GM Advice: Building Badass Boss Battles - Part 3: Building Better Battles

If you just joined us, be sure to check out Part 1, wherein we build a better boss, and Part 2, wherein we find just the right location to have our battle.

Now we've done it. We've grown a boss of true power and terror. We've patted the characters against it in the most frightening place imaginable. Now it is time for the thing we've all been waiting for. The battle.

I could spend two or three separate articles detailing tactics. what you should and shouldn't do, and so on and so forth. But when it really comes to tactics, it is really dependent on the location, the situation, and how your players play their characters, so I leave those entirely up to you, the Game Master. I know you'll do just fine.

And in this case, we are going to make tactics out bitch..

No, today we are going to discuss the not how to fight, but the fight itself, and the effect it can have on the landscape (spoiler alert: its a big one). A lot of boss fights are pretty straight forward, charge into the boss' lair, confront them, monologue, trash talk, and a fight that ends when the boss either flees of is defeated.

But if we are going to make a spectacle of this, if we really want this seared into the players' minds, we are going to have to do a little better. A typical battle allows the players to rely on tried and true tactics they have been implementing over several sessions. These tactics work. These tactics are proven. These tactics are going to do them no good this time.

This is the boss' fight, and any good boss will draw inspiration not from the book of vile villainy, but from the greatest tactician of any story told in the span of human history. No, not Sun Tzu.


"Be whatever you want to be, unless you can be Batman. Always be Batman."

The Dark Knight has had a simple philosophy that is at the core of his war on crime and the mentally ill; make your enemy fight on your terms, not theirs. What Bats is saying is that forcing an enemy to fight the way you want them to gives you insight on how they will behave, giving you a huge tactical advantage. The boss is the boss for a reason, so naturally it is sued to calling the shots. This will not be a big departure for them.

How will the boss attempt bring the players low? Glad you asked. Here are a few examples.

The "On The Move" Battle
This type of battle forces all the characters to keep moving, even those ranged folks who think they're all safe and sound in the back. This can be done a number of ways. The location in which the battle takes place could be falling apart, such as a room, platform or bridge crumbling beneath their feet. Each round they need to watch their footing and continue to move as large portions fall away. Sometimes massive gaps could open up, forcing the characters to jump or figure another way across before their section is next. Areas falling unexpectedly could require a check to grab a ledge before plummeting into what lay below.

 "Balrog v Gandalf: Dawn of Badass Wizardry"

Another fine example is a chamber with a deep, near endless bottom, or a lake of fire. A series of platforms suspended by rusty chains run the length of the room. Minions leap from platform to platform to get a better attack on the players as the boss zooms around/bounds around, attacking and retreating, sometimes attacking the brittle chains, sending the platforms plummeting below. Too much weight or too much time spent on the platform breaks the fragile links. With the right check, characters (and enemies) could swing the platform into another, possibly knocking it down, possibly suffering the same fate. If you want to be truly sadistic, make this a fight with a chain devil.

"Now that's off the chain!"

The idea is making the players (not just the character) think on their feet. This is not a simple "tank and spank". This requires a great deal more planning and improvisation, for at any moment the safety of wherever the character is standing could be compromised.

The "Time Is Running Out" Battle
Sometimes facing down a powerful foe isn't enough. Sometimes the Game Master sticks a little clock in the corner, counting down to their doom. The "Time Is Running Out" battle introduces a factor that becomes time sensitive during the course of the battle. Despite what this element is, it is generally something that either ends the fight or means the failure the player character's primary objective. These encounters usually become more tense as the time goes on

"Like sands through the hourglass, these are the last moments of the player characters' lives"

Examples include a chamber filling with water, sand, acid, lava, or another substance that typically works against your player characters' biology. It should be of note that the boss in said chamber should be immune to said nasty substance, for obvious reasons.

"Hi! Hello! I think there may be a plumbing problem in here... also a skeleton."

Another is when a life, other than the player characters' or the boss, hangs in the balance. The life in question is often that of an innocent, a beloved NPC, or someone of interest that has information the player characters need. The danger could be something as simple as being slowly lowered into a vat of acid (lifted from the James Bond book of over-complicated villainy), wherein the characters need to fight off the boss, and their minions while at the same time trying to rescue the captive.

"Give me the deed to your ranch! Wait... you rent?! There seems to have been a terrible misunderstanding"

Other examples include stopping an execution (the gallows or a headsman's axe, your choice), stopping an assassination, or stopping the wizard from completing the ritual that will suck the souls out of ever man, woman, and child in the city.

There is a lot riding on this particular style of battle. Failure has dire and immediate repercussions other than the potential deaths of the characters. Players accept that that is a possibility when they sit down at the table, but when it is their favorite NPC, an informant, or the person they have been question to rescue, they tend to fight a little harder, and a little smarter.

The "Fake Out" Battle
I will admit right off the bat that I am not only guilty of using this battle in my games, but took a sick, almost sadistic degree of pleasure from doing so. This basically boils down to leading the players to believe that the enemy they are fighting is the boss. Sure, they guy  is tough, and can dish out damage with the best of them, but he exists for one reason; to suck up the party's resources so the boss can enter in a pants-shiting-jaw-on-the-floor-oh-crap-we're-so-screweed moment.

 "It was a lot like that, yeah."

Let me set the scene for you. A goblin tribe has been raiding caravans by the roadside and making off with the goods. We've all seen it. The players track the goblins back to their cave, fight said goblins, and make it to the back of the cave, which is a large limestone cavern. Thick webs cover much of the ceiling and walls, making the players a little unsure about what is going on considering there have been no spiders up until this point. None of that matters though, because up ahead is the chief of this goblin tribe, clutching a fairly dangerous magic item. He battles the players, proving to be more dangerous than your average goblin, and thus becoming the focus for the group's ire. After all, who wants to loose to a goblin?

One observant player noticed that there were stranger arcane symbols woven into the web. With the right check, they determined that these were more than just webs, they were pages from a spellbook, woven in spidersilk (Dun Dun Dun!).

The goblin was finally put down. A good amount of the player characters' resources were spent in the caves, and here against the "boss". That was when I introduced the real boss, an awakened, highly intelligent spider mage (I was going through a phase). The reaction from the players was priceless. With little to no resources left they fought smarter than I had ever seen. The fighter was on the defensive for most of the fight so that they could conserve the cleric's few remaining healing spells. They flanked, they went to higher ground, they attempted to get every combat advantage they could against this new foe. They even went to work burning these webbed up spell scrolls so that the spider couldn't cast from them.

 "I castz da spellz dat makez da peoplez fall down!"

Some may see this as a dick move. I see it as a new and different way of challenging my players to get them to play the best characters they can, and on that day, they were the best they had ever been.

And that about finishes up my Building Better Boss Battles series. If you liked (or even if you didn't), let me know down below. Also if you have run or played in any unique battles, tell me about 'em. Points for details.

Well, that's all for me. I am slinking back to my lair to bide my time until the stars are right.... muwahahahah!

Be your own boss,
+Ed The Bard 

Looking for some extra aids to make your game really pop? Check out the Open Gaming Store. Tell them The Bard sent you.

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