I like boss fights. Maybe it’s the story teller in me that thinks there is nothing more satisfying then having a party of players finally facing off against the megalomaniac villainous mastermind who has been behind all of their troubles. A the fiery heart of a volcano, the villain stops just long enough to toss out of cliched villain line (“I guess I’ll just have to deal with you myself!“) before he attacks. The battle rages, molten rock flowing around the rapidly shrinking bastion of safety upon which they fight to the death, the very survival of the world resting on the shoulders of the party. The villain casts his most terrible spell at the party, his wrath hotter than the lava that surrounds them…
Then it’s the party’s turn. They all move in to surround the villain. Between them they his him four or five or six times before he gets to do anything again. Maybe he gets one more spell off before they hit him even more (getting multiple attacks, of course, since they don’t have to move), and he dies.
Disappointing? I think so.
In turn-based games like Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder, solo fights can be… meh. The story for them is great, but when it comes down to it, this all powerful enemy that has single-handedly orchestrated every problem the party has faced is just going to get squished when faced with a full party of angry players. And, worst of all, he’s not even going to get squished in a fun way. Solos are boring for all sorts of reasons.
I want a turn, too!
Probably the main reason solo fights get boring is simply because of how turn systems work. If there’s only one bad guy facing a party of four that means that it gets one turn for every four turns the good guys get. It gets worse if the party is bigger. So a single bad guy is going to have trouble lasting long against a group.
I’ll take you with me!
Problem number two for solo boss fights comes from the correlation between monster toughness and monster danger. We’ve established that for every one attack a bad guy gets, the collective party can get four or more. So if you want the bad guy to last more than a couple of turns, you have to go with something that has a lot of health. The problem is, the more health that something has, the more dangerous it is, and inevitably, the stronger it’s attacks. This is especially problematic if you have a party of more than 4 players, since the challenge ratings in D&D and Pathfinder are made for 4-players parties. Anything that’s strong enough to survive several rounds of getting pounded by five or six players is also going to be strong enough to kill at least one of them. Let’s look at Pathfinder’s Troll, a CR 5 monster. This means a party of 4 5th level characters should be able to face off with three or four trolls a day before they’re completely boned. So it’s a tougher fight (more appropriate for a final boss) for a party of 4th or 3rd level characters.
A 4th level fighter that’s wielding a greatsword and built solidly might do an average of 10-15 damage per hit (1d12 for the greatsword + 5 for strength and a half + 2 for weapon specialization). A wizard of the same level can drop 2nd level evocations which might deal between 2d6 and 4d6, so an average of 7-14 damage. So, if a Troll has 63 hit points (their average), he can take an average of 5-10 hits. With the Troll’s low AC (16), he’s probably getting hit almost every time. Even with its regeneration ability, gaining 5 hp back each round it is not damaged by fire, it’s still only going to last 3 rounds of combat if 2/3 of the attacks swung at it by a party of 4 or 5 players hit (which they probably will). Doesn’t sound like much of a fight, does it?
In that same 3 rounds? The troll gets 3 attacks per round, plus extra rend damage if it hits with two of them. At a +8 to hit, it’s easily hitting at least 50% of the time. So let’s say 5 out of it’s 9 attacks over 3 rounds hit (3 bites and a 2 claws), and only once does it hit with both claws in the same round and get the rend damage. That’s still 3d8+3d6+32 damage. Average of about 56 damage. More then enough to kill at least one 4th level character. Even if it only gets one round and hits with all of it’s attacks (remember, there’s a solid 50% chance that it does), it will do between 26 and 48 damage. Still enough to kill some characters.
And that’s if you want a boss fight to last a measly 3 rounds. If you want it to last longer, you need a monster with more hp, and therefore, stronger attacks.
There is no way a troll could kill a party of 4th level characters… But it would be very hard for it to not kill at least 1 of them, if it’s smart.
Rinse, wash, repeat.
The battle described above is a boring one. Party hits monster, monster hits party, repeat. Thing is, in a solo boss fight, most of the time they can end up exactly like that. Assuming half of a given party is geared towards melee combat… Well, in the first round of the fight, they will close the distance to the boss and try to surround it. If the boss is melee based, this works just fine for it, who won’t want to move much in order to get it’s full attacks. So it becomes taking turns punching each other. Sure, you can avoid this by making bosses with different techniques (a caster who can fly, someone with teleport, whatever), but most of the time the party’s technique won’t change. Melee fighters get close and try to hold the boss still, ranged fighters and casters stand back and shoot. With only one bad guy and serious penalties for moving around in combat (losing attacks, inducing attacks of opportunity) combat can become… stagnant.
And don’t even get me started on what happens if you only have on bad guy and a player gets a lucky hit. One save-or-die spell, one powerful critical hit, and the combat is done. Just… done.
And so our epic battle, our final show down with the villain, has come to a boring, quick, and potentially fatal end. Anti-climactic and un-enjoyable.
So how do we make boss fights more fun? We’re going to touch on that in the next part of this series. We’ll play by the rules for a bit, but then we’ll cheat, we’ll lie, we’ll make stuff up… And we’ll make it work.