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So you built up your last few sessions for that epic encounter with the generic-jerk-boss-that-kills-puppies. Both PCs and the boss are fully prepared for the inevitable combat, with the latter having a good combination of minions to help him. He's got high-tier spells, multi-attacks, cool abilities and sunglasses. Initiative starts and then...

...every PC gangs up on the boss in order to kill him first.

Of course it makes sense. The enemy is clearly the biggest threat and they want to get rid of it first, even if he has Legendary Resistances, 25 AC, magic resistance and whatnot. And all that will result in the boss dying after 2 rounds, and the remainder of the encounter being much less exhilarating.

So what can a DM do, both for keeping the combat interesting and for showing that the big bad was prepared for the PCs, to prevent every single action from targeting him personally?

Please answer from experience and give examples of what you've done and how it worked out - random untested ideas are not useful.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this question is a bit broad, as it would greatly depend on the BBG. Are those his actual details or are you using this as a broadstroke example? \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Apr 25 '18 at 18:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's clearly a broad-stroke example and a fair and well scoped question - it's a problem that applies across most BBEG types. How do you have him or her not go down first in a climactic fight? \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 26 '18 at 2:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now, while I've edited and reopened this, I am ambivalent given the large number of answers that demonstrate no specific experience in the advice they're giving. Random ideas off the top of your head are never appropriate answers on this stack. Use things you've done to address this problem; explain what you did and how it worked out. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 26 '18 at 3:48

16 Answers 16

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Don't make the boss the target until after the minions die.

Some of the most memorable encounters I've been in have involved powerful enemies that weren't the ones in charge. A simple fix to your problem is to allow/cause the party to target the boss only after the weaker (but still powerful) minions are defeated.

This can be done by placing restricted access to the boss (i.e. you need his winged boots his lackeys have to reach the top of the building he is located on; or to get past the wall of force he is protected by) or making the minions a bigger threat (see my example below)


In one such case I've experienced, a powerful conjurer summoned two demons to fight on his behalf. Of course he still cast the occasional spell from a distance, but most of his energy was spent keeping the demons under his control. The narration helped make the players aware of this and recognize that killing the conjurer first would unleash the full power of the demons and they wouldn't stand a chance.

The party had to kill the demons first and only afterwards could they try to fight the conjurer. Of course without the strain of the demons, the conjurer was far more of a threat than before and you essentially got a two-phase fight out of the final battle. Super epic (I was a player for this one).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ohhh I like your example. Also gives options to the players. Do they want to handle the encounter as a single fight or as 2, back-to-back? \$\endgroup\$ – Alex Millette Apr 25 '18 at 18:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why would the conjurer keep the demons under his control, if they were stronger without it? \$\endgroup\$ – András Apr 25 '18 at 18:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Andras because the demons werent his allies. He was just controlling them; they would kill him too. Demons are beings of chaos. Historically tough to negotiate with. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 25 '18 at 18:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Worth adding that spells like Wall of Force are practically custom made for evil wizards to cackle behind while their minions get the fight going in earnest \$\endgroup\$ – Pingcode Apr 26 '18 at 11:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DavidCoffron: Boo! Drop control and teleport. \$\endgroup\$ – Joshua Apr 26 '18 at 16:01
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I've had success in the past with using minions who can do respectable damage, but drop fairly quickly. You might surround a vampire with a bunch of fragile ghouls (make sure to play up their stringiness in the description) who can deal damage significantly above the average for their CR. Once it is shown that they present a serious threat, it won't take saavy players too long to notice that they should be killing the hard-hitting crunchies, rather than focusing all their efforts on the boss.

In 5th edition, you can create this sort of monster by building your own with a very high offensive CR and a commensurately low defensive CR to balance out to an appropriate level for your party.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Glass Cannons first, tanks last. \$\endgroup\$ – Mazura Apr 25 '18 at 22:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ You can also add some healers into the mix as well. Nothing as annoying as a bunch of healers on the sidelines each with a resurrect ready. \$\endgroup\$ – ratchet freak Apr 26 '18 at 11:12
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The Big Bad doesn't have to play "by the rules"

The problem that usually causes this scenario is that the Players assume two things:

  1. The Big Bad is the most (imminently) dangerous enemy in the room
  2. Killing the Big Bad will end the encounter quickly

And neither of these actually have to be true, or they don't have to be completely true.

You can give your super-Necromancer control over some Spawn of Kyuss (Volo's Guide: 192), where failing to defeat the Spawn before trying to engage the Necromancer will result in the Party having a much harder time with things.

You heroes think you can stop me, but you will just end up strengthening horde with your undead corpses! Now why don't I introduce you to my newest creations...

An Orc Warband Leader can have a ton of other Orcs under his control, and let them loose on the party before making his grand appearance.

Yaz gits wanna foight me, huh? Less see what'cha got when I set a handfulla me Boyz on ya! Den maybe I'll grace ya wit' mah presence... If yaz survives, dat is!

[Yes, I do voice all my Orc characters like Orks from 40k]

Video Games have some tactics for situations like this:

  • Crowd Control: What Boss doesn't have an AoE attack at the ready for the people who like to swarm them? The Necromancer drops Circle of Death in the area around her, while your Orc gets a Stomp Attack that knocks characters Prone.

    Yes, yesss! Come closer, mortals! EMBRACE YOUR DOOM! --Necromancer

    You ankle-biterz'a really givin' me a 'UUUGE pain in me 'ead! Let's see what kinda 'ead-ake I give youz when I STOMPZ YA! --Orc

  • Healthbar Milestones: Once your boss takes a certain amount of damage, give him an event or two he can do to break this up. Perhaps the Necromancer summons a wall of Zombies between himself and the Party, and uses the struggle to get out of the thick of it. The Orc might go into a Rage and start swinging wildly in an arc or jump off to lick his wounds and call for more Orcs.

    NO! Get away, GET AWAY! My children, save me! --Necromancer

    RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH! I'LL GIVE YAZ MEATBAGZ WHAT-FOR! I'LL MASH YA PROPER-LIKE! GIT OVA' 'ERE! --Orc

  • Emergency Plan: Just because your Big Bad is the main event doesn't mean they don't have a surprise or two up their sleeve should things go poorly. The Necromancer runs up to the Altar and cuts her hand, cursing. The blood spills onto the stone, and the whole area warps with chaotic, evil magic. The Orc lets loose his "Pet", a large Ogre or some other powerful monster that the Orc has captured and subjugated.

    Youz meatbagz 'aff ben givin' me a 'ard time, but less see how yaz farez against moi pet! OI! BOYZ! Let's introduce our guestz to TINY!

Also, remember that not all combat ends when the Big Bad (o' da Big-Bad Boss!) is slain. Congratulations, guys, you just killed the Necromancer Cult Leader! Now all of his devoted followers want to kill you for your blasphemy. Good job, the Orc Warchief is dead, but his followers are still alive. And now one of them wants to kill you to take-over the Tribe!

Play around with some of these ideas, and decide what is best for your boss(es).

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Change the Objective

The big bad guy is the brute in the way; defending his minions from completing his evil plan.

”Go hit the big red button, pull that lever on the second floor and kill the sacrifice! I'll hold them off!”

Large staff slam knocking the characters to the floor (DC saves if you wish) and all minions scatter to perform the tasks.

This sets the main objective (perhaps save the maiden or the world), a primary plan and if the characters don't stop these events they won't actually win the game, just kill a bad guy.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I was going to add an answer like this. This is similar to a lot of Spy Movie tropes. The actual boss villain is more or less an ordinary person that can be shot or thrown into a vat of dangerous chemicals - the real mission is to stop the boss's plan. Sure, the PC's can target the boss, but the minions have already been trained to carry out The Plan (TM). \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Columbia Apr 26 '18 at 14:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or change the brute. The Big Bad Guy is smart/charismatic, that's why he's the boss. His champion/secretary/bodyguard/right-hand, however, is Big, Strong, and Overprotective. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Apr 26 '18 at 18:25
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Brief disclaimer, I read your question as making the primary shot calling enemy not obvious, therefore somewhat hidden. I also am making the assumption of your broadstroke examples of his abilities as his actual capabilities albeit you did not detail them.

The Shell Game

If your BBG does, in fact, have at least 2nd tier magic (we always used a rule of 3 in role-play, this means spell levels 4-6 are available) or "cool abilities" and/or "sunglasses" that duplicate them, then make everyone look the same.

  1. If everyone is the same there are no obvious targets. Seeming does this quite nicely, 8 hour duration with no concentration.
  2. The BBG has a Hat of Disguise, which he uses to change appearance into one of his minions (alive or dead).
  3. Bathe the battlefield in Darkness or Obscuring Mist and just drop area effect spells, nets, Alchemist Fire etc. on them.

For point number one... if the enemies are disciplined (Lawful typically) this could get really fun. They all look exactly the same, at least visually and until they are physically interacted with and/or observed carefully, if the BBG is found out (witnessed casting a spell perhaps) he simply calls out a command and everyone shifts position in a confusing manner so his position is lost and they start the process over.

For point number two... almost the same thing but every time he calls out the command during the move he changes appearance.

The command would make all allies use the Ready Action to move on the next command, this would be akin to the preparatory and execute commands in Marine Corps drilling. For those not familiar it just means the first command just means "do this on my mark", then "mark" which would be his next turn. Since you can "talk" outside your turn not every enemy would necessarily ready the move.

Add in terrain and other hazards and you have a disciplined force of enemies defending home territory with no clear head to the snake, I would pity my players to be honest.

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A few options:

Dead Man's Switch: The simple premise is that if the party kills the BBG, then something catastrophic will occur. Such as letting go of a rope that will release the flood of acid into the room. Or trigger a glyph that sets off a series of fireballs that not only potentially hurt the party but also heal the fire elemental minions.

Undercover Boss: Everyone knows what a BBG looks like and can spot them from a courtyard away. But what if the BBG has a stand-in? A pet doppelganger that pretends to be the boss while the BBG looks like Johnny Red Shirt. After a couple rounds of focusing all the best spells on the stunt double, the BBG steps forth and gives a pounding.

If everyone is special...: The reverse can also be true. If everyone is the room is dressed as a mini-boss, who do you target first? Is it the one casting spells, the one shouting orders, or the one with the biggest sword?

Hall of Mirrors: Another variant is have one obvious BBG, but somehow duplicated so the party can either waste time trying to break/dispell all the fakes or deal with the immediate threat of minions and save the puzzle solving for later.

Why Won't You Just Die?!: If all else fails, have the BBG feign death after the first volley. Then when the party turns their attention to the other enemies, the BBG slips away (invisible, trap door, crawls, etc). Once on the sidelines, do something even more diabolical... or just run away for a better chance to strike.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for undercover boss. The real boss doesn't stand out. He doesn't want to be an arrow-pincushion. Saddam Hussein was known to use body doubles for deception. So did General Bernard Montgomery (his double was Meyrick Edward Clifton James) \$\endgroup\$ – Tony Ennis Apr 28 '18 at 2:02
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Besides the other great answers, you can look to any RPG (computer or console) and get ideas from the bosses you find there. Here are some that come to mind:

Minions buff boss

For each existing minion boss could have more defence or special attacks, for example he could extract life from minions to do a powerful blow.

Minions heal boss

Oh, this can be a nightmare, when some of the minions can do a big heal on the boss.

Killing "Rewards"

Imagine an octopus-like boss where the "minions" are the tentacles, and when you chop them, they stop annoying you and the boss receives damage when they die. We had a fun time with boss like this (it was a living tree whose branches could be broken).

Minions are really annoying

Minions have an effect such as stun or poison so the longer they stay alive the more damage you will get.

The big boom

You could have some minions that start to a perform a ritual, then if they are not killed within 3 turns, they do big damage, buff boss or so on.

The experience is from more than 10 years playing table role gaming and more than 20 years playing RPGs.

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    \$\begingroup\$ OP specifically stated that they were looking for answers from experience. Have you had actual personal experience with any of these? \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 26 '18 at 13:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure, more than 20 years playing RPGs, that in the end are structured the same way as D&D, also I remember a time where my GM set us some boss like the octopus one. \$\endgroup\$ – Java Gonzalez Arribas Apr 26 '18 at 14:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Modifying the answer to include that specifically would help. "We did it this way, and here's a bit about how it worked" adds a lot to these sorts of answers. Tabletop experience is a lot more valuable than videogame for the purpose. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Barden Apr 26 '18 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, these are the concepts you have on WoW, for example, where killing the adds is certainly something you should be doing. Translating it to D&D might be hard though, that's why the answer could be more specific on how it was done. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 1 '18 at 18:56
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I like those movies where the big baddie was really that unobtrusive guy that has been hanging out with the group the whole time pulling strings from the shadows. Then when the group gangs up on the BBEG's foil the foil with his last breath questions their friend they have been helping, saving, building a relationship with.

If you haven't built a scenario where that is possible. Remember you are the GM control the battlefield. Limit access with movement control spells, give the BBEG an out (teleport, cloak of the mountbank) limiting access is a powerful tool. Put him on a ledge where they have to climb and be vulnerable to get to him.

If he has minions give them abilities that give disadvantage to attacks that aren't directed at them (fighters). This makes it less beneficial to go straight to the BBEG.

In my experience the boring unmemorable fights are the ones where the players just have to run up and swing swords and whoever runs out of HP first loses. But when they have to struggle to even get to that point it becomes exciting.

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Zuggtmoy has a feature called Protective Thrall, which allows her to use a charmed creature to take the hit for her. It wouldn't be hard to add a similar feature to your own Big Bad, making it difficult to harm them before their minions die. It also adds to the flavor of a villain, as they grab random minions and literally throw them in the path of an enemy's blade to save themselves or, in Zuggtmoy's case, others willingly hurl themselves in the way for her.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't seem to answer the making the boss as inocuous as its minions. Goblin Boss has a similar ability, instead using his minions as meat shields by shoving them into his space. \$\endgroup\$ – Slagmoth Apr 25 '18 at 18:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Slagmoth But we aren't necessarily looking to make the boss innocuous- we're looking to make them not the primary target. One viable way is to encourage the party to think "this will be easier if those minions are out of the way first." \$\endgroup\$ – TheVagrantDog Apr 25 '18 at 18:16
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Once I saw a whole party go bonkers using their best attacks and best spells at the 'end of campaign' climax. They opened what was nearly the final door in a dungeon loaded for bear against what turned out to be a lone guy on the other side of a pit who did ranged attacks while holding (as expected) a flaming sword.

The target (after defeat) turned out to be a low level peasant who was charmed and using a magic wand. The sword he was holding was just glamoured to look like it was flaming (they were expecting the BBG to have a flaming sword).
This DM only declared death at the end of rounds (his normal process), so no one knew that they killed the poor slob four times over that first round.

As the party was high on their "single round win," they were surprise attacked from behind through a secret door on the opposite side of the hall by the real bad guy with a real flaming sword who started his mele attacks against the mage standing in the back of the group. At least, it was the back of the group moments before everyone had to turn around for the new attack which the mage took the brunt of while the fighters tried to get around him to fight the BBG :-)

After a few minutes of being pissed, everyone congratulated the DM.

To this day it is one of the best game sessions I've ever watched.

Hope that helps!

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My approach to this is to focus less on the BBG and more on the encounter design. At the end of the day, what you want for your players is to have a memorable experience, making one particular monster really powerful does not solve that alone.

My most successful encounter I had with a level 16 Pathfinder party was a mixture of techniques. The same techniques do work in 5E as well, from personal experience.

  • There were 8 low level archer, priest, and wizard minions who could harass the most vulnerable player character from a distance and thus draw attention away from the boss.
  • The encounter was designed so it would be very difficult to sneak up on the enemies by being at the center of a volcano with defensive spells around the opening (alarm spell!). There was time to cast defensive buff spells on the boss before the fight started.
  • There was a bodyguard who was specifically designed to protect the boss. Mechanically it would be almost impossible to hit the boss while the bodyguard was alive. Even if damage was done, it would be shared with the bodyguard with a 50-50 split.
  • The boss was designed to be survivable by choosing level up options that improved their defenses (Red Dragon Sorcerer), at the cost of some offensive power.
  • The boss and body guard started hidden and in full cover, so any AOE spells (fireball) used to initiate the encounter would not affect them.
  • There was a time limit one the encounter, if they didn't take down the boss within 5 rounds, then reinforcements would start pouring forth from a rift. This is key, as you want to make the Boss remain an important target despite the fact that he is difficult to harm.

I think it is important to note that my best encounters are puzzles. The Bodyguard was really the star of the fight, they could not harm him very much until they got creative and tried to disarm him instead of killing him. Without his shield, he was a much easier nut to crack.

D&D 5E advice: I look carefully at all the monsters who have "lair" mechanics and modify them so they can be individually targeted and disabled to make the encounter easier. I also look to the magic item and spell lists for inspiration to create new obstacles to be overcome. The key is to make it so that attacking the boss is tactically inferior while giving hints or indicators during the fight to highlight the other targets they should focus on.

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Basically what David Coffron and Weaveworker89 said; if the most immediately threatening guy in the room is anyone, or anything, other than the Boss then you stand a good chance of succeeding in getting them through to the end of the battle intact, especially if they don't give obvious orders but rather act as if they're A. under someone else's orders or better yet B. a captive and/or potential snack for the immediate threat. The poncing elf in the horde of plate armoured Hobgoblins baying for your blood has to be ignored in the interests of self-preservation, if he's also tied up and looks beaten to hell you might even rescue him after the "battle is won". That's not a random example our GM got us to patch the guy up, he slipped away before we found his study full of plans for the coming invasion written in Elvish and we had to hunt him down all over again.

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Let your party blow their load on the boss. He dies and right away his body shrivels into nothingness.

Suddenly, one of the minions falls to his knees, and with a giant scream, he is ripped apart as the boss climbs to his feet, brushing chunks of meat and bone off his armor.

The other minions look at their boss with expressions of terror and re-double their attack.

Now your party has to fight him again, without their most powerful spells. If they knock him down again, he can climb out of his minion's chest again, rick and morty style.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you used this concept in the past? How did it work out for your group? \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Apr 26 '18 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are missing details here. What's the state of the BBEG when it pops up, resource-wise? Full HP? Full of spells? Do you have any advice for estimating the difficulty of the encounter with this new mechanic? \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Apr 26 '18 at 18:31
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Since the minions are essentially the boss's bodyguard, they must be trained not to let the PCs through, and they must base their strategy with that in mind.

It must be so that any attempt to ignore the minions would result in catastrophic damage to the PCs. e.g. The boss might hide at the top of a cliff that the PCs must climb - but if they try to climb without first dispatching the minions, they will be easy pickings for the minions.

Also, the minions' abilities must be such that they can perform their duties of being bodyguards - that's why the boss hired/enslaved/mind-controlled them. For example, they must be good at getting between the PCs and the boss, or if a PC gets through, they are able to grapple them or pull them away somehow, for at least enough time for the boss to retreat to safer location.

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This answer is kinda a sum-up of other answers (namely this and this) plus my experience as a DM.

Two main statements on your question show us why your BBEGs are being targeted first:

The enemy is clearly the biggest threat

and

And all that will result in the boss dying after 2 rounds

So, let's change them.

Make the minions a bigger threat than the boss

"Then aren't the minions the actual bosses?" - No. Either because the boss is the one spawning these minions or because they are only immediate threats, while the Boss is a long term threat.

Here are a few ways you can make them a bigger immediate threat.

Glass cannons

Already mentioned in other answer. Make them High Offensive CR and Low Defensive CR monsters. One easy way to do it is rogue-like creatures with either ranged attacks or daggers going for your squishy members - such as your party's Wizard. The type of these creatures depends on your party level, but it can go from weak kobolds or goblins early on to assassins later on.

My application on this were literally Rogue minions that would shoot the party. The boss would run and dodge while the Rogues weren't targeted, since the party was only targetting him, he could let the rogues do the damaging job, while focusing on not dying.

Spellcasters

As a house-rule, you can make spellcasters that are "charging" on more powerful spells - and let it clear they are doing it to the PCs. If your party decides to ignore these spellcasters, not breaking up their concentration, they will suffer harsh consequences, like a 2-levels-higher-than-usual-Fireball. While this might not force them to kill the minions, it will force them to spend some resources, either damage or crowd control, on them.

This was done in a "the enemy is a cult" setting. The spellcasters would cast "Save or die" spells if allowed. The PCs didn't understand how dangerous it was until they actually allowed a spellcaster to finish his 2-rounds preparation and cast a spell that instantly killed one of the party members, but welp. Make sure to let it clear how dangerous it is so it does not turn into an unintentional TPK.

Crowd Control

The minions don't need to be highly damaging to be a threat - they could be constantly casting Sleep, Dominate Person and forcing saving throws on the PCs, in such a way that the PCs just can't focus their attacks on the Boss without being constantly disrupted.

My only experience on this was a TPK, sorry. Still, this exemplifies what ignoring the minions caused, so I thought it is worth mentioning so you can try.

Make the boss more durable

This intends to solve the second statement - that the boss dies after 2 rounds. If the boss doesn't, the players will be less inclined to focus fire on him, as they will spend too many rounds handling too many threats.

The minions buff the boss AC

This one is easy - the minions are either spellcasters concentrating on a spell that increases the boss AC or constructos that generate a "Power Shield" or anything on these lines. It could be taken to values that it might be too hard or even impossible to hit without criticals, but it is not needed to. Making it just hard enough to hit so that it takes too long to drop him is enough.

I've used it on a homebrew Golem with 4 small tower-like constructions that increased its AC from 10 to 30. At 30, it was obviously way too hard to hit, but the party didn't need to kill all the towers - 2 were enough. While these towers are not exactly "minions", the concept can be expanded.

Minions heal

There are a few ways to make this one. The minions having spells that directly heal the boss is one. The boss having an action that drains the soul of the minions, healing himself is another. The first forces the Party to kill the minions, the second just makes it easier for them to kill the minions first - usually the minions will have less AC than the boss, so taking the HP out of the minions is easier than taking the HP out of the boss.

A necromancer with a bonus action that kills one of the minions and restores that much HP is a good example.

Create a boss that is high-defensive low-offensive CR

Pretty the opposite to the Glass Cannon minions. Make it have a huge AC and HP, but with low DPR. Then make it spawn the glass cannon minions as a Rechargeable action. I've done this with a homebrew Kobold Shaman. He would do almost no damage to the party, but would frequently summon weaker kobolds to do this job. The party would have to constantly kill the kobolds and then go back to downing the boss' HP.

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One approach which has not been mentioned on any of the other answers is that if you are using figures on a map, then can use the tactical board to help defend the boss.

So, the Necromancer might hide behind a wave of skeletons, that the main fighters will have to cut their way through, or expose themselves to a lot of attacks of opportunity.

The rogue might be able to slip past, but she will be isolated.

The mage at the back might start casting direct damage spells at the Boss, but if another group of skeletons are summoned at the mage's location, then he will have to be more concerned about his own defense. This might also draw some of the other characters back to defend him.

Also, if the boss can fly for instance, they can only be targeted by ranged spells and missiles, which may reduce the numbers of the party who can directly affect him.

These ideas make the tactical maneuvering on the board more significant, giving both players and enemies more options, thus introducing more variety to battles.

Finally, many bosses will have an escape route planned. So if they are badly damaged, let them run away, drink a healing potion, and then consider either returning to cause more havoc if enough minions are surviving, or even relocate to force the players to hunt the boss down once more.

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