Scheming, devious villains are a mainstay of most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. It’s not difficult to see why that is; players enjoy unraveling the convoluted plots of their foes and, realistically speaking, who but the most cunning adversaries could oppose a resourceful, determined band of heroes?
The answer is: the “dumb ones,” i.e., those who overlook obvious tactical advantages.
As the 42nd Murphy’s Law of Combat Operations states, “Professional soldiers are predictable; the world is full of dangerous amateurs.” In fantasy role-playing games, the player characters (PCs) and standard “big bad guy” (BBG) types are the professionals. Experience teaches players – especially veteran players – to expect a level of tactical ability from their foes at least comparable to their own. Even when the heroes are facing truly mindless foes, such as oozes or zombies, players will often expect to find some sort of sentient force behind the behavior of those foes.
As dungeon masters (DMs), we design encounters for the express purpose of providing a challenge for the heroes, and accordingly provide any necessary tactical advantages for the BBGs we install as adversaries. Doing so is completely logical, since everyone expects villains to use their home terrain to best advantage at all times. Our own history, however, shows that this is not the case.
Consider this example from the Second World War. One of the most feared weapons on the battlefield at the time was the German 88 mm artillery piece. This weapon was initially developed as an anti-aircraft weapon, but the Germans discovered that rounds fired at ground targets traveled at a velocity high enough to easily penetrate Allied tank armor; the weapon thereafter adopted a second role as an anti-tank weapon. The Allies had comparable anti-aircraft weapons, but they were never deployed as anti-tank weapons in the way the 88s were. Whether doing so would have influenced the duration or outcome of the war is best discussed elsewhere, but many historians suggest that Allied armor was less effective than German armor for much of the war, due in part to the German deployment of the 88 as an anti-tank weapon.
The Allies theoretically could have followed the German lead and deployed high-velocity, anti-aircraft weapons in an anti-tank capacity, but for whatever reason, they didn’t. In the same way, a D&D villain may have access to tactical advantages but not know it. Of course, the players won’t know when that happens, and when they perceive a potential advantage that a villain apparently didn’t take, their suspicion increases.
Imagine a group of goblins preparing to ambush a party of heroes traveling through a forest. At the site chosen for the ambush, a massive tree has fallen across the road. The goblin leader decides early and unilaterally that the attack will come from two sides, and chooses to attack from each side of the road; his plan fails to make use of the obvious cover the fallen tree could provide, but the goblin leader is focused on charging in from two sides, and the tree would get in the way of charging goblins. When the heroes enter the area of the planned ambush, players are likely to expect that at least some of their foes will hiding behind the fallen tree trunk, and that expectation will probably influence their movement and positioning in combat; a hero may even move into position for attacking “whatever is hiding back there.”
Another example could be a group of enemies who take up defensive positions along the walls of the room, leaving the center open. A dumb villain may command this deployment so that his forces can’t be attacked from the rear, but PCs may wrongly deduce that there is a pit trap in the vacant area, and make combat decisions accordingly.
If the players respond with tactical assumptions like those, the DM has utilized this technique effectively.
Clearly, if all foes the PCs face overlook apparently obvious tactical advantages, the value of heroic victories would be cheapened. The goal of using this technique is to use “dumb” villains often enough to keep the heroes guessing and/or jumping at shadows, injecting another variable element in D&D combat.