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The D&D Boss Fight (Part 4)

August 20, 2010

Window Dressing

In Part 1 and Part 2 of The D&D Boss Fight, I discussed a number of additional things that make the Boss Fight system a true improvement. These had to do with the action economy, power selection, and limiting vulnerability to various conditions. Originally, I was going to call these improvements part of the Boss Fight system, but ultimately, I chose not to. It would be very easy to create a couple of powers called Boss Monster Resilience and Boss Monster Extra Actions and just slap them on every Boss. But, when I was sitting down and building Bloodknuckles, I realized that that would be very limiting. One of the beauties of 4E monster design is that the modular, exception-based approach is extremely versatile. An infinite amount of variety can be built into the structure of the powers. So, I have Bloodknuckles, who is stubborn and resists dazes and stuns, but he has special behavior when he is knocked prone or grabbed. And I have the young red dragon (below) who doesn’t resist being knocked prone, grabbed, slowed, or immobilized because I wanted part of the fight to be about knocking him out of the air. While I agree that every Boss Monster needs to limit its vulnerability to various conditions, I don’t want to make every Boss Monster the same. I want to leave open the possibility for the mind flayer that psychically retaliates against domination attempts, the ogre that flails around when he gets knocked on his huge rear end, and the strafing dragon that can get pulled out of the sky with the right spell but remains just as dangerous on the ground.

The same is true of the action economy problem. A lot of folks on forums and in e-mail have suggested I dispense with a lot of the complication and just give every Boss/Solo two turns every round. Again, that works just fine for some, but there are other ways to achieve the same effect. Mobility powers can make up for lack of move actions (as in Bloodknuckles’ case). Threatening reach, minor action attacks, triggered actions, auras, minion summoning, and numerous other creative options can fill out the action economy nicely. Once again, I wanted to keep the versatility.

This does mean there is a lot more pressure on the DM who wants to create his own Boss Monster. He needs to make sure that he addresses, at minimum, the stunned, dominated, and dazed conditions and, for good measure, immobilized, restrained, and prone. Ignoring one of these conditions should be a conscious choice. And the DM should see if he can’t address at least a few of them in a flavorful way. Likewise, the DM needs to make sure that the Boss Monster has the right damage output. He needs to get four or five normal attacks out each round and he needs to be able to move around the battlefield a bit.

Beyond that, the DM also needs to decide what each Stage means and how the boss transitions between each Stage. A well-designed Boss Monster will telegraph its new strategy in its Stage Transition if possible, though that may not always be the case. The DM also needs to design each Stage in such a way that it changes the way the monster engages the party and involves different PCs. The monster needs a way to spread its love around the party, as I say.

Unless you are doing something tricky (see below), each Stage should be reasonably consistent with the others and anything that changes drastically should be hinted at in the Stage Transition or in the monster’s powers.

Ultimately, Boss Monster design is still monster design. There is an art to it and every little step can’t be explained or detailed. Even trying to explain and detail the steps will limit creativity which is at odds with my desire to maintain versatility. So, the best I can do is offer suggestions and examples.

At the end of the day, though, if you want an easy way to handle the tough parts and just want to build the fun parts, steal the Draconic Alacrity and Draconic Resilience from the red dragon below. Don’t feel badly, I stole Draconic Resilience from Chris Sims (from his article: Mailbag 6 – All By Myself, Part 3; I had something similar but I liked his name and wording better). He might accuse me of stealing Draconic Alacrity too, but I had already been using that name. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.

Beyond worrying about the action economy, conditions, and the Stage Transitions, each Stage is actually a little less complex than a normal Solo Monster. The Stage Transition provides a high output encounter power that occurs as often as a recharge “5,6”. An additional encounter power with no recharge in one of the stages is useful for some extra variety and flavor. But remember that each Stage will probably be alive for only two to three rounds. One of the nice features of the Boss Fight is that it doesn’t require a lot of tracking of encounter powers.

Doing Something Tricky

I’ve mentioned the possibility of replacing one Stage of a Boss Monster with a group of other monsters or with a Skill Challenge. This is actually very easy to do in a fair and balanced way thanks to the tools D&D 4E provides. The only reason I haven’t given an example of that yet is because, especially with skill challenges, you can’t simply stat up a monster. You need to consider the environment and the scene as well. But I have one in the works for a white dragon.

Any stage of a Boss Monster can be replaced with its equivalent XP worth of elite, standard, or even (in theory) minion monsters. The equivalent XP is about one third of the total Boss Monster’s XP. So, you can have the Boss Monster that breaks into several smaller monsters and then reunites itself for the last stage. You can have the guy who retreats from the throne room and forces a fight with his guards. And so on.

For a skill challenge, you can still use equivalent XP as a guide, so a complexity 2 or 3 skill challenge of the same level of the monster is about the equivalent of one stage. But it is important to remember that the skill challenge is being substituted for some of the Boss Monster’s damage output. That means, the skill challenge probably needs to deal some damage on failed attempts and it should deal about as much damage as a normal attack. This damage should be directly to hit points, not to healing surges, to keep the encounter going. The success or failure of the skill challenge should impact the start of the next fight in some way, but it shouldn’t interact with the next stage of the creature (say, by taking away its hit points) because the encounter balance will be thrown off by the change. If you aren’t worried about these things, that’s up to you. The best skill challenges to fit in here should be about damage avoidance and about reengaging. For example, a villain could activate a series of mechanical traps, filling the room with whirling blades and shooting spikes. He flees and leaves the party to quickly evade the traps and try to catch up. They take some damage for failed attempts and, if they fail the whole skill challenge, the enemy gets a surprise round when the combat is reengaged.

It is vitally important to remember that when you replace a Boss Monster stage with something, that something is taking up the space of the Boss Monster for one third of the fight. If you have the boss monster summon two guards to fight alongside it in the second stage, that’s not the same thing. Unless the two guards are built as part of the boss monster’s output, you’ve added new creatures to the fight and you owe the party more XP as a result. Likewise, if the skill challenge can’t damage the party, you need to either make up for the possible damage somehow or make it a fourth stage separate from the boss monster with separate experience.

Remember also that it is very important to keep everything as part of one encounter. If the party decides to take a short rest between the skill challenge and the next stage, they’ve ended the encounter. They shouldn’t be able to simply pick up where they left off.

Reality Checking

I realize that not everyone has access to all sorts of wonderful play testing resources (I certainly don’t, unless you count my home game).  Apart from using your creations in your home game, it is very important to do a reality check on your monster. If you use the guidelines for setting attack rolls, damage, defenses, HP, and the other game statistics, you can be assured that all of that is pretty reasonable. However, there are two important Reality Checks you should consider.

The Output Check: look at your monster and imagine it fighting an average party of the same level. Consider, for instance, a fighter, rogue, ranger, cleric, and wizard battling your boss. How many attacks is the boss monster making each round? Remember to consider all of its triggered and opportunity actions. Who is getting hit? Is all of the damage stacked up on one character or is it spread around?

I’ll use Bloodknuckles as an example. In addition to his ability to make two attacks per round, he also had threatening reach and a reaction to being missed. Assuming Bloodknuckles uses his forced movement and his mobility, he’s going to have two normal attacks and one or two opportunity attacks. His minor action will come up once or twice. He’ll be hitting the fighter and rogue (who need to stay in melee) and probably either the cleric or the ranger (depending on who is melee and who is ranged). That’s between four and five attacks per round, so it works well. In the second stage, he is encouraged to move around and charge far away creatures. The melee characters will be trying to stay close, so Bloodknuckles will probably be barreling all over the place and getting everyone.

The What Do I Do Now Check: while you are watching the party fight your boss monster in your head, keep an eye on each of the imaginary PCs. Are any of them left standing around with nothing to do and no way to engage the foe? That’s not a good thing. Make sure everyone has some way to play in the fight in at least some of the stages. It’s okay if some PCs are not as effective in some stages, but they all need to get into the action in at least two of the stages.

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