Designing the Perfect D&D Boss Fight - Part 1
Today we’ll be discussing some boss fight mechanics that you can use with almost any D&D boss fight to make it more fun and exciting for your players. Because the bottom line is that a boss fight should be one of the most exciting parts of a game. It shouldn’t be a complete letdown.
Now, I’m breaking the topic of boss fight mechanics into two parts. In this article we’re talking about things you can apply to all boss fights, and in part 2 I’ll discuss mechanics best suited for mid-level and high-level bosses.
By the way, if you’re a new dungeon master feeling a bit OVERWHELMED by everything involved in running a D&D game, I completely understand. Being a DM isn’t always easy, and my personal goal is to help game masters by providing information and resources to make your life easier! That’s why my team and I make all these articles and videos.
However, Lairs & Legends is another such resource. With over 700 pages of adventures, monsters, puzzles, traps, and other 5e GM resources, you can SIGNIFICANTLY reduce your prep time and still run amazing games for your players.
Watch or listen to this article by clicking the video below.
1. Foreshadow the Boss
In other words, don’t just plop Demigorgon onto the battle map. You gotta allude to that crap. Hint at a nasty creature being behind everything prior to the fight.
Now if it’s just a mini-boss, foreshadowing during a single adventure is sufficient. But if we’re talking about the Big Bad of the entire campaign, you should foreshadowing the final confrontation with them over the course of much of the campaign.
For instance, in my Sword Coast Guard campaign, the players have been hearing about Lord Paxton, the villain behind all the trouble in the region, for a couple years. And they’ve been fighting Lord Paxton’s minions and lieutenants the whole time. In fact, I bet they’re about sick of hearing Lord Paxton this and Lord Paxton that. By this time, they probably yearn to confront him and kill him.
And that anticipation and yearning will make that final confrontation that much more satisfying for my players.
2. Wear Out the Party
Next, and massively important, is to WEAR THE PARTY OUT a bit before a boss battle. Dude, seriously, if your players walk into the boss fight with all of their resources—spells, hit points, special abilities—they are going to go supernova on that boss out of the gate. And you know what, your boss is gonna drop like a rock.
The characters need to be running a little low on resources when they confront a boss. This adds to the challenge. And this is why bosses are usually placed at the END of the dungeon. As your players make their way through the dungeon, they are using resources and ideally having to budget them to make sure they have enough remaining to handle the boss.
This is the main idea behind the adventuring day mechanic discussed in the Dungeon Master’s guide. The idea that if your players’ character are always at full resources when they confront any given challenge, and they know they can long rest after each encounter, they’ll be defeating everything with ease.
Yes, I know there are some things in the game that are totally screwed up—yes, I’m definitely talking about Healing Spirit right now—but there are lots of other things that if ignored can have dire ramifications for your gameplay. So, yeah, wear the party down before a boss fight.
3. Fight to Win
Come on, it’s a boss fight. If you want to go easy on your players, do that with the wussy kobold guards at the front of the dungeon. Sure, let them trick the moronic ogre into fighting his own allies. However, a boss fight should be challenging.
It should feel like everything is on the line. Your players should be a little worried about not having taking out that life insurance policy for their characters. The should feel like “Holy crap. This is real.”
Because without struggle and without uncertainty, victory has no flavor. A win that was not earned won’t feel like a win for your players. Trust me, they’ll have such a better sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, if they actually EARNED a victory over a Big Bad. Without the threat of death, live loses its color.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about dungeon master versus player mentality here. I’m talking about giving your players a fun game experience. And there is a HUGE difference.
4. Special Terrain
There is nothing more boring than a fight that takes place in a big old empty room. Wow, lame! Come on folks! Throw some terrain in there.
I don’t know, a lava flow. A bottomless pit. Stalagmites. A pile of rubble. Shoot, a big doll house. Whatever, just don’t let it be a big old boring area.
5. Environmental Effects and Hazards
Next, let’s have that terrain do something interesting, shall we? That lave flow explodes every so often, spraying the characters with some molten goodness. The ground shakes at intervals, causing the characters to stumble closer to the bottomless pit.
The stalagmites are accompanied by stalactites that randomly drop with a chance to hit PCs. That pile of rubble explodes like shrapnel. And that doll house? Well nothing is more terrifying then a headless Barbie doll.
Now, I actually did an entire video discussing 10 things all dungeon maps must have if you want to check it out.
6. Plan Boss Tactics in Advance
Plan your boss tactics before the fight! This the boss. Know what he’s gonna do. Now, you can’t 100% plan for this because you don’t know what your players will do, but you can get pretty close.
I know that my red dragon is first going to fly up about 90 feet and then breath fire down on everyone. Then she is going to scoop up a character that looks like a caster, carry them off a ways, and then drop them hundreds of feet into the mouth of a volcano. Then she’ll fly back to the group and breathe fire again.
Will I probably have to adjust that a little during the actual fight? Of course. But if I have a general idea of tactics, abilities, and spells that I want my boss to use, it’s going to make it easier for me to run the battle, and that much more interesting for my players.
7. Avoid Solo Boss Fights
Okay, let’s talk about solo boss fights. If you have your players’ characters face off against a bad guy all by himself, brace yourself for a quick beat down and an overall unsatisfying fight.
In general, solo monster fights suffer from a whole slew of problems. Action economy is against them in that the players get tons of actions and attacks for every one that the monster gets. The players can focus fire. The players can easily lock the monster down. The list goes on.
Now, legendary actions and lair actions DO help with this, but they don’t alleviate all the problems inherent with solo boss fights.
So, for the most part, I try to avoid having solo boss fights. That said, it does tend to work a lot better at lower levels, I’ve found. Say levels 1 to 4. But once you get much beyond that, your bosses need friends.
And what do I mean by friends? So, you want to have a green hag as a boss. Great, that’s a classic mini boss. But that green hag needs some scarecrows on her side, say 2 or 3 of them. And then, maybe theirs a clutch of crawling hands that she deploys from a wicker basket.
Now that boss fight right there is going to split the players’ attention among multiple foes, making the green hag much less likely to bit it in the first or second round of combat. But it also makes the combat a whole lot more exciting for the players.
See, tactics become more important when there are more foes. It’s not just a matter of surrounding the green hag and pounding her into oblivion with sword and spell. No, her little pets need to be dealt with, too.
Now, yes, a natural consequence of giving a boss friends in the fight means you won’t be able to use quite so high challenge rating bosses. That’s because you’ll obviously need to account for the other creatures when determining the CR for the combat. However, if you really have your heart set on a specific monster for a boss fight, you can always just pull down its hit points and damage output a little to account for its allies.
Being a Dungeon Master Shouldn’t Be an Exercise in Frustration!
When I was a new dungeon master, I was overwhelmed with everything I needed to do. Learn the rules, create the adventures, run the game, handle problem players—it was A LOT! And even as a veteran DM, it’s still a lot. You might even feel that way yourself.
This is exactly why my team and I dedicate our time to producing resources to help our fellow dungeon masters: we know exactly how you sometimes feel!
Now, if you’re stressed out with having to create all the adventures for your D&D game, or you’re looking for elements such as traps, puzzles, and encounters that you can drag and drop into your game, we have you covered. With Lairs & Legends and Loot & Lore, you’ll get over 700 pages of 5e resources:
- Twenty-nine 5e adventures spanning levels 1 to 15 and designed for groups of 4 to 6 players.
- Over 100 new creatures from CR 0 to CR 24.
- Adventure Ideas
- Encounters with Full-Color and Blackline Digital Maps
- Patrons & Factions
- Magic Items
- Random Encounter Tables
- Random Tables
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