I read the Glatisant whenever it comes in each month, creating a backlog of “to read” material that I work through over the next month (or two). A recent post about boss monsters (powerful solo encounters for any edition of D&D but specifically talking about 5e) from Rotten Pulp was pretty good. I was writing a comment when I realized it was turning into an essay, so I decided to post it here with reference to Jack’s post.
I’ve been experimenting with the boss monster idea since 2015 in my first 5e campaign (The Iron Gods) and noticed the overwhelming power of PCs vs CR numbers from level 10+, but you can feel this at level 6 onwards, and it gets worse the more PCs you have. It doesn’t help that I tend to have a table size of 6 to 10 players at any given session). I have gone through various iterations of what a boss monster looks like (the mutant manticore being one of the first where I just threw a CR 13 monster at a party of level 5 PCs who won, and Hellion being my first more fully fleshed out build, but other examples abound under the Boss Fight tag), what I came up with is similar to what Jake has in his post but not quite the same.
I give my boss monsters 1 legendary action after each PC, and the list of legendary actions always includes the monster’s non-multi-attack option.
There are other ways to do it, but this is the cleanest and fastest way to deal with the action economy, which is always in the PCs favour.
Other ways to make a boss fight more interesting, in combination with the one action after each PC I use:
- I will use damage reduction for certain monsters. For example, in my science fantasy home setting, I have robots as an uncommon enemy; they all have DR 5, 10 or even 15. This blunts the PCs damage output without too much game tweaking. Narratively, it also gives robots that “terminator” feels almost impossible to put down, generating PC respect when they deal with them (which was one of my design goals). Example here.
- Reduce damage to the boss monster -1, -2 or even -3 PER DIE the PCs roll. So if PC rolls 3d6 damage, only the 4, 5 and 6 actually do damage. I used this with Pharsis the Everqueen.
- Important but not quite boss-level monsters, I give the “Combat Flexibility” trait. The monster gains legendary actions (as well as more AC and HPs) based on the number of PCs it is facing. The MK. II uses this feature.
- And a big one – crowd control – stun, confuse, silence, antimagic, slow etc., to shutdown/reduce the PCs action economy. I even have my own conditions like Stagger – a staggered creature reduces all its d20 rolls by 1 step to d16. And this effect stacks (so two levels of stagger means the PC is rolling d14). Pharsis the Everqueens Trill ability, is an example of this.
- Add more enemies and hazards to help tie down PC actions. Something to learn from 4e is making the battleground both exciting and part of the encounter. 4e did this really well, and this works best with tactical encounters. The Alpha Engine-Seer is an example of extra monsters and a hazard the PCs need to deal with (boss and terrain entry).
- If playing an intelligent monster, play them intelligently. If nothing else, think about what your PCs would do in the same situation. For example, the boss should focus fire the cleric and leave it up to the PCs to deal with how to stop that.
- It should also go without saying that everything should have maximum/stupendous amounts of HPs. The highest I’ve gone is 1k for a solo mob (not boss mob specifically).
- In the original article, Jake talks about reducing/splitting HPs and Speed, I wouldn’t bother doing this; if your monster needs to move, have it move. There have been plenty of times where this artificial constraint unless I have done it as a design goal so PCs can take advantage of it (for example, by moving away from the monster), has backfired.
- Another lesson from 4e – don’t give PCs saves to resist conditions. When a condition lands, it lands without a save. The PCs can then save at the end of their next turn to end the effect. The reason for this is to A) increase the challenge, and B) if, like me, you have chain effects based off of conditions (see Pharsis for an example), the boss monster doesn’t have a long enough life expectancy to wait a turn/round to try and land it again. Let the boss set it up straight away.
- If you give a boss monster rechargeable abilities, these recharge automatically if the target resists. For example, every PC makes the save against a mind flayers mind-blast really hurts the mind-flayer and takes the teeth out of the encounter, it should automatically recharge, and the mind-flayer can use it again (I do something similar with dragons, their breath weapon automatically recharges when they are bloodied (1/2 hit points), and they use it.
- Automatic damage – the boss has an aura that automatically does 5 or 10 points of damage per turn; grappled targets automatically take full damage from the related attack while grappled.
The trick to these is don’t overuse them and don’t stack too many of them in one battle unless it’s your big bad for a campaign, then go hog wild. But I view combat as war, so I tend to be as merciless as possible with my PCs, and they still end up on top! (though I expect I have a pretty high body count than typical for a 5e game, the last campaign had 14 deaths, 5 of which were permanent).
As always, YMMV.