There was a question about making Boss encounters more engaging, possible answers included adding several stages, or for example shifting immunities to a certain type. But the answer didn't go into how to convey those mechanics to your PCs.

One could look at bosses from videogames for inspiration (for example WoW or similar), but in those games it is very common to incrementally find out the bosses mechanics and to wipe (basically TPK) a couple times while doing so.

Therefore I would like to know how to have complex and very difficult boss mechanics without having to explain them fully to the players before the fight and without immediately generating a TPK.

An example: Imagine an unkillable yet extremely dangerous Lich that can only be attacked with the bones of the skeletons he summons.

So my question would specifically be:

How could the PCs find out that they have to use the bones of the skeletons to damage the Lich, without another NPC telling them beforehand?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Just as an extra suggestion, I once did an adventure which was a christmas dream for the PCs. The boss was imba, and everytime someone died, they restarted the dream. After a few runs, they managed to get to the boss before he was ready to fight, knew in what order to fight the mobs, and knew the best way to handle each different attack. \$\endgroup\$
    – BlueMoon93
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 11:51

7 Answers 7


Demonstrate it to the PCs

The key problem with these complicated mechanics is that it's very difficult to telegraph them to your players. Video games can get away with complicated mechanics because they can highlight weak points, and the full range of actions a player can accomplish are limited by the game. In an RPG, where players can attempt anything they can think of, the range of possibilities is enormous and insurmountable, especially when there's a lich trying to kill them.

If you don't want to tell the PCs outright, with an NPC or some other clue, you could demonstrate the weakness. Have the Lich be noticeably afraid of bones, and emphasize his caution around his minion's bones. In another case, you could show a minor accident that causes an outsize amount of pain to the boss, like dripping water on a fire-based creature or something.

It shouldn't be hard.

When you're building a puzzle like this, it's easy to be too subtle about the clues. Remember that the PCs are receiving a constant stream of information from you, some of which might not be relevant. Unless you want them to waste time obsessively scrutinizing everything you say, you should leave multiple hints that seem obvious to you. After all, the negative implications of it being too easy are pretty small compared to the TPK that happens when it's too hard. For example, bosses in the Legend of Zelda series almost always have a big, colorful weak point that's obvious in their introduction cutscene.

The stakes and the difficulty are inversely correlated

In the Lich scenario, the PCs are actively being killed, and don't have much time to spare. If they waste a few rounds doing something useless, the consequences are dire for them. Therefore, the puzzle should be something they can figure out in one or two tries, because they might not have more than that.

On the other hand, if the Lich is already dead and the PCs have his phylactery, the stakes are much lower. Nobody's trying to kill them, and the PCs have a few days to figure out how to destroy it. In this case, you can make the puzzle a lot more complex and subtle, since your players can afford to spend time trying different things.

In the middle lies a weak boss, who can't deal too much damage. If you tone down the power of the boss significantly, so that neither side can easily defeat the other, you open more space for the characters to work out a puzzle boss while still keeping some pressure on the PCs. Of course, you'd have to make the puzzle interesting, or else it just becomes a big slog.

  • 9
    \$\begingroup\$ Using water against a fire-based creature is one of the first things most players would try. Using bones against a lich is something that doesn't make any sense at all. I don't think the bone mechanic is a good example of a mechanic that adds to the game. It ends up being a solve-or-die puzzle, and those are really, really dangerous to put in a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 11:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ I fully agree with your comment, and that's what my second two points are addressing. Also, not all fire-based creatures are weak to water; just flipping through the 5e MM, the Azer is a fire elemental that's not weak to water. That's why the DM needs to telegraph it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Icyfire
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 16:37

Table Top RPGs and Videogames concepts doesn't always mesh up nicely.

While it seems awesome to have a very specific way to kill a boss, it usually detracts from one of the best trumps of Tabletop RPGS over MMOs and such - no scripted events.

Boss mechanics were something that were cooked up to give players of a way more limited type of media - a videogame, with a finite set of actions possible - something especially interesting on the end of each level, dungeon or raid.

The way games deal with this varies a lot. Some won't tell the player what to do and leave him or her to die over and over until they figure out what to do - Like most Megaman games. Other games will warn you about how you should behave and even will give you in-game hints about what to do - like recent WoW raids and dungeons.

However, boss scripting and mechanics is something you need for the media to work, if you want to have an interesting boss fight. You need to program in advance what the players can do and how the boss will react to the things they do since you won't be there playing the boss against them, like most DM's out there can.

In games, death is cheap - it's not really a big deal if you die or, if it is, you can probably wiki your way out of the problem with a well placed pause and some quick googling. That isn't true for Tabletop RPGs (well, at least not for most of them). Death in those is, more often than not, a really big deal. Sending your players to a death puzzle in the form of "solve or die" isn't nice unless you game is some sort of Saw-based thriller or some old school Gygaxian masochist fest. While those are attractive to some hardcore players, that isn't true for everyone.

Anyways, to the point. The idea of secret boss mechanics, while attractive on videogames, doesn't really translate well to a tabletop rpg. On a TTRPG, death isn't cheap - it hurts, both your character and your player's emotions. Even if you agreed that characters dying is a very real part of your game beforehand, dying for a puzzle fight gives the player the feeling of being cheated. They won't feel they had enough time to solve the puzzle, and they will complain that it wasn't clear enough. For most players, dying for something like this is just 'unfun', so it's something you should try to avoid.

More so, having a single point of success is a somewhat difficult and unfair thing to do on a TTRPG. When you create some abstract rule like "the lich can be only damaged by the bones of the skeletons he summons", you are invalidating all of your party's choices. You're forcing them to ignore their character sheets in favor of some arbitrary rule. Things that they put time and effort to get and to customize - their special weapons, their spells, etc, won't be worth anything on this setting. The better thing to do is to make the boss encounter solvable in different, coherent and logical ways. Use what the party has to offer and create ways for everyone to contribute doing what their characters can do best, so everyone can shine and have a good time.

That said,

Be ready to change your boss mechanics on the fly to adapt to whatever the group throws at you, and be prepared to let your boss die if the players manage to pull of something that would work but you didn't foresee they would do that. Projared's Ballista Bat tale is a good example of a player circumventing the DM's expectation, and a nice video to watch if you have some spare time. On the video, one of Projared's players uses a Warcraft 2 Balista shot as a club to clear the way to the big bad, avoiding several encounters the DM had set up. When the group went to confront it, the player in question smashed the gigantic balista shot on the Evil Overlord and pinned him down with it, basically solving the encounter in one single attack instead of the planned battle. The video serves as a good example of a planned game session taking a left turn and going into unplanned territory — and the DM rolling with it instead of forcing the players to stick to his or her plan.

Keep in mind that designing a boss fight for a TTRPG is not something you should do to be frustrating. You should aim to entertain your players, to give them fun. Don't ever let some idea of a "cool hidden boss mechanic" hamper your game. Make the boss battle epic by making the villain, and most importantly, the players, do epic stuff on epic places.

Even a regular sword-fight without secret mechanics would be awesome if it took place on moving platforms inside an active volcano that also happens to be full of young, red drakes that are looking for a meal.

Make your encounters epic by telling an epic story, not by hiding mechanics from your players and hoping them to read your mind. Abuse the power of the TTRPG and do all the nice things that most videogame developers can only dream of doing on their games.

Never forget that you're the Game Master. You should never be enslaved by preconceptions about how the boss fight should be played - feel free to change everything if you need to make everything more fun for you, and for your players.

  • 5
    \$\begingroup\$ The emphasis on it being awesome for the players instead of just a "cool hidden boss mechanic" is very important and I really love the "let the players do epic stuff on epic players" bit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gravetow
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 20:56

Unfortunately, you've picked a very tricky Boss trait to telegraph subtly.

Making a creature immune to everything except a MacGuffin is a common trope in multiple systems, but this only really works well when the MacGuffin is well known, or discoverable by the PCs.

The reality here, is that you might have to be a bit heavy handed for something so obscure, and hard to discover accidentally. A few techniques I could recommend:

  • Actually having an NPC hint or warn about his seeming invulnerability.
  • Musty old tomes on a seemingly unrelated side quest that hint at the weakness of Liches.
  • A prophecy or riddle that strongly hints at the Lich's weakness once they decipher the meaning.
  • Giving them not one, but many rumours of how to defeat the Lich (either through an NPC, a prophecy, riddle, etc). This means they will have to try them in combat to be sure, and doesn't just instantly give them the answer. This can be dangerous though, depending on how many rumours, as it could take one round to find the right solution, or many.
  • Having one of the Lich's minions accidentally or inadvertently harm the Lich, having the Lich recoil in pain for the first time. You may have to repeat this more than once if they don't get it.
  • Have them enter a time loop, where they can TPK until they discover the mechanic. This could lead to player frustration, if it's not telegraphed at all, or they are not picking up on your clues. But if they have a few chances to get the solution they will eventually succeed.

However there are problems with this trait

The reality is, not being able to harm a Boss goes counter intuitive to many systems, and needs to be very well described. Additionally, if you want to leave subtle hints, you need many of them, following the Rule of Three is heavily advised.

Additionally, making the Lich only weak to bones of his minions can leave some class archetypes in many systems unable to contribute. For example, a Wizard who cannot hurt it with spells, is unlikely able to do much wielding a bone club.

More interesting and balanced mechanics

Perhaps consider not making the Lich invulnerable to all damage. Let the players damage it normally, but when it should be killed, it falls, then reforms. You need to deal the killing blow with a minion's bone. You still need some strong telegraphing, but it will prevent other balance or participation issues from forming.

Ultimately, making the Lich invulnerable to all damage except from its minion's bones just turns a "Hit it with my sword over and over" encounter, into a "Hit it with this skeleton's tibia" encounter, and alienates those that don't rely on physical weaponry. Maybe consider coming up with a more interesting boss effect:

  • Close range AoE bursts, involving either damage or magical effects like fearing or imposing another status effect.
  • Dangerous environmental hazards (aka "Void Zones") that are either pre-existing or dynamically conjured.
  • Interesting and varied terrain that can be exploited by both the PCs and the Lich and his minions.
  • Minions that run in every few rounds or are conjured or raised mid fight.
  • Different stages of the fight where the boss takes on new abilities, dynamically changes the location or terrain of the fight, and/or flies into a rage.

All of those mechanics pose an interesting, and dynamic nature to the battle, that simply making the boss hard to kill conventionally will never do. Additionally, none of these mechanics has to be explicitly telegraphed other than normal description of what is happening right now. You can certainly warn your PCs about dangers of combat, but it is no longer necessary for their very survival.

Finally, if the mechanic you are adding will almost assuredly end in a TPK if the PCs do not have the requisite knowledge, I would strongly advise either not using that mechanic, or ham-fistedly shoving the warning and solution in their faces, so they are guaranteed to have the knowledge.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This is exactly what I was going to suggest. I did something similar in LRP where a certain type of undead bad guy called an Antithesis (there were 3 of them in total) that could only be killed in special ways. You could beat them to the ground and then they would turn into mist and disappear. To kill them permanently you needed to kill them with the ultimate symbol of what they once stood for. This was great as it let them appear and let the players "beat" them and win a specific encounter, but to get rid of them permanently they needed to find and use the weakness. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim B
    Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 13:36

Employ foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is of course the art of revealing future events without actually telling the audience anything too detailed. It makes more sense with additional information or at a later time.

There should be some quality to the skeletal minions which mark them as his bane which would not be immediately apparent, had they not found previous information.

Example: His skeletons all bear the mark of an eye on the front of their skulls. The players would have no clue that their bones could be used as devastating weapons, had not they met that cryptic soothsayer at the outside of the dungeon who told them that "The body of the eye is the bane of the lich". Either piece of information is worthless on its own, but together, and only in the presence of the lich, do they make sense and give the key to his downfall.

Now, most players have to be hit with a clue by four to put together puzzles, especially in the heat of combat. (See the Three Clue Rule). This is actually a good thing in this case, since it can heighten the drama of the discovery. If a round or so of combat goes by unfruitfully, use any excuse to grant in Insight check (or perception roll, or whatever mechanic is used in your chosen system to distribute information). Describe the skeletons to Bob the Barbarian, but lay particular emphasis upon describing the eye mark. Players pick up on expanded detail in a description. If that doesn't work, you can actually say that "The eye symbol reminds you of the prophecy that crazy old soothsayer gave you". That should be enough to allow the players to turn the fight around.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you very much for your answer! It is definitely a valid point that I will take into consideration next time. But even by riddle, I would prefer not having a NPC or hint like that at all though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gravetow
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 21:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Gravetow That was just of the top of my head. Information could be discovered any number of ways: researching a tome, paying informants, interrogating prisoners, divine guidance, and so on. The point was to give information that makes no sense ahead of time, but allows them to realize for themselves it once they are in the big boss fight. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 22:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ What if, leading up to boss fight, his minions seem to suffer from a similar trait? If the Lich is, say, vulnerable to attacks by females, make a point of showing that the skeletons hit by female party members seem to fall apart faster, or at least avoid engaging them. And even earlier, they hear the lore about how when he was alive "no man could ever defeat him", but then Eowyn, Red Sonja, and Ellen Ripley showed up.... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 0:59

Change the situation from a do-or-die puzzle to a do-or-fail puzzle.

If the party fails to figure out the puzzle, let them run away.

This Lich has invested everything into defense and is weak on offense. This gives them a few more turns to make the run-away decision.

Now, not all players are able to conceive of the idea of running away. You may have to hint pretty heavily or even outright say that running away is an option.

So, they have run away and is discussing what to do. (While healing up etc) At this point they will be much more willing to revisit the clues you have given them and figure out the puzzle.

Plan B: So, they didn't run away in time and were killed. Or at least some of them were. What will the Lich do? Why, it resurrects them to taunt them a second time! You now have a escape-from-prison scenario.


Use knowledge checks

If you are adamant about not being direct (or indirect) with telling them a weakness, then you can incorporate knowledge checks. Something I liked from 4e and another system I play is the utilization of multiple knowledge checks to glean critical in-game information.

The best way to make this happen, in my experience, is a multi-step approach that allows for retries. In addition, while this is occurring, you should NOT have an encounter that is also impossibly deadly.

Using the example you provided of the Lich being only susceptible to attacks from the bones of his minions, I'd probably have several DC15 checks available to the players. This info can be gained by expending an action and I would tell the players that attempting these knowledge checks is something they can do with their turn. Perhaps the following:

  • Arcana (DC15): Necromantic energy flows are swirling in an unusual pattern around this room, protecting the Lich. There appears to be voids in the energy around the skeletons.
  • Perception/Insight (DC15): The lich's movements around the room are deliberate, he appears to be maintaining a certain distance from the skeletons.
  • Religion (DC15): Liches are extremely powerful undead, which are known to utilize a variety of obscure magical rituals to protect themselves from harm.
  • History (DC30; scaling): According to legend, Baron Von Lichdom was completely impervious to all forms of harm. It was said that only the bones of those who served him could actually harm him.

The History check is obviously the biggie here, but it's almost out of reach for any player. However, this is why I say to scale it and recommend you reduce the difficulty of it as players succeed on the other checks; probably a reduction of 5 per other success, thus making the final check a DC15. Highly probable for a proficient character, but still possible even if not proficient. Should there be a player who can make the DC30 check, cool for them, this is apparently their chance to shine.

It should be noted that not everyone's a knowledge junkie, so it is still important to have disposable minions capable of attacking the party and keeping the brawny types occupied.

When putting this into action, have cards with this information written on it beforehand. Let the player read and bring that info into the game as opposed to just telling the table.


Use a 'story told in the form of roleplay'

I've done this a few times myself.. Have the players bring new characters to the next session, of approximately same level as the current group, play out two or three of the pre-boss-fight rooms, possibly in the wrong order, then the final boss. Its expected that the group will fail, they have new characters that they're not familiar with, mistakes will be made, even have the boss be ever so slightly more powerful, ensure that A) the boss and any critical monsters do not die, and B) one of the heroes survives..

The surviving hero can then read a pre-printed page to the group or you can play it out yourself, that hero is the "old man" telling the story, to the real characters your players have normally, days or weeks before they set out on the quest at the end of the session..

If you're already mid session (or your sand-boxing the game as you go) you have it as a flashback to what happened months ago, and the players are 'remembering' when that old man set them on the quest...

Now, your players are armed with 'some' information, rooms that featured in the story, how the boss fight might go down.. get some of it wrong in the story, memory is a fickle thing...

My Personal Experience:

My experience trying this has been good, players appreciate a bit of change, playing new characters that they sorta understand are likely to die gives them a bit of free reign, they're a tad more reckless, but this can lead to trying dangerous ideas that work as often as not. Its important to let the players know (at the end seemed to work better) that the old man was not 100% sure of his memory, and might be a little off in the details, so players still have some surprises.. also don't do the whole adventure, just 1-2 key rooms and the final boss fight (not the lead up)

Watch out for: Avoid plot rooms in the 'story adventure' include super deadly traps that kill players and reset, but don't have them solve the trap completely.. especially if players are aware this is 'backstory' as they might disarm traps, so their new group will have a clean walk.. My personal favourite is to have a whole other group play out the adventure, then have the surviving player come paraphrase their story to the group, AS the old man.. does that bypass the NPC ruling?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ What PurpleMonkey said, nonetheless a very intriguing idea! It would be very helpful if you could include your experiences as suggested or maybe even common pitfalls to avoid! \$\endgroup\$
    – Gravetow
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 8:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ well, yes technically since the "old man by the fire" is an NPC, hmmph.. But I took it more to mean, "the GM giving the players the information VIA an NPC" rather than "The players discover for themselves, through narrative backstory" \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 18, 2017 at 7:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleMonkey, sorry, was unaware of the procedure.. thanks. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 3:47

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