Remember the last D&D combat post? This week, we’re expanding on those themes some more to talk about BOSS BATTLES! Here are a few things I use to augment the Heroes of Iyastera baddies and help my players feel like the epic heroes they are!
Remember the final showdown in The Labyrinth? When Sarah enters the castle after fighting through the city with her friends, to find herself transported into an M.C. Escher-esque room? The immense chamber of ever-shifting staircases and doorways serve to overwhelm Sarah and make her feel powerless in the Goblin King’s presence.
I remember feeling that same sense of awe and apprehension when watching that scene for the first time…and that’s exactly the kind of effect you’ll want to have on your players when they enter battle with a powerful foe!
Scene setting is always beneficial in RPGs, but even more so for the boss battle. Take your time when describing the environment, and even write out the details prior to the session. Imagine the scene in your mind and how you would feel walking into the room…do you want the party to feel small? Then create vaulted ceilings and cold, echoing hallways. Do you want them to feel apprehensive? Maybe only a small portion of the area is illluminated, everything else consumed by an inky darkness. Think about things like lighting, sounds, visual triggers in the area which will draw the players in and make it feel more dramatic. You want your players to feel the gravity and tension of the situation.
In one of the last Heroes of Iyastera sessions, the party took on a Blight Beast in the center of a labyrinthian subterranean temple, long abandoned and inflicted with a poisonous blight that became thicker the closer they got to the center. When they entered the final chamber, the Blight Beast was already aware of their presence and tried to pull party members closer into it’s twisted, thorny embrace. The room was circular, with a domed ceiling, crumbled and faded mosaics on the walls, barely visible through the thick mold, fungi, and vines which infested the room. The Blight Beast had rooted itself in the center, at the heart of the blight, illuminated only by a shaft of pale light shining through a hole in the ceiling above its head…the only way out.
What events led the party to this moment? What happened to bring them to face this particular foe? It could be the culmination of a months-long journey of tracking, cleaning up the mess and chaos the antagonist left in their wake. Or perhaps they have never seen this foe before now and were simply following rumours of some growing power that threatened the realm.
In The Labyrinth, it was climax of Sarah’s quest to save her baby brother from being turned into a Goblin and trapped in Jareth’s kingdom for all eternity. For the Heroes of Iyastera, they travelled to the center of the temple to seek out the source of a power that afflicted the nearby village of Garran with an insidious enchantment. The best Boss Battles ignite a feeling of accomplishment and pride, a feeling of the prize being in sight, the sense of having progressed and grown through the journey.
Now imagine what happens if they fail, after having come so far? What is the cost of defeat, or of letting the antagonist escape? For Sarah, it means the loss of her brother and a lifetime of becoming Jareth’s Queen…
Ok…so maybe that last part isn’t so bad, but she can’t lose her brother!!
For the Heroes of Iyastera, that means that the dark presence continues to seep into the temple and out to the surface, to bring an even worse fate to the innocent people of Garran.
Having a sense of the consequences adds another element of Narrative Weight to the encounter, to raise the stakes of the challenge and push the party to choose their moves wisely.
You’ve set the scene, raised the stakes…now it’s time to lead the heroes into battle!!
I’ve touched upon this before but, when it comes to combat, I’m a strong believer in maintaining flexibility to create a dynamic encounter that will both challenge and invigorate your players. Rarely do I run an encounter strictly “as written”, preferring instead to augment or decrease certain stats in accordance with the party’s skill set.
When it comes to a Boss Battle, I want the heroes to feel challenged, but not completely powerless. There’s a fine line between giving your players a run for their money and dropping them in the middle of a gruesome fight they have no chance of winning (no one has fun with that)!
Two strategies I like to use for the big baddies are Minions and Lair Effects.
Minions: These are lower-level cronies that will add more complexity to the battle space. They balance out the turn-based action system (a.k.a. “strength in numbers”) which can often shift the battle in the party’s favour and lead to a rather anti-climactic end.
During the Blight Beast battle, each time the players dealt a certain amount of damage to the beast, smaller Twig Blights would crawl out from its branches and retaliate. Not only did this cause more complications for the party, but it changed the way they had to focus their attacks as they would have been swiftly outnumbered had they continued with their original tactics.
Lair Effects: These are methods for creating dynamic environments during combat that can create new challenges the party must overcome. The Lair Effects I like to use fall within two categories:
Physical Effects: The physical effects are more environmental, like the ground around the Blight Beast turning into rough terrain that can cause piercing damage or restrain the players when they try to forge through it, or earth tremors that can knock them prone and cause tunnels to collapse. In the upcoming mini-campaign, Welcome to the Guild, one encounter will include shadowy tendrils that will grasp at the heroes and attempt to grapple them, delivering necrotic damage if successful.
Psychological Effects: These effects might induce fear or confusion in the characters’ hearts and prevent them from attacking, or they could be deceived by illusions and auditory effects that could slowly drive them mad. When the Lucky 13 were facing off against the troupe of Satyrs in the Feywild, the enchantments on the performance stage caused music to begin filling the clearing. Any player who failed their Wisdom Saving Throw would be turned against their allies to fight alongside the Satyrs instead!
These are just a few of the effects I’ve used for Heroes of Iyastera…there are plenty more ideas to pull from in the core books and monster stat blocks!
I hope you found these tips useful…remember, by the end of a boss battle, your players should feel as though they’ve accomplished a significant goal and pushed the story along. Don’t forget to reward them too! Defeating a big baddie is already fulfilling, but the loot makes it that much more satisfying 🙂