Stealing Boss Encounters

Boss fights are hard. Most editions of D&D really aren’t designed to handle them, so there’s no simple math you can do to turn a fight into a boss. You could just apply a template to a monster or give the players an enemy X levels above them or give it Y minions, but none of those methods work on their face because they’re all intended to make the fight harder. They don’t make it more interesting. A boss should be difficult, and we’ll talk about that soon, but more imperatively it should be an interesting encounter. The players should remember the boss fight more than they remember the mooks leading up to it, and that generally means it shouldn’t be simply a scarier version of those mooks. The fight needs something to make it fun, and that responsibility falls squarely on the DM.

The most important thing in a boss encounter is what the boss does. Monsters are differentiated by their powers, far more than by their ability scores or equipment or strategy, and a boss should have boss-level powers. Coming up with those powers is an art, especially in 5E where monsters tend to work a lot like each other and Challenge Ratings are more the results of guesswork than usable tools for estimating encounter difficulty. And since we don’t have a good system for creating boss powers, and thus boss monsters, from whole cloth, we have to rely on a tried-and-true method that has existed since the beginning of the game: stealing them. Continue reading

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When Anton Met Pepper

Players love messing with NPCs. That’s kind of their thing, perhaps even more than petty crime and distributing loot. Whether the DM presents a haughty nobleman or a vicious warlord or even a curmudgeonly shopkeeper, the players feel it’s their opportunity—nay, their obligation to bring him down a peg. I’ve spent a lot of time coming up with NPCs the players actually care about. Given how affable some of my villains are, I sometimes go too far. But once in a blue moon the players find an NPC they actually like, one they want to see grow through multiple appearances, and they become invested in this random person’s life. When it happens, it’s not just rewarding. It’s beautiful.

Let me tell you about when Anton met “Pepper”. Continue reading

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The Vampire Ambush

I’m something like a recovering simulationist. I’m happiest with a campaign when it makes sense, when causes leads naturally to effects, and when I don’t have to leverage my willing suspension of disbelief too much. I do understand that we game to have fun, and sometimes hard realism has to give way to an interesting narrative, but every once in a while my meta-sense triggers and tells me something is happening as it would in a story but not as it would in real life. On a bad day it takes me out of the game. On a good day it forces me to look at what I’m doing from another perspective and improve my campaign world. And on a great day it lets me see what my players are doing, recognize that things don’t work the way they assume they do, and punish them for it.

Let me tell you about the vampire ambush. Continue reading

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A few actual, non-hyperbolic years ago, I said this:

Yes, having an odd ability score as an ability damage buffer is a type of metagaming. But it’s also a way of defining a character. As in, “Rock Hardslab is so strong! He can even take a hit from a wraith and barrel on, unharmed, where lesser action heroes might falter!” I could have a whole other post someday on how selling something the right way can be the difference between rejection and applause.

This is that post. Continue reading

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The Principle of Explosion

DMs are wary of giving power to players, partially because few DMs can prepare for or react to players with too much freedom and partially because players are guaranteed to abuse it. This is why wishes are granted so rarely, why campaigns tend to end when PCs ascend to godhood or gain their own kingdoms, and (in part) why low-level campaigns are so much more common than high-level campaigns. I’m a little less concerned about this than most, I think, and a lot of that is the social contract we have; my players want to play in the game, so anything that dramatically disrupts the game violates their own interests. But it’s also because I like seeing what players do with power. Per the above, I’ve granted wishes, I’ve made PCs into gods, and I’ve only spent more time on low-level campaigns because my players haven’t requested high-level ones. But my capstone is probably the time I game my party immeasurable, universe-rending power, but didn’t tell them they had it, just to see how long it would take them to figure it out and what they would do once they did.

Let me tell you about the principle of explosion. Continue reading

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