by Jonathan D.
Dragons look just about as terrifyingly badass as they actually are. By which I mean that if my level 3 warlock encountered one while trekking through the wild rainforest, he would probably try to use it as a mount. That’s one way to honor your bargain with Cthulhu prematurely! Well, I’m pretty abnormal, and poor Kilax the warlock (name and class changed to protect anonymity) has the scars to prove it. Any sensible person confronted with a dragon would run. That’s one of the great things in fantasy stories – the scariest foes look as dangerous as they are.
That’s not the case in real life, of course, where thieves and ne’er-do-wells can lurk undetected for years and a lethal case of heart disease might hide beneath the surface until it’s too late. A sharp knife or massive claymore may look flashier than a gun, but you’re more likely to survive an encounter with the knife. Deadlier still is the Ebola virus, which enters the body with almost no fanfare, but has a fatality rate substantially higher than either the gun or the knife.
In stories, however, we like characters that wear their power on their sleeves – and for good reason. Ninja cosplayers look incredibly badass, but their intimidating presence is dramatically reduced by the knowledge that they can’t actually bury a shuriken in your face at three hundred yards. On the other hand, a fuzzy bunny rabbit will never appear threatening even if it can shoot deadly laser beams out of its eyes or rip a knight to shreds in three seconds. Some people might even find it comical. This is why, from anime to fantasy to science fiction, the rule mostly stands: make your powerful things look powerful. The spiky-haired gentleman with the eyepatch and the sword three time as tall as he is, the giant flaming demon monster the planet-sized super-spaceship – these are generally things whose coffee you do not want to be caught urinating in. These things are all the more badass because not only do they appear badass, but you know that they could immediately vaporize you in the aforementioned scenario.
This puts you the DM in a difficult position, because you want your boss to feel epic and dangerous, but your players are only level three (or six, or ten, or whatever). The point is, you want your boss to seem incredibly powerful and awesome so that your players come away from the encounter feeling epic, but you also want them to defeat the boss without losing too many limbs. Fortunately, I’m here to offer some good solutions to this conundrum!
The most important thing to remember is that in D&D, unlike in most fantasy novels, there is often little correlation between power level and the appearance of badassery. Summoning meteors from the sky may seem awesome, but it’s probably not as good as a spell that confuses all of your opponents. And then there are the villains. Dragons do look just as strong as they are, but this doesn’t hold true for every monster. An ugly little gnome with a stick might be the most powerful being in existence. This is intentional. You want the difficulty level in your adventure to remain fairly constant, whether at a climactic boss fight or in the cave outside. By breaking the rules, D&D lets you throw appropriately difficult trash mobs at your level fifteen and level three players alike, while saving impressive and awesome boss monsters for pivotal storyline moments.
And while the weaker spells and abilities in D&D may seem pointless to the munchkins among us, they, too, can help you with balancing. Is the team’s cleric bleeding to death under the wrathful laser-vision of a rabbit whose morning coffee got ruined? Try having your bestial bunny use one of his flashier, but less powerful attacks. On the other hand, have the players brought the full brunt of their force to bear against the furry fiend faster than you imagined they would? Let the rabbit use its strobe-o-vision to hypnotize their entire party while he feasts on the fighter’s feet. As a side benefit, giving your casters a wide variety of spells and abilities can spice up a combat and keep the players guessing.
From my time as a DM, I’ve come up with a few other tips for keeping your boss monster awesome but beatable. First off, area-of-effect damage spells are your friend. Particularly at higher levels, these satisfying sorceries drop epicness on the party like napalm. Sometimes AS napalm. Who doesn’t want to rain burning hellfire on those goody-two-shoes players? And such spells often have truly impressive damage numbers attached to them, which are sure to overawe your hapless heroes. These spells seem more effective than they are, because they divide the damage equally among all of the players, and damage doesn’t really do anything unless it actually kills one of them. An excellent bonus for these spells is that they let the wizards and other squishies on the back line feel like they’re in danger too, as the hp of the whole party falls dangerously low.
By the same token, if you’re worried about a boss being too strong for your players, avoid group crowd control spells and instant death attacks. These spells frequently eliminate or incapacitate one or more of the players, reducing their damage output and team synergy significantly. This is generally more potent than area of effect damage, but it doesn’t leave an epic impression behind. If the fight is progressing too much in the players’ favor, or if one player in particular is hogging all of the glory, consider deploying a tactical crowd control strike to fix the problem.
For my second tip, why not use some interesting mechanic to lengthen the battle? Often when you grab a published stat block for a pivotal boss encounter, the heroes finish the battle before the Big Bad has a chance to use its most awe-inspiring abilities. This is especially true of caster bosses. The most conventional strategies for drawing out pivotal encounters rely on reinforcements and magical protections. Take, for example, a hypothetical encounter with the Chief Diabolical Archmagus of Pointy Hats. If your nefarious gnomish wizard were beset by the group’s three barbarians, he would die quickly on his own; however, if the bruisers are busy battling the wizard’s giant mole companions, then he is free to lob generically earth-related magics at the players the entire time. Huzzah! Alternatively, you can let the gnome magically solidify his skin into solid rock, granting him the effects of stoneskin. This achieves a similar effect but can get frustrating for players who may feel their attacks are mostly ineffective. Or, I guess you can just make your gnome really buff and double his HP or something. The best method, as usual in D&D, is to be creative. Perhaps your gnome wizard can transfer his consciousness into his mole friends, continuing to cast his infernal incantations at your players until they slay every last mole. Or perhaps your diminutive villain has trapped the souls of unfortunate villagers within the crystals in his lair, and when his HP starts to run low, he consumes one of the souls to heal himself. Creative use of wibbly-wobbly magicky stuff can help extend a battle and stretch its proportions to the truly epic levels that Glitterbob the gnome wizard truly deserves.
My third and final suggestion to increase the epicness of a grand showdown is foreshadowing. Have you ever wondered why most novels start off a bit slowly, introducing their characters, describing potted plants, and developing immersion? It’s because the more time you take to establish the foundations of your story, world, and villains, the more impact the exciting parts at the end of your story will carry.
In the early levels while your players are fighting goblins, try spreading hushed whispers in the tavern about some particularly threatening cadre of nasty monster chieftains. Let the players know about the pyromaniac cyborg troll, and the legendary giant whose hammer is rumored to turn those it strikes into stone. This will build their excitement, and when they finally do meet Pyrsibog and Grindlehammer, the fight will be all the more exciting because they know they’re fighting bigshots. Additionally, Grindlehammer’s ability to turn her foes into stone won’t be nearly so threatening, because the players will have the chance to prepare counter measures, such as the stone to flesh spell. And they might bring a bucket of water for Pyrsibog, too.
Or, taking an example from my experience, suppose your boss is a powerful mage who enjoys transforming her enemies into penguins (who doesn’t)? The party’s cleric has one save from the polymorph spell, and then suddenly the newly rotund healer is waddling ineffectively around the battlefield. As you can likely tell, this is a fun spell for roleplay reasons, but it’s also one of those spells I previously advised you against using on your players. It doesn’t feel good for a player to spend the majority of the climactic boss battle searching for fish. Besides, the presence of such a high-quality instant death ability could cripple the party. In our case, the DM mitigated the strength of the spell by warning us of some of the boss’s more powerful abilities through dreams and advice earlier in the campaign. This served to hype up the battle for maximum effect, but also allowed us to prepare ourselves by acquiring magical items that protect against hostile polymorph effects. Each of us had at least one such item, and several of them activated during the battle. I quite enjoyed the fight, which became my favorite encounter in the campaign.
So, if you want to kick up the awesomeness level of your climactic boss fights without overwhelming your players, try using some of these tips next time. Your players will have fun with it, you’ll be happy because they’re happy, and when they’re happy, sometimes one of them actually brings the food. Most importantly, Sparkles the cyborg laser rabbit will thank you. But hopefully he won’t bring the food, because his taste in food is terrible. He’s British.