Tips For The Novice Dungeon Master: Building Better Bosses

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Bosses are the lifeblood of combat based games. They serve a number of purposes, such as testing player’s skills, showcasing a great character, raising the stakes, or simply having fun. Whether it’s Dark Souls, No More Heroes, or Shadow of the Colossus, great boss fights make for great games, and tabletop roleplaying games are no exception.

However, from personal experience on both sides of the table, bosses are something I’ve seen new Dungeon Masters (DMs) mess up constantly. Having created and survived some truly awful encounters, I figured I’d share my top five tips for creating bosses that’ll have your players biting their nails and having a blast.

Location, Location, Location

An often overlooked way to spice up combat is to have not only a fitting environment, but an interact-able one. Often times, DMs will let their fights degenerate into a hack and slash fest: Dragon bites at players, players nuke Dragon, repeat ad nauseam in a featureless void.  Now, how would party’s strategy change if they had to avoid freezing to death in a snow storm too? What if a player could cause an avalanche to fall on the Dragon? Does having the party fight in a blizzard say something about the Dragon or this story-beat overall? Would a volcano or a beach work better? By tweaking where the party fights the boss, you can add a lot of interesting elements to the fight before you even touch your baddie’s stats.

Conflict Over Fights

As fun as random encounters can be, understanding why players are facing a certain boss creates greater stakes and emotion. One of my favorite moments in my own campaigns was when I made a PC, Garrett, fight the crime lord brother of his NPC love interest. Normally a stab first, ask questions later rogue, Garrett now had to play a game of chicken; protect himself from a bloodthirsty opponent,  provide cover so his allies and lover could escape, but also avoid killing a villain his lover cared for in spite of his crimes. What should’ve been a run of the mill boss fight instead turned into a heart-wrenching, character-changing tragedy, all caused by creating a conflict and not just a boss fight, for my players.

The Hilde Rule

Hilde was a PC in many of my campaigns who decided she could solve every problem the party faced with teleportation. Don’t want to walk into what is clearly a trap? Teleport. Don’t want to fight an assassin who could fight the whole party alone? Teleport them to the middle of nowhere. Got a vampire who is weak against nothing but positive energy? Teleport him to the… you get the idea.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in building a boss is underestimating your party and what they can do. When you understand what your party can do–their spells, gear, and features–you can build bosses that can tear apart their usual strategies and force them to get creative and use new ones. It may seem harsh, but think of it this way: your players won’t remember the time they dropped two meteors on a boss and walked away unharmed. They will definitely remember the time a boss thwarted their trump card, how every move they made suddenly became a gamble, and how sweet it was to earn their victory, instead of having it handed to them.

So when “Hilde” tries to teleport your boss, have your boss take Hilde with them!

Make Them Roll For It

It is only a matter of time before your players decide to go to increasingly insane lengths to win. Attempting to use fireball on a lake to roast a giant enemy crab logic. This is common throughout any tabletop RPG, but boss fights really bring this mentality out.

As the requests become more impossible, it is very easy to start saying no to everything. It is equally easy to give in to the party’s whims and make them completely overpowered. My solution is an obvious but useful one: if a player wants to do something crazy in a boss fight, make them roll for it. The dice are a random, unbiased, absolute judge and one that DM and player must respect. There doesn’t need to be an argument over whether your players can boil a giant enemy crab with a fireball. If they rolled a 20, it’s crab legs for dinner.

Beg, Borrow, and Steal

In my early days as a DM, one of my favorite things to do was create highly customized bosses with unique stats, gear, etc. Something I quickly realized was that these creations were not balanced, did not mesh with the systems I’d use (Pathfinder, 5e), and ate up tons of prep time for what were poorly constructed fights.

With time, I’ve learned that it is ok to borrow from Monster Manuals and Bestiaries to create your foes. Many DMs may shudder at the idea of using content that is not created by them, but it’s easy to forget that companies such as Paizo and Wizards of the Coast go to great lengths to test their content. Why waste so much time and energy creating a boss that may not work, when you can just slap some flavor on a template that does and focus more on developing the fight itself? You’re a DM, not a game tester, so let other people do the stat work for you.

Well, those are my tips for building better boss fights. Feel free to share your thoughts, as well as your own monster making wisdom in the comments below!

Featured Image: DanLuVisiArt/DeviantArt

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