At some point, provided they survive, every adventuring group reaches a point where they feel invincible. They’ve successfully battled many battles, quested many quests, and leveled many levels. This is about the time where they could walk into any normal town and wreck the place, as there wouldn’t be anyone capable of stopping them. Common enemies and villains, kobolds from Dungeons and Dragons for example, have long since ceased to be a threat to them, thus to challenge them, beings of increasingly greater size and power are thrown at them. Fighting dragons and giants is great and all, but what if we could challenge the players once again with the same kobolds as they faced at level one? Players are often faced with wave after wave of such enemies; however, this is often designed less to actually challenge the players as it is to provide them situations in which to feel incredibly powerful. When a GM uses weaker enemies, it is difficult to generate the right amount of challenge for their players; have enough so that victory is not guaranteed but not too much so they are murdered for sure. There are several ways that GMs can accomplish this using weaker enemies without resorting to overwhelming the players with wave after wave of pathetic enemies.
1. Interact with the environment-
The world around the heroes will always be more dangerous than they. Storms, avalanches, floods, and fires, just to name a few, are more powerful than any heroes could ever be (arguable, I know, but I would still argue in favor of the natural forces on account of their enormous scope). Lower level enemies utilizing such forces can indeed become a threat to any doughty adventuring band. Having the ability to set a dry forest alight around the heroes or calling down an avalanche to consume them forces the players to respect an enemy which, on its own, merits relatively little thought. However, such encounters require more forethought and planning from the GM, as you want to avoid creating situations where a party wipe is guaranteed. Unless your players deserved it, then by all means, murder away.
2. Devise a crafty leader-
A kobold may not be a threat on its own, but under the guidance of a shrewd chieftain it can be a force with which to be reckoned. Notice I didn’t say a mighty or a strong leader, I’m not talking about having the leader just be one of those bigger and more powerful enemies which are so commonly used to challenge the players, the boss fight at the end of the waves of kobolds. A rather more interesting challenge is an enemy leader who can devise clever plans to counter the heroes’ actions. Whether it be by anticipating the groups’ plans, laying devious traps (boobie trap all the things!!), or proving too elusive and cunning to track down, a good leader can be a real thorn in adventurers’ sides. This can generate a lot of enmity toward the leader and build tension in the story. I would also suggest keeping the leader’s stats low just like the rest of their race. Ending the group’s encounter with a boss fight just makes it seem as if they were battling another powerful enemy, justifying the challenge in ‘earning’ the boss fight. By having the party easily fight and kill a hated enemy leader once getting to them, which highlights the fact that they were challenged by just a basic kobold (or other weak enemy). After all, they deserve to be humbled, do they not?
3. Break out the horde-
I know I said that we should avoid the endless hordes of enemies, but the horde I’m talking about here is not meant to be thrown at the players until dead. Rather, a horde of baddies is a tool which the GM can use to add tension or guide players through the story. Endless waves can force players to look for alternate solutions to otherwise simple problems. They don’t even need to threaten the players with death; simply preventing players from being able to travel freely in a certain direction can force players to think outside the box. The horde can also indirectly force the players into action. A horde of kobolds may be no match for a group of powerful adventurers but they can threaten peaceful villagers or friends of the group, forcing the players to deviate from their plans in order to save their friends. Hordes also add flair to any boss battles which may be planned. Fighting a powerful baddie is one thing, but fighting a powerful baddie who is simultaneously using minions to harass the party feels significantly more difficult, even if the minions don’t actually do much. So, in short, use hordes of enemies not to directly challenge the players but to augment existing challenges or indirectly force the players into action.
4. Defend a strongpoint-
A kobold may not be much of a threat, but put him in a castle and give him a catapult and you’ve got a fun way to kill your players. Weak enemies can pose a significant threat when holding advantageous ground. Whether it be an armed and armoured strongpoint, mountain pass with just one approach, or even just the high ground, you can augment the miniscule challenge presented but weak enemies with a significant challenge presented by the location. Create kill zones for ranged weapons, traps that utilize the specific ground being fought upon (i.e. the Indiana Jones rolling boulder), escape routes, hideaways, insurmountable barriers, or boobie trap all the things. The wilder and more dangerous to the players, the better it is.
I hope you’ll think about having kobolds as the baddies in your next higher level D&D campaign. These tips are best used in combination, with the ideal situation being a clever leader, utilizing a horde of enemies and his environment to assault the players from his or her fortified stronghold. I’d love to see more campaigns where the later enemies aren’t beings of vast power and wealth but are instead just the basic little baddies we’ve been fighting all along. #makekoboldsgreatagain.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.