Take the 2-minute tour ×
Role-playing Games Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for gamemasters and players of tabletop, paper-and-pencil role-playing games. It's 100% free, no registration required.

So I've DM'd three separate games, of which one that I'm largely happy with. However, one consistent problem I run into is designing fun, exciting, and interesting boss fights. I've run into two major problems.

The Blitz

The boss fights are over too quickly. Generally this boils down to a problem of the players winning initiative overwhelmingly, and bum rushing the boss. This is an older problem, and one I've been able to largely solve, but I've run into it once or twice since my first mistake with it. I've added minions, generally my boss enemies have Improved Initiative. Still, it happens when I underestimate my party's damage-per-round.

The Slog

This problem is more commonly occurring. Fights turn into slogs. The boss doesn't get hit (usually from either a high AC, a lot of HP, or some other defensive mechanic like miss chance or some such). This is even worse than the Blitz, because instead of saying "that was easy," it boils down to "that was boring and a waste of my time." This can also happen from status effects like Fear, Hold Person, and other similar Save-or-Suck effects. But I don't know how to make a boss intimidating (and ergo, exciting), without using the strong Save-or-Suck effects.

For example, just recently I had my gaming group fight an evil cleric, in which I planned using minions, but thanks to unforeseen circumstance, the minions were quickly eliminated by the party's cleric. I planned on using them to harass the players while the cleric boosted the minions, so he had a lot of status effects. Unfortunately, when those minions were eliminated too quickly with Channel Energy, and the strategy was shot. He had a Deeper Darkness spell as a last resort, but it ended up bringing the fight to even more of a slog.

So my question here is twofold:

What specifically am I doing wrong, and what can I do to fix it?

share|improve this question
    
Possibly related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/3845/… –  Brian S Feb 11 at 20:20
1  
Are there any examples from published modules that make good use of these suggestions, from your experience? –  Nameless Nick Feb 11 at 20:44
1  
Have you considered non-mechanical methods? I once had an evil wizard spend a round of combat casting a spell that made the walls drip blue runes. It didn't do anything besides that - it was just a minor illusion designed to distract them from something else. But the apparently unknown spell freaked out the players enough that they remembered that fight. –  GMJoe Feb 13 at 5:39

8 Answers 8

up vote 20 down vote accepted

The biggest key to creating interesting boss fights (in my experience) is to introduce an element of surprise or guess work. Fights are boring if they're just constant dice rolls back and forth where everything goes as expected. But you can make mechanics which keep the players guessing and on their toes, which force them to constantly be thinking about what's going on or what to do next.

For example, in the culmination to one of my campaigns, I had the final boss have a "shifting immunity". Each round, I would roll on a table to see what type of energy or effect he was immune to that round, and each immunity had an associated color. So each round, the boss would change colors and have different things it was vulnerable to.

This forced the players to be paying attention and didn't allow them to just sit back and spam the same moves over and over. ("What? That fireball worked last time...") It also made it interesting for them, because, in addition to being a shifting immunity, it would grant a different power to the boss.

That's the basic premise. If you want a fight to be long, keep it interesting with different mechanics. This can be something like I've described above, or a "phased" fight (i.e., the boss has several different stages or modes), or something like a very specific effect he/she/it is vulnerable to for a killing blow. It forces you to get creative, but there's no way around that; if you just rely on what's in the source books, well... the players have read those just like you have.

share|improve this answer
5  
For ideas, look at any good computer game really, but MMORPG's are a great example. –  Dirk v B Feb 11 at 21:53
    
+1 actual example from experience –  mxyzplk Feb 12 at 1:31
    
@Kiorrik That's actually a really, really good point. If you look at some of the more complicated bosses that aren't just "tank and spank", you can get some really great ideas on how to shake things up or make encounters unique. –  asteri Feb 12 at 1:41
1  
Great answer. One of my most memorable boss fights made use of guesswork, terrain, and phases. He summoned multiple clones of himself all over the battlefield on each turn, and had the ability to swap places with clones. They died in one hit, but it kept the players guessing and moving. He also made zones of goo that started out small, but any time someone stood in or walked through it, it grew exponentially. Then once the boss got low on health he reversed gravity for everyone. The battle raged while falling up through a thunderstorm, and when they killed him, the party was a mile in the air! –  dpatchery Feb 12 at 15:31
    
Oh, and the thunderstorm was an entity of pure chaos and had permanent game-changing effects on people each turn. One guy ended up with bear claws. Luckily nobody rolled sex change! –  dpatchery Feb 12 at 15:43

Take a hint from the big computer rpg boss fights - even if you don't play them, you could find inspiration on youtube videos of them.

First - a commonly used concept in boss fights there is 'stages' where you make a memorable fight longer but not repetitive by splitting it in sub-fights with different styles, i.e., after 'defeating' the initial phase HP, some allies arrive, or the fight gets substantially different location/environment effects, or the boss' abilities or the fight goal changes.

Second - never have a 'plain' environment for a memorable boss fight; to prevent the fight from being 'roll the same attacks until your total hp-dealt is 1000' ensure that there is both a possibility for mobility in the area, and a neccessity for mobility - due to nature of boss attacks or environmental damage effects.

Third - don't have a "deal X damage" as the only (or primary) goal of the combat, try to include a simultaneous goal that must be met during the fight. For example - PCs should prevent repeatedly spawning minions from reaching a lever that damages party/kills hostages/heals boss; or require a PC to carry some McGuffin to a spot which the boss is defending and activate it.

share|improve this answer
2  
+1 Fights shouldn't just be rolling damage; a good fight tells a story; stages help this a lot! –  Rob Feb 12 at 11:30

The environment can matter as much as the opponent. Players love coming up with wild tactics that, in defiance of all logic, probability, and especially common sense, still somehow work. You can cater to this by adding details to the environment for them to exploit. Some possibilities include:

  • Large objects on the ground. Players can use these for cover, climb on top of them to get to higher ground, or even pick them up and throw them if they're strong enough. Boulders are the classic outdoor example, but curch pews can also work in a pinch.
  • Large objects hanging from the ceiling. Chandeliers are God's gift to GMs. You can hide in them, you can swing from them, you can drop them on enemies or to create patches of difficult terrain, you can drop them when people are hiding in them, you can pick up fallen ones and use them as big blunt instruments... the possibilities are almost endless.
  • Multi-tier battlefields. If your boss is a very large creature, being able to fight it on multiple levels allows for interesting tactics to emerge. Balconies and multi-story rooms work well for this indoors, while bridges and trees do the job outside.
  • Local flora and fauna. If you have druids and rangers in the party (or on the boss's side), let them have a field day with the nature around them. Even indoors, you might be surprised what a resourceful character can do with a potted plant.
  • Curtains. The less said of big curtains, the better; I'll let your imagination (and those of your players) fill in the details. Big flexible sheet-like objects may actually have a million and one different uses in combat, and rest assured, the players will think of some that you didn't.

If players don't take to exploiting the environment immediately, you can drive them in that direction by having the boss start to do it: just minor things at first. The players should catch on quickly that they can do this too. If they're really not picking up on the subtle stuff, drop a chandelier on them (actually, it's probably better to have the boss mess up and drop the wrong one the first time, because falling chandeliers hurt).

There's one other aspect to environmental exploitation that you need to be warned about: some of these things are going to require some on-the-spot rulings. This is deliberate. Part of the point is to make it feel like things have gotten so crazy, the rules can't even handle it anymore. This is technically metagaming, but it makes the fight feel more intense, and that's really what RPG combat is all about: taking little figurines, moving them around on a bunch of squares, and making it feel like this is the most awesome thing ever.

share|improve this answer

All the advice above about multi stage fights is excellent - however the two things I want to add is give yourself flexibility and give multiple potential objectives.

You cannot know in advance how well the players are going to strategize, how well they are going to roll etc.

So have environmental effects that seem random, having bad guy reinforcements coming into the room that they have to deal with, etc. Effects though where you can control them as need be for dramatic effect.

For example maybe a massive fireball sweeps through the room always proceeded by a clicking sound the round before. The first time the players hear the clicking, see/feel the fireball - Ouchie (you should probably have one go before they really engage so they are aware it can happen). After that if they hear the click they will move! Now though you control the click. Roll for it each round in secret...but ignore the roll and just say that they hear the click if you think its going to make the fight more interesting.

Note that the fireball has a warning here - the players get to do something about it. It's only the timing you are tweaking. That's important as random effects you can do nothing about are just annoying. That's why the changing immunity tied to colour is also good - it gives players something to think about/respond to...not just another source of lost hp based on a dice roll.

Another example is constantly spawning bad guys. In the example of your evil cleric fight don't start with all the zombies/etc in the room. Have multiple entrances in the room, have a few minions at the start and then have one come in through an entrance each round.

Now you have something you can tweak. Will the fight improve if one zombie comes in through door 2 - or if I have 2 zombies and 2 skeletons (1 through each door). The players can respond to this "archers cover the doors, shoot anything coming through", "Wizard, summon a wall to block that door", "dwarf, see if you can cave that tunnel in", etc, etc.

The flip side to this though is to reward players for using their initiative (not the game mechanic initiative, the other one). If they come up with any good plan to block one of the doors let them go for it. Make them work for it a bit but let them do it. For example:

Dwarf: Knowledge (Engineering) can I bring that tunnel down? (rolls a pass at suitable DC)

DM: The tunnel is supported by wooden pillars, a few strong axe blows would bring one down although the person doing it would need to be careful not to get trapped.

Now they have something to do. Get the barbarian in there swinging his axe. Give the pillars 30 hp, ac 10. When the pillar collapses they do an acrobatics check (or reflex save) to get out or take some damage from the falling rocks, etc.

Now the fight isn't about "smack the cleric at the far end of the room". It's about sealing the doors (or fighting off the growing swarm of minions) to reach him.

Suddenly the environmental effect has also become secondary objectives. You don't need to block the doors but by doing so you gain an advantage in the fight if the fight continues. So do we rush the bad guy and have the undead swarm our back lines or do we stop the influx first?

Which brings me on to secondary objectives.

Charging one target and destroying them is fine. Sometimes you should just do that. More often though you want multiple objectives, give players something to decide.

Whether it's something like the door example to gain an advantage in the fight. (For example, fighting a dragon with goblin minions. Maybe the goblins are firing siege ballista at the players. Capture those and turn them on the dragon!

There is the example of the doors above.

Maybe the Lich just finished his new phylactory and one of he minions is taking it out of the room.

Maybe all the captured villagers have been stuck on an island in the middle of a burning lava flow and the lava is rising. (Note again you control the rate of lava rising in order to keep it dramatically interesting and to provide a buffer against extreme dice rolling while at the same time leaving it possible both for the PCs to fail and for them to succeed).

One of the best things about secondary objectives as well is that the PCs do not need to succeed. If the big boss itself is too hard then you risk a TPK. That rising lava though, it should be possible to rescue the villagers but make the PCs work for it. If they don't really try wipe those suckers out and have the adventurers explain to the grieving family how they were too busy fighting the evil hobgoblin king to save their husbands/wives/children/etc.

share|improve this answer

Minions

In my experience as a DM, the most memorable fights are almost never the ones with a single "boss" enemy. You've noticed some of the problems with those fights. Either the party wins initiative and can zerg the boss down (or Save or Die it successfully), or the boss has 50 AC and 500 HP and the fight feels like it never ends. Making a single boss monster threatening to the players has similar problems. It needs to hit so hard that if it can't kill players in 1 or 2 turns of attacks, it's no real threat to them at all (and personally, I think instadeath attacks by NPCs aren't that fun for players).

IMO, the combat system just doesn't work terribly well when it's 4+ vs 1.

The more memorable fights are always the ones with more numbers on the NPC side. Give the boss some henchmen. Or, give him a lot of weak minions. Give the party something to worry about besides one guy, and the fights get a lot more interesting.

When it's 4v4, tactical decisions like who you're going to attack matter more as a player. How do you position yourself to protect your weaker members from being ganged up on? Do you try to rush an enemy and bring them down before they can react?

You will have to scale the "boss" down somewhat to do this. If you give him a few powerful allies, you can't also make him a super god monster that can take on the entire party alone. But that's fine. You can create really heroic moments where one PC fights the boss alone (against difficult odds) while the others are dealing with the henchmen and clearing space. Maybe that PC wins, but more likely he is holding off the boss until his allies can finish the henchmen and come help. Who is doing what is a tactical decision and a chance for the players to really shine in a way other than "I attack the only enemy on the board."

share|improve this answer

Some good answers and pointers here.

I learned something from one of the YouTube reviews of Star Wars - that famous 70 minute review of the 4th Star Wars movie where the guy tears everything apart that Lucas failed at.

Here's the thing - combats themselves are inherently boring if they last more than 5 seconds. Many of the strategies here rely on MMORPG type dynamics where they make the boss fight a separate game in and of itself. Fine - but many of these "hah, now only water can hurt me" sort of shifting dynamics destroy the suspension of disbelief that all RPG's are hoping to achieve.

The biggest thing about when combats are used successfully in a story - is when important aspects of the narrative evolve. That is why villains monologue right before the fight in many media forms - or even during a fight - important details about the story are revealed during the combat.

Remember - the role of the combat is resolution of conflict within the story. If there is just death and the end - it is rather a dull resolution regardless of how complex it is to achieve it.

Some thoughts that have been coalescing for a while...

share|improve this answer
2  
Although I appreciate the thought behind this answer, I'm guessing that OP has a fundamentally different view of boss fights than you. To clarify, I think he's looking for a way to make the gameplay element of it more interesting, with narrative being less of a concern. –  shatterspike1 Feb 13 at 20:04
    
Yeah, you're probably right. I probably should have prefaced my thoughts with "something else you might consider in addition." –  user10851 Feb 14 at 17:46

One way to make a boss fight memorable is to invent a few new game mechanics for the sake of the fight. This probably needs some exotic environments or the like, but placing a fight on a sinking ship (think of the Titanic movie, waist-deep water, gradually inclining floor, etc), a speeding train (as in that Indiana Jones movie with the circus train) or outer space (http://www.penny-arcade.com/news/post/2010/06/30/dd-in-the-elemental-chaos-part-2) gives both the DM and the party pretty variable environments, hindrances and opportunities.

share|improve this answer

The Minion

Players encounter them, players slaughter them, players feel good about being so overly powerful (even though it was just a minion). That is their prime purpose.

The Common Enemy

While their intention is similar to the minion - to be slaughtered by the players - they actually do pose a (minor) threat for the PCs. This should usually be done by the common game mechanics, like having melee enemies with a high AC, casters with buffs (pre-cast preferably, unless no one really expected an attack) or painful spells, or those nasty rogues that sneak behind the healer of the party and try to take him out.

The general idea is that they pose a threat, brute force works, but it becomes easier if properly prepare. The abilities must come from the common rule-book, so players can "calculate" them to death ("It is a fire elemental, so we better use cold spells.") They are supposed to give the players the feeling of tactical supremacy, while their weaknesses are rather obvious.

The Lieutenants

This group of enemies consist of stronger and usually challenging enemies, that differ from the "common enemy" by a) having a name-tag, and b) having a mechanic that makes blind brute force not the preferred way of dealing with them, as the mechanic that makes them stronger is either not obvious or not easy to overcome.

The general idea is to give players a feeling of accomplishment by overcoming hidden features or discovering secrets that ultimately leads them to victory. While they can deal with those by just running into the fight, doing so will put them in serious danger, likely to cause death of at least one party member. The solution to fight these should be a form of a mini-quest, that can (and should) be taken by the players, but is not required to complete the story (because after all, players tend to fail).

Examples are enemies that posses very powerful (generic) equipment, granting them a much higher than normal set of stats, or artifacts that render them near immune to the primary form of attack executed by your players (e.g. armor of DR 5/magic at lower levels, forcing the players to find a magic weapon first, or just steal it from him). They could as well be able to cast spells, that could near instantly kill your players, forcing them to figure out how to avoid them. Or they could posses certain supernatural abilities, that makes them close to invulnerable except under certain situations (e.g. a Vampire with supernatural resistances, except at daylight).

The Boss

What sets the boss apart from his minions is that he cannot just be rushed in and killed. He has some form of ability, equipment or tactic that makes it impossible for the players to fight him, until they overcome that feature.

They are the prime goal of a quest or series of quests, and are supposed to give the player a strong feeling of accomplishment by defeating them, knowing that the task wasn't easy at all, and required a lot of thinking, planning and teamwork. The trick is to find something, that is reasonable to explain, not too obvious as a blocker, but still keeps the players from just kicking in his door and cutting his throat. The goal of the quest is then to figure out how to circumvent or by-pass that ability so players are able to actually attack him.

Examples are enemies that posses certain very powerful abilities or (unlootable, because you don't want your players to run around with it) artifacts, that render the players unable to harm him, like a permanent stone-skin ability (lower levels), an amulet of instant retreat (teleports away at will), a guaranteed ability to kill at least one player like a Finger of Death with a high DC (demonstrate this properly it so they know!).

On the other hand those bosses do not necessarily have to be dangerous in combat, they could even give up immediately if actually engaged, but then the difficulty lies in actually getting a hold on them. Examples are the famous behind-the-scenes crime-lord, where players need to first learn who he actually is and especially where he hides, a being that exists on a different plane and cannot just be found without the proper spells, or a mummy that is hidden behind walls of riddles, puzzles and traps, while it itself is only of medium combat danger.

The main difference here is the amount of steps that are necessary to take till you are actually able to engage a boss. Weather or not this is combat skill is not important, it is just the hate piling up with the all failed attempts that makes killing them feel so good.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.