First, if you haven’t seen TheAngryDM’s four-part series on how to redesign 4e solo monsters to make for better climax fights, read these first. They’re terrific.
Note that part 3 is several pages long, but it’s the best part. AngryDM takes you through the design process, step by step.
The intriguing thing is that the redesign is based on the very 4e-specific critiques laid out in the first part of the series. But AngryDM’s solution isn’t just a mechanical fix. It’s a rethinking of the dramatic pacing of a boss fight.
And thus it makes me wonder…could you apply these design principles to 3.5/Pathfinder? To 5e?
First, A Caveat
AngryDM’s designed a solution to a problem at his 4e table. But Pathfinder tables and D&D Next (eyeroll) tables don’t necessarily have the same issues. You’re always on thin ice when you apply a prior solution to a new problem.
(This is true of game design and of life in general. “Short bursts of all-out speed improved my running, so short bursts of all-out speed should improve breakfast as well. And my morning commute.”)
I wouldn’t even try this, but for the fact that AngryDM’s boss fights are grounded in principles of dramatic pacing and only touch on the game mechanics when they need to. In other words, they might represent good advice in general…not just when you happen to be playing 4e.
So without further ado, here’s how you could adapt AngryDM’s boss fights for Pathfinder and D&D Next. To keep things simple, let’s talk about dragons.
3.5/Pathfinder Dragon Boss Fights
Good news! Most of AngryDM’s critique about 4e solos (not enough actions, the fun is front-loaded, vulnerable to conditions, no sense of progress) applies to Pathfinder/3e monsters, too. (I’m going to use Pathfinder for this, because I’ve got the book handy.)
Some critiques apply a little less. Pathfinder dragons get more melee attacks than their 4e counterparts, to be sure. Even though they don’t have action points, the Pathfinder dragons take more fundamental “actions” over the course of a fight than 4e dragons do.
Some critiques apply even more. Pathfinder dragons have their actions even more clumped-up (no immediate reactions beyond attacks of opportunity). With guaranteed-to-last durations on PC spells, the Pathfinder dragon is much more vulnerable to conditions than the 4e dragon. This is mitigated a bit by the Pathfinder dragon’s greater defenses: SR, maybe spell turning or greater dispel magic among the ancient dragons. I’ve seen a lot more Pathfinder dragons than 4e dragons fall to “one key spell,” though.
Enough already! Let’s take Pathfinder’s ancient red dragon and see what it would take to boss-monster her up.
Timing the stages: No problems here—in fact it’s even easier than 4e because you don’t have “until end of encounter” powers gumming up the works. When the boss does its stage-changing “disengagement,” just give the players a one-round breather where they can reposition, cast healing spells, change their buffs, etc. (They’ll probably appreciate the respite.) One round ticks away on their short-term spells, of course, but that’s life in the big city.
Rerolling Initiative: Works just fine. As a practical matter, it’ll be boss, players, boss, players…whether you reroll or not, but I like the psychological impact of rerolling; it kinda freshens things up.
Durations: This is the tricky part. My advice here is to end all hostile effects with a duration on both players and the boss at each stage-change. In other words, you can keep your buffs running, but the debuffs all go away. This enables the stage-two and stage-three bosses to start fresh and not already poisoned/slowed/ability drained/etc. And the stage-two and stage-three bosses don’t need the stage-one debuffs to linger on the players…because they’ve got newer, scarier whammies to hit ‘em with.
Extra Actions: This is the place where Pathfinder boss monsters can use some help—whether they’re built for three stages or not. The good news is that there are lots of ways to give them extra actions. You can do 4e-style “action points that grant standard actions”—my 3e campaign did this for years. You can build immediate reactions, better-than-usual attacks of opportunity, and interrupts into the monsters. Anything you can do to get the boss attacking when it’s not the boss’s turn does good things for battle pacing.
Action Denial: This is less prevalent in the Pathfinder ruleset, but it’s still there. I think the ability to get rid of debuffs twice in the fight is enough help for the boss, but I’m honestly not sure. Say you’re dealing with PCs armed with stun effects. “Cut stun duration in half” is klunky, “immune to stun” is overkill…maybe something like “a boss can invoke a disengagement and stage-change early if it wishes” would work. That rule might have a side benefit: it gives the DM the ability to skip a laborious exercise in damage-dealing a stunned foe and get on with the fun part—the next stage. And the PC that stunned the dragon still feels good because that stun was the equivalent of up to a third of the dragon’s hit points.
What About Spells and Spell-Likes?
I recommend taking only the good ones and splitting them up among the three stages. Put some in the stage-one stat block, some in stage two, and some in stage three. You’re taking away some of the boss’s versatility, but you’re making life much easier on yourself as the DM and you’re focusing the boss’s tactics nicely. If unholy blight appears only in stage two, it'll stick out in the stat block and be more prominent in your tactics.
Don’t be shy about leaving some spell-likes out. That 3/day pyrotechnics isn’t worth the space in the stat block; you can always delve into a book in the unlikely event it comes up. Likewise, don’t be shy about mixing it up. Use spells and spell-likes that are fun at your table. Don’t sweat about whether the Pathfinder Bestiary agrees with you.
It’s tempting to put all the high-powered spells and spell-likes in the third stage, because we all have a natural instinct to build to a climax. But don’t do this every time! As in AngryDM’s examples, it’s fun if the third-stage stat block represents the boss when it’s battered and running on fumes. That stretches out the sensation of victory for the player, while maintaining some tension until the battle truly ends.
Next up: Same thing, but for D&D Next. And a discussion of who's best-equipped to build a boss monster: the DM, the adventure designer, or the monster designer?