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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

How to Win Your Boss Fight

Yep, I finally saw How to Train Your Dragon. Beyond the shout-out to the little geek who was listing off Dragon Manual statistics for the beasties (anyone? anyone?), there's a lot that can be learned from that movie, in terms of telling a compelling story. For now, I'll skip the subtle lessons at the start (some truly awesome character sequences as Hiccup meets and tames Toothless), and pick a very easy example in the boss fight which climaxes the movie.

I want to see more boss fights that run like that. There was a sweet spot that it hit, I'm trying to pin it down. But it seemed to me to be a great combination of teamwork and individual heroics. Well, and an utterly awesome Night Fury. (Seriously. I want to stat one of those things out.) Now, the individual heroics might have to be tweaked a bit, since RPGs are for many players, but it still provides a good model.

The Gimmick Move and Powergaming
Minor spoilers in this section, by the way.

The move that gets pulled off to end the fight is the familiar "gimmick move", so to speak. When I saw it, one of the thoughts crossing my mind was "Hiccup's powergaming." He lures the giant dragon creature up into the sky, and then blasts its wings. Could be a powergamed cheap shot. Yet it didn't seem cheap. It didn't feel like he was cheating the cosmic DM out of a well-planned encounter. Though maybe that was partially because a straight encounter would've been impossible to win. The thing was, though, it seemed like the entire situation wasn't handled like many DMs handle powergaming. Which seems to go like this.

"I blast the room's pillars."
"I blast the room's pillars. That'll cause the roof to collapse, killing the monster."
"But...*sigh*...okay." *rolls dice* "The roof collapses on the monster, and it dies in massive throes of agony." There goes a nice encounter.

Well, I look at that boss fight...and that's not what I see. Instead, what I see is a hard-won victory, and one which exploited the opponent's weakness. It was still interesting. It was thought-out, and it was still challenging. In other words, the cosmic DM looked at the improvisation, thought it was cool, and then fleshed out the obstacles in front of it. In my mind, too many crazy plans are just allowed to pass. There should be drama incorporated into those as well, and that way the boss fight doesn't seem cheaped-through. In other words...

"I blast the room's pillars."
"You're aiming to bring the roof down on the creature?"
"Oh yeah."
"Well, let's see. That's not going to be simple. He's not a dumb creature, and he'll be trying to stop you from bringing the roof down on him. There's also the other monsters nearby, and some of them have ranged weapons. What's the rest of the party doing?" *prepares to incorporate a miniature skill challenge*

The Price of Victory
Another spoiler in this section.

Of course, at the end of the fight, we have the traditional "plunge of death", with the fate of the hero unknown. And he winds up...well...mostly unhurt. As we soon find out, however, he's lost a leg in the fight. This points to another thing that makes memorable encounters: scars. Interestingly, the scar doesn't detract from Hiccup's dragon-riding, as it's designed to hook specifically into the dragon-riding harness. In other words, it's mainly just a mark of honor.

Consider giving the PCs similar glory-scars. It doesn't have to adversely affect them. It just has to give them a new way to be cool. So that the characters can say "See this? That's when I slew this guy..."

So yeah. It got me thinking, mainly. Elements like this can lend quite handily to spicing up a final encounter. In fact, they could even be purposefully designed in, playing to the players' knowledge skills. So, then. That's how to win your boss fight.


  1. I completely like the idea of creating a monster that the PCs can't beat straight up. Winning the fight means that you know that he is tougher than you, and if you stand toe-to-toe with him, you'll eventually lose.

    So that's where the GM purposefully plants something(s) that the players can do to even the odds. "Why yes, you CAN target his wings, but he won't like that. Good thinking."

  2. Yes indeed. Of course, there's the balance issue also. You have to know your players well enough, although I'm sure that most groups will have pretty clever players.

    But by the time a climactic battle rolls around? You and the group should be established with one another well enough that they trust they can figure something crazy out, and that you know they can pull something crazy out.

  3. I love How to Train Your Dragon. It was a ton of awesomness in a can, and your post really sums that up well.

    I think Wizards actually focused on this sorta fight in one of their skill challenge articles. I'll find the article and spot you the numbers at some point.

  4. The-Price-of-Victory part is one of the things I like in Mouse Guard, especially for those big moments, boss fight or not, when you bring out the more complex Conflict System.

  5. Very good point! Mouse Guard does this quite well.


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