A Month of Healthy Disrespect

It’s November, which means I’m doing National Novel Writing Month again. Since I’ll be spending most of my writing energy on something completely different, this blog won’t have any long-form posts this month. Instead, I want to elaborate on something I’ve mentioned a few times: my healthy disrespect for the rules of D&D.

The context in which I intend “healthy disrespect” is “the gaming system clearly intends and expects that I will use mechanic X, but it does not specifically preclude me from doing mechanic Y and I’m willing to tweak or ignore whatever’s necessary to achieve it.” It pertains to Law #1, the DM’s ability to do anything he or she wants, and Law #0, the responsibility of all players to keep everything fun, and it’s a step beyond simple house rules because it violates some core expectation of the game. That is, if I see a way to do something fun, I’m within my rights to make that happen even if it’s contraindicated by the system. Sometimes it works, and everybody has a blast. Sometimes it fails, and I’ve inflicted something on my players with nothing to show for it but the experience. In either case, I’ve learned something about what does and doesn’t work, and I can use that in future sessions to make them even better. Continue reading

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Making Phased Bosses

Phased bosses aren’t an everyday food. If every bandit leader and his brother has multiple forms, the whole concept loses its impact. But for key battles, the sort that accompany campaign milestones or end arcs, there’s little more satisfying than watching the PCs win a fight they know they can’t handle. Because phased fights bring deadly challenges down to a reasonable level by manipulating encounter pacing, they fit snugly between “possible” and “impossible” in the exact place memorable fights live.

Designing a phased boss gives you plenty of opportunity to flex your creative muscle. But before you design anything you have to decide what sort of fight you want. There are different types of phased encounters, though the types themselves are means to an end. What really matters is the impression you want to give the players, and that impression affects what type of encounter works best. Continue reading

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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

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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

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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

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