Boss fights are tough. That’s the point. The players should have to work for victory over a boss monster so that when/if they do win it will be so much sweeter. Most players don’t realize, though, that boss fights are tougher for the GM. Most boss fights are designed that the players will have a chance at defeating the bad guy. There is a fine balance to where you need to beat the PCs to within an inch of their life and then have the victory come in. Numbers play a big part of that. Random numbers can really throw it off, but what usually really screws everything up is the Action Economy.
In most games everyone gets one action per turn and the ability to move. D&D pretty much set the standard with this a long time ago. Of course over the years more types of actions were added; standard, move, minor, swift, reaction, etc. So in reality there are many different things you can do per turn but most of them are based on how others act towards you. This is where boss fights get tricky. Monsters in D&D Next only get one action. This is fine when you have a bunch of monsters versus a bunch of heroes but when it’s a one on five fight it gets out of hand quickly. It boils down to one attack for the monster vs five attacks for the players.
One fix that I honestly detest is just giving the boss five times as many hit points. Honestly it just drags the fight out and is not exciting. That was something 4e did with all of their solo monsters. Granted the boss should be one bad mamma jamma but just beating on a sack of hp is boring. If the monster is only getting one attack per round then it needs to be able to be a credible threat. So now you’re looking a the risk of one- or two-shotting a player because the damage needs to be a real threat. That can suck hard when a boss is blowing through HP pools and armor for everyone because now it’s just a matter of who gets lucky first.
4e got something right in that they gave the bosses more actions to help combat the players. If the bosses can take more than one action per round then the hits don’t need to be so big that they run the risk of one-shotting any one who takes it. For the sake of my game I’m going to be giving the bad guy as many actions as there are players minus one.
# of actions = # of PC’s – 1
Now the boss can only use one of his actions on his turn, and the rest will be spent throughout the players turns. So on the boss’s turn there will be a standard attack that the tank of the group will suffer through. Then when the others start to damage the boss, it will start doing a few reactionary attacks. The reactionary attacks won’t hit as hard as the standard attack but it will be enough to make the fight dangerous.
Another idea I might try (I have till Friday to decide) is adding a damaging terrain effect. The players are in a zombie town so I could see the players having to deal with the effects of that much necrotic energy flying around. In turn, though, I’m going to give the players a way to build a safe spot that will make the players immune to the effect.
I’ll write an article about what I ended up doing for next week Tuesday.