Surprise your players by throwing them a curve ball: higher-level bandits.
Kala, a half-elf woman, led an otherwise unassuming group of bandits on a series of raids along a lucrative trade route near the sea. One day, they fell on a group of adventurers who were transporting an artifact, and managed to kill them.
The artifact in question was a wand of charm person. Kala didn't need to use it on her followers, so instead, she used it on the next caravan passing through, convincing a guard to let her look around (and surreptitiously steal a few supplies).
It's what happened next that was the key to the rest of Kala's career: she made a friend out of that guard.
Over the coming six months, Kala loaned the wand to each of her associates, who each earned the friendship of someone in one of the major caravans passing along that trade route. Her group still had to raid a couple of them, but she built up trust.
Then her group split up. Each signed on with a different caravan through the contact they'd made. They'd re-gather every few weeks at their hideout, pool their money, party a little, and head back out. They've dubbed themselves Kala's Hands.
As a friendly faction, Kala's Hands are former ne'er-do-wells who are going legit. Kala saw the wand as a chance to get out of their dead-end lives. Kala's Hands are fantastic sources of information about adventuring jobs in the area.
As a foe faction, Kala and her compatriots steal a little from each caravan, adding that to their spoils when they get back together. Thanks to their pooled knowledge, they have also begun making small raids on otherwise hard-to-identify targets in the days between caravan duty. Because they don't stay together for long, they're very hard to track down.
In addition, because they've had a lot of experience, they should all be significantly higher level than the average bandit. For D&D 5E, increase their bonuses and AC by +2 to +4.
A final confrontation with Kala's Hands can occur in their hideout, an abandoned shrine in the wilderness not far from a major road. A flock of stirges nest there, and the Hands always bring a sack of animal blood that they use to satiate them.
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