Posted by: markfender | May 29, 2013

Boss Battles

Boss battles aren’t just for videogames.

steerpike_TapBoss_SOTCOr, at least, they shouldn’t be. For clarification’s sake, I’m talking about the fights in video games that have a little something extra about them. They’re not just the button-mashing fights – there’s multiple points to hit, environmental effects, or something else happening alongside the fight that you must also contend with.

I just finished running a game where I’ve attempted to integrate the interesting things about boss battles into the adventures. This doesn’t mean it’s a “oh, look. A dragon.” fight, but that the dragon will also be fighting on moving platforms. I’ve stolen some of these basic boss battle designs from various videogames I’ve played over the years and “RPGicized” them. After all, if you can only attack one specific point in a videogame, you accept it. But that doesn’t quite work in an RPG, where pretty much anything the PCs think of should be possible (within the limits of whatever genre you’re in). Stopping them from doing damage entirely doesn’t quite make sense as “videogame” isn’t really a genre of RPG (yet).

It’s an Eberron game, so it feels appropriate to the two-fisted pulp feel of the world to engage in some of these actioney setpieces. If Indiana Jones can have a punching match around a spinning propeller, then I can certainly engage in some more overt manipulation of the environment in Eberron. I’m using Fantasy Craft because it’s close enough to base d20 that I don’t have to modify much to make Eberron fit, nor is it close enough to regular d20 to make me hate it.

The first fight was a simple one – falling down a tower in Sharn. This was a vertical fight with the battlemat representing the vertical plane and notecards representing the obstructions sticking out of the towers that a player could potentially stick themselves on. As the fight progressed, the notecards moved “up,” representing the PCs getting closer to them as they fell “down.” Horizontal movement was still possible as a regular action. And, of course, everyone had feather fall tokens so that the act of falling wasn’t in itself dangerous. Everyone seemed to enjoy this fight, although, in retrospect, it probably should have lasted a bit longer. My plan before the battle was that the antagonist would jump off the roof once he’d reached half health, and I was glad to see every PC eager to follow him. However, my players rolled really well once they were airborne and managed to kill him within two rounds. I probably should have made everyone sprawled the first round they jumped off, just to represent twisting around and getting their bearings first. That might have provided a little more tension, as that would give less time to maneuver to avoid approaching obstacles.

The second boss battle fight did not go well. My plan was to apply one condition over and over to the PCs that would effect them enough that they’d seek some sort of relief. The relief was found in a well in the center of the map – drinking from it cleared the condition but also had a grapple beast spawn and attempt to drag them into the well. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the effects of making my big bad Huge size, specifically the negatives to Defense. The conditions I was applying just weren’t affecting the PCs enough so they couldn’t hit him. My original plan was to unleash a Harm spell on everyone (removing most of their Vitality in one go), then switch to applying conditions. The hideously powerful first attack would cause a bit of panic in the PCs and make them eager to get rid of conditions and take the guy down as fast as possible. Unfortunately, with a modified Defense of 3, the conditions never mattered. And I misrememberd the Natural Spell rules and kept rolling (and failing) to hit with the Harm spell. So, a lot of screw ups on my part kept this one from being any good.

The next one was a simple fight. A trio of berserker ghosts attacked the PCs. The twist was that only one of the ghosts could be damaged each round and that changed randomly every round. There was a source of True Sight that allowed for one player to identify the ‘real’ target each round, but it did require a new application every round. The mage character figured out a cheat in using Magic Missile to throw missiles at every target and noticing which one actually seemed damaged. I made him make a Notice check to correctly identify, but I was totally cool with this workaround – Everyone should get a Moment of Awesome. This fight worked out better, although I had incorrectly thought it would be a little more mobile. But that’s more an artifact of d20 than necessarily how I built the NPC.

The next boss mechanic I tried was the semi-standard “Charge up an item that’ll hurt the boss.” I twisted it slightly by having it not directly hurt the boss but unlock the item the PCs came to get. The boss was a kind of lame fighter, though, so after the items were all charged up the PCs had no trouble killing him. I also had to follow a bit more videogame logic with this one, as the boss had to keep attacking them with his ranged magic spells to charge up the items, even though that really wouldn’t make sense for him to do in the context.

The next one was an exercise in conditions. Two elementals, an earth and a fire elemental were present, along with some rolling poison clouds. With the earth elemental’s earthquake attack and the fire elemental’s fire damage, not to mention the poison cloud’s sickened condition, the players were soon complaining about how their characters sucked. I blame this mostly on Fantasy Craft, which holds to the old D&D standards of ridiculously long conditions. 2d6 rounds for the shaken condition? You might as well say “the entire fight.” This one proved unpopular.

I tried some fancy fun with floating platforms in the next one, all the while having the PCs attempt to kill a dragon who was breathing on them from a distance. This one was hampered by me using non-standard tiles for the encounter, which made us question the size of the enemy and whether people could actually stand next to him or not. But once we figured that out, it worked out fairly well. It still suffered from a lack of movement that I’ve come to expect from D&D and its derivatives. The attack of opportunity rules are just a pain.

The final confrontation was a three-stager. I don’t think the players figured out what the three stages actually were, but then they were also critting like crazy and so the fight ended more abruptly than perhaps would be expected. The first stage was a simple one where the bad guy spawned minions that healed him when they attacked. This didn’t matter much in the face of crits. The next stage involved the boss going incorporeal. During this stage, all the damage that was done to him was then unleashed upon the PCs the next turn. I alternated between rounds where they could hurt him and rounds where they couldn’t. The second attack dropped one of the PCs but the rest managed to drop him to his final form pretty quickly. The final form was a platform like affair. The boss jumped between platforms and attacked someone. However, if there was any platform with no one on it, he would move there and unleash a giant AoE that hurt everyone. So the idea was to spread out and keep him occupied on every platform. This happened by the second round almost by accident, so there weren’t a lot of AoEs being thrown around.

There’s other games I think would provide this same structure. Fantasy Craft can be a bit dense and it might not be exactly cut out for these more action set pieces. Savage Worlds or the IK RPG I think would have simpler mechanics but still provide enough mechanical crunch to make those environmental effects interesting and affecting the battle. And I’m really beginning to hate how ‘sticky’ D20 battles are. There aren’t enough effects that allow you to ignore attacks of opportunity so, once you’re in melee, you’re kind of there for the rest of the fight. I think the IK RPG would have made these fights more interesting from a movement perspective with the easy ability everyone has to ignore free strikes with a feat point. Now, the story wouldn’t have made any sense in IK, but you work with what you got.

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