Alternate Title: "A DM, an adventure designer, and a monster designer walk into a bar..."
In the first two parts of what has apparently become a trilogy (three stages about three stages?), we talked about adapting AngryDM’s three-stage boss designs for Pathfinder and D&D Next.
Whatever flavor of D&D you like, try it at your table—I think you’ll like the results. And once you fight against (or DM as) a three-stage boss, you’ll ask: why aren’t all boss monsters built this way?
After all, it’s not a 3e/Pathfinder problem…or a 4e problem…or a D&D Next problem. The problem stretches back to the point when we all started playing monsters out of rulebooks in the first place. A traditional monster doesn’t work for a climax encounter, and a climax-encounter monster doesn’t work for a traditional “1d4+1 of these in room 22.”
Whose Job Is It, Anyway?
The climax battle of a good adventure has three co-authors:
• the DM
• the designer who built the final monster
• the designer who wrote the adventure
(Sometimes the DM is two of those dudes, or maybe even all three, but let’s assume they’re all different people.)
Who’s best equipped to make a great climax monster, whether it’s a three-stage boss or some other style?
The obvious answer is the DM, but that’s a copout. Because the DM knows the players, knows the campaign, knows the narrative, and can improvise on the fly, of course the DM is going to do the best job designing a climax monster. But that same reasoning applies to every sort of RPG design. The DM is also the best encounter designer, NPC designer, world builder, mechanical balance designer, etc. DMs don’t necessarily have the time to design everything, and they’re being paid only in pizza slices. So they’re off the hook.
(By all means, DMs, make cool three-stage monsters! But the sole responsibility for a great climax monster shouldn’t fall in your lap.)
Since climax monster design is, well, monster design, you might think it’s the monster designer’s job. But three-stage bosses and similar designs are best when they’re idiosyncratic—when they twist, bend, and sometimes break the established rules in satisfying ways.
A skill challenge—either 4e’s formalized version or the more freeform versions in Pathfinder and presumably D&D Next—is a great foundation for part of a three-stage climax. But such a challenge is baked into the specific environment and story of the climax, so we can’t exactly expect a Monster Manual to have a great skill challenge as part of every stat block.
(I’d buy an all-three-stage Monster Manual, but for reading and inspiration, not actual use at the table.)
Another problem is that some monsters serve double duty: they’re both bosses and regular monsters. The lich? Almost always the boss monster. But what about a marilith? Maybe she’s alone in the final room of the temple, but maybe she’s outside the door, guarding it with lots of her demon buddies.
In other words, boss monsters need to not only be awesome, but specifically awesome, constructed for the situation and constructed for the climax.
That leaves you, Dr. Adventure Designer. You’re the one who knows both the narrative terrain and the actual terrain. You know that after this fight, the credits roll. It’s your responsibility to make the climax monster worthy of the climax. Use three stages! Throw in wave attacks! Steal ideas from MMORPGs (fair is fair, right?)! Do something beyond plunking down a level-appropriate mob, adding a couple interesting terrain features, and writing your “Concluding the Adventure” section.
If you’re DMing an adventure you wrote, then the onus is on you to make your bosses as cool as the three-stage bosses. (Good news, though: designing these bosses is fun.)
And if you’re DMing a published adventure with a climax that’s not as good as a three-stage boss battle, make it better! You’ve got the tools and the know-how.
Your players will love you for it. They might even spring for pizza.