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While creating the world for my sandbox campaign, I saw that the demographics in the DMG allowed for the existence of quite powerful NPCs. Their existence is logical of course, but it might pose a strong survivability problem in the event characters end up trying to 'make a difference' in their world, as adventurers so often do.

Here's an example, right out of the notes I've been writing: the mafia in a small city is mainly composed of rogues. The highest ranking rogues are level 9 and 12, and, according to the DMG, there should be about two lvl 6 and 2 lvl 4 rogues, and so on. So if the high level rogues of the mafia (because at least some of them should be part of the mafia) take notice of my characters before they reach mid-level, they should logically be able to tear the characters apart.

The problem repeats itself whenever there is a relatively big institution present. Most organizations in the DnD world should have access to very powerful characters, that will usually be much more powerful than any low-level party. And the problem poses itself also for the PC's allies; the village has a sheriff, a fighter level 4. If he answers the call of villagers and goes hunting the beast in the woods with the PCs, as he normally should, he will probably steal the spotlight.

So how can I best create (relatively) realistic intrigues in a realistic world without almost certainly murdering my PCs, or letting their allies steal the spotlight?

Note: by realism, I mean 'that has sufficient internal consistency and logic to permit suspension of disbelief towards the setting being a real organic world'. There being Dragons and other things like that in D&D, true, literal realism is obviously impossible.

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Does the town really want to be without their sheriff for who-knows-how-long, off on a job with people of questionable loyalty, that leaves them vulnerable to Ol' Nick's aspirations to declare himself Mayor, and all those vagabonds... er, adventurers passing through with their lawless ways? –  SevenSidedDie Aug 15 at 1:10
    
lol, I hadn't thought of that. I suppose there is always another, better way to think about things... –  derp Aug 15 at 1:16
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Even if there was a 4th level deputy to send on the mission, I doubt he’ll turn down some help. One 4th level character still only gets one action per round and can’t watch his own back. –  Robert Fisher Aug 15 at 14:18
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Your definition for "realism" is sometimes called verisimilitude - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verisimilitude_(narrative) and I take it to mean "believable due to self consistency". It's important in any RPG, no matter how wildly fantastic, there needs to be some grounding in events - often in fantasy works this is about motivation and believability of actions taken by characters given what they know and how the world has affected them. –  Neil Slater Aug 17 at 17:48

10 Answers 10

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In a world with mixed levels, the party should follow a simple rule:

1) Low-level adventurers should avoid the attention of high-level villains.

This rule leads to a common trend:

2) High-level villains have no interest in low-level adventurers.

High-level villains participate in the high-level world. Their enemies are other high-level people: kings, rulers, leaders of rival criminal organizations, etc. Their goals are high-level goals to match. If high-level people naturally occur in this setting, then they are natural rivals for each other.

Your example is a perfect one: the local Mafia has some pretty powerful people on its payroll, people who could take out the party if they tried. To stay alive, the party is going to have to remember rule #1. What can they do to avoid the attention of these high-level Mafia villains?

  • Don't go after anyone important. If you beat up some random Mafia thug on the street, you'll get a lot less of a reaction from the organization than if you go after some high-ranking don.
  • Don't let them know who you are. If they don't know who's after them, they won't know who to retaliate against.
  • Don't make it a pattern. If you steal from someone once, the organization might not take action. But if you keep stealing from them over and over again, they have to respond.
  • Make it look like someone else did it. If the Mafia thinks it was a rival gang's men who attacked them, they won't go after the party.
  • Get someone else to do the actual dirty work. If you hire, convince, or coerce someone to be the one visible to the enemy, it adds another layer of safety between you and your powerful foe.
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Not only the players get red herrings. Highlevel NPCs also can and should get many red herrings so they need low level adventurers to investigate them parallel to their own investigations. –  Knartz Aug 15 at 7:56
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Regarding your second and last bullet points - In a world with Divination magic these become more than a little difficult to pull off. Particularly if you have violated the first bullet point. –  user23715 Aug 15 at 17:47
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@user23715 That falls under appropriate application of "they're busy using their resources for more important things" though. The Don isn't going to say, "Wait, before I go have a little talk with the obvious culprits, I should waste my time/money/connections/favours on divination to confirm the evidence of my eyes." The PCs aren't the centre of the world and the target of every resource the NPCs have. –  SevenSidedDie Aug 15 at 21:34
    
Right, like casting Identify to determine what type of potion you found because (at low levels) the material component for the spell equals or exceeds the value of likely potions. However, Whack someone "important" or make a habit of whacking "unimportant" gang members right after the bars close night after night and it quickly becomes cost-effective to Divine something about the heroic perps. –  user23715 Aug 15 at 21:42
    
Conversely, in campaigns like Eberron where, according to canon, the PCs already "stand out" at 1st level, it doesn't take much sleuthing by the BEBG as to who's cramping his style. –  user23715 Aug 15 at 21:43

I would have thought that in a "realistic" sense, NPCs and PCs in-game don't actually have the player's handbook and DMG, MM etc to look up and say "oh yes, I AM more powerful than those guys whose character sheets I just sneaked a look at". Characters can only really get a very rough qualitative feel for how powerful and dangerous anyone is, and only then by a lot of spying and comparisons ( battles with others of roughly known power ).

Powerful characters fought tooth and nail to get where they are, perhaps seeing a lot of companions die along the way. As people get more powerful they tend to fear losing what they have gained and are less likely to take risks, especially in the case of evil characters unless they are insane in some death-wish way, in which case the likelihood of them reaching a high level is even more miniscule as well as making anything they do or don't do explainable by reason of "he's a crazy character and therefore somewhat unpredictable". (This is FRPG villain crazy, not related to real-life people with mental health issues, please don't be offended.)

Divination? Bah! How often has a DM made it not work for players because of some hokum preventive magic? For a paranoid head of an assassin's guild, it could just mean the "secret group of super-powered death machines out for his head" are just using it as a plot to draw him out into the open. Better he stay locked up in the fortress on a mountain and send out a few flunkies to test the waters. BTW these aren't the only SGoSPDMOFHH. There are at least 20 others, he's sure. You make a lot of enemies getting to 20th level.

So in all probability there are numerous adventuring parties working towards or stumbling through plots to kill the big bad guys. They get winnowed out, the strong survive, get stronger and eventually become a threat that the main bad guy has to deal with personally.

Eventually, like as in when they are ready game mechanic-wise, as contrived by the GM to make the game fun.

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I completely understand your problem, for similar reasons, but would suggest "make the world fit your plan" and not vice versa.

My (fledgling) campaign is run on similar precepts, so I'd suggest considering a few points about a "realistic" setting:

The State is Epic Level

If there's a real dynamic to your campaign, then unless the "Mafia" is running the show on a national scale, there is organised law as well as organised crime. People in power don't like "murder" - mortality is their only real threat - so they are unlikely to be overjoyed it if people who are doing good acts are wantonly cut down in the streets.

And even if you live in a LE tyranny, vulgar displays of power from the criminal elite are unlikely to impress the ruling strata of criminals. And they can call on thousands of people, low and high level alike, to show the Mafia who's really in charge. This means that rather than getting his hands dirty and running afoul of the state, your crimelord may consider a few other options. Especially because...

NPCs Don't Know Levels

Sure the Mafia character is levels above the PCs, but he doesn't know that. All he knows is that there are a group of troublemakers who have caused him grief.

Could he best the Fighter in a bar-room brawl? Maybe not. Could he resist the Wizard's enchantments? He's not sure! Does he want to kill the Cleric and risk angering a priesthood or a deity? Not so much. Do they have a powerful patron behind them? They could work for anybody, maybe someone more powerful than him!

Most people who climb the ranks of the world do so by cleverness and politicking, so he might refrain from a direct attack because he wants to suss out whether it's worth pursuing them. Speaking of which...

"Real" People are Risk-Averse

Your Mafia boss doesn't know the PCs inside-out and isn't sure if he should take them on until he's done his homework. What should he do in the mean-time?

  • Send A Warning: send a minion and some henchmen to gently advise the characters that their behaviour is problematic, and if they continue along the path they're following, there will be repercussions.
  • Do Some Research: employ someone or something to check out the characters, find out how powerful they are first, and if they have any weaknesses; he may even see if he can work with them on some level (if there are Chaotic, Neutral, or Evil elements), rather than a mutually destructive conflict - think Win-Win, in modern business jargon
  • Run Interference: send someone to infiltrate and lead the PCs off-track to remove the problem without bloodshed, insult, or unwanted attention. Maybe the agent could even take them into danger so the Mafia kingpin cannot be implicated in their deaths (hence avoiding all personal blame in the matter).

"Getting someone else to do the dirty work" is popular with powerful people for a reason. Why risk injury or loss of personal resources from a direct confrontation when you can send someone else and have absolutely zero risk of being damaged or implicated in any wrongdoing by legal or moral authorities?

"I've Got Bigger Fish To Fry"

Yes, the PCs have caught the Mafia Rogue 9's attention, but maybe he's got his own problems in your game-world? Perhaps the F/4 sheriff has called in some powerful bounty hunters who are sniffing around. Or maybe the PCs' activities have shown an upstart Rogue 6 in The Organisation that his boss has weaknesses that are open to exploitation.

Suddenly, your villain is too busy consolidating his own political power within the Mafia to deal with some upstart strangers who will probably only leave town in 2 weeks anyway? Basically, make something happen behind the scenes that occupies the powerful NPC's attention for the moment.

All people in "real" hierarchies are typically concerned with the people directly above them, directly below them, and competing at their relative level. Your world should be no different!

Plus, if your Mafia boss is in any way shrewd at politicking, this may lead to a "two-birds-one-stone" situation where he sets an ambitious but lower-power rival off against the PCs instead. Either way, he comes out with one less enemy!

I hope my suggestions are of some use!

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NPC Realism

You say you want realism, and the one thing that means for me is: "People behave like they would in the real world". That's sometimes hard to relate with D&D, where every player wanna do the opposite, do stuff they cannot do in real life. The concept of adventurer is basically someone that doesn't wanna settle, that doesn't want retirement or comfort, they basically want action and are very ambitious. There are, indeed, people similar to that at the real world, but they are exceptions. The majority of the Non-Player Characters will have different goals in life, and not be willing to risk their neck at every opportunity. That level 4 sheriff doesn't know how risky will be to go hunt down monsters in the dark forest. He is already worried his day to day life is too dangerous and he's wife is nagging him to ask the lord for a little piece of land so he can finally retire. This lower level group of adventurers are willing to do the dangerous task in his place, so why the hell does he need to go? He has so much to do already. The town people will stop complaining he is not doing anything about it and he doesn't get to take the risk or listen to his wife's same old speech. Lazyness, fear and indiference are good reasons why NPC's simply dont want to do the PC's job.

High Level Problems

Maybe high level characters can't deal with lower level PC's because they already have high level problems. That Lvl 12 Mafia Boss could go and kill the lvl 1 heroes, but he's probably more worried about his mafia rivals, a betrayal from his subordinates or with a high level paladin that's trying to find a proof of his crimes to put him to the sword. Think about real case scenarios: Crime lords don't wanna get their hands dirty because that way they stay out of jail. That's why they have lower level followers the first place, to go and take the bullet, or to go deal with the lower level heroes. IF these heroes prove to be succesfull against his thugs (and therefore going through some adventures and gaining a few levels), than the crimelord steps in, later in your campaign.

Media Examples

Several movies and books are about former badass heroes/vilains that simply dont want to get involved anymore, and only after some personal affairs get back to business. Countless movies show the unbeatable hero trying to 'stay away from trouble' until something happen to their faces and they are forced to act. Know how to control the motivations of NPC's in your campaign and they will only show up when you want them to. What if the Epic level Wizard in the city just doesn't want to deal with the menaces cause he is retired, became a hermit or simply looney? Now the PC's will need to fill his shoes.

They CAN, but maybe they WON'T

Elminster is famous for using disguises and trickery to solve problems. He is a Epic Level Wizard that can solve everything with magic, but he doesn't. Did you ever thought why? The creators wanted to show high level characters wil not necessarily do everything they can. The great wizard won't use his 7th level spell to solve the quest because he only uses his powers when they are really needed. Once again there are countless examples in films, books and comics. In "The Rundown", The Rock's character never use guns because "Bad things happens when he uses guns", or something like that.

Gandalf's biggest contributions to the Lord of the Ring's saga are done through dialogue and inteligence, not sheer power. Dumbledore could be flying around trying to fix all the problems, but he is busy with other matters and don't want distractions. Darth Vader only goes solve issues himself after his minions failed a couple of times.

Game Mechanics Are Not Very Realistic

If your NPC's are going to behave realistically, they are not going to act strategically towards how the game mechanics work. The 17th level fighter won't die with the d4 damage from a dagger, but in a realistic world he would indeed die with a stab to the back or an arrow in the eye. The 4th level sheriff might be good enough to beat the kobold's lair quest without breaking a sweat, but maybe he's not such a brave guy and prefer the PC's to go take the risk. Or maybe he just doesn't think it's worth the risk for the wages they are paying him, knowing his lord will never pay him as much as offered the traveling adventurers.


Players like to be proactive, energetic and ambitious. They love to showoff their skills and hate to go sleep with a couple unused magics. The NPC's are not supposed to be like that. They are supposed to be more like normal, realistic, people.

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You've touched on a fundamental question which has been batted around before - why haven't powerful institutions and characters such as local feudal lords or kings, with access to armies of loyal soldiers, already plundered all of the dungeons and dragon lairs and left no work for low and mid-level adventurers?

Here are a few possible answers:

  • For the time being the nobility and powerful heroes of the land are busy fighting wars and have no resources to spare for high risk/high reward missions into the wilderness or behind enemy lines. This setting also explains why there are adventurers wandering the countryside & frequenting taverns in the first place: unemployed mercenaries and deserters.
  • The PCs may have come across information that no one else possesses, such as a map or a deserter from an enemy army, revealing the location of a great treasure. The novel Treasure Island or the film Kelly's Heroes are good examples of such a scenario, and either story would make a fantastic template for a D&D adventure.
  • Perhaps the only adventures available are low risk/low reward or high risk/low reward (such as helping poor villagers fend of bandits in exchange for a free meal, as in Seven Samurai). High level characters won't waste their precious time defeating a small band of kobolds for a few gold pieces. They'll go after high profile targets.
  • Access to treasure laden dungeons and monster lairs may be a recent development, so that your sandbox world is in a rare period of flux and hasn't yet settled down to a stable society where low-level adventurers have no place. The PCs may have to act fast before bigger dogs organize expeditions and claim the spoils. Think of the California Gold Rush. Or perhaps a vast and wealthy empire has fallen only recently and been overrun by Orcs and other nasties. The survivors have been scraping by & rebuilding for several generations, and only now have stories trickled back that the ruins of the Imperial Treasury in the old capital has been commandeered by a dragon, or the gold mines that once funded the empire have been claimed by a goblin tribe.
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Exactly! And 1,001 more ideas just like this. Played through the updated Keep on the Boarderlands for 3.x when I was first learning. Note - the keep is on the BOARDERLANDS. Opposite to this are the great cities that are like unto a wilderness themselves - Waterdeep, Lankhmar, Greyhawk, Sharn, etc. A group could play for years (real time and character time) staying within the bounds of cities like these. –  user23715 Aug 15 at 18:22

Always a bigger fish

The world that you are describing makes sense. No matter how powerful your PCs get there is always going to be at least one person (or monster) out there who will pose some kind of threat to them. If there isn't than the game would just get boring and stale. Its why things like the Terrasque exist, to give a challenge to characters that they would otherwise have to fight literal gods to get. Of course, your PCs need to survive long enough that those threats aren't impossible to overcome. Luckily there are plenty of narrative-based reasons why the big threats would ignore the party until they are stronger.

That's what I have minions for

The head of the local mafia is a high level Rogue? Sure, he could probably single-handedly wipe out the party in a fight, but why would he? As head of the organization he has way too much on his plate running things to spend his time fighting a bunch of no-name punks. He'll just tell some of the boys (who happen to be a reasonable level to fight the party) to take care of it. If the party takes out enough mooks he might send in more powerful members, and eventually take things into his own hands. But by that time the party has fought enough to level up and now they can handle the big leaguers.

Note that this is also applicable to friendly NPCs as well. Sure the Sheriff could take out whatever beast has been running rampant in the woods. But that's only if he can afford to spend a whole day tracking it down first, which he obviously can't. Good thing that group of strapping young adventurers wandered into town, eager for a chance to earn some cash. From the beast's point of view the party are now the minions that get sent out to fight it.

Starting to regret this decision

The example above might be good for having the party slowly build up their threat level so that strong NPCs ignore them until they can handle it. But what happens when the party does something that makes those strong NPCs stop ignoring them too early? That mob leader considers the PCs beneath his notice right up until he catches them breaking into his house. Then things get personal, and ugly. Good news is you still have options if you want to avoid a party wipe.

Come back when you're stronger

The party fights a high level NPC and gets thoroughly trounced. Instead of finishing them off he instead laughs at them and tells them to try again once they can make him break a sweat. This may come off as a bit of a cliche if you haven't already established the NPC as being super arrogant and/or constantly looking for worthy opponents, but that kind of humiliation is sure to stick with your players. They will have a very clear goal for the future, and that goal will be to kick that NPC's teeth in.

Make them an offer they can't refuse

Party gets on the bad side of the wrong powerful NPC, such as a high level wizard. Sure, the wizard could turn them all into statues and then turn those statues into even uglier statues, but all he gains from that is a bunch of ugly statues. So instead the wizard comes to the PCs with a job proposition. Go find some artifact, or kill some monster, or do some other task that the wizard could do if he wasn't so busy. And in exchange the wizard will forgive whatever slight brought the party to his notice. This works for any significantly powerful NPC, as long as it is obvious that the party has absolutely no chance beating them in a fight. You can also combine with the above example, and offer to spare their lives after a fight in exchange for some service.

Tl;dr

You should definitely have NPCs and monsters that your PCs have no chance against starting out. It adds tension and makes the world seemed more filled out. Come up with reasons why the heavy hitters ignore the party until they get stronger, and if that fails come up with reasons why they don't just outright kill them. Don't forget that at the end of the session you are the one deciding how the NPCs act. If you don't like what a certain action would mean for the game, don't have anyone take that action.

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Great answer! Another variation on the "What happens if they try to take on a challenge they can't possibly defeat" scenario is to simply have the NPC (and perhaps a team of henchmen for emphasis) just sitting there waiting for them. They break into the rogue's house to find him with swords at all their throats chuckling "Just as planned..." so there's no risk of the party trying to fight and possibly dying. Cue "I like your style. Why don't you work for me instead..." quest-delivery moment. –  thanby Aug 15 at 20:49

Your players are not the center of your universe

Well, I mean if you create your setting the way you described. For each evil, their is an opposite benevolent force, and the opposite is true. Think about it, there are indeed 2 lvl6 rogues and 2 lvl4 rogues, but they are probably more concerned about the 2 lvl6 and 2 lvl4 paladin (or other good guy) than the players, so they will probably send their low thugs to deal with the players.

The idea is, you have to think about the balance, the coherence of your universe taking into account the level of your players. The fact that you asked this question is very good, it shows that you realized that sometimes, the 'quest' your players are involved in does not make sense because the opponent is too skilled and there are other NPC that could totally do this 'quest'... There is no global solution, you just have to really think about it when you make the plot.

Unbalance is good

Ok, so this is not in D&D3.5 core books, but I don't really like the way D&D advise to create adventures. So sometimes, it's interesting to be the prey, and having your team chased by a much powerful NPC can prove interesting, they will have to flee, hide, and then will have a motivation to get revenge. It also add realism, you don't mess with the big mafia boss of a town when you are just newcomer, or if you do, fat chance you survive*.

To finish, this means that your players won't save the princess at lvl1, and you can't really launch them on an epic adventure at start. If you want to do so, let them create PC at the appropriate lvl.

* : honestly I think this is a very good lesson. I once had players who privately confronted the richest man in the town, suspecting he was the mastermind behind every crime in the city they just arrived (freshly created PC, without even being known by the authority). Then they took a room at the local inn and slept there, forever. The TPK was quite cruel but come on... they understood that their move was very dumb and played more logically the next time.

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That is a general problem created by the Game Mechanics of D&D. CRs and ELs promote a meta-game attitude that "if we're here to confront this problem, then it must be within our means". And for the published adventures (Modules or Dungeon Mag or 3rd-party OLG products) this seems to be held to strictly. –  user23715 Aug 15 at 18:10

I had a similar problem near the start of my current campaign. A group of scouts hadn't reported back from their scouting assignment, but why weren't the people who sent out the scouts going after them themselves?

I didn't answer that directly but I did have the players overhear the commander of the scouts arguing with another commander trying to get people to help go after the missing people. The result of the conversation was that there just weren't enough men available.

As a result I made it clear from the start that the "good guys" forces were stretched thin. They just didn't have enough people to do everything. That then meant that everything after that made sense, if you don't have enough people to go deal with some potentially hazardous situation yourself it's much easier and safer to hire adventurers to do it.

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If you're going to play a game that assumes lots of high level NPCs, you need to keep them busy. Remember this is a fantasy adventure story, not a realism simulator. The top-level rogues don't go personally end the PCs because they're busy running the mafia, under watch 24/7, too busy/lazy/rich to do that and have underlings to do it for them, at their trial trying to get off scot-free for the fifth time this week, and finally because they're end-bosses and the heroes are still starting out and stories don't work that way.

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"Go with ye?!" roared the Sheriff. "I have my hands full as it is. Between keeping the feuds from boiling over, sobering the damned brewmaster in the clink every few days, and watching that riff-raff like you stay in line, I can't go haring off to do your job for you. Get out of my office." –  SevenSidedDie Aug 15 at 4:03

Why is the existence of high-level NPCs “logical?”

The Eberron campaign setting, that is, one of the official ones for D&D, is set two years after a continent-spanning, hundred-year-long war. There are a lot of combat veterans around. But most of them are level 3-4, and those who are 5-6 are more like war heroes. The few NPCs who are in the 8-11 category are world leaders, famous for their power and intelligence, and they are few and far between.

And Eberron is more logically consistent for it.

A big problem, I find, with campaign settings that include high-level characters is that it becomes exceedingly difficult to explain why they aren’t doing things. Yes, it’s hard to explain why the 12th-level mafia boss doesn’t destroy the 3rd-level PCs the first time they annoy him. But it’s a lot harder to explain why the 12th-level quest-giver is giving the quest at all, considering that anything a 3rd-level party can solve, he could easily solve, possibly faster than the time it takes for him to find the party, recruit them, explain the situation, and negotiate their reward if successful.

So I strongly recommend you consider dramatically lower-level demographics. In my experience, it works far better and yields a far more consistent world.

As for realism, a 1st-level human barbarian can beat Usain Bolt’s world-record sprinting speed. For several minutes on end. While wearing a chain shirt, wielding a battleaxe, and carrying 50-odd pounds of assorted other gear.

So D&D is never going to be “realistic.”

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"more logically consistent" Eberron is not. Baker set about building his world by "fixing" things that were not broke. He's made a fine setting (as good as Dark Sun or Mystara) but it certainly isn't more logically consistent than any other. –  user23715 Aug 15 at 17:51
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Great leaders know how to delegate, that's why they don't always do everything themselves. Truly great leaders should set you off in a journey which lies just slightly beyond your current ability, so that you can develop further but have a reasonable chance of success. A bad leader though, would delegate someone who has no chance of successfully completing their mission. Like those poor punchbags that enemy bosses likes to send to PCs for free experience points. –  Lie Ryan Aug 17 at 1:24
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@LieRyan Perhaps that enemy boss was sending his minion out against something a little beyond his current ability, to make him stronger? –  Jason_c_o Aug 17 at 17:59

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