Boss Monsters? I Just Say No!
  • Boss Monsters? I Just Say No!


    The video game focus on “boss” monsters doesn’t make sense for tabletop RPGs. Video gamers are disappointed if the climactic monster doesn’t kill them several times; in RPGs, once you die, you (usually) don’t respawn.

    First a little history. Jeffro Johnson asked me if I'd used the monsters I contributed to the D&D Fiend Folio back in the late 70s as bosses. Most of my monsters in FF were minor, but the Princes of Elemental Evil were really powerful, and they also have stuck around in various ways (see Wikipedia: “Archomental”). For example, for the fifth edition of D&D, an entire large adventure module was titled after the Princes of Elemental Evil. I told Jeffro that my campaigns were never high enough level for the Princes, though I did run into one of them once as a player. (Imagine how annoying THAT is.) We fled posthaste because we wanted nothing to do with the fire Prince.

    I realized that I've never thought in terms of boss monsters for tabletop D&D, that it's part of the video game mentality, and I asked myself why? In tabletop D&D, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to, and you don’t respawn automatically. You are dead when the party’s wiped out, unless somebody else uses a Wish. You can’t get killed a lot and succeed. On the other hand, video game bosses are designed to be really tough, to kill you many times before you succeed. You gradually have to figure out what to do to beat them. You could play tabletop RPGs that way, but would it be practical? The key is that there's no save game/respawn. Consequently a video game boss tends to be much tougher than the monsters you meet at a climax in tabletop RPGs, relative to the strength of the party.

    Video gamers would be disappointed if virtually every time they had a climax they won the first time; they’d feel cheated. This is a matter of expectations. The video gamers expect the boss monster, and they expect it to be so tough that they're going to die several times before they finally succeed. Bosses are really a video game phenomenon because they are too dangerous for tabletop RPGs. You can't lose a computer RPG thanks to save games, while you can lose a tabletop RPG by dying just once.

    I tend to use numerous monsters of several different kinds in a climax rather than one super boss, it varies of course, but I think this gives the players a better chance to develop strategies (and tactics) than if there is one super-powerful monster. And it makes tabletop RPGs different from video game RPGs in yet another way.

    Groups of several different kinds of monsters can rely on a synergy between their capabilities, more or less like combined arms in military terms. The players may not immediately recognize what’s really dangerous when they face more than one monster. In this way, single monsters are too easy, too straightforward, quite apart from often not really fitting the fictional reality well.

    I like temples as climax for a level because it fits my notions of the D&D world as a war between Good and Evil. In a temple you might have some priests, some low-level minions, some more powerful sidekicks, some monsters that have the same religion, some animals that are controlled by the religion. There are a lot of different capabilities there, and it won’t necessarily be clear which of the priests are most powerful, or even if it’s the priests that are most powerful rather than some of the sidekicks. If there is a straight magic-user present he or she will probably have lots of guards or at least obstacles between himself and the players.

    This is likely to be a lot more interesting than a confrontation with one monster. Yes, you can use a single powerful monster, but it can’t be nearly as powerful in comparison to the player characters as it can be in a video game. Unless you want the players to fail, and if you do there are more subtle ways to do it.

    This is as always descriptive, not prescriptive; how you GM is up to you.

    This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 77 Comments
    1. Reynard -
      "Boss monsters" have been with D&D since the beginning, long before video games came about (remember: D&D was the inspiration for the first video adventure games, not the other way around!). Early classic modules had player characters moving up the chain of command, as it were, until they were facing off against the Fire Giant King or the Queen of Spiders or Acererak himself. It is a function of the way western storytelling traditions work, from Homer to Hollywood: the climax demands the biggest bang for your storytelling buck, and that means the villain of the story (the "boss") usually needs to be more powerful than their minions or henchmen.

      All that said, the point about failure versus the boss is well taken: one struggle in tabletop RPGs in general is how to balance the needs for that powerful "boss monster" against the desire to create a compelling story for the PCs where they might just eek out a victory.

      All this, of course, presumes a "story" in the first place, which is not a given at every table. Sometimes we play games that are exploratory in nature, without a structured plot -- an "open world" full of "side quests" to continue the video game analogy. I think, though, it is far more common for individual adventures to have structure, and usually that structure involves a villain, thereby making "boss monsters" an important consideration in adventure design.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      The idea of reaching the leader of the foes - the most powerful - has been around since well before video game4s or even home computers. Well before we saw "BBEG", we saw things like "EHP" (Evil High Priest), finally reaching the Dragon, or just modules where the toughest fight was at the end when your resources were low. This is especially true in the competitive convention modules of early D&D.

      In neither video games nor D&D must the final boss be a solo - in some video games they have hordes of minions. Trying to define it like that is moving the goalposts - to talk about how including multiple creatures is the "right" way to do it when really that's part of the standard trope all along.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      We fled posthaste because we wanted nothing to do with the fire Prince.
      This is awesome. Did your DM's jaw drop? "But, you're supposed to fight it!"
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      In tabletop D&D, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a save game to go back to, and you don’t respawn automatically. . . You could play tabletop RPGs that way, but would it be practical?
      Why not? There must be one TRPG that has save-games. I've thought about using the concept a few times, but I just settled on playing a game that offers alternatives to perma-death. What's the high-mortality game...Hackmaster?...in which you create multiple characters in the beginning? That's effectively using save-games.
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      You can't lose a computer RPG thanks to save games, while you can lose a tabletop RPG by dying just once.
      I realize you're referring to the average CRPG here, but Hellblade is a notable exception to this. And I think Darkest Dungeon requires you to say goodbye to your heroes when they die. And if I may go 88 mph here, Gauntlet didn't let you save, as long as you had enough quarters or free time.
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Groups of several different kinds of monsters can rely on a synergy between their capabilities, more or less like combined arms in military terms. The players may not immediately recognize what’s really dangerous when they face more than one monster. In this way, single monsters are too easy, too straightforward, quite apart from often not really fitting the fictional reality well.
      A well-designed single-boss is going to require just as much plotting as a group-boss. One big difference is the dividing line between success and failure. It's much easier, and potentially more rewarding, for a group to drop the single-boss and say "mission accomplished" than it is to know at what point to declare accomplishment when clearing the evil temple. What if an acolyte survives? What if the temple stands and another church moves in? What if everyone flees, just to congregate somewhere else?

      I don't want to spoil anything, but Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice offers some interesting takes on what passes for a boss, too. Check it out.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      "Boss monster" is just a new term for a very old concept. You would be hard pressed to find an old school module that doesn't have a boss monster in some fashion in it.

      B2: Keep on the Borderlands - The minotaur, the priest of chaos, the chieftain of each tribe. Basically, every lettered section of the map has the expectation that investigation concludes with a fight against a potent adversary. Many of these would be vastly too powerful for a starting party if they just plunge ahead recklessly.

      I6: Ravenloft - Strahd obviously. And Strahd even fits the definition you give of a video game 'boss monster' in that almost certainly they will not beat Strahd the first time, but instead will face him again and again as they strive to defeat him. Now, IMO, Strahd actually is too dangerous for the suggested level of play, because he's a Level X monster with every possible advantage of 'home turf' against a party that probably shouldn't even face a Level X in a fight for a level or two, but that hasn't stopped I6 from being a very popular module.

      I3: Pyramid - The embalmed priest at the top of the pyramid.

      I4: White Palm Oasis - The Efreeti noble.

      T1: Village of Homlett - Lareth the Beautiful

      S1: Tomb of Horrors - Acererak. Like Strahd, Acererak defies you assumptions about TRPG play by being an adversary that in general most parties are expected to lose to. In describing TRPG play, you are in fact describing a certain sort of TRPG play, and you've neglected the sort of competitive play scenarios that many of the old school modules were meant to provide. If your goal is to produce a winner, then having a boss monster that will winnow out the majority of groups that reach it is perfectly reasonable.

      G1-3: Against the giants - Each of the titular giant chiefs.


      There are a few points you make that I agree with.

      First, it's much easier to make satisfying climaxes with a group of creatures than with a single boss. In fact, in most examples you could site, whether from TRPGs or cRPGs, the boss isn't encountered alone, but with a number of minions or 'adds' that serve to provide distraction and tension to the fight. Certainly this is true in even many of the example I cited above, as for example each of the giant chiefs in the G series is encountered with one or more lesser giants, and the chieftains in B2 usually have bodyguards and allies with them (the Bugbear and the Minotaur being obvious counter-examples of solo bosses). But this is not usually because a single tough boss is too difficult for a D&D party, but on the contrary because a single tough boss often goes down like a chump against the combined novas of a D&D party, getting buried under the parties avalanche of advantage in the action economy and forced to try to survive not only a massive burst of focused damage but repeated save or suck challenges. It's only recently that D&D designers have ever really focused on what it would take to make a single powerful monster an effective but not overwhelming challenge considering the resources a party of PC's has.

      And secondly, in general with most groups you play a TRPG on what would be a video games 'easy' mode, with the expectation that the players will face roll most of what they encounter. This is because restarting from death is usually (but not always) a very unsatisfying trope in a narrative. With very experienced players that 'step on up', have high system mastery, and so forth, you might ratchet up the difficulty, but only to keep that norm of deaths being relatively rare. In a video game, usually narrative is a relatively unimportant aesthetic of play - 'step on up' is all you've got - and so most players prefer to ratchet up the difficulty. Some however prefer to face roll the content just to experience the narrative or the sensations of play.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Don't really care for the Boss Monster concept in video games either. Even with save games, which aren't always automatic, you often have to slog through the same set of minions multiple times just to get to the Boss so you can try Plan G or whatever. And far too often, I found out that I missed the room/encounter/whatever that has the key to killing the Boss. Or that my character build is sub-optimal. And too many video games won't let you bypass a Boss if you can't find the magic combo to kill it. So you are stuck. One advantage of a table top session is you can try weird stuff like Diplomacy instead of skull smashing. Or just saying pass and going to the nearby tavern to plan your next exciting adventure.
    1. Aguirre Melchiors's Avatar
      Aguirre Melchiors -
      here in the real world
      We are more or less equal, we can die by falling, and our power come from resources or influence.
      But in D&D you can have real powers, most creatures are not equal, so societys flock to the powerfull,
      not only in resources or influence but in belic power.
      Seems to me natural for people flocking to the guy that can destroy a castle in seconds, or can raise the dead.
    1. Aguirre Melchiors's Avatar
      Aguirre Melchiors -
      my english sh#t sorry folks
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      With my larger group (eight), I’ve found that the idea of an epic fight against a single powerful foe generally doesn’t pan out too well. Even when you put various minions against them, they tend to still focus fire on the “boss.” Lair and Legendary actions help balance the fight out, but with so many people getting a turn before the boss goes again, unless they’re fiendishly powerful, those HP drop pretty rapidly.

      As much as it goes against my impulses, I’m trying to use more co-bosses. Going for more Ornstein and Smough than Seath the Scaleless, so to speak.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      The video game focus on “boss” monsters doesn’t make sense for tabletop RPGs. Video gamers are disappointed if the climactic monster doesn’t kill them several times; in RPGs, once you die, you (usually) don’t respawn.
      *looks at the end of the second sentence*
      *looks at rules through various editions of D&D ad the variety of ways to avoid and come back from death*

      I think you are mistaken on the respawn thing.


      The Boss Monster is *not* an artifact of video games, insofar as RPGs were using them before arcade and video games were. The Boss Monster is a simple example of the literary construction of "rising action", from which both RPGs and video games draw, and in that sense it is entirely appropriate in an RPG. The fictions that inspire our games have a beginning, middle, and end, and near the end of the story heroes typically face off against the most powerful things in the story, in some form of climatic scene, after which there is some drop of tension, denouement, and closing. And then the action starts rising again in the next story.

      This is roughly how it goes in large part because, while not realistic, it produces stories we like.
    1. 77IM's Avatar
      77IM -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Video gamers would be disappointed if virtually every time they had a climax they won the first time; they’d feel cheated. This is a matter of expectations.
      Uh, no, that's pretty blatantly wrong. It's so wrong, it invalidates the entire hypothesis of this article. The only way a person could make a statement like this is if they were badly misinformed. Video games have many ways of ramping up the intensity and drama without just killing the player character, and a tough boss fight can be very satisfying even if you are successful on your first try.

      Even in games where you do die a lot, I would argue that lives in video games are merely a resource and that a tough boss monster therefore consumes more resources and that since D&D is, in large part, a resource-tracking game, tough boss monsters who consume more party resources should fit right into the game just fine. And there's abundant evidence to back up that stance (see the comments before mine for some great examples).
    1. Shiroiken's Avatar
      Shiroiken -
      As others have said, "boss monsters" is a concept that's been around for a long time. In high school, we referred to them as the MFIC, and their defeat was the ultimate goal of a given adventure.

      Part of the problem has become the action economy; single monsters can't compete with output the way an entire party can. Legendary Actions help to alleviate the problem, but even then I still suggest using a higher CR than the party. I generally suggest "boss fights" include several henchmen and allies, if only to keep the party from swarming the boss in the first round.
    1. Leatherhead's Avatar
      Leatherhead -
      I'm going to leave this here.

      For those who don't want to click the link:
      • (Good) Bosses aren't about difficulty, but they are a test for everything the game/dungeon was about up to that point.
      • The entire dungeon/adventure/game/campain outside of and before the Boss fight is where a player learns how to fight the Boss
      • Boss fights should be a story unto themselves, with story beats and progression points.
      • Dungeons and Dragons introduced the concept of a Boss into the video game world.
      • You probably should think of Boss monsters like a video game designer, your Boss fights would be better for it.
    1. Saelorn's Avatar
      Saelorn -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Video gamers would be disappointed if virtually every time they had a climax they won the first time; they’d feel cheated. This is a matter of expectations. The video gamers expect the boss monster, and they expect it to be so tough that they're going to die several times before they finally succeed.
      Seriously? You actually believe that?

      When I play a Final Fantasy game, I expect a boss monster to have a couple of surprises, such that I need to react thoughtfully as they come up. I expect them to have better stats, to have a ton of hit points, and to hit hard enough that I need to actively manage my healing over the course of the fight. It should be a fair test of my preparation and ability, though.

      If a boss has some gimmick that there's no way to predict, and I do everything right but still lose, then that's a cheap boss. If I need to go online to look up the right strategy, because only one weird approach has any hope at all, then that's a super cheap boss, and a mark against the entire game.
    1. Lord Mhoram's Avatar
      Lord Mhoram -
      Never mind.
    1. Frankie1969's Avatar
      Frankie1969 -
      Well this is ironic. The climactic boss battle against the Princes of Elemental Evil in Egg of the Phoenix was the first time I killed PCs (above 1st level). They were grand heroic deaths, and I think everyone went home satisfied that they had done what was necessary to save the world.
    1. Nagol's Avatar
      Nagol -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      "Boss monster" is just a new term for a very old concept. You would be hard pressed to find an old school module that doesn't have a boss monster in some fashion in it.

      B2: Keep on the Borderlands - The minotaur, the priest of chaos, the chieftain of each tribe. Basically, every lettered section of the map has the expectation that investigation concludes with a fight against a potent adversary. Many of these would be vastly too powerful for a starting party if they just plunge ahead recklessly.

      I6: Ravenloft - Strahd obviously. And Strahd even fits the definition you give of a video game 'boss monster' in that almost certainly they will not beat Strahd the first time, but instead will face him again and again as they strive to defeat him. Now, IMO, Strahd actually is too dangerous for the suggested level of play, because he's a Level X monster with every possible advantage of 'home turf' against a party that probably shouldn't even face a Level X in a fight for a level or two, but that hasn't stopped I6 from being a very popular module.

      I3: Pyramid - The embalmed priest at the top of the pyramid.

      I4: White Palm Oasis - The Efreeti noble.

      T1: Village of Homlett - Lareth the Beautiful

      S1: Tomb of Horrors - Acererak. Like Strahd, Acererak defies you assumptions about TRPG play by being an adversary that in general most parties are expected to lose to. In describing TRPG play, you are in fact describing a certain sort of TRPG play, and you've neglected the sort of competitive play scenarios that many of the old school modules were meant to provide. If your goal is to produce a winner, then having a boss monster that will winnow out the majority of groups that reach it is perfectly reasonable.

      G1-3: Against the giants - Each of the titular giant chiefs.


      There are a few points you make that I agree with.

      First, it's much easier to make satisfying climaxes with a group of creatures than with a single boss. In fact, in most examples you could site, whether from TRPGs or cRPGs, the boss isn't encountered alone, but with a number of minions or 'adds' that serve to provide distraction and tension to the fight. Certainly this is true in even many of the example I cited above, as for example each of the giant chiefs in the G series is encountered with one or more lesser giants, and the chieftains in B2 usually have bodyguards and allies with them (the Bugbear and the Minotaur being obvious counter-examples of solo bosses). But this is not usually because a single tough boss is too difficult for a D&D party, but on the contrary because a single tough boss often goes down like a chump against the combined novas of a D&D party, getting buried under the parties avalanche of advantage in the action economy and forced to try to survive not only a massive burst of focused damage but repeated save or suck challenges. It's only recently that D&D designers have ever really focused on what it would take to make a single powerful monster an effective but not overwhelming challenge considering the resources a party of PC's has.

      And secondly, in general with most groups you play a TRPG on what would be a video games 'easy' mode, with the expectation that the players will face roll most of what they encounter. This is because restarting from death is usually (but not always) a very unsatisfying trope in a narrative. With very experienced players that 'step on up', have high system mastery, and so forth, you might ratchet up the difficulty, but only to keep that norm of deaths being relatively rare. In a video game, usually narrative is a relatively unimportant aesthetic of play - 'step on up' is all you've got - and so most players prefer to ratchet up the difficulty. Some however prefer to face roll the content just to experience the narrative or the sensations of play.
      There are two types of 'boss monster' in video games: there is the climatic encounter with something tougher and there is the climatic encounter with an opponent that uses different rules than the game has used until this combat.

      The first, as you've pointed out, is extremely common in TTRPG and is generally well-received and even expected.

      I despise the second.
      Acererak and to a lesser extent Munafik from I3 fall into this category. The players are expected to find arbitrary vulnerabilities with very limited environmental feedback.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by Nagol View Post
      I despise the second.
      Acererak and to a lesser extent Munafik from I3 fall into this category. The players are expected to find arbitrary vulnerabilities with very limited environmental feedback.
      I thoroughly agree with you regarding Acererak, and I've stated in the past that 'Tomb of Horrors' one really serious flaw is that it doesn't provide anything in the way of hints or (with one creative exception) the means for defeating the Demi-lich. Manufik is a much less clear case, in that just before you reach Munufik, there is a room that contains a direct clue and Munafik is not nearly as threatening as Acererak. The problem of course is that with a bit of bad luck, the hints could be completely undecipherable which is a good example of failing at the 'three clue' rule. However, if the party does fall back against the 'invincible' Munafik, there is a very good chance they'll find the back door and at that point it doesn't take much to figure out what is up.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      There are some video games where boss monsters are crafted so that a character may die repeatedly as the players learn their attack patterns and weaknesses. A lot of MMORPGs do it this way.

      But it's far from universal, or even that commonplace, especially in single-player games. In the majority of videogames, the tactics for the boss fight are presented to the player such that they can grasp them as they play. Either the first attacks will be heavily signposted, with tutorialised indications of what to do in response, or the player will face a Final Exam Boss - one which uses similar tactics to several of its previously-fought minions, but is tougher and deadlier. In this case, the players have already learned the required tactics, but must now apply them all together to defeat this challenge.

      And yes, these approaches allow players to beat the boss the first time around if they're quick, careful and lucky, and no, they don't feel at all cheated - they feel a sense of accomplishment.

      It's entirely possible to use some of these techniques within a D&D game. If the boss creature has a special attack, let them unleash it upon a hapless NPC first. If they're a more powerful member of the same race or organisation the PCs have been fighting through to get there, have them use similar tactics and tricks, but with higher DCs and more powerful effects.
    1. Nagol's Avatar
      Nagol -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      I thoroughly agree with you regarding Acererak, and I've stated in the past that 'Tomb of Horrors' one really serious flaw is that it doesn't provide anything in the way of hints or (with one creative exception) the means for defeating the Demi-lich. Manufik is a much less clear case, in that just before you reach Munufik, there is a room that contains a direct clue and Munafik is not nearly as threatening as Acererak. The problem of course is that with a bit of bad luck, the hints could be completely undecipherable which is a good example of failing at the 'three clue' rule. However, if the party does fall back against the 'invincible' Munafik, there is a very good chance they'll find the back door and at that point it doesn't take much to figure out what is up.
      Oh I agree Munafik is much more tolerable. I remember him clearly though because when I did run I3, not only did the player miss the clues heading in, it was almost a TPK when they first hit him because they couldn't figure out how he wasn't taking damage so they ran through a large number of wrong guesses in the fight. Maybe fire! OK maybe cold! I know! He can only be hurt by weapons found on site! Hmm what about disbelieving? Much of it was the players' fault, of course.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Even if the idea of a Boss Fight is from video games, why is that a bad thing? It translates pretty darn well, most of the time. Heck, I'd love it if my next Big Bad Evil Guy fight is as exciting as some of the fights I've had in video games.
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