Consider the next session of whatever game you're running. Have any combats set to happen? interactions with antagonists or their underlings? Yes? It's not uncommon. In fact, it's expected in games. Still, I have a question: Do you know why your bad guys are at wherever they will meet the PCs? Like, what are they doing? What role do they have? What would they do if the PCs never showed? Or are the NPCs just there to be XP sponges waiting to be squeezed? Today, I want to talk about it.
A Plan vs. An Actual Plan
One of my favorite lines in Saints Row 4 happens when the a character asks the player "Do you have a plan?" the PC responds, to which the character shoots back "That's not a plan, that's an objective!"
it's funny, but it also has value. Does your BBEG have a plan? What about his/her lieutenants and underlings? Is it actually a plan, or is it just an objective? When the PCs go to the Lost Mine of Mithra's Tears and run into evil cultists, do the cultists have an actual objective for being there? Or are they just there to challenge the PCs?
Neither is a wrong answer. But you can get a lot more if you have an actual plan.
A World That Doesn't Wait
My favorite aspect of the bad guys having a plan and goals and actually attempting to do things is that it helps give a sense of a world that doesn't wait for the PCs. If the NPCs are at the mine already, and the PCs dally, they run the risk of the NPCs finding the mcguffin and securing it before them. If the PCs leave the mine for whatever reason, they almost guarantee it. If the PCs never go to the mine, when they do go to the mine the item can already be gone.
RPGs as stories should revolve around the PCs, but that doesn't mean the in game world should. In fact, the story gets better stakes and tension when it doesn't. When the Vampire Lord kidnaps the princess and says he will turn her into a vampire at midnight, the PCs don't have time to take a long rest and if they take one anyhow then when they find the Princess she should be a vampire already.
A Villain That Can Win
I often explain RPGs as games without winning or losing, but in the scope of the quest going on the PCs can win, and if they don't play their cards right they will lose. Losing doesn't have to mean death and a TPK. Losing could just mean the villain accomplishes their goals as if the PCs never tried to stop them.
The thing is, nothing I've seen gets PCs ready to go take someone down than finding out that that person is the one who gained from their defeat.
Furthermore, once you've established that the world doesn't wait, and the villains can win, the PCs will try harder. Why? because it will mean more.
I'll say that again: the more real the chance of losing, the more victory means.
In The Moment...
So going back to top. In the moment. In your next session. Why is the villains and other combat NPCs there? What are they doing? What do they want? Do they have a means of winning that isn't just killing all the PCs?
In my D&D game, the answer to this is sadly no. Some poor planning, some good moves by the players, and some combats that have already happened have more or less locked in the fates of the PCs and the other denizens of their current dungeon.
In my L5R game I've done a lot better about this. Everyone has a purpose and goal. If the PCs don't interfere, they may not even be looked at in an unfavorable light. Sometimes not interfering is even an act of friendship and alliance.
So ask yourself, and make sure you get a full answer. Does your villain have an actual plan? Or do they just have an objective and some mandatory appearances based on story notes?