D&D 5E What makes boss fights memorable?

Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
Lair actions help a lot, but beyond that, what things do you find to make boss fights in their lairs memorable? Obviously, we want to avoid having bosses just be bigger bags of HP. Are mooks and minions critical? More lair actions? Suggestions on how the boss will interact with objects and the environment within its lair?
 

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toucanbuzz

No rule is inviolate
Changing and dynamic events + long-lasting.

Just standing and trading punches = boring.
  • The boss should never be alone. The party needs low-level minions to mow through;
  • The environment should change such as an earthquake that causes rubble to fall from the ceiling upon combatants and a shifting slide as the floor buckles;
  • the boss should ebb and flow, perhaps retreating as reinforcements come in and healing. They're a boss because they've learned how to survive longer than others;
  • the boss should have access to something that empowers them that can be removed by the players, such as cages with captives that the boss uses to restore his life; free the captives and take away this power, or a healing pool attuned to them that if drained or defiled takes away that option;
  • a surprise should occur when the boss is "bloodied" (50% hp) or the like, such as a defensive ability triggers and a portal opens, dropping you all into the Astral Plane for a weightless fight where movement is based off Intelligence scores.
Obviously level of the boss affects what all you can do, but applying this to the Orc Chieftain in his lair:

The Chief has 6 goblin slave soldiers and an overseer. Take out the overseer and the slaves will lose their will to fight.

He also has two elite guards (max hp orcs) and a witch doctor. The terrain includes a large barrel of potent moonshine, his bed, and several torches on the walls (hiding 3 levers that trigger rockfalls on particular squares that the Orcs will try and use, PCs might notice). If the witch doctor dies, its spirit spawns a shadow that indiscriminately attacks the nearest living target, lasting 5 rounds or until destroyed.

On round 3, one of the enemy accidentally hits the moonshine barrel. Its contents spill over the floor, making an area treacherous (difficult terrain). It is also highly flammable.

If the boss goes to 50% hp, he sheds the extra damage and gets a save with advantage against any ongoing effects. Reinforcements, low level enemies, come in (reduced if the PCs were successful in an earlier mission). He tries to retreat to a secret door (a floor hatch like in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, hard to find the trigger) where he has a stash of healing supplies. If he can't move, his minions will try to carry or drag him at the cost of their lives. He will spend up to 3 rounds healing before climbing a ladder that leads to a hidden ledge above the battlefield and sniping with a heavy crossbow he has stashed up there. He ducks out of sight so he cannot be targeted. The middle rung of his ladder has concealed poison spikes that he knows to avoid.

Anyhoo, just off the top of my head to make boss battles more dynamic.
 

Scottius

Explorer
Stakes/Objectives beyond just kill or be killed.

Roleplaying in combat, the big bads words and actions and encouraging the players to do so as well.

Having built up to this encounter during the campaign. Using minions, foreshadowing, and other techniques to build suspense for the showdown.

Interesting terrain/locales.

Minions/support. Lair and legendary actions as an alternative. But a single creature without any other way to balance the action economy equals a anticlimactic encounter.
 



jgsugden

Legend
When a player dies
When we're talking about what has made a boss fight memorable - fair enough. However, if we're talkinag bout what we should do to make a boss fight memorable, these are not great suggestions. PCs dying generally makes the heroes feel like failures, not heroes. They remember it, but it can be a bitter memory for some.

Putting aside the health of the PCs, the elements of great boss battles in my experience are:

1.) Great use of environment: The battles I remember usually have dynamic terrain, features, obstacles, hazzards and staging. You might even include traps or tricks. While the boss should be the focus of the battle, the terrain should be getting an oscar for supporting actor. Minions, if used.

2.) Sensible design: Don't build a battle to challenge the players, build the battle that makes sense for the story. If the design of the final battle is a great strategic challenge, but makes no sense given the adventure that led to it, it takes players out of the game. For the battle to stand out, it has to make sense as part of the story that has been set up.

3.) Stakes: There has to be stakes to the battle that matter to the PCs. If they're just digging through a dungeon somewhere in the woods and killing the thing at the bottom, it will not be memorable. However, if there is a reason they need to kill it, and now, before something bad happens, then it has a chance to mean more.

4.) Violence is not always the answer: Make sure there are elements that can be resolved without a fireball or sword. They don't need to be mandatory, but having the option of doing something other than casting a spell or rolling an attack roll makes things interesting.

5.) Dynamic enemies: They have to move, interact, and change the battlefield to be interesting foes. If all they do is roll attack rolls and withstand attacks, they'll be boring.

6.) Something unexpected: There should be something unexpected to either be discovered through scouting, or encountered unexpectedly during the combat. Nothing catches interest like a twist.

7.) Fair: The PCs need to walk away either with the win, or feeling like they could have won if they rolled decently or made fewer mistakes.

8.) Degrees of Success: The best battles I've seen had ways for the PCs to lose, to barely get through it, to win, or to kick butt. Players love to feel clever by kicking butt rather than just getting the victory, after all.
 
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Vaalingrade

Legend
Set Pieces!

Stuff to take cover behind, climb on, use against the bad guy.

Gimme a fireplace I can shove them into, a table to knock over as an obstacle, tress a big ape is brachiating from, stalagmites to drop on fools, a portrait of his mother to befoul. Anything but an empty room.
 

When we're talking about what has made a boss fight memorable - fair enough. However, if we're talkinag bout what we should do to make a boss fight memorable, these are not great suggestions.

Maybe I didn't read the OP carefully enough, and they are looking for specific suggestions for how to make them memorable, not just what makes them memorable.

But I'll stand by my answer: the most memorable fights are the ones where you are on the edge of your seat, wondering if you're going to survive.

How to achieve that, on the other hand, is tricky, especially if you think DMs shouldn't adjust things on the fly, but should simply be neutral arbiters of the rules. I don't have a problem, as DM or player, with the DM using more/fewer minions and varying how intelligently monsters play, in order to keep that tension.
 



It also helps if it's not the first time the PCs have faced the boss.

Think about movies, often then final fight is a rematch of an earlier fight which the heroes either lost or was inconclusive for some some reason.

This can be a challenge because players will often go to ridiculous lengths to avoid letting an enemy escape, or refuse to consider running away themselves until far too late. But of course if the players are either getting their butts kicked, before being saved by the arrival of unexpected reinforcements forcing the villain to leave, or the villain has some means of reliable escape such as a teleport, it can make them more determined to take them down the next time. But don't overuse this, because in many ways it works because it is somewhat frustrating.
 

This can be a challenge because players will often go to ridiculous lengths to avoid letting an enemy escape, or refuse to consider running away themselves until far too late. But of course if the players are either getting their butts kicked...

Wandering off-topic, but it occurs to me that D&D mechanics to some extent hide power differentials. The power of an adversary is dependent upon so many variables (attribute modifiers, HP, damage dice, etc.) that something like a sword swing feels largely the same, whether it's coming from a goblin or a giant. Even if you're losing badly, it's easy to blame it on your own bad rolls, and the DM's lucky rolls.

Games with dice pools, on the other hand, can immediately broadcast what you're up against. The GM throwing a whole bunch of dice on the table is the metagame equivalent to what we see in a movie.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I'm a great believer that Boss Fights should first be built around a story which then informs dynamic Lair Actions, tactical use of special abilities and spells and regular 'summon minion/reinforcements'.
Also taking inspiration from Video Games theres the notion of the Boss pattern (espcially random ones in table top) which allows you to do some power moves but also allows alert players to grab the advantage.

Also Bosses arent stupid and 'run away' is always an option
 

Quickleaf

Legend
Lair actions help a lot, but beyond that, what things do you find to make boss fights in their lairs memorable? Obviously, we want to avoid having bosses just be bigger bags of HP. Are mooks and minions critical? More lair actions? Suggestions on how the boss will interact with objects and the environment within its lair?
All of that can work. I was listening to a DM's roundtable on boss monsters, and I found the suggestions all revolved around treating every boss monster as this unified "boss" archetype that should look a certain way.

Personally, I think that approach is the enemy of great design. Instead, I want to know what makes this villain tick, what the core of this conflict is, what is the defining feature of the scene.

For example, I ran a "quasit farmwrecker" as what you could call a mini-boss. I wanted that to feel like an exorcism where things start so slow you almost don't realize you're in combat, progressively getting more frantic and horrific as the scene progresses. I wanted the fight to be more about figuring out why this haunting was happening than trading punches. This was a haunting boss. This wasn't a slug-fest with an orc warlord or a tactical engagement with a red dragon. This had to be spooky and require some clever thought.

When I was conceiving of the idea, I listened to Dael Kingsmill's ghost video, and designed a template based on her loose concepts about levels of manifestation & merged it with my ideas of Haunting Actions as a special type of Lair Action. Familiars were affected as if by confusion, the quasit issued several curses, farm animals were possessed, divinations were scrambled, the quasit reactively gained damage immunity and turned invisible, whispers provoked the darkest impulses of some of the heroes... until they dug up the buried family "cat" (actually an imp who was the quasit's nemesis and used to bind it to haunt the farm) & captured the quasit in a bottle.

It took about 2 hours of play with many decision points – so consistent with what most folks seem to associate with a "boss fight" – but had entirely its own feel.
 

Talking is a free action, so bosses and dragons should monologue more than other monsters. "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your Father." "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die." "Kill for the love of Kali!" "Someday, and this day may never come, I may call upon you for a favor..."
 

Talking is a free action, so bosses and dragons should monologue more than other monsters. "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your Father." "No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die." "Kill for the love of Kali!" "Someday, and this day may never come, I may call upon you for a favor..."
“Remember I said I would kill you last?”

I guess that’s not from a boss villain, but still.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Lair actions help a lot, but beyond that, what things do you find to make boss fights in their lairs memorable?

The memorable things are the non-standard events the players have to do. A boss fight that's basically everyone standing there rolling to-hit and damage over and over aren't memorable.
 

Another thing to add to the list is the relationship the players have to the boss. If the boss is simply the last monster in the dungeon it’s less compelling than if there has been previous interactions, so that the players have an emotional investment.
 

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