Raid Style Mechanics in Your Boss Battles – Part 1

I have seen a lot of final encounters in dungeons end up nothing more than a battle of hit points, as the immovable object that is the big bad meets the unstoppable force of the player’s murderous tendencies.

It ends up being cast a spell, roll dice, repeat until one side has no hit points remaining. I know this topic has been done to death, but I feel it’s an important topic to keep beating the drum over. After nearly 2 decades as an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, this problem always appears.

Boss mechanics, room mechanics and escalating threats.

I wanted to talk about my approach when designing an encounter, but specifically about how critical I think it is to incorporate mechanics and escalating threats into the final battle of any dungeon. I use these three pillars in all of my encounter design strategies and find that it really helps to have a clear set of guidelines when making a super awesome encounter.

In this post, we are going to cover the first of the three – Boss Mechanics.

Boss Mechanics – look out, it’s about to…

One of the things that MMORPG’s like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars really nailed was creating interesting bosses for dungeons and raids, creating an environment where teamwork, skill, and timing are critical.

If you never had to face down Ragnaros in the vanilla version of WoW, then consider yourself lucky. It was a brutal fight that tore apart dozens of guilds as they struggled with the complex patterns, debilitating issues like weapon breakage, continuous random damage and dangerous additional spawns that could spiral out of control rather quickly.

It was hard, it was furious and it was FUN. Even after losing for the hundredth time, our guild was ripped and ready to dive back in the next day for hours. It required precision and strategy that had never been seen in a game before. The limitation for D&D is that you won’t have 50 attempts to win the day, so being able to adapt on the fly and present clear strategy as a natural progression of combat is critical to helping the players succeed. Let us talk about a Ragnaros inspired encounter

Example – a room with pillars that block line of sight.

Your players are fighting a massive fire/lava elemental, the heat is oppressive and danger is everywhere as the floor crumbles away revealing a sea of lava. There are several pillars spread throughout the encounter that can provide full cover for ranged characters but in truth, they serve a greater purpose, to block line of sight for a dangerous ability.

Danger Dice – a countdown to your doom!

In all of my encounters, boss or not, I use a random dice as a countdown mechanic to provide clear and present danger that is easily understood. Depending on the damage of the ability and the time required to reach the safety of the pillars I may use a D4 or a D6 as a countdown device.

In this scenario, the lava monster begins charging up an attack, and for one round does nothing but power up like a Dragon Ball Z character, giving every indication that something bad is going to happen as soon as it is done charging. This may be the heat is slowly increasing, lava starts sucking from the pool into its body, whatever works for you. Just make it clear that it is powering up for a major attack and roll the danger dice.

Whatever the result, at the start of the monsters turn, the counter ticks down by 1. If you rolled a 1, then the players need to move fast and seek shelter. If you rolled a 6, then the gods are on their side this day and can spend the time doing damage. Once the countdown reaches 0, the boss explodes in a shower of lava, dealing massive damage to anyone not hidden behind one of the pillars. Afterward, one of the pillars crumbles away, no longer providing safety, increasing the threat of the encounter significantly.

The countdown is clear, and after your players see it once, they will always know to fear the unknown!

Phases – This isn’t even my final form!

While it can be cliche, it helps to have a progression for your boss monster as they become more and more desperate to finish their plan, destroy the world and retire to a corpse-laden beach in the tropics.

This doesn’t have to be “you killed it but uh-oh, it’s coming back to life!” type phases, but escalating danger or a change in mechanics that signals a significant change in mechanics. In the case of the lava monster, it can move into the lava, growing larger and remaining out of reach as it lobs AOE lava balls at players, taking the melee fighters out of play or forcing them to switch to less power ranged attacks.

A second option is for the lava monster to just grow additional limbs and gain attacks or after it receives a certain amount of damage, its outer shell hardens and gives it damage reduction or spell reflection for a certain period. This can last for as long as you want, but I recommend relying on the old danger dice.

Making sure the boss is constantly changing tactics keeps the fight interesting, gives the players the satisfaction of knowing they are making progress and dealing with diverse threats as a team. Trust me, it is super rewarding as they come up with ways you had not even considered to circumvent your methods.

Adds – Summon more minions!

If the fight doesn’t need a complex set of room or boss mechanics, then you should have an endless wave of bad guys adding natural complexity by their mere existence. Using the same strategy as before – add an additional danger dice.

One dice is the timer, the other is the spawner – meaning that if you roll a 6, you now have 6 bad guys added to the encounter. Obviously, this can be hard to balance, but if you fall back to the old minion rules from 4th edition, you can handle this pretty easily.

Everything that spawns has 1 hit point and flat damage amount. They can be cleared fairly easily using this method, but also ensuring your players can just face-tank the adds. In the lava monster scenario, the creature will flail and splash around in the lava, ejecting/creating multiple miniature lava monsters.

End of Part 1 – There you have it!

Avoid stagnant face bashing encounters and trade them out for something with a little more panache by adding in mechanics to any boss fight. I recommend you consider this for every encounter, but without question, you should spice up the big bad finale!

Let me know your thoughts below – What are your favorite mechanics to throw at your players? What is your favorite video game raid mechanic? Do you hate this idea? No judgments, just let me know in the comments below.


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The Skree

The Skree

Background unknown - it's a secret!

I am The Skree – One of the most visionary wizards in Vathis! Also, the drunkest. I have been called “A serious threat to people of Average Intelligence” by the authorities from Osept to Leyathar. A man of many talents, most of which are magic. Except for the one involving -EXPLETIVES DELETED- which is always popular.

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