Here we are, just in time for the holidays rounding out our year of villains apparently. Early this year, we did a three part article taking a look into what makes them big bads tick. Starting with how to make a memorable villain, then what makes a bbeg, and ending with recurring villains Now with the final RPG Blog Carnival of the year, we’re talking about them again! Today, we’ll be creating the ultimate boss battle!
This month’s topic comes from Rising Phoenix Games, and we’re going to going into the end-all topic of any campaign. Creating the Ultimate Boss Battle! We’ve discussed this tactic before with our article Combat by Scene, But there are a lot of gaps that we can fill in in regard to boss battles.
Creating the Ultimate Boss Battle
So you’re nearing the end of the campaign. Your characters may have had lower-stakes scuffles with the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) before this point. But this one is for all the marbles. The fate of the world on the line, you need to make sure that this battle feels as epic to your players as it does for the characters themselves. And to do that, you need to keep things interesting.
The number 1, biggest problem with combat is this: it’s repetitive. Almost regardless of the system used, increasing the to-hit difficulty and HP (or whatever the system uses) simply creates a longer battle, not a more interesting one. To really get the combat to increase it’s scale, you need to up the stakes. During the battle.
Tip 1: Create Tiers of Battle
This is the first step I take in any Big Bad battle. Have you ever played a video game that has stages to the boss battles? First you beat the crap out of the bad guy, then there’s a transition of power, and they get the upper hand. After you figure out their new tactics, they do it again. This is a technique you can use when you’re in the GM hotseat. Each time this is done, the stakes are raised. The player’s investment becomes more apparent, and the stage becomes set, with you having to do very little work!
Nice! Because I can be incredibly lazy.
In mechanical terms, you’ll create 2-3 versions of your BBEG, each with greater power than the last. Just remember to reduce their HP as appropriate. You don’t want to go from 1 long, boring battle to 3 consecutive ones. Also remember to change up the attacks or spells that the BBEG casts between tiers. Each fight should feel fresh when entering into it.
There are two additional benefits to this method. The first benefits your players, instead of dealing with legendary resistances (or something similar) that would just outright invalidate a player’s actions you can let it happen. Let them use their big powerful moves, and launch straight into the next tier of battle.
This benefit also works to your advantage as well. When your players do something incredibly awesome that would normally absolutely break the BBEG combat encounter, it instead only breaks the current tier, only giving the characters a slight reprieve.
For the first stage, even while the players are doing damage, roleplay the villain as hardly even feeling their punches. Bring up that arrogance to make your PC’s blood boil. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Tip 2: Create Skill Challenges
Ok, but were just going from one fight to another so far. What can we do to mix it up? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Remember that combat doesn’t have to be as straightforward as who punches the hardest. There are also other factors that can influence battle
Enter skill challenges! These are short problems that can break up the combat between the Tiers. Ok, one day I swear I’ll do a full article on skill challenges in general. But today’s not that day, so we’re going to do the high level view of this.
Don’t worry, they’re not as intimidating as they seem. In reality, this is a task that you need to overcome before the fight continues. Perhaps the villain walks into a magic circle that powers him up. For the players to continue the beatdown, they’ve got to stop the infusion of power, and break the circle. After a series of checks, the next tier begins.
This could even be more devious. Perhaps that big bad takes a hostage, and you need to find a way to safely remove the hostage before the fight can resume. Using a series of skills, they’ll release the hostage, and the battle continues.
Tip 3: Transition between Tiers
Transitions between tiers is a great time for GM’s to round out the battle. These are opportunities for the GM to unfold part of the masterplan. Instead of one giant monologue at the top of combat, have the characters literally beat it out of him.
In some cases, this is a chance for the GM to humanize the BBEG. Maybe they aren’t just evil incarnate, but instead had a noble goal from the beginning and lost their way. Bring that weight to your players, in tiers.
Alternatively, it’s a chance for your players to get their narrative shots in. Bring up all that they put the players through, and the destruction they caused.
Or if your BBEG is just one of those arrogant buttheads, just use it to really get under your PC’s skin. (But not Buffalo Bill style. Don’t be gross.)
But when should you transition? While there are clear times to do so, there are also narrative times to do so. For example, when the current tier enemy has their HP reduced to 0, transition. When the enemy becomes otherwise incapacitated, transition, perhaps giving one player advantage on the next scene. But what if the enemy is nearing 0 HP and a party member falls? Transition! Use that moment for the BBEG to gloat and launch into the next part.
Bonus Tip: Change the Scenery
One powerful way to up the ante is to change the scenery around the characters as well. Remember the lightsaber battle from Mustafar in Star Wars Episode III? They were battling on a literal river of lava. Do that kind of stuff!
A powerful blow to the floor may cause it to collapse, bringing the battle to an alchemist’s basement full of tests, acids and test tubes. Does everyone land safely? Time for a save! Or perhaps the enemy grows 10 times in size and the party needs to get to higher ground to attack their weak spots. A change in scenery is a great way to really cement skill challenges, and the changing in power.
As Always, Have Fun
Remember, the point of boss battles is to be epic, and challenging. But challenging does not necessarily need to equate to buckets of HP, that slowly dwindle as the players chip away at their health. Keep it interesting, and keep it lively.Boss battles don’t have to be the most deadly encounter in the campaign, they should be the most memorable. And to do that, they need to stand out. It’s with these transitions, the building of suspense, and the breakup in the monotony that you’ll accomplish this goal. Now you will be creating the ultimate boss battle!