Play your bosses sub-optimally for a way better encounter!
The problems I’ve encountered:
1) Solo boss monsters of appropriate CR are rarely able to hang with parties of four or more.
2) I feel forced to play solo boss monsters optimally, that is to say, to use their most efficient damage action on any given round.
3) Solo boss monsters don’t get to express their individuality after initiative has been rolled.
4) My boss encounters feel boring, because they can’t afford to do all the cool stuff they should be able to do.
5) Spell casters don’t get to cast fun spells, only high damage ones.
My best solution so far: Make my bosses overpowered, and then play them sub-optimally.
This play style gives huge advantages to fun:
1) My encounters aren’t just about stat blocks. My PCs can encounter monsters that feel real, act unpredictably, and can make mistakes, while also feeling threatening and dangerous. They have depth.
2) Solo bosses have room to do more cool stuff, especially to take actions like grapple, shove, and cast a spell.
3) Boss monsters can be “epic” and counteract imbalances in action economy, at low-tier and high-tier play. It works even better the larger your party is.
4) Any monster can be a boss, from the lowliest Ogre to the toughest Death Knight. Previously I exclusively played these monsters as minions or sidekicks.
5) Battles and battlefields can be dynamic and have lots of moving parts.
6) Opportunity attacks are one of the most unbalancing parts of combat. Once melee fighters surround your typical boss, they can’t afford to move, or the extra reaction attacks bring the fight to a swift end. My bosses feel free to move around and do cool stuff.
7) The unrealistic adventuring day problem isn’t so severe.
8) I have more room to balance on the fly.
Blargg the Ogre is such a prick that he can’t even tolerate living with other ogres. They’re just too soft and kind for him. An outcast form his own tribe, he’s moving into a new neighborhood. Those pathetic farmers with their dull pitchforks better take notice. Blargg has a furious temper, and reacts unpredictably to threats. He likes to collect man-made objects and twist them unrecognizably, then hang them on the wall of his cave in a manner that he perceives as artistic. He is so stupid that he can’t count to ten on his fingers or toes, or even remember which are which. He uses whatever weapon makes itself apparent, whether a fence-post or a wrong-place-wrong-time cow.
Even a group of level 2 adventurers should make short work of Blargg in about two rounds. He wouldn’t really pose a threat or be able to express any of his individuality. He would be just another dumb ogre, or worse, just another stat block.
Instead of 59 average HP, we give Blargg 120. And instead of +6, 13 bludgeoning, we give him +8, 20 bludgeoning.
This is how I played him:
Round 1: Blargg grabs the closest bit of debris laying around the battlefield and uses it to smash one of the PCs. When they hear “20 bludgeoning,” it gets their attention. Blargg has just knocked out one of my tougher PCs. Now the cleric can’t just cast direct damage.
Round 2: Blargg moves to a nearby boulder and uses his action to pry it from the ground. He takes opportunity attacks, but just doesn’t care.
Round 3: Blargg throws the boulder at one of the PCs. A tactical mistake, I’d give him +0 to hit.
Round 4: Blargg becomes enraged, and is so angry that he uses his action to smash a nearby farmhouse instead of attack.
Round 5: Blargg grapples a PC.
Round 6: Blargg body-slams the PC for 20 bludgeoning.
By then end of the sixth round, Blargg should, even at 120 HP, be really hurt, or dead. To me and my group, this is SO much more fun than greatclub, greatclub, greatclub, death. Even better, Blargg isn’t just another ogre, but a deep, flavorful, memorable character.
Watusi was once an LG paladin, until he was corrupted by an evil sentient weapon. Even after the curse was purged, he realized that being evil was just more satisfying. He carries immense guild for the death of his family and tribe, and doesn’t know how to deal with his survival guilt except through violence. Watusi returns to his homeland intent on lots of evil revenge, and when the PCs find him drunk, violating the graveyard of his ancestors, they realize that it is time to put Watusi down like a rabid dog.<
A level 17 Death Knight stat block has a lot of cool stuff. Still, against a group of four level 17 adventurers, a DK won’t last long by himself, and most of the cool features are wasted. I wanted to make this encounter feel like an EPIC climax to a campaign.
Instead of AC 20 and 180 HP, I gave Watusi AC 23 and 625 HP. In addition to Death Knight spells and abilities, he gained a 6d8 smite, a self-heal, and the ability to interact with the battlefield. Instead of 3 attacks for +11, 9 slashing plus 18 necrotic, he got 3 attacks for +17, 21 slashing plus 18 necrotic, plus smite slots. In the first round, when Watusi hit the rogue for upwards of 75 damage, the party started soiling their pants.
Round 1: Drunkenly, Watusi multi-attacks with smite for 75+ HP.
Round 2: Watusi casts Command.
Round 3: He uses his action to kick over the grave of one of his ancestors. He also uses the opportunity to deliver flavorful monologue. No damage, no problem.
Round 4: Watusi grapples a PC and threatens to “slit his throat” if the others don’t back off.
Round 5: Watusi casts Hellfire Orb.
Round 6: Watusi raises the dead out of the ground and uses them as minions against the PC spellcasters. (Using the Sword Wraith Warrior stat block, the PCs couldn’t simply ignore them.)
Round 7: Casts banishment on a PC with high charisma who has used intimidation. This is a mistake, but it rewards players who have invested stat increases in their strengths.
At this point, I realized that the players were ready for the combat to end, so I just allowed the next attack to kill him, even though technically he had 100 HP left. It was easy to let the combat end and to choose the death for Watusi that I thought he deserved, which happened to be a compassionate coup de grace from a sympathetic character, played by a player who acted out the end.
Without the 625 hp, Watusi the Death Knight wouldn’t have had room to make any of these flavorful moves, or to have made a mistake, like a drunk, guilt-ridden anti-paladin might make. He was an incredibly memorable encounter for the players and lived up to the hype of “epic boss encounter.”
This style of play synergizes well with action-oriented monsters, homebrew monsters, homebrew legendary actions, and RAW lair actions.
- My party is doing too much damage relative to enemy hit points.
- Monks vs Fighters as unarmed combatants
- Quick trick to adjust the CR of a stat block
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Play your bosses sub-optimally for a way better encounter!" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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- Level 20 One-shot (probably more than one, but whatever)
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