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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

Grainger

Explorer
If the only way to involve all the players/characters is a fight, then that's a sad reflection on D&D as a role-playing game (and yes, I'm aware of the history of the game, but... DM fiat and all that).

I happen to think action movies are vacuous. That's doesn't make anyone who dislikes them a bad person, or stupid. For instance, I love Aliens and I don't happen to be a bad person (much) or stupid (mucher). But it's just Marines firing machine guns at monsters. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's be honest, it's not Shakespeare*. Sometimes you just want pew pew. But the world of fiction is much bigger than that, and we don't have to always or even usually do that. Even within "genre fiction", you only need to look at some of the most popular books or shows to see plenty of non-combat resolutions or turning points.

I would find it depressing if, in the tens of thousands of D&D games around the world, we find that all major stories end with a big sword fight (and that's speaking as someone who's done lots of real-life sword-fighting as has been known to say "swords are cool").


*And yes, I know Shakespeare has fights in his plays, but that's a tiny part of it.
 
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Grainger

Explorer
By the way, if it comes across as me saying "the way I do it is the right way", then that's not what I mean. There are lots of ways to run an RPG, lots of them without ending it with punch ups, and most of those not being the way I would do it. I've played with GMs who are much better than me at what they do. I'm good at what I do, but whether what I do is actually any good is hard for me to say.
 

Hussar

Legend
Funny you mention Shakespeare. Hamlet ends with a big sword fight. Lear ends with a big sword fight. Romeo and Juliet doesn't end in a big fight, but, does have tons of fighting in it. Same with Henry V. And there's always Macbeth.

Ending in a big fight is hardly rare in Shakespeare. Some of his best known works end in fights.
 

pemerton

Legend
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.
Again, this has significant degrees of system in it.

For example, you talk about using the skills of a half-dozen people. But if PCs were statted by reference to personality or passion descriptors, rather than combat aptitude descriptors, then suddenly there is no special reason to have a fight as the resolution.

Every PC would still need to have something at stake, but that needn't be too hard. Look at the "fallout" scene in a heist movie, for instance.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Again, this has significant degrees of system in it.

That's not actually the root of the point.

There will be a *conflict* as the resolution, regardless. You don't have the tension, excitement, or import of a climax of the fiction without a conflict.

But, take one step back from system. What comes *before* the system and mechanics?

When you decided to run a game, at least implicitly, you chose a genre. Then, if you were smart, you chose a game with mechanics that suit your genre, right? So, there's a significant degree of system in it, only because what form of resolution is appropriate for a climax is genre-dependent. And, face it folks - most of us are playing heroic action/adventure genres, for which a fight is generally an entirely appropriate and natural climax for a story.

For example, you talk about using the skills of a half-dozen people. But if PCs were statted by reference to personality or passion descriptors, rather than combat aptitude descriptors, then suddenly there is no special reason to have a fight as the resolution.

This point generally comes down to, "Well, if you were playing an entirely different game, you could do this easily!" Suggesting.. what? That they could drop their current campaign, pick up an entirely different game, and run with it just so they can have climax scenes that aren't fights? Does that seem... useful advice?

Every PC would still need to have something at stake, but that needn't be too hard. Look at the "fallout" scene in a heist movie, for instance.

Yeah. But, see above in my note that we gamers love our stories, but are not, in general, really great authors. Good heist scenarios are not easy to pull off - even if you are using something like the Leverage game, which is actively designed for the purpose.
 

pemerton

Legend
This point generally comes down to, "Well, if you were playing an entirely different game, you could do this easily!" Suggesting.. what? That they could drop their current campaign, pick up an entirely different game, and run with it just so they can have climax scenes that aren't fights? Does that seem... useful advice?
Who do you think I'm giving advice to?

This is a general discussion in the General RPG forum, abstracted from any particular group's particular episodes of play. [MENTION=6779234]Grainger[/MENTION] was raising questions about why a fight is seen as a typical, even quintessential, climax. You responded to that. And I'm responding in turn: one reason, in the context of RPGing, is because of the system features of many RPGs, especially the most popular one.

we gamers love our stories, but are not, in general, really great authors. Good heist scenarios are not easy to pull off - even if you are using something like the Leverage game, which is actively designed for the purpose.
The fact that, in D&D (and many derivative games) it's easier to generate table-wide excitement via a fight rather than via, say, a surgical intervention to restore the patient before s/he dies; or a race to the top of the mountain (or the bottom of the globe, or whatever); or a series of switches of the backpack and the locker and the car so that the PCs end up on a sunny island with the cash while the NPC ends up surrounded by police at an empty train-station locker; is overwhelmingly system, not authorial ability.

If D&D combat was as mechanically sparse as D&D surgery - say, a single opposed check to resolve the outcome (and for spells, as well, which is oen important dimension that D&D, especially more classic versions, draws excitement from) - then we probably wouldn't regard fights as especially suitable for dramatic climaxes.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If the only way to involve all the players/characters is a fight, then that's a sad reflection on D&D as a role-playing game

Strawman alert!!!

Did I say "the only way to involve all players is X"? No, I didn't. Do not overstate my position, and then use that overstatement for melodramatics. I will *not* sit still for that nonsense. If you aren't interested in arguing my actual position, we are done. Do I make myself clear?

I happen to think action movies are vacuous.

Interesting.

In Tony Stark the Marvel Cinematic Universe contains one of the most accurate and accessible depictions of PTSD ever presented in movies. Funny how something "vacuous" could offer representation and a framework for discussion of a highly misunderstood issue in mental health today....

Methinks one often sees what one wants to see. Sure, many action movies aren't deathless art. But you know what? Most of our games aren't deathless art either.

But the world of fiction is much bigger than that, and we don't have to always or even usually do that.

A quick bit of web searching suggests that Romance & Erotica is the largest selling genre of fiction in the US, outselling any other genre by about a factor of two. Yes, Bodice Rippers don't end in combat scenes, but I'm going to guess that the desire to run tabletop games of them is small. Which is to say that yes, the world of fiction overall is much bigger - but the vast majority of it may not be particularly good for tabletop gaming.


I would find it depressing if, in the tens of thousands of D&D games around the world, we find that all major stories end with a big sword fight ...

Here you go again.

You know, on the internet, there's a natural tendency for discussions to drive to polar opposites - and in large part it is because of statements like these. The hyperbolic "all". Very dramatic. But also not descriptive of any position taken by anyone here. I return to the initial statement of this post.
 

Grainger

Explorer
Funny you mention Shakespeare. Hamlet ends with a big sword fight. Lear ends with a big sword fight. Romeo and Juliet doesn't end in a big fight, but, does have tons of fighting in it. Same with Henry V. And there's always Macbeth.

Ending in a big fight is hardly rare in Shakespeare. Some of his best known works end in fights.

I knew someone would say something like that, and I tried to pre-empt it in my post. Bear in mind that the discussion I was having was drifting away from "boss fight" and I was accused of being reductive about action movies.

So, unlike action movies, I don't think anyone would argue that Shakespeare is just a series of fights or action scenes. The world of storytelling is a lot more than that. Yes Shakespeare has fights in it, but it's is an example of fiction that is simultaneously funny (if much of the humour is now lessened with time), exciting and profound. But that was just one example: in the wider scheme of all possible stories, action movies are vacuous. Unlike (most) action movies, RPGs are a medium rife with possibility, and it would be a tragedy to restrict them to one type of fiction.
 

Hussar

Legend
Meh, Sturgeon's Law applies just as much to RPG's and people's home games as anything else. Bemoaning that fact won't actually do anything.
 

S'mon

Legend
So, unlike action movies, I don't think anyone would argue that Shakespeare is just a series of fights or action scenes. T

ALIENS is also not just a series of fights or action scenes.

I think the climactic boss fight as the focus of D&D has long roots in many of the competition modules, notably the GDQ series. But the original game focus was on getting out of the dungeon with the treasure, and the climax of a session could often be evading the big monster, not killing it. You don't want to risk fighting the big red dragon whose breath attack does more damage than twice your hp tally (so you die even on a save).

I agree with Pemerton that the rules focus on combat especially in recent editions of D&D encourages combat for the dramatic resolution. Earlier editions had about as much emphasis on exploration and escape/evasion, and combat systems which discouraged low level PCs from engaging with them. I also agree with several people that combat is an easy way to engage all the players - the (mostly) failure of 4e Skill Challenges shows the difficulty of reliably engaging all players in non-combat scenes.

I have had D&D campaigns where the true climactic resolution was the successful forging of an alliance to face the bad guys, with the subsequent fighting actually less important - but these have tended to focus more on a single PC and player with a knack for that kind of thing. Indeed when there are multiple dominant personalities there tends to be inter-player conflict. "Kill the BBEG" is always a pretty good default option for a campaign.

IME most non-D&D, non-combat-focused games rarely see much in the way of a satisfying dramatic climax. And those that happen - political, romantic, mystery - tend to be focused on a single PC.
 
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Hussar

Legend
I think [MENTION=463]S'mon[/MENTION] largely has the right of it. Many of us cut our teeth in D&D through modules. And modules, by and large, are set up for the big showdown fight at the end of the module. There are notable exceptions, of course, but, they are notable BECAUSE they are exceptions. Heck, how many of us got our start in Keep on the Borderlands which has about a dozen boss fights at the end of each cave?
 

Grainger

Explorer
Methinks one often sees what one wants to see. Sure, many action movies aren't deathless art. But you know what? Most of our games aren't deathless art either.

Here you go again.

You know, on the internet, there's a natural tendency for discussions to drive to polar opposites - and in large part it is because of statements like these. The hyperbolic "all". Very dramatic. But also not descriptive of any position taken by anyone here. I return to the initial statement of this post.

We are talking at cross-purposes. I am using conversational language, but that doesn't always come across as intended on the 'net, so I will clarify.

Of course I don't think that "all" D&D games are purely combat based. I've already said that mine aren't, for instance (and I have played others that aren't). The key word in that sentence is "if". "It would be a shame if". Not "it is a shame that". I was making a point about there being a wider world of possibility than a series of action scenes. I hoped my point was clear, but to spell it out literally, I am saying that I would hope that with tens of thousands of D&D groups, there are a high number of interesting games out there, just by dint of the numbers involved.

As to your point about the treatment of PTSD in films... I'm not familiar with the movie/s you describe, but I'm sure they do it very well, and I applaud the film makers for doing so. However, my point stands for action movies in general. In D&D, you can deal with PTSD as a theme in any style you like. The makers of the Marvel films can't do it in any other genre - they can't make a Jane Austen movie. They have to stretch the genre they're working in to make their point. Stretching/developing the genre is great, and in some ways that can be very effective, as they can challenge the audience who've turned up for an action movie and who wouldn't go to a different type of movie. And this, I suppose, in essence is what I am arguing for in D&D - to stretch the genre of fiction - or even to move into different genres*.



*By genre here, I'm not talking about moving away from fantasy, but switching style of story-telling.
 
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Grainger

Explorer
When you decided to run a game, at least implicitly, you chose a genre. Then, if you were smart, you chose a game with mechanics that suit your genre, right? So, there's a significant degree of system in it, only because what form of resolution is appropriate for a climax is genre-dependent. And, face it folks - most of us are playing heroic action/adventure genres, for which a fight is generally an entirely appropriate and natural climax for a story.

Thing is, I suspect most people don't really choose a genre per se. D&D is the big name in RPGs. People go for that because it's what they've heard of/seen online (or what they played 30 years ago). A newcomer to RPGs isn't likely to go for Fiasco (although they might, depending on who introduces them to the hobby).

True, the genre of sword and sorcery is also a big factor in attracting people to D&D, but also the ubiquity does. In most things, people rarely sift through the options and carefully choose the best match for them - they tend to stumble into things due to some aligning factors (albeit of course they've chosen to do something that has some sense of appeal). In my own group, I have players who play 5e because they played D&D decades ago. At least two of my players played it because they were, 20 years ago, introduced to it - it's the game their friends played. If their friends played something else, then that's what they would have played.

So, I'm very much in the situation where my group plays D&D largely through inertia/familiarity, and that gives me a lot of scope to do different things with it. And that's a lot better than players in love with the system per se. When I encounter players who are far more in love with the crunch than the possibilities of the genre and game, I find it less interesting.
 

Grainger

Explorer
I think @S'mon largely has the right of it. Many of us cut our teeth in D&D through modules. And modules, by and large, are set up for the big showdown fight at the end of the module. There are notable exceptions, of course, but, they are notable BECAUSE they are exceptions. Heck, how many of us got our start in Keep on the Borderlands which has about a dozen boss fights at the end of each cave?

True.

But when we look at examples of genre fiction, how many of them end in a boss fight*?

Lord of the Rings (the book) has plenty of combat, but my overwhelming impression is of arduous travel. It doesn't end in a boss fight per se (although the struggle for the ring at the Crack of Doom counts as an action scene). Lord of the Rings is won by two basically normal people enduring. Most of it is walking. Hey, maybe we should have a lot more "walking simulator" in D&D!**

We don't know how the Game of Thrones TV series is going to end, but - violent as it is - I wouldn't say its story peaks are defined by boss fights where a hero or heroes defeat a monster, especially in its early years. It's just not structured like that. Although I would say a big boss fight at the end is much more likely now they're veered away from the books.


*Probably a lot of it, I'm sure.
**[Ducks]
 
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Grainger

Explorer
ALIENS is also not just a series of fights or action scenes.

Yes, it has other stuff in it (I don't think any story - outside of some RPG sessions or video games - is just fights), but once they get to the planet, the narrative is pretty much driven by fights and action scenes, and it's resolved by such.

We're missing the point here. I don't think many would argue that Aliens isn't an action movie. Nor would anyone argue that action movies have only fights in them. So, of course Aliens has stuff in it other than fights. But it's essentially action.

The Game of Thrones series is a counter example. It has lots of fights and tonnes of violence. But it isn't driven by fights or action scenes in the same way that an action movie is (particularly in its early years). This may be simply because it has more room to breathe - more space between the battles and so on. I'm not sure. But it feels like the goal of a movie like Aliens is to get to the next action scene while Game of Thrones - at least early on - was a lot more textured than that.
 

Hussar

Legend
True.

But when we look at examples of genre fiction, how many of them end in a boss fight*?

Lord of the Rings (the book) has plenty of combat, but my overwhelming impression is of arduous travel. It doesn't end in a boss fight per se (although the struggle for the ring at the Crack of Doom counts as an action scene). Lord of the Rings is won by two basically normal people enduring. Most of it is walking. Hey, maybe we should have a lot more "walking simulator" in D&D!**

We don't know how the Game of Thrones TV series is going to end, but - violent as it is - I wouldn't say its story peaks are defined by boss fights where a hero or heroes defeat a monster, especially in its early years. It's just not structured like that. Although I would say a big boss fight at the end is much more likely now they're veered away from the books.


*Probably a lot of it, I'm sure.
**[Ducks]

I think you just answered your own question though. As you say, many, many genre fiction stories end with a boss fight. It's not like this idea just came out of nowhere. It's been part and parcel to the genre since pretty much day one.
 

I agree with lewpuls comments entirely.
The term, "boss", has grown from the video industry, and although D&D has always had high-level adversaries, it has never had, nor should have, the video-style "boss".
Pointing out older game version adversaries doesn't make any points here as the base trait of the"boss" remains the same: The accepted anticipation of a recoverable death that is totally absent (or should be, at the very least).

I encounter way too many players these days who expect a video experience from a tabletop game. They want 20th level adversaries and events with 1st level characters, leveling after every fight, and non-stop, non-resting, and non-interactive restock and resupply at every turn.
Many of these players have little consideration for role-play, leave character sheets almost blank (why write down equipment if you expect everything you need to be in a clearly marked and labeled box sitting right In front of the door with the monsters behind it), and refuse to believe that they can get killed by 10 orcs when it takes hundreds to kill them in the video game!
Besides, if we die, we'll just try again.

Most of these player do not last (Thank Moradin) more than a few sessions before they decide not to return, but more and more of todays newbies are locked into this video-game mentality.

Wizards is not helping with the new versions released (4 & 5). The hype is action, rules clarification is lacking, and there is blatant cross- over of concepts and actions from their M:TG line.
Once again, big difference in expectations between a card game and an RPG.
The concepts are not the problem, however, the explanations and rules coverage are.
2018 D&D is not the sane game as 1975 D&D, but it should be.

The game rules used to give sensible explanations and realistic expectations, now you get core mechanics and quick glossed-over blurbs that generate more questions than answers.

Boss monsters have no place in the vast majority of scenarios or campaigns for D&D.
Powerful villains with hidden agendas and characters with careful planning and diligence are what set D&D apart.

I've never used any "boss" monsters and I've successfully concluded many games in the last 40 years both as player and DM with many long-term players at my table.

I DM with two simple rules:
1) There's no guarantee that you will make it to level 20.
2) If you play stupid, you die, stupid.

No " bosses" necessary.

Take your time, watch your step, and stay alive. Played as Gary & Dave intended.
 

Grainger

Explorer
I think you just answered your own question though. As you say, many, many genre fiction stories end with a boss fight. It's not like this idea just came out of nowhere. It's been part and parcel to the genre since pretty much day one.

Sure, but I never said that wasn't the case. My point is that D&D has huge possibility. We are not constrained by genre unless we want to be.
 

S'mon

Legend
We're missing the point here. I don't think many would argue that Aliens isn't an action movie.

I've never thought of Aliens - or The Terminator, or Avatar, or Robocop, or Starship Troopers - as 'action movies'. 'Action Movies' are stuff where the plot is just there to link the action scenes (I agree with you there) - Commando, True Lies, Rambo 3, Total Recall, the Die Hard series. Predator feels like an action movie to me, despite the horror element, but Aliens or The Terminator don't. I guess they're sci-fi action horror. Notably both have protagonists who feel much weaker than the opposition and who don't willingly resort to force to resolve the issue.
 

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