Know When to Fold'em
This is going to be the first post in a blog carnival. The rules are simple:
1. Your post must be on topic.
2. The first person in the list of bloggers who are participating who replies to each post will be responsible for writing the next piece. (Don’t reply if you are not ready to write it with in the next 24 hours.)
3. You must add a link to all of the previous authors carnival posts at the end of your post.
4. No name calling.
As a DM, I don't like the restriction that creatures above the level of the PCs can't exist or be known to players and PCs alike. It stretches the imagination and story beyond reasonable breaking points. What happens as they level, do the appropriate monsters just spring into existence when necessary, with no history or connection with the current location? How do players and their PCs set goals, experience the bitterness of defeat and the joys of a hard-fought and unassured victory?
On the other hand, I know that as soon as many players hear about a big bad guy, they want to go after him. To quote Jim Darkmagic, "Can I roll to kill Irontooth?" Some players are going to be drawn to the creature, regardless of the likelihood of success, and are going to be frustrated if they can't defeat it.
So what does this mean for our worlds? The answer is that we have to change our definitions victory and defeat. For many of us, the iconic victory is one of defeat in battle, the blood of our enemy upon our sword, the triumphant final blow that tells the world that we are the winners. After all, that is the heroic way, right?
While the decisive victory can be exciting, if it comes too easily, the satisfaction is short-lived. Besides, some players enjoy a good bit of intrigue as much as a hard-fought battle. Perhaps the beloved nephew of the big bad guy just joined the lower ranks and the PCs hear about his location and can kidnap him. Maybe the PCs learn of a nearby brigand weapons cache and steal the goods and lay waste to the plans of a surprise attack. Through these story lines, the PCs can win smaller victories against their enemy and make him weaker as they get stronger.
So, fill your world with monsters of all levels, don't hide them from the players, but be sure they have plenty of level-appropriate victory conditions. Acknowledge that they will transfix on whatever you tell them, so be clear when something might be above their heads and give them the tools that will lead to success down the road. Not only will your stories seem richer, the satisfaction of the win will be longer lasting.