The five of you stand at the narrow ledge overlooking the room down below. Through the colossal windows to your right is deep space speckled with starships. Your attention is locked to the lone figure in the center of the room. Although not looking directly at you, it is clear he knows you are present as his hands move to grip both pistols. He speaks out a sarcastic welcome to you and challenges the lot to the final showdown for the access code embedded into his cranial chip. Three of you forward flip down onto the main floor while the remaining two send shards of energy toward the enemy. A few shots are fired from the dual wielding shooter, but the three of you on foot deftly deflect the beams through various means of your skills. Upon him suddenly, you combine forces into multiple swirls of attack that bends the hand of time to your will, vanquishing your enemy…..rather simply.
Boss fights. Final countdown. It is so easy to throw random encounters at a party and not worry if they obliterate the monsters, but villains are a different story. We as GMs seek to challenge our players and give them the thrill of a lifetime, but balancing a good fight is not always that easy. I find many rule systems that offer suggestions on how difficult each creature is often underestimates the typical role player. Regardless of whether they are the min/max, power-hungry type, even characters that I have played to which are given numerous flaws and disadvantages, often find themselves trumping creatures at the same level or slightly higher. I find this truer as systems continue to “modernize” with the times, that is, they fit more to the way we think and play now as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago.
And this is especially true with so-called “boss fights” and the way GMs select them out of our monster books. Sometimes GMs will choose a single monster that is supposed to be a balance to a four-person party instead of numerous “easier” ones that won’t have a chance of doing damage to the party. While this appears to be fine, it really doesn’t always work. In fact, it is a bad idea. Let’s use Pathfinder for an example although many other systems out there use other means to assign value to a monster (i.e. Hit Die).
Pathfinder assigns a Challenge Rating number with every monster they create. This is a value that should be compared to the mean, or average, level of the party. A CR 2 creature would theoretically work well against a party of 4 second level characters, right? This isn’t the case. When a monster is defeated (I’m still referring to Pathfinder), the experience points are divided by the number of participating party members. This is true for the bulk of the systems dating back to the first editions of Dungeons & Dragons. This is because that it was a joint effort and the experience point value for that monster would only be awarded to one person if they could vanquish the enemy on their own. Does this mean that every monster could be tackled solo? In theory yes depending on the system and build of character. However, given the fact that you divide the reward among the players gives reason to believe that the enemy isn’t quite at the level of challenge originally thought to be.
But this can be ridiculous and get out of hand quickly as you wouldn’t multiply the average party level by the number of party members and that’s the CR you should throw at them. Four, 4th level players of Pathfinder should not be able to handle a CR 16 creature. But throw a CR 4 creature at them, and five will get you ten they will take it down in a couple of rounds, perhaps with minimal damage even.
So how do you throw villains and bosses at players and expect them to have any kind of a challenge? You have to distract them and keep them occupied. Even if I am going to bring a colossal red dragon out of my mini’s box and put them against him, I am going to include a bunch of minor creatures that aid the dragon. It doesn’t really matter if the creature you pick is listed as solitary. Find some minor creatures or NPCs that can be used alongside them. Back in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, they actually had a pretty good suggestion by the notion of adding “minions” to the lot of the system. Essentially they are 1 hit point beings that can have generally whatever other stats you wish. I often make either hard hitting minions, smart minions, or combat-skilled minions. I make sure they have a decent chance to make contact on the players, but the trick is they all have just 1 hit point. If players make their roll to hit, the creature automatically dies due to everyone being able to deal at least one point of damage automatically. It allows for players to easily mow down them, but it takes up their actions to give the big bad guy time to bring out his nasty weapons or abilities.
Given this thought, I will often take monsters that are very high level straight out of a monster book, strip all but one of their abilities, knock them down to 1 hit point, and unleash the hounds. You can just about pick any monster you wish with this method. Medusas can be minions with the ability to still petrify, but they take only a single hit to kill. Use a small handful of them while the players are battling something harder, and you have yourself a challenge. Because they are considerably weaker by means of limited abilities and hit points, don’t award maximum experience points to the players. Instead, consider for a moment that despite their ferocity, they are easy to kill targets. So a percentage, say 25%, of their original experience points could suffice, if not fewer. The final number would still be divided by the number of players.
I remember one GM once used hit tallies instead of actual hit points for minions. That is, it would take two hits regardless of the damage rolled in order to down the foe. It is an alternative to having low hit point creatures and would force players to face them for an additional round. It could bode well when you are faced with players who have multiple target or mass attack abilities. The goal here is to buy time for your main creatures that you really want to work with. Be creative with your minions. Buff up goblins, strip down djinnis, or bring about three liches in front of an adult black dragon and see how the players react before realizing the liches go down quick and easily. This way, their attention is diverted for the time being on numerous targets. And don’t be afraid to throw in true cannon fodder for the hard-hitters of the group. It can be satisfying for them to mow down 6 or 7 creatures in one attack, and it takes up his action. You will find that using this method will prolong your BBG’s and allow you to have a little more fun while preventing the “oops, the villain’s already dead” moment.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.