuter cast regular teleport to places my character had a rough description(the risk of injury of death in 3rd was incredibly low). I've found anyone that knows divination well can unravel just about any carefully laid plan. The counter divination spells often times aren't strong enough to hide much. Challenged by the DM, I led my 5th level party straight though a dungeon with little wandering and minimum encounters through the use of divination and a bit of luck. Of course, it did us no good since we weren't nearly the level handle the end, but my character could use the same spells to get the party out.

Now I have set up several villains in my campaign as to be villains in the future. I don't actually introduce them as villains for a ways into the campaign though. Here's the reason, the players trust these characters. These are characters who use the players themselves to accomplish their evil. In a similar way to Dormin, I am fooling my players into fighting on the side of evil.

I think I only have one major disagreement, if you think The Wheel of Time did anything beautifully... well I'll leave it at that.

Other ideas why an adversary can't deal with the PC in person (all taken from Exalted's setting)

- Cursed by Hubris. The Sidereals in Exalted are the most wise of the Exalted, but their part of the Great Curse is Hubris. Also, the High Templars in starcraft are pretty wise and powerful, but they still underestimate the Zergs. The more you are powerful, the more you have a chance to let something slip and say "ha, i'll just deal with it later, i'm busy with conquering the world. You, you and you, deal with it."

- In another world. In Exalted, the Yozis and the Neverborn are pretty powerful. More than gods. These things are as huge as worlds, but they're in prison or dead (Think Tartarus for the Titans). They can only slip their fingers (send demons/undead) to wreak havok in reality in order to get free.

- More important things to do. The Empress of the Realm disapeared and now the throne is free. Do you really want to send a sizable force against the solars who are raising an army in the Threshold when you can use them to participate in the cold war for the Throne? The last one who tried that is now off the bat because of the shame of losing his entire army. Just send a couple of spies that feed him with information to run around instead of attacking the Realm while you secure the Throne.

- You don't know how difficult they can be to deal with. This may work better with Exalted. The PC are solars. Solars could kill Primordials (think Titan) in 1 vs 1. They ruled Creation for centuries. They were killed when the whole world turned agaisnt them in a surprise attack. Now, they're back. They may not be as powerful as before, but do you really want to take that chance?

Edit: One thing to note is that the PC are the center of the story, but they may not be the center of the world. They may not be the only ones harrassing the villain.

Not your strongest Piece Archon, but an interesting read that I'll probably read again.. once I've absorbed it properly I'll leave a better 2 cents then this.

I believe that some of the justifications you gave for "adversary stupidity" are acceptable if they're backed up enough. Say, for example, that your villain is a smart guy at the head of an evil organisation of some kind. He's got a lot of stuff to deal, with plenty of people want him dead and are working against him. He can't be everywhere at once and he doesn't do all the dirty work himself because he has grunts to do this kind of thing for him. The heroes, on the other hand, aren't obviously any more of a threat than his myriad other enemies until late in. Under those circumstances, it's perfectly possible for a villain to not deal with them instantly because he's concentrating on other things. It can come across as a handwave, but it could seem perfectly sensible if you laid the groundwork properly.

Interesting article.

I've also often found it necessary to change rules in order to keep suspence or logic alive. I've also changed the way spells work so that it's very, very difficult to cast those story-breaking spells. Someone might be able to do it only once in a lifetime.

But my favorite way--at least in dealing with divination--is the Lost method. Yes, introduce more questions and mysteries everytime they try that short-cut. Eventually, they stop trying because the more they "learn," the more confused they get because they know too much--or at least they know too many questions.

This is one of the reasons I prefer investigation- and exploration-based games more than combat-based ones. If the mission ultimately boils down to "go out and kill the BBEG", you need all kinds of checks and balances to keep the plot plausible over a longer campaign. This works differently if the enemy isn't some high-level "level boss" character the players have to defeat in order to "win the game".

Just an example from a recent Dark Heresy game: The players are investigating a wealthy noble who is suspected of dealing with an excommunicated cult. This situation balances itself: Both sides have a good reason not to engage each other directly. The players can't go and start killing people that influential without evidence (at least not in my Dark Heresy), and the noble can't act against the players without risking to expose himself to the wrath of the Inquisition. The villain has to be careful that none of the moves he makes against the players can be traced back to him -- it's a lot like the M&M campaign you mentioned, except without the god-powered villain.

In this case the villain doesn't have to be a direct threat to the players in the way a combat villain pretty much has to be. In 1-on-1 combat even the group's Scum character, who focuses more on social skills than on combat, would be a match for the guy. The group's Psyker would shred the villain in a single turn. I don't have to come up with a reason why the villain doesn't engage the party, since everyone realizes that the villain would do anything to avoid that situation.

Well, when I was still a DM on a Neverwinter Nights server (before it was closed), I was one of the most popular, but meanest and most lethal DMs out there.

We were playing in Warhammer settings, and I created a mage worshiping Tzeentch fanatically. My team destroyed him after a short battle, but turns out that Tzeentch had some bigger plans - however, he overestimated the mage and when he tried to give him more power (Mage was a level 10 Wizard, level 6 Pale Master), he lost his mind and started randomly releasing magic left and right. Any magic, you know, like what happened in Forgotten Realms when Gods were cast down from their seats. He would in one round summon a giant demon lord, while in the next he would vaporize him and turn into a pile of sludge.

What did my heroes do? They knew they couldn't come near anything like that. Simple solution - use Dominate Person on him and told him to cast all spells within 5 feet radius around him. Few rounds later, he was dead due to numerous fireballs, lightning spells and even some nastier spells cast too close to him.

Of course, I tried that trick few weeks later, with a bit stronger mage and stronger team. When the mage went berserk... my team did so, too. They rushed blindly and forced the mage to cast spells too close to him. All of the melee characters died, mage died too, but they didn't really like the death penalty...

Oh, and the time I rushed a village with an army of skeletons, who were invincible, except for one thing - water and ice attacks. So instead of wasting magic, my team just made some "buckets" out of capes and shields, lured the skeletons near a lake and defeated them by splashing with water.

This is probably one of the worst things to happen as you are DMing - over or underestimating your players. You either create a challenge that is supposedly easy, but your players die due to sheer stupidity, or they kill your Lich by simply throwing it into a fire and holding it down, so he dies within seconds...

First as always an interesting read.

Discern Location is a powerful spell, and can wreck any story-based game (unless you plan to provide the player information using the spell). But it has two major flaws as stated in its description: "Nothing short of a mind blank spell OR the direct intervention of a deity keeps you from learning the ....". In Saurons example, one can easily assume that the deities of Middleearth will prevent him from gaining this information. In a DnD game, it would be fair to assume that all high-level characters will take precautions against scrying spells and have a mind blank spell cast on them at all time. High level clerics would probably just be protected by their deity in this case.

That being said, its interesting to see how the rules themselves get in the way of telling a story in many RPGs, but especially DnD. It would seem that DnD would be better suited for the type of campaign advocated for in the "Its Not Your Story" article, and less suited for the directed story campaigns.

This was the main reason I stopped DMing. The rules kept getting in my way. I found myself spending more time trying to balance rules and power than I was willing to.

But back on topic. Do you need your adversary to be godlike/powerful? Wouldnt it be possible to challenge your party with a less powerful adversary. It seems to me if you combine powerful with genius in an adversary the party doesnt stand a chance.

As a variant of the tiered Enemy who gains power gradually, you can also have the tiered Enemy Organization. Basically, the greatest fear of all mid-level managers is that a problem they can't handle will be referred up the executive chain of command and they will lose their job. The same thing would be true of an Evil mid-level manager (although that's kind of a redundant title). No one who knows about the party of adventurers and their early successes would want to tell the Evil CEO about them - hence, he/she doesn't find out about them until they're a somewhat credible threat - at which point a whole bunch of (surviving) Evil mid-level managers will find themselves summarily terminated. Of course, once the Evil CEO learns this information it only makes sense if he comes down like a hammer on the party of adventurers - but this is fine since it creates a natural third act to the adventure plot (e.g., 1. humble but promising beginning [Tatooine]; 2. First major triumph [Death Star I]; 3. Horrible setback [Cloud City]; 4. Ultimate triumph [Teddy Bear Jamboree]).

craddoke:
As a variant of the tiered Enemy who gains power gradually, you can also have the tiered Enemy Organization. Basically, the greatest fear of all mid-level managers is that a problem they can't handle will be referred up the executive chain of command and they will lose their job. The same thing would be true of an Evil mid-level manager (although that's kind of a redundant title). No one who knows about the party of adventurers and their early successes would want to tell the Evil CEO about them - hence, he/she doesn't find out about them until they're a somewhat credible threat - at which point a whole bunch of (surviving) Evil mid-level managers will find themselves summarily terminated. Of course, once the Evil CEO learns this information it only makes sense if he comes down like a hammer on the party of adventurers - but this is fine since it creates a natural third act to the adventure plot (e.g., 1. humble but promising beginning [Tatooine]; 2. First major triumph [Death Star I]; 3. Horrible setback [Cloud City]; 4. Ultimate triumph [Teddy Bear Jamboree]).

This is more the concept that I would run for. While the Players are important, they aren't the centre of gaming world (usually). If the big bad is a King or Duke with the ultimate aim of conquering whole nations, then they probably aren't going to be bothered by that group of peasants making a little bit of noise of the edges of their territories. Perhaps later, once those peasants are a little famous, our are even trying to build their own army, that's when the king might notice them and send someone to deal with them.

The other argument is, why does there have to be a specific baddie? The only games I've ever played that featured a Boss were one-offs, with a fairly rigid story-structure.

It seems these last two articles are at odds with each other. What happens if the Players decide to join forces with "the evil one"? That would certainly derail most plots. Would you force them to always be good, even if they didn't want to? On the other hand, what if the Players decide to ditch everything and run away to a safer place, and never bother "the evil one" again? Would they get dragged kicking and screaming back in?

This is quickly becoming a Bible of how to GM effectively and entertainingly. Thank you, Mr. Macris.

There is, of course, another option for high-powered adversaries to not immediately off nascent threats: Because they'd be bored otherwise. Yes, I directly cribbed this one from Order of the Stick, but it certainly works for any long-lived, immortal, or otherwise timeless being. Without challengers, they are undisputed tyrants of the world, and that can get old awfully quickly. This is far more entertaining, and those adversaries may even, like the DM playing them, want the heroes to win. Forever is a long time, and, like Nicholas Flamel in the first Harry Potter, these foes may eventually want to just stop.

That's some good advice, thanks!

I remember an old (2nd ed-era) Dragon Magazine article on roleplaying villains with high Intelligence and Wisdom. I remember for Genius and Super-genius NPCs (Int 17-20, which was damn high in 2nd ed), the article assumed most DMs wouldn't be geniuses themselves. It suggested a genius intellect would be able to predict the kind of powers that would be levelled against it. Basically it said a genius villain would be prepared for just about anything the PCs could throw at it, so make them earn their victory.

Fightgarr:
I think I only have one major disagreement, if you think The Wheel of Time did anything beautifully... well I'll leave it at that.

I'd generally agree with your sentiment about the Waste of Time series, although I think Alexander makes a good point with this. Though I'll counter by noting that most Tolkien-wannabe fantasy epics have the Dark Lord crippled in some fashion at the beginning, and all he needs is to get some artifact or to kill The Hero to come into his full power. Wheel of Time just staggers this out more like an 80s/90s adventure cartoon show (like Conan the Adventurer or Pirates of Dark Water), where the heroes have to stop the villains from collecting a set of artifacts, so Jordan & Tor could sell 12 books instead of just 3.

If you're running a game with a power level like D&D, and your arch-villains don't deal with your player characters in a similarly quick and convenient manner, you owe it to yourself and your players to explain why. There are only two basic explanations available to you:

• The adversaries are stupid.
• The adversaries don't have the power to dispatch the PCs.

You're oversimplifying massively, again. And there are numerous examples in the above comments about why this is not the case. I would enjoy these articles a lot more if I didn't feel like they keep falling into the category of "Massive assumption, explanation"- all the while you're explaining, I'm biting my fist at the error(s) in the massive assumption that renders all the explanation moot.

I always had the opposite problem from having my adversary's to powerful. I had primarily been using the BESM system, and kept giving the PC's to much leeway in choosing there powers. I had to make my adversary's immortal to pose any threat what so ever, but usually that just ended with them (the adversary) being horribly mutilated, over and over again.

Callate:

There are only two basic explanations available to you:
• The adversaries are stupid.
• The adversaries don't have the power to dispatch the PCs.

You're oversimplifying massively, again... I'm biting my fist at the error(s) in the massive assumption that renders all the explanation moot.

First off, of course I'm oversimplifying. :) I'm writing a series of introductory 2,000 word or less articles. Accusing me of over-simplification is like criticizing the For Dummies guides for being written for dummies.

Second, for each assumption I make, I provide a common example of a case where the assumption holds true generally. Yes, many very intelligent posters have responded here to explain why, in such-and-such special case, my assumptions are incorrect. But one does not create a primer by attempting to flesh out and answer every special case in which the standard, common assumptions are wrong.

To justify my "adversaries are stupid" example, I cited the example of the Dragonlance series' main villain as a case where he is specifically given 18 Wisdom and 33 character levels, and then fails because he's "overconfident" i.e. stupid. Dragonlance was the best-selling module series in TSR history, launched the entire storytelling revolution in RPGs, and spun-off into countless books, so I'm not exactly attacking a straw man.

Whether you care or not, I don't know, but I'd personally find your feedback more valuable if you'd stop trying to attack my assumptions and instead consider whether or not you agree with my ideas, given my assumptions!

Deathlyphil:
The other argument is, why does there have to be a specific baddie? The only games I've ever played that featured a Boss were one-offs, with a fairly rigid story-structure.

It seems these last two articles are at odds with each other. What happens if the Players decide to join forces with "the evil one"? That would certainly derail most plots. Would you force them to always be good, even if they didn't want to? On the other hand, what if the Players decide to ditch everything and run away to a safer place, and never bother "the evil one" again? Would they get dragged kicking and screaming back in?

That's a wonderful point - so let me clarify. Where I was coming from when I wrote it is that even a story arc / sandbox tends to have a few "major villains", and that it's likely the party will eventually encounter them.

Also, while we're on the topic, limiting powers like teleportation and scry are exceptionally valuable in running an open world campaign as well. Teleportation makes the world *so open* that the task becomes impossible for the GM.

Perhaps I should have been more explicit as to this. As it stands, the editor (Hi Susan!) already suggested the article was too long. I'll try to wrestle back to this in a later article.

craddoke:
As a variant of the tiered Enemy who gains power gradually, you can also have the tiered Enemy Organization. Basically, the greatest fear of all mid-level managers is that a problem they can't handle will be referred up the executive chain of command and they will lose their job. The same thing would be true of an Evil mid-level manager (although that's kind of a redundant title).

Craddoke, this post made my day. I will be introducing evil mid-level managers into my next campaign, and their motivation for not bringing in the evil overlord will be to avoid getting "fired".

You win the evil overlord award of the day, sir.

Fightgarr:
I think I only have one major disagreement, if you think The Wheel of Time did anything beautifully... well I'll leave it at that.

To be fair, I did specifically say the early books of Wheel of Time! :)

Victory through forum-spam! Haha.

Personally, I never used a published NPC stats necessarily as the ultimate guide to their personality etc. That's more of a game mechanic tool than anything else. I mean I can cite the example of the mage with 20 intelligence, sure he's a genius by all standards, but his "genius" is by no means universally applicable to every situation which might dictate "intelligence" or better yet "common sense" which I consider intelligence learned not in a book but through experience.

However, I do agree that falling back on a arch-enemy being stupid is a well-worn crutch. I've found you only really need to be able to reconcile why the big baddie didn't do X, Y and Z with yourself in less you plan on making it relevant to the story or otherwise have it revealed to the characters. Otherwise, it's as easy as telling your players that not everything that can happen in terms of "magic" can be meta-gamed to a specific page in a specific book.

A model I follow for some of my larger adventure plots is to create a "enemy" like a organization or corporation. At the top is the big baddie CEO, below him, not so big baddie VPs so on and so forth down the chain. This allows characters to slowly work on the enemy's corporate chain and at first be "off the radar" leaving various mid level bosses to deal with the party. This works especially well if that organization is rather large consisting of multiple factions/divisions with a larger umbrella, like a multi-national company with multiple business units. This really can stretch the content that can be created by a single enemy organization.

Our group has seldom played high level D&D campains, simply because of the crazy power the players wield. We all figure lvl 10s are pretty big deal characters in the world, and anything higher is stand out rare examples of power. (We don't play in the Forgotten Realms world.) We've played one high level game, and that was brutal with the power the npcs wielded-- and we knew they had the power. We all had high enough skill levels to look them up in the DMG and look over what they were capable of. Death Magic? We'd be surprised if they didn't try it. So they did. And people died.

We like mid level games, for the most part. High level games, that's another bag altogether.

Nejira:
its interesting to see how the rules themselves get in the way of telling a story in many RPGs, but especially DnD.

When I first got my hands on DnD 3rd edition yonks ago, I was fairly pleased with how detailed the rules to magic to play just streamed out. It felt like the designers had intentionally gone over every scenario to detail their rules just perfectly so. It seemed so great! :)

Then I started DMing the game, and certain things in the rules started to get in the way. Moreso, the guys in my group would hover over their PHBs like a gorram bible. It stopped being about the story, and started being about the mechanical cogs of the rule logic working its way through.

This is where I flex that one paragraph that's in the header of nearly ALL gaming GM books out there; if it conflicts with the game, change it. The GM has the power. And I make sure my players know this. Speed of Plot is a term for me.

I utilize the rules as a guideline. They serve to keep the game stable, fair, and strategic. The fire demon is still immune to fire, and weak to, mm, I'm going to go with water. A 20 on a d20 is a crit hit on anything with vitals. An 18 is still the highest a character (even an npc) can go without magical enhancement. These are all truths of the game. :) But when the story lore calls for something tremendous being created out of the WISH spell (lvl9 wiz/sorc spell), and a player points to their phb and tells me that the spell cannot do that as per the rules, I tell them to STFU, and close their law books.

Sometimes, Lawful alignment is not the best alignment to play a game by. Because then it stops being about story and fun, and starts being about the mechanics of the the rules.

tl:dr) I agree with what you said. :)

How about no adversary at all?

I'm currently running a campaign where the party has to decide about the fate of a One Ring style McGuffin and various factions want a say in that. It's been running for a few months and they're putting together clues as to the how and what of the thing.

Of course I've got a few nasty pieces of various sorts lined up they're going to encounter depending on where they decide to go but there's no real center villain.

Archon:
First off, of course I'm oversimplifying. :) I'm writing a series of introductory 2,000 word or less articles. Accusing me of over-simplification is like criticizing the For Dummies guides for being written for dummies.

I recognize that. I also realize that as someone who's been playing these games for nearly thirty years, I am in some ways not your target audience. And even that, in the short run, much of what you offer may be very helpful to new and inexperienced GMs. I just worry that in the long run, some of what you write might create roadblocks in a GM's thinking when they take various things as a given.

Second, for each assumption I make, I provide a common example of a case where the assumption holds true generally. Yes, many very intelligent posters have responded here to explain why, in such-and-such special case, my assumptions are incorrect. But one does not create a primer by attempting to flesh out and answer every special case in which the standard, common assumptions are wrong.

But are the cases all that special? Yes, an eighteenth level wizard in D&D- pretty much any version of D&D- is an incredibly powerful opponent. Once spells like Wish become available, it becomes quite difficult to even envision a single opponent or group of opponents taking them on. However, what are the chances of an evil wizard making it to eighteenth level without accruing some (similarly) powerful enemies? Whatever sort of influence The Adversary is attempting to wield, it undoubtedly comes with its own series of headaches. Arguably, Sauron's "fatal flaw" is that he refined his power towards dealing with a specific kind of opposition, and then was blindsided by what actually led to his downfall- that doesn't necessarily make Sauron "stupid".

Moreover, what does it do for the players' sense of "agency" if The Adversary is consistently at a par with the players? Surely part of the reason for giving players the sense that their decisions matter in the scope of the game world is allowing them a parallel sense that they are making progress towards their goals. Isn't having an enemy who is consistently at a predetermined threat level, no matter the Player Characters' power level, counterproductive to that goal? It seems that over the long term, this is likely to become a transparent and frustrating mechanic to the players.

In a well-realized world, the players are likely to encounter obstacles that have little to do with the character(s) the GM envisions as the players' ultimate adversary. Likewise, it is reasonable to assume The Adversary has goals which require more from them than simply crushing all opposition. It might be wise for a GM to consider how the world works if the players are absent from the equation. What would The Adversary be doing? And if the players are re-introduced, what causes The Adversary to cease doing that? (And if there are particular triggers, might a prudent GM not make certain that they weren't placed where the players could trip them when they're patently unprepared?)

There's a very reasonable question inherent to most "dungeons": if there were really something incredibly valuable there- and in the case of The Adversary, possibly something plan-ruining or life-ending- why isn't it just a series of incredibly fiendish deathtraps? The "Evil Overlord List" pushes this idea into high gear. From one perspective, the answer is obvious: having the players roll new characters every ten minutes isn't much fun. But more practically, there's a reason plenty of real-world organizations whose very existence is dedicated to information and security still find their information stolen and their security breached: having to jump through more than a certain number of hoops to access things you need on a regular basis is tiresome and inefficient.

I guess my over-all point is this: the more "gamey" the reasons for a set of conditions are, the more aware the players will be that their existence and experience is in the GM's hands, not their own. The most fulfilling experience is going to come out of plausible conditions of a plausible world, a world that the PCs are very much a part of, and very capable of having a significant impact upon, but which does not [appear to!] exist for little more reason than creating a series of scaling challenges. I simply worry that limiting villains' reasons for not destroying players to a lack of power or a lack of intelligence is a false dichotomy that may keep GMs from doing what is right and reasonable for their world and their players.

If we want to go back to the Bible, consider how many times kings unsuccessfully sent out their men to kill the Child Of Prophecy?...

I hope this is more useful, and I appreciate that you take the time to correspond with people who reply to your articles.

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