Many times, when I am trying to put together a massive political, military and economic plot, typically led by a mastermind or group of masterminds, I think to myself: What Would Lex Luthor Do?
To me, Lex Luthor is the penultimate hero of the planet Earth. No one else is willing to intentionally provoke Superman. No one else has been able to see through Superman’s hypocrisy and see the truth, that Superman is in fact an alien invasion. No other fictional character I can think of has so perfectly blended political, economic, scientific, and military forces in order to actually come to the point of ruling the world (or at least becoming president of the USA).
So what would Lex do? Obviously, it depends on the situation, but I can tell you this - He’d find the weakness in what his rivals (or enemies) are doing and exploit it. He’d find a way to change the opinions of the common people and use them for the power they actually hold. He’d lead his enemies to underestimate his forces and then deliver the knockout blow after they had committed their forces directly into his trap. In other words, he would be brilliant!
You know why it matters? Because somewhere in your FRPG world, there is a ruler who is supposed to be brilliant. He’s supposed to be this world class thinker and doer, holding power in his fist and ruling with authority. But when the adventurers show up, he’s completely lacking in strategy. We all know why this happens - because you don’t have time to think up everything for every one of your NPCs. But for the really smart ones, you need to.
Mr. Luthor is the penultimate hero - He’s as good as it gets. He can even be humble when it suits him. Your leaders may not be like that. My elven leaders are smart, but they are constrained by their culture and traditions, as are the dwarves. When I think of what my military powers (usually orcs or one of the various human cultures) would do, they are constrained by the logistics of it all - How can they both attack the world and provide safety and food back at home? Even the most powerful mages often forget that not everyone can control magic or they forget that physical power is equally as effective, if used properly. Not everyone can be as good as Lex. But every once in a while, there needs to be someone who is.