Arenas, Temptations, and Movement: Providing a Memorable and Challenging Environment
Another idea to borrow from Diablo 3 when it comes to boss battles is to crank it up to 11 when it comes to the arenas in which they are fought. Despite the game’s dungeon-crawling heart, you’ll find some truly breathtaking scenes that take place far from subterranean lairs. Cliffsides, cityscapes, and even a battle in heaven take center stage. So, how does this play into our D&D games? Have you ever pitted your players against a corrupt demon invading the Astral Plane and duked it out in that unusual environment? Take some time to add some unusual visceral elements to the locations in which your combats take place, and you might just have your players talking about that combat for years to come.
Even in the dungeon settings, we can do some pretty crazy stuff like placing giant fountains full of health potions smack dab in the middle of all the chaos. It’s tempting, and probably extremely deadly, for PCs to attempt to take the time to utilize the fountain. Treating characters like pawns in a grand psychological experiment isn’t a bad thing, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
A lot of boss battles in video games play out in a way where the location in which you’re standing, how long you stand there, and other proximity-based elements really matter. The dangers of that location might require that PCs move around quite a bit. Nothing is worse than a stagnant boss fight where everyone just stands still and blasts each other until one side wins.
I’d normally say to use elements like this in moderation, but as far as I’m concerned this one is an exception. You can never have too much interesting terrain, backdrops, and interactive elements going on during a battle. As long as all of them aren’t integral, give the players options and excitement. Flood the floor with fire or lava, allow extra enemies to pour from every darkened corner as the battle unfolds, and never be afraid to use hazardous objects that fall from above to keep the players and their characters on their feet.
Complications and Critical Choices
With all of the above said, keep in mind that during these climactic battles that what PCs need to do should be relatively clear. There is no reloading your save game in D&D, so if you don’t provide enough clues for all of these layers, phases, and environments, you could just be creating a huge bloody mess that the characters won’t survive and the players won’t enjoy.
The focus here is to give the players memorable and entertaining choices. Fight the boss, pull the lever, fire the trebuchet, heal an ally, or contain the smaller creatures—all these create a good mix of choices a player could be making during any challenging battle. Using three to five of these is a great target number to help you maintain clarity and not overcomplicate matters. PCs can have quite a few decisions to make on their turns, but giving them an option to do one of these things instead of their usual “I hit it with my axe” can add some interesting depth to a combat encounter that you want to have pop in some special manner.
Bosses are meant to be a final climactic capstone to something, whether it is an entire story arc or just a floor of the dungeon before delving deeper. Try not to take away the sense of accomplishment from your players by making bosses flee at the last moment or by having them mysteriously keep coming back like a relentless bad guy from a slasher flick (unless, of course, you’re running a strong horror campaign).
In Diablo 3 and most other games, these matters are always final because there will always be another boss to fight soon enough. Your captured prince or princess can show up in another castle, and there’s always more daring deeds to perform just around the corner. If you’re going to take away the sweet victory from your players, try to deliver one twice as sweet in the near future.
Tying It All Together
If you don’t play Diablo or many other video games, you can probably guess what I’m about to advise you to do: play more games! When you hear game designers say to play as many games as you can, they aren’t meaning for you to limit yourself to a single medium. There’s a lot of greatness out there to glean from a lot of games—not just Diablo 3 either.
If you’re looking for a few titles to provide you with fantastic boss battles, games such as Diablo, Darksiders, Gears of War, Dragon Age, The Legend of Zelda, Dead Space, Dark Souls, Shadow of the Colossus, World of Warcraft, Metroid, and Painkiller are a great start, to name a few. Don’t have the time or money to invest? Then go surf Youtube for some footage from these games, and I’m sure an idea or ten will spark in your mind.
Challenge yourself to blend two seemingly opposite mediums, and you might be surprised with what you create. I think you might also find that you have more in common with gamers of one particular medium or the other than you might think. There’s no room for animosity here—we’re all gamers for a reason, and ideas such as video games and tabletop games being rivals isn’t a healthy or even logical assumption.
Thanks for reading the series, and I hope you had as much fun reading it as I had drumming up ideas for it. I’ve still got a few more ideas, too, so you haven’t seen the last of me, Kobold Quarterly readers!