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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
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.

ROTFLMAO.

Yeah, because Fytor and Father Generic were never a thing back in the day. Endless combat scenes and hack and slash have been part of the hobby since day one. People tend to forget that we came from WARGAMES. And in wargames, you fight scenario after scenario until you stop.

"Git off my lawn" type rosy colored nostalgia glasses rememberances of "how it used to be" forget the fact that, well, lots of us have been around the hobby for thirty or forty years. And lots of us remember when D&D was the game you played when you didn't want story.

It baffles me to no end when people try to rewrite history.
 

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S'mon

Legend
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).

This is a feature of MMORPG bosses, but it does not ring a bell with my experience of videogame bosses. I'd have to crank the Difficulty to maximum before I'd expect to lose many fights in most videogames; they seem more geared towards having a mildly tough boss fight where you have to start chugging potions (or in Skyrim, eating
30 mammoth steaks). I'd regard being defeated by the boss as a failure state in eg Skyrim; at worst I might have to retreat and come back later (turns out you can retreat from Alduin at the Time Wound and he just stays up at the mountain top) :p

At least with the single-player games I'm familiar with, the boss fights feel a lot like those in RPGs - designed to make the player feel challenged, not repeatedly kill them.
 

Hussar

Legend
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.

Well, yes and no. We are constrained by system to some degree. D&D isn't a very good system for some things. If I wanted to role play out an election, just as a random example, D&D doesn't really give me any help here. The skill system isn't granular enough, nor does it work on the time scales of something like an election. Compare, say, to Blades in the Dark with it's "clock's" system where you have multiple different actions resolving at different time scales. There are other games out there that do a much better job at the non-combat stuff than D&D.

D&D OTOH DOES do combat really, really well. It's a lot of fun. So, it kinda naturally lends itself towards a fairly high hack kind of game.
 

S'mon

Legend
2018 D&D is not the sane game as 1975 D&D, but it should be.

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

We have the OSR for that. :)

Personally I like how 5e D&D is a sort of half-way house between old school lethality and 4e Big
Damn Heroes. It's very easy to run it in an old school style, but it's a bit more forgiving than low level OD&D-BX-BECM, which makes it more accessible to new players.
 

ROTFLMAO.

Yeah, because Fytor and Father Generic were never a thing back in the day. Endless combat scenes and hack and slash have been part of the hobby since day one. People tend to forget that we came from WARGAMES. And in wargames, you fight scenario after scenario until you stop.

"Git off my lawn" type rosy colored nostalgia glasses rememberances of "how it used to be" forget the fact that, well, lots of us have been around the hobby for thirty or forty years. And lots of us remember when D&D was the game you played when you didn't want story.

It baffles me to no end when people try to rewrite history.
And lots of us gave up wargames because D&D gave us story that wasn't a one - sided rewrite of a historical event. We wrote and played stories that were new and occasionally one of us wrote a book about our travels and adventures.

If all you did was fight and die, you didn't play D&D, you skipped to the"exciting" parts and played Wargames with fancy dice.
 

Jhaelen

First Post
Well, at least one widely acclaimed and popular D&D adventure module is all about a 'boss fight': Ravenloft (I6). Count Strahd features prominently as a recurring villain and it's up to the players to gather the lore and items required to eventually defeat him.
It also shows quite nicely that an initial boss encounter doesn't have to result in a TPK.

As many have already pointed out there's different ways to design boss encounters. In my personal experience, the games that feature boss encounters that are intended to be 'unbeatable' when a player first encounters them are also very difficult in the stages that don't involve bosses. E.g. a side-scrolling arcade shooter like 'R-Type' required the player to memorize the layout of the level and the movement of the enemies in order to stand any chance. This wasn't restricted to the boss fights, although these tended to be the hardest parts of the game.

There's also been a bit of a resurgence of these kind of video games, most prominently 'Dark Souls'. Again, you need to carefully study and memorize each opponent's moves in order to stand a chance in this game. IIRC, it also did away with save points, or at least used them very sparingly. Imho, the game was designed and released as a direct reaction to a trend in video games to be very forgiving of play mistakes and focusing on constant player gratification instead.
 

Hussar

Legend
And lots of us gave up wargames because D&D gave us story that wasn't a one - sided rewrite of a historical event. We wrote and played stories that were new and occasionally one of us wrote a book about our travels and adventures.

If all you did was fight and die, you didn't play D&D, you skipped to the"exciting" parts and played Wargames with fancy dice.

The one true way is strong with this one.
 

pemerton

Legend
I agree with Pemerton
If in doubt, stick with the tried and true . . .

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).

<snip>

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 agree with this - when the goal, driven by XP-for-gp mechanics, is get the treasure, and when the system allows a meaningful chance of evasion (eg use magic or, perhaps, thievery to increase your chance of surprise and hence evasion; or use food to slow/distract pursuers; etc), then there are other ways the game permits the players to score a win. Which will produce different fiction also.

I think there are discernible and analysable reasons for changes in the system focus of D&D over the past 30+ years, but this thread may not be the place to go over 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 would regard myself as a fairly strong proponent for skill challenges, but there's no disputing that in 4e combat is the ultimate crucible for the PCs (and their players). A quick glance at a PC sheet will reveal the truth of this!

A lot of discussion about skill challenges, though, shows up aspects of technique rather than mechanics eg players who regard it as unfair for the GM to frame a scene in which PC X, who is not very good at (say) talking, has to talk to try and get what s/he wants. This seems in part driven by a conception that all non-combat activity will be resolved by single specialists ("the face", "the trap guy", etc), which itself seems to be a byproduct of past D&D design. It also seems to be driven by weak "story" conceptions - eg it seems to be widely accepted that a D&D PC who leaves all the talking to someone else is a viable and even admirable character, rather than some sort of inept cipher, which makes some sense if the fiction is conceived of as a story of largely motivationless mercenaries but isn't true even of Conan at his most primeval, let alone (say) Arthurian knights or their JRRT equivalents.

If players won't invest in outcomes other than living or dying in fights, then there's little point trying to establish decent mechanical frameworks for generating those outcomes.

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.
This is different from my experience - except the bit about inter-player conflict: I tend to expect my RPGs to involve some degree of disagreement or even conflict among the PCs.

Managing that, especially in party-based games (eg D&D; Classic Traveller), generates responsibilities for both the players and the GM.
 

S'mon

Legend
This is different from my experience - except the bit about inter-player conflict: I tend to expect my RPGs to involve some degree of disagreement or even conflict among the PCs.

With inter-PC conflict I've had a problem where one player keeps the conflict IC, but another dominant player OOC resents the perceived interference in 'their' campaign. With D&D many players expect the group to be working together at all times - which can be taken too far if someone expects that means everyone else follows their agenda.
 

S'mon

Legend
It also seems to be driven by weak "story" conceptions - eg it seems to be widely accepted that a D&D PC who leaves all the talking to someone else is a viable and even admirable character

This seems to be a result of the 3e PC build & skill system. Not seen it in pre-3e, not seen it much in 4e or 5e really.
 

pemerton

Legend
This seems to be a result of the 3e PC build & skill system. Not seen it in pre-3e, not seen it much in 4e or 5e really.
The diagonosis seems plausible. The resultant play expectations seem to have endured to some extent, though: eg in 4e discussions about the fighter impressing the king by polevaulting as opposed to (say) talking of his/her exploits; and the current thread which frames the issue of "targetting a PC's weak spots" in very adversarial GM-vs-Min-maxer terms.
 


S'mon

Legend
The diagonosis seems plausible. The resultant play expectations seem to have endured to some extent, though: eg in 4e discussions about the fighter impressing the king by polevaulting as opposed to (say) talking of his/her exploits; and the current thread which frames the issue of "targetting a PC's weak spots" in very adversarial GM-vs-Min-maxer terms.

The discussions in places like this don't really bear much resemblance to the at-table play I see - and I see rather a lot, 4 5e D&D games this week with 4 mostly-different groups. :) Not seeing it with the other groups at the 5e D&D Meetup I run these days, either.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
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!**

You could argue that Sam and Frodo have to deal with a boss monster at the Cracks of Doom - but instead of it being a physical manifestation of Sauron, it's the corrupting influence of the ring - an alternative boss monster, if you will. Plus, they manage to avoid his gaze throughout much of their final approach - a boss monster defeated primarily by stealth rather than beaten down.

I know you're looking for alternatives, but there really are a number of situation in which our protagonists and supporting characters face localized "boss" style monsters that have important narrative consequences. Eowyn and Merry face the Wizard King. Gandalf faces Durin's Bane. Even Aragorn faces a similar boss conflict (of wills rather than violence) when he reveals himself in the Palantir to Sauron, provoking a premature attack on Minas Tirith. And way back in the Hobbit, Thorin and company faced Bolg (and lost until Beorn intervened).
 

pemerton

Legend
You could argue that Sam and Frodo have to deal with a boss monster at the Cracks of Doom - but instead of it being a physical manifestation of Sauron, it's the corrupting influence of the ring - an alternative boss monster, if you will. Plus, they manage to avoid his gaze throughout much of their final approach - a boss monster defeated primarily by stealth rather than beaten down.

<snip>

Even Aragorn faces a similar boss conflict (of wills rather than violence) when he reveals himself in the Palantir to Sauron, provoking a premature attack on Minas Tirith.
How often are these sorts of moral, spiritual, and mental conflicts the climax in tabletop FRPGing?

I don't really think it's to the point that they involve an antagonist (Sauron). The salient point, in the context of this discussion, is that the confrontation, and its resolution, is not a violent one. There's no reason at all in principle why this can't be handled by a RPG - contrary to what [MENTION=177]Umbran[/MENTION] suggested upthread, it doesn't require greater storytelling ability to make the struggle with Sauron non-violent in these ways. But D&D has tended to lack the mechanics to handle it (with skill challenges in 4e something of an exception).
 

Sadras

Hero
I know 4e's Cairn of the Winter King provided a way to defeat the BBEG through the social pillar via a skill challenge. The trick in 5e is to make it "exciting" (introduce risks) that will enable that kind of play. In combat it is easy via loss of hit points, so the risk is character death, it is a little more complex via using the social pillar to defeat the BBEG.
 

I've always been a fan of including boss monsters, because I'm a gamer at heart. But boss monsters work very differently in D&D than they do in a videogame. You can't have just one big pile of hitpoints in a D&D campaign. That would be boring. Instead I make a clear difference between one or two opponents that are the main threat, and their minions. I give my players things to focus on. This means that it is entirely possible for the players to focus on the boss, and kill him off early on in the fight. So I design the boss battle in such a way as to complicate this from happening (but not prevent). For example, by putting a defensive line of strong minions around the boss, or by complicating the battle through the environment, or sub-objectives.

If the players decide that the boss is the main threat, and must be killed off early in the fight, then it is great to give them this victory. They should feel the benefit of killing off a big threat, and you should allow them to turn the odds in their favor through such strategic decissions. All I can hope for as a DM, is that the players feel a sense of urgency and danger. I want them to care about the battle, and be in suspense every time the boss gets its turn.

Sometimes the players will come up with actions that can render the boss completely ineffective. Such as blocking a door so the boss cannot call reinforcements at all. Or hitting the boss with a Feeblemind spell that removes his spellcasting ability. And that's fine. These moments of triumph are exactly what I want my players to experience. I want them to feel clever when they outsmart my boss monster. But it's a clever dance for me as a DM to ensure that the fight remains challenging to some degree, even after the main threat has been dealt with.
 
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I think boss monsters are super exciting to fight. I'm always looking forward to my players facing one.

Even though you can't retry the fight, I still think so.
For me if there's TPK, the adventure is simply over, I do an ending narration and then start with a new adventure path.

It might not make as much sense for intermediate bosses, but the final boss is quite important as it determines if there's a good or a bad ending to the story. Either way it gives a climatic conclusion.

(Honestly, it would be interesting to just try out allowing the players to "save and reload" before a fight. Then let them retry until they win. I thought about this before but never tried it.)
 

Something I tried out very recently, was to have my players fight two bosses at once. Sort of a Ornstein and Smough experience (little Dark Souls reference there). It is pretty interesting to have the players divide their focus between two very different opponents, and having to decide who the biggest threat to them is.
 

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