Puzzle Bosses

In my career I’ve seen the designers of D&D try to approach boss monsters in several ways. In 3E a boss is a monster with a CR higher than the party level, which usually means it has higher defenses, bigger attacks, and powers beyond the party’s scale. In 4E a boss has largely the same combat numbers, but has quadruple hit points and gets more than one offensive action per turn. In 5E it gets even more actions and some ability to ignore player attacks. Pathfinder uses 3E rules, but the conventional wisdom is to make a boss a standard-CR creature with enough allies or minions to ramp up the difficulty and keep the boss from being swarmed.

All of these share a common trait: a boss is a normal monster, but scarier. For the most part they use the same rules as any other creature, sometimes with a template or bonus stacked on to give them different abilities (“solo” in 4E, “legendary” in 5E). An aggressive way of saying it is “a boss is a normal monster who breaks the unwritten social rules of the game by being numerically out of bounds.”

That’s my big issue with them: not the phrase “out of bounds”, but the word “numerically”. A boss is defined by their numbers, and higher numbers challenge the characters rather than challenging the players. A boss who’s a normal creature, except it deals 50% more damage and you have to roll two higher to hit it, isn’t actually a boss. It’s just a longer fight. That can be dramatic if the numbers push it just out of the players’ comfort or competence zones, but it can just as easily be a boring slog or frustrating TPK.

In the Zelda campaign I hit the players with more bosses than I have in any other campaign, and I settled into a rhythm that I think made them more interesting than just being mathematically superior. In most Zelda games, the players gets an item in the middle of a dungeon. They use that item to beat the dungeon, and it’s usually required or helpful for the dungeon boss as well. The campaign worked the same way; every dungeon boss was in some way vulnerable to the item in its dungeon, and the players had to figure out how to leverage that. This included not just learning how the item affected the boss, but also when to use it and which player was best suited to it, in the middle of a standard pitched combat, and the end of an adventure where the players were running on depleted resources. Beating each one felt like more of an actual achievement than rolling slightly higher than normal for significantly longer than normal.

This is a puzzle boss, a boss fight solved by a strategy other than “hit it really hard until it falls down”. Often a puzzle boss works via some weak point the player has to discover and exploit, like an opening in the boss’ defenses after a big attack or a nearby object that can damage the boss when attacks cannot. I think my favorite version of this is the one in Zelda games or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: the boss seems unbeatable, but once you figure out their trick you can open them up to one-sided, incredibly satisfying melee combat.

That’s where I find myself as I start to think about my next campaign, which will be in Pathfinder, the land of “if you ain’t doing a hundred damage a round, you ain’t trying”. I spent a good while trying to find published monsters immune to Pathfinder’s rocket-tag gameplay, and when that failed I tried to find monsters resistant to it, then gave up on that and just tried to find monsters that didn’t actively contribute to it. But instead of using the narrow subsection of the game that works with my style of play, I’m probably going to do what I normally do and make something new.

Part of my reluctance is that Pathfinder is still very simulationist. Monster design in 4E is like the Wild West, where you can’t assume that one monster’s swallow whole power works in any way like it does with another monster. Pathfinder doesn’t do that; “swallow whole” is a specific monster ability with a glossary entry and a programmed set of steps and results. The monster creation rules in the Bestiary actively discourage DMs from making something out of whole cloth:

Monsters should use abilities from the Universal Monster Rules whenever possible, instead of creating new yet similar abilities—when you do create new abilities, use the Universal Monster Rules as a template for how to present and create the new abilities.

The rules work on a very “like = like” system. For example, a character can break through nearly any barrier given enough time, and with the right tools they can usually make it trivially easy. Now consider a boss who is physically weak and controls minions or machines from behind a transparent wall. That wall can only be made of two things: a physical material like glass or invisible steel, which a strong character can destroy rapidly; or a magical material like force, which is impossible to break manually but falls immediately to specific spells. There’s no room for a surface that can only be broken by filing minions at it or tricking the machines into hitting it. That material would work unlike everything else in the world, and the rules don’t like that.

So I find myself in a situation where I’m planning encounters that work in a gaming system while deliberately subverting the intent of that system, skirting the line of “it works this way because the DM wants it to and for no other reason” without crossing it. It’s a strange kind of perpendicular design, making encounters with the feel I want by working despite the system rather than within it. That’s not bad per se, and I’m finding it a lot of fun, but it means I’m trying to come up with combats that marry both the existing mechanics and the gameplay I want without just telling the players that a given monster breaks the rules and leave it at that.

I don’t want to just hand-wave away Pathfinder’s simulationism, either. Say I’m committed to that magic wall that can only be destroyed by flinging a minion at it. I have to explain it somehow, so I’m going to say the minions are also magic. They could be magic in a similar way, which disrupts the wall because they overloads it or because they interact with it in a way other objects can’t, or in an opposite way, which damages the walls or exploits its weak points. I have to give the players some way to find out about the minion’s special properties—a previous encounter, a book of notes from their creator, symbols on the wall that match the symbols on the minion’s faces—and trust them to draw appropriate conclusions.

This trust highlights one of the big issues with designing puzzle bosses: they have the downsides of both a puzzle and a boss. If the players don’t figure out that the minions affect the wall, it’s over. If they figure it out but draw an incorrect conclusion, like thinking the minions enhance the wall and trying to drive them away, it’s over. If the get the right answer but fail on their rolls to enforce that answer, it’s over. If the players ignore or circumvent the puzzle entirely, like digging their way through the floor under the magic wall, the battle works but it’s deeply unsatisfying. And the whole time I’m trying to hit them with an exciting, dangerous encounter, so I’m taxing their resources even harder than normal. It’s not easy.

But the results are worth it. If the players succeed in the fight, and I succeed in designing and running it, we get an encounter that stands out from the rest of the campaign. It feels different because it is different, and the party has to adjust its tactics to compensate. If the players solve the puzzle in a way I didn’t expect, like tricking the minions into attacking the wall themselves, that’s even better. The players accomplished something, not the characters, and that feeling of legitimately deserving success lasts a lot longer than winning because your math outpaced the game’s.

I’m still trying to figure out if I have enough to say about making puzzle bosses to fill an entire blog post. I guess we’ll find out soon.

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