GM Advice - Building Badass Boss Battles: Part 2 - Location, Location, Location!

If you are just joining us, be sure to check out Part 1.

Boss battles, am I right? They can be pretty darn spiffy. Game Masters go out of their way to make the encounter with one of these challenging and memorable. Sometimes we get so caught up with the boss themselves that we forget an element just as important. The thing that goes hand in hand with making an epic boss battle epic.

Location, location, location.

Sure, when your players finally confront that evil druid that has been raiding all the settlements along the borderlands, you could set it in his glade in the middle of the forest. There is nothing saying you can't, and it would be a really neat battle. But if we want to make it unforgettable, we need to crank that baby up to 11! We need something a little more interesting. Keep the location, but place it in the middle of a forest fire. Flames roar in every direction as players need to dodge blazing, falling tree. The battle area grows smaller and smaller as the fires encroach. Smoke fills their lungs and obscures their vision, and the heat (oh Gods the heat!) punishes them for every action they take.

 "Burn, baby. Burn!"

Suddenly the boss battle seems direr (actually a word). And it should. As I've said before, a boss battle is the culmination of an adventure. This is the chance for the players to turn the tides. The stakes have never been higher, so it stands to reason that the area should share in that desperation. The energy will almost be tangible at your table as they environment works with and against them.

There are endless ways to achieve this end result, but what kind of bard would I be if I didn't offer a few examples for your reading pleasure?

1. Natural Disasters
There is nothing more beautiful than when nature decides to lay down a titanic bitch slap. The power of nature is awesome, and doubly when it is set as a backdrop or centerpiece of you boss battle. A battle over a bridge is all well and good. When and doubt, just push someone off. But when that bridge is being pounded by a rushing flood, then you have something special. Suddenly the tricky footing of the bridge gets ramped up to hard mode with random bursts of water and mud slamming into characters, threatening to wash them over the edge and carrying them away, perhaps never to be seen again.

"Water under the bridge? Water OVER the bridge!"

Hurricanes and tornadoes are fantastic as a potential threat. High atop a tower the wind howls, threatening to throw the characters off like leaves as a cyclone slowly moves closer and closer. Forest fires threaten to consume all within the area unless they can escape. A battle across rooftops in a town becomes a lot more interesting when the town is being consumed by lava after a volcanic eruption.

"It's gonna be a hot time on the town tonight!"

This is the kind of boss battle location that comes to you. Not only is the fight more intense, but it also raises a great deal of concern for those nearby. Will they be able to survive without the aid of the heroes? Is the boss simply forestalling them so that the local villagers are burned alive or washed away in the flash flood?

2. Unnatural Disasters
This is similar to the one above, but a little different. This is where very unnatural forces have their way with the surrounding area. This is a great opportunity for the Game Master's imagination to go wild. The possibilities for these things are endless. Don't believe me? Here is just a sampling of what you can do.

  • Zombie apocalypse
  • Fire/Blood raining down from the sky
  • Portals from Gods know where opening up and unleashing all manner of unpleasant things
  • The barrier between planes breaks down. Wackiness ensues
  • Great Old Ones: Anything to do with
  • Extraplanar invasion  (demons, devils, modrons, etc.)
  • Arcane Thermal-Nuclear Incident
  • Gojira

3. The Base (Also Known As The Evil Lair)
Ah, this is where the magic happens. The boss' home turf. The lair. The Technodrome. Mordor. This is where the big bad likes to hang their black, black  hat. Classic examples have been chaotic caves, treacherous temples, and cumbersome castles. Let me tell you right now, there is nothing wrong with these three, but I think we can do better. These three fine examples will be the basis for what we are going to do here. We don't want to change these, per say, we just want to spice them up a bit, to ake them from bland to banana-pancakes-awesome.

  • Exotic Locations
    Strange, out of the way locations make for great and memorable battles that add new challenges to the mix. A cave system through an active volcano can be pretty boss, especially with the ever-present danger of poisonous gases, molten rock, and those pesky eruptions. A temple in the heart of the same volcano could be pretty sweet when dealing with fire-oriented beings like elementals, fire gods, fire giants, or dragons of the fire type. It gets a little crazier when said being rises up from the lava to beat ass and take names. And if you decide to build your castle on the slopes of said volcano, or better yet, over the top, it shows that not only does your boss have a huge pair on it, but it has no no regard for its own personal safety or property.

    If World of Warcraft has taught me anything, it is that glaciers and arctic tundra are fantastic places to set any boss battle. If worrying about the cold wasn't enough, your players will love you for the checks to traverse sheets of glare ice, and movement rules for running up an avalanche (this actually came up once).

    These things need not be naturally occurring features. A caves system, temple, or castle built in/on the body of a dead God could stick with your players for a long time, especially when they find themselves winding their way through the flesh of the long dead deity.

    And don't even get me started about the Isle of the Dead, a barren, hopeless place where the undead hold sway and devour the flesh of any living creature foolish enough to set foot in their unhallowed realm.

    Exotic locations can be great ways to get your players moving around your campaign world. It shows them something different from the usual settings in your campaign. If you have spent ages in a desert, try a lost temple in a rain forest out for size. If you are running something that has thus far been landlocked, get aquatic with your bad self. The exotic location is meant to shake things up, so shake on!

  • Other Planes
    Who said we needed to keep it strictly on the material plane. Some bosses are big time movers and shakers, making big deals and amassing tastefully appointed villas in planes literally made of terror and run off of pure nightmare fuel. If you thought you could have fun cooking things up for Unnatural Disasters, you are going to do back-flips for a demi-plane where you get to decide everything from the composition of the ground (if there is any) to the amount of gravity.

    Cave systems through the elemental plane of earth could be endless, and heaven knows what myriad of malicious and macabre minion the maniacal malcontent matriarch marches onward (alliteration is fun for the whole family). A temple is just a temple unless its a temple of death in the plane of shadow. Then it is rife for adventure and all manner of unholy lootables (they're like luchables, but for murder hobos). And anyone can build themselves a keep. But only a stone cold badass builds themselves a keep smack dab in the middle of Hell, whose real estate agents are only half as evil as the ones living and operating in L.A.

    Don't be afraid to go off the wall, and don't worry about explaining why your partial-golem boss has a clockwork fortress in Mechanus (heh...Mechanus. Mech anus. Gotta hit all the demographics, people!). Remember, the players don't often have all the answers. Just use this sparingly. If every boss they come up against has a summer home some plane or demi-plane, then they are going to want one too. 

What maddening locations have you used or encountered in your games? Leave your tale in the comment below.

There is a wide world out there. Let's take it over!
+Ed The Bard 

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