Your Party Will Kill The Boss  

Posted by Michael Donaldson in ,

Every one of you GMs has experienced this in the past - when you designed a super awesome big-bad, set up the story perfectly, and the final confrontation awaits. Booming his opening monologue, he sets upon the party...only to get facerolled without so much as a sweat from the party.

Perhaps he got one good hit in. Perhaps he got a pretty decent spell off. But he was supposed to be a Boss, man! What happened!?

The fact of the matter is, without special preparation, single enemy encounters will more often than not fall into one of two catagories - easily handled by the party, or a one-stop TPK machine. Riding the very thin line of "challenging encounter" is difficult with a single enemy, but luckily I've got some tips that will help you design more engaging and dramatic boss fights (i.e. ones that don't get crushed and ruin the moment!)

  • Add Underlings - I cannot stress how useful underlings can be in the equation of an excellent boss fight. Recently I ran an encounter against a second level party, and they faced a Kobold Broodmaster (Summoner) 5. Frail and without excessive hit dice to protect him, the kobold needed a distraction so his eidolons could wreak havok. Merely tossing six first-level kobold warriors (who are almost useless) did the trick - melee fighters attempting to get to him had to deal with pesky kobolds blocking the way, and ravaging eidolons trying to get to their casters. More often than not, underlings provide pathway-blocking obstacles that must be defeated before the boss can be reached, and provide a turn or two extra for the boss to do whatever murderous tactic you have planned for him. Clever use of said minions can even help you divide the party - imagine a boss room with two doors in and a narrow hallway where the PCs start. Simply mob the doorway half the party comes in with underlings, and have the boss assault the second doorway. Party members wishing to help will need to plow through their mess of mooks before being able to join the big fight!
  • Environmental Obstacles - A well-designed boss fight should include terrain that is absolutely optimized for your boss. Is he a ranged attacker? Perhaps he starts the fight on top of a cliff that players must ascend via switchbacks. If he's a melee fighter, tight quarters are his friend. Strong enemies do well with terrain hazards they can toss PCs into, and spellcasters work great with walls or doors. Imagine engaging a wizard through an arrow slit!
  • Mitigating Abilities and Qualities - I can't stress enough how much damage reduction and spell resistance can help shift your boss fight from "typical" to "challenging". Obscure DRs like x/good and bludgeoning will almost never come up in the PCs vocabulary of threats (and even if they do have the ability to bypass them, they'll end up feeling accomplished for doing so) and help heavily reduce incoming damage from the party. Does your party have a special trick, such as enchantment spells with absurd DCs? Enemies immune or highly resistant to this work well for heightening difficulty and forcing the party to keep on their toes.
  • Dominate a Theatre of Combat - In a party that heavily relies on one theatre of combat (melee, ranged, magic, etc) I like to mix things up by making a boss that is significantly better at it than them. Nobody wants to fight the Ogre Mage Lich Monk heel-dropping paralysis effects on them in melee, and if they do insist on trying to slug it out with him they will more than likely end up motionless in a pile on the floor. With these sorts of encounters, it can help to advertise his abilities before the party is forced to deal with them (with friendly mooks, for example) so that an effective strategy can be decided upon before the party is in balls-deep panic mode.
Ultimately, nobody wants an encounter that was supposed to be climactic and memorable to end up easy and unchallenging. In the event that your boss doesn't perform as well as you designed him and the party is reasonably well off, there is no shame in stapling plot-powered healing effects or more raw hitpoints onto him. Sometimes monsters just need another round or two to make that lasting impression, and as the GM, you get to decide when and if he's down for the count.

GMs, do you have any useful tips for memorable boss-construction? Players, what's your most memorable boss encounter?

This entry was posted on March 30, 2012 at Friday, March 30, 2012 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



some of the best bosses are the sneaky ones. they are fun to set up and play as the GM and it keeps the party on their toes. random magic items or equipment (like poison, thuderstones for casters, or oils of darkness) can make it very interesting. makes the party feel like even a lower CR is a potential threat because they don't know whats coming next. they stay on the defensive without the overwhelming possibility of a swift and brutal death.

April 1, 2012 at 2:51 PM

An appopriate post given that last night I was playing and we took out a big boss before he even got an action.

Figure out how your boss got to be the boss. Are they the toughest? Give them extra hit points or damage resistance. Do they command loyalty? Give them thralls willing to sacrifice themselves. Are they planners? Give them contingency plans and the resources to use them. Do they kiss up to someone more powerful? Have backup show up or have them surrender before death. Are they clever? Give them a trick that occurs in the middle of the fight that changes the outcome.

April 2, 2012 at 4:07 PM

Post a Comment