GM Advice: Building Badass Boss Battles - Part 1: Building Better Bosses
Ah, the boss battle. Always a time honored tradition. The boss battle exists as the culmination of the player's efforts in whatever story they are running through. And why wouldn't it? The boss is the head hauncho. The nefarious force that has been manipulating the events your players have fought so valiantly against. It is usually a bring of great power, that can single-handedly take on your players in an epic confrontation that could shake the very foundations of the world!
Except, most Tabletop RPGs don't really support this idea... mechanically at least. The shortcoming of most RPGs is that if you introduce a singular big bad, they tend to get ganged up on and soundly beaten way before you intended, making the whole event really anticlimactic.
You have placed your players on the path to encounter this boss. They understandably have high hopes for it. So should you. A boss fight should be no cake walk, but what is a GM to do. If you introduce boss that is mechanically superior to the party, then you are dealing with a creature that can throw out an obscene amount of punishment. Sure it has a well of hit points, but with 3-6 players pounding on it, the thing will be dead before you know it.
"One is all you need!"
The old idea was to throw minions at the party. Easily breakable creatures I like to call doritos would swarm parties. Sure, it takes a little heat of the boss, but now you have a different problem. You have introduced these easy, 1-2 hit targets at the expense of lowering the boss's challenge rating, and thus, lowering its damage output, its armor class, its saves and its ability to hit. That is a lot to remove from something so incredibly badass.
Suppose there was another way? Suppose you could make the boss battle you have always wanted with only a few minor modifications? How? Let us ponder...
What Is A Boss?
A boss is a powerful being that has either manipulated events as small as poisoning a town's water supply or as large as destabilizing a regional government. To accomplish their tasks they often gather themselves up some minions, underlings, henchmen, lackeys, or troops (depending on which word fits best). This means that, no matter how powerful or nasty these creatures are, the boss is worse. Worse enough to bend them under its control. Either they are stronger, smarter, more charismatic, or they wield a strange and terrible power its lessers cannot, like magic... or jazzercise.
What Is The Purpose Of A Boss Fight
The players have opposed the actions of the boss. Typically, the boss is not a fan of this course of action, so they do what a boss is supposed to do in these situations; get shit done. These little upstarts are a kink in your bosses plan, and they need to be dealt with, be it through enslavement, imprisonment, or flat out killing them. Each option is as delightful as the next, as far as the boss is concerned, the third option being preferable if the party decides it wants to talk shit... and they will.
The boss fight is the last chance the party has to stop the boss from fulfilling whatever dark deed it has it's black little heart set on, and the boss' last chance to rid themselves of monkey wrenches that are the player characters. It is the battle that turns to the tide of what has come before, and what will be.
How To Dial The Fight Up
A fight with such as this should be something memorable. It should pop and standout against ever other fight the players have ever experienced before. It should knock them for a friggin' loop, with all manner of unexpected twists and turns. And that, dear reader, is what I intend of showing you how to do.
Your boss should have some lasting power, after all, they're the boss. Giving the boss more hit points sounds like a reasonable answer to this problem, and it's not wrong. There are a variety of ways of extending the hit points of a boss. You could institute some manner of damage reduction or resistance to most types of damage, thus making the hit points it has last longer. You could have something or someone healing the boss as it trots about, smiting the player characters with reckless abandon. Or, you could just pile hit points on it, but doing so typically increases the challenge rating, and for this experience, we would like to keep the challenge rating within the reach of the player characters' capabilities.
My suggestion is the combination of two or three of these.
The World of Warcraft Model.
Hi, I am Ed The Bard, and I am a recovering WoW addict. I played the game from its heady “Vanilla” days, to its most recent expansion. I put a lot of time into the game as a tank for my guild, and as a tank you tend to gain a lot of perspective when it comes to boss fights. You see, in WoW, the boss fights can be mighty brutal, and some of the bigger, more well know fights are experienced in phases.
What is a phase?
"Playing Cataclysm sure as hell was."
When you fight a boss in phases, the first phase is pretty straight forward. Boss hits you, you hit back, they pull out some kind of special ability, and so on and so forth. When you have damaged the boss enough, the fight moves to the second phase. This can be anything from a change of venue (if you are fighting a colossal creature and it takes off with you standing on it), to a complete metamorphosis of the boss.
Whatever the case, it often forces the player to change their tactics. If they were purely offensive before, it make put them on the defensive because the boss' damage output has increased significantly. If they were slow moving and hard hitting before, they could be quick as a whip not, and focusing more on keeping itself alive through defense and tactics.
In some cases the fight can move into a third phase, forcing the players to one again change their tactics to deal with whatever new threat this boss poses. The third phase can either be more difficult, or easier than the second phase, but either way brings a new challenge to the table the players must overcome, some trick they need to figure out in order to pound the final nail in the boss' coffin.
As I see it, there is no reason this can't be ported over to your game.
The Obsidian Monolith
I ran this encounter some time ago. Here is a little backstory to help it all make sense. The characters were happy lot of country bumpkins living in a one-horse village, nestled between a mountain and a peaceful little creek. One day the stream turned black, and the villagers grew ill. The village healer (mother to one of the characters) asked the characters to travel to the top of the mountain, where they would find a monastery with people who could help. So, up the mountain they went, found the monastery sacked with almost all the monks inside killed and turned into hungry undead. They fought their way down to a cavernous room.
Inside the room stood an obsidian monolith standing in the center of a small island amid a small pool of brackish water. The monolith was bound with glowing white chains of unknown origin. Inside the monolith was trapped the First Lich. Along the outer edge of the pool stood eight zombies, gifted with speech, all chanting the same thing repeatedly. Next to the monolith stood a mage, likewise chanting as links of the glowing chain began to dim and crumble. The mage in in fact a priest in a cult that worship the dreaded lich, and plotted his return.
The encounter was set up as such. The X's represent the chanting zombies, the M being the mage. Because of the positioning, the mage was able to attack at a distance. The only way to him was across the slippery stepping stones, or a mighty jump across the brackish water, which in turn was infused with nercotic/negative energy, dealing a surprising amount of damage. Since there was perhaps only one or two people that could make the jump or navigate the check to balance across the slippery stones, the mage effectively reduced the amount of damage he took by half.
Furthermore, the chanting of the zombies was quickly destroying the celestial chains that bound the monolith. The players immediately figured this out and went to work dispatching the zombies, though they were placed in such a way that it would take a few round to kill them all.
The mage proceeded to lob spells that injured and debuffed members of the party both on the island and upon the shore. When he and the zombies were finally dispatched, it ended phase 1. Phase 2 began when the monolith zapped the dead mage, raising him as a unique undead. His hit points returned to full, any conditions placed on him before were removed instantly, and he now had the undead subtype (and all the resistances and immunizes that go with it). He took to the air, throwing down spells, before returning to the monolith to regain lost spells. This gave the melee characters a chance to get a few good its on him before he took to the air again to rain hell down upon him. Each time he returned to the monolith, a chain would break, making it more of a race against time, and forcing them to change their tactics.
Suffice to say, it was a memorable fight. Shame about that Lich getting loose...
The Amazing Healing Boss
A dreadful fallen paladin (an anti-paladin if you will) stands at the center of a chamber deep in the heart of an hidden temple to a demon lord. The party has come to stop him, but what ho! There seem to be six cultists standing high above on platforms, a single floating gem hovers in the center of all of them. The cultists, in their uniform hoods and robes, stand silently, never engaging in any type of hostile action The anti-paladin chooses not to monologue but instead elects to attack the players.
His blows are heavy and fierce, and he is well armored. Still, the party manages to land a few solid blows upon him. The anti-paladin raises a gauntlet to the gem, which glows and thrums with power. A bolt shoots out of the gem to one of the cultist and to the ants-paladin's hand. The cultist screams and drops dead from the platform, the anti-paladin's wounds begin to close.
That is when the party realizes, “Oh shit, he got him sum healz!”, or however the kids these days say it.
Now the party must split their attention between several targets instead of just one. The cultists (each of whom have 1/6 the anti-paladin's total hp), the gem (which has total hp of the anti-paladin), and the anti-paladin (which now has full hit points and a new lease of life). Furthermore, any time our boss decides to draw power from the gem, he removes one condition currently on him.
The smart money would be to focus on the c cultists, as there are only five left, but whole fire is focused on them (or if ranged is lacking, rounds spent on climbing/casting fly), the boss gets in many good whacks before they can all focus their full attention back on him.
Another way of doing this is with shared damage, where the boss takes only half the damage from an attack, and one lucky cultist takes half.
Treat the CR as if the players were fighting two enemies of the same CR as our anti-paladin. Though award xp as if there were only one.
The God of War Boss Fight
Remember Kratos. Hell yes, you remember Kratos. Always running around, ripping the wings off harpies and making with the sexy time with half the women (and Goddesses) of Greece. If someone had an epic boss fight, it was surely the Ghost of Sparta.
Even if you are not a fan of the games and their glorious amount of unnecessary uber-violence, you must admit that their boss fight execution was top notch. Again, like the WoW model, this can easily be transferred into you game with little to no effort. Observe, my friends, as I recreate a battle with a literal colossus.
A colossus, or any obscenely large enemy exists as nothing but parts. Hands, feet, torso, head, they are all big targets. While this enormous boss is one creature, treat each body part you want to include in the fight as a separate creature. These should all be of the same CR and hit points, and should carry the same amount of damage output, though changing the kind of damage is a neat way of switching up the fight.
So, big boss encounters the party on the top of a castle. He swats at them with his big o'le hands, often getting them stuck in walls and what not, giving the party a round or two to land some blows before raising the fist and dropping it down again. Continue this for as many parts as you want to include. Hell, it could have flaming laser eyes that deal the same amount of damage as the hands... except with fire.
Your boss is a big deal. Treat it with respect. Make the fight last, but end it if it starts to feel more like a slog than a climactic event that will decided the fate of the town/region/world/ihop.
How do you run your boss fights? What memorable boss battles have you fought in? Leave your tales in the comments below.
Kill the party, like a boss+Ed The Bard
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