When I and my friends GM, we often like to joke about the degree of intelligence the enemies exhibit: “So is this, Easy, Medium, or Hard Aaron Intelligence?”, for example. Our practice of doing this made me begin to think: What is the upper limit on RPGs? After all, RPGs are limited only by the imagination… and that’s precisely where we get entangled, isn’t it? RPGs are combinations of cinema, impromptu theatre, video games and anime (among a myriad array of other things), and the GM is the director, CPU and screenplay writer, yet he must not only allow but encourage his actors (PCs) to defy the script. It’ s a hard task, and limited by one’s vision and intellect.
There are GMs who are good at political intrigue, at constructing a plausible group of nations and their geopolitical arrangements and making city governments and so on; there are GMs who are brilliant at imagining combat of all types, from magic to gunfighting to swordplay; there are GMs who make fascinating characters, so much so that people can play an entire game with no combat and simply interact. Some of these GMs can do one or two of these things only. Does that mean that they shouldn’t be GMs? No, they make brilliant games; the GM will just happen to be shabby in a particular area.If a GM wishes to broaden her horizons, what can she do? Let me propose a few methods:
1. Use Your Strengths.
Any time one runs into a difficult situation, one might as well leverage one’s skills against it.
Imagine a law student GM who happens to not be the best at imagining fight scenes or creating strategic NPCs. His players waltz all over even his best villains because his villains can’t creatively use the skills he gives them. He could create a scenario where the team must bring a corrupt city police department to justice. The police department has survived every internal investigation unscathed and thus carries tremendous clout. If the players openly resist them, they could be jailed. This police department is also protected by the Mafia because of a convenient arrangement between the two. Now, the law student can bring his knowledge to full bear. The players will have to put down their rifles and spellbooks and try to find a way to bring about an investigation of the local police department. Perhaps they can bait the police into violating a rule of conduct and thus bringing the evidence they bring against the characters under the exclusionary rule, saving the characters. After the players manage to use legal means to chip away at these bad cops, getting some to turn state’s evidence against the Mafia and their former comrades and jailing others, the GM can set a finale where the Sergeant and his cronies escape to the slums, defended by a sinking ship assortment of Mafiosos and local gangs. After all this time, the players will be satisfied deeply at getting their claws on the Sergeant. The GM didn’t have to have master strategists, simply corrupt cops defended by the law. This scenario will be educational and memorable, far more so than “monster or enemy X”.
Someone who is more of a military and tactics type, masterfully able to construct armies and tactics to beat the PCs but unable to make a plausible world, could try to think of nations first in terms of armies. Maybe they could think of a nation with an effective but decentralized military, and thus create a anarchist or communal society; a more pacifist nation with an entirely defensive police force; a nation using biological weapons and other horrific items and thus viewed as a pariah state; and so on.
GMs often are loath to prepare. “If I make a big scenario, my PCs will just break it somehow.” The answer is not “Don’t prepare”, but “Prepare intelligently.”
Let’s take our law student again. He’s not the type to be able to think of effective combat tactics quickly, making even his deadliest villains less effective than the players. GMs need to remember: They have the advantage of knowing what the players are doing and thinking ahead of time. While giving every one of his NPCs this ability is a little implausible, the GM is likely to have a better understanding of his PCs than they do themselves, or at least a comparable understanding. The law student could thus introduce a new big bad villain after his last one was destroyed. This villain sends a powerful body double to test the players. He is trounced because of superior tactics by the PCs. All the time, the GM takes notes, just as the villain watches secretly or has a henchman record the goings-on.
Now, during the pre-game brainstorm session, our GM sets to work. Because he is such a master of building plausible characters with good motives and because he is so intelligent, he figures that he can ad-lib those parts. Instead of wasting his time on information that he can easily conjure impromptu, he instead thinks logically about what the villain would do given the powers he’s been created with . With 15 to 30 minutes of preparation, the GM gains an edge over the PCs. He can also construct traps, another way of using his creativity in non-battle areas. The villain may construct a fortress as a decoy, keeping only a guardian in there, all to distract, confuse and anger the PCs, hopefully killing one or two. Finally, the PCs confront the villain in closed quarters, perhaps a hotel room suite with the villain having the lay of the land and a number of nasty little secrets hidden about. With foresight and preparation, the GM can compete with his tactical genius players and put their skills to a new and exciting test. With all luck, the PCs will overcome and triumph, breathing a sigh of relief at having bested a unique opponent.
If something about the game or the rules you’re using is causing you some grief, try to deal with it. In my games, the PCs usually outnumber their opponents. How can I creatively deal with this issue? I can have the villain have financial resources letting him purchase mercenaries, thugs, and all sorts of security. An evil Taoist alchemist awaiting the PCs in his corporate penthouse becomes much more dangerous when the players arrive having had to wade through security turrets and a small army of hired thugs, even when they outnumber him 8-to-1. I can also construct the fields of battle to hinder the players. For example, the players have to go across a bridge or through a very tight space. Because only a few players at a time can effectively contribute without endangering their friends or the bridge or building itself, the few enemies on the other side demoralize the players and are able to deal with them one-on-one, leveraging superior skill. Divide-and-conquer tactics also work well. Players who like to think of themselves as badass can take a sniper shot, even a minor one, and spend the entire battle looking for that sniper. The rest of my NPCs leave him alone: he’s distracted, it doesn’t matter. I can also leverage status effects, trapdoors and ways of splitting up the party, hostages or traps that must be turned off in a particular time period (thus raising the stakes and making the three or four enemies that much deadlier), and so on.
Play with your player’s heads. If you want your opponents to take hired thugs more seriously (and thus spend more of their time worrying about henchmen and not always going for the main villain), make the main villain you’ve been making the PCs hate for most of the game actually a puppet hiding in the background, or have him disguised as a normal soldier and a body double in the regalia of command during the final encounter. Or perhaps have one or two of the soldiers (the effect is ruined if all of them have it) have a nasty secret: a transformation or a deadly weapon or similar. Don't do this all the time, as it's not plausible, but once or twice will sure make your players take henchmen seriously.
Another way to do this is the reverse: Make a Wizard of Oz humbug. For example, let's say you're running a martial arts game with an element of the superhuman. One of the enemies of the PCs is a magician, and not a very good one. Nonetheless, he's able to conjure fire. The PCs think that he's conjuring this from some incredible technique or ki manifestation and prepare to fight an enemy of superior caliber. When they break through his defenses, it turns out he knows a month's worth of Tai Chi.
Since preparation takes so much time, I've found it useful to turn to the internet or fan materials. This stuff is out there; why not use it? Even a tactical blunderer can terrify his PCs by modifying a martial art or a character class online and giving it to an NPC. The players then will have to spend time thinking about how the enemy could have created such an effect and counter it. It's worthwhile to modify the material, of course. Let's say that you've been throwing a lot of demons at your PCs but you've found an excellent map that has a fire demon in a large circular room guarding a stairway down. Simply invert the stairs and have the stairway be decrepit, with the stairs only starting at halfway to the second floor. The room becomes a crowded warehouse filled with gasoline cans, crates, rags, etc. The enemy is a pyromaniac or fire mage of some sort, deftly using the crowded spaces and flammable materials to trap the PCs and divert them to a false door or trap door. The PCs will have to carefully listen to your descriptions of the room and avoid the traps, making for a tense situation. The PCs then climb onto the rafters and leap onto the walkway.
3. Review and Research
If even this isn't helping, try "reviewing" some material.
If you want to see phenomenal characterization as well as creative ideas, see Hamlet, Macbeth, pretty much anything by Shakespeare (though avoid comedies, except perhaps for Midsummer Night's Dream - they're funny, but of more value for viewing the artistry of writing), American Beauty, Boondock Saints, Big Trouble in Little China, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai,
If you want to see incredibly strategic combat, see Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho's fight against Byakko, Majiri in the movie, Elder Toguro, Shorin, and against the Toguro Brothers and Tarukane's minions (among others; Kuwabara is commonly a strategic genius using simple powers to their fullest); Vash's fight in episode 26 of Trigun; Piccolo's fight against Android #17; Goku's fight against Super Android #17; Naruto in general; quite a bit of One Piece; and some issues of 8 Bit Theatre at Nuklearpower.com. It's rare to find examples of truly ingenious strategy, but they're smattered throughout.
For a fairly good idea of politics in a sci-fi setting (with some pseudo-Marxist philosophy thrown in), you could do no better than The Foundation series. I have my disagreements with Asimov politically (he seems rather technocratic, elitist and statist), but his characterization of future history is fascinating.