It was a pure revelation to me the first time I thought of it.
In Princes of the Apocalypse, the various elemental cults vie with each other for power. They’re sorta enemies, sorta rivals. Either way, my players were sent by the head of one to go wipe out the other.
When they got there, they ended up talking a little bit to the guy they were supposed to get rid of.
“Yeah, she’s playing you,” he said.
True? Ehhh … kind of? Not really. But it saved his hide as the players trooped straight back to the first cult leader and wiped her out.
Something to keep in mind is that the villains in your campaign want to survive. If the players seem too strong, they’re perfectly happy to deflect them somewhere else for a while.
This guy – Jolliver Grimjaw – has had the players show up at his doorstep twice, and has deflected them both times. Both times he’s not really been truthful. For a while, they thought he was a good guy. He seemed so genuine and convincing they didn’t even bother with any kind of insight roll. Now, half a year later in real time, a few months later in game time, he’s had a lot of time to get ready for when they inevitably return.
So have your villains lie to your players and send them off doing other stuff. It keeps them alive and thickens the plot quite nicely.
Now get out there and tell a story!