I would never go so far as to say that most of my sessions turn out the way I plan, but often they’re reasonably close. My players rarely look into a murder, check the crime scene, interview witnesses, research the victim, and start coming up with theories only to abandon their investigation and go traveling instead. (Note that I say “rarely”—this example isn’t hypothetical, it’s anecdotal.) In general, if I think something’s going to work a certain way, I’m usually correct within one standard deviation of that way. This is especially true for game balance; the fights I intend to be challenging are usually challenging, if not always for the reasons I expect. When I set up a boss encounter and the players don’t struggle, I consider that a problem. But sometimes that problem manifests in a very specific way, bringing things back around to awesome.
Let me tell you about Lan, the perfect fight.
I live in a college town, and many of my players over the years have been students. This presented us with a problem during The Great Tower of Oldechi, a campaign I ran for six semesters. Come summer, enough of the players were leaving town that we were in danger of losing quorum, and various other circumstances then guaranteed it. I could have put the campaign on hiatus for three to four months (and that’s what I did for the next summer) but I really wanted to keep running it. We settled on a gaiden, or a filler arc depending on how gracious you are. A new group of PCs would have some adventure within the same setting but separate from the main party, such that the players who weren’t there didn’t actually miss anything. You can find a more detailed description of the gaiden in my write-up for it.
The end boss of this arc was a three-phased boss from a video game that had been popular years before I played it, but the sub-bosses had more of a role in the plot. The macguffins of the gaiden were pieces of a PC’s soul split six ways. The number six was convenient more than symbolic; D&D likes dividing things by the six ability scores, there are six monster types in 4E, and six mini-dungeons fit nicely into the time I had to fill. Six sub-bosses held the soul pieces, one of each creature type, which let me build six distinct monsters and thus six different boss encounters.
I don’t remember why I decided the sub-bosses were pumpkin men. I legitimately might have just wanted to use the minis and justified it by saying they were the detritus of a scrapped Halloween-themed floor in the tower. I ended up with these:
- Kelson, the lurker. Every time he didn’t take an action or move on his turn, his defenses increased and his next attack got stronger. He also had a chance to teleport every time he was hit by an attack, so pinning him down was almost impossible, especially in the dark, twisty sewers he used as his lair. I didn’t remember how the players dealt with him, and looking over my notes it looks like they convinced him to join the party, so that explains it.
- Mandrake, the soldier. He used sonic powers to punish anybody who attacked the mandragora minions he had swarming the battlefield. The minions also dealt damage when they died. I really didn’t expect the players to kill as many of the minions as they did considering how badly I punished them for it, but whatever. This mini-floor was gravity-themed, so maybe the party fought him on the sides of a cube? That sounds familiar.
- Zapallo, the skirmisher. He teleported regularly and his speed and Reflex defense increased as he took damage. His arena was a billiards table, and one of his powers was kicking billiard balls at players. These balls followed rudimentary physics, including bouncing off characters to hit others, so the players got to do a lot of geometry.
- Carrot, the brute. He hit hard. His only interesting power was a drill attack; whenever he hit a target with it, he could use the same attack immediately against the same target, setting up a potentially infinite combo. This did not happen.
- Some artillery. I have no notes about him. Even his portrait is just named “A_pumpkin_artillery.JPG”, so I don’t even have a name. I probably reskinned something on the fly.
- Lan, the controller. He had an ever-expanding aura of difficult terrain, a reaction that punished adjacent enemies for damaging him, a debuff that caused players to take damage for standing too close to each other, immunity to forced movement, and various other control effects. Unlike other sub-bosses who needed minions or a specific arena to be a threat, Lan could be dropped into any situation and act as a boss. In many ways, he was the sub-boss of whom I was most proud.
The players fought through an Abyss-themed floor to reach Lan, fending off demons and chaos effects along the way. They found him in some sort of hut or building, and his introduction played out much like this:
Player: I kick in the door.
DM: You see the pumpkin man standing in the middle of the room, surrounding by moving, coiling vines.
Player: Give us the soul piece!
DM: Uh, no.
Player: Diplomacy has failed! *rolls initiative*
“Diplomacy has failed!” has become a meme in our circles.
Lan did not win initiative. He went fourth, so three players got to act before he did. One of those was the party’s controller, Thor (no relation), who I believe acted immediately before Lan. Thor spent one of his daily powers to hit Lan with a stun effect. Stunning prevents a creature from acting, including making any off-turn attacks, so Lan didn’t get to use his minor-action powers or his immediate reactions or anything. He just sat there for a round while the players tore him to pieces with their strongest attacks. Which, honestly, was frustrating but acceptable. I knew that Lan, like most solo monsters, was more dangerous in the second half of the battle than the first, and we were just getting there more quickly.
The stun effect wore off, and Thor’s turn came around again, and he used another stun power. This one required a save, which Lan passed on a roll of five or better. But he failed, and he spent a second turn stunned. During this time the players bloodied him, triggering his buffs, but none of them prevented the party from gleefully spending as many daily powers as they could tearing him apart. At this point I was worried, but I knew if I could get Lan to flee, I might be able to set him up in a more advantageous location so he could at least harry the party for a few rounds before falling. Thor made it very clear that he was out of stun powers, so I had a chance.
And on Thor’s turn, on the initiative pass right before Lan would get to take his first action of the entire combat (on round three), Thor hit Lan with an attack and took him to 0 hit points. Exactly.
Lan had 628 hit points, and the players, with all of their daily powers and buffs and critical hits, managed to deal exactly 628 damage to him in two and a half rounds. If they had dealt only 627 damage, if a single attack had missed or a single damage die had rolled one point lower, he would have been alive. If they had dealt 629 damage, I would have been angry at how my carefully-crafted monster never got to act and I might have spontaneously given him some sort of ally or bonus or something to challenge the party at all. But because they dealt 628 damage, it was too perfect to subvert. The players literally kicked in the door and, at the first sign of anything other than total obsequiousness, performed an orgy of violence unlike anything I’ve seen before or since, even after the same campaign reached epic levels.
The party steamrolled other fights in that campaign, but none as decisively as Lan’s. I’ve never had another boss who got to do literally nothing. He didn’t even get off a single attack; all he did was roll initiative and make saving throws. Yet I don’t remember him as a failure in monster design (because I still have no idea how effective he would have been as a boss) or session design (though it did leave me with a sudden gap to fill in game time), but as a success in emotional payoff. Whether or not the players deserved it, they got a great story and they got to ride that high for several sessions.