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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!
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Hussar

Legend
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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One of my favorite "bosses" was a nobody. I understand the video game mentality because I've played it. You have to figure out a gimmick to beat the boss, and you get a few tries, frustrated at having to respawn but you'll eventually succeed with hard work. Doesn't work that way in D&D. The "boss" I mention was a follower (AD&D days) who betrayed the player, corrupted his dreams of founding a Griffon Corps to do good in the land. Instead, the boss manipulated recruitment and eventually staged attacks in which the Griffon Corps would be hired to investigate (due to their mobility) the very attacks the Boss was orchestrating. When the player found out, epic reaction. The "boss" was a low-level nobody in combat. But he'd planned ahead. He had an escape plan in case the player ever found out. He flipped the player the "bird" during his escape.

The satisfaction of eventually catching up with this guy (even if he wasn't an epic battle), totally satisfying. That's what differentiates D&D from video games. "Bosses" don't have to be complex battles with a gimmick. It's all about the satisfaction of finally taking the SOB down. In our scenario, it wasn't ever about the boss's abilities. It was about his deception. And once they'd won through all his tricks and located him cowering in his lair, the character took great pleasure in ending the bad guy. Made for a much better story than if I'd transformed this minion into a high level demon-empowered legendary action whatever.

Moral of the story? Don't play your tabletop game like a video game.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
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.

Absolutely. Panzers fight better when supported with panzergrenadiers and artillery.

While legendary and lair actions certainly help, I think they weren't done quite right. I'd have had one for every PC. That way if it's a fairly small group of PCs the monster scales down and for a large group it scales up. I'd also not make legendary resistance be a per day limited ability, but something that can be done over and over. However, it would cost some number of legendary actions and thus with good tactics the PCs can exploit, say, a stun, hold, or other debut, but not for an entire turn.
 

kenmarable

Adventurer
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.

Plus the boss battle is basic story structure. Can you imagine in Star Wars blowing up the Death Star near the beginning and ending on shooting a couple TIE Fighters down? ;)

Sorry to jump on that bandwagon. However, the article does have some good ideas and it’s awesome to hear from one of the original creators of these monsters! I agree that climatic end battles are usually best with a variety of foes. It makes it more dynamic plus my players have often said that at higher levels they enjoy having occasional easy foes. It lets them really feel like they’ve grown (which doesn’t happen as much when every challenge scales with the PCs) as well as just making sense in-game that weaker minions will be around, too.

One other thing I enjoy with climatic end conflicts is making the subquests leading up to it unlock either a weakness in the enemy and/or increasing the PCs’ power so that they can (temporarily) take on a Prince of Elemental Evil or other far too powerful foe. It’s a pretty common game design (video game and tabletop) for good reason.

Thank you for this, it’s certainly spawning some interesting discussion even if there’s some major disagreements. :) Personslly, I’d love to hear more about thoughts and inspirations behind the Fiend Folio monsters. I once got to interview Charles Stross about his contributions to that book and it was pretty interesting.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
It's not like there aren't many RPG designs that have tackled this issue head on! 4e is the best exemplar among versions of D&D. HeroQuest revised is probably the best exemplar per se.
 

MarkB

Legend
It's notable that, due to the way D&D's action economy works, both 4e and 5e specifically introduced design elements for boss monsters, not to make those fights more survivable for PCs, but to make the monsters sufficiently tough and versatile that they didn't wind up getting stunlocked and taken down in a couple of rounds like chumps, having hardly taken any actions themselves.

Those mechanics are still somewhat imperfect. They're relatively generic, somewhat artificial-feeling solutions to the problem. For a satisfying boss fight, the DM would be well advised to use them as a starting point, and create a more tailored experience that better matches the specific boss and circumstances, so that the players don't ever wind up feeling like they're getting into a 'standard' boss fight.
 

Grainger

Explorer
I think it's interesting that we tend to see it as "natural" for there to be a big fight at the climax to a story. I think that's just a trope we get from, mostly, movies, or rather the current approach that exciting-but-vacuous movies take. Stories don't have to end with a fight at all.

Playing in a convention game recently made me realise how much players assume that D&D has to be heavily combat-based, and thus end in a big fight, but I'm not really interested in that. You could have the climax to a campaign be proving conclusively that an NPC is plotting against the King, persuading an NPC to change their mind, restoring an NPC's reputation, reconciling two factions, or bringing a key NPC back to life (or rescuing them, for a more prosaic variant). Or, if you want it to be action-oriented, having them make a race against time to deliver an important message or to activate a magic artefact. It doesn't have to be about beating down a monster or powerful wizard, although I suspect that most players in most D&D games would be disappointed if they didn't get that.

However, I never like to do what's obvious in my campaign, and so I'm going to see how many ways I can avoid having boss fights. Actually, thinking about it, I haven't done that yet. For example, my first main narrative ended with the PCs escaping the antagonists' base and helping the authorities arrest them. Another one had them defending their manoral village in a battle scene (OK, there was fighting, with Orcs/Trolls against the PCs and men at arms and other NPCs, but there was no "boss" to speak of). When I do have antagonists, I tend to have them as intelligent but weedy, so they could be killed easily - once the PCs get the opportunity to do so (and once the PCs have identified them, and I'm not sure they've done so yet).
 

Reynard

Legend
I think it's interesting that we tend to see it as "natural" for there to be a big fight at the climax to a story. I think that's just a trope we get from, mostly, movies, or rather the current approach that exciting-but-vacuous movies take.

Like that modern vacuous film Beowulf?

"Boss battles" at the climax of action adventure stories are literally as old as those stories. You can't blame Hollywood for that.
 

S'mon

Legend
his is roughly how it goes in large part because, while not realistic, it produces stories we like.

WW2 would have been so much better if Ike Monty Patton and Zhukov had faced off against Hitler Goering Himmler & Rommel in the ruins of Berlin.
 

Grainger

Explorer
Like that modern vacuous film Beowulf?

"Boss battles" at the climax of action adventure stories are literally as old as those stories. You can't blame Hollywood for that.

I didn't.

You can have a fight at the end. You don't have to have a fight at the end.
 

Reynard

Legend
I didn't.

You did. You literally wrote that in the part I quoted from your post.

You can have a fight at the end. You don't have to have a fight at the end.

I did not say that you said people couldn't or shouldn't. I only argued with you assertion that we boss fights are because of "exciting but vacuous movies." Climactic battles are as old as action adventure stories.
 

pemerton

Legend
Part of the problem has become the action economy; single monsters can't compete with output the way an entire party can.
I don't agree with your "has become" - action economy was an issue from the beginning.

The action economy issue can be reduced in systems that (1) use "active" defence, and (2) don't ration that defence. Maverl Heroic RP/Cortex+ Heroic is one example.

I think it's interesting that we tend to see it as "natural" for there to be a big fight at the climax to a story. I think that's just a trope we get from, mostly, movies, or rather the current approach that exciting-but-vacuous movies take. Stories don't have to end with a fight at all.
I'll leave the debate about the origins of the trope to others. But in the RPG context, I think it's partly about framing but to a significant extent about system. D&D generates a strong degree of pressure to have combat as climax because the system allows for the most amount of player decision-making that will clearly impact the fiction in the realm of combat.

When I think about some climactic moments in other systems I've run, they've sometimes involved combat - eg in Classic Traveller, in Marvel Heroic, in Cortex+ Heroic Fantasy - but sometimes other things: the first arc of my Burning Wheel game climaxed with a race against time to try and save a sibling from assassination; my second big Rolemaster campaign ended with the PCs tricking a fallen Lord of Karma into creating a karmic simulacrum to take a hero's place in the karmic cycle, freeing that hero and establishing a new bulwark against the evil that was trying to enter the world from outside; in two sessions of Prince Valiant one ended with a PC being run down by the Wild Hunt, the other with a PC winning an argument in a trial; a Cthulhu Dark session ended with the PCs crashing a cargo ship into some rocks to sink it and its cargo.

In all these cases, the system didn't privilege combat as a mode of resolving conflicts and establishing finality in results.
 

I don't agree with your "has become" - action economy was an issue from the beginning.
It depends on your experiences, I suppose. I found that the action economy in AD&D wasn't nearly as important, probably due to the prevalence of crippling abilities that could hit multiple enemies (breath weapons, AoE, petrification, even a few instant death options). 3E had some issues with action economy, but could be goofy due to the need for Move Actions. 4E was better, utilizing minions, elite, and solo monsters, but solo never got enough benefit to outweigh the negatives IMO.
 

Grainger

Explorer
You did. You literally wrote that in the part I quoted from your post.

I did not say that you said people couldn't or shouldn't. I only argued with you assertion that we boss fights are because of "exciting but vacuous movies." Climactic battles are as old as action adventure stories.

Ah - we're talking at cross purposes. To clarify - I agree that climactic battles in stories are as old as hills. However, I highly doubt people are including them in D&D due to Beowulf. It's going to be to do with modern stories they're exposed to (e.g. video games, hollywood etc.). Nor was I saying that - just because Hollywood movies are usually vacuous - that other stories using some of the same elements are (e.g. Beowulf). If we could go back in time and discover many more of the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition stories, I would be surprised if they all ended with boss fights. But if they did, I would be arguing that they are (in that respect) just as formulaic as video game plotlines!

Again, all I'm saying is that we don't have to end all D&D stories with a fight (boss or otherwise), and in my view we shouldn't.
 

Grainger

Explorer
I'll leave the debate about the origins of the trope to others. But in the RPG context, I think it's partly about framing but to a significant extent about system. D&D generates a strong degree of pressure to have combat as climax because the system allows for the most amount of player decision-making that will clearly impact the fiction in the realm of combat.

When I think about some climactic moments in other systems I've run, they've sometimes involved combat - eg in Classic Traveller, in Marvel Heroic, in Cortex+ Heroic Fantasy - but sometimes other things: the first arc of my Burning Wheel game climaxed with a race against time to try and save a sibling from assassination; my second big Rolemaster campaign ended with the PCs tricking a fallen Lord of Karma into creating a karmic simulacrum to take a hero's place in the karmic cycle, freeing that hero and establishing a new bulwark against the evil that was trying to enter the world from outside; in two sessions of Prince Valiant one ended with a PC being run down by the Wild Hunt, the other with a PC winning an argument in a trial; a Cthulhu Dark session ended with the PCs crashing a cargo ship into some rocks to sink it and its cargo.

In all these cases, the system didn't privilege combat as a mode of resolving conflicts and establishing finality in results.

Agreed. D&D as a rules system places a great deal of emphasis on combat, and it therefore nudges players down that path (and probably attracts/retains players who favour this approach). I suppose in that sense I don't actually run a D&D game - I run an RPG that uses the D&D rules. I suppose that, while I really like D&D, I don't actually like D&D as it's usually played.
 

Reynard

Legend
If we could go back in time and discover many more of the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition stories, I would be surprised if they all ended with boss fights.

Of course not. They wouldn't have been action adventure stories. Look at the oldest known story: Gilgamesh. That is a story about mortality and man's place in the cosmos, so while it includes action and adventure, it does not end with a boss battle, but with an king's acceptance of his fate the working of the world.

But if they did, I would be arguing that they are (in that respect) just as formulaic as video game plotlines!

Again, we are conflating a medium with a genre (or sub genre, even). Video games are as broad as film or prose in the kinds of stories they tell. It really does not advance the discussion to talk about video games in general any more than stories in general.

Again, all I'm saying is that we don't have to end all D&D stories with a fight (boss or otherwise), and in my view we shouldn't.

And I am sure if you asked almost every GM who has been doing it for a few years can give you examples of stories from their tables that did not end in a boss battle. But by and large the kinds of stories D&D is intended to facilitate are action adventure stories of one stripe or another, and as we have discussed those kinds of stories commonly end in a climax that includes boss battles (or running from pyroclastic flows, or both).
 

Grainger

Explorer
Of course not. They wouldn't have been action adventure stories. Look at the oldest known story: Gilgamesh. That is a story about mortality and man's place in the cosmos, so while it includes action and adventure, it does not end with a boss battle, but with an king's acceptance of his fate the working of the world.



Again, we are conflating a medium with a genre (or sub genre, even). Video games are as broad as film or prose in the kinds of stories they tell. It really does not advance the discussion to talk about video games in general any more than stories in general.

And I am sure if you asked almost every GM who has been doing it for a few years can give you examples of stories from their tables that did not end in a boss battle. But by and large the kinds of stories D&D is intended to facilitate are action adventure stories of one stripe or another, and as we have discussed those kinds of stories commonly end in a climax that includes boss battles (or running from pyroclastic flows, or both).

I don't disagree with any of that.

But, D&D can be so much more than, to paraphrase Alexei Sayle* "a big fight at the start, minor scuffles along the way, and ending in a bloody big scrap" (or running away from a pyroclastic flow). Of course, there are other RPGs that are not as fight heavy (or not at all fight heavy), but 5e is the most popular RPG (and other variants are the other top games). It's what people are playing (and especially playing as their first RPG), so I really hope that many groups are pushing against its propensity to punctuate every adventure with fights. For my part, I'm running D&D because it's what my players want, but paradoxically they enjoy going multiple sessions without a single fight.

There's nothing wrong with hack and slash if it's what you enjoy, but I hope that with tens of thousands of groups there's a lot more going on than that. But, we had these arguments in the 80s and it seems as a hobby we haven't moved on that far - or maybe a new generation has to make that journey again.


*Talking about Kung Fu movies, not RPGs.
 

Reynard

Legend
There's nothing wrong with hack and slash if it's what you enjoy, but I hope that with tens of thousands of groups there's a lot more going on than that. But, we had these arguments in the 80s and it seems as a hobby we haven't moved on that far - or maybe a new generation has to make that journey again.

I think that "pure hack and slash" is as rare as "five sessions without a fight" in the context of D&D. Certainly individual groups will vary but in the aggregate I suspect most adventures turn out to include some combat, some exploration and some role-playing interaction. More common in my experience are players that have strong preferences for any of these, which drives DMs and designers to include all of them. I know that when i run games at conventions I need to make sure even the dungeon crawls include NPCs and mysteries to explore, otherwise some portion of the table is going to get bored quickly. I can't recall a time when running a game for more than 2 people that everyone wanted the same experience from play.
 

Grainger

Explorer
I think that "pure hack and slash" is as rare as "five sessions without a fight" in the context of D&D.


OK, then if groups aren't looking to resolve every encounter with a fight, then hopefully resolving a storyline with a boss battle shouldn't be the automatic go-to in their games*.



*Again, not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with it, every now and then.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think it's interesting that we tend to see it as "natural" for there to be a big fight at the climax to a story.

Look at the language you chose.

Climax - the most intense, exciting, or important point of something; a culmination or apex.

So, be definition, the climax is going to be a big, intense, exciting *something*. When you are in a heroic fiction genre, where the stakes are likely life and death, given human experience you think resorting to violence is *unnatural*? Real people will resort to violence over mere money, dude. They do it *EVERY DAY*, all over the world. So, yeah, it is kind of natural.

I think that's just a trope we get from, mostly, movies, or rather the current approach that exciting-but-vacuous movies take.

Judgmental, much?

But, consider for a moment - if they are so vacuous... do you think they actually *created* the pattern? No, they didn't. They inherited it from most other heroic fiction - yes, from Beowulf, and Conan, and John Carter of Mars, and Buck Rogers, and most of the other adventure fiction out there. So, when you say "we just get it from" what you are really noting is a long line of inheritance over decades and centuries.

Stories don't have to end with a fight at all.

No, they don't.

But consider the difficulty of creating a tense, exciting scene that actively uses the skills of a half-dozen people that isn't a fight. Yes, your story can end in a dramatic, emotional discussion scene, but those very frequently and quickly focus on just a couple of characters. And we generally want everyone at the table to take an active (and hopefully equally important) part in that climax scene. Broadly, we want each player to be able to think of the game as their own PCs story. Now, remember that most of us (GMs or players) are not Nebula Award caliber writers. We are just folks. Getting that excitement into a social scene, and spreading it around equally, is very hard. In an action scene, it isn't hard at all.



Now, as an aside... how much do *you* like to be chided, and told the things you like (and how you run your games) are "vacuous"? Because, even though you didn't say that explicitly, though you keep saying "not that there is anything wrong with that" you are still using the supposedly empty action movies up as the exemplar, that that sets up the accusation by implication and analogy.

Now, this is a common rhetorical technique, but is it effective? Are there other ways you could approach the topic that wouldn't put you in a direct confrontation with what others do?
 

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