The D&D Boss Fight (Part 3)

August 7, 2010

Bloodknuckles (Stage 1)

I envisioned Bloodknuckles initially as a very dirty fighter. While not particularly smart, he was brutally cunning and quick to take advantage of an opening. He also liked to really throw his weight around. Sort of a pit fighter. I think that really shows through in his Dodge and Throw (which I see as a Judo sort of sidestep and takedown) and his brutal stomp on your head and kick you aside.

I am going to apologize in advance for the names of the powers. Sadly, as creative as I like to think I am, I always get stuck when it comes to giving powers evocative names. I recently had a group of alchemist kobolds with powers like “Fiery Goo,” “Black, Sticky Goo,” “Poisonous Goo,” and “Blinding Goo.”

Bloodknuckles Stage 1 Stat BlockHP and Action Points

I calculated the HP normally for Bloodknuckles and simply divided it by three to determine how many HP each stage should have. Based on some quick estimates of average damage output and accuracy, Bloodknuckles should spend two to three rounds in each stage against a 3rd-level party. That seems about perfect. Bloodknuckles does not become bloodied like a normal monster. Instead, his third stage is considered bloodied. He simply goes from full to dead.

Each stage has one action point. Originally, I was going to give each stage two action points, but some math about the number of actions and damage output told me I was pushing it.


Threatening Reach is a great way to give a solo more actions and the more mobile the solo, the more attacks it will get as a result. Unlike immediate actions, the solo can make as many opportunity attacks as opportunities arise. Bloodknuckles is very pushy, so there will be a lot of approaches.

Immovable is the first way I am lessening conditions. Actually, forced movement isn’t particularly terrible against solos, but Immovable fits well, flavor-wise, with his stubbornness and, later, his momentum.

Standard Actions

You’ll notice there isn’t anything very fancy actually happening here. BK has the greatclub for whacking and the stomp attack for people he knocks down. There is the usual trick to give him two attacks a round and the shift helps him stay mobile, but not too mobile. He can choose between either of the attacks, stomping, kicking, and clubbing.

You will also notice that there are no encounter powers. At the heroic tier, boss monsters don’t need many encounter powers because their ‘stage change’ powers function like encounter powers that are on a recharge of 5 and 6.

Move Actions

Here is where I address the first set of action denial problems: immobilization, restrain, grab, and prone. While I could simply have written in a power that somehow shuts those conditions down, I decided that it would be more interesting if at least some of the problematic conditions made Bloodknuckles more dangerous. Now, if you lock him down or knock him down, he flails around wildly while he regains his footing or breaks free.

I think this is something I will do more of with boss monsters. Among the problematic conditions, I will pick some subset that the monster responds to somehow in a way that turns it into the party’s problem. I can envision, for example, a mind flayer mastermind who not only fights off charms and domination, but whose psychic backlash assaults the attacker’s mind.

Besides, the image of an ogre with a greatclub flailing around like a turtle trying to right himself is just hillarious.

Triggered Actions

Thick Headed addresses the rest of the action denial conditions that cause serious problems. No action is involved so as to avoid running into the limit of one immediate action per round.  The use of the immediate save means there is a chance that he will be affected, so these actions aren’t shut down completely.

Rampage is, of course, the key to the whole boss monster thing. This is the stage change power. It fulfills the key requirements for the transition: it disengages Bloodknuckles, it works no matter what else is going on, and it clearly conveys how Bloodknuckles’ tactics are changing.

Basically, in stage 1, Bloodknuckles is fighting like a brutish pit fighter. He’s clubbing, stomping, kicking, and body checking. While he is difficult to get close to, he’s also not too hard to pin in one spot. He’s standing his ground but probably isn’t running around. He’s just trying to keep from being overwhelmed.

When he has lost 68 HP, he can no longer deny he is being overwhelmed and he is probably feeling a little cornered. And so, he starts to really throw his weight around.

Download the complete Bloodknuckles PDF

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23 Responses to The D&D Boss Fight (Part 3)

  1. jrbeers717 on August 9, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    I used the three stage boss battle for my group after having read the first couple articles about it. I took a young white dragon and modified it in such a way that it was a flying skirmisher for the first part of the battle and a ground based brute for the 3rd part. The party was traveling between towns in a wagon when the dragon attacked (causing the horses to panic and run). It started things off by dropping some kobolds onto the wagon and then breathing ice on everyone. This opened up some fun with the dragon flying back and forth attacking the people on the wagon, but allowed the melee fighters something to hit if he was out of range for their turn.

    Once the dragon was bloodied he flew off and set up a skill challenge for the PCs to stop the wagon before it crashed. They succedeed and then fought the dragon one last time for the last part of the fight on the ground in a pretty standard battle.

    I think it worked pretty well overall. I sent my DM friend your articles and he liked them as well (though he recognized the setup in the dragon fight and new it was coming back. Should have waited until afterwards!)

    Anyway, thanks for the solid ideas!

  2. Colmarr on August 10, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    Very interesting monster constructions, and it has a lot of promise.

    How, if at all, do you plan to address the “gotcha” effect of a staged monster? PC’s earn their knowledge of a monster’s abilities tactics in blood, so negating that knowledge a couple of times during the combat seems a little harsh.

  3. The Angry DM on August 10, 2010 at 9:11 pm

    @jrbeers717: Don’t thank me because you took the ideas and ran with them before I got around to doing so, and I’m glad that it worked out so well. Sounds like a great scene.

    @Colmarr: I do intend to keep revisiting this topic and the design of the boss creature mainly because I think there are a lot of subtleties that I didn’t really address – some tied to monster design in general. You’ve brought up a very good one. After I’ve done another one and playtested them both much more, I plan to write a much better guide to building the things. This endeavor is turning out to be popular enough to be worth the extra effort.

    The “gotcha” effect is kind of a feature of the system, its not something that I really want to remove. In a standard encounter, with five monsters, the sense of “we’ve got this figured out and now we’re just mopping up” usually comes fairly late in the encounter, which is just where you want it. By the time the party figures out the encounter, it is usually over. Some DMs even end encounters here, once it is obvious that the party has the upper hand.

    This is one of the things that contributes to the ‘grindy’ feel of solos. After the second round, there are generally very few surprises, even though there are four more rounds. So, the idea of the boss monster is to keep the fight changing so that the party gets to feel as if they’ve figured things out without then settling into a ‘mop up grind.’

    At the same time, I am very aware that “gotcha” effects can cross a line from “keeping players on their toes” to “giving the players the finger.” And this is where the subtlety comes in.

    Bloodknuckles does not change drastically from round to round, especially in the case of the powers that are very ‘gotcha’ like: to wit, triggered actions. Because these are the places where the party is going to feel most screwed. In all three stages, if you attack Bloodknuckles in melee, he will respond. While his response changes in the third stage, by that time, the party has already come to expect that attacking him with melee is going to trigger him to do something. Likewise, Bloodknuckles responds to being proned the same way in every stage. The party gets the benefit of knowing that through the entire fight. Finally, Bloodknuckles does not gain any new immunities or defenses, he only loses them. This is another area where “gotchas” can feel like “screws.” In the third stage, he loses many of them and if the party is smart enough to realize it, or guess it, they will be rewarded. Otherwise, it doesn’t change the dynamic much.

    The tactical changes which are addressed in the standard actions are also telegraphed by the stage changes. Bloodknuckles changes to stage 2 by using a power very similar to his signature trick in stage 2. Likewise, in stage 3 when he switches to close bursts, his stage change telegraphs this. The stage changes themselves are no more “gotcha” than any other encounter power.

    But, the biggest key to all of this is that your players must know that you are using this system. You don’t neccessarily have to tell them all of the details, but just like you tell your party when they are facing a minion, you need to be clear that “this monster is clearly extremely powerful and dangerous and he might have surprises in store that change the tide of battle.” It is a little fourth wall breaking at first, but once the players understand the implications, they will be able to respond appropriately. With fair warning and a fight against a weak boss monster early in the campaign, they will be in a much better position to deal with it.

  4. Colmarr on August 10, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I agree that the “gotcha effect” is one of the stand-out love it features of 4e.

    It’s good to see that Bloodknuckles progresses so uniformly – I didn’t do a stage-by-stage comparison before leaving my comment. And I think you’re right that there needs to be a little bit of meta involved when you start using mechanics like this. Let the players know what the new “structure” is, but without giving them all the details, and then do your absolute best to give the players ibn-character descriptions of what’s going on.

  5. TheWizard on August 11, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    I love this concept and I’ve decided to use it for my first dungeon this next semester. I’ll let you know how it goes when it happens.

  6. David Bareford on August 16, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Used the concept of the 3-stage boss monster last night, using a 6-th level solo controller shadow humanoid as the base creature. The 6-member party was split up all over a university, and 2 characters encountered the monster in an office right after it had murdered a Dean.

    They attacked (both actually critted their first attack (one a daily power!), so the fight only lasted two rounds before the second stage went into effect. This was perfect because the other players were trying to figure out how to plausibly alert their characters to what was happening and get in the fight.

    My second stage boss was all about flight and movement, so he fled out the window to a courtyard below and gathered the attention of all the PCs along the way, and got everyone into the scene (and the chase)!

    The PCs finally cornered the boss in another room, and fought some minor shadow beasts it conjured in the transition to stage 3. Then when it came back, they finally were able to group up on it and take it down.

    Specifics of the encounter aside, the players’ feedback was overwhelmingly positive. I hadn’t told them about the boss concept beforehand, but they didn’t feel cheated as players or that I was using DM prerogative unfairly.

    Your concept made for a very memorable, exciting, mobile fight that was the centerpiece of last night’s game. I will definitely be using it from here on out.

    Thank you!


  7. DaBugbear on August 17, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    I am going to be using this concept in an upcoming game. I will post feedback afterwards, but I have to say I am excited about it. Our group’s main complaint with 4e has been the cakewalk/grindfest of Solo monsters as the centerpiece of an adventure as they have been somewhat anti-climactic. Thanks for all the work! I have liberally stolen from you!

  8. Arbanax on August 18, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Love this article mate, have recommended it for others to feel the love. I’m still fairly new to DMing 4e, but my group is going to get a kick out of the way this seems to play out. I’m so impressed with the refining that is beginning to happen with 4e, that a good game can become better and this is living proof of that. Should I get a chance to put this into practice soon, I’ll give some feedback.


  9. Level 1 DM on August 18, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    I’ve recently read all of your posts and really appreciate the information and opinions. I’ve also enjoyed the constructive conversation in the comments sections. I noticed someone had asked the question about carrying over damage or half damage on a boss stage. I noticed you didn’t address that question (or maybe I missed it). Do you have any thoughts on that? Thank you.

  10. AlioTheFool on August 18, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    Wow. I didn’t have the chance to check out this post earlier, but I’m glad I finally got to it! This is genius. I haven’t had a chance to really dig into @gamefiend of At-Will’s Worldbreaker concept, but I think you’re running a parallel idea and I love it.

    The 3 stages remind me of the boss stages in video games. I know you originally said this was part of the basis of the concept, and you really pulled it off. I’m definitely going to give this an attempt in my campaign and I’ll update you on the results.

    Perhaps you could run a small adventure leading to a boss battle like this on Saturday at RetCon. That would be cool and I’d definitely play and provide feedback.

  11. The Angry DM on August 19, 2010 at 8:58 am

    @Level 1 DM:

    As you can see from Bloodknuckles, I ultimately rejected the idea of anything carrying over from stage to stage. There is a lot to be said for keeping everything as modular as possible to make sure the transition from stage to stage is as clean as possible. Allowing anything to carry over at all means you have to start looking at every possible interaction (if the overdamage attack applies a condition, does the condition carry over; if the overdamage attack is elemental and the new stage has a resistance or vulnerability, do you apply it; etc.) I’m not saying you can’t come up with a way to do it, but it would not be nearly as clean as it is now and who knows what new element will get added in the next product release that will create some new problematic interaction. As it stands, by making it “one creature dies, new one appears”, it interacts with the rule system as cleanly as possible.

    The overdamage problem is not a serious enough problem to warrant making a mess of things. Its sort of an invisible problem. In theory, the players will never know they if they lost damage to overdamage or how much. Only the DM will know. As for hurting the party damage output, the game accepts the possibility in a standard combat of five instances of lost overdamage (five creatures to kill). The boss fight has three (two stages and dead). Of course, the bloodied condition in the standard battle is useful for preventing the worst amounts of overdamage. From a perspective of balancing the damage output of the party, it evens out for the most part.

    The question is not whether overdamage is something to avoid (it is), but whether it is a serious enough problem to warrant losing some of the elegance and simplicity of the stage transition and how it interacts with the other rules of the game. My answer is no, its not worth the potential complication.

  12. Captain K on August 19, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    As a fan of God of War, and more recently a DM, I was instantly drawn to this article when I googled tips on running a solid campaign. I played my first 4e game last year, and while the DM was a solid narrator the big fights just seemed to drag on like you mentioned. I really like your thoughts on the matter and I decided to do a similar thing for a 5th level party.

    After a night in the inn of a seaside town, they’d witnessed large tentacles coming out of the bay by the pier and sinking one of the smaller vessels harbored there. I had the tentacles resurface and attack the adjacent boat only to have a couple NPCs jump on the boat and fend them off. This gave the players the idea that the next ship in line was the probable next target. After they ran onto the small ship it lurched and four tentacles sprouted out. Although immobile, they had reach 2 and were lvl 5 brutes that could slam and grab. After being bloodied, each tentacle retreated. Then the party assumed they had won. They surveyed the area, and just as they got themselves into terrible positions, a giant octopus surfaced from the hold with it’s huge head on the main deck along with 4 adjacent tentacles and 4 more to boot. I rolled the head as a solo monster so it had decent hp to withstand the immobility while the tentacles destroyed the party. After they had finally bloodied the head, it retreated only to resurface along the pier blocking any escape other than a treacherous watery one. They finally managed to defeat the beast only to be hit with its final attack, an opalescent goo that permanently disabled the magical properties of anything it came in contact with. It was a great fight and as soon as they got a strategy down the game changed on them. It really worked well and it was your first article on the matter that influenced my creation. I like the stat block thing and I’m creating another boss battle for later use.

  13. Tiima on September 1, 2010 at 12:52 am

    “permanently disabled the magical properties of anything it came in contact with”

    I liked your monster up to this point. Permanent disenchantment? Pretty harsh. That reminds me of when black dragons used to make all your gear roll saves or be dissolved into useless goo.

  14. Greven on September 3, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    After reading this article, I helped my wife design an ice dragon for her campaign(that I play in). During the phase switch, the dragon dove into the ice and allowed introduction of new terrain obstacles (an ice water pit when he went down and difficult terrain when he came back up). We used ice gargoyles for the second phase while the dragon was under the water, and the monsters picking up the players and dropping them into the water was just awesome, even though my ardent was in the water for three turns.

    It really forced the players to keep their tactics fresh. My ardent switched from a hard healer to an off tank then back to a buff machine as the rest of the PCs adapted to the changing conditions.

    She opted to not explain what was going to happen, as the party tends to metagame A LOT. One player was upset about wasting a daily at the end of phase one, but otherwise people seemed to really enjoy it.

    I also think I should note we decided that if a leader chose their class feature heal power ( in my case Ardent Surge ) to recharge between phases, only one of the two uses was recharged. Getting both uses back seemed like too much extra healing, especially when as optimized for healing as I was.

    Two thumbs up, and I can’t wait to use it in my own campaign.

  15. Captain K on September 4, 2010 at 1:49 am

    I totally agree. I did this specifically in my campaign because I had made the poor decision of letting everyone start with a magical weapon and magical armor. After playing a while, I noticed balance issues and I was having trouble thinking of ways to reward them outside of wondrous items and such. I don’t recommend it for most people.

    Glad you liked the rest of the encounter, though! It was really fun and played out well.

  16. jaron95 on September 8, 2010 at 4:07 am

    This is awesome and I fully intend to use Bloodknuckles as-is in my next session. I will drop my four 3rd-level PCs into a “rancor pit” and make them fight for their lives, to the amusement of their former-ally-turned-necromancer.

  17. hvg3 on September 19, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    I used Bloodknuckles on friday, as a “bonus” encounter for my Dark Sun group. They were only level 1, so it was a tough fight; one of them died twice!

    (We’re using a variant for death in our game: I don’t have to pull punches, and they don’t have to continually remake characters and change storylines. As often, anyway. This is a monthly game, so a dead character undoes that much more of the campaign!)

    The group was even more at odds as their defender and leader were away for the evening. They were all strikers, with a controller thrown in. Their damage output was good, though it paled in comparison to Bloodknuckles, he seemed to have a crazy amount of attacks. Probably for a level +0 or +1 encounter, it would have been better, but for a +3, it was very vicious – I even toned down the threatening reach (it only applied in the middle stage), as it, combined with his racing-around, not provoking, but mass attacking abilities, meant that the melee guys were hurt that much more. I felt it leading away from “fun” into “what the hell are we doing here?”.

    The monk was the first to fall (those weak-bodied thri-kreen!), in the middle of stage 2. The ranger went and hid, shooting from a distance and not allowing himself to be caught in the crazed attacks of the ogre.

    When stage 3 arrived, I allowed the monk to return to life (when everyone was spending surges to heal up), but even then, he didn’t have the HP to remain in the fray. The psion did well pushing Bloodknuckles around, but the barbarian criticalling was the game winner: fullblade on a 2[W] power does crazy damage, especially when he can rampage and get another attack! The beast fell, slain, but not without one final thump – Bloodknuckles fell on top of the barbarian and monk, killing them both under his weight!

    In all, it was a violent match! Enjoyable, but challenging. I couldn’t really tell if the difficulty was with the increased challenge level, or with the boss-monster mechanics; but I do think that having at least four attacks a round (standard for two, move for one, minor for one), as well as threatening reach, was probably a bit powerful.

    The “Rampage” ability could have been an encounter and still been strong: moving and attacking three times, then doing a move burst attack, then doing a minor attack, meant that he was putting out crazy levels of hurt. Possibly changing the move action attacks to standard actions, or dropping the rampage to two targets (or, as mentioned, limiting its use) would have been good. Possibly making his “wild flailing” ability require him to be prone, immobilised restrained or grabbed to work could have helped this, too?

    The resetting-the-scene powers worked well, although the party was too low a level to have many things on him. The Hunter’s Quarry was the main one, forcing the ranger to use three whole minor actions in the battle! :p The only other comment would be that in this case, the first and second stages didn’t fell that different; the third stage, with his stumbling around and being bloody, was clearly a change, but the first => second stage could have just been a case of not using certain powers yet. I assume that for monsters that can have greater changes (eg, flying, elemental effects, calling in minions), this will be different.

    TL;DR: Great concept, perhaps a little too lethal, look forward to using more! (but with level +0 or +1).



  18. Greg on November 13, 2010 at 1:35 am

    I just used Bloodknuckles in tonight’s game. Great boss. A PC finished him off with a thrown quarterstaff. 1d4+1 dmg. It was hilarious.

  19. Natespank on March 8, 2011 at 5:56 am

    Feedback/after game report:

    Yesterday a dragon offered to pay my group with magic items in exchange for the trouble of capturing Bloodknuckles- the dragon ate him for dinner.

    To capture him I ran a sub-adventure on an orc-infested island and ran him as a true solo in the middle of a big clearing.

    He was the first opponent in the campaign that the PCs were ready to flee from. He hit for a lot of damage- they were dispersing into the trees to kite him by stage 3.

    Their only complaint was that “controllers are useless against him” due to his resistance to stun effects.

    My only complaint is that my level 3 party of 3 PCs killed him in 3 rounds. I arbitrarily gave him an extra round of life so he could attack again, but they whittled down his 68hp/stage amazingly fast.

    Overall, I’m using the paradigm to build future solos. Awesome work dude, keep up the good work.

  20. David on July 17, 2011 at 10:54 pm

    This article was a definite eye opener since I recently ran a Solo Monster where the fight got bogged down and boring as the PCs just hammered it down. I am going to run an encounter with a Wight that decapitates people and keeps their heads. The Wight is a Elite monster and I am going to use it as a mini boss with 2 stages instead of 3. looking forward to surprising the PCs as they curry into position then have to deal with a substantially changed threat. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Your changes deal with a boring, drawn out and lopsided fight and make it unpredictable and exciting.

    Thanks again
    DM Scotty

  21. Jake on December 24, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Just used Bloodknuckles in a 4e game with a group of new people. It was … breathtaking.

    Unlike a typical solo, he was all over the place, and his dodge and throw ability made flanking nearly impossible. His writhing ability (the one that lets him get up and nullify immobilizing effects) was tremendously helpful as well. Maybe it was because the group were new, or because their healer was a companion rather than a PC, but the guy seemed almost too powerful.

    I’m going to use a similar creature for my higher-level group, which is also much more experienced. I don’t think I can go back to regular solos except maybe dragons now :)

  22. Azazel on March 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    In light of you Bloodknuckles build I decided to use techniques and build my own boss for the adventure my party is currently in.

    After a series of puzzles and skill challenges the party has been able to open the final room in a tomb where a (female) Halfling Paladin has her final resting place.
    (1 of my players found an item-set in Mordenkainen’s M.E. he wants to get in-game and this is the tie-in for the background story of those set-items).

    Point is, the Halfling Paladin had been corrupted in her final days by an evil outside entity and stripped of all her titles, fame, divinity, etc. It’s the party’s job to redeem to poor girl and in exchange find glory and riches for themselves. And ofcourse the item-set for that one particular player.

    So, the boss I’m building is a Banshee which has a total of three stages.
    The first stage will be a ‘playful’ stage. The Banshee will keep out of reach of melee by flying while using ‘Mind Twist’ (DMG2, p120) on the character that’s looking for the set-items (who, not entirely coincidental, is a female Halfling Palading ;) ).

    When the party succeeds, the Banshee will disappear with a howl not unline Terrifying Shriek which also negates all (negative) status effects on the Banshee and stage two will commence.
    In this stage she will have the visage of how she was, back when she was living. She will be more melee orientated (to give the melee players some fun), while still able to use her ghostly powers if needed.
    She also summons 10 minions which deal a little bit of extra psychic damage when killed AND try to dominate the killing player for one round before actually disappearing.

    If the party succeeds to ‘kill’ the Banshee again she will again disappear with a power not unlike Terrifying Shriek, removing all (negative) status effects and stage three will commence.

    In stage three the Banshee will be really angry and unsubtle in her approach to kill the party. She will attack more directly and faster (multiple melee targets and ranged targets).
    She will occasionally try to dominate a character to keep the players from killing her for the final time.

    If the party succeeds in killing her truely, the evil entity will leave the Paladin’s ghostly form. Before ascending to Bahamut and take her rightful place in his court, she will tell a bit of her history and about the fancy armor and weapon she was carrying in her lifetime (the set-items ;) ).

    Can’t wait to try it!
    I’ll tell you how it turns out :)

    Thanks for sharing your view on boss battle creation!

  23. Tom on June 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    I was recently asked to DM a 4E campaign. I am relatively new to 4E and don’t have a ton of RP exp overall, but it is still more than any of the PCs. 2 of them are 1st-timers and the other 3 have played once or twice.

    So far I have been really disappointed by the monsters / encounters. The PCs are not “optimizing” in the traditional sense so much as just “min-maxing”, but even so they have made cake-work of everything they fought at level 1, and the longest encounter was only 3 turns and none were close lethal.

    They are level 2 now and I am looking forward to throwing Bloodknuckles at them and trying out homebrewing my own 3-stagers. Thanks for the idea!

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