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From Diablo 3 to D&D: Memorable and Challenging Boss Battles (Part 1 of 2)

From Diablo 3 to D&D: Memorable and Challenging Boss Battles (Part 1 of 2)

Diablo 3 by Blizzard
Today we’re going to talk about boss battles in your tabletop games, including how you can borrow a few ideas from Diablo 3 and other titles as well. Making these climactic encounters a true apex to your adventures is crucial, and they are loads of fun to dream up. Remember, folks, D&D invented the “boss battle.” So let’s jump right in!

Phases of Combat: Changing Strengths and Weaknesses

A common idea in video games during boss battles is the concept of phases. The most recognizable formula for phases is that once the creature has reached a certain threshold of hit points or been in combat for X amount of time, the creature goes into “berserk” mode and starts doing double, triple, and even quadruple damage.

Some bosses morph into entirely different creatures, or they might spend half the battle in one “mode” and the rest in another. The mode might mean that the boss can be damaged only in a certain way, in a certain spot, or by a specific source. Perhaps the boss is so big that it starts underground and you’re attacking only its head until it fully unearths itself. It might all seem hokey when you just skim over the thought of it, but you’ll find a lot of opportunities for challenging combat here.

More Than Just a Sack of Hit Points: Adding Layers of Combat Complexity

Gone are the days of games where you’re simply hitting a giant sack of hit points and dodging attacks. Modern video games are always showcasing boss battles in exciting and sometimes over the top ways. There’s no reason why our tabletop games should be any different. In fact, we can learn a lot from video games, and the differences between them and tabletop games aren’t quite as disparate as we might think.

I’ll use one of my favorite video game boss battles of all time (not Diablo 3) as an example of how to make the players work for their win. A creature called Hakkar the Soul Stealer, a huge coatl-like creature, could summon poisonous winged serpents to aid him in battle, all while lashing out at the party with his fangs and claws. He could also control the mind of a random party member or two to turn them against the party. Every so often he could unleash a debilitating blast that would stun all his enemies and begin to siphon the very essence from their bodies all at once, which drained character’s hit points and simultaneously healed him for a large amount.

The key to winning this seemingly impossible fight was for the party members to poison themselves before this happened. You see, the flying serpents that aided Hakkar carried tainted blood that would poison their attackers, but would also burst out in a lingering cloud of poisonous vapor when slain. All you had to do was polymorph or otherwise hold off those creatures without killing them until the time was right, then when the right moment came, the entire party would quickly dispatch the serpent and stand in its cloud of poison. The cloud would also quickly drain the health and constitution of those standing inside it, but then when Hakkar siphoned essence from the party, doing so would backfire on him and cause him to slurp up all the poison that the party members carried.

Healers would then quickly bolster their allies after the poison cloud affected them and Hakkar, and the fight would continue until he was slain. The healer would also have to deal with the mind-controlled allies in the meantime, which was usually a high damage dealer such as a rogue or a fighter. This whole set-up created a delicate balance of chaos and timing for the entire battle!

7 thoughts on “From Diablo 3 to D&D: Memorable and Challenging Boss Battles (Part 1 of 2)”

  1. Morgan Boehringer

    “The most recognizable formula for phases is that once the creature has reached a certain threshold of hit points or been in combat for X amount of time, the creature goes into “berserk” mode and starts doing double, triple, and even quadruple damage.”

    This reminds me of Rob Heinsoo’s 13th Age escalation die article in KQ 22. Definitely worth checking out – though in that scheme only players and dragons (to emphasize the epicness of dragons) get the added escalation.

    Another great article Jerry, and though I’d like to have seen an example based off that Diablo III boss, I’m sure I can make my own!!!

  2. I did that recently when I ended my long running 1-20 Pathfinder campaign. They had to face the last boss to save the world from his evil sky palace of doom.

    I started him off as a lvl 20 Sorcerer. Then when they killed him, I had him change into his true form, a Great Wyrm Red Dragon. Then when they killed that, I gave them a couple of rounds to recover and sent the last form against them, a Ravener.

    I even had a script and timed music for the soundtrack. It was pretty well executed.


  3. @Morgan – Really, I definitely need to look into 13th age then, or at least how the escalation die mechanic works. I’d have loved to make a good example out of a Diablo boss here but to be 100% honest I’ve not even beaten the game yet. Busy writer is busy, and so I’ve only faced two bosses so far but I’d say that Belial was a good example of a boss that transforms from a small child – to a wraithlike demon (that summons adds) – into a hulking and massive lava blooded lord of hell. I’m glad you enjoyed it though, thanks for commenting! Part two should have some more cool stuff so stay tuned.

    @Sean – That’s what I like to hear! It’s always perfect when you manage to culminate climactic moments with perfect music in game. I’ve only pulled it off once with an ambiance track with some crows and howling wind sounds during a ravenloft exploration scene one time – but my players actaully felt creeped out. Mission accomplished!

  4. SPOT ON…

    One of the few things were I do appreciate what video games brought into the mix. The possibilities are endless and it almost always brings a breath of freshness into a campaign (which is why it is good to utilise tricks like that with end monsters/culminations of story arcs/campaigns)

    What I would have like in your article in order for it to be complete (mind you am not complaining – nitpicking rather ;)) would be some more examples to wet the appetite or fan the flames of DM creatitivity; and most importantly the other side. Care should be taken in my opinion, to not over do it. Not until one feels they know their party and the rulesystem used. An overly complex scenario/boss fight could lead to tediousness/ mindless repetitions until the players get it right and boredom. What is worse- as this is usually some end fight or end scenes they cannot really give up on it. If it is a complex mechanism or riddle they might leave it and seek other methods but if this is the end of a long running campaign and the final boss fight – well sandbox gaming or not- they cannot really leave them be can they?

    Good example from my experience:
    A boss fight that was against an almost invulnerable monster that had a preset actions list by turns which then started all over (as the monster was a construct/golem-like it fit the bill of having preordained actions and no free will). From the battle arena four neighboring rooms housed 4 elemental sources that gave the monster its hardest abilities (for example the water node gave it a healing power that pretty much negated any damage while the earth node gave it stoneskin like invulnerability). Each node had a small fight with elementals but at the same time the full party could not leave the main room and leave the big boss unattended. That did caused some strategic thinking by the players on who challenges the elementals, when to really give the big guy all they had and whether it should be done after all nodes where destroyed (the damage the big guy was causing to the party was not negligible so they could not afford to take their time but neither could they split the party to all nodes at the same time). I think this boss fight worked really well as I really customised and balanced it with the party skillset – so I would need a careful revisit if I was to redo it with a new one.

    Bad example:
    I made a session between two big story arcs – it was like a dream sequence driven in part by a major NPC. It was to serve as a minor break for the Players, a comedic relief session to take away the seriousness of the previous couple of sessions and the culmination of the story arc with a major skirmish and almost tactical wargaming on top of roleplaying and also a slight filler of holes form the plot and precursor to the next story arc. IT was fairytale in its composition and had an underlying riddle. The party was in a forest and they could meet four characters who would interact in various ways between them most of them ending with these four killings each other. While in the end they would meet a monster that they oudl nto defeat on their own but had to utilise the four NPCs. SO the trick was to collect the NPCs in the right order and visit the monster before they killed each other. IF the story failed the dream woudl start again. It did not work as well as I would have wanted and once the party had tried it three times it almost became a mathematical problem with one party member creating a matrix and calling out the order they would play the next “round” before they died.

    In another session the PCs had the difficult(And cliche) choice of being forced to summon the avatar of an evil god in order to battle an emerging evil god. To make the session more interesting I had the players take part in the actual battle between the two avatars which was intermittently inserted in the session while the PCs struggled with other objectives. In this case it wasn’t the complexity that failed – but rather it took away from the original morale choice as they actually played one of the evil sides.

  5. I ran a boss battle a few months ago for my players and it was an incredible success. I based my design off of a blog post on the Angry DM http://angrydm.com/2010/04/the-dd-boss-fight-part-1/ . Read through all the parts as he describes in great detail his boss creation process. Outside of the recommendations above, and the 3 phased approach, I think there are a few big things to remember when creating a boss battle:

    1. negate certain status effects – you don’t want your one big bad boss immobilized and weakened and all kinds of stuff to make him useless. Give him some immediate interrupts to attack when certain things happen, and have him grant an immediate save.

    2. give the boss at least 2 or more attacks per turn – a single monster boss battle (i.e. not having extra minions come at the players) does work if planned correctly. When your boss has an attack, give him a dual attack where he can strike a couple of players and knock them back or prone or whatever. I also found that giving the boss an attack that changes his position works great to mix things up. For instance, I gave my boss a power where he move 7 squares and a trail of fire went up behind him. So for one turn, I picked up two players (he was a giant iron golem) and tossed them against the wall (my dual attack). Then as a move action I did basically a shoulder charge for 7 squares that hit anyone in my path and knocked them back 2 squares. And the trail of fire lasted for the remainder of the “phase” that they were currently in.

    3. treat each phase like a brand new encounter – my iron golem was a construct, so after phase 1, he would collapse into the floor and reappear randomly according to my dice roll. He then would pop up and have all new powers to use. Also, in phase 2, I introduced a flame wall trap that basically created a flame wall square around the center of the room. Some players were trapped in because I threw them in the middle (see above) so I was able to “split the party” a bit and put the squishy players all by themselves. The look of panic was nice :-)

    4. change the environment up – like I did with my flame wall trap, change the environment all around when your boss switches phases. Have him crash through a wall and now the players are in a hazard situation where rubble is falling on top of them. Do a skill challenge or something where the players are chasing the boss through the walls of the dungeon as he crashes through…attacking him as they chase.

    I’m no pro at this, and articles like this written here are spot on. The boss battle dynamic can really be a great D&D experience if you make it like a video game. The boss battle I ran lasted about 2 hours total, but my players were on the edges of their seats the entire time and when it was over they were both relieved and talking about how cool it was. If I hadn’t had the guidance from the Angry DM article I linked above, I would’ve just had a “sack of hit points” monster.

  6. @Netlich – I’m glad you enjoyed it, I’m going to be giving a few more ideas in the follow up to this piece but I suppose your right – actually including some implementation ideas would help. I wrote these in as general-purpose as possible, trying to avoid system specific stuff. Maybe I tried too hard, I’m really just trying to get the gears turning in people’s heads rather than give specific instructions. Namely because I don’t want to assume I know what’s best for everyone’s group, not to mention I’d only be able to do so gracefully with about one or two systems – the rest I’m not familiar with enough to even suggest.

    I trust most DM’s are clever enough to do this footwork but I’ll definitely consider this stuff moving forward. Thanks for your feedback. Also, kick ass examples of good/bad implementations here. See you did all the work for me! *Evil laugh*

    @Derek – Thanks, that made my day!

    @David – Great tips to add my friend, Angry writes some great stuff too and that piece on bosses is no exception. I love what’s developing in the comments here, thanks for reading and commenting!

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