Image: LOTR Balrog by Arkis on DeviantArt
Standing on the bridge above the pit of Khazad-dûm, the wizard in the party turns to confront the Balrog. Do you turn and flee while you have the chance or do you aid him in one final combat to send the evil back to The Shadow for good?
These are always the moments we want to create in our tabletop games; a sense of epicness and grandeur that make the players feel courage bubbling up from deep within them. Boss monsters have a way of doing that, if the scene is set right. To me, setting that scene is the easiest part. Since our beloved hobby is at the mercy of the most fickle mistress, the dice, it’s a little tough to really anticipate how that scene is going to go. Most games have encounter building tips, challenge ratings for monsters, and all sorts of other fiddly bits to help us tailor our encounters like a well made suit. Only for the dice to come along and muck it up for us. Building boss fights can be tough, and honestly, I think it’s the toughest kind of encounter building. Making one monster formidable enough to take on a whole party by itself without wiping the floor with them or getting trampled by them is a balancing act fit for a circus.
Despite its unpopularity, D&D 4e really took the video game boss concept and brought it to the tabletop with “Solo Monster” guidelines. Honestly, why do we not see these pop up more? The mechanics are specific to 4e, sure, but the concept is easily translatable to other games. Giving boss monsters a better action economy can make a huge difference. Simply increasing damage, health, and defenses alone can inadvertently make a combat more deadly instead of more epic. When your orc chieftain gets cornered alone and you decide to beef up his damage to counteract the fact that he’s outnumbered, one wallop could knock a character down. Then it’s on to the next, which could start a chain reaction. If the characters are having bad dice luck, this could mean everybody gets stuck making death saves while your orc chieftain is getting ready to coup de grace the fighter or is sitting there laughing like a buffoon. Instead, giving that chieftain some staying power by providing extra actions, special effects that trigger on PC actions, powerful boons at half hit points or below etc. could keep him around. It’ll draw out the combat, whittle down your PCs without squishing them like flies, and could give it an overall more epic feel.
art by Shoz-art – “You gon’ get it, now!”
Or, of course, your orc chieftain could be 100% normal and your players can waltz in, slay him like a suckling pig, and move on with the campaign. We don’t judge here.
Bad guys with story elements and personality are always more engaging. Often times my bosses are politicians or mundane people that just have a bad attitude. However, this can be extremely underwhelming when the swords and scrolls come out. In other words, my bad guys aren’t always buff, steroid-monkey orcs that like to crunch apples with their biceps. It can be really tough to sensibly make those characters powerful enough to take on an entire party without your players saying, “Oh, come on! There’s no way that suit gives him AC 24!”
Unless you’re revealing some secret that the weakling has hidden up their sleeve, your boss fight turns into a standard combat. Filling it out with lackeys and environmental hazards makes the villain last longer and put up more of a fight. Traps that spring up during a combat can be pretty surprising and fun. Even if the bad guy doesn’t have the ridiculous damage output like an orc, or massive defenses/hit points, they can still benefit from some upped action economy. Pairing that with the environment and some mooks/minions to help out can make for a riveting and highly engaging combat scene. It takes away from that Balrog vs. Gandalf feeling, but it’ll still likely make a very memorable boss fight.
How do you make boss fights stand out from regular encounters?
Stay Metal \m/