Challenging Your Players

In a recent issue we talked about ways to make sure that it’s always possible for your player characters (PCs) to defeat the villains in your roleplaying game (RPG). This time we tackle the opposite problem – finding ways to challenge clever players and powerful PCs. Under some categories we’ll include a “Fatal Flaw.” If you find that villains who follow these suggestions become too difficult to defeat, make use of the flaw to tone things down a little.

Smart Opponents

There’s no reason your villains can’t use their heads. They can make plans, use tactics, think strategically, watch their backs, and so on. Find one of those “if I were an Evil Overlord” lists floating around the internet and take a few notes. Look carefully through your plans for the villain for “stupid villain tricks” – i.e., dumb things that villains tend to do simply because it’s traditional for villains to think in certain ways.

For example, instead of creating a villain who’s a brooding loner, make a friendly, charismatic villain who has friends and allies willing to help him out. Instead of creating a villain who’s content to lure the good guys into his lair where they can kill him, have him be proactive and send flunkies out to kill the party.

Scrutinize all of your villain’s plans with this single question in mind: “is he doing something dumb for no good reason?”

Fatal flaw

A villain doesn’t have to be stupid in order to have weaknesses. Everyone has a blind spot somewhere; everyone makes mistakes. Just make it something unusual, that requires a little research and ingenuity to take advantage of.

Adaptable Opponents

A smart opponent adapts. This means that if your players come up with an unbalancing advantage, the enemy can come up with a way to counter or reduce that advantage. We once heard someone talk about how his party came up with “the unbeatable tactic” – shooting out opponents’ eyes so that they got horrible penalties to their actions. An adaptable villain could counter this easily by giving his people durable goggles, helmets with narrow eye-slits, or spells that protect against missile weapons. Or he could say, “hey, that’s a great idea!” and turn it around on the party.

Fatal flaw

Your PCs can use this same tactic against the villain. Allow them to research his weapons, subordinates, and strategies.

Opponents That Use Spies & Listen To Rumors

Too many villains operate in a vacuum, without knowledge of party tactics and foibles. Allow your villain to use spies and listen to rumors. Have him take advantage of party weaknesses, and make plans to counter oft-used party strategies. For instance, if a villain finds out about a PC’s drug addiction, he can use it to his advantage (cut off the PC’s supply, blackmail the PC, lace his drugs with something). If the party isn’t careful to keep its powerful weapons and strategies secret, then the villain can devise his own strategies to counter them, research their weaknesses, or find things against which those weapons or strategies will be useless.

A villain who pays attention to the party’s actions can try to stay one step ahead of them.

Fatal Flaw

Not all rumors are 100% accurate. The villain might have gotten a fact wrong somewhere.


Giving the villain too much information about the PCs can make it feel as though the game master (GM) is the true villain – because the villain can start to feel as though he has access to the GM’s head. Be sure to figure out how the villain knows what he knows.

Monsters That Use Tactics

Don’t just look up statistics for your monsters and then conduct combat willy-nilly. Have monsters use tactics and strategy when they fight. This can make them much harder to deal with. A couple of things to remember:

#1. Take intelligence into account when figuring out monster tactics. A really dumb monster isn’t going to use sophisticated battle tactics. A really smart monster probably won’t just bash someone over the head if there’s a smarter tactic to try first.

#2. Take the monster’s motivations, living conditions, and abilities into account when planning tactics. Monsters might use some pretty unusual tactics just because they make sense given what the monster wants from its victims, the sort of terrain the monster grew up in, or the unusual abilities the monster possesses.

#3. Remember instincts. For example, there are big hunting cats that drop down on the necks and backs of animals from tree branches. Instinct could lead even technically stupid monsters to engage in handy strategies.

Fatal flaw

Item number two is the villain’s fatal flaw as well as his salvation. Unexpected tactics due to a monster’s needs or experiences might surprise the PCs, making things harder for them. Or those unexpected tactics might also have unexpected holes in them.

Adding Layers To Plots

If your PCs solve your plots too quickly, then try adding extra layers to them. The obvious revenge plot might just be a cover-up for a much more devious machination. We try not to refer you to television shows too often, just in case you can’t see them where you are, but “Law & Order” makes a great example of this. So many times it seems like it’s obvious who the killer is, and then one last piece of information falls into place and you realize it’s someone else entirely. A couple of hints:

#1. Have multiple suspects for crimes, multiple people who had motive or opportunity, multiple things that could be going on.

#2. Include clues that are “split.” In other words, one piece of information doesn’t make sense, or at least doesn’t point to the real culprit or scheme, until it’s put together with another (separate) piece of information. That way you can reveal things in bits and pieces.

#3. Use clues that are time-dependent. A witness will wait three days to come forward because he doesn’t read the newspaper and it’ll take him a while to hear about the investigation. Forensic lab tests take time to conduct. This way, you can deliberately keep certain bits of information from coming together until later in the plot.

Fatal flaw and caution

Ideally, you want to have at least two different ways that any particular vital clue can make it into game. That way, if the PCs miss something, they aren’t completely dead in the water (which can be really frustrating). Always have a back-up plan in case the PCs totally miss the “real” plot. For example, if they haven’t stumbled on any of the clues you’ve laid and after a while they become frustrated, plan to have new information come forward (just make sure there’s a good reason why it didn’t come forward before).

Misdirection & Red Herrings

Use misdirection (clues that lead to incorrect conclusions) and red herrings (things that seem important but aren’t) to complicate things, slow PCs down, distract them, and so on. Something that seems to be a vital clue in a case could be completely irrelevant – blood on a floor could belong to someone other than the murder victim. Someone who seems to be an obvious suspect in an investigation really has nothing to do with it – the man who brought the dying girl to the hospital and ran away from the scene really was just trying to help her.

Split clues (from the last section) are a great way to make use of misdirection. The first half of the clue seems to point in one direction, but when put together with another detail it points in another direction entirely. For instance, your PCs find out that a man was seen running away from the scene of the crime, and that makes him a suspect. Later, when searching for him, they find out that he’s a reporter. They go to his apartment and find a message on his answering machine from that fatal night telling him that something news-worthy is going to happen in a certain warehouse, and he should bring his camera. Suddenly he isn’t a suspect but rather a missing witness, and the voice on the answering machine is the new suspect.

Fatal flaw and caution

Always make sure that there’s a way for the PCs to figure out that the misdirection or red herring isn’t their perpetrator. If the blood isn’t the murder victim’s, then they need to have a way to find that out. If the man didn’t commit the crime, then there have to be clues to that effect.

Listen To Your Players When They Talk In-Game

Listen to your players. As they speculate about the fiendish plot you’ve wrapped them up in this time, they’re likely to come up with things that are more twisted and paranoid than anything you could have thought of! Use that. Every now and then, grab one of those ideas and run with it.

Make sure to pay close attention to the discussion. If you’re lucky, your players will sit there discussing which speculations are possible, which aren’t, how they might determine whether or not a certain thing is going on, and so on. This helps you to figure out which paranoid creation of the players is viable, and what details you have to seed into the game to make it work. If you have a proactive set of players, they’ll sit there telling you exactly what you need to know to make the plot work!

Try to change a few details here and there so you don’t make things too easy on them.

Fatal flaw

This one sort of has its own built-in fatal flaw. On the one hand, you can stay one step ahead of your players for a little while by listening to them. On the other hand, by picking something they’ve discussed, you can make sure you’re picking something they have at least some idea how to investigate.

Caution #1

On the one hand, you can use this technique to draw out a stunning and well-paced discovery plot. On the other hand, some roleplayers feel very uncomfortable with the idea that their GM would change things on-the-go, even to make for a better game. Do what’s right for your gaming group.

Caution #2

This tactic will work well with most roleplayers. However, there are a few people in every crowd who will use things to their advantage. If you have the kind of players who will use anything and everything to their advantage, then be very careful using this tactic. If they realize you’re doing it, they might try to lead you in certain directions by talking about certain things. Or they might avoid talking about directions they don’t want you to go in. In other words, use this trick now and then – not reliably. That should reduce the chance that your players will pick up on it or be able to use it against you.

Do The Unexpected

Once in a while, have your bad guys do something absolutely, totally unexpected! There are a couple of ways to go about this.

#1. If your bad guy is a fully-developed character, with hobbies, family, associates, foibles, and a childhood, then it should be easy to come up with things he cares about that would surprise the PCs.

#2. Think like a real person instead of a character in a game. Even bad guys go on vacations or search out weird presents for their mothers.

#3. Come up with something totally unexpected and figure out what your bad guy would do in that situation. If you read the newspaper and see that there’s been a car accident, imagine that your bad guy gets into a car accident. If you’re reading a novel and someone in that novel has a stroke, imagine that the bad guy’s daughter has a stroke. Draw a tarot card from a shuffled deck; if you draw a card that discusses inheritance, then imagine the bad guy just inherited something special from a relative. What are the consequences? You can also apply this to other non-player characters (NPCs) – not just the bad guy. You can even apply it to the PCs!

Some Actions Have Consequences

In beating up the bad guys and stopping their evil plans, the good guys often have to do a lot of shady and not-quite-legal (or not-quite-nice) things. Take advantage of that. Every now and then, make sure their actions have consequences. Some of the possibilities:

  • Lawsuits
  • Jail time, fines, banishment, etc. (depending on the crime and the justice system)
  • Someone hurt by one of their plans becomes a later villain (vendettas)
  • They lose friends and resources due to their actions

But it can get weirder than that. What if a PC wants information from a druggie, and the informant won’t talk unless the PC takes drugs with him? This could have all sorts of consequences: bad trips, addiction, flashbacks. The PC’s good name or career could be ruined if someone found out; he could lose allies, or someone could blackmail him.

In other words, allow the PCs’ own actions to complicate the game for them.


Don’t overdo this. If you do, you can create a real problem for yourself. If every time the PCs do something they ruin their lives in some way, then eventually they won’t want to get involved in plots for fear of things going wrong, and you no longer have a game.

Add Plot Complications

Not every obstacle in the PCs’ path has to come from the bad guys, as the last section shows. Put problems in their way that have nothing to do with the villain (or which are only tangentially related to the villain). Maybe they need to acquire an item that isn’t for sale and belongs to someone whose good will they require. Create plot complications that require the use of diplomacy, stealth, strategy, sacrifice, ingenuity, and so on. Here are some of the sorts of plot complications you might play with:

  • Moral quandaries
  • Personnel matters (angry allies; harried henchmen; uncooperative but necessary
    contacts and allies)
  • Limited resources (the party needs access to facilities that are in use by someone else; something the party needs is in short supply)
  • Tradeoffs and sacrifices that must be made (too much to do in too little time; the PCs have to decide what to let slip)
  • Matters of diplomacy, negotiation, convincing, and bribery (getting a star witness to talk; convincing someone to help who doesn’t want to; getting rivals to work together on a project)
  • Distasteful choices that need to be made (save the innocent bystander or stop the bad guy’s escape?)
  • Distasteful actions that must be taken (apologizing to someone the PCs hate in order to get his help)


Any particular type of plot complication, repeated too often, can become annoying, silly, or frustrating for the players. Variation is key.

A Few General Words Of Warning

Extra clues

Always leave more clues to what’s going on than are strictly necessary. Otherwise, all it takes is one clue that doesn’t get uncovered to leave the PCs frustrated. If you know your players are very good at solving mysteries, then make some of those clues time-dependent – they won’t come out until the players have already had time to look into things for a while. This gives the party a chance to solve the mystery the “hard” way, then makes it progressively easier as more time passes and they fail to solve it.

Taking away the toys

There’s a difference between compensating for unbalancing advantages and taking away the party’s toys. You can usually find a way to compensate for a PC’s advantage without making a player feel as though his cool toy was taken away from him. This is usually a better tactic, as it’s less likely to create hard feelings between you and your players.

One step ahead

If you have the kind of gaming group where it’s okay for you to adapt your plans as you go along to make for a better game, then try to stay slightly ahead of your players – not too far ahead. If you get too far ahead of them, it becomes harder to adapt things on the fly.

Consider solutions

Unless you have players who don’t mind the occasional unwinnable plot, always think about how the players might solve the plot ahead of time. Don’t tell yourself “I’ll figure it out during game.” Have at least a vague notion of how the group can solve the plot, and preferably think about a couple of specifics as well. Don’t mistake this for a suggestion that you create one specific plot solution, however – you’re better off coming up with a couple of ideas and thinking of them as possible plot solutions. This allows for more creativity on the part of the players.

As you can see, there are plenty of ways in which you might challenge your players that involve something more than just throwing more and bigger monsters at them. Start small; add in one challenge or complication at a time. If people get frustrated then back off a little bit. The key is to challenge your players enough that they feel excited and victorious when they win, as though they’ve achieved something amazing, without making them feel stupid or as though they’re stuck in a plot they can’t solve.

Do vary the plot difficulty now and then, however. Having an easier plot once in a while can be relaxing, and varying the difficulty also helps you to vary ingredients such as pace and tension – other things that also benefit from change.

Posted in Gaming

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