A boss battle should be a cherry on top of an already delicious dungeon-sundae. A good boss will leave the players satisfied and inspired to continue their adventures. The last thing they, and even a good DM, want is to come face to face with the horrible lich lord and just have him throwing fireballs or commanding skeleton armies. There’s nothing memorable about slashing down a dozen skeletons, especially if that’s what the party was doing on their way to the lich lord. Building a better boss battle is an easy process and a good way to take your game to the next level. Here are 4 ways to do it.
1) Make The Battle Mobile
Movement is exciting. Chase scenes are exciting. Why not combine both to make a memorable boss battle? A creature escapes from the sewers of the city, freed by an earthquake. It is large, its many shifting legs scramble through the city streets as citizens flee for their lives. The hunt for this beast is on and the best way to keep up with it is jumping from rooftop to rooftop. What about players that aren’t as dexterous? They can pursue on foot or… maybe there’s a horse and carriage waiting for them amidst the chaos?
Keeping players on their toes and solving problems keeps them engaged and interested. A non-static boss ensures that the players can’t get comfortable with a routine, they’ll constantly have their minds moving to ensure they stay ahead of the challenge before them. Thinking on the spot will also usually lead to players making crazy decisions to keep the advantage. These crazy ideas usually lead to memorable moments, like jumping from the rooftop to land on the beast’s back; a cinematic moment worthy of talking about weeks after that session is done.
Mobile also doesn’t necessarily mean movement. Even a change of scenery is enough to give the players the feeling of mobility. A constantly changing or shifting battleground will provide the same sense or urgency and unexpected events as a chase in the streets would.
2) Give The Boss Unique Flair
If, for the entire dungeon run, the players have been battling orcs, don’t make the boss waiting for them at the end of the dungeon an even bigger orc. Sure, it makes sense that the orc general would be waiting for them, warhammer held high, but that isn’t really pushing the limits in leveling up your game. Why can’t this orc general also have some sort of unique trait that makes him a little more exciting than just another orc? Maybe these orcs dug too deep and found something they shouldn’t have?
The bottom of the cave system is damp. The scent of sulphur has only gotten more offensive the deeper you’ve explored. This must be the room in which the orc chieftain resides, tattered war-banners and the scavenges of war line the walls. An unnatural green glow comes from the north side of the room. A low chuckle, from various voices, echoes off the walls. The orc chieftain approaches; he is seemingly being followed by three ghostly forms and they all scream as they charge in at you.
This is a relatively simple solution to give a sense of mystery and imposing presence to a boss when the players have already fought similar monsters throughout the entire dungeon. You can throw a curveball and have the orcs led by a mindflayer, but adding strange traits to an expected enemy is a good way to surprise the players. In my example I’d go further and have the three ghostly forms be spirits that also attack the players, but can only travel a few feet from the chieftain before being forcefully snapped back.
3) Boost Everyone’s Power Level
This is a good method for the final boss fight of a campaign, but can work for any boss battle. Let’s say you’re nearing the end of your campaign and your players are only about level 10. You’re still looking at all these CR 25 encounters and dreaming of the day that your players can face one of those monsters. Why can’t they? It’s your game and you’re trying to craft memorable moments for yourself and them so why not throw them up against a tarrasque? Well, probably because your players will be killed horribly and the campaign will end on a downer. Unless you make it a fair fight, of course.
The great colossal beast is moving on the walls of the city. Defeat is imminent. The oracle is scrambling to try and find guidance from the city’s gods. A wave of blue washes over the room and the party feels themselves transported somewhere else. They stand at the foot of the gods, stoic and immense. They communicate through the oracle, they state that the time to defend the city is now and that this defense will happen through the party. Each is imbued with formidable powers from a different god. They are returned just as the beast reaches the city gates: the battle is on.
This method requires a lot of work on the part of the DM. They’ll need to build stat-blocks for the characters that the players become. When this happened to me, my DM based my stat-block off of a Solar from Pathfinder. Another method is to let your players have some fun with it, give them a little bit of clay and let them their mold their own powers. They need to close the distance on the tarrasque and you simply ask them, “how would you like to do that?” If they want to fly over, let them do so in a way that fits with some pre-determined rules based on the powers they received. If they want to attack the monster, do the same thing but make each character’s blessings unique to them.
When the beast is defeated their blessings disappear, but maybe as a reward the players are left with a small piece of the power they once had. This can be a great way to ensure that not only will the players want to revisit these characters but that they’ll never forget the fight against the creature they weren’t ever meant to kill.
4) Make An Environment A Boss Battle
There’s a preconceived notion that a boss battle must be against some sort of monster. However you can surprise your players by turning the very concept of a boss battle on its head. The players reach the end of the dungeon and expect to find some sort of monstrosity waiting for them in the mines. The tremors that shook the caves on their way down made them suspect some sort of burrowing beast, but instead when they reach the final room the mine floors collapse beneath them. They are sucked under the currents of a rushing underground river. They need to keep their heads up and stable while fighting the whims of the river.
Choices like this provide your players with surprises. Surprises build memorable moments because it puts them out of their comfort zone. There was a time when my DM rewarded my excursion into the underworld by forcing me to climb out of it while carrying another party member on my back. He treated the climb up the steep stone wall as a boss battle and it has stuck with me since then. Each negative roll caused me to lose my footing and slip down, forcing me to right myself and lose progress. Each positive roll was a ‘hit’ against the cliffside and I made progress. The whole time I was pursued by denizens of the underworld, but they weren’t the boss. They were just there to ensure I was pushed to constantly move upward.
A monster encounter in Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons is just a series of die rolls against challenge ratings. Doing any sort of physical or mental feats is the same. There is not much difference in mechanics between the two but it allows your players to feel something new and fresh and constantly keeps them wondering what will come next.
Hopefully you found some inspiration for changing up or adding excitement to your boss battles. Did you have any methods you employ to pump unique features into your bosses? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Picture Reference: https://www.goombastomp.com/make-great-boss-battle/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.