Phased Bosses

I’ve alluded to phased bosses a few times, but I haven’t gone in-depth about it. A phased combat encounter is any encounter with multiple stages as part of the same fight. These stages must be mechanically distinct; a knight who becomes wary of attacks of opportunity isn’t entering a new phase, but a knight who switches to a heavy weapon or descends from horseback may be. The stages must all occur in the same encounter, but they don’t necessarily have to include the same monsters or even the same battlefield. As long as you compress multiple thematically-linked fights into one combat without a significant break between them, you probably have a phased encounter.

Despite the prevalence of phased bosses in other media, D&D doesn’t have a lot of information about doing it. I think that’s because it makes the math really hard. D&D balances encounter difficulty based on Challenge Rating math or an XP budget, and phased encounters don’t interact nicely with either. If you give your players an encounter with a 200-XP phase and a 300-XP phase, it’s harder than giving them two encounters because they don’t have the rest in between, but it’s easier than one 500-XP encounter because they’re not dealing with it all at once. D&D doesn’t like taking carefully-crafted mechanisms and adding a rule that says “and then you just wing it, we guess”, so there’s little literature on phased encounters. And that’s a shame, because good phased fights are among the most flavorful, exciting, and interesting fights you can give your players. Continue reading

Posted in DMing | Leave a comment

Creating Bosses: Actual Numbers

This post is the reason I’ve been avoiding writing about boss monsters for so long. While I’ve run hundreds (literally hundreds) of sessions in 3E/Pathfinder and 4E, my 5E experience is much more limited. I wasn’t sure I had the experience with 5E to offer such blanket advice. But now that I’ve delved deeper into it and done some research, 5E isn’t that imposing. It doesn’t work like other editions, but that’s why we need guidelines for it.

The trick about balancing boss encounters in 5E is to use some of the things about higher-Challenge creatures without using the creatures themselves. As we’ll see, the way 5E handles the stats that scale with Challenge means it obliterates parties who fight higher-Challenge monsters, and the experience point values are really more useful measures than the Challenges themselves. For example, a Challenge 1 creature is not for L1 parties. By the experience point budget, it’s a deadly encounter not suitable for everyday use. It’s a bit of a rude awakening for DMs used to earlier editions where 1 = 1. Boss monsters aren’t just high-Challenge creatures, and they aren’t high-Challenge versions of low-Challenge creatures. Instead, boss monsters are monsters who imitate some, but not all, of the traits of higher-Challenge creatures. We need to figure out which ones to take and how to apply them. Continue reading

Posted in DMing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Creating Bosses: Avoiding Easy Answers

Players most strongly remember two kinds of fights: the very easy and the very hard. If a fight seems difficult on paper and the players blow clean through it with good rolls, good strategy, and/or a good builds, they’ll tell that story for years if only because it’s hilarious. If a fight pushes them right to the edge, they’ll remember it too, either because they overcame a difficult challenge or because they lost. Many fights fall in between, and that’s fine. Each fight should mean something to the game, but not every fight has to be a life event.

Boss fights are different. They should be memorable, which means they shouldn’t be humdrum, by-the-numbers encounters. The more important a boss fight is, the more it should test the players’ and character’s limits. I trust this concept is not controversial. The problem is doing it. How do you make a fight hard enough to test the party but not so hard you accidentally wipe them out? Continue reading

Posted in DMing | Leave a comment

Creating Bosses: Making a Concept

Stealing boss ideas is easy once you get used to it. A DM can pick up almost any game with a boss, pick almost any boss in that game, and apply it to their game for a fun encounter. But, as I like to say, every project in the world, from D&D sessions to movies to entrepreneurial pursuits, begins with two steps:

  1. Hey, you know what would be cool?
  2. No, seriously, how would we even do that?

Every fun concept must eventually match up to reality. Once you have a boss idea, you have to apply it to the system rules (or choose which rules to violate/ignore, but that’s a whole other topic). That means figuring out how to work it into your campaign, but also balancing the encounter against what the party can handle. Continue reading

Posted in DMing | Leave a comment

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

Posted in DMing | Leave a comment