How to create an interesting boss fight in D&D

create an interesting boss fight (boss character)

Every dungeon master has wondered how to create an interesting boss fight in D&D. We pour our hearts and souls into some bosses, and others we just try to challenge the players. We have grasped at straws, trying to figure out what works, and even at times are forced to see our dreams dashed by the players hating a boss we thought was great. Today I am going to help you fix that. Today is the day, that we create an interesting boss fight in D&D!

When you create an interesting boss fight in D&D make your boss interesting, have narrative weight, be intelligent, use items, and be mobile.

Normal bosses

What comes to your mind when you think of a boss for the players to face? Is it alone big hulking monster that can deal and take a lot of punishment? How about a boss surrounded by his allies while he sits on high, slowly destroying the players while he delights in the players’ weakness?

Either way, these boss fights are boring. Many times dungeon masters go to great lengths figuring out the stats for bosses, calculating hp, damage, and more. Truthfully, these things don’t matter too much, and can even harm the experience if you focus too much on them. Your boss might be hard to fight based on a stat block basis, but do you remember old school RPGs? In some old school RPGs, you would just sit there and hit each other. That is what you are doing, and that is why the damage approach is boring.

Is your villain one to loft their greatness over the players, only to get involved when necessary? This is also stupid. If you have people in your throne room or main base slowly mopping up your minions, why are you standing there? No sane individual would. One way to get around this is something that preoccupies the villain like a ritual, but rarely is that trope done well enough to make the battle more interesting. Instead, the players just want the ritual to finish so that they can face the real boss. Yes, your players know exactly what is going to happen. They cannot kill the big bad until he summons another big bad. Typical.

Do any of these bosses sound like something you would throw at your players? If so, you need help and I am here to be your temporary unlicensed boss doctor!

Make your boss interesting

So how do you make your bosses more interesting? Aside from the whole host of subsections I have for you, one key element needs to be changed. Your boss must not be a damage sponge, or just deal a lot of damage.

Damage is standard and manageable in a fight. Blegh. You want your bosses to be something interesting, make them interesting. Make your boss deal damage to multiple targets if you must still keep damage in the equation. Let your boss not just use an area of effect attack, but also one melee and one ranged attack. Now the cleric has to work on keeping two people alive instead of just stacking heals onto one person, the tank.

Don’t let your tank just soak the damage. Make the players work to force the boss into hitting the tank. Make your boss have something else going on, something special. Something to make this fight worth remembering. That is why you build up the boss fight.

Narrative weight

We can agree that throwing a boss at the party out of nowhere makes absolutely zero sense. Throwing a boss at the party with absolutely zero build up does the exact same thing. For a good example of this, let’s look at a boss fight I made.

The party set their eyes upon a once abandoned fortress, but now that fortress is manned by skeletons and a whole host of other unsightly undead. Upon the wall, they see one figure that is clad in steel giving orders to the skeletons. The players know that this is the commander of the fort.

Is that enough buildup? No, you should definitely add more. So what did I do in order to add narrative weight?

The party tried to infiltrate the fortress by using the fly spell on one of their members while the others ‘snuck up’ to the castle. The person flying was seen, and arrows flew. That party member who was flying went down and destroyed a skeleton, but saw the metal commander in the courtyard. The commander leaped up the 20ft wall to that one party member and grasped their arm, shocking them for almost half of their maximum hp. The party member tried to hit the commander, but the commander was unmovable, and, untouchable. On the commander’s turn, it easily dispatched the flying character, and that character rolled off the wall. The party ran to regroup.

Now the party has a grudge and sees that the commander not only is in control of an enemy fortification but also is extremely powerful. The party has to now think about how to kill the commander, but the commander had quite a few other tricks.

Do you want to fight that boss? Tell me in the comments below.

Now that we know the setup, we need to learn how to shape our bosses into one awesome package.

Intelligence

That boss above was not very intelligent, or so it seemed…. This boss had a whole host of other secrets and knew from scouts that these players were the enemies that had to die. It knew that there was not just one person causing the problems it had recently encountered, so it wanted to trap all of them.

That boss showed itself as somewhat strong, but boring and beatable to the party. This was to lure them back, attempt to kill the boss, and then the boss pulls out its tricks to kill the party.

That is my boss example, but what can you do? First, read my article on making combat interesting. It talks about how your monsters can run and give information to the bad guys. Use this! If your boss knows about player tactics, plans, make sure to use it against them somehow. Making your players feel panic from being read is a great way to make a boss fight memorable.

Next, don’t just stand there. Only an idiot would stand there fighting until their death. Have an escape plan, or at least a very good reason why the boss is fighting until it dies.

Lastly, your bosses are intelligent. If you can think of something that would make sense for your boss monster to do, do it. Make your boss amazingly difficult. This is supposed to be a boss after all, and bosses are not always every level. Bosses are something special, so treat them as such.

Use items

How many times do your players drink potions? How many freaking items do your players have? The answer to both is probably an insane amount. Make your boss use these things too. Have your players found an interesting way to use an item? Perhaps they are abusing a portable hole and making monsters fall into the hole, close it, and kill the monsters. Perhaps the wizard is using her boots of levitation to never worry about melee.

Do something like this. If your boss is a spellcaster, make them have boots of levitation. Now fighters have to figure something else out.

If your boss is a rogue, use traps and other evil things. Not before combat, in combat! I had a rogue boss face a party at the party’s level. It was their first real boss fight from me. The rogue hid behind many well-placed barrels and even had some rigged to explode if a player destroyed them. Were there other traps? You bet! The rogue had so many tricks that a rogue at the party’s level almost killed every single one of them.

The party hated all traps afterward, and a few people died since the survivor greedily searched the rogue and triggered another trap on her body. It was glorious, and my players hated traps forever after.

Mobility

“Ogre smash da ting nxt tu me! O noes, rangy pepls deal lotsa damage. Welp, beta wack ting in frunt a me.” Your boss may not be this glaringly stupid, but the players will always try to position the frontline fighters to take on the enemy. What if your players can’t do this?

The rogue boss I mentioned earlier set off triggers to fire arrow traps from the walls. Fighters went in and attempted to swing at the rogue, but the rogue wasn’t there. The rogue instead on her turn went around the party, shot at the spellcasters downing them with sneak attacks, and finished her movement 20 ft away. Or was it 5 ft away? Was that even the rogue?


Doubt and paranoia set in as the players now couldn’t rely on hack and slash tactics. The party had to think and adapt, or they would die.

Making your boss be able to maneuver around the party instantly forces them to think.  When players have to think about how to win a fight instead of rolling and conserving resources, the fight becomes much more memorable and interesting. Create an interesting boss fight in D&D by using mobility.

Multi-stage

This is not a requirement, but it is an option. Multi-stage boss fights always add some extra level of complexity that forces the players to think, and is a great addition.

The ritual boss fight that I mentioned earlier is a great example of this. At the idea’s inception, the creator thought that the players need to fight more than their initial enemy. This was a wonderful idea but has sadly been done to death.

Instead, you may want to make your boss go through certain phases. This does not need to be as complex as at ¾ health the boss totally changes and gains new abilities! That is only for crazy people like me who have too much time or desire to make the fight anime-like.

A simple way to do this is by using items. Above I talked about forcing your boss to take potions. Many dungeon masters make taking a potion a bonus action, or you can just give this skill to your boss in order to add some flair.

What if upon taking damage your boss drinks a rage potion? What if upon taking magic damage your boss takes a magic resistant, or if that is too powerful, a resistance to that source of damage potion? Why not add haste? Now make your boss at half health sacrifice an attack and drink two potions! Healing potions for days!

The party now has to deal with all of these stages and find a way to stop the boss from drinking all those ridiculous potions. Or you can make anime fights.

If you want to read a little bit about how make an anime fight, read making combat interesting. I know that I have plugged this twice now, but if you are trying to make a better boss fight you might as well learn how to make combat in general better.

Solo bosses

Now that we have some tools to work with, how should you have the party fight your boss? Is the boss all alone and menacing as he stares down your party? If so, there better be a really really good reason why that boss is fighting people without minions.

Just think for a moment from a narrative perspective, why would a person risk their life to kill people who have slowly piece by piece destroyed their entire organization? They wouldn’t.

If you have a solo boss, that wizard does so because he has time to prepare and is sure that he can kill the party. The wizard is meant to lure the players into the room and then close the door with an arcane lock. The room fills with lava because… reasons…. And the players watch as the laughing illusion fades.

Perhaps your boss is a warlord who wants to test his might in battle and wants to die. If you do this, please make that warlord more interesting than a damage sponge that can dish out significant damage. Instead, make your warlord force the players to challenge him one on one, or he will release the beasts that are in cages in order to fight the players. The players now have a choice of how they want to die! Er, I mean fight. Yes, fight.

Bosses with allies

Many dungeon masters have had minions fight with their bosses, and this makes perfect sense. What doesn’t make perfect sense, is that the boss is not fighting with his minions in the best manner possible. Have you ever seen a boss spellcaster fight the party with goblins? Those goblins just are there to die while the wizard hits the tank half of the time. Boring!

If you have to use minions as chaff, make the most out of the time that they buy. Have your spellcaster completely destroy the healers, nullify party members, or at least do something of value so that the party feels on the ropes!

What if your main boss is melee orientated? Put that sucker on the front lines and use those goblins as archers. Think about it from a numbers perspective. You have 8 goblins. The chance of a goblin hitting the fighter who is meant to not get hit is… not pretty. In addition to this, your goblins will die. 8 attacks turn into 4, now 2, now none. Boring!

When creating an interesting boss fight, we do not want to be boring. Instead, put those goblins as archers. These creatures are just as good ranged as they are in melee, but now they can hit their targets. What makes this even better is that the targets that are shooting are easier to hit, and you can take out the healers or damage dealers! Now the fight is more interesting, and the players will have to focus on the goblins taking the main ranged damage away from the boss. Everyone is fighting for survival, and it is not just a slow eventual mop up.

Conclusion

This article has already gone on long enough, but other people have opinions and can help you create an interesting boss fight in D&D with specific stat templates. In fact, here is a person that lovingly crafted a paragon system so that anyone can make a boss with proper stats.

Aside from stats, there are also boss abilities here. There is a lot of information on how to make boss fights interesting, and I hope that I have helped you as well.

This has been Wizo and keep rolling!

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