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Puzzle bosses — those with hidden weaknesses to discover and exploit — have been a recurring problem no matter the system we use. As a GM, I've never been able to wrap my head around how to make them actually fun.

How can I make puzzle bosses engaging and fun, and not trivialised by a single knowledge check or tedious pre-research? I want to maintain the excitement around puzzle bosses that gets featured in video games.

If I leave the players to find hidden weak points by experimenting, without allowing Knowledge rolls, the players get desperate because they are not dealing enough damage (or sometimes, no damage at all).

But if I allow Knowledge rolls, the players know they have to roll Knowledge first, then spam attacks on the weak spot until they win, which is anticlimactic. In Fate Core "boss" battles, where hidden Aspects reveal weak spots, the players just use the Create Advantage action to discover aspects and win. It's too simple, and trivialises the entire puzzle aspect of the fight.

Advice the book gives (and Toolkit as well) about hidden weaknesses is simply researching first, which my action-loving players dislike and avoid doing.

Puzzle boss fights in videogames are fun, intellectually challenging, and tense. When I try to copy that in RPGs they're boring or impossible. How do I make puzzle bosses work in an RPG?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You say that the players like the idea of a "Puzzle Boss", but that they have been adverse to spending play time investigating or trying to solve the puzzle. This seems like a contradiction. Are you sure that "Puzzle Boss" is really the experience they want? Can you refine your question to explain what about the Weak Spot/Puzzle Boss idea is appealing? \$\endgroup\$ – Jessa Nov 5 '14 at 5:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure what you need help with here. You are currently saying you want there to be weak points for the players to discover and exploit, but then you're dissatisfied when they are discovered and exploited, and also dissatisfied when they are not (but at least in that case we actually understand why: the players get anxious). What kind of effect are you actually trying to produce? Is it just that you haven't worked out how to do this and make it fun at the same time? Is there an example you can point us to in media (games, movies, etc) of the kind of experience you're trying to reproduce? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 5 '14 at 5:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is your question more something like "How do I make Puzzle Bosses more interesting than a Knowledge Check or tedious pre-research?" \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 5 '14 at 5:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AldathLe'Carde I've attempted to rewrite parts of this question to get at that issue. How does that look? Does it still accurately convey what you want to find out about? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 5 '14 at 5:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AldathLe'Carde If that's more like what your question is about, you should edit the whole question to say so, including the title, not just leaving it at the bottom. For future reference. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 5 '14 at 18:46
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Don't hide the weak point

Think about video games that implement puzzle bosses or bosses with a single critical weak point. Often, the hardest part isn't finding the weak point, it's figuring out how to access it. House of the Dead straight up shows you a diagram of the boss's weak points before every boss fight, and Shadow of the Colossus is basically just a series of puzzle bosses with glowing blue weak spots all over their bodies. Actually hitting those weak spots, though, is generally a test of skill, accuracy and reflexes.

I recommend revealing the weak point as soon as the battle starts, in the form of an aspect. Explain that the weak spot is well guarded, and will require some fancy fighting to access. Give every player a free invoke on the aspect, to be used only if they've figured out a way to access the weak point. Alternatively, you can continue to allow knowledge rolls to find a weak point, and then give a free invoke to the player who discovers it.

Hidden weak points make good challenges in video games because once you've discovered them, you still need to be quick and accurate enough to hit them. In tabletop roleplaying games, physical accuracy and reflexes aren't really a factor. So if you want to translate puzzle bosses into Fate, you're going to need to translate the challenge into something that Fate handles well...

Instead of reflexes, reward creativity

There are two ways you can go about this, depending on the level of agency you want to give your players. The first way is to pre-design a handful of environmental aspects that can be tagged to help expose a monster's weak point. You can use these aspects to create a traditional puzzle boss feel: you need to shoot the rope to drop the boulder to crack the shell to stab the baddie's organs. This can be fun if you make the puzzle rewarding enough to figure out, but Fate probably isn't the best system for that kind of play, and your players may end up feeling railroaded within the combat.

The other option, the one more in line with the spirit of Fate, is to provide some useful environmental aspects, but encourage your players to create new ones with the Create Advantage action. With this approach, every move becomes a brief and focused action sequence where players are challenged to narrate how they could possibly strike the monster's weak point. They'll spend turns setting up traps and giving each other free invokes, then spend them all on one epic strike at the monster's vitals.

This is how Fate combat is supposed to work anyway

Combat in Fate is about modeling the decisive moments in a battle - just the really really cool attacks. Fate is a storytelling game, first and foremost, so any challenges you build should be geared around telling a good story.

Basically, give the players the tools to start telling a good story about the combat, and reward them for doing it.

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My answer isn't so much about alternatives to Knowledge or Research checks, but how to make them less of an ultimate solution.

Don't have a single point of failure. Buildings, bridges, computer systems and other structures are designed that one weakness doesn't bring the entire thing down. A properly made bridge, when overloaded, will crack and become unstable, but it won't fall down. You can evacuate and repair. Several points have to be compromised before it fails spectacularly.

Destructable Components

A mage could have various crystals around the chamber that channel his power. They might learn that he loves the red crystal most. When they destroy it, he loses one of his powers. He curses the loss of his "favourite power crystal", hinting at the fact he has several more crystals worth destroying. The heroes targeting crystals around the room mid-combat gives the boss some time to retaliate before he is crippled.

Volatile Environment

Another option is to not give the boss a weakness, but give the environment a strength. Falling things, hot things, cold things, etc. Now the heroes' exercise is positioning the boss and exploiting the environment.

Combo Attacks

The boss's armour might be tough, but develops flaws when exposed to rapidly changing temperatures. A mix of rapid hot and cold attacks might cause the armour to crack and ultimately fall apart. This is something that can be discovered with a Knowledge or Research check, but makes it a little harder to exploit.

Maybe a thick-skinned animal has a natural defense against heat in that it opens its pores to vent heat. So heat itself does little damage, but the open pores can be exploited to allow poisons into the body. Knowledge, Research or experimentation can expose this defense, and then be very descriptive about the opening pores to let them piece the rest of the weakness together.

Multiple Bosses

Rather than a single boss, have a high-level team, each member having their own weakness. When one boss's weakness is exploited, his teammates move to protect him.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is good, but would be a lot better if it talked about Fate mechanic implementations. \$\endgroup\$ – BESW Nov 5 '14 at 6:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @BESW, thanks, but sadly I have no experience with Fate. \$\endgroup\$ – Hand-E-Food Nov 5 '14 at 23:55
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Think of the Death Star. By the time the rebels have to confront it, its lethal weakness is well known. Still yet, exploiting that weakness requires a bold and risky move, with a looming deadline and known+unknown deadly threats (like Darth Vader in a TIE-Advanced).

Once the battle starts, the question in there isn't if the rebels can figure out that a torpedo fired into small exhaust port will blow up a moon sized battle station. The question is, how they are going to pull that off and what are they willing to sacrifice to make it happen.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So you're saying, don't make it research, don't make it a check, just give it... but make it a puzzle as to how to exploit it. Is that about right? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 7 '14 at 1:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat. I'm saying, the discovery of such weaknesses (given or earned) should come before the confrontation, not during it. \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Nov 7 '14 at 14:13

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