It’s the showdown with the boss. The heroes have beaten all the monsters, disabled all the traps, and found the key to the boss’ chamber. It’s time for the climatic showdown you’ve been waiting for!
And then the heroes all beat the boss’ initiative and nova him with their strongest abilities, killing him before he gets a chance to act.
This can be an awesome experience for the players, but can sometimes feel anticlimactic. As a GM, you want the players to succeed. A struggle is conflict, which can make the story more interesting. You don’t need the boss to be unbeatable, but you do want them to be a threat. What can you do?
Everyone has their own little tricks for running the game, but here are some tips you can use.
1. Maximize Hit Points
Every monster’s hit point sections looks like this “45 (10d6+10)”. 45 hit points is the average, but if you maximize that number, you get a hit point total of 70. That’s a 55% increase! I automatically do this any time the players are facing a boss battle, and it’s one of the easiest ways to make a monster last longer.
Knocking a monster down to 0 hit points is the most common way of defeating them. By increasing their HP, you increase their chances of surviving more than one round. Of course, this doesn’t change their vulnerability to spells with saving throws that don’t deal damage.
A good boss has disposable henchmen. Zombies, skeletons, goblins, cultists, they serve as cannon fodder to slow down the heroes and make them look awesome.
Minions also serve as protection for the boss. If a horde of goblins stands between the heroes and the boss, the heroes need to tackle the minions before they can get to the boss.
Heroes with a ranged specialty don’t need to worry about this. They can shoot magic spells and arrows at the boss from across the room without worries. What do the minions do in that case?
Savage World has a feature you can give bosses. Whenever the boss is hit by an attack, a nearby minion takes the damage instead. This interesting feature means that you need to clear out the trash before you can attack the boss monster directly.
3. Prepare For My Final Form!
This one is very popular in video games. Once you deal a certain amount of damage, the boss changes into a different form, and a new fight starts.
There are a few benefits to this. First of all, damage doesn’t transfer over from one from to another. The new form starts at a new amount of hit points, regardless of how strong the hit is that it just took. You also get to scale up the difficulty of the fight as you go. The first form might be simple and easy, but the final form can have powerful, hard hitting moves.
If you make a habit of boss stages, the players will become used to it and start rationing their abilities to use in the boss’ final form. This is perfectly fine, as it gives your boss more time to shine. The first few stages don’t have to be easy, each of them could be equally difficult, giving the heroes choices for when to use their powerful abilities.
4. Interactive Environment
How can you make a boss battle more dynamic? The options presented so far have been more combat focused, but that’s not the only way. Making the actual location of the battle important can bring the fight to life.
Minor terrain effects like difficult terrain and traps are fine, but for a boss battle, we want more. Rotating platforms over a lava pit, area of different gravity, anything that requires either an ability check or saving throw to navigate can help.
Look for places where you can give a player advantage. Maybe there’s a mana geode, and if you stand next to it you deal additional damage. However, you need to succeed on a Constitution saving throw or take some arcane feedback.
You can also tie some of the boss’ abilities to the environment. Maybe there are some minor phylacteries around the aspiring lich, giving him damage resistance or even immunity until they’re destroyed. Singing crystals restore the villain’s hit points each round until disabled. The boss loses a powerful attack when the evil alter is defaced.
Adding interactive environments help make the battle memorable, since the heroes aren’t just remembering the fight, they’re remembering the location as well.
The final tip is the most technical, and requires tinkering with existing stat blocks. Essentially, you want to make sure your boss has abilities that makes it an effective boss.
5th edition introduced legendary actions and resistances. Any monster that has these can be considered a boss monster, since they give it the ability to threaten even when it’s not its turn. You can give any monster these abilities, and it’s the simplest way of making a monster a threat for a party.
One monster still runs into issues against a party of heroes. Spells that inflict conditions can keep the boss from being effective. Legendary resistance helps, since you can use it after a saving throw. Magic Resistance is great as well, since it grants advantage on ALL saving throws against spells. If that fails, you might want to look into giving the monster immunity to certain conditions, like stunned or charmed.
Finally, making sure the monster is offensively threating can be hard. Legendary actions and lair actions carry some of this burden. Auras are incredibly useful as well. A lava monster with a hard hitting heat aura can deal damage to anyone near it, without even needing to act.
These are some of the tips you can use to keep your bossmonsters alive, threatening, and memorable. What are some of your favored techniques? Let me know in the comments or on twitter @pirategonzalez !