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!