Last time we did this I talked about marching armies and giant battles but now I’m going to talk about a different kind of big fight that can be equally problematic: the boss fight.
A staple of video games, the term “boss fight” refers to a climactic encounter that is expected to put the player’s abilities to the test. In video games this is usually a very difficult, but very fun battle. In tabletop RPGs, boss fights tend to resemble my love life: an absolute nightmare that leaves everyone frustrated at best and horribly depressed at worst. But why is this? Why does it work so well in video games and so poorly at a gaming table? Well, for starters, let’s talk about…
Differences in Media
I don’t think I actually need to explain to people the ways in which tabletop games and videogames are different. I mean, I’ve done a series on that already. It was fun. You loved it.
The key point to touch on though is that in video games, you’re usually not taking turns with the other players. Sure, in Final Fantasy there’s a party of adventurers, but you control all of them. This means that there’s not a huge amount of time where you sit and wait, unless you count the PS1 era summons. Those things could take forever. In a traditional RPG, every player’s turn is also time that everyone else is waiting. This is relevant because interesting boss fights are never over quickly.
Think about it. In console RPGs bosses have insanely high amounts of hit points and deal relatively low amounts of damage. The players, by contrast, have lower hit point thresholds and dish out damage values that would be a pain to track at a normal gaming table. This allows the fights to last a long time while giving players the satisfaction of seeing “9999” all over the screen.
In video game RPGs you also usually have a dedicated healer, who might throw a little damage out but whose main job is to make sure everyone stays alive. While there’s usually someone who CAN heal in a tabletop RPG party, the cleric would usually be better served dropping buffs or fighting, all of which make the fight end more quickly rather than last longer.
So, now that those differences have been explored a bit, let’s talk about the things that are specific to Tabletop RPGs that make boss fights problematic.
Boss monsters are usually limited in what you can have them do without having at least one person at the table cry foul. Even if you make them big and scary and describe them as cunning, you’ll have to dumb down their tactics sometimes.
This is because big monsters deal big damage, and in most tabletop RPGs that can mean the end of a character. Even if resurrection spells are available, the character is usually at least out of the rest of the fight, which will make that player’s character frustrated. Even if the monster is smart enough to open by charging the wizard and shredding him to ribbons, and even if he has an avenue to do that, you’re going to kill everyone’s fun if you open that way. Able to fly around or spit a massive cone of flaming death at the players, but the players don’t have a fly spell or an archer? Well, prepare for either a long miserable game of your players burning to death and being mad at you or for your big scary monster to walk right into the waiting arms of your fighter’s full-attack. And while not every player will expect you to do this, I assure you there are some players who will get mad if your monsters do not eventually lose their brain cells and wander into the loving embrace of their barbarian’s axe.
But even if you played them as cunning and fierce, able to use every mechanical resource at their disposal, it wouldn’t make them much more dangerous in the long run because…
That’s right, action economy. You’ve got a frost giant bearing down on the heroes, and he gets to swing his great axe once, twice if he’s standing still, and when he’s done the wizard gets to go, doing god only knows what with the laws of physics. When the wizard’s done, the cleric goes, making everybody stronger, faster, tougher, better. After that, the fighter and rogue go, pouring damage onto the giant until he cries. This leads the way to…
You’ve spent the entire campaign setting up your boss fight. The players finally find themselves face to face with the massive swamp monster known as the froghemoth, a giant beast that seriously looks like something you never want to even dream of. Now, I’m using the Froghemoth because it’s actually an example of a very well-built boss monster, with it’s ability to attack six times in a round and its relatively deep well of hit points.
So your fighter charges in and hits the beast once at the very beginning, or maybe the beast gets the drop on him. After the two exchange full round attacks the fighter is on his last legs and the Froghemoth looks like he’s doing ok. Then come the buffs, and everyone else’s turn. Assuming a reasonable optimized level 9 party, we’re looking at two rounds of full attack from a fighter and rogue after buffs from the wizard and maybe the cleric, if you’re lucky and he’s not too busy being the fighter’s band-aid. That or the opposite happens, and the froghemoth obliterates the fighter because of a lucky crit and proceeds to run roughshod over the party. Either way, it’s over quickly. Instead of a long, drawn out battle you got a three round squash match that, in rules to flavor terms, lasted 18 seconds of game time.
What’s sad is, this is one of the better possible outcomes. Another possible outcome is that the fight takes forever, and people get frustrated as they chip away at what seems like a neverending supply of hit points and then wait for their next turn.
So What Do You Do?
Well, for one, you have to remember that an encounter is about more than just the monster. When you plan, play with the environment. Make every part of the encounter from the setting to the bystanders relevant. Fighting the froghemoth is more intense if you also have to navigate his swamp and avoid being trapped in sinkholes. The lumbering titan might be something you can take down in a few turns, but you’ve got to lead him away from town first or he’ll turn everyone’s home to rubble. Maybe throw in some minions to serve as fodder for a turn or two or, in a pinch, include a cool gimmick.
Make the encounter more than a fight, make it an experience. When you unveil your boss, be ready with your best descriptions, a full knowledge of what the boss can do and how to use it effectively, and a pot of freshly brewed RedBull because you’re going to be in for a long night.